Thursday, April 30, 2009

Creating Jesus 4: Religiously Interpreted Experiences

Our sources are filled with claims of visions of the divine, hearing the voice of God, where the person says that he or she encounters God immediately and directly (what we call mysticism). It is not necessary for the historian to make decisions about whether or not the people in the stories really and truly saw God or heard his voice and move to explain this as hallucinations or madness. These internal or private "events" are similar to miracles. They are interpreted and given a very particular religious value. Whatever was experienced by the person (which I have no way of verifying or not, since it is an internal event) is understood by the person or those who transmit his or her story as authentic religious experiences (or in some cases like Simon Magus, inauthentic - remember the religious community holds the hermeneutical keys). Whatever may have happened in actuality becomes a religiously interpreted experience in our source.

Like miracles (which also may represent human experiences that have become religiously interpreted as miraculous), mystical experiences are very interesting to the historian because they tell us how the seer understands a number of things about his or her world. His or her religiously interpreted experience (particularly if the person is a founder of a tradition) can impact significantly the orientation and growth of the religion.

So although I won't say as an historian that a religion started when "God so-and-so appeared to Mr. so-and-so" and commissioned him (thereby making a religious claim historical fact), I can and should say that "one of the significant impacts on the origin of religion such-and-such is Mr. so-and-so's vision in which he understood God so-and-so to have commissioned him" (thereby understanding the religious claim as a hermeneutic that impacted the history of the religion).

The same is true of miracles. Although I won't say that Jesus walked on water (thereby making a religious claim historical fact), I can and should say that it is evident from the nature miracle stories that some of the first Christians understood Jesus in highly exalted categories, capable of doing what is not normally done by humans, like walking on water or multiplying food or walking through closed doors. These are actions that readers then and now would have attributed to divine men and gods, not your average Joe (thereby understanding the miracle claim as a hermeneutic that tells us something about early Christian theology rather than history).


Michael said...

Thanks for this additional post, April. That clarifies things a great deal.

Justin said...

Excellent parlance... it respects the audience and keeps the historian from becoming an apologist (for any ideological side).

rameumptom said...

Are the common references to shared visions outside the Bible, such as Peter, James and John on the Mt of Transfiguration, or the 12 apostles seeing the resurrected Christ.

While a historian still cannot verify such events, I wonder how common it is in more modern Christian and non-Christian faiths, to have a normally internal vision seen by many.

Ed Jones said...

On Mysticism from the scientific community, specifically,from "The Mind of God", by Paul Davies, Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Adelaide in Australia. The book is largely a commentary on Steven Hawking's "A Brief History of Time".

"- - a complete explanation of things,is based on the assumption of human rationality that it is legitimate to seek "explanations" for things, and that we truly understnd something only when it is "explained". Yet it has to be admtted that our concept of rational explanation probably derives from our observations of the world and our revolutionary inheritance. Is it clear that this provides guidance when we are tangling with ultimate questions? Might it not be the case that the reseon for existence has no explanation in the usual sense? Is there a route to knowledge - - even "ultimate knowledge" that lies outside the road of rational scientific inquiry, and logical reasoning? Many people claim there is. It is called mysticism.
Most scientists (and many theologians) have a deep mistrust of mysticism. This is not surprising as mystical thought lies at the opposite extreme to rational thought, which is the basis of the scientific method. Also, mysticism tends to be confused with the occult, the paranormal, and other fringe beliefs. In fact, many of the world's finest thinkers including some noble scientist have expounded mysticism.
If we wish to progress beyond (the usual sense explanation), we have to embrace a different concept of "understanding" from that of rational explanation. Perhaps the mystical path is a way to such understanding."

The earliest followers of Jesus seemed content with proclaiming his words, not his deeds, to explain what he was about. Perhaps secular history recognized no authentic deeds worthy of rememberance.

Some understand the Kingdom of God as the idiom Jesus fashioned to proclaim what was absoutely novel. Few if any had experienced it before. There was no familiar language with which it could be directly described. He thus employed a different kind of language, parable, to speak of the Kingdom of God indirectly. He saw this way of being in the world as mankind's ultimate Concern - God-man relation.
Rational critical scientific historical research can identify the real Scriptural source for who Jesus was, however, intrpreting his message lies in the path of the mystical, the category of true religion.

Once again, for one reconstruction toward identifying this Scriptural source go to: The Forbidden Gospels Blog; My decision about the Jesus Project, Comments April 12, 13, one add on April 17.