Response to Paul Forgasz on “How Jesus the Faithful Jew became the Christ of Christian Faith”

Response to Paul Forgasz

“How Jesus the Faithful Jew became the Christ of Christian Faith”

 Council of Christians and Jews, 5 July 2015

Thank you, Paul, for three things. First of all for the wonderful presentation you have made to us this afternoon. The topic is vast and addressing it in the space of a few hours is no easy task. Secondly, thank you for leading us in this topic as a Jewish scholar. The contribution of Jewish scholars and institutions (such as the Jewish Museum of Australia) to the study of Christian origins is of enormous value. Finally, I thank you personally for this brief opportunity of a “right of reply” from a Christian perspective.

It must be said that I am in agreement with much of that which Paul has presented. It is, after all, “history”, and Christians and Jews have nothing to fear from historical studies. Pope Benedict XVI, in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, wrote:

 …[T]he historical-critical method – specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith – is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolising suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnatus est [“And he was made flesh”] – when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history. (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. xv)


In the writing and telling of ancient history, however, “historical facts” are notoriously difficult to pin down. More accurately we should speak of “historical evidence” (such as texts, bits of pottery and papyrus, bones and stones, coffins and coins and so forth). Then there is “historical narrative”, the story we tell to make sense of that evidence.


In the first volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series, New Testament historian Tom Wright has a great chapter on “History and the First Century”. He writes:


“There is not, nor can there be, any such thing as a bare chronicle of events without a point of view… At a general level, it is clear from a moment’s thought that all history involves selection… In order, then, to make any statements about the past, human beings have to engage in a massive programme of selection… Suppose, for example, we try to make a small but central claim about Jesus. If we say ‘Christ died for our sins’, it is not too difficult to see an obvious element of interpretation: ‘for our sins’ is a theological addendum to the otherwise ‘historical’ statement. But even if we say ‘Christ died’, we have not escaped interpretation: we have chosen to refer to Jesus as ‘Christ’, ascribing to him a Messiahship which neither his contemporaries nor ours would universally grant. Very well: ‘Jesus died’. But we still have not escaped ‘interpretation’, and indeed at this point it looms larger than ever: three people died outside Jerusalem that afternoon, and we have chosen to mention only one. For that matter, thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans in the vicinity of Jerusalem during the same century, and we have chosen to mention only one. Our apparently bare historical remark is the product of a multi-faceted interpretative decision. Nor is this unusual. It is typical of all history. All history involves selection, and it is always human beings who do the selecting.” (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God)


The principle of selection applies also to the statement on today’s flyer: “Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew.” Like “Christ died for our sins”, it too is an historical narrative based on an interpretation of a selection of available evidence.


But of course historians do generally agree about what makes for “good history”, such that it is possible (with a high degree of objectivity) to refute (on the ground of historical evidence) historical narratives which (for instance) deny the Holocaust. Tom Wright again:


“First, [any historical narrative] must include the data. The bits and pieces of evidence must be incorporated, without being squeezed out of shape any more than is inevitable… Second, it must construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture… [Thirdly, t]he proposed explanatory story must prove itself fruitful in other related areas, must explain or help to explain other [historical] problems.” (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God)


So, as to today’s particular historical question: How “Jesus the faithful Jew became the Christ of the Christian faith”. I recently read a very interesting book by the American ex-priest and novelist James Carroll (who also wrote “Constantine’s Sword”). His new book is called “Christ Actually”. Toward the start of the book, he writes:


“Drawing on recent scholarship, we have made a touchstone of the Jewishness of Jesus— and the Jewishness of the interpretations that were invented for him. Taking his full humanness not only as a starting point but as an end point, too, we have nevertheless asked what it means to say that Jesus is God, knowing full well that if Jesus of Nazareth had not been understood as divine, we would never have heard of him. Here is the irony: if Jesus was not God, he was not even Virgil, or Socrates, or Dante. His greatness cannot be measured on the scale of exceptional intelligence, imagination, or even courage. Indeed, if greatness adheres in Jesus, it does so as much because of what was made of him as because of what he was. The two things, of course, are tied together: what he was shaped what was made of him, beginning with those terms drawn from the book of Daniel, where, as Son of Man, he began to be understood as somehow of God. So we are by no means content to reduce Jesus to the status of an “only human” character who was posthumously— falsely— elevated to divine status by his disappointed followers, especially Saint Paul. Jesus will be honored in the next millennium, and beyond, only if he is still regarded as somehow divine.” (Carroll, James Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.)


Carroll holds that the most significant historical statement we can make about Jesus is that “Jesus is God”; because if Jesus had never came to be regarded as God, his life and death would never even have registered on the historical seismograph. Although Pope Benedict rightly said in his introduction to Jesus of Nazareth, that “to believe that, as man, [Jesus] truly was God…exceeds the scope of the historical method” (p. xxiii), nevertheless, Carroll argues that we wouldn’t have “Jesus the Faithful Jew” if it were not for “the Christ of Christian Faith”.


The problem for historians is that we have centuries of historical evidence for the “Christ of faith”, but, embarrassingly, all of the historical evidence for the historical Jesus also comes from this period of faith. We have no evidence about the transition from the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith untouched by the event of that transition having already taken place.


Many historians of the period write as if the transition from the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith was a slow process of evolution, from the emerging church in the 1st Century to the Constantinian revolution three centuries later. In my reading of the available evidence, while the precise definition of what it meant for Jesus to be “the Christ of faith” took centuries, “Jesus the Faithful Jew” became “the Christ of Christian Faith” fairly suddenly. Exhibit One would be the earliest writings of the apostle Paul, dating from about twenty years after the death of Jesus. In these letters, Paul tells us about his encounters years earlier with the Jewish disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem, thus evidencing the existence of a community continuous with the historical Jesus. Secondly, Paul’s authentic writings contain clear evidence that in this community the practice of calling Jesus both “Son of God” and “Messiah” was already well established in his time.


So how did this sudden transition from “Jesus the Faithful Jew” to “the Christ of the Christian Faith” take place? Is there an event, a turning point, in this narrative which is open to historical investigation in a way that the claim of Jesus ‘divinity’ is not? I want to suggest there is, although very few historians have ever dared to approach it even by means of sideways glances, let alone head-on. There is one event, claimed repeatedly and consistently by all the 1st Century Christian authors and evidenced by the continued existence of a Christian community itself immediately after the death of Jesus, that can and should be the focus of investigation for anyone who seriously wants to answer today’s question: “How Jesus the Faithful Jews became the Christ of Christian Faith”.


Carroll made the point that had Jesus not been acclaimed as God, we would never have heard of him. I want to make a point of greater priority: that the confession of Jesus’s divinity – which is a metaphysical claim accessible only to faith – depended upon an historical event that vindicated the crucified Jesus as the Messiah sent by Israel’s God. That single event vindicating Jesus as the Messiah was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.


As an historian, as well as a person of faith, I believe that the story of the resurrection of Jesus is the historical narrative that best incorporates all the pieces of historical evidence (without “squeezing them out of shape”) into a basically simple and coherent overall picture that explains how “Jesus the Faithful Jew became the Christ of Christian Faith”. And I think this narrative helps make sense of pretty much everything else in the emergence of the early Christian movement.


After all, following his death – an incredibly shameful and public death which the rabbis rightly noted in the centuries that followed should have proven once and for all that Jesus was not the Messiah – what reason would his disciples have had to have made any claims at all for the historical Jesus? Every record we have of other 1st and 2nd Century messianic movements indicate that once the messianic pretender was dead, the movement he ignited also died. But not so with Jesus.


I believe we have good historical reasons for saying that “Jesus the Faithful Jew” became “the Christ of Christian Faith” by rising from the dead. The Resurrection is the one fact about the historical Jesus upon which all the early Christian writings agree: all four Gospels, all the Pauline literature, authentic as well as pseudopigraphic, the book of Acts, the Johannine and Petrine Letters, the Letter to the Hebrews, the book of Revelation – even the non-canonical letters of Clement and Barnabas – all 1st Century documents – agree on this point. Every early Christian community and tradition taught that Jesus had risen from the dead.


But is citing the Resurrection as the causal bridge between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith an unforgivable blending of history and faith? Is the Resurrection something that “exceeds the scope of the historical method”, as Pope Benedict said about the claim of Jesus’ divinity? I believe it is a defensible subject of historical enquiry because it is not per se a metaphysical statement: the resurrection of Jesus is not primarily a theological idea, but an event that the first Christians claimed actually happened. Since there is ‘historical evidence’ (in the form of the consistent witness of the first Christians) that such an event took place, we ought to be able to investigate these claims historically. And we should do so, because if it did take place, the resurrection actually goes a long way to explaining how Jesus the Jew became the Christ of faith.


Not surprisingly, historians of our topic tend to exclude the event of the Resurrection – not because there is insufficient historical evidence (many other events of ‘history’ in the ancient world have received unquestioning acceptance on much slimmer evidence), but because most scholars would say it is simply impossible. We can see this (understandable) bias for what is when we realise that our evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus is exactly the same as our evidence for his resurrection (ie. the primitive Christian narratives preserved in the 1st Century texts), yet few historians would deny that Jesus was crucified.


Historians have therefore attempted and will continue to attempt alternative explanations for the continuation of the Messianic movement of Jesus after his death. Personally I don’t think any of these alternative narratives do the job of (1) incorporating all the pieces of historical evidence (2) putting it into a basically simple and coherent overall picture and (3) doing this without squeezing the evidence out of shape. If it were not for our cast iron insistence that a physical resurrection from the dead is simply impossible, then – based on the historical evidence of multiple attestation in the 1st Century texts – the historical narrative of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead would far and away be our most satisfying explanation for “How Jesus the Faithful Jew became the Christ of Christian Faith.”

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