Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tread Softly (thoughts on the "historical Jesus")

But I, being poor, have only my dreams.
I have spread my dreams under your feet.
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.
-W.B. Yeats 

The so-called "quest for the historical Jesus" often rears its amorphous head every once in a while, with much excitement and little progress. The famous (or infamous) "Jesus Seminar" dominated the 80s and 90s and tried to create a historical picture of Jesus that differed from the approaches of the past (and met with little success). Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright have made their collective popularity and careers out of the issue, though they both arrive at different conclusions. And recently it resurfaced again for a gasp of air after the kerfuffle with Reza Aslan on Fox News.

The "historical Jesus" question is complex (as most academic work is), but for we lowly laymen who feel tossed about by the waves, I think it may be good to provide a basic framing and approach to the whole issue. This is not some sort of slam-dunk response or solution to the problem the question raises. Rather it is a way to understand the problem so you can know where you stand and (hopefully) why you stand there. I have found this approach useful in my own thinking about the "historical Jesus," and it has solidified for me not only what's really going on in this issue but also what's really at stake.

It is believed that there is not one Jesus but two running amok out there. One is the "historical Jesus," and the other is the "theological Jesus". The "historical Jesus" refers to the actual flesh and blood person who lived in Roman-occupied Palestine around 2,000 years ago, while the "theological Jesus" refers to the theological doctrine and assertions made about Jesus by the early Church (and still held by much of the Church). One deals mainly with historical sociocultural contexts and facts while the other deals with philosophical and theological ideas and teachings. The whole "quest" for the "historical Jesus" is to try and focus on the former Jesus rather than the latter, to paint a portrait of the man himself devoid of any theological interpolations.

...and all I got was this lousy button.
The controversy surrounding such a "quest" (at least for the more traditionalist side of the issue) is that all of the theological teachings about Jesus (the Incarnation, the Atonement, His divinity, etc.) seem to be thrown under the bus. The assumption of some is that all of the theological interpolations about Jesus are just that: interpolations, additions made by well-meaning but hyperactive followers. Thus, all kinds of aspersions are cast about in regard to the early Church, including the validity and unity of its teachings and structure. (Note: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code tried to make much of this issue.) These aspersions can often frustrate and flummox those of us who are less than versed in early Church history and theology.

However, you don't need a doctorate in Church history or theology to understand a simple truth. At the beginning of the Church, Jesus left His ministry in the hands of the Apostles, who had nothing to go on except one objective, immutable fact: Jesus Himself. He existed, and He said and did incredible things, so now what? It is the "now what" that has driven Church theology. At the risk of oversimplification, everything written or interpreted or used since the singular fact of Jesus is simply commentary on that fact. The New Testament, the Church Councils and their Creeds, the "sacred" writings of the Church Fathers: all these things were and are commentary seeking to unpack and explain the fact of Jesus. (Even the Old Testament falls into this category, for Jesus changed the way it was read when He said it was all about Him; Luke 24:25-27, 44-48.) In addition, this commentary was originally a seat-of-the-pants affair for the Apostles: almost all of the N.T. letters are about hashing out what was and was not orthodox Christian teaching, and the "Jerusalem Council" of Acts 15 was about the same thing. There is nothing controversial about any of this, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something (most likely their latest book).

Obscuring? Or revealing?
The question, then, is not in choosing between the "historical Jesus" and the "theological Jesus". They are both true things: the flesh and blood Jewish man and the theological interpretation of Him made by his followers over the following years. Both the fact and the subsequent commentary are real. Again, the question is not about choosing between them. Rather, the real question is about the relationship between the two. In other words, does all that commentary obscure who Jesus really is and was, or does it reveal who He really is and was? Is the "theological Jesus" a threat or an aid in our understanding of the "historical Jesus"? Your answer to that question is paramount. Did the Apostles and Church Fathers and all Christians who followed them make up fanciful delusions or outright lies about Jesus? Or were they really moved by the Spirit to the truth (John 16:13; c.f. I Cor. 2:10-13)? The divide starts right there and nowhere else.

I believe that the commentary reveals who Jesus is (with varying approximation with regard to "sacred" tradition and councils). That may not earn me any friends, but it does give me grounds to say this to those who believe that it obscures Jesus: I request that you tread softly. I often feel that the "theological Jesus" is indeed too often and too easily thrown under the bus as irrelevant or incorrect. You need to understand that the theology surrounding Jesus is foundational to the lives of many, including me. We have built our lives (including our spiritual well-being) on this man from Galilee really being who His followers (and He Himself) said He was: God in the flesh, born to take away the sins of the world, coming again in righteousness to make war against all sin and evil and death. You may not believe in such a thing, but we do. Passionately and devotedly. So tread softly.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

1 comment:

  1. Yes, it is interesting how this comes in waves (Bultmann, anyone?). The Jesus Seminar is passe, but another demythologizing trend is right around the corner, I'm sure. In fact, right now among heretical mainliners, you can find pastors actually inserting readings from the gospel of Thomas and other such sources into the lectionary. This pressure to deny or minimize Jesus will never go away, even among Christians themselves.