Christ, the History: Saving Christmas
On Tom Holland on Jesus, part the second
Merry Christmas Eve! Today we continue my assessment of Tom Holland and Dom Sandbrook’s recent two-part podcast on the historical Jesus. My thoughts are sorting themselves into three parts, of which the first part is free, but these next two will be mainly reserved for paid subscribers, with teasers to whet your appetite, naturally. If you’re receiving this e-mail as a free subscriber, enjoy the preview, and please consider taking advantage of this temporary year-end sale to snag an annual subscription to Further Up for only $30, as a gift to yourself or someone else who might appreciate it. I am committed to delivering high-quality, bespoke content on a regular basis, and while some of it will always be free, in busy stretches it is not unusual that a month will pass in which the majority of my writing is dedicated exclusively to paid subscribers. With so much good work vying for everyone’s attention these days, I don’t take a single reader for granted. Whether you decide to upgrade or not, thanks for reading.
Having set the stage for their listeners in Part 1, Tom and Dom set out to accomplish the impossible and sum up the entire life of the historical Jesus in a mere hour for Part 2. With Christians and skeptics alike in their audience, they know they won’t please everyone, but they’ve never shrunk from knotty tasks before, and they tackle this one with their usual good humor and charm.
Like Tom and Dom, I too have an eclectic audience, of which I am quite proud. And like Tom and Dom, I can anticipate that different readers may have bones to pick with different bits of my own take on these things, depending on where they’re coming from. Some of you are conservative Christians, some of you are liberal skeptics, and some of you are somewhere in between. Some of you are adult converts, some of you are adult deconverts, and some of you are adult never-had-a-views. This is all wonderfully freeing for me, because it means I have no incentive whatsoever to try and tailor what I write for any one focus group. Not that tailoring things for focus groups is my MO anyway, but the fact that you all refuse to cooperate and sort yourselves into just one target audience makes it very easy for that to go on being my MO. Be it ever so! At least, until all you skeptics become Christians, I would like for that to happen at some point, but let’s not get ahead of things.
Tom and Dom pick up where they left off, establishing beyond reasonable doubt that there was such a remarkable figure as Jesus. And Tom is insistent that he must have been a very remarkable figure indeed. Not only does he accept Jesus’ existence in vague outline, he finds it more likely than not that the gospels substantially preserve Jesus’ teachings, ethos, and unnerving genius. How could a committee have invented a reply like “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” when Jesus is presented with the coin of the realm? In this and other incidents, Tom perceives the stamp of one mind, one unified personality. And, indeed, much more could be said here about how Jesus’ personality emerges consistently across all four gospels, one of many strong arguments for their collective integrity as source documents up close to the facts of his life and ministry. The question is, just how close to this fire can Tom and Dom fly and not get their wings singed?
This is the real discussion behind the discussion here: a meta-discussion, if you like, about how historians can and should relate to the text of the Bible, and whether there is such a thing as accepting something “as a historian” versus accepting it “as a Christian.” Can you accept a miracle “as” one, but not “as” the other? As interesting as the whole podcast is, to me the most intriguing piece of the whole show is the couple minutes at the very end when Tom, essentially, tips his hand. I will be coming on to this and much more later.
Before all that exciting stuff, though, I want to take what I hope won’t be too dry a detour into some of the details of the Nativity narrative, because Tom begins by playing the Grinch and informing the audience that there most likely was no Nativity as we find it in Matthew and Luke. Christmas cannot be saved. He is sorry to report, but there it is. To justify this, he quickly makes a number of assertions about Luke’s accuracy, all of which could be unpacked in whole articles unto themselves. While working on this piece, I was pleased to see that my friend Glen Scrivener had independently recorded a reaction video with Cambridge scholar Dr. Peter Williams, where Williams makes a number of points I was already developing myself. The whole video is excellent, and I recommend it. But in my own words here, let me try to tease out some of these Nativity gripes and Nativity rebuttals with equal fairness.