Australian Christian historian, author and speaker Dr John Dickson's latest book explores the evidence for the historical Jesus. A senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and distinguished fellow and lecturer at Ridley College in Melbourne, Dr Dickson speaks about why he wrote his latest book, Is Jesus History?, why Christians should move beyond "emotional, tribalistic, polarising rhetoric", and why he still hasn't yet eaten a page of his Bible...

Congratulations on the book. I gather this one is about addressing the question of an historical Jesus but also how history works as a scholarly discipline?
“Yes. I’m trying to defend the very notion of history and then turning to Jesus as the ultimate test case. I want readers to know how scholars might assess the life of the Emperor Tiberius or Alexander the Great and then, once they understand that, how the same basic principles apply to the texts and various sources about the life of Jesus.”

This obviously follows on from other works that you’ve written and film you’ve made with regard to the life of Jesus. But is there a particular reason why you’ve decided to take this approach now?
“Probably two things. One is [that] the field has moved on in the last 10, 15 years. [Since I wrote] The Christ Files some years ago, 15 years ago now…a lot has gone on. There’s some silly arguments made since then that need to be dealt with and there are some developments in methodology, particularly around philosophy and history, that I wanted to include. And [secondly] it also strikes me that we live in a time where an increasing number of people think Jesus didn’t even live. So a survey recently found that something like 14 per cent of Australians thought Jesus wasn’t a real figure of history. That’s outrageous – you wouldn’t find 0.01 per cent of professors of ancient history who thought Jesus wasn’t a real figure. So there’s some mismatch going on and I want to address that.”

John Dickson 1

John Dickson, author of Is Jesus History? PICTURE: Supplied

Why do you reckon that is the case – that there’s such a high percentage these days? And I would assume it’s something that wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago? Is it to do with this growing scepticism, the fact we live in an age of “fake news” and everything is questionable? What is it that’s behind this rise?
“I do think it’s partly the ‘fake news’ culture. But I suspect it’s because the church is really on the nose. And so the church has made claims, obviously, about Jesus and so the distaste towards the church, I think, tempts people to believe too easily radical, sceptical claims about Jesus. One of the interesting things of the last 10 years in psychology - and the psychology of belief and persuasion generally - is that we tend to let our rational minds follow our emotional preferences. So it’s not surprising that as people turn emotionally against the church and Christianity and religion that their rational mind will follow claims and believe claims that Jesus never lived. And that is one of the things [that runs] like a thread through my whole book: to urge readers to be open to their own biases and the way that our rational mind follows our preferences.”

"One of the interesting things of the last 10 years in psychology and the psychology of belief and persuasion generally, is that we tend to let our rational minds follow our emotional preferences. So it’s not surprising that as people turn emotionally against the church and Christianity and religion that their rational mind will follow claims and believe claims that Jesus never lived. And that is one of the things [that runs] like a thread through my whole book: to urge readers to be open to their own biases and the way that our rational mind follows our preferences.”

In fact, I’ve got a quote here from the book in which you write “Study after study shows that we tend to make up our minds intuitively, and only then prop up our positions with rational argumentation”. What does that mean for discussions? Does that mean it’s increasingly hard to have discussions because we’ve adopted these positions that we’re prepared to go to the mat for no matter what, no matter what the evidence actually shows?
“It certainly means that. It certainly means people are going to follow their emotions more and then back it up with what Jonathan Haidt calls 'the press secretary of our rationalism'. One of the interesting things that I mention in the book is that high intelligence people are particularly prone to this because high intelligence people aren’t any better at arriving at the truth of an idea but they are better at convincing themselves, than others, that their idea is true…
     "But in terms of the public conversation – and certainly I say this as a Christian and I would urge fellow Christians to think about this, the more we feed that emotional, tribalistic contest with the world, the more people are going to listen to us and reject us; that is, listen to what we say and find ways to deny it. But if we are just not part of that emotional, tribalistic, polarising rhetoric but actually say, ‘Hey, let’s have a calm conversation about this’ and constantly work to lower the temperature, I think that actually puts us all in a better frame of mind to deal with evidence. And, in the end, history is about evidence so we do need our rational mind to be active and not coloured by the emotional fire that surrounds debate about religion at the moment.”

So does that mean being prepared to listen more than perhaps we as Christians have been – that, you know ‘This is our view, we obviously believe we are right and we can’t brook any discussions about alternatives’. So does it mean perhaps listening and engaging a bit more than we’ve done in the past?
“Well, I would have thought that ought to be the policy anyway – as the Bible says, ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak’…and I think that’s especially the case when you’re trying to engage a world full of doubts and, sometimes, anger towards the church – and often for good reason. To listen to where [people] are coming from before we open our big mouths, I think is kind and wise, because only then, once you hear people’s feelings about their subjects, can we be in a position to concede the problem, but then calmly present the evidence.
     "It’s all about calming things down so that it isn’t just our emotional selves that we need in this debate, we need our rational selves as well because Christianity is uniquely, I say, a rational approach to the spiritual life. I’m not denying it has emotional, psychological, sociological elements but it is uniquely rational in the sense that it talks about a life that is meant to have happened in time and space, a life in flesh and blood history that you can come and kick the tyres of before you believe it.”

You look at a whole lot of difference evidences for the historical Jesus – archaeological, textural – but one of the key sources, of course, are the books of the New Testament. It’s often argued by those against the idea of an historical Jesus that the New Testament is simply propaganda and you can’t take that into account. But you say that’s not how scholars actually view the New Testament. Can you explain that?
“One of the things I’m trying to do through the whole book is show people how professional historians approach all such things and it may be a surprise to some folks that they approach the New Testament as a valuable first century human source. Now they don’t privilege it the way a Christian would read the New Testament in the morning as a devotion - obviously they’re not doing that. But they all know that it was written in the first century and therefore it’s precious because we don’t have that many first century texts. It’s a human text and so it’s part of embedded culture and what that means is that we can study, not just the text but the culture, the cultural background of the text.
     "So historians see this as valuable and moreover the text was written closely in time to the events themselves, certainly compared to other sources about other events. And, what’s more, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscript copies of these texts which means we can be more confident about what was in the original text of the New Testament than we can for pretty much any other text of Greek or Roman antiquity.
     "And so that’s all to say, yes, the problem of bias or propaganda is real but if an historian decided to reject the text because they had an agenda, they wouldn’t be reading Tacitus for Rome because he was a lover of Rome, they wouldn’t be reading Josephus for anything about Jewish history because he was a Jew. We would lose almost all of our source material. The fact is, every text is coming from somewhere and an historian tries to detect what that somewhere is and then read the source in the light of that perspective. That’s true whether we’re reading one of the accounts of Alexander the Great or whether we’re reading one of the Gospels.”

Is Jesus History

You use the term ‘faith in testimony’ in the book – I gather that’s what you’re talking about there?
“Yes, most historical judgement is based on testimony, that is - people said stuff in the ancient world and we trust that they said stuff. But this is a wide topic of discussion in the philosophy of history. There’s a lot of work on the importance of trusting testimony to get along in life. So most of what you and I know about, say the history of Bach – I don’t know if you happen to be an expert in Johann Sebastian Bach – but basically what you and I know about him, we got from someone else and we trust that testimony. Most of what happened in my day today, I could relate to you…and you would instinctively think, 'Oh, well, that’s the testimony of John and I have reasonable reason to think that he’s telling the truth, so I trust that testimony'.
     "Now...the general instinct of the historian is to trust testimony if it has the character of good faith testimony and if the person giving the testimony is in a position to know the data that they’re telling [us about]. And, in the case of the Gospels and in the case of Paul’s letters, that is certainly the case. They were in a position to know, and everyone agrees, despite their Christian commitment, they were giving their testimony in good faith. So even highly sceptical historians think that Paul thought he saw Jesus alive from the dead.”

You talk about the historical Jesus as a person but one of the claims you make in the book is that there is actually historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and that’s again based on the testimony that we read.
“Yes. If the testimony is early and widespread and given sincerely, we’ve every reason to think that the testimony is plausible if not probable. But I would say, I don’t think we can demonstrate that a resurrection took place but we can say that the testimony is good enough for us to conclude there was an empty tomb and that people thought they saw Jesus alive. They are the two things that many scholars, actually scholars with no religious commitments at all, will agree on. They agree that in all likelihood there was an empty tomb shortly after the event of His death and that tonnes of people thought they saw Him. How one explains those two pieces of historical information is, of course, more philosophical and theological – I, for one, think it is the resurrection which best explains it but at that point I am no longer engaging in genuine history, I’m interpreting the history in a more personal and philosophical way.”

Who do you hope is going to read this book?
“Well, I love the thought of Christians reading it and being bolstered in their faith and maybe developing a kind of calm, rational way to engage with their friends who don’t believe. But ultimately I wrote this book for friends who don’t believe. So [for] your sceptical, atheist uncle at Christmas-time who bags out Christianity; for that elite, [final year of highschool] student who thinks she’s above Christianity – we’ve all got someone like that in our lives and I’ve written it for that person with one goal in mind, that is - to encourage that person to see that this is serious business. These Gospels, this life of Jesus, it’s a seriously historical question, so why not pick up a Gospel and read it with your adult mind on?”

You mentioned you hope Christians would read it - it can be the case that some Christians just shut out this conversation the minute it comes up, they won’t be engaged because they’re scared. This book, I guess, is also a way of informing them so they don’t have to be scared of the conversation, they can get a grip on some of the issues and hopefully engage in that discussion.
“I certainly hope so and, for me, that’s not just an intellectual exercise, that’s a kind thing for Christians to do, to be prepared to answer the questions that people might throw at them. Because there’s a lot of historical doubt out there and I do think Christians are obliged to know a thing or two, maybe not everything, but to know a thing or two about the latest historical discussion concerning the person they see as the centre of the world.”

And it’s still the case that you haven’t had to eat a page of the Bible as yet [In 2014, Dickson said he would eat a page of the Bible if just one professor of ancient history, classics or New Testament at a "real university" anywhere in the world could be found who argues Jesus never lived]?
“No, I’m hoping the book will make that challenge even wider than it was when I put that challenge on [Australia’s] ABC . No, my Bible is in a perfect state…”

The book comes out in October. Any idea what you’re looking at next?
“Yeah, I’m working on two books right now – one is called A Doubter’s Guide To The Christian Faith and it is an account of the Apostle’s Creed for atheists. The Apostle’s Creed is the 83 words all Christians agree on and so I thought I’d write something on the mere Christianity that all Christians agree on. And the other one that I’m working on is called Losing Well: Other Strategies for Winning the World and that’s for Christians, trying to help us to think through what it means to lose well in this secularising culture. Because I think losing well is often a win in disguise.”

Is Jesus History?, published by The Good Book Company in partnership with The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and The Zacharias Institute, is available from 1st October.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.