Did Jesus of Nazareth exist?  Christians say in their creed that He was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and on the third day, rose again from the dead. But what do historians, particularly those writing today, argue?

In life, simple questions can sometimes only be given a satisfying answer through having a lot of other questions and issues settled first. The five-year-old asks us “why is the sky blue?” and we hurry to search the Internet to find the answer – but that answer actually has behind it millennia of scientific development and increase in knowledge of the physical world.  Similarly, the study of the ‘historical Jesus’ has gone on in a concentrated academic way for over two centuries as the academic discipline of history has also developed.  At the same time, philosophers from various schools have debated over how our knowledge of history works, and what counts as sound and successful knowledge of history.

The historically well-grounded answers to questions such as we raised about the Jesus of History above are a matter of well-argued inferences from the data we have, analogous to what is seen in a court of law.  In the past, some scholarly traditions examining the life of Jesus just accepted without much question the idea of a kind of sieve which would allow ‘authentic data’ to pass through and would block ‘inauthentic data.’ The inauthentic data would, given a certain philosophical worldview, be anything to do with the purportedly ‘miraculous.’  But then, in the Gospels, the miraculous is woven into the fabric of Jesus’ life story and teaching.  So, this becomes a philosophical choice for a historian, not something which can be just assumed but which itself has to be established through intelligent and reasonable inquiry.

Bernard Lonergan made significant contributions to the debate about the historical Jesus through his theory of knowledge that continues to prove useful to scholars today.  Objective knowledge, Lonergan argued, is a process moving from intelligent inquiry about data, and from the insight and ideas we might come up with to explain the data, to the critical question that asks if our insight or idea about the data is correct.  We answer that question with a judgment based on evidence.

In both the work of theoreticians of historical knowing and in the practice of working historians and scriptural scholars, there can be the same confusion about what objective knowledge is that we find among philosophers: the idea that knowing reality is not an intelligent and reasonable inference from the data but rather some kind of ‘direct’ look at reality.  And then further confusions follow, when one denies that we can even look at all at reality, especially the reality of the past.  So various forms of skepticism or idealism about reality exist.  In the case of historical Jesus studies, we can add to this confusing mix a person’s worldview that “there is no God” or “miracles cannot or do not happen.”  In the story of the academic study of the Jesus of History, there have been some groups of scholars – Rudolf Bultmann (d. 1976) was famous among them – who were quite skeptical of what we can know about Jesus for these reasons.

Others were far more optimistic about what a scholarly approach could reveal about the life of Jesus and stressed the vital importance of a sound understanding of the first-century Jewish context in which Jesus lived and taught.  Lonergan’s work influenced a New Testament scholar, Ben F. Meyer (d. 1995). Meyer, in his book The Aims of Jesus, argued with acuity that a good number (but certainly not all) of the previous contributors to the ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus over the past two hundred years had succumbed to interpretative naivete – dressed as scholarly sophistication – with regard both to simply accepting without question worldviews on which ‘miracles do not happen,’ and then building this into the historical interpretations, and to other questionable views on just how historians reach well-grounded judgments on the past. Meyer, in turn, influenced the Anglican scholar Bishop N. T. Wright. While Wright does not explicitly refer to Lonergan in his scholarly publications, his expressed debt to Meyer shows this influence, and his ‘critical realism’ is indebted in good measure to Lonergan, as I know from some brief conversations I had the pleasure of having with him.

A new group of scholars is now continuing and developing the legacy of Ben Meyer and Bernard Lonergan. These include Jonathan Bernier and Jordan J. Ryan. The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, founded fifteen years ago, is a major forum for discussion and debate in this area. Bernier and Ryan have argued within its pages for the central insights and methods of Lonergan and Meyer, endorsing also the pioneering work of another up-and-coming scholar in the field, Brant Pitre. Pitre, as far as I am aware, has not involved himself in print with the root philosophical and hermeneutical issues which preoccupy Bernier and Ryan and for illumination of which they turn to Lonergan. However, given the mutual support and endorsement these young scholars give one to another in print, one might say here ‘watch this space…!’

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.