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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Historical Jesus

The Quest for the historical Jesus: Why now?

The Rev. Dr. Graham Louden,  MA DipEd (Oxon)  BA  ACP

At the start of this essay, it seems appropriate to ask why, after two thousand years of church history, we need to embark upon such an exercise and endeavour to identify the essential message of the Christian faith as propounded by its founder.  The answer to the question lies precisely in those two thousand years during which generations of church empire-builders manipulated, embellished and reshaped the teachings of Jesus in order to serve the interests of church and state and to enable them to achieve status and dominion over their fellow men  'in his name'.  Consequently, those basic  timeless principles that drove the early followers to glory and martyrdom, have been overlaid with dogma and liturgy,  with hierarchy and  prostration, in ways that Jesus would surely not recognize as in any way related to his teachings.  The episode where Jesus confronts the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov and is informed that the church has outgrown him and must dispense with him,  takes on even greater resonance  today than it did in tsarist Russia.

The theologian, Adolph Harnack, has summed up this process very effectively, saying

      The living faith seems to be transformed into a creed to be believed; devotion to

     Christ into Christology;  the ardent hope for the coming of the Kingdom into a

     a doctrine of immortality and deification;   prophecy into technical exegesis and

     theological learning;  the ministries of the spirit into clergy;  the brothers  (and

     sisters) into lay people in a state of tutelage…..fervent prayers become solemn

    hymns and litanies;  the spirit becomes law and compulsion.

As a result of this studied change, the simple God of love and compassion taught by
Jesus has been transformed into a distant, extrinsic, theistic entity before whom we must prostrate ourselves as if to a tin-pot dictator and praise in the most hyperbolic language that we can muster.   Ralph Waldo Emerson reacted to this blatant sycophancy, saying,  'I cannot but think that Jesus Christ would be better served by being less adored.  The language, of course,  that constantly reiterates that the  worshippers are 'miserable offenders' tainted with original sin,  who 'stand  condemned  before the throne of Grace',  is clearly intended to  invest  God's representatives on earth,   with an aura of sanctity and  omniscience to enable them to maintain their spiritual and psychological hold upon  the  faithful who, incidentally, funded  the ever-more lavish life style of the clergy!

We now live in a more informed and rational age, illuminated by the works of great scientists and thinkers that have altered radically our approach to the world in which we live.  Paradoxically, however, millions of  people are yearning for  some spiritual message which will enable them to make sense of our world and the conflicting majesty and malignancy that we encounter in our lives.  The traditional churches, however, cannot offer a prescription that is acceptable to the majority of those seekers;  the requirements of  debatable doctrines such as the literal truth of scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary view of the atonement and the certainty of the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead,  form a serious stumbling block   to belonging for all except the minority for whom faith is enough.  Others wish to change the balance and to use reason and analysis as far as it can be taken, whilst still acknowledging the ultimate need for faith where the final commitment is concerned. 

The traditional churches, too, have set their face against history and the prevailing morality,  accepted by most,  which is tolerant of homosexuality, recognises the aspirations of women as equal both outside and within the church, accepts the Darwinian thesis, cannot accept that swathes of people are eternally damned because hey worship a different God or no God or the unsavoury notion of original sin.  These views, anathema though they be to many clergy, will not  'have their day and cease to be', rather it is the church which is likely to be no more than a social club for the elderly within just a few decades  unless we heed the words of Thomas Sheehan, professor of religious studies at Stanford who warns both of the danger of  seeking a 'new deal' for Christianity and the risks of not doing so.

        If we perform the radical surgery (on Christianity) that is required,  not only will
        certain  traditional formulations of faith fall by the wayside, but also  much of
        presumed content of Christianity,  and rightly so.   Our only consolation is that if
       we  do not intervene radically, the patient will die.

The value of the 'quest' is that it assists us to return as far as possible to the mindset and culture of Jesus' day and to try and understand what feelings and motivations drove those who were willing to face persecution and oppression on the basis of what they knew and heard of one of many preachers, would-be messiahs and prophets who abounded  in those days. Today, people tend to judge the church by how it has developed rather than try to identify what it set out to be and the process whereby it became so sadly subverted and corrupted.  After two thousand years of reliance on the 'Christ of Faith' as the foundation stone of Christianity, we need to remould our perceptions of Jesus in the light of a new intellectual world order and zeitgeist.

Clearly, there are many who will oppose vehemently this process of revision;  those for whom blind faith is sufficient but whose ever more strident  defence of their stance surely condemns them inevitably to wither and perish.  All pre-existing belief systems emerged as some see it, to combat what Freud termed, 'the trauma of self-consciousness', and Tillich 'the shock of non-being', that is the attempt to make a frightening and incomprehensible environment more manageable by attributing  a god  or spirit to every aspect of  nature and developing rituals of  prostration and appeasement in order to placate them and ward off  calamitous natural happenings such as earthquakes and famines.  Much of this motivation was carried over into early Christianity to accommodate the prevailing mindset  and so the all-powerful, omni-competent God was retained and subsumed into the new dispensation. Today, we have grown beyond and away from a   god of this type and it behoves us to  re-examine  the roots of our Christian heritage free of such  historical distraction.

It might be suggested that the quest for the historical Jesus is not, in itself, a revolutionary process;  rather, it involves the traditional tools of the investigative historian, in particular the key skills of  'testing' basic sources with regard to their origins, authorship, context and  intent.   This approach, when allied to the techniques and tests that modern research technology can supply,  should assist us to identify much more systematically the  extent to which the essential message of Christ was 'spun' and  embellished to suit  various agenda which the   early  progenitors of Christianity as an institutional and creedal persuasion  felt  it appropriate to apply.

Over two thousand years,  it had  not been considered necessary to do this  as the faithful were  generally credulous  and unquestioning   (although it should be remembered that  there were always dissident sects and schismatics such as  Cathars and Albigensians,  Protestants,  Jansenists, etc).

It is, therefore, important to see the Bible as a set of documents to be decoded rather han idolised at face value, contradictions and all.  Sam Harris has even described the Bible as containing  'masses of life-threatening gibberish'   and it is certainly true that there are many passages that advocate practices long since abandoned by a more humane society and many examples of a capricious and vengeful God that do not seem to conform to the God of Love and Compassion preached by Jesus. Some groups, mainly those of an evangelical nature,  remain oblivious to developing bible scholarship  and base their condemnation of  fellow beings on the evidence of a few verses  taken out of context,   eg. the  vitriolic opposition to homosexuals and the prescription of the death penalty in some Christian states (currently being mooted in Kenya  although  world opinion may cause this to be annulled).   In fact, Jesus never mentions  the issue and there are only twelve references to it in the whole of the New Testament, as opposed to myriad references by Jesus to the problem of poverty and suffering which, curiously, does not seem to generate the same passion.. 

As regards New Testament validity, it may be time to look more closely at the process

whereby the canon of  included texts was identified.  Certainly, many others have

emerged which may well have been available but were rejected as not suiting the

criteria laid down by that  Jesus Seminar of old.  Early works such as  the Q source

(which   many theologians believe  to have existed),   the Book of Thomas and the

Gospel of Mary,   seem to fit in well with the core teachings of Jesus and to reinforce

his message but perhaps these did  not provide the unique selling point that the fathers

of the church wished to create.  It is arguable that Jesus' own utterances are not

startlingly original;  many of his statements are foreshadowed typologically in the

Old Testament  or  refer back to other cultural prescriptions and the concept of the

Golden Rule.  His simple humanity and god-presence was perhaps not enough for

those  who were charged with   assembling  the canon and  developing a  liturgical

interpretation of the events of his life.  Close study of the gospels in the chronological order in which they were written, indicates that  into each,  new and more formal theology was introduced, beginning that process whereby the church was wont to graft on new dogma on an ad hoc basis, such as the immaculate conception in 1950  (caused  by  panic when the virgin birth explanation was scuppered by scientific revelation  about the transmission of the genetic code through the female as well as the male line)   and  papal infallibility,   enunciated in 1871 to combat  flagging enthusiasm in  another so-called  age of reason. 

Even sequencing in the New Testament can seem suspect;  the works of Paul  follow

the  four gospels even though  the apostle's life and works predate them.   There is no

evidence that Paul had access to any form of gospel or anthology of sayings and in

Paul there is no reference to a miraculous birth  nor   any concrete suggestion of a

physical resurrection.  Nor is there any suggestion of a separate event on the lines of Pentecost or any mention of the Judas story.  Mark, writing perhaps a decade or so later, is referring back to events prior to Paul and is therefore purporting to record the actual events and sayings of Jesus' life whilst Paul is a chronicler of the moment, of life after Jesus.  Nonetheless, Mark adds miracle stories but no miraculous birth story and his account of the resurrection lacks supernaturalism and  does not deal with the  raised Jesus. He does, however, seem to use many of the symbols and events of  the Jewish calendar as a pegboard for the  life of Jesus, perhaps to  give a semblance of familiarity for Jewish converts to Christianity and to provide a  set of Christian readings that could be incorporated into  major celebrations in the Jewish synagogue.

So, Passover, the Feast of Dedication,  the Feast of Tabernacles, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are all closely linked to Mark's version of the life of Jesus.  This may well be an early example of how the message was already being 'spun' in order to adapt it to the intended recipients and/or to benefit those who felt that the legacy had been   handed on to them for protection and interpretation.

The imposition of a theistic mould upon Jesus begins in earnest in the gospel of Matthew  (late eighties or early nineties).  The miraculous birth is expounded and Jesus is represented as son of a father who is the Holy Spirit and a mother who is a virgin.   Jesus is now declared son of God from conception and the story of the magi reinforces this.  The resurrection story is given a 'proper' ending in contrast with Mark which originally ended abruptly at verse 8 of ch.16 and Pentecost evolves, possibly to cover the Jewish festival of Shavuot.  Two earthquakes are incorporated into the resurrection story and Jesus appears to the women in physical form  and the  miraculous packaging of the bodily  resurrection  (though fifty years after the event) is under way.   Luke, writing between 88-95, embroiders Matthew's virgin-birth story by adding an angel to announce the birth and also depicts Jesus as raising the dead. He separates the ascension from the resurrection and includes much more material to substantiate the notion of Jesus' return as a deity in human form.    This developing theistic interpretation of Jesus continues, and is even intensified, in the gospel of John  (written between 95 and 100) which portrays Jesus as 'Logos', who was with God from the dawn of creation and  who is God made flesh to dwell among us.  He also identifies Jesus with the theme of Yom Kippur depicting Jesus as the sacrificial lamb charged with taking upon himself the sins of the people.   John's account of the resurrection story stresses Jesus' supernatural powers and suggests that he has already ascended at the time of his appearances to the disciples and returns to boost their spirits and to prepare the way  for the gift of the holy spirit.

Consequently, within a period of less than a century, the image of Jesus has been altered perceptibly; his humanity is rapidly downgraded whilst his divine status is accentuated and   bolstered  by the addition   of supernatural  happenings and miraculous explanations.  This provides the groundwork for later doctors of the church and clergy, sitting in council, to convert  doctrine into dogma and  formulate a  prescribed   set of  beliefs   reinforced  by  draconian  penalties  such   as excommunication and  the auto-da-fe.   Over the coming centuries, the church was to prove itself as adept in the maintenance of discipline by the application of cruel and unusual punishments as any temporal empire.  Moreover,  the combination of throne and  altar   could be potent  and culturally  calamitous  as we see  in the  activities of the conquistadores  in  south  America. 

Although the quest for the historical Jesus has  been  a feature of biblical scholarship for centuries, it is arguable that it is really only recently that it has become a branch  of  study which can be pursued without fear of favour by  scholars  who are genuine seekers  after truth  unencumbered by disciplinary restraints such as those which trammelled  the activities of Hans Kung some thirty years ago  (and which have not yet been lifted by Rome!).   Writers such as former bishops  John Shelby Spong and Richard Hollaway , in their numerous books, have made us privy to their genuine, at times anguished,  attempts to  make sense of their residual beliefs and to  salvage from the dustheap of  institutional Christianity that which is relevant and usable in a
post-Christian age.   Charles Taylor and Philip Jenkins with their writings on religion
in a secular age,  Archbishop Rowan Williams with his thoughtful and intelligent insights into true functions of organised religion,  Miroslav Volf on the subject of the churches'  great malfunctions,  all   offer insights into the  real  essence of  the Christian faith.

 It is perhaps true to say that the Christian church needs not so much to
reinvent itself as to rediscover itself and to  strip away  the protective camouflage with which it has been covered over the centuries by clergy who  were possibly compen-sating for their  lack of confidence in the power of the Christian message to keep the faithful in thrall.  Only with the aid  of pageantry, ritual,  sumptuous ceremony and power politics would their  political ambitions be achieved. The challenge now is to redress this balance, to identify the essential message and to trust in that message to commend itself without the need for complex dogma and mediaeval ritual.  Where better to begin this process but with Jesus himself, considered within his cultural and religious context with full allowance made for the metaphor and mythology which were  important teaching aids for any one in his position.   Any teacher or lecturer would agree that reference to contemporary events and the use of the vocabulary of the day that would make the lesson relevant and gripping  is crucial to the process of communication;  equally, they would agree that  the references and language of two thousand years ago would not usefully be deployed in a twenty first century lecture hall.  The quest for the historical Jesus needs to address this and to decide which elements of his teaching  were genuine and original and to identify the extraneous  accretions that  now serve only to obscure the core teachings.

Many traditional Christians fear that the movement symbolised by the quest for the  historical  Jesus  will involve wholesale surrender to what  Martin Luther described as the seductive  'whore reason' and that only biblical revelation can offer knowledge of God.  This approach necessitates trusting, boundless faith and place us in   a  credo ut intelligam   position where knowledge plays no part in the formation of our beliefs  but is subordinate to and entirely dependent upon belief.   The eighteenth century divine,  Matthew Tindal,   when evaluating claims for the scriptures, mused  

                It's an odd jumble to prove the truth of a book by the truth of the

               doctrines it contains, and at the same time conclude those doctrines

               to be true because contained in that book.

The quest for the historical Jesus will assuredly carry us beyond the compromise position of the Roman Catholic Church with its  distinction between  natural theology (which can be argued rationally)  and supernatural theology (which can be known only by faith).     In 1972,  Hans Kung  articulated a version of this which is likely to appeal to many seekers after truth, when he wrote 

                   Faith must not be blind, but responsible.  Man ought not to be

                   coerced, but rationally convinced, so that he can make a justifiable

                   decision of faith.   Faith must not be void of reality, but related to

                   reality.  Man ought not to have to believe simply, without verification.

                   His statements should be proved and tested by contact with reality,

                   within the present-day horizon of experience of man and society, and

                   thus be covered by the concrete experience of reality.

As a mission statement  for our quest  to find the real Jesus, this surely hard to fault!


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