I’m running three courses Feb to Apr this year at the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne.
Centre for Adult Education: Melbourne
MAKING SENSE OF THE WORLD – 4 World-views
What is Reality?
We shall examine two competing ways of understanding reality. Naturalism with its strictly physical world-view and traditional Christianity with a divine creator and organiser. Since the 18th Century Enlightenment, western society has moved away from traditional Christian understandings to a more naturalistic view of existence. We shall compare the two views.
What is Truth?
Modernism (there are universally reasoned truth) and Post-modernism (we can have personal truths only) also compete with different explanations on the status of knowledge and truth. This conflict lead to the (in) famous science and history wars of the late 20th century.
Tuesdays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 19/04/11, 03/05/11 to 24/05/11
Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne
Centre for Adult Education, Melbourne
SEARCHING FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS
Explore the historical Jesus, separate from the figure of devotion. In doing so, review the use of Christian and non-Christian sources and treatment of miracle claims, society, political and religion of early first century Israel and Middle East, analysing the primary source – the Gospels, review of research from the past 300 years, how Jesus, the man, is profiled by today’s scholars.
Tuesdays 6.00PM-7.30PM: 22/02/11 to 22/03/11
Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne
Click to book
Centre for Adult Education: Melbourne
BEING GOOD: 3 VIEWS OF MORALITY
We think about moral issues every day. Newspapers, television programs, and internet web-sites tell us what is immoral and moral.
Tuesdays 7.30PM-9.00PM: 22/02/11 to 22/03/11
Venue: CAE Building B – 253 Flinders Ln, Melbourne
We explore two traditional foundations of Western moral attitudes – traditional Religious beliefs and Philosophical thinking – with the more-recent and challenging research of Moral Psychology and ask the questions, does morality exist? Can there be universal moral rules? How do we know right from wrong? What is evil? How does culture influence morality?
Channel 4 documentary 2007 – challenging traditional conceptions of JesusNo comments
Easter weekend featured a plethora of Jesus and Bible documentaries on cable and free-to-air television: I watched Decoding the Past: the Resurrection on the History Channel. The documentary, colourfully illustrated as History docos tend to be, presented Christian Theology interleaved with limited doses of historical skepticism. It featured two of the most prominent Christian apologists – Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig. In general historians have problems accepting miracle claims and typically exclude them from historical analyses much to the chagrin of Christian scholars. So, why should historians exclude miracle claims like Jesus’ post-death appearances?
Historical research and analysis are all about the probability of past events combined with interpretation. People should ban questions like “what really happened?”. Expressions like “best evidence suggests…” and “little support for…” are more realistic characterisations. Not surprisingly well-qualified historians, using exactly the same sources, can quite commonly draw different though equally well-argued conclusions. This can be very frustrating for outsiders seeking definite answers.
Historical research, like that of the sciences, is essentially a secular activity, independent of any religious faiths. Historians assume that the world and its people behaved in the past as it does today. So claims from the past of people flying unaided would be seen as highly improbable, if not impossible, as that cannot be done today. We have no reason to accept “supernatural” occurrences of the past that we would not accept today. Historical research assumes a predictable, natural world and miracles are rejected as making historical probabilities to historical impossibilities. Historians have little choice to do this as they are trying to make sense of considerable uncertainties without the acceptance of (highly improbable or impossible) miracles.
So what interests historians with claims of Jesus’ post-death appearances? It is the followers who make the claims. Scholars will so attempt to understand the nature and likelihood of his execution within the Jewish social context of early first century. The voracity of the claims themselves are not part of the historical analysis.
Historians work with physical evidence, written documents and artifacts – tax records, commercial documents, household items, artworks, and so on. The primary written sources for Jesus’ execution are the Christian texts – canonical and apocryphal. Here are the earliest:
Letters of Paul, dated around 50CE, were occasional letters written to early Christian communities as instructions and advice. Surprisingly, Paul mentioned nothing of the historical Jesus, only concentrating of the risen Christ, the one of later Christian faith. Even when discussing a moral point with one of his communities Paul argued without referring to a pertinent Jesus saying (later quoted in a gospel). Some scholars see that omission as evidence against the existence of the historical Jesus. Either if not the case Paul provides no useful evidence for Jesus, the man.
The “Q” document, hypothetically constructed by scholars from the common text of Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark. “Q” contains sayings of Jesus only without any narratives about his life; his execution is unmentioned. “Q” is dated around 50CE or earlier.
The gospel of Mark, dated around 70CE, is considered to be the first New Testament gospel and the basis for Jesus ministry of Matthew and Luke. Like the other gospels the authorship is unknown. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ life prior to his baptism by John and he ends the gospel with an empty tomb after his execution. Post-death appearances of Jesus are unmentioned. As an aside we need to remember that the gospels are Christian propaganda, documents of faith, that give a narrative structure to the Jesus stories and sayings circulating amongst the Christian communities. They were written by urbanised, Greek-educated Jews some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. By contrast most scholars characterise Jesus as an Aramaic-speaking, itinerant Jew, preaching in rural Galilee.
The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John dated between 80-100CE and again are of unknown authorship, offer vastly differing accounts of Jesus after his death. Their stories are difficult to reconcile. Similarly their infancy stories differ markedly.
Given their theological intent, separation in time from the events portrayed, and inconsistent coverage of Jesus’s death, these early texts seem problematic as the basis for historical research. The precise nature of his execution and subsequent events appear more an area for religious faith than independent historical research.
- Gospels were written as proclamations of faith, literally the good news, about Jesus as the Christ, the messiah. So, despite being structured as historical narratives, the gospels are better seen as fantastic (in the traditional sense) biographical stories of Jesus, initially written around first and second centuries CE for fellow followers of Christ. Not unreasonably, gospel historical claims should be treated with scepticism unless supported by separate independent sources.
- Scholars have long recognised that the three synoptic gospels are closely interrelated with the popular consensus of Matthew and Luke drawing heavily from Mark. So be aware that three versions of the same story in the synoptic gospels may be the same one repeated many times. By contrast John’s gospel came from a separate tradition, but that writer presented a vastly different type of Jesus – the incarnate god.
- Despite church accreditations to apostolic authors – apostles or apostle companions – the gospels are considered anonymous by most scholars. Similarly there is no clear consensus of the locations of authorship. So we do not know who wrote the gospels and where they were written. Most scholars agree their initial appearances occurred between 70CE and 120CE.
- You are likely to be reading one of the many English translations of “reconstructed” Greek documents. The first full manuscripts of the gospels are copies made around the fourth century, some 300 years after their initial authorships. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are famous examples. Interestingly, the earliest copy is the fragment P52, small section of John (18:31–33), dated around 130CE.
- The initial copies of the gospels were handwritten by amateur copyists -a literate member of the local Christian community – and then circulated by hand to fellow believers. Many historians estimate that less than ten percent of the population were literate in Rome even at its height. After hundreds of years of copying, editing, and further copying, these documents were collected together to be finally canonised. It is worth remembering that many texts, considered sacred by many Christians were ultimated rejected by the church authorities. Epistle of Barnabas and Gospel of Thomas are well known examples.
- The gospel presentations of Jesus draw heavily from Jewish religious symbols and traditions of the day, while being shaped by the surrounding influence of local Greek and Roman culture. Many scholars have long identified Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other eastern religious myths and symbols embedded in the Jesus stories, not surprising with the authors likely to have been Greek-literate Jews living in urban areas of the Roman Empire outside of Palestine.
- Even though the authors of the gospels are unknown, we can surmise that they were urbanised Greek-speaking Jews living outside of Palestine and Galilee in particular. Their Jewish scriptures would have been the Septuagint, an earlier Greek (Hellenistic) translation of the Jewish scriptures. They portray Jesus as an Aramaic-speaking, rural Jew, preaching in Galilee some 70 years previously (and who is divine, of course). His scripture would have been the Torah, at least, in Hebrew and, at most, a Jesus would have probably known some Greek only. A large Greek-speaking city of Sepphoris was nearby rural Galilee. So we could expect a large disconnect between the gospel authors’ environments and world-views and that of less literate earlier rural preacher.
I shall be running a six night course, late May 2010, at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne, Australia, on searching for the historical jesus, looking at the historical figure behind the religion – what do we know?
Alex McCullieNo comments
Some time back AtheistNexus (http://www.atheistnexus.org/), a very active social network for atheists, hosted a forum question on the existence of a historical Jesus. The posting offered possibilities from ‘actually existed’ including all miracle claims to ‘purely fictional’. As you can imagine, pure fiction was a popular choice amongst the atheists. Moreover one contributor said, quite definitively, that she “[did] a lot of research many years ago and found nothing to support the existence of such a person.” Doesn’t get much clearer than that.
The whole notion of the historical Jesus, in fact of any historical person or event, raises such questions as “what is history and historical research?” and “how does it find truth, if at all?” A common and, perhaps, naive view is that historical research is ‘archeological’, an objective process of uncovering immutable facts of the past. History is an unchanging or static story of events and people, revealed through objective research independent of social and personal prejudices. Getting to the single “historical truth” is a clear aim of such a research. In this paradigm Jesus would clearly have existed or not existed. This similar view is often held of the natural sciences.
Most practising historians would reject doing history is simply uncovering static facts from the past. A popular term of ‘dialogue’ acknowledges the dependency between the researcher’s personal social context and attitudes and the subject of the research. So a twenty-first century U.S. researcher may view first century Palestine differently to that of a nineteenth century European, even if the source data were unchanged. So we should not be surprised to see different analyses from historians from different time periods and cultural backgrounds without one being obviously right. On the other hand, all interpretations should not be treated as equal. Historians expect to find explicit reasoning from publically verifiable evidence that can be analysed and criticised. Like the sciences this is treated as open process of academic discourse.
Here are some points for us laypeople to consider with thinking about history and historical research.
- Knowing when(the time) and where(the place) are fundamental to knowing history. 100CE Jerusalem is different to 100CE Rome and to 2010 New York City. I’m not suggesting revisiting school days of memorising historical dates for their own sake – how we hated that! Still it is important to know the overall sequence of events and where they happened.
- Though often framed as narratives, modern research emphasises causes and effects, the “whys” of past situations. Remember that earlier histories, prior to 1800s, often sought to teach lessons as well as tell historical narratives.
- Historical events are invariably complex with multiple causes and effects. It is not surprising that different historians arrive at different plausible explanations for any event. As H. L. Mencken once said “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
- Historians rely on physical records – artifacts and writings, although oral histories are included as well. Artifacts can be unearthed pottery, ruins, wall paintings, and even toys. Written documents can be administrative records – taxation, births, deaths, marriages, and business transactions – and personal letters and earlier histories. Remember that written records were invariably maintained by the elite of societies especially in those of very low literacy and so presented a narrow view of society.
- Historical interpretations are under constant review and scrutiny. Therefore we need to think in terms of probabilities and likelihoods.
- Historical records can be separated into ‘primary’ (writings by people of themselves or contemporaries), ‘secondary’ (writings later than the events), and even tertiary (compilation of secondary sources with some primary). There are no known ‘primary’ sources for the historical Jesus.
- Historians are very conscious of their time, economic, and social circumstances compared to subjects under study. Twenty-first century, middle-class, well-educated professors are a far cry from first century rural Gallilee of a Jewish Jesus.
- Most historians consider miracle claims outside of scope of historical research. One argument centres around assessing the likelihood of past events. Miracles are by definition highly improbable or impossible and therefore as such are beyond the capability of histories to assign any sort of realistic possibility. Furthermore historical research should be understandable to all people regardless of religious faith and religious non-belief, for that matter.
- Be wary of coincidences as an explanation of cause and effect. More evidence is needed to draw conclusions of any relationships.
These pointers are starter only to help put historical research into perspective.
Some links to ponder overNo comments
Atheism & Agnosticism:rejecting the god delusion: Tuesday 6.00-7.30pm: 16 March to 13 April 2010 (5 nights)http://www.cae.edu.au/?course=DNT800
Searching for the historical Jesus – what do we know?: Tuesday 6-7.30pm 25 May to 29 June 2010 (6 nights)
Naturalism – a complete world-view without god: Tuesday July 6-7:30pm 6 July to 20 July 2010 (3 nights)
Alex McCullieNo comments
According to the Christian Bible: a clear Yes
From typical historical reconstructions: local Jewish leadership only
Christian Biblical texts
All four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (in order of authorship) as well Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians clearly show that the early Christians held the Jews responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, even wanting his death ahead of a convicted murderer. Christian biblical quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) translation. I have highlighted the relevant passages.
Paul’s letter – 1 Thessalonians 2 (50CE)
14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews,15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, 16 hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost.
Gospel – Mark 15:6-15 (65-70CE)
6 Now at the feast he used to release for them any one prisoner whom they requested. 7 The man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection. 8 The crowd went up and began asking him to doas he had been accustomed to do for them. 9 Pilate answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he was aware that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to ask him to release Barabbas for them instead.12 Answering again, Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?” 13 They shouted back, “Crucify Him!” 14 But Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify Him!” 15 Wishing to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.
Gospel – Luke 23:13-25 (85-90CE)
13 Pilate summoned the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. 15 “No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him. 16 “Therefore I will punish Him and release Him.” 17 [Now he was obliged to release to them at the feast one prisoner.]
18 But they cried out all together, saying, “Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!” 19 (He was one who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection made in the city, and for murder.)20 Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again, 21 but they kept on calling out, saying, “Crucify, crucify Him!” 22 And he said to them the third time, “Why, what evil has this man done? I have found in Him no guilt demanding death; therefore I will punish Him and release Him.” 23 But they were insistent, with loud voices asking that He be crucified. And their voices began to prevail.24 And Pilate pronounced sentence that their demand be granted.25 And he released the man they were asking for who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, but he delivered Jesus to their will.
Gospel – Matthew 27:15-26 (85-90CE)
15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17 So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that because of envy they had handed Him over.
19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.” 20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. 21 But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!”23 And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify Him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; seeto that yourselves.” 25 And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.
Gospel – John 18:39-19:16
39 “But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?” 40 So they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.
1 Pilate then took Jesus and scourged Him. 2 And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and put a purple robe on Him; 3 and they began to come up to Him and say, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and to give Him slaps in the face.4 Pilate came out again and said to them, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.”5 Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold, the Man!” 6 So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, “Crucify, crucify!” Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.”
8 Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid; 9 and he entered into the Praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are You from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.10 So Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” 11 Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” 12 As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”
13 Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” 15 So they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified.
Most Christians today downplay these clear biblical accusations with remarks about social context and need for early Christians to separate from the rejecting Jewish majority. So why is today’s twenty-first century morality superior to that of the spirit-filled writers of Christian sacred texts, when most Christians believe that morality depends on God – no God and there is no morality? But are not the scriptures inspired by God? Christians are free to adjust their Christian scriptures whenever the morality becomes unacceptable. It seems fair for a skeptic to ask when do the human writings end and the sacred text begin? In reality the final decisions are human ones and not by some updated revelation.
Secular historical reconstruction
Many scholars have proposed historical reconstructions of Jesus’ life – all are speculations as there is effectively no non-Christian evidence available. Here is one plausible approach.
Jesus, like many others, was a self-declared Jewish apocalyptic prophet who preached the overthrow of the corrupt Jewish and Roman ruling elite with the coming kingdom of God. The ‘son of man’ would imminently herald in a new kingdom to replace the leaders of the day. Incidentally this should have happened some 2000 years ago according to Jesus’ own predictions. Publicly Jesus was vague on this son of man though he may have named himself privately to his inner circle of followers. This may have been the secret knowledge betrayed by Judas. While preaching in rural areas, Jesus was unnoticed by the Jerusalem elite. However his apocalyptic preachings during Passover in Jerusalem- sensitive times for the Romans as a celebration of Jewish freeing from foreign captivity – ultimately lead to his perfunctory execution as a trouble-maker. This was the fate suffered by many and was seen as of little consequence to the authorities. History proved them wrong.
On a historical account the Jewish people have no more responsibility for his death than any other peoples for the unfortunate deaths of millions of others in the past. The charges in the Christian Bible were simply, though dangerously, propaganda by Christian biblical authors used to attack Jews. This arguably provided the unfortunate moral backdrop for European antipathies towards Jews, culminating in the acceptance of the Jewish Holocaust during WWII.
Alex McCullieNo comments
This is a story of two competing Middle Eastern religious movements in the first century CE, a small Jewish sect based in Jerusalem and a new mystery religion in the Jewish Diaspora. One faded into oblivion some two hundred years later while the other grew to be the basis of faith for more than two billion people today.
The Jesus Movement – Jesus, his family and his supporters – grew from the teachings and pronouncements of Jesus, an early first century devout Jewish rabbi. Like all devout Jews he advocated strict adherence to the Torah – circumcision, food laws, Sabbath adherence, Jewish moral laws – to be in a right standing with God. This was the way to combat the dominance of the ever-encroaching Hellenistic culture with Roman occupation and Roman Pax Romana. The Jesus Movement was based in Jerusalem.
Three major Jewish groups, the Pharisees, Essenes (Dead Sea Scrolls communities), and Zealots, resisted the degradation of Judaism and their special covenant with God in different ways. The Pharisees, though compliant, taught Torah and its adherence amongst the people, particularly the poor. They were much respected and admired as a result. The Essenes withdrew to exclusive communities like Qumran, while the Zealots took up armed resistance against the occupation. Another way, from a long history of apocalypicists, was to announce the imminent end-time when a new “kingdom of God” would replace Roman occupation with a glorious rule of God and Israel. Jesus was one of those.
Jesus’ family and supporters saw him as a teacher, preacher and prophet, even a messiah, but still very human. They continued Jesus’ teachings through the Jesus Movement under the leadership of his brother, James, after his sudden and surprising death. Like Jesus, they were part of Judaism; adhered to Torah; and attended Jewish religious services. Male babies continued to be circumcised as part of being Jewish and being part of this movement. The Jesus Movement was fully a sect within Judaism.
Eventually the Jesus Movement faded within an environment of Jewish local political upheavals and failures of Roman resistance. The Ebionites were the last representatives of the Jesus Movement and, ironically, they were branded as heretics by the soon-to-be orthodox form of Christianity. The original teachings of Jesus were effectively expunged.
Paul never met Jesus. Some twenty to thirty years after the death of Jesus, Paul started the Christ Movement from his perceived post-death experience of Jesus. He evangelised throughout the Jewish Diaspora based on his interpretation of Jesus’ death as the risen Christ. His teachings had little to do with the physical life of Jesus.
The Christ Movement appealed to gentiles, “god-fearers” (gentiles who worshipped with Jews) and, even to some Diasporan Jews, by rejecting traditional Jewish practices and beliefs including male circumcision and dietary restrictions. Salvation now became belief in the risen Christ instead of righteousness through traditional practices as specified in the Torah. Paul’s strong rejection of Judaism became the intellectual basis for much of Christianity’s anti-Semitism over the years. As well as laxer religious practices, Paul’s Christ movement also offered familiarity to gentiles with its many similarities to the Hellenic mystery religions – Christ as a deity returning to life after human death; mystical experiences; and ritual secrecy. Paul specifically targeted pagan Gentiles, “god-fearers” and, Hellenistic Jews.
Ultimately Paul’s teachings became the basis for orthodox Christianity some three hundred years later.
Christians and Jesus Today
Jesus was closer to an orthodox Jewish rabbi spooking dire apocalyptic warnings than today’s Christian imagings. Traditional Christians envisage a Pauline-type risen Christ for their salvation. Progressive and liberal Christians advocate an inclusive, liberal-minded sage to suit our modern sensibilities.
Christians today are more removed than just 2000 years from the historical Jesus. Instead of worshiping the historical Jesus, most Christians would see him as some sort of religious extremist, if not a crank.
Alex McCullieNo comments
Not surprisingly, Jesus is worshipped by Christians all over the world. However different Christian groups revere quite different images of Jesus. Marcus Borg, a prolific progressive Christian writer, characterises two different views of Jesus as pre- and post-Easter Jesus, historical person and the risen Christ respectively. However I see three types of Jesus in play with scholars, theologians and laypeople: historical Jesus, Jesus of faith, and Christ of faith.
We have a sketchy image of a Jewish preacher. Historical scholars – mostly Christian – use empirically-based research techniques to separate historical fact from theological claims. Though difficult at times we would hope scholars can put aside their personal beliefs to approach this work with as much objectively as researching other historical figures like Plato, Augustus Caesar, or Cicero.
With very few non-Christian references, the gospels form the primary source material for Jesus. It is critical that scholars use secular methods to assess potential authenticity the gospels, especially as explicit proclamations of religious faith. The gospels vary considerably how they weave sayings and events together in rough narratives to proclaim their Jesus, suiting the needs of the author and his particular audience. These are not historical documents by any modern understanding of the term. Furthermore the gospels were written some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus in a world largely illiterate and dominated by the fear of demons and spirits. Though Paul’s epistles were written earlier than the first gospel, Mark, they say little of Jesus, the man. As history the gospels provide records of his one, synoptic gospels, or three year, John’s gospel, ministering periods.
Finally we need to remember that biblical writings have gone through considerable editing, re-writing and inaccurate hand copying over the years to reinforce different theological messages. This makes the historian’s task daunting, if not problematic, to produce a meaningful stripped-down Jesus, removed of all Christian supernatural and theological claims.
Ultimately we have very little remaining that is not speculative. Jesus was a Jewish itinerant preacher, living early first century mostly around Galilee. He was executed by crucifixion around 30 CE by the Roman authorities. The liberal Jesus Seminar estimates that less than 20% of the gospel sayings can be attributed to Jesus. Despite this acknowledgement religious scholars seem to be able to propose many diverse images of Jesus, the man – social reformer, philosophical sceptic and apocalyptic messiah to name a few.
What do we make of this historical Jesus? Pretty flimsy according to four professors of English in their excellent The Bible as Literature:
For a long time it was assumed that the “historical Jesus” existed within and behind the four gospels in such as way that, by following clues in them and combining information that they offered separately, it would be possible to construct a reliable general account of his human existence. Many attempts of this kind have been made, but all of them have proven unsatisfactory. They are acts of imaginative piety, not history. The gospels do not contain enough data which to build a real biography, and efforts to flesh out their sketchy accounts simply require too much guesswork. (Gabel, 2006 p. 227)
Jesus of faith
Progressive and liberal Christians revere an idealised image of Jesus, the man. Adding moral, spiritual and social superlatives to a limited Jewish itinerant preacher profile of historical research, progressives venerate the Jesus of faith as one of the greatest people, if not the greatest person, of all time, a concept generally unchallenged in western society after years of Christian indoctrination. Claims of unique greatness are perhaps curtailed by their equally strong desire to recognise the greatest of other religious founders and leaders, like Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and Mohammad.
Most progressives seek to modernise the demon-infested world of the gospels by interpreting the supernatural aspects of the Jesus stories – resurrections, miracles, and exorcisms – metaphorically. The Jesus of faith then becomes a most remarkable spirit-filled sage whose sayings and actions in first century Galilee continue to be relevant today some 2000 years later. Given the disparate and parochial nature of the gospel proclamations, progressives can find selections of biblical passages to support their enlightened view of Jesus. Despite their acceptance of the historical Jesus research, progressive Christians choose biblical quotations for their support rather than on any authenticity assessments by biblical scholars.
So the Jesus of faith is a modern Jesus constructed from the four separate and often contradictory gospel stories. Their Jesus is not the actual Jesus, but drawn from images of the first and second century Christian communities, long after his death. Progressive Christians explain the purging of fanciful stories, the ones that gave early Christians all of their authority, with metaphorical interpretations as giving greater truths than the discarded factual claims. The selected stories and quotations present a gentle, inspiring, inclusive, spirit-filled Jesus sage, acceptable to us all.
Christ of faith
The resurrection story, typically a physical resurrection, forms the centrepiece of the Christian faith for the last 2000 years. Belief in Jesus is more about salvation through his death and resurrection than his life on this earth. According to Dominations Comparison (Rose Publishing, 2005) the Roman Catholic concept of Jesus as Christ of faith is:
The eternal Son incarnate, fully God and fully man, conceived and born of the virgin Mary, died on the Cross for our sins, rose bodily from the grave, ascended into heaven, and will come again in glory to judge us all.
The same publication states that other major Christian churches hold similar conceptions of their Christ of faith.
Gabel, J. B., Wheeler, C. B., York A. D., Citino, D. The Bible As Literature New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
Rose Publishing Denominations Comparision Torrance: 2005No comments