Choose your own Jesus

I understand that the Holy Father’s second volume of his book “Jesus of Nazareth” is now at the translators. The first volume made a beautiful and timely argument for holding together what many “scholars” today prefer to separate: Jesus of Narareth and the Christ of God. (See here for a review of the book in The Times which takes decided issue with this approach and roundly condemns “canonical exegesis” as “groundless” and “an approach to biblical studies [which] would force back Catholic Bible experts, already the objects of frequent papal disapproval in Jesus of Nazareth, to a preCopernican stage of history”).

Now there is a remarkably sensible article in the New York Times, featured in Cathnews this morning, by Ross Douthat titled “Choose your own Jesus”. He begins:

Here’s a striking passage — an aside, really — from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay on the continuing (and continuing, and continuing) quest for the historical Jesus:

“James Tabor, a professor of religious studies, in his 2006 book “The Jesus Dynasty,” takes surprisingly seriously the old Jewish idea that Jesus was known as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera—as well attested a tradition as any [emphasis mine — RD], occurring in Jewish texts of the second century, in which a Jesus ben Pantera makes several appearances, and the name is merely descriptive, not derogatory.”

The whole problem with two centuries worth of historical Jesus scholarship is summed up in those seven words: “As well attested a tradition as any.”

The article is worth reading in its entirety, but here is Douthat’s main point – which squares well with that of Pope Benedict/Professor Ratzinger:

In the event, the synoptic gospels and Saint Paul’s epistles do make absolutely extraordinary claims, and so modern scholars have every right to read them with a skeptical eye, and question their factual reliability. But if you downgrade the earliest Christian documents or try to bracket them entirely, the documentary evidence that’s left is so intensely unreliable (dated, fragmentary, obviously mythological, etc.) that scholars can scavenge through it to build whatever Jesus they prefer — and then say, with Gopnik, that their interpretation of the life of Christ is “as well attested” as any other. Was Jesus a wandering sage? Maybe so. A failed revolutionary? Sure, why not. A lunatic who fancied himself divine? Perhaps. An apocalyptic prophet? There’s an app for that …

But this isn’t history: It’s “choose your own Jesus,” and it’s become an enormous waste of time. Again, there’s nothing wrong with saying that the supernaturalism of the Christian canon makes it an unreliable guide to who Jesus really was. But if we’re honest with ourselves, then we need to acknowledge what this means: Not the beginning of a fruitful quest for the Jesus of history, but the end of it.

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13 Responses to Choose your own Jesus

  1. Peregrinus says:

    Lord knows I’m no scripture scholar, and I’m not sure to what extent the “quest for the historical Jesus” consists, as Douthat seems to imply, of discounting entirely the canonical gospels and simply looking exclusively at the little that remains.

    That would be just silly. The reason Mt, Mk, Lk and Jn got to be the canonical gospels is precisely because they were judged to be the earliest, the closest to source, the most reliable. And it’s my impression that the consensus of modern scholars is that the early church got that judgment right; the canonical texts do match the criteria for historical reliability better than all of the non-canonical texts, and [i]much[/i] better than the great majority of them.

    Sure, when a text – canonical or not – relates an apparently miraculous event, from a historiographical point of view we are entitled to a degree of scepticism. The whole point of a miracle, after all, is that it is improbable.

    But when the same text tells us, e.g., that Jesus came from Nazareth, there’s nothing surprising or unlikely about that. And I don’t think we have to discount it merely because elsewhere the text makes less easily accepted claims.

    If we reject a text because it doesn’t fit neatly into the conventions of the modern genre of historiography, then we are certainly going to reject all the early texts dealing with Jesus, canonical and non-canonical. In fact, we are going to reject all pre-modern texts dealing with any subject whatsoever.

    • Louise says:

      In fact, we are going to reject all pre-modern texts dealing with any subject whatsoever.

      Exactly so, Pere.

    • Schütz says:

      That would be just silly. The reason Mt, Mk, Lk and Jn got to be the canonical gospels is precisely because they were judged to be the earliest, the closest to source, the most reliable.

      Oh, you are such an innocent, Perry! Didn’t you know that it was strong and powerful patriarchal forces supporting the Constantinian establishment that chose these four Gospels and declared all the rest “heretical” and set about burning them and those who read them? :-)

      I am only partly in jest. Read again the review of “Jesus of Nazareth Vol. I” in The Times to which I linked in this article. There is a definite “split” among modern scripture scholars. Those who are on the edge of or altogether outside of committment to a particular Christian community generally do not accept either an early dating for the gospels or their historical dependability, where as those who support an early dating for the gospels and their historical dependability (and apostolic authorship etc) tend to be conservative Christians.

      N.T. Wright, in his first volume “The New Testament and the People of God” makes an excellent case for historical reliability of the New Testament documents and the traditions we have received regarding their origins. However, he is quite consciously in opposition to the “Jesus Project” people.

      Pope Benedict, by encouraging an ecclesiastical or canonical reading of the Scriptures is opting out of the historicist scepticism of much current biblical scholarship. He makes it clear that to read the Scriptures as a they expect to be read is to read them with faith. Faith therefore becomes the only valid hermeneutic for Scripture. His interventions at the Synod on the Word of God a few years ago were masterpieces in this regard.

    • PM says:

      Your last sentence is spot on. Alasdair Macintyre likes to remind us that facts, like gentlemen’s wigs, were invented in the seventeenth century.

      But the attempts to gut the New Testament of any historical reliability, or of ‘high’ christology, fall down for other reasons.

      The earliest NT texts, by almost universal scholarly consensus, are the letters to the Thessalonians, and even they have a distinctly high Christology.

      And the gospel texts themelves date from c.64AD to c.90 AD in the case of John. (The attempts by late C19 German liberals to push out the fourth gospel to the end of the second century were blown out of the water years ago by the discovery of the Rylands codex.) So the use of thems like ‘oral tradition’ is sloppy and misleading. They ae better described as oral history, dealing with events within living memory (think of the Vietnam war or WWII today). They are interpretive, and follow the canons of ancient historical writing rather than modern, but it is simply implausible to think they could have radically falsified events so recent.

      We also need to be careful not to caricature the pope here. He is not advocating abandoning the historical-critical method – he is too good a scholar for that – and makes judicious use of it himself. Rather, he is insisting that it is not enough on its own. To write off canonical criticism as the Times reviewer does is mere prejudice; ther are many reputable scholars who use it.

      One of my favourite lines from the historian AJP Taylor, on Marxism in historial method, applies also to discussion of the historical criticism of the Scriptures: ‘an essential ingredient in any good drink, but poison if taken neat’.

      Let’s hope volume II is out soon.

      • Schütz says:

        The earliest NT texts, by almost universal scholarly consensus, are the letters to the Thessalonians, and even they have a distinctly high Christology.

        This “received knowledge” is not actually the case. There is a very good body of opinion based on what I regard to be a fairly sound reading of the texts, that would put the Letter to the Galatians as the oldest New Testament text, followed by the first letter to the Thessalonians. This is the position of N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington III et aliter. It depends upon a particular reading of the Galatians 2 encounter between Peter and Paul and reading the Acts 15 narrative as an event that really happened. This dates the writing of the letter to the Galatians as coming BEFORE the council of Jerusalem, and hence BEFORE Paul’s second Missionary Journey (which included his time in Thessalonica). In part this is depends on taking the so-called “South Galatia” theory (after all, Paul had just been there!), but it is even more so because the Letter to the Galatians doesn’t even mention the Jerusalem Council – which I regard as only possible if a) the Jerusalem Council is a piece of fiction by Luke or b) it was written before the Jerusalem Council. I will write more fully on this some time, but to me this makes sense: Galatians is a “letter of the moment”, a fiery outburst (but none the less a carefully worked out piece of rhetoric for all that). It is his initial statement regarding Justification, which is later refined by Romans.

        When meeting a young priest of the Archdiocese (who has been newly appointed to the role of NT Lecturer at the Catholic Theological College) in Rome last year, I mentioned my belief that Galatians was Paul’s first letter. He looked at me somewhat askance, as if to say “You believe what?”, so it is true that the priority of Galatians probably has about as much support among the majority of NT Scholars as the priority of Matthew (which is, of course, another issue entirely). Nevertheless, I would be careful about saying straight out that Thessalonians is agreed by all to be the earliest. It is a bit like the scriptural evidence for Mary having/not having other children. Some see it there in the text, others don’t.

      • Schütz says:

        And the gospel texts themelves date from c.64AD to c.90 AD in the case of John.

        Yes, again this is a general consensus. The later dates are more and more discredited. Nevertheless, as Bishop John Robinson pointed out over three decades ago, it is mighty strange that none (except perhaps the Letter to the Hebrews?) of the New Testament documents – certainly not John’s Gospel! – have anything in them to indicate awareness of the 9/11 event of the first Century: ie. the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD70. Luke’s Gospel is especially interesting in one other regard. IF the ending with Paul in Rome (prior to his execution) is because the execution had not yet taken place, THAT pushes the date of the Gospel of Luke (written prior to Acts) back even earlier than 64AD, and THAT pushes the Gospel of Mark (on which both Matthew and Luke appear to bear some relation at least) even further back than that. It means that we are ending up with dates somewhere around 50AD (more around the time of the Letters to the Thessalonians) for the Gospel of Mark, up to prior to 70AD for the Gospel of John. Yet to suggest this would be to invite howls of horror from most modern NT scholars. Yet is there ANY historical or textual reason why (as John Robinson posited all those years ago) this could not be the case? No, none at all. Only the prejudice of the scholars themselves, who would like to say that a mere twenty years or so is not “long enough” for the early Christian Community to develop such an “high Christology” as is evident in the NT. Sound familiar?

  2. Louise says:

    But if we’re honest with ourselves, then we need to acknowledge what this means: Not the beginning of a fruitful quest for the Jesus of history, but the end of it.

    I think that’s right.

  3. Matthias says:

    albert schweitzer wrote a book THE QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS ,and i think he ended more confused than when he started it. But of course he went from being Lutheran to unitarian,need we say more!!

  4. Christine says:

    Matthias, it’s true that Schweitzer ended up rejecting the “canonical” Jesus yet I will always have a deep admiration for him.

    His gentle, loving compassion for people and all creation puts many “orthodox” Christians to shame.


  5. Matthias says:

    Yes Christine although Schweitzer was doctrinally questionable,his life was a complete opposite. I had a record of him playing the organ at Gunsbach parish church-where his father was the pastor i think-and to hear Bach’s Toccato and Fugue in D played truly lived up to Bach’s writings on all of his music TO GOD ALONE THE GLORY. To live and practice medicine in Africa at a time when antibiotics and antimalarials were rare ,is indicative of his faith.It is a pity that he never met the Risen Lord. He is one of my heroes along the Leprosy specialists and Christians ,such as Robert Greenhill Cochrane and Paul Brand and a missionary my friend Graeme Staines -who i lost contact with some years before heo was martyred in India. These all knew and had abiding faith in Jesus.

  6. Christine says:

    Matthias, as to whether or not Schweitzer ever met the risen Lord I will leave to Him to judge.

    As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments.


  7. An Liaig says:

    I recently had to do a fair bit of scriptural study and, as a scientist, I found it very frustrating. These people can go off on wild, fantastical elaborations of ideas based on the filmsiest pretext (I do not say evidence!). If this were science it would be laughed at and certainly not published. The whole “historical Jesus” thing is a huge wast of time. There is no evidence other than what the early church believed.The “historical Jesus” people make their mark by discounting parts of this belief and accepting others. Whatever their pretense, their grounds for doing this are simply their own opinions and tasts. This does not mean that the historical-critical method, which looks at the gospels within the social context of their authors is not valuable. Just that the sub-section which looks for the “historical Jesus” rather than the Christ is a load of male bovine excrement.

    • PM says:

      Indeed the same frustration is true for history graduates, who often find the pathological scepticism of much NT criticism unnecesary and overdone.

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