Testing Religion's Historical Claims

I used to teach a course with the late Stephen Jay Gould, former Agassiz professor of zoology and professor of geology, the late Robert Nozick, former University professor of philosophy, and, more recently, Thomas Professor of Divinity Harvey G. Cox. In Religion 1045, “Thinking About Thinking,” we explored the roles of science, religion, philosophy and law. Gould took the view that science and religion constituted separate and entirely different “magesteria”—science being empirical and value-free, while religion is faith-based and normative.

But recent events have raised profound questions about this dichotomy. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ only highlights a dangerous trend among many religious Americans: to read the Bible as accurate history. Recent polls show that 60 percent believe biblical accounts as historical facts. More Americans believe the Virgin Birth occurred than that evolution is scientifically valid. The Pope is reported to have said about The Passion that “it is as it was,” despite previous Vatican criticism of literalists who read the Bible as history. Here is what the Pontifical Biblical Commission wrote to Pope John Paul II in 1993: “Fundamentalism also places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth. It often historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense, failing to take the necessary account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning.”

Yet instead of discussing whether Gibson’s account is consistent with the New Testament account, much of the discussion has focused on whether the film is historically accurate. The cover of Newsweek asks, “Who really killed Jesus?” This is not merely an abstract or epistemological query. It can be a matter of life and death. Throughout history Jews have been killed because they are accused of being Christ-killers. One can only hope that this film will not add to that toll. It will probably not in the United States, but who can prophesy what will happen in South America, Eastern Europe and the Mideast? Young children, who are unaware of the bloody consequences of passion plays since the Middle Ages, will have their views of Jews formed by this violent, R-rated film. And efforts are now underway in some parts of the world to change the rating so that even younger children can see the film. In Denver, Colo., a large sign in front of the Lovingway Pentecostal Church recently asserted that “Jews killed the Lord Jesus.”

What, then, is the role of the university is this dangerous situation? The university is a place where claims to truthfulness are rigorously tested and where the results and the evidence are published. Science and history have roles to play in testing the empirical claims of religion—in evaluating the evidence for whether Jesus existed, whether he was tried and executed, whether the New Testament contains his teachings, whether he ever set foot in Jerusalem or entered the Temple, what role Jewish groups and Roman leaders may have played in his trial and death. Historians should assess these claims objectively, without any predispositions of religion. As Thomas Jefferson instructed his college-age nephew, “read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus.”

For some, the conclusions that historians may reach will be irrelevant to their faith. Even if the Biblical account of the trial and execution of Jesus is “symbolic or figurative” rather than historically accurate, the teachings attributed to this great religious figure will continue to inspire many. But for others who claim historical accuracy, their faith may be shaken. For centuries, claims of scientific truth lay at the center of some religions—the geocentric theory, the flatness of the earth and so on. When these were proved false, religion adapted and declared itself to be a matter of faith, not science. It will be more difficult to disprove—or to prove—historical claims, whether they be about Jesus, Moses or Mohammed. But as objective scholars we must do our best.

Believers too, especially in the university setting, must also do a better job of deciding how much of their religion is premised on historical assumptions and how much on pure faith. Religion based on blame and accusations that purport to be truthful have real-world consequences. No one should be expected to bear those consequences without seeking to have the accusations tested by the tools of the academy. Yet many resist such testing, regarding it as disrespectful of religious beliefs. TV commentators Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have labeled criticism of the historical accuracy of the Gibson film as Christian-bashing. But the quest for truth is to be commended, not condemned. Religious fundamentalists cannot have it both ways. If the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion is claimed to be true, then it must be subjected to historical tools of truth determination. If the story is based on faith, then people who do not share that faith should not be accused of acts that may not have occurred in fact. So let us all work together to make religion a matter of faith and love—and not a series of historical accusations not subject to any historical defense.

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Frankfurter professor of law. This piece was adapted from remarks he delivered at Memorial Church on March 15.