Monday, December 5, 2011

Which Jesus?

Back in the late 60’s when I was a freshman in college I ran across a book that was one of those “eye opening” experiences for me. The book, by John Wick Bowman, was titled Which Jesus? It was Bowman’s attempt to provide the reader with what was, at that time, the current state of the research on the so-called Quest of the Historical Jesus. Albert Schweitzer had defined (though not begun) the “Quest” at the beginning of the last century with the publication of his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). He was reacting to the publication (by scholars like H. S. Reimarus, Ernst Renan, D. F. Strauss, and Wilhelm Wrede) of what has been called the “Liberal Lives of Christ,” highly imaginative “biographies” of Jesus all of which minimized (or eliminated) his deity and magnified his humanity (as the German title of Schweitzer’s book made clear: von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, “From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of the Life of Jesus Research”). The sticking point in most of these “Liberal Lives” was the fact that the canonical Gospels consistently portray Jesus as a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet who heralded the end of the world and the advent of the Kingdom of God in his own life and ministry.
These liberal scholars found that apocalyptic Jesus to be far too bizarre, other worldly, incredible, and “irrelevant” to the modern world to be of much practical use, so they fashioned a “Jesus” more to their liking. They presented their readers with a “Jesus” who was, not surprisingly, very much like them – an erudite, elitist, liberal, pipe-smoking moralist (okay, so I made up the part about the pipe smoking) who advocated the “Kingdom of God” (defined in this-worldly terms) and the “Brotherhood of Man,” who went around spouting moral platitudes and preaching tolerance, justice, inclusivity, and peace. The problem is, you can only maintain that view of Jesus so long as you don’t open the Gospels and actually read them! "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). "You snakes, generation of vipers, how shall you escape the judgment of hell?" (Matthew 23:34). "I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of this world, even as I am not of this world" (John 17:14). I could go on.  Schweitzer’s Quest all but ended the production of the Liberal Lives of Christ in that he proved, on credible critical grounds, that the Jesus of history (as preserved and defined in the canonical Gospels) was not the pious moralist the Liberal Lives had portrayed him to be but was rather an apocalyptic prophet foretelling (and forcing! Schweitzer argued) the end of this world and the advent of the next.

Bowman’s book was influential for me simply because I never knew, before reading Which Jesus?, that we even had a choice! I was naïve enough to think that the Jesus of the Gospels was the only “Jesus” there was, and that one either accepted him or rejected him. I never knew that, if you didn’t like the Jesus the Gospels give you, you could just come up with your own! How convenient! I dug deeper and read Schweitzer’s Quest only to find out, to my chagrin, that just about the time I had discovered that there was a “Quest for the Historical Jesus” it was over! Schweitzer had killed it merely by reading the Gospels and letting them speak for themselves. Once you do that, it becomes clear that Jesus was not a “pipe-smoking moralistic liberal,” but a counter-cultural, apocalyptic messianic herald of the Kingdom of God.

But Schweitzer apparently had underestimated the tenacity and temerity of the “Liberal Lives.” Toss them out the window and in they come through the back door, this time through the efforts and auspices of the so-called “Jesus Seminar.” The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars who have, in their own way, taken up again the 19th century “Quest” to produce a “Jesus” more amenable and acceptable to contemporary persons (read: liberal, broad-minded moralist with no thoughts of “another world” beyond this one). They justify this perspective on the ground that, in their view, the Four Gospels are not credible historical sources for recovering the historical Jesus but rather preserve as much interpretation (read "opinion") of the early church as the authentic words and thoughts of Jesus. These “hyper-critics” would suggest that when you read the Gospels, you are not really gaining access to Jesus, but rather to his first interpreters (the early church understood as the first-century communities of faith that preserved the traditions about Jesus, applied them to their own contexts, and then re-wrote those traditions accordingly). The leading exponents of this hyper-critical school of NT study would be NT scholars such as Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Bart Erhman and the so-called "Jesus Seminar" which actually published a volume which they titled The Five Gospels (because they included the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas” as a legitimate Gospel!) purporting to list in red the words in the Gospels which, they believe, can be verified with absolute certainty as deriving from Jesus. Not surprisingly, they find very few! Several of them have actually undertaken to write new “Lives of Jesus,” perhaps the most well-known of which is Marcus Borg’s Jesus: A New Vision. You’ve got to give it to him, at least he’s honest. In Jesus: A New Vision Borg admits that he rejects the canonical “Jesus” who is portrayed as an eschatological, apocalyptic prophet of the Kingdom not because he doubts that this was who Jesus really was, but rather because he believes this “Jesus” to be incredible and irrelevant to modern and postmodern people! Not surprisingly, Borg’s “Jesus” resembles far more the Greek parapatetic philosopher spouting liberal moralistic platitudes wrapped in esoteric language depicted in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, the “darling Gospel” of the Jesus Seminar, than he does the “Jesus” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This hyper-critical, revisionist view of Jesus and the Gospels has now been popularized (and even mainstreamed!) by the popular book and movie The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown openly admitting that he relies heavily on the "findings" of the Jesus Seminar.

But as much as I dislike the fact that the historical Jesus of the canonical Gospels has been assaulted by his enemies in the academic world (Note: not every scholar is an enemy of the historical Jesus!), he has not fared much better among his friends! There is an anti-intellectualism afoot in the church these days that regards thinking itself as an act of unbelief, even thinking about Jesus! For these “hyper-believers” any attempt to take Scripture seriously enough to ask questions of it is regarded as a threat to faith. “If you had enough faith,” they argue, “you wouldn’t have to ask questions; you’d just believe.” Besides,” they argue, “it’s all about having a personal relationship with Jesus, not about ‘studying’ him. I don’t have to know anything about the historical Jesus to have a personal relationship with him!”

While I agree that faith is not built on "absolute proof" else it would not be faith, I nonetheless submit that the trustworthiness of the Gospels in giving us reliable historical information about Jesus is essential for an authentic faith in him. The reason is that without the witness of the Scriptures, how can we ever be sure that the "Jesus" of our personal relationship is THE JESUS and not just a "Jesus" of our own devising and, therefore, just as much a “fraud” as the “Jesus” devised by the “Jesus Seminar”? One of the cautions of which I must constantly be aware is that the "Jesus" I hold in my heart MUST BE the same "Jesus" witnessed to in the Scriptures, else I have put my faith in a fraud.

What I'm saying is that as a believer I must always check my personal "Jesus" (the Jesus I hold in my heart) against the "Jesus" who is revealed in the Scripture to ensure that they are, in fact, one and the same. To put a finer point on it: If the "Jesus" I hold in my heart ever "tells me" to do something that is in conflict with the "Jesus" revealed in the Scriptures, I can be sure that "my Jesus" is not THE JESUS.

I am capable, if left to my own devices, of creating a "Jesus" after my own image who will (Surprise! Surprise!) vindicate everything I want to believe and think and do!

That's why the Word of God, not my personal feelings, is always the final arbiter of faith. And, of course, that makes it incumbent upon those of us who are believers in Jesus to engage in the difficult, demanding, but absolutely necessary work of being a serious student of the Word of God so that we, in its pages, will encounter (and cultivate a personal relationship with) THE JESUS rather than just “my Jesus.”

According to one of the canonical Gospels (Matthew 27:31), even the Roman soldiers at Jesus' trial, after their sport – after they had stripped him, mocked him, and beaten him – had the decency to put his own clothes back on him before they led him away to be crucified. I hope Jesus fares as well this Christmas in your church and mine.


John King said...

It is amazing to me that those who address the issue of "the historical Jesus" continue to come to such different conclusions. Even among what appears to be conservative scholars, there are such differences. The last I read of Witherington, he says that the historical Jesus was the One greater than Solomon and was a Jewish Sage that embodied God's Wisdom. Wow! Nothing like what I learned in church or seminary. Wright seems more like what I was taught but he seems to de-emphasize the apocalytic nature of Jesus' message. It seems that even if one accepts that the Gospels are historical, exactly what historical reality they portray is open to many interpretations.

Anonymous said...

These are some good thoughts, Dr. Stacy. As you said, we need to constantly be on watch to ensure that the Jesus we treasure in our hearts is the same Jesus who revealed Himself in Scripture. Any other Jesus is no Jesus at all, but rather an idol.

Wow, John, that's sad to hear about Ben Witherington. Sounds like he's read too much Crossan and likes the idea of a Jesus who is a "Mediterranean Jewish Peasant Cynic."