I happened across some high school friends this summer at a concert in my home town. Knowing I had recently “mastered divinity,” they embarked on a lightning round of theological questions, questions dribbling inside believers and non-believers alike. “So, I’ve been wondering: is there any actual proof for the existence of Jesus from his lifetime?” Though I could sense their regardless insouciance to my answer, I offered an honest “no, there isn’t.” As several Orthodox preachers point out, we only know one thing written about Jesus during his lifetime: the sign above the cross, declaiming “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).
My friends were naturally surprised. Christians usually fight, tooth and nail, to uphold the historicity of Jesus. How could I so easily betray a critical element of Christian faith? I wasn’t conceding anything. Rather, I’m alluding to a more fundamental problem of Christian belief: how do we know anything has happened historically? Fr Georges Florovsky wrote about this historiographical issue on several occasions, perhaps most notably in his essay “The Predicament of the Christian Historian.” He gives us the problematic rather bluntly: “The knowledge of the past is necessarily indirect and inferential. It is always an interpretation.”
Florovsky isn’t negating historical importance, or subjectivizing the Christ of History. He is rather reorienting our historical frame of reference and goal away from knowledge and toward salvation. For Christians, that interpretation is always Christ, in his most public and obvious (positive) form—crucified, dead; but that interpretation is also in the least public and obvious (negative) form—“He is not here; He is risen.” (Luke 24:6) That interpretation is always the Christ who leads us to salvation, to at-one-ment, to the grace of the Holy Spirit. Christian history engenders paradox. For Christians, or at least for Orthodox, the paradox is that Christ is both the revealer of the gospel, and the content of it; He is both our guide and our goal The earliest Christian writings show this paradox starkly. As Fr John Breck so forcefully argues in his article reprinted in the August 2013 Wonder, Paul’s gospel is the gospel, albeit in a different form and genre. Chronologically speaking, the four “canonical” gospels appear only after Paul had “interpreted” Jesus as the crucified Messiah. Whenever we hear the gospel read in church, to this day, the introduction is always that we may hear the gospel, according to St John (or one of the other evangelists); that is, we are acknowledging the interpretation of that particular fact, the fact of the Crucified and Risen Messiah. The moment we claim that, we are already engaging in interpretation. The canonical gospels are our starting point, but we are constantly expanding outward, preaching the gospel and teaching all nations (Mat 28:19-20). This spinning-out resembles the Jewish tradition of midrash: a text at the center, surrounded by layers and layers of commentary. In our case, the “text” is Jesus, the Son of God, crucified and risen. Around that revolves every aspect of Christian history. But the purpose of any Christian historical fact is to bring us to God, to lead us toward repentance (a natural outgrowth of our awareness of God’s holiness). Any Christian history intends to lead us to God (cf. John 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”).
This cycle, our “midrash,” never ends (cf. John 21:25: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”). Canonically speaking, the Church has capped our textual expression with the four gospels (a shape most scholars argue was cogent as early as the end of the first century). But we’ve never stopped there. Our own biographies begin to take the shape of the life of Christ. There are so many great, classical examples from which to choose. St Athanasius’ Life of Anthony the Great, in which Anthony travels to the desert in order to make war with the demons is one example. St Augustine’s Confessions, in which he realizes the extent to which God had always been acting in his life, is another. Christian art in general; music in church is an interpretation of the gospel. And iconography in particular is perhaps the most notable example. We’ve even dared to change that one thing written about Jesus during his lifetime, and interpret it in terms of the gospel. Most Byzantine-style icons will not say “King of the Jews” over the cross. Rather, we read “The King of Glory.” We are hardly denying the historical facticity of Christ by changing these words. Instead we are bringing them to us, interpreting in one further step the meaning and relevance of Jesus’ self-emptying (cf. Philippians 2:7-11: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”)
The whole reason for our creation is to reach God. The purpose of historical truth leads us to a wider awareness that God therefore gives us everything we need in order to reach Him; and indeed, everything is at our disposal. Basil the Great makes this point clearly in the Hexaemeron sermons. The earth, he says, was invisible because “man, the spectator of creation, did not yet exist” (Sermon II). In other words, the earth is nothing without people to see it; and the historical facticity of Jesus means nothing without Christians to interpret it, to live it, to worship it.