Let’s consider Christianity for an example of how attempts to assert historicity fail. It is December, after all, and Christian groups and believers are working overtime to repeat their message, "Our religion is true! Jesus was born, lived, died, and lived again!" I also want to state a hypothesis that I do not have enough evidence to verify (yet): Belief in Christianity being true does not depend on either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament being historically/factually true. I know, I know, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament are supposed to be the same thing. But they are not. I have a quote later by Gerd Lüdemann that indicates some of the difference. The point of my hypothesis, however, is that Christianity considers its own claims as unimpeachable and only secondarily concerns itself with defending texts outside of the New Testament. Beyond the hypothesis, my point is that Christianity's own historical and factual claims become highly problematic under scrutiny, and this is a fact that ought to be emphasized more.
For this consideration, we can do much worse than listening to someone like R. Joseph Hoffmann, who is Distinguished Scholar at Goddard College and head of the Goddard Program in Human Values. He is also Former Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) and Co-chair of The Jesus Project (2007-2009).
Hoffmann explains that our sources of information – including the New Testament itself – do not give a clear answer to whether a discernibly historical Jesus existed. The methodologies we use to evaluate sources also do not yield this clear answer.
[N]either the sources we possess nor approaches to them developed over the last two centuries yield any resolution of the question of his [i.e., Jesus’s] actual existence and that the Church’s description of his reality has never depended primarily on the status of such a question.In other words, there simply is not enough evidence to establish the historical existence of the New Testament’s Jesus. We have reports by people invested in the stories they tell, but we don’t have the historical records we need to say “Yes, this person existed.”
Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown. The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events. For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Yeshu, a Galilean, would be very helpful. But we do not possess such a record. Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and self-interested reasons for retelling his story. And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century CE that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the Gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.Religion and religious belief only complicate matters. In the case of Christianity, the Christ figure that emerges by the 4th century bears little resemblance to anything of historical or physical reality.
To accept the “reality” of Jesus after the fourth century is to accept the rather bizarre figure immortalized in the icons, the Jesus of the fertile Christian imagination. This Jesus is a myth cobbled together from other myths—imperial, soteriological, apocalyptic and messianic, priestly, gnostic, stoic with a healthy dash of byzantine splendor tossed into the mix. To the extent that every Jesus is a composite of culture and theology, the Jesus of Nicaeo-Chalcedonian orthodoxy would have been quite impossible in a first or second century context, and for the same reasons–though his image is emblazoned on cathedral walls from London to St Louis in tribute to the famous “original” in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—impossibly exotic to later generations. The rate of change in reframing the reality of Jesus between the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and since the Reformation is enough to suggest that theological definitions of reality relate more to love than to chairs; that is to say, they are impressions of interpretation rather than interpretations of fact.Let me depart from Hoffman now and go to Gerd Lüdemann, Professor of History and Literature of Early Christian at Georg-August-University, Director of the Institute of Early Christian Studies, and Director of the Archive "Religionsgeschichtliche Schule." In the quote below, Lüdemann observes that the New Testament and the orthodox understandings of it not only affect our view of Jesus but also re-frame our view of the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, the New Testament actually conjures and creates an “Old Testament,” a fictional/ized version of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Historical criticism has effectively undermined the validity of the great majority of Old Testament citations by the authors of the New Testament; indeed, it is seldom possible even to imagine that Old Testament writers can have had in mind the persons and events that New Testament writers claimed they did. The oft-proposed thesis that this issue cannot be resolved either negatively or positively does not hold. The long and short of it is that New Testament authors have systematically mistaken or distorted the meaning of Old Testament texts in the service of polemical and doctrinal agendas. Matthew’s five citations of prophecy in his nativity account are among the best-known examples of the practice, and perhaps the most comically inapposite. In the interest of honesty and better communication with the public, academic theology needs to demonstrate the same kind and degree of intellectual honesty that long ago led natural science to disavow the Ptolemaic world picture.These are points that all relate to arguments I have made before on interpretation and religion-as-interpretation. As I see it, modern religions are interpretations promoting themselves and always referring back to themselves. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but it’s important to bear in mind because the personal wonders we often ascribe to religion are often the product of practicing a religious interpretation and not the result of the religion’s status as truth or falsehood.