Will the real historical Jesus please stand up?
You can’t escape Lewis’s trilemma
A few years ago, for my sins, I decided to finally read nearly all the New Atheist books I had skipped while I was busy reading serious atheists in philosophy class. I was expecting them to be bad, and I wasn’t disappointed. But a couple of them were, at least, entertainingly written. And of all things, I didn’t expect to find Christopher Hitchens agreeing with C. S. Lewis.
It’s a begrudging agreement, offered with the Hitch’s usual bad grace, and laced with ignorant sneering at the fact that Lewis assumes Jesus is a “historical figure” at all. (Hitchens gives Jesus mythicism an embarrassing level of respect as a hypothesis throughout god is not Great.) Still, Hitch is willing to “credit” Lewis “with honesty and with some courage” for his famous Trilemma: If we bracket the discussion of whether the gospels reliably record Jesus’ sayings and doings, then based on those sayings and doings, there are only three possibilities for who or what Jesus was. These possibilities are often pithily summed up as “liar, lunatic, or Lord.” We must either take Jesus for a manipulative cult leader, a sick fool, or a Being worthy of all human worship. Aut deus aut malus homo: either God or a bad man. But the one thing we can’t take him for is plain, ordinary bonus homo — a good man. A sub-divine hero of virtue, morality, peace on earth and good will to men.
Hitch agreed, biting the malus homo bullet so hard you could hear the crunch in Hong Kong.
But unlike Hitchens, historian Tom Holland is earnestly intent on carving out that elusive fourth option, in The Rest is History’s recent two-episode special on the “mystery” and the “history” of the man who split the timeline in half. Over a mere two hours, Holland leads Dom Sandbrook (in full charming John Watson mode) on a whirlwind tour of Christ’s nativity, ministry, crucifixion, and whatever-happened-next-which-of-course-we-can’t-really-say-because-we’re-historians-here-and-well-you-know.
What Holland feels he can safely say they do know, though, is respectable enough. No doubt the gospels have been embellished in the service of a “higher truth,” but that doesn’t mean they contain no historical data. Holland even includes a respectful nod to New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s influential work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which argues that the gospels preserve impressions of Jesus from disciples and followers up close to the facts. This extends even to John, often dismissed as the least reliable of the bunch. Other scholars like Peter Williams and Lydia McGrew have further deepened these lines of argument in their work. Holland acknowledges “a range” of conservative to liberal scholars, which, he suggests, should leave modest historians in the modest agnostic middle.
Of course, to conclude that the gospels are partly embellished is to be a less than fully consistent agnostic. Indeed, at several moments, Holland sounds quite definite that they are “not gospel.” Although Luke’s gospel is Dom’s favorite, curiously willing to stick its neck out with various historical tie-downs, Tom plays the Grinch and informs listeners that Luke (and Matthew) clearly mucked up the Christmas story. Much ink has been spilled around the questions Holland raises, but some historians would demur that there’s more space for more options than he allows. (Interested readers can find my own summary of various critiques and responses at my Substack here.)
Still, when it comes to Jesus’ own self-understanding, Holland is firm that it had to have been pretty “exalted.” He hesitates to say just how exalted, but he takes it as well-evidenced that Jesus at least claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, claimed to be ushering in a divine “kingdom not of this world,” predicted his own death and resurrection, and, most shockingly, claimed ultimate moral authority as Judge of the universe. At the end of ages, when sheep were separated from goats, Jesus declared that he would be the one to do the separating.
The precise nature of the challenge was the highest form of blasphemy
All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the bit in John where Jesus outright says “I AM,” which would have spelled things out in neon letters for his Jewish audience in case there was any lingering unclarity. Holland refers a fair bit to Jesus’ “challenging authority” as a catalyst for his ultimate arrest and execution, but he never quite drills down on the precise nature of that challenge. If we take passages like this as reliable reportage, the precise nature of the challenge was the highest form of blasphemy, to Jewish ears — the claim to be equal with God Himself.
But even if Holland wants to say the jury is out on Jesus’ most explicitly blasphemous expressions of self-understanding, how many options are really left to us when that man tells us he intends to sit on a great white throne of judgment over every man, woman, and child who has ever lived? How many options are really left to us by a man who claims to bear their sins in his own body on a tree? If this does not quite spell all the way out that he doesn’t count it blasphemy to be called equal with God, it’s close enough that one could fairly argue Lewis’s trilemma is now in play.
And here is where Holland’s task becomes tricky, for it’s clear that he admires Jesus, is appropriately humbled by Jesus’ genius and ethos, indeed sees all of Western history and Western ethics as the expanding universe for which Jesus provided the Big Bang. But did Jesus cause this revolution because of his own superlative goodness, or despite his lack thereof? Channeling H. G. Wells, Holland wants to argue for the former. For both historians, Jesus “stands first” among good men. But the Jesus they have pieced together already seems too dangerous to be merely good. As Lewis so memorably sums it up, “He did not leave that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Holland likewise treads on thin ice when he concedes the disciples must have seen “something” to convince them that Jesus had risen from the dead, while leaving that “something” in soft focus. Granted, he might question the polymodal specificity of the resurrection claims — that the risen Jesus allegedly made himself available for extended conversation, for meals, even for exploratory poking and prodding. This is precisely where debate swirls. But if we were to grant that this was, indeed, what the disciples claimed, we would have another trilemma on our hands. To quote a phrase Holland lifts from New Testament scholar Dale Allison, some claims are vulnerable to “the frailty of human memory.” Others are not.
By the end of the special, Holland seems to have closed a kind of epistemic trapdoor behind himself. When Dom, perhaps only half-joking, confesses that by Occam’s Razor, it might be simplest to go ahead and admit Jesus was the Son of God, Tom again echoes Wells that this is not a thing “historians” tend to do. They might be Christians as a matter of private faith, but in their public research, they won’t “adduce supernatural explanations.” Referring to Stephen J. Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion, Holland suggests a similar separation obtains for history and religion.
This will, of course, come as news to numerous historians living and dead who have felt quite comfortably secure in their integrated identity as Christian historians. It’s true that in the days of the Enlightenment, they also tended to be theologians and clergymen. But what of it? The historical work of a Nathaniel Lardner, William Paley, or J. B. Lightfoot still needs no special favors to make a case for itself. It’s doubtful that such men ever performed some invisible switch in their minds every time they adduced a supernatural explanation for something, where the “historian” part flicked off as the “Christian” part flicked on.
Of course, Holland is welcome to his own personal historian’s opinion on the matter. But many have weighed the evidence and arrived at a different opinion. Perhaps, in his eyes, they have put the cart before the horse, believing what they want to believe and justifying it after the fact.
But how easy is it to believe, really? How easy is it to consider God hanging on a tree, and consider that yours might be among the sins that held him there? How easy is it to imagine that same God-man on a throne, and you kneeling before it?
Per Occam’s Razor, it may be simple. But it may not be easy.
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