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Is Believing Historical Facts About Jesus Christ Irrational?

Irrational beliefs should definitely be avoided, but how do we determine if a belief is irrational?

Usually, people will say that a belief should be considered irrational if it lacks evidence, contradicts established facts, or relies heavily on emotions without logical reasoning. I’ve also seen people say that if a belief persists despite clear evidence to the contrary, it may be deemed irrational. However, these criteria limit rationality to epistemic considerations. And the problem with that is that we are often severely limited epistemically speaking. A couple examples that come to mind are: knowledge of how reality is actually constituted, the future and matters of fact outside our experience. The last being more obviously relevant to historical investigations which it the topic of this post.

Acknowledging uncertainty and remaining open to new information is a rational approach. Therefore, it’s unavoidable that we should include pragmatic justifications when determining if a belief is rational. Pragmatism can help guide beliefs in areas where empirical evidence is elusive, emphasizing practical utility while recognizing the inherent limits of our knowledge.

I mention all that in order to say that it is not irrational for someone to believe that some of the historical information available about the life of Jesus is reliable. One does not need to take the gospels as inerrant or the word of God in order to be justified in believing certain facts about Jesus.

For example, I think it would be incorrect to say that one would be irrational for believing the following facts regarding Jesus:

  1. Jesus’ ministry intersected with the ministry of John the Baptist in the sense that Jesus approved of the general idea behind John’s baptism. But what was the general idea behind John’s baptism?

    1. It was about repentance

    2. It led into forgiveness

    3. It made one ritually clean

    4. John pointed to the era to come, as well as to the deliverer, by calling for this baptism.

    5. Those who partook in this baptism were saying they were ready to be identified with God’s people.

  2. Jesus choose twelve disciples. And that he likely did this to replicate the picture of the twelve tribes of Israel and thus symbolically depict her restoration and unification.

  3. Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. In a culture where the righteous were thought to become unclean simply by touching these people, one would not be irrational to believe that Jesus thought his clean presence triumphs over any potential uncleanness tax collectors and sinners bear.

  4. Jesus and the Sabbath One would not be irrational if she formed the belief that Jesus seemed to think that he had unique authority over the sabbath. A sacred day dedicated to the God of Israel.

  5. Jesus performed what was believed to be exorcisms Again, Jesus and those around him seemed to think that he had a unique authority over demonic forces. And it wouldn’t be irrational to believe that this relates directly to the Kingdom of God.

  6. Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi By declaring that Jesus was the messiah, it would not be irrational for one to believe that Peter, a 1st Jew, was claim that he believed that Jesus was the agent of final deliverance, the “anointed” one who brings the eschaton.

  7. Jesus had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem Here, Jesus seems to accept the claims of those around him to be tied to a kingdom Rome has no authority for bringing.

  8. Jesus’ temple act One would not be irrational if she formed the belief that Jesus seemed to think that he had unique authority over the Temple. The very house of God.

  9. The last supper Here, Jesus seems to be establishing a tradition that is to take place during the Passover. One of the most significant and widely celebrated holidays that commemorated the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. A unique work of liberation by God Himself.

  10. The examination by the Jewish leadership

  11. The examination by Pilate and Crucifixion

  12. The discovery of an empty tomb

To be clear, I do not think that we need to “establish” the above claims. They only need to be able to withstand historical scrutiny. If they do, then one is not irrational for believing them. And if we do, I think we’re confronted with a person that bears interesting theological significance. But why should we prefer the believe these claims over alternative explanations? I think this is where pragmatic considerations come in. The Christian Worldview includes everlasting consequences. And our epistemic limitations require us to take these seriously.

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