by National Geographic Historian Jean-Pierre Isbouts, DLitt
Here’s my report on the latest course I’ve taken from The Great Courses. I originally signed up for this one because I wanted to know just how much we know about Jesus and the early Christian religion. Most of the documentary evidence we do have is from Scripture, and that is, after all, religious propaganda. It simply cannot be trusted, the authors were trying to proselytize a new religion. We also know that these early narratives have been heavily edited, sometimes hundreds of years after they were written, and that many of the contemporary accounts of early Christianity were excluded from the “official” version. None of the Gospels was written by anyone who actually knew Jesus, or even lived during his lifetime. In other words, all we really have is hearsay evidence from untrustworthy sources. Of course, most of our history of Antiquity has been compiled from similar sketchy material, so I’m not saying it is necessarily wrong. I just think it must be carefully studied with a skeptical and critical eye. The first mention of Jesus (and it is quite brief) we have from a non-Christian source is in the work of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who was born AFTER Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities on or about 37 AD. Jesus’ biography must thereby be reconstructed from unreliable and incomplete sources, a knowledge of the history of one of the most turbulent eras in human history, and from numerous oral and traditional sources. In other words, we know as much about Jesus as we know about Alexander the Great, or the Trojan War. It is an ongoing detective story and scholars are still arguing about it.
Jean-Pierre Isbouts tells us up front he is a devout Christian, but not a doctrinaire one. I found his presentation to be scrupulously fair and scholarly. He is perfectly clear about the numerous inconsistencies and downright contradictions of what is known about Jesus, and of the unresolved controversies among modern Biblical scholars. This is not literal-interpretation Bible-banger apologetics by any means. Isbouts is also perfectly honest about how much of the canonical scripture we rely on was shaped by political and social issues of the time. He has assembled a historical/biographical account of Jesus life and ministry that is consistent with what we know of the period, and he has been very scrupulous about distinguishing between what is possible, likely and certain in our knowledge of Jesus’ life and times. I found the presentation to be honest and convincing. There was only one brief episode, where Isbouts is discussing Jesus’ healing where he tries to compare Biblical accounts of his healing of the sick, that I found he was stretching the facts just a bit. Isbouts claims Biblical evidence of Jesus the healer is hard to dismiss, but he does not claim that Jesus necessarily healed the sick with divine agency, Instead he invokes modern theories of New Age, psychic healing, and Eastern medicine and implies Jesus had those same abilities. I’m sorry, but that’s all just a bit too hippy-dippy California for me. Besides, evidence of Jesus’ extraordinary powers as a miracle worker are part of his religious propaganda. We have no reason to believe a word of it from the evidence we have.
Having said that, as an atheist, I am confident the Isbouts’ presentation is a fair one, and I feel I learned a great deal from it. I highly recommend it. I am convinced we DO know a great deal about Jesus and his times, although I still don’t think we have the slightest evidence of the validity of his religion. Still, it must be recognized how quickly and completely his philosophy spread across the world, and of the basic humanity and justice of his teachings, in spite of the way it has been perverted by his followers.