Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

I've just finished reading this book. My wife thought it looked 'the most boring book ever' but I stuck with it and found it fascinating, for the most part.

The book starts with an essay (by the editors) walking the reader through the history of the 'quest' for the historical Jesus, highlighting all the main players in the debate and all the major schools of thought over the past couple of hundred years. What becomes clear in all of this is that the quest for the historical Jesus is highly dependent on the initial assumptions of the quester, and it is not clear from this essay (or any of the five that follow it) if any set of conclusions about who the 'historical' Jesus might have been are ever anything but an extrapolation from the assumptions, with little or no input from the historical research.

I should explain, just in case you don't know what is meant by the 'Historical Jesus', that this is a quest for the real Jesus - the man who actually lived and walked in Galilee - and the quest is somewhat (possibly entirely) based on the assumption that the Jesus described in the Gospels is not an accurate or unbiased picture of him. Some claim that the gospels present - at best - a view of Jesus as seen through rose tinted spectacles, while others claim that the majority of stories of Jesus in the gospels are purely mythical, with little or no basis in anything historical.

And so we come to the five essays that form the bulk of the book. These cover the range from Robert M. Price (aka 'The Bible Geek'), who presents the opinion that the Gospels are an attempt to ground an entirely mythical character in history, and there never was a real or historical Jesus, through to Darrell L. Bock, who basically takes the modern Evangelical view that the Jesus depicted in the gospels is the real Jesus, these stories are literal and fairly accurate. In between are three essays from established names in theology who - more or less - fill in the middle ground between these two extremes, occasionally agreeing with one another, occasionally disagreeing on fairly important points.

One of the most interesting things in the book is that each of the five contributors is given the opportunity to respond to each of the essays of the others. In general they do by presenting a short rebuttal that points to their own essay for details, but it is fascinating to observe the debate and the reasons each player holds for their position. Once again, it becomes apparent that in most cases, their initial assumptions completely bias their conclusions.

I must say that I found the two most extreme views (the first and last essays) to be the most interesting, while the others in the middle contained some interesting stuff, but also contained a lot of (apparently) groundless assumptions.

So I suppose the most interesting question for you to ask of me at this point is which version of the historical Jesus am I most persuaded by? The problem in this is highlighted in a few of the essays which distinguish the 'Jesus of Faith' and the 'Historical Jesus'. Indeed, some point to a significant disconnect between Jesus in his earthly ministry and the resurrected Lord Jesus. Your view of the latter inevitably colours your view of the former. In other words, if you believe that Jesus is Lord and God now, you will inevitably attribute the same characteristics back onto the historical man. So the Christian is, almost by definition, biased towards the beliefs expressed in the final essay.

And yet, there are things in the other four essays that I found compelling. I must say, less so in the case of the essay by John Dominic Crossan, who presented the historical Jesus as a secular and non miracle-doing political activist.

Of particular interest to me at the moment was the importance of Jesus's non-violent stance, emphasised by the fact that none of Jesus's followers were crucified with him - clearly Rome expected no resistance from Jesus's disciples, clearly non-violence was at the core of his teaching. And yet, this aspect of Jesus's teaching is notable by its absence in much of contemporary Christianity - indeed, many Christians actively support war and soldiers, etc. If such a wide spectrum of theologians are convinced Jesus was all about peace, why is the wider church not preaching this today?

One of the issues I had with a couple of the essays is that they started with the premise that Jesus was a product of his society. Of course, this is in part true, but if Jesus was in any way sent from God to try and change society (whether you believe he was God incarnate, in some way divine, or just a tuned-in holy man) then he was not a product of the society, but an external factor attempting to change it. Assuming that he was a product of society is to assume that God has nothing to do with it.

And this is, of course, where most of the quest for the 'historical' Jesus falls apart - if he was unique, if he did miracles, if he spoke directly from God with authority, then historical searching cannot reveal this. History deals in possibilities and probabilities. A once-in-history event is amazingly improbable and, by today's standards, impossible. History cannot confirm anything miraculous, it can only show that some historical people believed this to be true. And so the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith will always be different. It doesn't mean the latter is not true, it just means that history cannot lead us to him.

So what do I believe? I believe that someone hears prayers and sometimes answers. I believe that the blind can have their sight restored, the lame can be restored to walking, those with leprosy can be cured, the deaf can hear again. I believe there is good news for the poor. I believe the Jesus of history changed lives and restored broken people, and I believe the Jesus of faith still does.

I'm just not sure how much of a disconnect there is between the two.