One thing that I loved about N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God is how carefully he goes about the discussion, especially when it comes to the language he uses. Before he dives into 600 pages of history, he spends a whole chapter defining some of the words words that we use frequently. This excerpt on “history” was enourmously helpful to me. (I’ve condensed several pages into one paragraph, so this is just a quick summary):
“History” can be used to describe several different things or ideas:
First, history as an event (any old event).
Second, there is history as a particularly significant event.
Third, there is history as provable event.
Fourth, and quite different from the previous three, there is history as writing-about-events-in-the-past.
Fifth, and finally, a combination of 3 and 4: history as what modern historians can say about a topic.
Confusion between these senses has of course bedeviled this very debate about the so-called ‘historical Jesus’, the phrase being used by some to mean Jesus as he actually was (sense 1), by others to mean what was significant about Jesus (sense 2), by others to mean that which we can prove (with a lot of documentation) about Jesus, as opposed to that which we must either doubt or take on faith alone (sense 3); by others again to mean what people have written about Jesus (sense 4). Those who have take the phrase in sense 5 have often rejected the Jesus not only of that sense but, apparently, of the previous four as well.
The pseudo-gnostic historian on NPR last week was mostly interested in history in the 5th sense.