To the charge that the truth of the gospels seems in some way diminished because of historical ‘problems’ with the gospels, I would first say that one doesn’t go to the gospels for history anymore than one goes to the gospels for science, because the gospels antedate both history and science. Which is not to say that the gospels don’t deal with the historical world or the natural world – but is to say that they do not do so in the ways that we modern readers might expect.
There must be more work to ascertain how ancient people generally thought about history in general and scripture in particular. What kind of truth were first-century Jews looking for, say, when Jesus read Isaiah in the synagogue? It certainly wasn’t journalism, nor a double-blind study. While we can’t go to the gospels for history, I do think we might be able to go to history for gospel. Because it might be that for these people the historical world was the world of faith. Our dualisms may not apply.
This is perhaps the largest problem with historical criticism, in that it carries too many of our own polar assumptions, and not enough of ancient peoples’, into the study of historical texts. Literary criticism, something of a corrective to this, puts together what form critics rend asunder because many have found it easy, even in the history of historical criticism, to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
When one spends too much time debating where exactly Jesus was born, it’s easy to lose sight of what the sheer weight of Christ’s advent has meant to the world for believers and non-believers, and for the story of Jesus Christ itself. One recalls here the old analogy of the scientist dissecting a dead butterfly and the poet describing a living one in flight. They both tell us key things about the species, though we must admit that the scientist-poet is a rare bird indeed.
Yet this is, of course, what Christians are compelled to be. It is the vey spirit of Christ which inspires us to seek his flesh. Thomas might have needed to put his hands in Christ’s side in order to believe the resurrection, but it was Christ’s own person that made him seek belief to start with. We are historical creatures with particular questions, and that inquiry is anything but dispassionate. It is profoundly faithful, and must be fair.
Christianity’s own core is that flesh is spiritual and that temporal, historical events have eternal significance. Our God is only ever revealed in the historical, the limited, the concrete...the human. How then could we dismiss the particulars of Christ’s life or fail to ponder their everlasting import? It’s not that history or scripture can never be wrong about details of Christ’s life, but rather, our journey of life in Christ is the walk into Jesus of Nazareth – and back out into faith again, enriched and reborn.