Thursday, August 05, 2004

the historical jesus

I have been thinking a bit more about this historical Jesus lark recently. You see, my decision to start calling myself a Christian was entirely based on the belief that Jesus was who the Bible said he was. I gained this belief having read a rather biased book on the subject; then, once I had turned the last page, assumed that any person with a historical brain would be able to figure out that Jesus was the miracle-working Son of God, who died on the cross and was raised from death on the third day. However, I was more than a little dismayed when I later found out that there were in fact many more historical Jesuses floating about and most of them didn't resemble the Jesus of faith.

Let me first say that I have never flushed the Jesus of faith down the plug hole completely. You see, even in my darkest night of doubt, God has remained a truth for me, indeed, he is the Only Truth. Call me naive for assuming this, but I can't help but feel that if Jesus never even existed (as some people cheerfully contend) then God has really let us down. You see, Jesus, whoever he was, is not only important to the world's largest faith, Christianity, but also to the world's second largest faith, Islam. In Islam, Jesus takes the slot of second most important prophet, after Mohammed. He isn't divine, but he is certainly revered. Then you have the Bahá'ís, who hold Jesus as a 'Manifestation of God', not quite an incarnation, but certainly a decent signpost. Some Jews are beginning to see the implications Jesus has as a rabbi, and attempting to reclaim him as a prophet and healer. Finally, Jesus finds his way into the conciousness of Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism. He is possibly the world's most iconic religious teacher, followed closely by the Buddha. Atheists will think my reasoning is ridiculous, perhaps even an insult to reasoning, to say that his fame is proof of his historical existence. However, the importance of Jesus to so many people makes me very reluctant to entertain the prospect that he was little more than an empty mythological figure.

However, even if we presume the existence of Jesus, then we still find ourselves with many voices calling from all directions, each one carrying the spirit of a different Jesus of Nazareth. I will continue tomorrow...


Comments:
First a quick welcome to the bandwaggon Andy, especially given how much of a kindred spirit you are in many ways. Let's hope you last longer than you expect with this thing.

"empty mythological figure"

I should first add a little disclaimer. I do find that beliefs in a historical Jesus of some sort very important. As indicated here, I find that the very specificity ensures that faith drawing from him contains the intrinsic possibilities of indwelling culture and society and time across the world. Which almost sounds utilitarian, though I hope it's not.

Now a quick challenge; how is a mythological view to be demeaning or derogatry to the stories, as we have them now? I'm probably more trying to tease out your interesting views than being confrontational, in case you were wondering...

 
I wasn't really happy with the phrase "empty mythological figure", but could think of no better description. What I meant was that I find it difficult to accept the theories of the most radical historians who write about Jesus, such as Earl Doherty and others who flat out deny that Jesus ever walked the earth. GA Wells proposed a similar theory, I've heard, but later changed his mind, concluding that Jesus was indeed a historical reality. He said (only a paraphrase I'm afraid, I couldn't find the full quotation) "I'm a historian, not a believer, but we should not underestimate the impact this obscure preacher from Galilee had on the history of Western civilization."

Ultimately, whether or not a mythological view of the gospels is derogatry to them depends on exactly what we mean by a mythological view. Certainly I would say that the extreme atheistic perspective is derogatry to the gospels. They view them as total myth, and hence chuck them in the bin. Their study is only a means to disposing of a silly religious superstition. They have no interest in learning from either Jesus or the gospel stories.

Geza Vermes and Marcus Borg on the other hand are actively seeking a new understanding of Jesus. Although they do not view him as God Incarnate, they still come to him as disciples to a teacher. Vermes is Jewish, and wants to recover the historical Rabbi Jesus. Borg still sees himself as a Christian, and wants to learn from the legends that surround the historical Jesus, from the symbolism and the mythical. This view of Jesus is clearly not derogatry, no matter what the fundamentalists might say.

I have an excellent quotation from Dom Laurence Freeman on the historical approach to the gospels, which I will quote as soon as I find it.

 
Very sensible.

I suppose from my own perspective, my view of mythology is such that I hold a 'knowing belief' that allows the full emotional involvement in the stories of God incarnate and yet with a provisionally that lets them be constructs (self consciously telling these stories) in the very best sense of the word. Probably a post-modern irony black hole, and not very helpful, but it‘s what I have so must make the best of it.

Ultimately it is a bit ahistorical to deny even a charismatic faith healer's historicity. Though to me Christology is strong enough to present us theology in the here and now whilst being mythology, it is likely those who deny Jesus even such a rudimentory position in history have a deliberate agenda as regards the here and now. The Vermes position is a healthy balance.

 
You obviously have a far more complex picture of this issue than I do! One of these days, I will pick you brain on such things.

In fact, let's begin now! Are you saying that you view the gospels as neither complete fabrications nor totally matter-of-fact biographies? Perhaps instead you would take the view that they are 'spiritual portraits' of Christ. The evangelists aren't overly concerned with the exact details (they aren't news reporters) but are more interested in creating an introduction to who Jesus was. This accounts for the three slightly different Jesuses of the synoptic gospels, and then the very spiritual, mystical and divine Jesus of St John.

Vermes dismisses most of John's Jesus as a theological construct with little connection with history. Yet with this 'portrait' view, we might be more sympathetic to John's divine Jesus. John's Jesus may be different in many ways, but no two men see things (and people) in exactly the same way. If we believe the claim that the fourth gospel was based on the testimony of 'the beloved disciple' (be that John, Lazarus or even [gasp] Mary Magdalene) then we might be able to account for the more divine Jesus portrayed in it. The closest disciple to the guru is always the one who sees most of the divine light shining through.

 
Complex? Yep, like a mixed bundle of tangled woollen threads. Not easy, all I can know is that life seems to be complicated. What you said is very well put, though.

I suppose I probably owe a lot of my perspective to Vermes - as far as I can see a lot of the gospel accounts, particularly St John’s, are constructs. But I differ with him in that I don’t see this as a limitation to be belittled; they carry meaning of pivotal importance, there is theophany nonetheless. The authentic Jesus is more than a kernel historical figure, it takes imagination such that the writers and tellers of the stories had to be able to see the divine light.

now all things are filled with light

To look at them as biographies would be to miss the point, most people are agreed on this. Maybe it would be best to say that I see them as intricate poems, rather than descriptive prose, telling of and exploring people’s encounters – whatever might be understood by that term, certainly more than physical events. Within this an attachment to the physical is vital, I certainly think we should be heavily involved in the incarnational great story. I suppose I just think the paring down to historical event is quite limiting for the scope of all that Jesus means.

If any of this makes sense, I’ll be surprised!

 
That made far more sense than your previous post! In fact, I am inclined to agree with you. As I said earlier I think the Jesus of faith is possibly more real than the Jesus of history, not less. What I mean by this is that we can see Jesus as a preacher, a prophet and a carpenter, just as many did in his day. But we can also go beyond this, as John's gospel does, to see the divine Christ.

But by merely searching history, do we find the divine Christ? Evangelical scholars would think so. They see the Christ event as historical as any human event. But as you suggest, the encounter with Christ goes beyond the physical. In my view, this is one reason why we need the Resurrection. It signifies that Christ is alive now, and hence moves our relationship with him out of a dark corner of history and into the present day.

 
"But we can also go beyond this, as John's gospel does, to see the divine Christ."

Well indeed, the ressurection probably has a great deal of liberating power for universalising Jesus's gospel, and taking him out of the hold of historians (even, or maybe especially, eclesiastical ones) into redeeming encounter with-out the control of certain people. But I should quickly say I might be tempted, in this regard, to do a Ruth Ann and suggest that maybe the human is in some sense the divine? Or at least that they cannot be seperated out so claenly as the catagorisors of synoptic-John traditions might say. However, such is straying into metaphysics which is never my strong point, so I might as well hold back for now while I'm ahead and making sense!

Any chance you could come and offer a little of your Indian experience here? Excuse the lack of seen picture, the system is playing up right now and it's late and I'm tired.

 
This post got me thinking, so I have written up my response as today's blog entry!
 
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