I’m fascinated by the intersection of historical claims and the Christian faith, but not enough to do the hard work of figuring out how history works. There does, however, seem to be a tension between history and theology, even while the Christian theology has an essential and irreducible historical core (and this in all the senses of “history”, not just “”concrete facts in the past” but “the inquiry into and exposition of past facts”)
Assume we have, say, rock solid evidence that Pilate was a no-nonsense judge, with no scruples about killing anyone for the sake of order (I’ve heard historians modify or contest this, but assume that it is firmly established). Turning to the Gospel accounts, we see a much more sympathetic Pilate, with a clear pragmatic side, but with genuine human feeling for Christ. Furthermore, obvious motives suggest themselves for why the early Church would want to make Pilate more sympathetic. So there is a tension in the accounts. So it seems we have evidence that, to bluntly avoid euphemism, the Gospel writers made stuff up. It’s of course not logically impossible that the Gospel accounts are true – perhaps Christ was an unusually sympathetic character to deal with, perhaps Pilate felt uncharacteristically soft and merciful on that chance day in April, etc. But history can’t move forward by allowing everything that is logically possible to be taken as a real possibility. This would utterly cripple the historian, and it is a bizarre criterion in itself. And so history seems to require taking the probable as the reasonable, and, in the case of Pilate, this seems to make it reasonable to assume the Christians made things up.
Now, of course, this is utterly repugnant to orthodox Christianity, so what then? The Christian can point to the fact that it is possible that the accounts are true, but is it necessary that he be able to transmute possibility into a historically reasonable claim? So do we have some sort of “two truths” doctrine here? In fact, if historical truth is what the theologian calls a probable opinion, and the theologian can admit that some historical facts need not be the ones that are most probable given the historical evidence we have, is there even a tension between the two truths? Why can’t something that is in fact false be what is most probable given the historical evidence that we have?