Monday, February 9, 2009

Should the Historical Jesus matter to people of faith?

In this post I want to try to respond to one of the comments that was left on my last post on whether or not the historical Jesus can be recovered. I argued that I am quite sure that we can recover very early memories of Jesus, but whether or not these get us to the historical Jesus himself is still open for me because of the way in which social memories are constructed from the get-go (both as a natural process or a conscious plan). I think we would need to look at the picture of the early memories we recovered and then do some evaluating from there, with the caveat that we are treading on very dangerous waters.

The questions left in the comments?
I'm a preacher who has had no anxiety (or little, at any rate) about preaching what has been called the "Jesus of faith." Can you say what you think the implications of your method of constructing Jesus might have for those who preach, who take" the quest," as you have described it seriously? Is this something that simply doesn't belong in the pulpit? Or... do you have no opinion on this, since your project is scholarly and not about faith?
There is a long history about this very issue - of faith and reason and whether reason should matter to faith. I leave that to your reading.

For me personally this is very difficult for me to answer because even though my project is not about faith - it is an historical project - the results matter for some people of faith.

I have found that for some Christians they could care less, because for them the Jesus they know is the Jesus of the spirit and the scripture, the Jesus of faith as you put it. There is nothing that an historian is going to say that will make a bit of difference to their religiosity or change their perception of their own experience of God. They are like Paul, the apostle who knew next to nothing about Jesus' life or teachings, and this didn't seem to matter one bit to him in terms of his faith which was based on a mystical experience and conversion.

But then there are those Christians who want their faith to be factual, because for them only facts are true/truth. So they want to align their faith with what they understand to be historical facts about Jesus. It is for these people that the Jesus Seminar was so valuable, because it gave them a new "scientifically"-constructed red letter edition of Jesus' teaching, minus all the supernatural stories and theology.

For me to suggest that the Jesus of history may be lost to us, and all we have are memory constructions of him by Christians writing long after he is dead, can be traumatic for some Christians because we live in a society where truth and fact are equated, and where myth-story-memory-experience (which are definitely not observable empirical facts) are what? Untruth? Highly suspect? False?

So now we see scholars like Richard Bauckham coming to the rescue of these "faithfully nervous", trying out the argument that the early memory constructions in the gospels must have been those of eyewitnesses (they do?) because the texts make this claim (so what?) and because these eyewitnesses were the apostles (they were?) we can trust them (we can?) because they wouldn't purposefully lie to us (they wouldn't?) and we all know that our memories are fairly accurate anyway (they are?).

So I don't know if this answers your questions, which are honest and good questions. But should this information be distributed from the pulpit? I have found in my classroom when students begin to think critically about the scripture, many become angry and confused, wondering why they didn't hear about any of this in their churches. To these people, it matters.


John Shuck said...

But should this information be distributed from the pulpit? I have found in my classroom when students begin to think critically about the scripture, many become angry and confused, wondering why they didn't hear about any of this in their churches. To these people, it matters.

Amen. Thanks April. The value of the Jesus Seminar and of your work and of the work of many who do this kind of work is not in the conclusions reached but in the open exchange of ideas--in short-- religious literacy.

In my view, that most certainly needs to come from the pulpit.

While helping preachers may not be your purpose, you have helped give us the tools to further critical thinking.

Jim Deardorff said...

And an Amen from me, too. Not that the Jesus Seminar’s methodology was logical, nor their conclusions usually correct, but that it got some people wondering if the standard message from the pulpit was correct or complete.

They are like Paul, the apostle who knew next to nothing about Jesus' life or teachings, and this didn't seem to matter one bit to him in terms of his faith which was based on a mystical experience and conversion.

But shouldn’t we wonder a bit if this experience was really a mystical one? How about the report in Acts 9 that the men with Saul also heard the voice speaking out to him? A voice evidently recognized by Saul as coming from Jesus. Then consider also that this Acts 9 event could have occurred at night, while in the Acts 22 and 26 accounts the writer of Luke/Acts went out of his way to emphasize that it had occurred in midday. And then, what about all the evidence collected by Holger Kersten (mentioned in Diana Eck’s book: Encountering God) and others that Jesus later traveled through Anatolia and then on to northern India? NT scholars who ignore such evidence are like ministers who preach only the more acceptable, or least questionable, New Testament passages.

Magdalene6127 said...

I found the work of the Jesus Seminar valuable when it was first released, because I was one of those Christians who wanted their faith to be more factual... I was even prepared to deal with a Jesus who didn't necessarily rise bodily from the dead, so long as I could wrap my head around why exactly it was he mattered to people then and continues to matter to people now. I even, at that time, began sermon preparation by checking for the color designation of any given passage; I would get particularly excited to be preaching red passages because I would think, "This is it! The real Jesus!"

Then, during Epiphany season of Year C, I had a rude shock. I discovered that one of my very favorite Jesus moments was rated black.... that according to the Jesus Seminar the story of the wedding feast at Cana was a total construction of the community, in no way a remembrance of the real Jesus.

This posed me with a conundrum: Do I stay away from a passage, or pay it little attention, or speak about it in a qualitatively different way because it's black and not red? Is it less valuable to me (or to a congregation) because it's more removed from the "historical Jesus"?

I came to the conclusion that the early Christian communities' experience of Jesus is every bit as valuable as the historical Jesus, that Christianity as we have received it is an amalgam of both (inextricably and tightly woven together) and that, if I am still committeed to the Christian project as such (and, with all its foibles, and recognizing the limitations of what we can know with certainty, I am), this was still "my gospel", and still "my Jesus" every bit as much as the one to which the Jesus seminar gave greater authenticity.

I believe if all this is to be brought to the pulpit it has to be done with great care and delicacy. (It helps to have a committed core of folks studying it at the same time, which I do in my church). Some may not like what we find. But I think we give people too little credit for their level of maturity. I think they can take it.

Thank you for your time, and for such a detailed and thoughtful response to my question.

José Solano said...

History is far easier to understand than faith. The study of history is supposedly grounded in observable, provable events. What really happened? How do we know it happened? Yet, as we delve into its study objectively we discover that so much of it is shrouded in myths, in obfuscations of language that mislead or fail to provide a true understanding of what occurred. This is so whether we are reading about Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, or Kennedy—and soon enough Obama.

History is particularly unreliable when transmitted in word as the actual event is filtered through the mind of the writer, interpreted and conveyed in a somewhat altered state to a reader who must then also engage himself in interpreting what was written through his own filtration system. Transmit this account over hundreds and even thousands of years and through the further filtration systems of totally different languages and we find ourselves in a truly difficult situation when trying to understand what really happened.

Faith works differently. What needs to be understood or at least for the agnostic, for the faithless recognized as a possibility, is that faith is not something one gives to oneself. In the Judaeo-Christian understanding it is something given to us. (I'm speaking here only about biblical faith.) It is something given to us in degrees. Some have great faith, some have little. Faith does not work contrary to reason. And reason cannot limit itself to merely the mechanical, materialistic, cause and effect interactions generally but superficially presumed to be constant. Physicists are aware of this. Life appears to have meaningful acausal happenings (W. Pauli). The philosophically open minded can think, can reason outside of the box and so need not presumptively exclude the miraculous from the realm of possibilities.

People of faith and of great experiences wrote the varied books of the Bible and people of faith are capable of grasping its message. People of faith find it absurd to think that these writings were written by deranged minds, charlatans, conspirators and outright liars. To us it is unreasonable. They could have made mistakes here and there but some of the accounts are so blatant and reinforced by so many that we cannot simply dismiss them as conspiratorial fabrications, that is, our faith prevents us from making that conclusion. For the faithless the conclusion is not difficult but they cannot claim absolute certainty and must retain, consciously or unconsciously, the element of doubt for any conspiratorial theory.

People of faith can enjoy the historian's quest for the historical Jesus or for the historical Napoleon or Pythagoras as they search the ossuaries for dead men's bones. We can examine their arguments and never ending disagreements and sorrow over how some may undermine the weak in faith or embolden the ignorant. But we rest in the comfort of our knowing that we have already arrived at the realization that Jesus is whom the Scriptures say he is. We have been gifted the conviction and assurance that he rose from the dead in time and space at a certain point in history and he is our Redeemer. We leave it to the historians to work out the evidence to their own satisfaction while we pray for the unregenerate that they may receive the gift of faith as it gives us so much strength and courage in a very difficult world.

"Now faith is the substance (reality) of things hoped for, the evidence (proof) of things not seen. . . . Through faith we understand that the worlds (ages) were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." Heb. 11:1 & 3

Adel Thalos said...

Have you even read Richard Bauckham's book?

From your comments, I would guess not.

To belittle such a highly esteemed scholar in this petty way is unseemly and definetly unscholarly, especially when you show no evidence of having read and interacted with his book "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses".

So this is what passes for scholarship in some circles. Yet you claim to want to produce good critical thinkers. What you really want to produce is people who think like you do. The reality is indoctrination is the name of the game in liberal circles--nothing more nothing less.
I hope your readers will take the time to read Bauckham's book, as well as Craig Blomberg's "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels", then decide for themselves.

José Solano said...

"Faithfully nervous"? It would seem to me that this entire attack on the historicity of Jesus stems primarily, albeit unconsciously, from the nervousness of the unfaithful for whom the stakes are infinitely higher than for the faithful. After all it is not the salvation of the faithful that is at stake but that of the unfaithful. If there was no Jesus and no Resurrection then the faithful are no worse off than the unfaithful. But if there was . . . .

Now, as to distributing information from the pulpit, the only thing that should be distributed from a Christian pulpit is the affirmation, edification, exhortations and admonitions derived from the teaching of Jesus Christ in accord with Scripture, the primary source for understanding that teaching. This can be done in a great variety of ways from dramatic presentations and analogies to Scriptural interpretations and explications. But the moment a pastor no longer believes in the historical reality and Resurrection of Jesus Christ he needs to step down from the pulpit. The moment the pastor starts accepting conspiratorial theories it's time to step down. The pulpit is not the place from which to expound the diverse and contradictory theories of scholars that dispute the accuracy of foundational tenets of Christianity. This could be done in a Bible class. The pulpit is not the place from which to undermine the faith of the faithful and create confusions.

If the "pastor" reaches the point that he can no longer believe in the historical Jesus and his Resurrection he should have the integrity to simply set up his own group and state from the start that he does not believe in an historical Jesus or his Resurrection. He can then see what kind of flock he gathers and what families join that congregation.

But this is not what is happening. What is happening is that these "pastors" are by stealth taking over congregations that were founded on the belief in an historical and Resurrected Jesus and the biblical teachings, and they are creating confusion and apostasy. Their arrival has been long anticipated:

"I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them." Acts 20:29-30


Ralph Hitchens said...

He should matter to people of faith who are also historically-minded. It's easy enough for someone with the most superficial grasp of modern science to sense the presence of a creator -- is the universe simply an accident of physics? Jesus requires a bit more research and reasoning, but I believe a preponderance of evidence reflects the fact of His existence, even if it gives us little else of certainty. Christianity surely has more of a foundation than an accident of wishful theology, a myth that sprung from the minds of a handful of ordinary people in the eastern Roman Empire, back in the first century.

Dan said...

Responding to the Bauckham reference. I don't think you should imply that the work is only of interest to those who need their faith to be supported by a reading of history. You point out the weaknesses in his argument quite concisely but your sarcastic tone implies there are no strengths. I found it a good read, well argued and thought provoking, though i came away unconvinced.

Jim Joyner said...

April, Please help me understand your position ... if I want my faith to be informed by history, I have only the miserable Jesus Seminar to look to? Not Charlesworth? Not Chilton? Nowhere else but the Jesus Seminar? Maybe there are more of us non-scholars out here than you are acknowledging who are keenly interested in having our faith informed by historical Jesus research (aware of the limitations of history) and find the Jesus Seminar to be a tainted (narcissistic) resource to draw from? A fundamentalist who wants inerrant religious facts surely would not look to the Jesus Seminar. And someone who was trying to do sensibly balance the treasures and traps of ancient historiographies would not look to the Jesus Seminar. Is it possible you have overlooked a group of us who desire to have our faith informed by (and challenged by) responsible textual and archaeological research?