Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Historical Jesus of Ancient Unbelief

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Historical Jesus of Ancient Unbelief

Article excerpt



Christianity is not quite two thousand years young. The term "ancient" in this paper's title, in view of history's millennia prior to Christ's birth, seems hardly applicable to studies of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But "ancient" is used here as a relative term. The focus of this study is not what people of recent centuries have thought about Jesus as an historical figure. Rather, it concentrates on what people thought about him in the first few centuries AD.

In the early Church, Christians identified Jesus as Christ. Now, in the modern Church, many consider themselves believers in the Christ of faith (as developed by the teachings of the Church) without believing in the identity of that Christ as the actual, historical person of Jesus.

But this distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history need not be accepted as a recent developmental stage in the life of the Church. Even in the early years of the Church, explanations were offered that considered Jesus to be just another man in the stream of history. It is these early interpretations of the historical Jesus that this paper seeks to examine as explanations of unbelief (i.e. not believing Jesus to be the Christ that the early believers-and Jesus himself-claimed him to be). Herman S. Reimarus (d. 1768) is considered to have begun in modern scholarship the so-called quest for the historical Jesus. Colin Brown, however, suggests several possible earlier influences in the thought of Reimarus that evoke from him Albert Schweitzer's praise for his uniqueness. 1

Now I am suggesting even older explanations. It must be acknowledged that, perhaps generally speaking, explanations found in modern quests for the historical Jesus have been proposed for different reasons than those of ancient explanations. The ancient worldview allowed for belief in the supernatural, and naturalistic explanations were offered out of unbelief ("I do not want to believe that"). The post-Enlightenment world of the modern questers has largely been one that emphasizes the believable, and naturalistic explanations of the historical Jesus are motivated more by disbelief ("I find that hard to believe"). Nevertheless this paper seeks to show modern works on the historical Jesus not as true innovations but as renovations (intentional or unintentional) of ancient unbelief. The seeds (or early versions) of the more believable explanations offered by modern questers lie further back in history-even to the beginning of the era.


The NT documents-primarily the gospels-are taken to be ancient records of belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. One might suspect, then, that a study of unbelief in Jesus as Messiah would be a study of him as reflected in literature outside of the NT. While this paper does draw most significantly from extra-Biblical materials, it makes use of the Biblical writings as well. Just as there are ancient records of belief in Christ Jesus outside of the NT (e.g. apostolic fathers), so also there are records of unbelief in him inside the NT (e.g. some scribes, Pharisees and priests). Furthermore the extra-Biblical materials are usually studied for the evidences they lend to belief in Jesus' existence and to knowledge of the beginnings of Christianity. This paper, however, is not proposing a study of Jesus outside the gospels. Thus some important extra-Biblical sources attesting to Jesus and Christianity are not cited here, for they do not offer unbelieving explanations of the historical Jesus (e.g. agrapha, apocryphal gospels, QL, archeological findings).

This study focuses not on the existence of various attestations to Jesus' life but on the explanations of his life given by the various ancient sources. My remarks are organized around a broad outline of Jesus' life and do not exhaustively treat each ancient source one at a time. This approach admittedly results in a somewhat contrived picture of Jesus. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.