Submitted by frlarry on Mon, 06/22/2015 - 16:14

A parishioner asked me to review a new product of National Geographic, written by Jean-Pierre Isbouts, who is an historian of the times of Jesus. The work is called "The Story of Christianity - A Chronicle of Christian Civilization from Ancient Rome to Today"

To develop some background on the question, I viewed the following panel discussion involving Isbouts and another such historian, Reza Aslan. The video explores the question, "What is the difference between the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Jesus of faith'?"  See "Reza Aslan and Jean-Pierre Isbouts Discuss the Historical Jesus".

As a mathematician, I can tell you that it is essential, when exploring a question, to make certain that you have framed the question properly. To me, the above question is not properly framed. It should be "Do historians and people of faith view Jesus differently?"

Once you pose the question this way, you immediately realize there are other questions required to clarify the original question. We may obviously presume that some people of faith have studied history and some historians have studied the apostolic faith. We can then legitimately ask, how does the study of history influence one's faith and how does the study of faith influence one's understanding of history?

Once you pose the questions in this manner, you realize two things: (1) those historians who discount the faith as lacking genuine foundation are not very likely to grow in either their understanding of the faith or in their understanding of history in its broadest sense. (2) those people of faith who refuse to credit the study of history as having relevance to faith similarly are likely to remain immature in their understanding of both.

I strongly urge the following: (1) At a minimum in approaching this area, one should have read Pope Benedict XVI's three volume study, "Jesus of Nazareth." Pope Benedict is both a man of faith and an historian. Furthermore, he is a biblical scholar of great note. Of all the people in the last century, he strikes me as uniquely qualified to comment on these questions. (2) Given this foundation (which presumes a good grounding in the faith and in biblical studies), and given the presence of folks who have studied both history and the faith, a deeper study of history can also deepen one's understanding of the faith. (3) History is a quasi-scientific enterprise, it is not a true science in which mathematical formulas can be extrapolated from observation and tested by checking predictions against experimental observation. History has a complex, multifaceted and multi-layered record that can be explored, and used to critique historical accounts presented in scripture. This is a valid kind of critical examination of scripture, but it is necessarily subject to error, because all the historical records involve points of view, and none are reducible to mathematical precision or subject to testing against mathematically formulated prediction.

It is a mistake, indeed a huge mistake, to place the accomplishments of historians and historical method above the accomplishments of the Faith Tradition so as to use the former as a yardstick to measure the latter. This is the approach, in a nutshell, of the so-called Jesus Seminar.  Aslan (that is, Reza Aslan, not the character in the Narnia Chronicles) gives some idea of their approach in the question and answer section of the video.

I would note also, in passing, that Isbouts reveals himself, at the end of the video, to be what I would call a syncretist. He clearly does not see the unique importance of Jesus.