Monday, September 1, 2014

Re-Post On The Quest For The Historical Jesus

The Quest For The Historical Jesus

There is a book making the rounds right now, ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH, and it is yet another attempt to give a 'historically accurate' account of the Jesus who eventually became the focus of the movement that would eventually become Christianity.

Now I haven't read the book, and I am not likely to. Not because I have any problem with the idea, but because I have read literally mountains of books on this subject. I've seen historians approach the "Historical Jesus" from every different direction: Buddhist convert, literal embodiment of the Gospel picture, the first hippy, the last prophet, the founder of a new religion or the defender of an old religion. The suggestion that Jesus was a standard 1st Century Jewish revolutionary is not, ironically, a revolutionary idea. It has been put forth many times by many gifted historians, and a few not-so-gifted historians.

I have read Jesus commentaries by Bart Ehrman and he is an atheist, by Hyam Maccoby and he's a Jew who smeared Paul, and on and on. I enjoy historical studies of Jesus, they are instructive and add to my life. I just don't see anything in the excerpts or reviews I've read that lead me to believe this book is all that groundbreaking, nor that the author's particular scholarly approach is very different than anyone else's.

Look, people, the simple fact of the matter is that we don't really "know" in the most scientific sense of that word much about very many historical figures who lived before the invention of modern media. The truth of the matter is that in most cases, when it comes to really important figures, we are reliant on second or third hand accounts that are more about advancing some particular ideological agenda. There was a time when the general historical move was to be skeptical of these kinds of sources. But over time, historians have gravitated more towards the view that the general outlines of these accounts are generally correct. The historians job is really to come up with a kind of narrative...a story that is more or less likely true as it coheres with other things we know from other sources. So, for instance, a historian can never, as a historian, take seriously the accounts of miracles because they don't cohere with other things we know from the hard sciences. Of course a historian may be a person of faith, but they can only engage life as a person of faith when they have taken their historian's hat off, lest their faith be given the air of scientific knowledge.

A good corollary to the Jesus situation is Socrates. We know almost nothing about Socrates except what other people wrote about him. And all of those people had ideological agendas. But the number of people who put forth theories that Socrates was a RADICALLY different person from who those sources present him as are few and far between.

My own construction of Jesus' life, and message, and self-understanding, as presented in my book CONVERSATIONAL THEOLOGY, is not strictly in line with most Christian sensibilities. In fact, it is far afield from those sensibilities, and it is indebted heavily to works not unlike the one under discussion here. But everyone needs to understand that ANY such construction is a narrative, and one can only be more or less confident of the veracity of that narrative. It is not simply the matter of a historical construction being true or false, because we know little about the truth or falsity of the matter.

Engaging in historical review of the life of Jesus is important and theologically useful, but there are a few things to remember:

1) Historians who write books are also trying to sell books. A historian will push a particular vision as being more certain than it is in order to gain a following. Do not assume that because someone is a PhD they always know what they are talking about, even in their own field. And don't assume that just because they sound certain that they are, or have reason to be.

2) Historical knowledge is best gained by looking over the broadest range of information sources. Don't be taken in by one particular historical account. Read many authors, especially conflicting authors, and then rely on your own common sense to try to come up with your own personal understanding of who YOU THINK Jesus was.

3) The Gospels must be looked at critically but not skeptically. They are not just the best accounts we have of who Jesus was: they are really the only accounts we have. Don't assume the Gospels are some kind of newspaper report that was about 'just the facts and only the facts.' But don't assume that they are nothing more than fantasies or political diatribes either. They are both what happened and a polemical interpretation of what happened.

4) Beware of people who rely too heavily on the social and political realities of the times. The historical locus of the person is very important, but nobody is simply the produce of their cultural environment. People stand out in part because they live differently than others around them. Socrates was a very Greek man, and understanding Greek culture can help you understand who he was. But Socrates was also a very unusual man, who stood apart from other Greeks and Greek thinkers. If a person simply projects a prevailing attitude onto a particular person BECAUSE it was a prevailing attitude, that is to deny the complexity of what it means to be a person.

5) Alongside #4, be VERY skeptical when someone tries to reduce a historical figure down to one particular  idea, thought, action, attitude, or belief. Most people believe a lot of things, and indeed contradictory things. What's more, people's beliefs and attitudes change over time. A person is not reducible to a single image, and this is especially true of those people who are socially significant.

6) Look at all sources critically. Be critical of everything everyone says. Don't think that just because someone has letters after their name what they say is the very Word of God. It isn't.

7*) 1-6 is true for anyone, believer or atheist, Buddhist or Christian who is interested in the life of Jesus and people like him. But #7 is for my Christian brothers and sisters: Don't be afraid of wearing your faith hat. All knowledge has limits. Science has limits, and historical knowledge even more so. Faith has a place. Don't shy away from the rigors of scientific inquiry, even when it comes to the historical foundations of your faith. But when historical study ends, faith can begin. If you begin a study of the life of Jesus with the conviction, and I mean the faith conviction, that anything you discover can only deepen your understanding of the nature of God, then you can fully embrace all the world of the mind has to offer, and continue on the adventure that can only be found in the world of the soul.

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