Real Jesus

by Alvin Kimel

I

I confess! I must be a fool, dolt, and nincompoop. But I believe that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the tomb into a transformed physical mode of immortal life. And not only do I believe it, but I also believe there are good arguments that can be advanced to support this belief.

Contrary to popular Episcopal preaching and teaching, the resurrection of Jesus is not a mythological assertion. It is a historical/trans-historical claim. It is either true or false. If it is false, then the Church should close up its doors and stop conning people. The last thing the world needs is one more false religion.

In my opinion, the claim of resurrection is the best explanation for what in fact happened on Easter morning and the days following. Here are some of the arguments that I find persuasive:

1) The tomb was empty. Contrary to the skeptical biblical critics, there is no serious reason to question the Gospel assertion of the empty tomb. The empty tomb does not guarantee the resurrection. It simply raises a question: What happened to the body? Nor does Paul’s silence on the empty tomb prove anything whatsoever. Even in the 21st century, the argumentum ex silentio remains a logical fallacy.

One thing for sure: If the Jewish authorities had produced the corpse of Jesus, the apostolic Church would have been stopped in its tracks. But no corpse was produced, and we have no evidence that the the Church’s Jewish opponents ever polemically contested the empty tomb. Everyone agreed it was empty. The question was why.

2) Specific individuals claimed to have met the risen Lord in his transformed physicality. It was clear to them that he was neither a resuscitated corpse nor a ghost. St. Paul provides a list of some of Jesus’ appearances in 1 Cor 15. This list probably dates to the mid-30’s. Did they fabricate the story? Why put one’s life on the line for a fabrication? Did they experience group hallucinations? Come on … It’s one thing for one person to claim that he’s been abducted by aliens. It’s quite another thing for groups to make up, and sustain, such claims.

3) Jesus appeared to two people in particular who were not his followers–James, his brother, and Saul, the Pharisee. These appearances transformed the lives of these men and they become his ardent followers. Both were martyred for their faith.

4) The Apostles interpreted the above events as the fulfillment of God’s messianic and eschatological promises to Israel, yet fulfilled in a totally unexpected way. There was no expectation among Jews that the Messiah would be killed–on the contrary, the death of a messianic claimant decisively disproved his kingly claims–nor was there an expectation that the resurrection would only happen to a single individual. Yet despite expectations the Apostles discovered that God had indeed raised from death their beloved Lord!

The Apostles were thus faced with the challenge of rethinking and revising all of Israel’s hopes and dreams. If God has raised Jesus, then the end-times are upon us. This is no time for business as usual. Toss out everything we think to be true. The Crucified is the Messiah of Israel. The kingdom is here.

The resurrection of Jesus turned the world upside down, and from that dizzying perspective it suddenly made sense.

5) To first-century Jews, resurrection referred to bodily existence. Period. It did not refer to the immortality of the soul. It did not refer to a continuing spiritual presence, or whatever. As N. T. Wright puts it, within the Jewish worldview resurrection meant “life beyond ‘life after death.'” If the early Christians had wanted simply to speak about Jesus’ ongoing spiritual presence or his survival of death, there was vocabulary and conceptuality available to them. For a Jew to declare that Jesus had been raised from death could only mean that the son of Mary who was crucified under Pontius Pilate now enjoyed a corporeal form of glorified life.

One recent book is mandatory reading–N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is a massive, erudite, and convincing tome.

Richard Swinburne’s The Resurrection of God Incarnate is also interesting reading. The renowned philosopher argues on the basis of Bayesian probability that the odds that the resurrection actually happened is 97%! Golly, I would have been happy with just 50%. :-)

Jesus is risen! Not a myth. It’s true! If it’s not true, then, as C. S. Lewis told Sheldon Vanauken, we will have paid the universe a compliment it doesn’t deserve.

I commend to you the fine articles on our Lord’s resurrection by Fr Leander Harding and Dr William Witt.

Also see philosopher Peter Kreeft’s apologetic discussion of the resurrection.

If you have a few minutes, listen to this interview with Bishop Thomas Wright.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

11 April 2004

II

N. T. Wright suggests that the most succinct expression of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord.” Robert W. Jenson suggests that the most succinct expression of the gospel is “Jesus is risen.” Which one is right?

Now I’m sure one need never choose. How can one talk about Jesus’ lordship without talking about his resurrection, and how can one talk about Jesus’ resurrection without talking about his lordship over creation? But if I have to decide between the two, I think I’ll go with Jenson on this. Surely it was the message of the resurrection that was first published in Jerusalem after that Easter Sunday. It was this message that launched the Christian Church as a vigorous missionary sect within Judaism. To claim that God has raised Jesus is to claim that the long awaited kingdom has arrived, though in a way that no one was expecting. It is to claim that Jesus’ gracious and loving will for his people will triumph over all evil, all opposition, all obstacles. It is to claim that all of our hopes and dreams have been addressed and fulfilled in Christ, that he is our destiny and final hope. Good news!

I want to comment on one feature of this gospel message–it is a message of the Apostles. It is a message of those who claimed to have met the risen Lord. We cannot go around their back to confirm their message. There are no alternative sources to which we may turn. They either saw Jesus on Easter or they did not; and we either believe them or we do not. Thus we confess every Sunday that the Church is founded on the apostolic witness. All churchly preaching of the gospel is a reiteration of the apostolic proclamation, in one form or another. If it is not, then it is not gospel that is being proclaimed.

What is often overlooked regarding the apostolic foundation of the Church is that not only is the Church’s faith in the resurrection grounded in the proclamation of the Apostles, but so is everything we proclaim about Jesus and his teachings. When the Apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, they then also had to provide answers to questions like “Who is this Jesus who has risen from the dead?” and “What did he teach?” and “What does it all mean in light of his resurrection?” The Apostles are the mediators of our knowledge of Jesus and our faith in Jesus. They provide us not just “facts” but “interpreted facts.” (Of course, it is no doubt true that there are no pure “facts,” that facts are always interpreted by the human knower.) Jesus comes to us processed through the minds and hearts of the Apostles whose lives were converted and transformed by their encounters with the risen Christ. What they tell us about Jesus cannot be divorced from their faith in the resurrection.

Here I have found Thomas Torrance’s book Space, Time and Resurrection to be particularly helpful. Torrance writes:

It is to be remembered that Jesus himself was not a Christian, for a Christian is one saved by Christ. Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of understanding of God which took shape in the apostolic mind and which became embodied in the New Testament reports. This is why, evidently, so little attempt is made by St. Paul to ground his teaching about God, mediated through Christ and in the Spirit, upon the ipsissima verba or private religion of Jesus, although he does claim to be operating within, and continuing, the authentic tradition.

Christianity is not the “private religion” of Jesus! This point is absolutely crucial, and if we could grasp this, the heretical ruminations of Jack Spong and Jesus Seminar scholars would cease to trouble our sleep. Christians have little interest in the historical reconstructions of the latest best-selling author. We are not terribly curious about the gospel according to Elaine Pagels. We are not driven to search for the “real Jesus,” because we have met the only real Jesus that counts–namely, the living Jesus to whom the Apostles testify.

Skeptical scholars assume that the authentic Jesus can only be known when our information about Jesus has been critically sifted and separated from the faith of the apostolic Church. But Torrance boldly asserts that the “historical Jesus” is incomprehensible apart from this faith. “It is the resurrection,” Torrance writes, “that really discovers and gives access to the historical Jesus, for it enables one to understand him in terms of his own intrinsic logos, and appreciate him in the light of his own true nature as he really was–and is and ever will be.”

There is no other Jesus but the one who rose from the dead on Easter morning. There is no other Jesus but the one whom Peter, James, and John confessed as their Lord.

12 April 2004

III

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, John Dominic Crossan publishes a new book, Excavating Jesus, co-authored with archaeologist Jonathan Reed. Actually, it’s not so new–it was published in 2001. But I just heard about it last week when I stumbled upon E. P. Sander’s review of it in the 10 April 2003 issue of the New York Times Book Review. I even spent $4 to download the article. Well, cheaper than buying the book, and I’d rather read Sanders about Crossan than read Crossan himself.

So what does Sanders thank about Crossan’s (and Reed’s) new contribution to the literature? First of all, he likes all the pictures. That’s nice. I like pictures, too. He also thinks that the brief archaeological descriptions are accurate and helpful. But Sanders disagrees emphatically with Crossan’s reductionist portrait of Jesus. Jesus is reduced to an eonomic reformer whose message is centered on free healing and free food. Sanders finds the evidence for such a portrait unpersuasive and weak.

In the midst of this confused presentation–some parts of the book accurately describing archaeology and history, other parts misrepresenting both–we have a description of Jesus as a mild economic reformer, futilely trying to overthrow the Roman Empire by advocating free healing and food. One may sympathize with the effort to find support for economic reform in the ministry of Jesus. It is frustrating to see inequality and injustice in the world today and not to be able to call on Jesus to support the many changes that are so badly needed. The basic problem for such a thesis is that evidence is lacking. It is easy to show (though the present book does not do so) that Jesus’ ministry was aimed at people like himself and at those who came from still worse circumstances: the poor, the meek, and the lowly. Jesus thought that God cared about these people. He contrasted the world of Palestine with the Kingdom of God, which would change the present order.

The principal difference between the Jesus of Crossan and Reed and the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the role of God. In the first three gospels, the main character in Jesus’ message is God, on whose behalf he speaks. God’s kingdom, he tells his followers, is near at hand, God will bring it soon, and it will be God–not his own little group–who will make the last first and the first last. The Jesus of the gospels looks forward to a great reversal that will be accomplished by the only power equal to the task. The kingdom will not be brought about by the slow improvement of social reform, but by a great climactic event that will change the world forever. Even the poorest will receive daily bread, and God’s will will be done on earth, just as it is in heaven. That is what Jesus prayed for and what he hoped for. The power of the Jesus of the gospels is his vision of the kingdom that God would bring to the world.

One other observation: Crossan has apparently abandoned his “Jesus as cynic philosopher” schtick. Now if he would just repent of his other sins …

I’m not a biblical scholar. I never could memorize the Greek alphabet and Hebrew is all Hebrew to me. But I’ve been interested in the Jesus debate over the years and have tried to keep up on it. I am personally skeptical of all skeptical reconstructions of Jesus. The more different “Jesus” looks from the one we find in the canonical gospels, the more skeptical I am of this new Jesus. Hence I trust scholars like N. T. Wright, E. P. Sanders, John Meier, Raymond Brown, and Ben Witherington a lot more than I trust scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and all the Jesus Seminar types. When a scholar (Crossan) can seriously claim that Jesus’ body was buried in a common burial ground and was eaten by dogs–on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever–then one knows one is simply dealing with fantasy. All controls upon the use of the evidence have been abandoned. Now we are all free to fabricate a Jesus who conforms to our own predilections

Why is it that rational, intelligent people are able to construct so many different and contradictory renderings of this Jesus of Nazareth? Since everyone is basically dealing with the same evidence (though there is disagreement on the significance of the Gospel of Thomas), we have to conclude that the problem is methodology. What methodology should control Christian reflection? How should Christian historians approach the historical evidence? In this series of postings, I’d like to share with you some of my rambling thoughts on this matter.

The Christian historian necessarily approaches the task of rendering a portrait of the historical Jesus differently than the secular historian. First because the Christian approaches the historical data from the perspective of a theistic worldview and therefore is open to historical possibilities to which the nontheist cannot be open. And second because Jesus is not, for the Christian, just a person of the past, but is a living person who is known and worshipped within the community of faith. The Christian knows that he has been addressed in the gospel by the living Lord who has conquered death. He experiences the Lord’s presence in manifold and varied ways in worship, prayer, and service. It is this risen Christ Jesus, now enthroned in the power and glory of God, who leads, guides, and inspires the Church. It is this Jesus who ultimately identifies himself to the Church through his written Word.

The Christian thus begins his historical work “knowing” that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, risen from the dead. This is a truth that has, by its its intrinsic intelligibility, truth, authority and heuristic power, imposed itself upon the heart and consciousness of the community of Christians down the ages. It is this truth that imposed itself upon the mind of the Apostles and the first generation of Christians. The dual belief in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ is rightly described as an “ultimate belief.” It cannot be proven on the basis of historical reasoning alone. It must be accepted and believed on its own ground. It is the foundational miracle of the gospel and interprets all other beliefs of the catholic faith. Thomas F. Torrance explains further:

It is essentially in this way that the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ came to be accepted by the early Church and classical Christian theology: they forced themselves upon the minds of Christians from their own empirical and theoretical ground in sharp antithesis to what they had believed about God and in genuine conflict with the framework of secular thought or the world view of their age. That God himself had become man was an offence to the Jew and folly to the Greek; that Jesus Christ rose from the dead was deemed to be utterly incredible. Yet the incarnation and resurrection forced themselves upon the mind of the Church against the grain of people’s convictions, as ultimate events bearing their own intrinsic but shattering claims in the self-evidencing reality and transcendent rationality of God himself, and they took root within the Church only through a seismic restructuring of religious and intellectual belief. In the life of Jesus Christ an objective self-disclosure of God in Word and Act had taken place within the structure of the world which was discerned to be of a final and decisive nature, commanding commitment in the response of faith, in which Jesus Christ himself constituted the central point of focus in an exclusive relation with God the Father. (Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 17-18)

Ultimate beliefs are rightly subjected to rigorous self-criticism to ensure that the events to which they witness do indeed bear compelling power and conviction. It is proper for the Christian to ask whether the resurrection happened and to seek and evaluate evidences. It is proper for the Christian to examine the historical testimonies to Jesus to see if the apostolic and creedal claim of incarnation is convincing. Yet ultimately the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus must be accepted in their own self-evidential power; they must be accepted on the grounds that they themselves posit in the preaching and worship of the Church. (See my previous post Why do I need the Apostles?)

By the historical nature of the claims of the gospel, Christian belief is vulnerable to historical disconfirmation. If scholarship should demonstrate that Jesus never lived or if archeologists could produce his his bones, the gospel would be decisively disproven. If secular biblical criticism should prove that Jesus was dramatically and irreconcilably different than the Jesus rendered in the canonical gospels, then faith would become impossible. But Christian belief is not grounded on the fragile reconstructions of historians–and never has been. The gospel is the proclamation that Jesus has been raised from death for our salvation. To believe this message is to know that Jesus is risen, for only he can speak to us the promises of the gospel. Christians place their faith in the living Christ, who gives himself to his disciples in Word and Sacrament. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has grasped this point clearly:

Christians direct their faith not to the historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity between Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the reality of Christ’s power in the present…. Authentic Christian faith is a response to the living God, whom Christians declare is powerfully at work among them through the resurrected Jesus. (The Real Jesus, pp. 142-143.)

Johnson is not suggesting that historical research is irrelvant. He is not promoting a gnostic Christ disconnected to the Jesus of history. But he is reminding us that Christians need not look to the ever-changing opinions of historians for permission to believe the claims of the gospel.

18 April 2004

IV

How do we learn who Jesus “really” was? The question assumes that there was in fact a historical person whom we identify as Jesus of Nazareth. This claim has been contested in the past, but I do not think there are any serious scholars today who would question the historical existence of Jesus.

One way for us to learn about Jesus’ historical identity is to engage in normal historical inquiry. We investigate Jesus just as we would investigate any other person of the past. The historian gathers all the available evidence and then critically weighs each piece for credibility, reliability, probability, and so forth. He then seeks to compose a narrative portrait of his subject that makes sense of the available data. Questions of the personal faith of the historian are ostensibly irrelevant, as the criteria for veracity, verifiability, and historicity are criteria that all historians (whether Christian, Jewish, agnostic, Buddhist, or whatever) would provisionally agree upon, at least theoretically. This means that naturalism is the underlying presupposition of the project. A theistic worldview is excluded from the get-go.

This naturalistic quest for the historical Jesus has been pursued for the past two centuries–mainly by Protestants, nonChristians, and anti-Christians, but more recently also by Catholics (Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, John Meier, and John Dominic Crossan are perhaps the best well known). No other religious figure in the history of mankind has been subjected to such intense scrutiny, analysis, and critique.

It’s important to observe that this rendering of Jesus is minimalistic and reductionistic. We are not given the real Jesus but the “historically verifiable Jesus,” where verifiability is determined by a naturalistic worldview. Precisely because the secular historical project requires agreement on an anti-supernatural methodology, large amounts of evidence and data must be excluded from the historian’s reconstruction of Jesus. The agnostic and atheist historians will want to exclude alleged miracles, for example (surely the real Jesus did not restore sight to the blind, walk on water, or rise from the dead). They will also be more likely to attribute theologically significant material to the creative work of the apostolic Church than directly to Jesus himself (surely the real Jesus did not say “I am the way, the truth, and the life”).

From a Christian perspective, therefore, this naturalistic methodology must result not only in a minimalistic and reductionist portrait of Jesus but also in profoundly flawed and distorted portrait. By automatically excluding from consideration both the possibility of supernatural miracles and the apostolic testimony to incarnation, atonement, and resurrection, the secular historian must inevitably present a Jesus that Christians will hardly recognize as being the Jesus that generated the faith of the Church. If our presuppositions automatically preclude us from saying, for example, that Jesus could not have understood himself as the divine Son of the God, we may well be excluding from our reconstruction the single most important fact about the historical Jesus and the interpretive key to understanding his person, words, and actions.

In a famous lecture given several years ago, noted philosopher Alvin Plantinga rejected the possibility of “neutral scholarship” and urged Christian scholars to allow their belief in God to enter into their scholarly research. Also see his On Christian Scholarship and Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God.

Christian scholars, therefore, will need to correct and go beyond the results of the secular methodology and pursue their historical investigation in a more critical-realistic fashion (see below). Clearly, if one believes that a transcendent deity does in fact exist, then one will be open to the possibility of divine miracles. Clearly, if one believes that a transcendent deity does in fact exist, then one will be open to the possibility of incarnation, atonement, and resurrection. Rational methodology cannot exclude a priori that which we confess to be true about Jesus of Nazareth.

Building on the epistemological work of Michael Polanyi, theologians Thomas F. Torrance and Lesslie Newbigin and biblical scholar N. T. Wright have urged Christian historians to put aside the philosophical positivism that has undergirded biblical criticism over the past century. This positivism has resulted in a devastating divorce between fact and meaning. Torrance, Newbiggin, and Wright urge instead the adoption of a critical-realist epistemology.

Critical-realists recognize that the human knower is personally involved in the act of knowing at every level. There are no “pure” facts, for the knower is always interpreting that which he perceives and attends to. We come to know that which we desire to know, not by pretending to a detached objectivity and independence, but by personally indwelling the intended object.

Polanyi invites us to think about our use of tools. Consider a dentist who is investigating a possible cavity in a tooth. He uses a certain kind of probe to check the tooth, perhaps inserting it into the cavity itself. The dentist is only tacitly aware that he is using the probe, but he is focally aware of the tooth that he is exploring. The probe rather is an extension of his hand. He “feels” through the probe the contour, texture, and solidity of the tooth. He indwells the probe. While he is using the probe, the dentist must trust the probe. He cannot at the same time rely on it and doubt it. However, he may decide that another probe of some kind may be more adequate to that which he is studying. The dentist needs to be ready to critique and reshape the tools he is using in order to better grasp the object he is seeking to know. Also, note that the dentist’s effort to explore the tooth requires personal commitment on his part. He must decide to search for the cavity and must determine which tools he will use. His knowing is both subjective–he is personally involved in the act of knowing–and objective–he is seeking to apprehend a reality external to himself.

In a similar way, the historian who reads texts seeks to know the historical realities that the writers of the texts intended. He must indwell the words, concepts, and language employed by the writer, seeking to move through them, past their surface, phenomenal level of meaning, to the realities to which they refer.

For the Christian historian, who believes that the object of his study is the risen Son of God who lives in the midst of his people–this activity of cognitive indwelling necessarily involves the life of worship, prayer, and discipleship, in addition to all the typical scholarly activities. This, I think, is one of the strengths of N. T. Wright’s scholarship. Wright has been able to combine in his own person the work of critical research and personal relationship with the risen Christ Jesus to whom the Apostles bore witness.

Secular historiography seeks a Jesus who has been divorced from his incarnation and resurrection, who has been divorced from the Apostles who experienced his message and presence as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, who has been separated from the catholic community that confesses him as homoousios with the Father. Is it any surprise, therefore, that the son of Mary eludes so many.

18 April 2004

V

The Christian historian thus comes to the texts of the canonical gospels with greater confidence than the non-Christian historian. He is already acquainted with this Jesus who is identified and rendered in the gospels of the New Testament. He has met him in baptism and Eucharist, in preaching, witness, prayer, communal forgiveness, and godly service to his neighbor. Jesus is mystery; but he is not a stranger.

The canonical gospels answer the question “Who is this Jesus who has been raised from the dead?” The Church believes that it is the risen Christ himself, through the inspiring and canonizing work of the Holy Spirit, who has given the four gospels to the Church and that by them he faithfully identifies himself to every generation of believers. This identification is a narrated identification: The gospel stories reliably render the character and person of Jesus. They provide a personal knowledge of Jesus that cannot be provided in a non-narrated form. In each gospel theoretical and empirical elements are woven together to depict the resurrected Lord whom Christians worship and serve. Each gospel provides a unique portrait of Jesus; together they provide a sufficient and adequate portrayal of Jesus.

There are no “raw facts.” All historical reporting is an interpreted reporting, and this is especially true for the canonical gospels. For the evangelists, and for those communities that told and retold the sayings and stories of Jesus, Jesus was not a dead person to be remembered; he was–and is–the living Son of God who reigns in glory and who shares himself with his people in Word and Sacrament. The gospels are theological texts. They interpret Jesus of Nazareth through the lens of faith.

Imagine if you will a modern reporter who is transported back into the past, armed with a thorough knowledge of first-century Jewish and Greek culture and languages. He follows Jesus around for three years, jotting down the things that he says and does. But on the day of crucifixion, he still does not really understand who this man was and what his life was all about. Jesus’ identity still eludes him. He reads over his notes and despairs of writing anything meaningful about Jesus. He knows he lacks the interpretive key and structure by which to understand him. All the old categories seem inadequate.

And so our reporter accompanies Cleopas to Emmaus on Easter day. Jesus appears to our reporter on the road and quietly interprets the Scriptures to him. Finally, he reveals his identity in the breaking of the bread. And finally, our reporter understands. The resurrection of Jesus provides that key by which he can comprehend Jesus’ identity. It generates new ways, new conceptualities, and new images by which to think about Jesus. From this point on he must interpret Jesus in light of the resurrection and all that it means. To do otherwise would be to utterly misrepresent him. Torrance elaborates:

Thus an astonishing thing about the resurrection is that instead of cutting Jesus off from his historical and earthly existence before the cross it takes it all up and confirms its concrete factuality by allowing it to be integrated on its own controlling ground, and therefore enables it to be understood in its own objective meaning. Far from being ‘violated’ the historical Jesus comes to his own within the dimension of the risen Jesus, and the risen Jesus is discerned to have no other fabric than that in the life and mission of the historical Jesus. It is the resurrection that really discovers and gives access to the historical Jesus, for it enables one to understand him in terms of his own intrinsic logos, and appreciate him in the light of his own true nature as he really was–and is and ever will be. (Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 165-166)

The canonical gospels, in other words, provide to every generation of Christians the spectacles, the interpretive structures, by which we can accurately see and know Jesus of Nazareth. Thus we should not be surprised that when secular historiography attempts to reconstruct the history of the Nazarene independently of the faith of the apostolic Church, it inevitably fails. The historical-critical method rips the person of Jesus out of the divinely ordained frame of meaning that allows us to understand correctly his words and actions.

Christopher Seitz maintains that the secular attempt to find the “real” Jesus is doomed to failure, because it is pouring all of its energies into a hopeless quest to find a Jesus hidden “behind the words about him.” But no such Jesus ever existed and thus cannot be found. The true challenge is posed by the subject matter itself:

The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting Jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God. But this is not an inadequacy that can be remedied through historical-critical heavy lifting, because it inheres with the subject matter itself, which is God in Christ–who exposes our inadequacy in trying to speak of him, and yet simultaneously remedies this through the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, allowing the frail testimony of human minds to be the lens on the glory of God, a touching of the ark of the covenant. (Word Without End, p. 58)

This confession of faithful narrative identification does not resolve the question of historical reference. Apparently the precrucifixion Jesus did not say and do everything exactly as reported in the gospels. It is therefore proper, it seems to me, to ask questions like “What really happened?” and “What did Jesus say and do?” But unlike his Jesus Seminar counterparts, the believing historian does not seek a hidden Jesus underneath the texts. Perhaps we might think of his work not so much as excavation but as penetration. I know, for example, that when I read Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, I believed that I was meeting the same Christ as the Christ of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (yes, even John). I welcomed Wright’s location of Jesus within his Jewish environment. Though I was well acquainted with the work of E. P. Sanders, I found Wright’s envisioning of Jesus fresh and bracing. I did not experience a fundamental dissonance between Wright’s reconstruction and the authoritative presentations of the the evangelists.

Who is, therefore, the “real” Jesus? Is he the reconstructed Jesus of the historians? Is he the Jesus remembered by the Church and narratively rendered in the gospels? Is he the risen Lord and Savior who is experienced by Christians in prayer, worship, liturgy, Bible study, and service?

The Christian believes, hopes, and expects that when the Kingdom comes, all three Jesus’s will prove to be one Jesus, the king of glory and eternal Son of God.

19 April 2004

VI

As Christians we properly approach the apostolic witness to Jesus as a whole, in all of its variegated texture and depth. While it may be useful to identify levels of tradition, to the extent that such identification can be intelligently and reasonably done, that’s fine. Such knowledge merely adds to the riches of our tradition and provokes even more interesting preaching (maybe). But it would be artificial and wrong for the Christian to identify one level of the biblical witness, say “Q,” as being the one, true, authoritative tradition. That would be a form of Q-fundamentalism. We are properly concerned with the whole witness of the Apostles to Jesus, in all of its stratified depth and complexity, for it is through this witness that we are given to know the real Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Son of God.

It is this living Jesus of the Apostles, not the reconstructed Jesus of some academic historian, who has spoken to us in the gospel and incorporated us into the salvific life of the Church. How can a believing historian of integrity “pretend” that he does not know, in the knowing of faith, that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is now enthroned in glory as Lord and King? In the terminology of Plantinga, this belief is properly judged as basic for the Christian. It would be irrational and schizophrenic for the believer to acquiesce to the preconceptions of modernity, preconceptions which exclude a priori the Christian worldview. We need to remember that the historical critics, trained as they are in a methodology alien to the mission of the gospel, are the “wehrmacht of the liberal church” (Walter Wink). Jesus’ counsel to be “wise as serpents” would seem to be operative here.

Because of our commitment to the fidelity of the biblical witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, Christians will quite rightly accord greater credence to historical reconstructions that are consistent with the canonical witness than those that are not. Robert Jenson explains:

In the church, we will credit reconstructions of “the historical Jesus” that are compatible with the canonical narrative before we credit alternative hypotheses that are not. Theology will thus, for example, give a more willing ear to such pictures of the historical Jesus as those drawn by the midcentury “new quest,” in which he appears as a radical prophet and rabbi, than it will to more recent depictions of a New Age guru. There is no reason to be embarrassed by this prejudgment; it is far more reasonable than any possible alternative, since … the very existence of the Gospels as a corpus depends on the community constituted by the faith that so judges.

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that we might be driven, past “reasonable doubt,” to conclude that research falsifies the canonical narrative. To conclude that would be to conclude that no one person presents himself in the total tradition about Jesus, that Jesus is not now an agent in history. This is a real possibility; whatever may be true of other religions, Christian faith must be in this fashion historically vulnerable. (Systematic Theology, I:174)

Ultimately, the Christian believes that the identity of the “Christ of faith” and the “Jesus of history” will be eschatologically confirmed.

20 April 2004

VII

The Questioning Christian wonders if yesterday’s Gospel (Luke 15:1-10), which speaks of Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners and God’s relentless search to reconcile sinners to himself, does not require continuing eucharistic communion between traditional and revisionist Episcopalians. Now the Questioning Christian is a very civil and gracious person, as his many comments on Titusonenine demonstrate; but the Pontificator needs to confront, once again, this argument from Scripture that is invariably invoked to support eucharistic unity in the face of ECUSA’s recent actions that have broken the bonds of charity both in the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion.

The argument boils down to this: Schism is worse than heresy. This view does have a long history in the Latin Church; but it presupposes the conviction that the Bishop of Rome is the divinely ordained office of ecclesial unity and that we can trust God to correct theological error in the churches that remain in communion with Peter. But if one does not believe that the bishop of Rome is the divinely ordained office of unity–as most Anglicans do not and as I’m sure the revisionists do not–then the “schism is worse than heresy” argument doesn’t work. Outside of its indigenous Roman context, the argument is simply a political ploy to maintain institutional unity at all costs, without regard for orthodox doctrine and practice, without regard for the integrity of the Church’s message and mission, and without regard for how the formal adoption of heresy violates the consciences of traditionalists. It’s equivalent to telling a woman that she must remain with her abusive husband because God hates divorce.

Needless to say, the Eastern Churches have been far less tolerant of heresy than the Latin Church; but both share the conviction that heresy justifies and requires the severance of communion (see my two articles on Wannabe Catholics and my response to Radner). As far as I know, ecumenical Christianity has never interpreted the example of Jesus’s table fellowship with sinners to justify eucharistic communion with heretics. Certainly the New Testament writers, the divinely ordained mediators of the revelation of Christ Jesus, did not. If the revisionists are right, the Church has misconstrued God’s will for his Church for two thousand years.

The problem here is the divorce of Gospel exegesis from the apostolic tradition. The revisionists are operating out of a critical hermeneutical stance that has been dominant in Protestantism for a hundred years. In order to discern the “true” teaching of the “real” Jesus, we must strip away the New Testament interpretations in which it is embedded. But as I pointed out back in April, Christianity is not the private religion of Jesus. Our faith is not based on the historical reconstructions of critical scholarship but on the testimony of the Apostles. Tom Torrance well diagnosed the problem:

It is to be remembered that Jesus himself was not a Christian, for a Christian is one saved by Christ. Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus� own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of understanding of God which took shape in the apostolic mind and which became embodied in the New Testament reports. This is why, evidently, so little attempt is made by St. Paul to ground his teaching about God, mediated through Christ and in the Spirit, upon the ipsissima verba or private religion of Jesus, although he does claim to be operating within, and continuing, the authentic tradition.

Christians are not interested, cannot be interested, in a “Jesus” who is known apart from the apostolic interpretation. Indeed, all attempts to discover the “real” Jesus apart from the New Testament witness invariably leads to an unhistorical Jesus who simply reflects the ideological and psychological needs of the historian. We cannot sneak behind the back of the Apostles in order to find the real Jesus because the real Jesus is the One who was raised from the dead on Easter morning and who is faithfully disclosed to us in the word and teachings of the Apostles, his appointed witnesses. (See my earlier postings on the real Jesus.)

The use of our Lord’s table fellowship to justify the “schism is worse than heresy” argument divorces Jesus from the Apostles and the Holy Tradtion of the Church. For one thing, it confuses our Lord’s pre-crucifixion table fellowship with the Supper of the Church. The two are not identical. Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ has always presupposed and required unity in the Truth. Ultimately, the assertion that only now are we correctly understanding the significance of Jesus’ words and actions displays the height of intellectual arrogance. (I am not, let me be clear, suggesting that the irenic Questioning Christian is guilty of such arrogance.) It will only prove persuasive to those who believe that they know the mind of Christ better than did Peter, James, John, and Paul.

13 September 2004

VIII

I really need to thank the Questioning Christian. He keeps posting, always in the most civil manner, material that I find irresistible. In his latest piece, What If the Resurrection Didn’t Happen?, he wonders if the traditional understanding of the resurrection is necessary to Christian belief. He writes: “Some have suggested that if the orthodox version of the resurrection isn�t literally true, then Christianity is necessarily a fraud. I think that�s an example of what John Wilkins (the Salty Vicar) aptly describes as a false dichotomy.”

Now I don’t know if the Salty Vicar agrees that it’s a false dichotomy, but I certainly know that it’s not. If there is anything that I am clear on in this world it’s this: If God has not raised Jesus from the dead, then the Christian faith is bogus–and we are still bound to our sins (1 Cor 15:17). John Brown’s body may be “a-mouldering in the grave,” but if Jesus’ body is, then Christianity is a fraud. Period. And I for one have no interest in living out a hoax or falsehood for the rest of my life.

Now over at Titusonenine, QC (“D.C.”) has offered a provocative theory of how the Easter faith may have arisen in the Church. Maybe Nicodemus hid Jesus’s body in a tomb and didn’t tell anyone where he was. Personally, I suspect he’s just playing with us. He is a lawyer, after all. ;-) But QC does raise an important question: Is it reasonable to believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead? How much evidence is necessary?

I’ll answer the second question first: I doubt that the question is really answerable, at least according to secular criteria. How does one judge the probability of an event that is unique, singular, unrepeatable, trans-historical, and miraculous? Clearly, if I am an atheist I will be willing to believe any story, no matter how far-fetched, before I will believe a story about a God whom I do not believe exists raising one Jesus of Nazareth from death into glorified existence. An agnostic will perhaps be a little more open to this possibility. A theist will be even more open. But there is no avoiding the fact that a whole host of background factors are involved in the reasonable evaluation of the evidence. Our preconceptions and philosophical commitments are determinative in a way that does not obtain in judging the veracity of any other historical claim.

World-renowned philosopher Richard Swinburne has written a sophisticated book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (2003), in which he discusses the various considerations that are involved in making a judgment on the truth or falsity of the resurrection claim. He argues that the resurrection claim is in fact highly probable, if a good and righteous God exists and if Jesus really was as he is portrayed to be in the gospels. On the basis of Bayesian probability theory, Swinburne concludes that the resurrection of Christ enjoys a 97% probability. I’ll take those odds any day of the week! I admit, though, that I am not fully satisfied with Swinburne’s approach.

Most of us do not engage in a rigorous philosophical and historical analysis before believing in the resurrection claim, nor do we believe that it is necessary or desirable that we do so. We are confronted with the claim of the Church: Jesus is risen. This claim comes to us clothed in a community, whose origin dates to the original disciples of Jesus, that believes that this Jesus is alive and present in its midst. This Jesus is said to be present when the gospel is proclaimed. This Jesus is said to be the minister of the community’s sacraments. This Jesus is said to actually give himself to the faithful in the consecrated bread and wine of the community meal. The members of this community pray to this Jesus and dedicate their lives to this Jesus. And throughout the history of this community, some members have been willing to actually suffer martyrdom for the sake of this Jesus. If we decide to live as Christians and to base our lives on the faith of the Church, we probably will do so based more on the integrity and vitality of the Church’s life than on scrupulous critical assessment of the historical evidence. And as Diogenes Allen has argued, it is perfectly reasonable and rational that we do so.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: Do we believe the testimony of the Apostles? There simply is no way to go behind their backs to find out what “really” happened on that Easter morning. Beyond the empty tomb, there was no other physical evidence. No video tapes. No tape recordings. No neutral, non-Christian witnesses to interview. Thus when the Apostles declared to the world the resurrection of Jesus, their first hearers found themselves having to believe or disbelieve their witness simply on the basis of that witness. Every subsequent generation finds itself in this same position.

The Christian claim of Jesus’ resurrection clearly cannot be adequately assessed on the basis of secular historical methods, just as the Christian claim of the Incarnation of the Divine Son cannot be adequately assessed by secular historical methods. Ultimately, both claims can only be judged on the basis of their intrinsic and self-evidential truth. Thomas F. Torrance explains:

The framework of objective meaning which concerns the theologian here is bound up with the incarnation of the Son of God to be one with us in our physical human existence within the world of space and time in such a way that through his vicarious life and passion he might redeem human being and creatively reground it in the very life of God himself, and therefore it is also bound up with the resurrection of Jesus Christ in body, or the physical reality of his human existence among us, for it is in the resurrection that God’s incarnate and redeeming purpose for us is brought to its triumphant fulfilment. Thus the incarnation and resurrection, bracketing within them the whole life and activity of Jesus Christ, constitute together the basic framework within which the New Testament writings, for all their rich diversity are set, and which gives them their deep underlying unity in which Jesus Christ the incarnate and risen Lord is himself the dynamic centre and the objective focuse of their creative integration.

Now it may be objected, quite understandably, that by claiming to interpret the resurrection within a framework of thought, of which the resurrection, along with the incarnation, is itself a constitutive determinant, I am operating with an essentially circular procedure. I agree, but reject the implication that this is a vicious circularity artificially intruded into the ground of knowledge. What we are concerned with here is the proper circularity inherent in any coherent system operating with ultimate axioms or beliefs which cannot be derived or justified from any other ground than that which they themselves constitute.

It is essentially in this way that the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ came to be accepted by the early Church and classical Christian theology: they forced themselves upon the minds of Christians from their own empirical and theoretical ground in sharp antithesis to what they had believed about God and in genuine conflict with the framework of secular thought or the world view of their age. That God himself had become man was an offence to the Jew and folly to the Greek; that Jesus Christ rose from the dead was deemed to be utterly incredible. Yet the incarnation and the resurrection forced themselves upon the mind of the Church against the grain of people’s convictions, as ultimate events bearing their own intrinsic and shattering claims in the self-evidencing reality and transcendent rationality of God himself, and they took root within the Church only through a seismic restructuring of religious and intellectual belief.

It is still in that way that the incarnation and the resurrection force themsleves upon our minds, within the vastly changed cultural and scientific outlook of our own times. In the life and work of Jesus Christ we are confronted with an ultimate self-revelation of God into the truth of which there is no way of penetrating from what we already know or believe we know, far less of establishing or verifying it on grounds that are outside of it. It confronts us an objective reality which must be accepted or rejected on its own ground, but it confronts us by a self-communication of God which lays claim to our commitment with the unreserved fidelity of our minds. (Space, Time & Resurrection [1976], pp. 13-14, 14-15, 17-18)

This is a long and difficult passage, I know, but it well worth re-reading and digesting. If we evaluate the evidences of the resurrection according to the standards of secular historiography, we will always judge the Christian claim of the resurrection as improbable, perhaps impossible. After all, the claim is not just that Jesus’ corpse disappeared from his tomb or that his soul survived death or even that he moved into a higher plane of existence, as in some science fiction story. The claim is that God raised Jesus from death into a transformed physical mode of immortal existence, simultaneously enthroning him as Lord and Christ and giving him absolute dominion, power, and authority over heaven and earth. This claim comes to us as divine revelation. It can only be believed or disbelieved. It cannot be proven on grounds other than those intrinsic to the revelation. But if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then it is an ultimate truth that now interprets all of reality. If it is true, it is a truth that summons us to faith, discipleship, self-denial, and perhaps martyrdom. We cannot assent to the apostolic revelation of Jesus’ resurrection without also taking up our crosses and following Jesus.

11 October 2004

IX

Questioning Christian wants to persuade us that the claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead is ancillary to the gospel. He offers this argument:

At least according to the synoptic Gospels, the essence of Christianity is three things:

* Love God above all;

* love your neighbor as yourself — and your neighbor is everyone who crosses your path, not just your fellow tribesman; and

* be willing to change your life to more closely match God�s will.

He then concludes: “Other doctrines such as the resurrection, the virgin birth, the atonement, etc., are at best ancillary to the Essential Three.”

QC is vulnerable to several criticisms.

First, QC restricts himself to the synoptic gospels. But why only the synoptics? Why not also utilize the entire New Testament? Surely the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul have a lot to teach us about the “essence” of Christianity. Paul, in fact, is our earliest written witness; but we must not make the mistake that the essence of the gospel is exclusively found in the earliest sources, as if (a) early material is not contained in later sources or (b) development within the apostolic tradition is a movement away from the gospel’s essence. There’s even a name for this fallacy, I think, but heck if I can remember what it is. For the moment, let’s just call it the “earlier is better” fallacy.

Second, QC misinterprets the synoptic gospels themselves. Where is Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom, now breaking into history in Jesus’ words and actions? Where is Jesus’ deadly conflict with the powers of the evil one? Where is the assertion of Jesus’ messianic identity and his fulfillment of prophecy? Where is the call to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus? Where is the Holy Spirit? Where is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood? And let’s not forget that the synoptics all conclude with the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection! How is it possible to read the synoptic gospels and somehow miss the eschatological, covenantal, and sacrificial dimensions of our Lord’s preaching, ministry, actions, and death?

Let me be blunt: The synoptics do not present Jesus as a mere moral teacher, of whatever variety. They do not present him as a rabbi of love. His message cannot be reduced to love God and love your neighbor. The only way to achieve such a reduction is to violently mutilate the gospel narratives.

Three, the authentic epistles of Paul, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, clearly demonstrate that from the beginning the apostolic faith was a resurrection faith. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is critical:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

It remains a consensual judgment among Pauline scholars that this text includes a piece of apostolic catechism that dates to the 30’s. We know that Paul was converted a couple of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul here says that the gospel that he preached to the Corinthians is the same gospel that he himself received, presumably shortly after his conversion. Perhaps this was the catechism passed on to him when he visited Peter and the Apostles in Jerusalem. And at the heart of this gospel is the resurrection of Jesus. It is safe to say that the entirety of Paul’s message, as articulated in his letters, is grounded on the resurrection of the Nazarene. Eliminate Pascha and not only does Paul’s belief system crumble, but his vocation to the Gentiles, culminating in his martyrdom, is proven to be a cruel joke. Can anyone doubt Paul’s answer to the question “Do you think the resurrection of Jesus is essential to the Christian faith?”

Not only can the resurrection not be divorced for the gospel; but in its most succinct form, the gospel simply is the resurrection: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

P.S. See my earlier posting Yes, Virginia, there is a risen Jesus for further apologetic discussion of the resurrection.

11 October 2004

X

What if Jesus wasn’t God? Would anyone still be interested in him? Would anyone want to be his disciple?

The Questioning Christian believes that the answer to these questions is “yes.” Yet the curious fact remains: The only reason we know anything at all about Jesus is because of the community of his disciples that confesses him as the eternal Son of God. It is only this community that has kept alive the stories and sayings of Jesus, and it has done so because of its conviction of Jesus’ divine identity. Delete the apostolic proclamation of the Incarnation, and Jesus quickly disappears into the mists of history as just one more failed messianic pretender. QC thus places himself in the odd position of confessing Jesus as worthy of his personal loyalty and obedience, while at the same time rejecting the Church’s confession and memory of this Jesus. Talk about sawing off the tree limb upon which one is sitting …

QC summarizes Jesus’ fundamental teaching thusly: “Jesus urged us to love God, love our neighbors as ourselves, and repent.” As a summary statement of the teachings of the historical Jesus, this is flat-out wrong. Mere reiteration will not make it any more true tomorrow either, I’m afraid. This tendentious presentation can only be achieved by the unwarranted mutilation of the gospel narratives. QC, my friend, your “Jesus” is a figment of your imagination and is not supported by solid historical scholarship. In fact, one might argue that rigorous application of the criterion of dissimilarity, much loved by Jesus historians, disallows us from stating that Jesus probably commended love of God, love of neighbor, and repentance, since any rabbi of the time would also have said the same.

Regardless, I’m sure that Jesus did urge his followers to love God, to love their neighbors, and to repent of their sins. But these three teachings were certainly not the heart of Jesus’ teachings and can only be properly understood within the context of Jesus’ eschatological proclamation and mission. The rigorous New Testament historian, John Meier, states the consensual understanding of Jesus:

What seems so central in Jesus� teaching as it lies there in the Gospels is that he is speaking of a future coming of the kingdom of God, a consummation of Israel�s history in the apparently near future, that would bring about a radical change in human life. This change would not be brought about so much by human effort but by a definitive action of God at the end of time, at least time as we know it. �Thy kingdom come� is a very central petition of the Lord�s Prayer itself.

Our Lord’s commendation of the love of God, love of neighbor, and repentance–a commendation that would have been shared by all of his Jewish contemporaries–takes on a very different meaning when it is placed within the context of his eschatological mission to Israel and his unconditional summons to discipleship.

Playing the historical reconstruction game is dangerous when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth. During the past a hundred and fifty years, we have witnessed a parade of such reconstructions. All one needs to do is to compare the historical presentations offered by John Dominic Crossan and E. P. Sanders. How is it possible that two such fine scholars can look at the same evidence and arrive at such grossly contradictory conclusions? If there is an assured result of biblical criticism, surely it is this: Jesus mysteriously eludes the reductionist methodologies of the critical historians. He cannot be captured by secular methods that have been constructed precisely to reduce Jesus to someone whom no one would have freely chosen to follow and die for. As Chesterton astutely observes: “There must surely have been something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of him.”

Personally, I am skeptical of the entire historical Jesus enterprise. I have stated my reasons for caution in various postings during the course of the past year. A reconstructed Jesus is not the Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee, mesmerized hundreds by his teachings and miracles, confronted the Pharisees, prophetically cleansed the Temple, and was then brutally killed outside the walls of Jerusalem! The critical historians can only present us with a historically verifiable Jesus, a minimalist Jesus, if you will; and even this minimalist Jesus varies from historian to historian. But consider how useless, and misleading, this minimalist Jesus really is. He is not the Jesus as remembered by the Church. He is not the Jesus that Christians have adored and followed for two thousand years. He is not the Jesus who actually lived and died. He is not the Jesus who rose from the dead. The historically verifiable Jesus is an imaginary person. He exists only in the minds of historians in fulfillment of the criteria of evidence determined by the historians themselves. And as Luke Timothy Johnson has noted, that which is historically verifiable about Jesus “is not at all necessarily what is most central or pivotal to Jesus’ ministry, any more than we can deduce from what is unique to a person what is essential to that person.”

Indeed, I would want to go further. In his multi-volume study on Jesus, The Marginal Jew, John Meier presents a consensual portrayal of Jesus as might be rendered by a group of Christian, Jewish, and agnostic scholars who have been trapped in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School. His work, in other words, is guided by a methodology that excludes from the very beginning those unique elements that Christians have always believed about Jesus–e.g., Jesus’ explicit and implicit claims to divinity, his healings, miracles and supernatural acts, his resurrection from the dead. But what if these unique elements really are true? In that case, it is precisely these elements that interpret and give meaning to everything else that we know about Jesus. Exclude them from our portrayal of Jesus and we misrepresent and distort him.

I have found Luke Timothy Johnson’s devastating critique of the search for the Real Jesus especially helpful here. Johnson is very much aware of the limits of the historical enterprise, particularly when it concerns a mysterious figure like Jesus of Nazareth. Inevitably, the historian’s philosophical, cultural, ideological, and religious commitments inform the historian’s interpretation of the evidence.

I am convinced that the problem of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith is an insoluble problem. Historical scholarship can disconfirm the Christian claims about Jesus, but it cannot establish these claims. We do not believe the catholic faith on the basis of historical scholarship, no matter how well conceived and executed. We believe on the basis of the testimony of the Church. I welcome the constructive work of John Meier and company, but I do not ground my faith in their speculative reconstructions. In faith I accept the four gospels as faithfully rendering the identity, character, life and death of the crucified and risen Christ. I do not expect historical accuracy in all the details. I am aware that the narratives may well include some legendary material. I am aware that narrative and historical reference are not always identical. But even if, for example, Jesus did not before his crucifixion actually say “Before Abraham was, I am,” he says this to us now. There are many critical problems for which I cannot at the moment see the solution. Perhaps these problems will always remain insoluble. Perhaps new evidence in the future will enable us to resolve them. But I remain skeptical of all attempts to excavate and separate the “real” Jesus from the narrated Jesus. If the gospels are not faithful renderings, then the real Jesus is forever buried in history, never to be recovered. Ultimately, the continuity between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history can only be eschatologically confirmed; it cannot be established by critical historiography. As Johnson writes: “Christians direct their faith not to the historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity between Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the reality of Christ�s power in the present.”

Jesus is not a dead person hidden in the past. He is the living Lord of the Church.

But let’s assume that we want to engage in the search for the historical Jesus. What scholars do we trust? Here are my suggestions. Perhaps our readers can suggest other titles.

(1) John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (multiple volumes)

(2) E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus

(3) E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism

(4) N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus

(5) N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God

(6) Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus

(7) Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest

(8) Gunther Bornkamn, Jesus

Back to our original question: What if Jesus wasn’t God? Then for the past two thousand years Christians have believed a falsehood, taught a falsehood, lived and died for a falsehood. If Jesus wasn’t God, then the Christian religion is precisely a false religion, and no amount of speculation on the evolution of deity and man can save it from this falsity. If Jesus wasn’t God, he does not deserve our loyalty, sacrifice, obedience, death. If Jesus wasn’t God, then there is only one proper response:

If you meet the Christ on the road, kill him.

26 October 2004

XI

The silly fuss about the Gospel of Judas has reminded me of a book that needs wider publicity: Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (2001) by Philip Jenkins. Jenkins is Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. I believe he is an Episcopalian.

Jenkins is a distinguished historian, but he is not a biblical scholar, which is what makes this book particularly helpful. He does not live in the myopic world of New Testament studies and so is able to see matters from a much wider, untendentious perspective.

Despite the claims of their advocates, the problems with taking the hidden gospels as historical sources are, or should be, self-evident. The idea that these documents have opened a window on the earliest days of Christianity stands or falls on whether they were written at a primitive stage in that story, and much depends on determining the dates at which these texts were written. The scholarly literature offers a very broad range of datings for these texts, but the consensus is that most of the works found at Nag Hammadi belong to the late second and third centuries. This is much later than the canonical gospels, on which the Gnostic works can often be clearly shown to depend. While the Gnostic texts are ancient, their value as independent sources of information is questionable, so that the canonical gospels really are both more ancient and authoritative than virtually all their rivals.

Far from being the alternative voices of Jesus’ first followers, most of the lost gospels should rather be seen as the writings of much later dissidents who broke away from an already established orthodox church. This is not a particularly controversial statement, despite the impression that we may get from much recent writing on the historical Jesus. The late character of the alternative texts is crucial to matters of historicity and reliability. Historical research is as good as the sources on which it relies, and to the extent that the latest quest for the historical Jesus is founded on the hidden gospels, that endeavor is fatally flawed….

For the same reasons of history and chronology, it is difficult to see the hidden gospels as crucial new sources about the development of the church, or the relationship betwen orthodoxy and heresy. These texts depict a world of individualistic mystics and magi whose unfettered speculations are unconstrained by ecclesiastical structures, and it is common to suggest that this freewheeling situation represented a primitive reality which was ultimately destroyed by the emerging hierarchical church. But the institutional church was by no means an oppressive latercomer, and was rather a very early manifestation of the Jesus movement. We have a good number of genuinely early documents of Christian antiquity from before 125, long before the hidden gospels were composed, and these give us a pretty consistent picture of a church which is already hierarchical and liturgical, which possesses an organized clergy, and which is very sensitive to matters of doctrinal orthodoxy. Just as the canonical gospels were in existence before their heterodox counterparts, so the orthodox church did precede the heretics, and by a comfortable margin. And for all its flaws, that church has by far the best claim to a direct inheritance from the apostolic age. Despite all the recent discoveries, the traditional model of Christian history has a great deal more to recommend it than the revisionist accounts.

Why is the American public so gullible, and why this hunger for an esoteric Jesus? Jenkins addresses these questions throughout his book, but one point in particular I found illuminating: late 19th-early 20th century occultists, theosophists, and esotericists helped fertilize and prepare the public imagination for the esoteric Jesus. Long before Elaine Pagels, Madame Blavatsky, in her magnum opus Isis Unveiled (1877), argued that Gnostics represented “the earliest and most authentic doctrines of Christianity, which were later perverted by the so-called orthodox.” In 1887 Arthur Lille published his book Buddhism in Christendom; or, Jesus the Essene. In the 1890s the Archko Volume, which “purported to offer the official records of the trial and death of Jesus, with letters attributed to Pilate, Caiaphas, and others” attracted interest. Particularly influential was Nicholas Notovich’s The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, from Buddhistic Records (1894). Notovich claimed to have discovered documents from Jesus’ teenage days in India. Further details about Jesus’ life and true teachings were offered to the fascinated, uncritical, and gullible public in Levi Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ (1908) and Rudolph Steiner’s The Fifth Gospel (1917). And we shouldn’t forget the channelled revelations of Edgar Cayce.

Should we be surprised that the media is now hyping the Gospel of Judas? The hunger of Americans for the esoteric Jesus appears to be insatiable.

(Update: See Philip Jenkins’s new article on the Gospel of Judas. Also see this latest piece from Ben Witherington.)

7 April 2006


 
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