You can take Paul Johnson’s word for it. In one persona, the 81-year-old Englishman is a right-wing journalistic gadfly with an acid tongue and the inclination to use it, once dismissing Bill and Hillary Clinton as locked in “a dynastic marriage of ambitious swine.” In what amounts to an entirely different avatar, one that expresses the better angels of his nature, Johnson is a distinguished (and calmly judicious) historian, the author of well-regarded works on topics ranging from Napoleon to the origins of modernity.
So there’s no reason to doubt him when he claims there are more than 100,000 biographies of Jesus Christ in English alone, including a good 100 written in just the last decade. It’s a staggering number, but hardly beyond belief for the single most influential figure in human history. And you can also take Johnson’s word for why he has added to that count with Jesus: A Biography From a Believer—every generation deserves its own portrait, which here emerges as surprisingly modern. What you cannot do, however, is accept his book as a work of historical scholarship.
That is in spite of the fact Jesus is a lovely little book, as beautifully written as any of Johnson’s histories, subtle and insightful on what the New Testament aims to tell us about Jesus Christ. But it isn’t historical writing, at least not by the standards of those—skeptic and believer alike—who abide by the rules of the professional historian’s craft. In a nutshell: human events have human or natural agency (miracles are not, cannot be, explanations); time moves in only one direction (seemingly successful predictions—of betrayal, death and resurrection—are much more likely to be the result of retroactive insertion into accounts than of divine foreknowledge); outsiders’ statements or random documents (a name on a tax roll, for instance) are more coolly informative than followers’ claims.
In the case of the historical Jesus, that evidence simply doesn’t exist. Johnson, like C.S. Lewis and many others before him, anchors his belief in the Gospels’ historical accuracy in the level of realistic detail, the seemingly random human touches, in their accounts—like the description of Christ writing in the dust before responding to Pharisees who had asked him if they should stone an adulterous woman (John 8: 6). “I don’t think that kind of detail simply accrues to a story,” says Johnson in an interview. “It’s so striking, so vivid, that I don’t believe it could have been invented.” More cautious historians, even those who accept the authenticity of that particular passage (many do not), don’t agree: they are well aware how stories grow more enthralling in the telling, and do not find such touches as “strangely, almost mysteriously, convincing” as Johnson does. As he himself points out, the Gospels are “literary as well as historical and spiritual documents.”
So here, then, is where the so-called Jesus Wars—the endless debate over just who the historical Jesus was and what he taught—have arrived, at a point that may mark the effective end of them. For the past few decades, the great wave of scholarly inquiry into the historical Jesus, launched with such optimism over a century ago, has kept slamming onto the same rocky shore. There is sufficient third-party evidence, primarily brief references by Roman observers, to convince virtually any historian that Jesus lived, preached, angered the powers that be, and was crucified for it, probably in 30 CE. But that’s all there is.
Everything else comes from within the faith tradition: the 27 books of the New Testament and an equal number of so-called apocryphal works, writings not included among the accepted Christian texts when they were finally hammered out in the fourth and fifth centuries. Just as early Christians pulled works they found unacceptable out of authorized Scripture, the Four Gospels are individually selective, John openly so, concluding with a laconic, “There are also many other things which Jesus did.” Together, the Gospels, in Johnson’s own words, are “mutually reinforcing and correcting.” And they pursue a forthright agenda: detailing the transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus the Christ, son of God. For most historians, the Evangelists offer no answers to the burning questions: what did Jesus believe about himself? What did he say and do as opposed to what others said about him?
Given the dearth of hard outside historical evidence about the man himself, scholars have moved into exploring the context of Christ’s life. They have reconstructed the society and religious ferment of first-century Palestine with an eye to exploring what kind of living marginalized peasants like Jesus, his family and friends, could have eked out, and what they would have been raised to believe, pray and proclaim. The work has proved fertile in enlarging our picture of the era, but it has also marked a tacit abandonment by mainstream scholarship of the possibility of more purely biographical advances.
But not abandoned by everyone: if Jesus, written by an eminent historian untroubled by an absence of third-party historical evidence, occupies one pole of that debate, the other is held by the no less ahistorical works—“wild stories without any evidence,” Johnson calls them—of a host of alt-Jesus authors. Their versions run from a Jesus married to Mary Magdalene (an idea generally associated with Dan Brown, but now pretty much an article of faith among all varieties of unorthodox Jesus writers) to a Jesus spirited from the cross before his death (Michael Baigent) to a Jesus who never lived at all (Tom Harpur). The overarching theme they hold in common is that Scripture—as read by the faithful—is not to be trusted, but that hidden between the lines, obscured by edits and omissions, is the real story. The truth is out there.