Book Review: Is Jesus History? by John Dickson
John Dickson started out as a professional singer-songwriter but now works as a writer, speaker, historian and media presenter. He is the author of more than 15 books, and the presenter of three TV documentaries on the history of Christianity. He was also the Founding Director of Australia’s Centre for Public Christianity from 2007-2017.
This book is one of the first in a new series exploring the larger questions of worldviews and Christianity. The other two titles in the series as of this writing (2020) are Can Science Explain Everything? and Am I Just My Brain? If the remaining books in the series are this good, the readers are in for a treat. Perhaps the first positive element to be noted is the amount of ground that is covered in this book of only 150 pages. Given all the current literature and research about the Historical Jesus and all of the ancient documents that scholars pour over, John Dickson has clearly and succinctly articulated every major area in an accessible way. This in and of itself is a great accomplishment, but since the book is primarily concerned with Jesus, arguably the most influential human being to ever live, it is doubly impressive.
Throughout this small volume, John Dickson debunks many commonly held opinions about Jesus and Christianity in modern society. It seems that over the course of decades and centuries many false ideas have become widely accepted by the majority of modern society. By debunking these claims and providing the clear conclusions that the research actually supports, John gives a much more compelling view of what trained historians are agreed upon. The result may be a significant surprise to many readers. Right away, the author points out that Christianity, unlike other religions, bases its claims on supposed historical events. In this way, Christianity immediately gives a falsifiable claim for any skeptic. Anyone who can show conclusively that the historical events claimed by Christians never happened, will destroy all of Christianity with one blow. But as this book clearly evidences, despite countless attempts over the last two thousand years, the evidence still firmly supports the historic claims of Christianity.
The first chapter considers the task of studying history. Given that we possess about 1% of the total output of a given civilization, there are certain rules or standards that must be followed when studying history so that erroneous claims or conclusions are not given. Yet, if a future civilization were able to have 1% of the total output of our current society (newspapers, emails, magazines, blog posts, tv shows, news broadcasts and books), then they would certainly be able to put together a good idea of the major aspects of our society. As the book makes clear, historical investigation is “the science and art of discerning how much of those tangible events of the past can be known today” (p. 20). It turns out that scholars are far more confident and agreed on what can be known about Jesus than most people would believe.
In chapters 2 and 3, John speaks of the criteria for eye-witness testimony and the trustworthiness of ancient documents. Additionally, Dr. Dickson has a standing offer that if anyone can find just one full professor of Ancient History, Classics, or New Testament in any real university anywhere in the world who argues that Jesus never lived, he will eat a page out his own Bible on video for all to see (p. 34). Far from being a publicity stunt, this offer is made to impress upon people how much agreement there is on the historical person of Jesus by any trained historian working in that field. This has been a long-standing offer and the inability of anyone to find only one professor who meets the criteria is telling in the extreme. Apparently, the historical nature of the life and times of Jesus is firmly agreed upon and supported by the evidence – far more than popular culture would tend to make you think. Now the author is careful to point out that just because historians agree to the historical existence of Jesus and just because the evidence all supports those historical aspects, this does not necessarily mean that Jesus is God. However, it gives us a solid basis to consider the evidence, words and actions of Jesus since we can have a significant amount of trust in the historical documents that tell us about him.
The book goes on to consider Jesus as compared to what we know about other ancient figures. The comparisons clearly show how much more we know about Jesus and any other ancient figure living in the same general period of time. Additionally, the documentation and ancient testimony we have to support historic claims concerning Jesus are so numerous and well-attested that it makes it difficult to compare with anything else in ancient history. The role of archeology is also discussed as well as the role of prejudice in how we interpret data. This section is particularly helpful as it explains how some can seem to look at exactly the same data but come to completely different conclusions on the person of Jesus.
It makes sense that if Christians are primarily making a historical set of claims about their faith that there should be a high level of confidence and many significant pieces of evidence to support their claims. It turns out this is exactly the case. Additionally, this is not a hotly contested issue from the standpoint of trained historians. If Christianity’s claims concerning forgiveness of sins and eternal life are to be considered, they must have a solid foundation in the historic person of Jesus. It turns out when we consider that historical person, we find that Jesus is history. In fact, he is so overwhelmingly history that it becomes difficult for a thinking person not to be swept away from the sheer volume of evidence. Readers will likely be surprised to find out just how much the historical records tell us about Jesus and the high degree of confidence historians place in these pieces of evidence. It will cause the reader to want to go and read the four gospel accounts, perhaps for the first time, realizing that the Jesus contained within is truly history.
John Dickson, Is Jesus History? Oxford: The Good Book Company, 2019. 157pp.