Saturday, 10 April 2010

Is Jesus history bunkum?

One of the thoughts that struck me while reading Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was that it was all very familiar. That may seem a surprising comment given the rather contentious title and the central idea of the narrative, but it may also explain why Christian reaction to the book has not been as overtly hostile as some, including The Church Mouse, had expected.

Firstly, a great deal of the story is a fairly straightforward retelling of the gospels and in particular the parables and teaching discourses of Jesus. There are a few tweaks to some of the teaching and yet nothing which really alters the character of the discourses. I guess those unfamiliar with the teaching of Jesus won’t spot most of the changes made by Pullman and I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few Christians don’t pick up the alterations either.

Secondly, despite the striking idea of Mary having twins called Jesus and Christ, the basic theory being played out by Pullman is nothing new. The Jesus presented by Pullman will be familiar to anyone who has studied the various quests for the historical Jesus going back to the scholarship of the eighteenth century. In these quests Biblical scholars have tried to get behind the gospel texts, the Jesus of faith, to the Jesus of history. The quests have taken various forms at different times but the basic underlying presupposition is that the Jesus we encounter in the scriptural texts presents a picture of Jesus heavily influenced, if not distorted, by the theology of the early church. Miracles, for example, are dismissed as natural events misunderstood or invented to make a theological point about the person of Jesus. This is the approach taken by Pullman, a good example being his retelling of the feeding of the five thousand which becomes little more than an exercise in teaching people generosity. The Jesus we encounter in the gospels isn’t the real Jesus, but a Jesus embellished and creatively reworked by the gospel writers and the historical Jesus has become obscured or hidden under all the gloss.

Now the question which arises with these quests for the historical Jesus is this: Can they ever find what they are looking for? The reason is quite simple; the Jesus discovered in many of these quests tends to look very like the people looking for him. I would suggest that Pullman is no different and that the Jesus he presents in his book is the sort of Jesus he would be quite comfortable with because Jesus looks quite a bit like him; a good, decent, moral man with a healthy contempt for political and religious institutions and establishment!

This morning I read an interesting article The Jesus We’ll Never Know published in Christianity Today, in which the Biblical scholar Scot McKnight argues that the quests have failed and that it is impossible to find the real historical Jesus. McKnight makes a powerful case and with some authority as one who had devoted a great deal of his studies to the quests. The article gives a helpful brief summary of the approaches of what has been termed the new quest before unpacking why McKnight believes they are no longer tenable. What is most interesting is McKnight’s conclusion in which he makes the following comment in reflecting on a book he had written:

I had tried my best to see where the methods would lead if I sought to examine if and how the historical Jesus understood his own death. Some of my results disappointed, because I wanted to be able to prove some texts as authentic that I found stubbornly resistant to the methods available to us. Historiography, I concluded, can only do so much. One day, while editing the final draft, I came across these words from Romans 4:25: "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."

This is what I said to myself: As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can't. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. The quest for the real Jesus, through long and painful paths, has proven that much.

Fascinating stuff, but what is just as interesting is that Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham and another formidable Biblical scholar associated with the new quest for the historical Jesus, has responded and argues strongly that we do need historical Jesus studies. In his response Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History Wright suggests that McKnight’s article actually proves his point and he concludes:

history cannot compel faith. But it is very good at clearing away the smoke screens behind which unfaith often hides. History and faith are, respectively, the left and right feet of Christianity. Modernism hops, now on this foot (skeptical "historiography"), now on that (unhistorical "faith"). It's tiring, dangerous, and unnecessary. Puzzle: I think Scot believes this too.

Those who know me will not be surprised if I say that I find myself leaning towards Wright, though I have a great deal of sympathy for McKnight and his critique. Here's the quote from Wright which gets to the heart of the issue:

How will we ward off the next generation's dangerous follies (not just Dan Brown, though he matters too) if we don't do history?

h/t Phil Groom for drawing my attention to the Christianity Today articles.

1 comment:

The Grumpy Cleric said...

A very good post with plenty of discussion points.

Pullman is a very strange writer indeed. While he seems to be the common all-garden protest atheist he seems to be too obsessed with theism to be classified alongside Hitchens & Dawkins.

There have been attempts to "demythologise" Jesus since Renan but all we seem to read are projections of each critics's worldview.