To be fair, Hunsinger gives a somewhat grudging tip of the hat to some good books, including several I have recommended myself--Bauckham, Bruce, and N.T. Wright. (See my post here where I mention several of these.) In a sense, he recommends them to his correspondent. But his treatment of them is extremely tentative, and he repeatedly issues caveats to the effect that they overstate their case, that the reader shouldn't think from his recommending the books that evidence is really what it's all about, and so forth.
Hunsinger's statements about the strength of the historical evidence are strangely contradictory, leaving the reader with the impression that Hunsinger doesn't think much of the evidence, even though in one place he says that there is a "strong case." If the post really was written originally as a letter to a real person, I cannot understand why Hunsinger did not read it over, even once, after writing it and say to himself, "He's gonna wonder what in the world I'm even saying." Viz.:
I think the Christian faith has to meet a minimal standard, but only a minimal standard.
In the end I think the historical evidence remains ambiguous and inconclusive, taken as a whole. There is not a lot of data to go on, which allows the evidence to be read either positively or negatively. Positively, certain lines of plausibility can be established for the "factual" claims of the gospel on historical grounds, but negatively, on the other hand, these lines of reasoning are always open to challenge and doubt. There is, again, not enough evidence to work with one way or the other that would allow us to come to unshakable historical conclusions.
Nevertheless, a strong historical case can indeed be made in favor of Christ's resurrection, for example, but not one that I think is beyond "reasonable" doubt. Reason, in any case, reaches its categorical limit here.
In his very intriguing book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008, 540 pp.), Bauckham makes a strong case for the general reliability of the gospels. I don't think the case is as iron-clad as he does, but I do regard it as impressive. Bauckham presents a very strong and learned argument that, contrary to much modern scholarship, the gospels did not arise very long after the fact.
The point is rather that the historical claims of the gospel are susceptible to a respectable defense.
A more popular but still scholarly work would be Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (2008) by Craig A. Evans (290 pp.). I again have the same kinds of reservations. In other words, I don't reject his arguments out of hand but I take them with a grain of salt. [ME: Does he even know what the idiom "take something with a grain of salt" means?] They are impressive but inconclusive, though they show why the minimal standard that I set forth earlier has actually been met, and more than met.
It is finally not we who read the NT, but the NT that reads us. It calls us and our detached role as would-be authoritative, evidence-weighing spectators radically into question.(Clarification: The above paragraphs are all separate block quotations, not a single long quotation. They do not come immediately after one another in Hunsinger's piece.)
What a mish-mash. It's pretty safe to say, though (and if you have any doubt, I encourage you to read the entire post), that Hunsinger doesn't think all that much of the strength of the historical evidence for Christianity.
Moreover, it's safe to say that he thinks that's a good thing. Because it's when he gets up on his semi-Barthian high horse that Hunsinger really gets going and that we really find out where he's coming from. In brief, he likes what he takes to be the "inconclusive" and "ambiguous" nature of the historical evidence for Christianity, because the weakness of the case makes it possible for us to take a leap of faith, and that's really, in his view, what it's all about. For example,
The Christian faith is far more a matter of radical conversion than it is of rational persuasion. The claim that a marginal Jew who was put to death on a cross should have been raised from the dead so that he now reigns as Lord and Savior is never going to be plausible to rational or evidential considerations. It is always going to be foolishness...
The NT cannot be read intelligently unless it is read as a spiritual book, as opposed to a merely historical document. The truth to which it bears witness necessarily transcends every ordinary rational mode of perception. Unless the doors of perception are opened, and we begin thinking in a whole new framework, it will never make any sense.This is all standard modernist fare, and God knows, it's been around poisoning seminaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, for far too long. But I ask you to think: When we say this sort of thing to our young people, I will tell you what we are saying to them. "The God I believe in asks of you that you show yourself truly abject by being willing to give up normal standards of evidence, being willing to believe the claims of Christianity on evidence that is not really all that good, evidence that is shaky and questionable. He asks, to at least some extent, that you check your mind at the door. That's a really radical commitment, and it's what God glories in and hence what we Christians glory in." Which is a recipe for driving away every thinking person who hears you.
A centerpiece of Hunsinger's position is the downplaying of the historical nature of the Gospels. For example,
What I am trying to suggest is that everything finally depends on what kind of documents the gospels and other NT writings are. They are not really historical reports. They do not fall into the category of report but rather into the category of witness. They all present themselves, in various ways, as witnesses to the Risen Christ. The picture of Jesus in the gospels, for example, represents an overlay of the Risen Christ upon the "historical" Jesus, because the point is that the historical Jesus and the Risen Christ are finally one and the same.This is weaseling. Hunsinger carefully doesn't actually say that the Gospel writers inserted accounts of things that didn't really happen, in the prosaic sense of, you know, really happening, in order to show us the Risen Christ (note the heavy capital letter on "risen"). He doesn't, in fact, make himself very clear at all. What the dickens does it even mean to say that "the picture of Jesus in the gospels, for example, represents an overlay of the Risen Christ upon the 'historical' Jesus"? Why the quotation marks around the word 'historical'? Why, for that matter, does he put quotation marks around the word 'factual' in one of the quotations I gave above? What does this stuff about the capital-R Risen Christ have to do with the claim that the Gospels aren't really historical? That claim is, in any event, absolute balderdash, and dangerous balderdash at that. The Gospels most certainly are historical in genre, that specific sub-genre known as memoirs. They focus, to be sure, on a particular person. They are not meant to be chronicles of the general events of their time. But they are, indeed, meant to be reports of things that really happened in that boring, prosaic sense to which Hunsinger seems to have an allergy.
In contrast to Hunsinger's piece, and to show you by contrast just what feeble, confusing, and unsatisfactory fare Hunsinger is offering, I present you with two far more manly pieces of prose. The first is from C. S. Lewis, precisely on the question of whether the Gospels are historical reports (which Hunsinger expressly denies) or instead are "spiritual."
In what is already a very old commentary I read that the fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a ‘spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not a history’, to be judged by the same canons as Nathan’s parable, the Book of Jonah, Paradise Lost ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress’. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? Note that he regards Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel. Note that the whole epic panoply of Milton goes for nothing. But even if we leave our the grosser absurdities and keep to Jonah, the insensitiveness is crass–Jonah, a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident and surely not without a distinct, though of course edifying, vein of typically Jewish humour. Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable en de nux (xiii, 30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage–though it may no doubt contain errors–pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.The other, older still (mid-1800's) is Simon Greenleaf:
C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 154-55.
All that Christianity asks of men on this subject, is, that they would be consistent with themselves; that they would treat its evidences as they treat the evidence of other things; and that they would try and judge its actors and witnesses, as they deal with their fellow men, when testifying to human affairs and actions, in human tribunals. Let the witnesses be compared with themselves, with each other, and with surrounding facts and circumstances; and let their testimony be sifted, as if it were given in a court of justice, on the side of the adverse party, the witness being subjected to a rigorous cross-examination. The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth. In the course of such an examination, the undesigned coincidences will multiply upon us at every step in our progress; the probability of the veracity of the witnesses and of the reality of the occurrences which they relate will increase, until it acquires, for all practical purposes, the value and force of demonstration.What is really radical--in the sense of being countercultural and shocking to many--is an evidentialism like Greenleaf's that insists that the Gospels not be treated with kid gloves. No contrast could be greater than that between Greenleaf's challenge to men to be "consistent with themselves" when they read and judge the Gospels and to judge them as they would judge the "evidences of other things" and Hunsinger's attempt prophylactically to ward off judgement from the NT by telling us that it "calls us and our detached role as would-be authoritative, evidence-weighing spectators radically into question," that it "transcends every ordinary rational mode of perception," that the claims of Christianity are "never going to be plausible to rational or evidential considerations." Whence comes the great difference between these writers? It comes from the fact that Greenleaf, unlike Hunsinger, has confidence in the historicity of the Gospels and therefore in their ability to bear such scrutiny. It comes, in short, from the fact that Hunsinger represents a theological establishment that has lost its nerve.
Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists
No less than a rigid fundamentalist who would be terribly shaken if he discovered the world to be more than 6,000 years old, Hunsinger wants the Bible to be protected from the possible buffeting of unyielding facts by being shut up in a locked box marked "Faith." The rigid fundamentalist locks up the Bible (and his interpretation of it) to protect it from possible refutation by not allowing its interpretation to be influenced in any respect by facts discovered independently. The fuzzy-headed modernist theologian locks the Bible up to keep it safe from refutation by insisting that it isn't really historical at all. Each of these asks for a double standard in his own favor, because he is not really confident that these sacred texts can meet the challenge of being treated like ordinary documents.
The reality (surprising to some) in New Testament studies is that the Christian can only benefit from a "no double standard" approach, for it is the secularists who prefer to remain ignorant of the normal standards of historiography and to treat the Gospels as unreliable if, for example, they do not coincide with one another in every detail (though of course if they did so coincide, the secularists would be the first to point out the evidence of entire collusion and copying).
As a bonus, here is Thomas Chalmers on the historicity of the Gospels. His point is that the evangelists were not afraid to submit their account to historical judgement, precisely because their story was historically true.
Had the evangelists been false historians, they would not have committed themselves upon so many particulars. They would not have furnished the vigilant inquirers of that period with such an effectual instrument for bringing them into discredit with the people; nor foolishly supplied, in every page of their narrative, so many materials for a cross-examination, which would infallibly have disgraced them.
Now, we of this age can institute the same cross-examination. We can compare the evangelical writers with contemporary authors, and verify a number of circumstances in the history, and government, and peculiar economy of the Jewish people. We therefore have it in our power to institute a cross-examination upon the writers of the New Testament; and the freedom and frequency of their allusions to these circumstances supply us with ample materials for it. The fact, that they are borne out in their minute and incidental allusions by the testimony of other historians, gives a strong weight of what has been called circumstantial evidence in their favour. As a specimen of the argument, let us confine our observations to the history of our Saviour’s trial, and execution, and burial. They brought him to Pontius Pilate. We know both from Tacitus and Josephus, that he was at that time governor of Judea. A sentence from him was necesary before they could proceed to the execution of Jesus; and we know that the power of life and death was usually vested in the Roman governor. Our Saviour was treated with derision; and this we know to have been a customary practice at that time, previous to the execution of criminals, and during the time of it. Pilate scourged Jesus before he gave him up to be crucified. We know from ancient authors, that this was a very usual practice among the Romans. The account of an execution generally run in this form: He was stripped, whipped, and beheaded or executed. According to the evangelists, his accusation was written on the top of the cross; and we learn from Suetonius and others, that the crime of the person to be executed was affixed to the instrument of his punishment. According to the evangelist, this accusation was written in three different languages; and we know from Josephus, that it was quite common in Jerusalem to have all public advertisements written in this manner. According to the evangelists, Jesus had to bear his cross; and we know from other resources of information, that this was the constant practice of these times. According to the evangelists, the body of Jesus was given up to be buried at the request of friends. We know that, unless the criminal was infamous, this was the law, or the custom with all Roman governors.
These, and a few more particulars of the same kind, occur within the compass of a single page of the evangelical history.Thomas Chalmers, The Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation, 6th ed. (Andover: Flagg & Gould, 1818), pp. 55-57.
I find that I see so little rip-roaring evidentialism being written these days that quotations like these have something of the invigorating quality of cold water splashed in the face. These men were not afraid of objective evidential judgement. Nor should we be. I encourage all of you who teach or who work in any pastoral capacity: Teach those under your care and influence that the Gospels don't need affirmative action. The Christ of history vs. Christ of faith shtick has run its course, and we will be much, much better off if we leave it behind, permanently.
(Another post that might be of interest is here. Don't forget the post already linked on "Evidential Ammo For the Christian Soldier," here.)
An annotated bibliography with more material, written by Esteemed Husband, is here.
HT to Esteemed Husband, Tim McGrew, for the quotations from Lewis, Greenleaf, and Chalmers and for the links to them.