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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