I can’t understand why you should want to separate Jesus the man, from his role as the Christ. It doesn’t make sense. ‘Christ’ means the ‘anointed one’ and Jesus (the man) became anointed with holy spirit at his baptism. His role as the Christ, started then. Yet, you say that the role of the Christ didn’t start until after his death and resurrection.
Occasionally, I receive emails like this – why even bother taking a historical approach to the bible? There are a number of reasons.
To determine who Jesus was as a person
Jesus is an extremely important figure in Western culture, yet not much is known about him as a person. Still, that doesn’t stop just about everyone from having an opinion about him – and with so many conflicting opinions, some are bound to be wrong. By looking at him from a historical perspective with all the evidence on the table, we can weed out which beliefs are more plausible and form logical conclusions about which beliefs are substantiated and which are just hot air.
Biblical scholarship has come a long way within the last century, and there have been significant archaeological finds that shed light on other “Christian” sects that were eventually labeled as heretics. These groups considered themselves Christian and engaged the early Church fathers (like Ignatius or Tertullian) in countless debates as the early roots of Christian theology were taking hold. By taking a historical perspective, we look at what others around the time of Jesus believed about him without presupposing that they must be wrong, and therefore aren’t worth looking at. The job of the historian is to look at all evidence, not pick and choose only the “orthodox” sources.
Also, Jesus was a product of his environment. He reacted to those around him. Taking a historical perspective, we try to understand the first century environment. That means looking at Roman culture and Jewish culture to understand what beliefs were common. Jesus didn’t exist in a vacuum. He actively interacted with others, debated with them, and reacted to what they said and did.
Yes, eventually, he became known as the “Christ” – but from a historical perspective, we look at whether he believed that himself, if he intended to preach such ideas, or if later interpreters imposed such theology upon him. From a religious perspective, that might seem silly – some might even say that if he didn’t believe such things, doesn’t that make all Christianity wrong? These are hard questions, and most people don’t want to look at them because they may go against the very nature of their faith. Yet they are very important when looking at Christian origins and why Christianity flourished.
If we are to evaluate the New Testament based on theology, whose would we use?
Think of the countless sects of Christianity that currently rely on the New Testament – Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Christian Scientists, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons – all have radically different theologies yet base their beliefs on their interpretation of the New Testament. If you were to take a “theological” approach to the bible, whose would you choose?
So much of our modern theology is based on the debates of countless Church fathers over the last 2 millennium. From the 1st-4th centuries when Christianity was in its beginning stages, countless writers debated what Jesus or Paul meant. There were no creeds that reiterated the Christian faith in a few verses. Heck, there wasn’t even the “New Testament” – some letters did circulate through the area, but certainly not the 26 books we think of as the New Testament. And other letters – ones that didn’t make it into the New Testament but claimed to be the teachings of Jesus or one of the apostles – were circulating with them. During this formative period, much of the theology we now take for granted became “orthodox” while those that opposed it became “heretics.” It wasn’t a cut and dry phenomena – everyone claimed, as people still do now, that they were right in their understanding of Jesus’ teachings.
By presupposing our own beliefs, we can’t be objective
If you start out with a bias, you end up finding exactly what you were looking for. It’s human nature. You start interpreting things in light of your belief because you don’t want to be wrong. When you take a historical perspective, you don’t presuppose any religious belief. This doesn’t mean that you have to disbelieve – of course, you will have your own beliefs – but you will let the evidence speak for itself rather than interjecting your own beliefs into your research methodologies.
Of course, once you understand the evidence, it will be up to you to interpret it how you see fit. Elaine Pagels, a famous religious studies professor at Princeton, once wrote the following about her own personal journey to understand Christian origins during grad school. Her belief was that by going back and looking at Christians, she’d uncover the “real Christianity” of the first century.
What I did not find in the process of this research was what I had started out to find – a “golden age” of purer and simpler Christianity. What I discovered instead is that the “real Christianity” – so far as historical investigation can disclose it – was not monolithic, or the province of one party or another, but included a variety of voices, and an extraordinary range of viewpoints, even among the saints (witness Augustine and Chrysostom!), as well as among those denounced as heretics, from Valentinus to Julian, and even as we have seen, within the New Testament writings themselves. From a strictly historical point of view, then, there is no single “real Christianity.”
…I came to realize that using historical means to explore the origins of Christianity most often does not solve religious questions but can offer new perspectives upon these questions. – Adam, Eve and the Serpent
I think this sums up things nicely – your own understanding probably will change as you read debates between bitter opponents, each arguing that their point of view was right. These debates – which we take for granted now that the “orthodox” beliefs are established – often took years to resolve, crystallize, and become accepted as official doctrine. Now, we can look back on them and see why they might have thought such things, how their opponents countered, what was going on in the political and cultural environment that might make them say such things, and ultimately, who won.