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Historical Jesus

By Stanford Continuing Studies Program

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Who was the historical Jesus of Nazareth? What did he actually say and do, as contrasted with what early Christians (e.g., Paul and the Gospel writers) believed that he said and did? What did the man Jesus actually think of himself and of his mission, as contrasted with the messianic and even divine claims that the New Testament makes about him? In short, what are the differences—and continuities—between the Jesus who lived and died in history and the Christ who lives on in believers’ faith? Over the last four decades historical scholarship on Jesus and his times—whether conducted by Jews, Christians, or non-believers—has arrived at a strong consensus about what this undeniably historical figure (born ca. 4 BCE, died ca. 30 CE) said and did, and how he presented himself and his message to his Jewish audience. Often that historical evidence about Jesus does not easily dovetail with the traditional doctrines of Christianity. How then might one adjudicate those conflicting claims? This is a course about history, not about faith or theology. It will examine the best available literary and historical evidence about Jesus and his times and will discuss methodologies for interpreting that evidence, in order to help participants make their own judgments and draw their own conclusions. Presented by the Stanford Continuing Studies Program. Released with a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.

Customer Reviews

Good, but not a normal undergrad course

I like this lecture series, but it's important to keep in mind that this particular course is a Continuing Education offering. It is designed as a survey and is definitely not as academically rigorous as an actual undergraduate course would be. It's not as good or thorough as the Yale course by Dale Martin, but that's to be expected in Cont. Studies.

In regards to the course methodology, this is "Historical Jesus" - not "Who Christians Think Jesus Was". From the standpoint of historical science, it is all but impossible to make a credible claim of resurrection or other miracles without imposing some sort of metaphor. This flies in the face of theological interpretations, but that's the point. This course is not about interpreting the bible, it's exploring which parts of it we can determine are genuinely historical. Sources like Q are reconstructed sources, not necessarily literally a text on paper. Reconstructed sources are a necessary tool in examining all sorts of historical and scientific fields. Many would be surprised to learn how many of our well-known ancient languages are barely attested in text and are actually reconstructed and deduced from later languages.

The previous review also contains an anachronistic objection: Paul could not have been writing to people who "read the Gospel" during his lifetime because there was no Gospel until the Nicene Convention in the 4th century. It is also unlikely that any lay person of that era was literate enough to read such a collection, anyway.

I would suggest listening to the Dale Martin course at Yale first, as that introduces much more thoroughly how the critical historical method applies to the New Testament and deals with much more of details concerning who Jesus became to theologians. After listening to that, it's much easier to tell where Dr. Sheehan glosses over details to make a point.

Crossan taught as fact

Thomas Sheehan acts as though he is very certain of some very controversial claims.

He tells his students they should be amazed that "Q" makes absolutely no mention of the resurrection. Meanwhile I'm amazed how he can make an such an absolute statement about a writing that no one ever saw and indeed may not even exist. Indeed the fact that no one ever even saw Q in no way lessens his certainty that this writing - if it exists and if it is ever discovered - will not even mention the resurrection. This piling speculation on top of speculation in order to produce something that is then claimed as fact is quite common in this area. Of course, this claimed fact about a speculative document "Q" is then used to as a proof that no early followers of Jesus believed his body was resurrected.

What about 1st Corinthians and Paul explaining that hundreds had seen the resurected Jesus? Well Sheehan explains that Paul just means that he and others converted - or saw some vision or - well he really isn't to clear on what Paul is saying those 500 people saw. If Sheehan wants to just say they all realized they should be a follower of Jesus, then why does Paul say he was the "last" to see Jesus? Does Paul not think anyone became a follower of Jesus after him? Why does Paul say it's as if he was like one born late? None of that makes any sense on a Crossan or Sheehan's interpretation. But by glossing over that part of the text it really doesn't cause a hic up for his lecture.

He seems to be unaware that Paul's letters by an large were not intended to retell the gospel but instead to respond to specific concerns of the churches. Romans is an exception, but even there Paul knew he was writing to people who already knew the gospel, so rehearsing it would be out of place.

I have no issue with people raising different theories that I don't agree with. And I, of course, realize that you can't cover everything. But Thomas Sheehan not only claims these far flung theories with astounding certainty - he even refers to those who disagree as "stupid" and guilty of a biblical malpractice of sorts. I'm sorry but the reason not everyone agrees with Crossan and Sheehan isn't due to stupidity. It's because Sheehan and Crossan make a weak case.

Other very controversial liberal claims about the bible and religion are taught as though they are established fact. The Jesus's resurrection is just an example.

I gave it 3 stars because I am always interested in hearing different opinions on this topic. But in the end I can only say how thankful I am that I am not attending this class at Stanford where I would likely be expected to parrot this stuff back. I really cringe at the thought.

edit re cdgraves: He misquoted me. I said readers of pauls letters "knew the Gospel" not "read the Gospel". Paul refers to the Gospel he preached in several of his writings eg., 1st Corinthians and 1st Galatians. So the churches he was writing to would have already been aware of the Gospel and likely some other basics of the faith. The letters were usually written to respond to specific issues that arose.

As far cdgraves claim that "there was no gospel until the Nicene Convention in the 4th Century" I think he is confused. "The Gospel" means "the good news." There was "the Gospel" i.e., "the good news" pretty much as soon as Christ rose from the dead. Exactly what was written about that and when is unclear. However we do know the four Gospels in the Bible were written long before the 4th century. They were likely written between 60 ad and 100 ad.

Weak man weak...

The basic assumption of the lecture is this: the Jesus in the Gospels cannot be the 'historical Jesus' , so let us tell you who the real 'historical Jesus' is....

Well I can tell you that this assumption is fundementally flawed! the historical Jesus in the Gospels IS the 'historical Jesus'. The Gospels is the most reliable source we have about him!