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Theological Questions

In my last blog entry I talked about how confused I was after listening to two theologians debate an obscure point on a podcast. Yesterday I was doing some work for the theology department at the university I work for and I thought why not ask a theologian to explain some of the more basic aspects of the subject, to get some answers about things I have wondered about, but also to see the way theologians think.

A topic I have debated a bit recently is the historicity of Jesus so I thought why not choose that as a subject to ask questions about. It’s a simple, relevant, and practical problem and it should have real importance to everyone.

If Jesus really existed and did all the things the Bible claims then that changes everything for people like me who reject religion. And if he didn’t exist or only existed in a form which is totally different from what the Bible describes then that changes everything for believers – at least it does for the world’s biggest religion, Christianity.

So I decided to ask some basic questions about the historical evidence for Jesus. I sent them by email this morning and haven’t got a reply yet but I will report back when I do get something. These are the questions…

1. Do most theologians think Jesus really existed in a form recognisable as the character described in the Bible?

2. Do they think the supernatural events really happened or do they just start with the assumption they did (do theologians usually have a world view which includes the supernatural?)

3. Regarding the New Testament. Most of the writers are unknown, right. And even when some writing is attributed it’s often doubtful (eg Paul is attributed 13 epistles but 6 are doubtful, right?). Were there any writers at all who wrote from first hand experience having met Jesus?

4. Regarding the gospels. Do the canonical gospels have any true merit beyond all the others which the early church decided not to include?

5. All the gospels were written by unknown people at least 60 CE, right? So none are eye witness accounts, except they are based on Q but we know nothing about that do we? Could Q be written by a real witness?

6. Is there any credible material outside the Bible describing Jesus? I know about Tacitus but that seems rather indirect and uncertain. Also Josephus, but the big one there is a forgery, right? And the lesser reference is rather vague, agreed?

7. Is it reasonable to expect that if someone like Jesus was wandering around attracting a lot of attention, crowds, performing miracles, etc that there would be some reference to him in Roman, Jewish, etc written material of the day? Should we expect to find any of that?

8. Why did none of Jesus’ followers write about him? Did they think the world was going to end soon anyway? Is the famous reference in Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32 really a prediction of the end of the world, second coming, etc?

9. There are a few people who oppose the conventional views and who say they are theologians, Bob Price would be one. Do these people have and academic credibility?

I’m not sure what my theologian friend will think of these questions. Maybe they are too mundane to really be considered serious theology but I think it’s important to get the simple stuff out of the way before moving on to more complex and esoteric subjects.

If I do get a response (and she doesn’t find this process too annoying) I also have some questions regarding the Old Testament to ask as well as a few general theological issues which I find confusing. It could be quite interesting and I will report what I learn here.

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  1. May 22, 2010 at 5:12 am

    You know, I truly wish that you had asked me these questions instead of asking your friend.
    You might find this interesting the Bible itself says that if the Christ did not come back from the dead, Christians are “of all people most to be pitied.”

  2. ojb42
    May 22, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Do you mind if I ask what qualifications you have to comment on these questions. The people I asked work at the theology department of a university. That makes them fairly well qualified. I’m certainly interested in hearing your opinions on the subject but I would like to know why I should rate your opinion above any others.

  3. ojb42
    May 23, 2010 at 12:27 am
  4. May 23, 2010 at 3:31 am

    Oh, I didn’t say I would be more qualified, or that my explanations should be more highly rated. I just said I would enjoy discussing the questions. Whether I would be at all helpful is a totally separate issue. I would try my best, of course, but results are.. unknown.

    Your questions are good questions, by the way, but I would like to clarify something. You ask about “most theologians” and the opinions of “most of them.” The problem with phrasing questions like that is this: discussing theologians as a group is like discussing philosophers as a group, or discussing politicians as a group, or discussing artists as a group. If I asked you “do most politicians support abortion rights?” or “do most artists prefer painting or sculpture?” how would you answer? Your answer would undoubtedly be inaccurate in one way or another, depending on your own personal circumstances, and even if you resorted to statistics, (which are not always available) those statistics would still have confusion. (who counts as a theologian?) Even if every word was perfectly defined, you would still be limited to speaking about one little section of the world and about one limited period of time.
    To simplify and abbreviate, asking a theologian to explain the opinion/consensus of theologians in general is an unfair question. The most any theologian can properly do is defend his own position (which he has, hopefully, been educated in the arguments for and against) and give evidence for it.

  5. ojb42
    May 23, 2010 at 3:40 am

    I take your point but I was sort of hoping that they might base their opinions on a consensus of accepted fact like scientists and many in the arts do. Maybe that was extremely naive of me but if its possible in history, anthropology, and other similar areas can it not be possible in theology too? Or is it really a topic entirely based on fantasy and without any underlying rigour at all? Maybe it is!

    Also, asking about the existence of Jesus is different than asking about preferences for different art forms. Its possible to reach a conclusion (while admitting there is considerable doubt) on the historicity of Jesus based on facts (or should be) where preferences and political opinions are mostly subjective.

  6. May 23, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    Consensus? I hate to break it to you, but expecting consensus on issues relating to religion or morality is like expecting consensus on philosophy or politics. Sure there’s a correct belief, logic necessitates that there is a correct belief, but even the idea of there being a correct belief is not something that everyone agrees on! Even in science, there is not as much consensus as most people think, (half of the perceived “consensus” comes from whatever whatever is popular, for reasons that can be as laughable as mass media attention) and science is nothing more than observation of the way things around us are! (Paraphrasing one well known author, the law of gravity is not a law, it is merely an observation that things do, indeed, fall to the earth)
    Philosophy, politics, ethics, and yes, religion (using “religion” in this case to refer to thought on the subject of personal worldviews, including athiesm, agnosticism, etc.) do have underlying rigor. (or, at least, my system of thought says that they do) The problem is, these questions are so basic and so highly disputed that general agreement is just not going to happen until the end of life as we know it, whether that comes about by the next stage of human evolution, the return of the Christian Messiah, the coming of the Jewish Messiah, the “re-birth” of the universe, or the end of the world by whatever belief system is actually true.
    (By the way, I’m not saying that I don’t have a personal belief: I do have a belief, a very emphatic one)

  7. ojb42
    May 23, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Most of my questions didn’t relate to “pure” theological issues. They were more to do with the “practical” issues around the fringe, such as the historicity of Jesus. I deliberately chose questions like that where I do think its reasonable to expect a consensus.

    I think there is actually more consensus in science than many people think. For example, the consensus on evolution and climate change is much greater than the opponents of science portray. I agree that there are certainly debates in every area but these tend to be about details and interpretations rather than core concepts.

    Debating the semantics of what a scientific law actually is can be rather pointless. The fact is the theory of gravity works in every case except those extreme cases such as singularities. Clearly its not the absolute perfect truth on the subject but it still qualifies as a law within known constraints.

    I’m not sure which questions you are referring to. None of those above are particularly difficult. In fact they aren’t really theological questions at all, they are more to do with history than theology.

    BTW, would you be interested in trying to answer these questions yourself? It would be interesting to see how close you are to the answers I already have (did you look at them?)

  8. May 23, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    I did look at them briefly (I plan to go back in more detail later) and it seems that your theologian friend did fairly well. I notice that he (assuming it is a man) dipped into giving his own take on things, but, like I said, that is unavoidable. Incidentally, if you want me to answer the questions, what you will probably end up with is a defense of my own opinion on the subjects of Jesus’ historicity, or the occurrence of miracles, or anything else. (incidentally, you can probably already tell, but my opinions on most subjects would be rather different from yours)

    You don’t think that ones beliefs about theology affect how one looks at history? You don’t actually think that one’s beliefs can be separated from each other and put into distinct boxes, do you? Maybe they can be illustrated with a Venn diagram, but you simply cannot separate everything entirely.

  9. ojb42
    May 23, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    Just FYI, the person was a woman, but that’s not important, I guess!

    I would hope that anyone who makes their opinions known in any intellectual area would have a way to back them up with facts. A consensus doesn’t have to be a view held by everyone – the largest part of the “Venn diagram” is fine. I realise that part might change but I just wanted an idea of where the majority of opinions lay right now.

    I do agree that theological beliefs affect how you look at history. That’s why I asked the second part of question number 2.

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