The Fundamental -ist Problem of Jesus

Jun 19 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Sarah Jones wrote yesterday about the incompatibility of Ayn Rand and Jesus, which got me thinking about Jesus himself. And I don’t mean the Jesus fundamentalists like to invoke without thought, but the historical Jesus. It’s “Jesus” this and “Jesus” that but what are they really saying? Do they even know? And do you want the Protestant Jesus (more varieties than Edy’s ice cream), the Catholic Jesus, the Mormon Jesus? Do you want the “European” Jesus shown above or a Semitic Jesus?  Did Jesus have a social agenda, was his message political or purely religious? The list of possibilities is near endless.

We have to consider the historical Jesus versus the Bible Jesus (each Gospel has it’s own Jesus even and Paul has a different one). Christians do recognize the need for a historical Jesus: “Without a historical Christ there is no Christianity.” So say Kreeft and Tacelli in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics.[1] Christians need, after all, as Paul early recognized, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus,[2] though Paul seemed blithely ignorant (or uncaring) of Jesus’ life and teachings.

At the same time, many Christians (and it would be dangerous here to generalize too much) do not want a historical Jesus or rather, they want a specific historical Jesus. Why? A historical Jesus is a direct challenge to the primacy and inerrancy of scripture, not to mention the literality held so dear by “traditionalists,” or as they are sometimes called, “reconstructionists.” Christians are at times willing to explore the historical background of Jesus but this seldom serves any purpose other than finding proof for what is already accepted as fact.

That is, any historical Jesus must match exactly the Jesus of Christian belief, doctrine and dogma (not necessarily the Jesus portrayed in the Gospel accounts, for as we will see, these are not identical). What we end up with is a case of “feel free to research the historical Jesus as long as you use these sources and come up with these conclusions.” We must take to heart the warning of E.P. Sanders, who notes that many New Testament scholars write books about Jesus in which they discover that he corresponds with their own version of Christianity.[3]

It is absurdly easy to find different Jesuses in the New Testament. Geza Vermes has found one possibility; E.P. Sanders has found another; Michael Grant another; N.T. Wright another, Bart Ehrman another, and Jean Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar yet another. Mine (and yours) might be different from any or all of them. Any of these is possible, and any of them is just as plausible, and I would argue at least as plausible as the interpretation that makes Jesus God.

For argument’s sake, let’s take a quick look at some of the various ways Jesus has been interpreted by scholars in this century alone:[4]

  • As a Galilean holy man (hasid): Geza Vermes Jesus the Jew (1973), A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (1993). A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (1992).[5]
  • As an eschatological prophet: Michael Grant, Jesus (1977), E.P. Sanders Jesus and Judaism (1985), J.P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (1991), Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999), Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant (2006). Note: Gary Wills believes that to tame the gospels in order to put them to humanitarian uses goes against Jesus’ teachings.
  • As a Magician: Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (1978). Note: Celsus, author of the True Doctrine, agrees: “It was by magic that he was able to do the miracles” (Contra Celsum 1.6).
  • As an innovative Rabbi: Bruce Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible (1984).
  • As a trance-inducing psychotherapist: S. Davies, On the Inductive Discourse of Jesus: The Psychotherapeutic Foundation of Christianity. Jesus Seminar (1992).
  • As a political revolutionary: S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (1967), G.W. Buchanon, Jesus: The King and his Kingdom (1984). Note: This is how the Romans saw him, as evidenced by his crucifixion.
  • As an Essene Teacher: J. Allegro, Jesus and Qumran: The Dead Sea Scrolls (1986)
  • As a Proto-Liberal Theologian: J.M. Robinson, The Jesus of Q as Liberation Theologian, Jesus Seminar (1991)
  • As a Cynic Sage: J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), F.G. Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (1992), Burton L. Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (1988), idem, The Last Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (1993), Note: Burton Mack denies to Jesus any association with Judaism and its apocalyptic mythology. His Jesus comes from a completely Hellenized Galilee.
  • As a Charismatic Prophet: Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings off Jesus (1984), idem, Jesus: A New Vision (1987). Note: Borg denies the significance of eschatology in Jesus’ message. In his own words, Jesus “was a charistmatic heatler or ‘holy person,’ a subversive sage who undermined conventional wisdom and taught an alternative wisdom, a social propet, and an initiator of a movement the purpose of which was the revitalization of Israel.”[6]
  • As a Prophet and Messenger of Sophia (Wisdom Prophet): Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983). Note: For Fiorenza, Jesus and his movement challenged patriarchy and were sociopolitical in orientation rather than eschatological.[7]
  • As a Radical Prophet: Richard Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (1985), idem, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (1987), idem, Sociology and the Jesus Movement (1989). Note: Horsley places Jesus in the eschatological traditions of Israel but Jesus is a social revolutionary who took the side of the poor against the ruling elite.
  • As Rightful King of Israel and Messiah: James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (2006). Tabor’s Jesus “was a political revolutionary who expected nothing less than the violent overthrow of the kingdom of the world.”[8]

Others deny his existence altogether and see the Gospels as nothing but myth. For the sake of argument I will accept Jesus as having a historical (if debatable) pedigree.[9] As should be clear by now, Christopher Bryan’s statement that “the historical Jesus” is “an expression that is hardly without problems of its own” is an understatement.[10] And our list above does not even cover, for the most part, the various views held by the various Christianities of antiquity.[11]

Every time one Christian missionary or another comes knocking on your door, we are reminded that there is no single “gospel” out there. There was not in 30 C.E. upon Jesus’ death (as a reading of Paul just a couple of decade later already shows three well-established groups – his own churches, the Jerusalem community of Jesus’ disciples, and the group represented by Apollos, in Egypt, all with contending and mutually contradictory gospels – and it quickly got much worse. So when someone throws Jesus at you, find out which Jesus it is and remember that whichever Jesus it is they’re selling, they’re selling it for a reason.

[1] Peter Kreef and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 213. Messrs Kreef and Tacelli are professors of philosophy at Boston College.

[2] Paul recounts the consequences of Christ not being resurrected at 1 Cor. 15:12-19. Obviously, if Jesus is not the Christ, things are just as serious.

[3] E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 330,  n. 148. See also idem, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin, 1993). Sanders agrees with Michael Grant that Jesus likely died disappointed.

[4] This list is based on categories suggested by Paul Rhodes Eddy, “Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis” JBL 115 (1996), 449-469.

[5] For Anglican scholar N.T. Wright’s highly critical review of Wilson’s book see N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 37-64.

[6] In “Portraits of Jesus in Contemporary North American Scholarship,” HTR 84 (1991), 1-22 Borg examines not only his own views of Jesus but several of those others mentioned here, including Sanders, Fiorenza, Horsley, and Mack.

[7] See also Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation,” HTR 90 (1997), 343-358, where she argues “that historical Jesus research is a critical practice and process that must continually attempt to re-envision on historical-critical grounds our knowledge about Jesus and the discipleship community that carries his name.” Gerd Ludemann’s evaluation (Primitive Christianity, 88) of Fiorenza’s analysis is that “The theological zeal behind this book is at least as absolutist as the patriarchalist exegesis of primitive Christianity and modernity which  Schüssler Fiorenza attacks.”

[8] James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 161-162.

[9] See, for example, George A. Wells, Who was Jesus?: A Critique of the New Testament Record (Open Court, 1989).

[10] Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford, 2005), 7.

[11] For these various views, see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003)




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