The role of Jesus Christ in history is one of the most defining issues ever discussed:”
“Our schools are established for the education of all our children. Any language, therefore, by our school teachers, justly offensive to any class of our citizens, whether rich or poor, Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, white or colored, cannot be too severely censured. Boston is too enlightened and too just.”
—Donahoe’s Magazine, vol. 23 (1890)
“The nature of the historical Jesus, then, is shrouded in doubt. Was he “Son of God,” “son of man,” inspired prophet, religious reformer, a humanitarian idealist—or, as his Jewish critics insisted, a blasphemer and impostor? A final answer, acceptable to all, cannot be drawn from the available sources.”
— Thomas Greer, A Brief History Of Western Man (1977)
History in the 19th Century
Here is what two different 19th-century history texts say about Jesus. The first text is supposed to have a Protestant bias and the second, a Roman Catholic one. See if you can detect their respective slants:
The most interesting event of this period was the Birth of our Saviour, which is supposed to have taken place 4 B. C.; that is, four years previous to the date commonly assigned for the Christian era. . . The crucifixion of our Saviour took place in Judea, in the eighteenth year of this reign (A. D. 33).
“This reign” is that of Tiberius. So below, as well.
But the most glorious event which took place during the reign of Augustus was the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which happened, according to the best authorities, in the twenty-sixth year of his reign, and four years before the period commonly assigned to the Christian era. In the eighteenth year of this Emperor’s reign, our Lord Jesus Christ suffered death upon the cross.
That’s it. Jesus is our Savior and Lord—in italics, no less. He was born; He suffered, was crucified, and dead. Notice the similarity of language and detail. The similarity continues in the next example, this from a somewhat liberal Episcopalian:
. . . The temple of Janus, which was shut only in profound peace . . . was closed, and at this period the “Desire of Nations,” the “Prince of Peace,” was born. . . . The whole civilized world, is now included in one vast empire, “the fullness of time” had arrived, when the Savior of mankind made his advent upon earth. His birth is supposed to have occurred four years before the common era. . . It was under the administration of Tiberius that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified in Judea.
Our writer, Mrs. Emma Willard, later makes a passing reference to the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem and Jesus’ “prophetic words” about the destruction of Jerusalem. But that’s it. Hardly pivotal. Like our previous authors, that’s all she has to say about Jesus.
In an 1854 edition, however, Mrs. Willard expands a bit on the significance of Jesus Christ. She calls Him “the Son of God and man.” She associates Him with “a new and heavenly kingdom.” She briefly describes His trial under Pilate. Finally, she writes, “But, on the third day, HE AROSE FROM THE DEAD.” Mrs. Willard also writes of the Holy Ghost, the promise of the Father . . . sent down.” She calls Jesus, “the Word of Life manifest in the flesh.” She underscores Jesus’ resurrection in her description of the apostles: “That Jesus was risen from the dead, the apostles, especially Peter and JOHN, proved by wonderful miracles wrought in his name, so that many believed.” In a footnote, she sends us to Adam Clark’s Commentary, an evangelical Methodist reference volume.The biases of these texts do eventually come out in all sorts of ways—their discussion of the Crusades, for instance. But when they talk about Jesus Christ, they are not only all in agreement, they are all nearly silent. Why? Protestants and Catholics disagree about a lot of things, but in theory they should be able to confess who Jesus Christ really is—that He is the only begotten Son of God; that He is “God of God, Light of Life, very God of very God” and that He died for sinners; that He rose again and ascended into heaven; that He sits enthroned at the Father’s right hand. But whatever agreement professing Trinitarian Christians might have been able to reach in the 19th century, there were—and still are—it’s the humanist players in the game that now make the rules. And, as long as the government schools “are established for the education of all our children,” so to speak… Jesus’ true significance must be thrown intentionally in a muddy river of uninterpreted names and dates. All this to say that history as truth, history as meaning, is forever dead and gone.
Welcome to the 20th Century Jungle
Oddly enough, the 20th century gave the world high school and college texts that offered precious little information about Jesus Christ and Christianity as a belief system. Here are three examples.
The first, a high school text, is described by an Amazon reviewer as “a fine example of how to explain the content of world religions, and their role in the lives of people, without touting any of them.”
Jesus spoke of Himself as “the Son” and of “my Father in heaven,” and His followers believed that He was the Son of God, the Messiah described by some of the Old Testament prophets. . . Jesus believed that His mission was to help all mankind attain the Kingdom of God through His life and teachings.
The book goes on to describe Jesus’ ethics: All men are equal in the sight of God; men must follow the Golden Rule; no man may avenge wrongs done to him; men must respect their government; all quarreling and war are wrong. Though it might be smart to qualify some of this, these textbook authors attempt to describe Jesus and his mission in somewhat neutral terms. As secular humanists, they do the best they can:
Jesus believed that men could gain salvation, not only through His life and teachings but also through His death—that God would forgive men’s sins if Jesus gave up His life for mankind. According to the Gospels, Jesus arose from the tomb and remained on earth for forty more days. His resurrection became a central part of the message of His disciples, who, as missionaries, set out to convert all peoples to His teachings.
Now let’s look at two college texts. The first briefly compares Christianity with the mystery religions of the 1st century, but it acknowledges Christianity’s firm roots in Old Testament Judaism. The authors underscore Jesus’ historical reality and His claim to “exclusiveness and omnipotence.” They go on to describe His ministry and ethics and finally come to the Resurrection:
According to the Gospels, Jesus’s greatest miracle was his resurrection—his return to life three days after he died on the Cross. . . The early Christians not only accepted Christ’s ethical precepts but worshipped Christ himself as the divine incarnation of the omnipotent God.
The authors understand at least some of the implications of Trinitarian Christianity.
The doctrine of the Trinity gave Christianity the unique advantage of a single, infinite, philosophically respectable god who could be worshipped and adored in the person of the charismatic, lovable, and tragic Jesus. The Christian deity was both transcendent and concrete.
The second college text begins its discussion of Christianity with a brief survey of Judaism and Persian dualism. Then it introduces Jesus as a historical figure.
The Gospels concentrate on the birth of Jesus, the brief years of his ministry, and his death and reported resurrection. Faithful converts would later accept him as the Christ (Messiah), the true God in human form (incarnate). They would believe that his sacrifice on the Cross atoned for the sins of humanity and that his resurrection promised life eternal to all who loved and followed him.
With some understanding, the text discusses Jesus’ ethics as summarized in the Sermon on the Mount. Then it returns to the gospels claims about Jesus Himself.
According to the Gospels, Christ rose from the tomb and showed himself several times to his disciples before ascending to heaven.
The Quest for Historical Meaning
What happened in between the 1870s and the 1970s was a shift from a vague and pretended neutrality to a polite but very open relativism. 19th century America supposedly needed public education to provide social and moral unity for a religiously diverse nation. The textbooks claimed to represent a bland and acceptable public Christianity, a national religion that promoted an unnamed god and inculcated patriotic virtues but did not bow the knee to Jesus Christ, the Lord of history.
The real issue here, of course, is not what Christians believe, but who Jesus is and what He has accomplished in time and space. Scripture says that He is God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity; that He gave His life as atonement for sin; that He rose again and now sits at the Father’s right hand. Scripture says this, not as one religious voice among many, but as the authoritative, infallible word of the living God.
Jesus, then, is Lord of creation and Lord of history. He owns history. It is His story and He is its central theme. He shapes it moment by moment. He actively saves His people. He is putting all His enemies under His feet. When He is finished putting all His enemies under His feet, He will return in glory to end redemptive history. He will do this in resurrection and judgment, all to the glory of God the Father.
Our American Founders knew that each of us has a role to play in history whether for good or evil. Our lives, like history itself, are charged with meaning and significance. That’s why we need to know the “central story” to know Jesus Christ better and to understand the roles we must play in His great story. That’s why we study history. That’s also why we need real Christ-Centered history texts.