The Search For The Historical Jesus: The Gospel According to Whom? (Part I)

Jesus of Nazareth: Liar, Lunatic, Lord—or Historical Victim?

A student at a Catholic university—if it faithfully abides by Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris and Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University—will constantly be informed that modern philosophy has committed “crimes of reason.” This philosophical shift, a consequence of a movement borne in a period called “the Enlightenment,” has tremendously affected all the other disciplines of academia, particularly the natural and social sciences. This reflects my own experience and how I was educated to think.

Yet this bad philosophy that has pervaded all of academia was largely unexamined in how it affected Christian theology in my academic experience. Certainly, we took notice of its more self-evident effects; the most obvious being the work of dissenting theologians supporting women’s ordination, who didn’t believe in Hell, who argue for the moral legitimacy of artificial contraception, and so forth—in other words, manifestations where the underlying philosophy is clearly not Catholic—but there never was any exhaustive attempt to uncover how “bad philosophy” has infiltrated Christian theology. In many ways, the question was addressed, but only in broad strokes at points where the question at hand was not the focal point. In other words, this question was addressed insofar as it can be by talking about it considering another perspective or point of interest. It was not addressed for me except by a sole professor by the name of Fr. Robert Barringer, to whom I am deeply indebted.

In the beginning of my theological studies, I knew very little about Catholicism. In my theology courses, I accepted what was being taught as the Catholic understanding of the matter. This approach sufficed for doctrinal and moral theology, but biblical theology is wholly another matter.

I recall the confusion I had when one of my theology professors, nonchalantly said, with a sense of conclusive certainty, that very little, if any, of the New Testament was written by those traditionally said to have been its authors. The only exception was St. Paul who, of course, “surely” wrote only seven out of his thirteen alleged epistles. We were instructed to dogmatically hold that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, John the Presbyter (if he ever existed), and the beloved disciple were all different people. We were given dates (ascribed to each New Testament book) with the same confidence. We were also given lectures about the content of the hypothetical “Q” source.

This was later contradicted by a later theology professor who, for example, did not buy into the presumption of the hypothetical “source Q”—and to this day, I find many criticisms of “Q” to be very convincing and valid. Another point of contradiction was disagreement on the so-called dogmatic assumption of Markan priority. And these issues and what they might mean to the overall question here will have to be postponed and considered later.

It can be affirmed—even without directly addressing the aforementioned—that our understanding of the New Testament, its composition, its historicity, etc, profoundly affects the way we “reconstruct” the figure of Jesus.

It goes without saying that the heart of Christianity is christology—Trinitarian doctrines, sacramental theology, soteriology, theodicy, and moral theology are all contingent on understanding the historical person Jesus of Nazareth, his life and his teaching.

The Council of Chalcedon reaffirmed in A.D. 451 that the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Son of God.

Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; ‘like us in all things but sin.’ He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God. We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.

This statement echoes St. Peter’s profession of faith (cf. Mt 16:18) on the basis of which Christians posit that the declarations of the council only restated beliefs that can be traced to the first century, indeed, to the life of Christ.

Christianity is a religion of history—of God entering into human history. If Jesus of Nazareth was the Creator incarnate, it logically follows then that we need to know about him. Who was he? What did he do and what did he teach? Why was he crucified? Was he really raised from the dead? For most of Christian history, these questions were answered simply by accepting (uncritically) the witness of the four canonical Gospels and church tradition.

The Hebrew word for “holiness,” kedushah (??????) has the connotation of separateness. Israel’s understanding of itself as a people set apart passed into the New Israel, the Holy Catholic Church. The Church is the sacred assembly of God’s people.

The word “church” in Latin, ecclesia, has its origin in the New Testament Greek phrase ekklesia tou theou, which means “assembly of God.” The Greek word for assembly, ekklesia, has a history that goes back much further than the New Testament to Thucydides, Plato, and Xenophon. The word specified “those who are called out,” but the connotation was surely political and aristocratic. In the Septuagint, Greek-speaking Jews used the term ekklesia which referred primarily to the Hellenistic popular assembly, to translate the Hebrew word qahal, a word used to refer to the Hebrew sacred assembly (the whole people of Israel).

Catholics that are well-versed in scripture know that Jesus intended to found a church (ekklesia), a new sacred assembly. The scene of Matthew 16 makes this abundantly clear.   But, many modern biblical critics are quick to challenge the assertion that Jesus intended to found a church. Many will point out the fact that while the word “church” appears abundantly in Acts of the Apostles and a number of the canonical epistles, the word “church” is very rare in the gospels. Indeed, the word only appears three times in the canonical gospels and all of those times are in one: The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

It is argued that the Evangelist put the word “church” into Jesus’ mouth, though the historical Jesus never uttered such a thing. The theme of Jesus’ preaching throughout is the coming of the Kingdom of God, not the “church.”

Indeed, Alfred Loisy, a French Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and biblical scholar at the beginning of the twentieth century wrote: Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God, but it was the Church that showed up. The statement which appeared in print in October 1902 was condemned by Loisy’s Archbishop in January 1903 and the Vatican later that same year.

Loisy wrote a second book trying to explain away what offended those who adhered to church teaching. To no avail, his apology was not well received either and he was excommunicated Vitandus on March 7, 1908. He never reconciled with the Church afterward. Despite his breach with adherents of biblical orthodoxy, Loisy’s infamous quip is the standard of modernist biblical exegesis, namely, the assertion there is a great discontinuity between what Jesus aimed at doing and what his disciples (or some later generation) did in his name after his death.

This idea hardly began with Loisy. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a German scholar and professor of Semitic languages at the University of Wittenberg, is often considered the founder of the search for the “historical Jesus.” Following what would later be branded as an Enlightenment trend, Reimarus sought to “uncover” the historical Jesus by entirely “rational” means, i.e. historical research unfettered by dogmatic strictures or ecclesiastical influence. He asserted that upon the death of Jesus, the disciples were reluctant to see the great movement Jesus had started come to an end. So they stole his body, made up the story of the resurrection and founded a church as a means to continue and develop their own importance and authority.

In the next century, Ernest Renan penned one of the revolutionary books of the nineteenth century, The Life of Jesus. The book sought to portray the man Jesus while insisting that he was not the Son of God. The book outright asserted that “miracles are things which never happen, and therefore, things which Jesus never did.” Two principal arguments run through The Life of Jesus. The first is that one must separate “myth” from historical truth in order to come up with a more “realistic” portrait of Jesus. Renan concerns himself a great deal with the four Gospels. Contradictions within the texts themselves and comparative studies with other contemporary works convince Renan that the Gospels were not divinely inspired or infallible, but simple historical writings with certain thematic preoccupations and limitations. Therefore, the Gospels should have no special treatment—they should be critically examined against other sources to separate factual information from literary or religiously inspired elaboration. The second, more central argument has to do with the figure of Jesus himself. Renan argues, as aforementioned, that it is inherently implausible that miracles ever took place or that Jesus was anything but human. The best one can say is that Jesus was a vibrant moral and spiritual teacher who attracted a mass following and had been crucified for the revolutionary fervor he created.

The same historical reconstruction of Jesus can be found in the work of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). He set forth his views, which were incredibly individualistic, in a series of public lectures that were later published with the title Das Wesen des Christentums (‘The Essence of Christianity’). The title itself is telling—the implicit idea is that the book’s presentation describes what is “essential” to Christianity. All else logically is superfluous and need not be of any concern. Harnack fundamentally argues that Jesus’ teaching can be summed up in two awfully oversimplified points: the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The rest are mere details. Inevitably, Harnack’s ideas stand as a hallmark example of religious liberalism and freedom from dogma and tradition.

In unequivocal rejection of C.S. Lewis’ apologetic trilemma argument, biblical critics insist there is another possibility: Jesus of Nazareth was “simply a Jew” and the Christian religion has “projected” onto his historical person qualities that he never claimed, namely divinity.  This perspective dominates modern biblical criticism and it can be found inscribed onto the pages of countless books.

L. Michael White’s From Jesus to Christianity embodies this very fact, even the title. The book is decorated with prestige and honor, as indicated in the Acknowledgments when the author states that “a generation of Yale students will quickly recognize that much of this book reflects insights learned from Wayne Meeks both in seminars and in his own teaching.” In other words, it is recognition that this is a review of the rise of Christianity from the teaching of “esteemed experts.” It continues the tradition that can be traced back to Reimarus.

It is not necessary to give a complete analysis of White’s argument; what is essential here are the premises from which he is drawing his conclusions. The text invariably speaks for itself:

“Jesus did not appear as the founder of a new religion, and what we now know as Christianity did not exist for perhaps two generations after his death. Jesus was a Jew, and the Jesus movement originated as a Jewish sect. Both were products of the historical age and the social environment out of which they came.”

“The Jesus movement was initially a sect within Judaism, one of many at that time.”

“…what we know as Christianity did not exist for perhaps two generations after his death.”

“Jesus did not come as the founder of a new religion, and yet a new religion, Christianity was founded in his name or, more precisely, in his memory.”

“We start to see the movement breaking away from its Jewish roots and becoming a separate institutional church, or what we may more properly call ‘Christianity’. We also begin to see other important writings from the generation after the apostles, such as the so-called apostolic fathers…”

“Christianity…at least the best-known version of it, is preserved for us in the book known by Christians as the Bible, and more specifically in the second part, called the New Testament.”

“…nor are there any eyewitnesses whose reports were preserved unvarnished.”

“[to find Jesus one must]…dig down through the layers and sift for nuggets of information or buried fragments.”

“One of the difficulties is that the emphasis on continuity—on seeing an unbroken line of tradition from ancient Israel to Jesus or the rabbis—tend to gloss over key events or changes in the history. It is as if one could jump directly from the prophets, such as Isaiah, who lived well before the Babylonian exile, to the second century CE without considering any intervening historical developments and influences.”

“Jesus can be seen as narrating a story, or vision if you will, of how God’s plan for Israel was to be carried out. But was he an apocalyptic firebrand or a social critic? There were differences of opinion even then. When he was executed by the Romans, however, the story changed.”

The history of early Christianity is indisputably complex. No one doubts this point. But White’s portrait, which is hardly unique in the realm of biblical criticism, is one where there were many “Christianities” or Christian movements that grew from this Jewish sect following Jesus of Nazareth, all of which had their own perspectives—that we are not at liberty to discuss in terms of objectivity to make a case for “orthodoxy.” The Christian story we know is that of the group that won the war of religious doctrine, whether these doctrines have any merit by being objective theological truths or consistent with the earliest Christian teaching is not a relevant question or is an answer we can never know. The latter is surely the most likely on White’s account—on his reckoning of a generation in ancient times (forty or so years), assuming Jesus died c. 30, institutionalized Christianity, he argues, did not rise until after A.D. 100!

Pope Benedict XVI took the liberal scholars to task in his Jesus of Nazareth defending the Christ of faith as the real historical Jesus. The question for the historical Jesus by allegedly “neutral” historians, the Holy Father expressly considered to be one of the greatest modern challenges to Christianity.

Even the most unlearned and unread people we might encounter in everyday life inquire: how do we know that this Jesus figure was who the Gospel writers say he was? How do we know that they were not lying? These same people are ready to accept these modernist reconstructions of Jesus the moralist, Jesus the social revolutionary, Jesus the sage—all these portraits of Jesus that are partially correct, but terribly lacking, in that, the real basis of human rights, social action, and wisdom itself is God. These portraits undercut the incarnation of God who ‘in the flesh’ read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, uttering the words He spoke through His own prophet centuries before: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” (Luke 4:18-19). For Christians, this is who He, the man Jesus, was and who He still is.

From my own conversation with other Christians and my own academic experience, these pressing questions—when the New Testament was written, its historicity, and what this all means about the historical Jesus—are irrelevant and most Christians could care less. It remains, despite this, a pivotal issue of evangelization and thus a very relevant question. The critics and the skeptics continue to  insist that the Church was not the intention of Jesus, the Gospels were all “late documents,” and the historicity of Christian literature is highly questionable. These arguments appeal to many (including myself, once upon a time) and thus, they require an answer.

In a coming series of posts, I will labor to present what I trust will be a coherent apology for Christianity and for Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnate as the real historical man Jesus of Nazareth.

October 18, 2009, Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist.

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied,” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).

38 Responses to The Search For The Historical Jesus: The Gospel According to Whom? (Part I)

  • Great post Eric. A very good overview of the never-ending search for the “historical” Jesus!

    “Jesus of Nazareth was “simply a Jew” and the Christian religion has “projected” onto his historical person qualities that he never claimed, namely divinity.”

    Caiaphas in Hell slaps his forehead. “Now they tell me”!

    As usual, I think the Screwtape Letters is apropos:

    “MY DEAR WORMWOOD,
    You will find that a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong, and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early stage. Now, this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a “historical Jesus” to be found by clearing away later “accretions and perversions” and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition. In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a “historical Jesus” on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new “historical Jesus” on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold.

    In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts in every publisher’s autumn list. In the second place, all such constructions place the importance of their “historical Jesus” in some peculiar theory He is supposed to have promulgated. He has to be a “great man” in the modern sense of the world – one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought – a crank vending a panacea. We thus distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher, and then conceal the very substantial agreement between His teachings and those of all other great moral teachers. For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy, not to inform men, but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists: He raises up a Socrates to answer them.

    Our third aim is, by these constructions, to destroy the devotional life. For the real presence of the Enemy, otherwise experienced by men in prayer and sacrament, we substitute a merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago. Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped. Instead of the Creator adored by its creature, you soon have merely a leader acclaimed by a partisan, and finally a distinguished charcter approved by a judicious historian.

    And fourthly, besides being unhistorical in the Jesus it depicts, religion of this kind is false to history in another sense. No nation, and few individuals, are really brought into the Enemy’s camp by the historical study of the biography of Jesus, simply as biography. Indeed, materials for a full biography have been withheld from men. The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a “great man,” but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The “Gospels” come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.

    The “historical Jesus” then, however dangerous he may seem to be to us at some particular point, is always to be encouraged. About the general connection between Christianity and poltics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything – even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations.” You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game.

    Your affectionate uncle
    SCREWTAPE”

  • Thanks Donald.

    Of course, Lewis, the brilliant thinker he was nails it in his analysis.

  • Excellent post. Looking forward to this series!

  • First, I can’t say that I recognize much in those you have attributed in having a modern biblical critical outlook. While I have no doubt that many otherwise well-meaning clergy and scholars misunderstand and abuse Bible study methods, what you describe was not part of my graduate schooling.

    And regarding historicity, like many opponents of modern critical methods, you seem to confuse what scholars mean in the distinction between history and truth.

    Much in Scripture is non-historical not because it is not true, but because it cannot be verified by the modern understanding of historicity. An atheist, for example, hears of the historical Jesus, and scoffs. But people of faith are unconcerned there were no blogs, photos, handwritten documents, and such bearing the likeness or penmanship of the Lord. Faith is not based on scientific verification. And the protest against biblical criticism seems to have bought into the modern Enlightenment thinking as much as those whom they protest.

  • Todd,

    Much in Scripture is non-historical not because it is not true, but because it cannot be verified by the modern understanding of historicity.

    The Holy Bible is the most scrutinized historical document in history and has shown to weather all absurd deconstructionist attempts.

    I can hear Americans 1,800 years from now claim that the “historical figure” George Washington never existed and that the U.S. Constitution is actually an idea and not a real document.

    As Saint Thomas Aquinas once said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

  • Tito, serious Scripture scholars–and none of the ones I read were named in this essay–utilize criticism to deepen faith. The essence of theology is “faith seeking understanding.”

    Nobody on this thread is arguing for absolute deconstruction of the Bible. Eric has done his homework on the 19th and 17th century, but I can’t say it’s relevant to what I was taught in grad school.

    The Bible is not, by the way, a historical document in the sense that modern historians understand such a thing. The good thing is that it doesn’t need to be to communicate deeper and more authentic truths than verifiable facts.

  • Todd:

    Respond honestly.

    What percentage of contemporary Scripture scholars in the academy believe that the patriarchs actually existed as historical figures?

    What percentage of contemporary Scripture scholars in the academy believe in the historicity of the virginal conception of Christ, Jesus’ miracles and the bodily resurrection?

    It’s very low. Even read someone like John Meier – “A Marginal Jew” – the ultimate point is that the Gospels are an unreliable pastiche of memory and attempts to fit the Jesus experience into various theological and cultural expectations and hopes.

  • Todd,

    The Bible is a series of books and epistles that have the written Word of Jesus as well as some historical documents such as the entire New Testament with the exception of Revelation.

    The Holy Bible has been proven to be many things and the underlying denominator has been it contains the Truth of God.

    Whomever your grad school professors are they apparently have brainwashed you into believing that there is no truth in many parts of the Bible.

    How sad.

  • Thanks for the replies, which I think highlight this issue centers more on misunderstanding than actual malice or anti-faith.

    Mark, first of all, acceptance of Biblical characters as “historical figures” plays into modern rationalism. That Abraham and Sarah had a child at an advanced age–there’s no reason to be deluded into thinking this is historical. But just because it’s not verifiable scientifically or historically doesn’t mean it’s not True. The Bible doesn’t present such events as scientific miracles, but as miracles of grace and faith. So to question whether or not Biblical events happened or, as you are doing here, questioning those who question, takes the discussion far afield from what the classical faith encounter would be.

    To sum: these miracles are not history. They are narratives of faith, and they communicate not just the external truth of divinely inspired and guided events, but also the inner truths of faith. That the Bible includes items verifiably unscientific and non-historical doesn’t detract from the experience of faith. Unless, of course, one’s faith is based on the Enlightenment notion of reason–a failure, by the way, of many evangelical Christians.

    And Tito, I would caution you as a brother Christian not to blatantly misread my commentary here. I have no problem professing the Truth of the Scriptures as an independent and higher value than verifiable fact. If you are a Catholic, CCC 2478 puts an obligation upon you in this regard, a serious one. If, however, you have an objection to anything specific I’ve written, argue my point–not what you think my point is. And if I’ve been unclear, I’m more than willing to rephrase.

  • When the Bible urges the readers of scripture to “prove all things” it certainly was not suggesting that they should look to the hearsay of men as their standard of truth but, rather, in accord with Ps. 118:8 they should look to scripture and trust the authority of God’s word — and not the traditions of men which may be added to that word. And it is axiomatic that in order for a teaching to be biblical there must be a biblical justification for teaching that idea.

    The above post included this line: We were instructed to dogmatically hold that John the Apostle… and the beloved disciple were… different people.

    But of course no one who believed and respected the Bible as God’s word would ever need to be “instructed to dogmatically hold” to this or any other idea if they could find sufficient proof in the biblical record on that point. For then they would simply rest their case on the word of God and no dogmatic instructions of men on that point are required.

    With that in mind, here are two points of biblical evidence on this particular question:

    Point 1 – The truth is no one has ever cited a single verse that would justify teaching that the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” was John. That is why no such verse was cited to support this claim, nor is one ever cited by those who promote the man-made, unbiblical John tradition, because no such verse exists. But one thing can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the biblical evidence actually can prove that WHOEVER the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” was he could not have been John — because that idea forces the Bible to contradict itself, which the truth cannot do. (Those who are interested can see the presentation of Bible evidence on this question in the free eBook that is posted online at thegospelofjohn.com — just scripture, no hearsay from non-Bible sources.)

    Point 2 – Because of circular reasoning, of those people who recognize that the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” was not the Apostle John, many still mistakenly assume that this unnamed disciple (i.e., the anonymous author of the fourth gospel) had to be a man named John. But this assumption stems from the ‘title’ “Gospel of John” that was added to this unnamed author’s work long after he was dead by men who erroneously believed that this author was the Apostle John. However, the truth is that there is no biblical justification for believing that ANYBODY named John had anything to do with the fourth gospel. The title was assigned long after the Apostle John was dead and the facts in the plain text of scripture prove that the Apostle John could not have been the author, so why would anyone try to continue to link the gospel with his name, in the face of Bible evidence to the contrary?

    Two good rules of respect for the authority of God’s word: A) One should not be presenting an idea AS IF IT WERE BIBLICAL if they cannot cite a single verse that would justify teaching that idea – and – B) If the facts in the plain text of scripture prove that an idea is false, then those who love the truth will reject that false idea — no matter how many people believe it, no matter how loud some may shout it, no matter if a big-wig so-and-so believes it, no matter how long the false idea has been around, etc.

    Still, while there is not a single verse that would justify teaching the idea that John was the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved”, people continue to make unbiblical claims and use non-Bible hearsay and circular logic to sell idea that the unbiblical man-made John tradition can be made to fit with scripture. But that idea simply comes from men adding to the scriptures (the title Gospel of John was never part of the original text – it was added by men long after the anonymous author’s death), and from others assuming that the men who added the John title to the fourth gospel cannot be wrong. This is why repetition of hearsay from non-Bible sources must be used to sell the John tradition, because the Bible proves the John tradition is false. One can pick and choose their favorite non-Bible source to cite as a reason why they believe the idea that the unnamed “other disciple whom Jesus loved” was John. But what no one has ever done is cite a single verse that would justify teaching that this person was John — not those who originated this unbiblical teaching and not those who repeat their error to this day.

  • Todd,

    You are causing a scandal by playing intellectual word play games.

    You should very careful in throwing accusations just because I called you out on your lies.

  • Tito, no. This is a discussion, and a rather healthy one. Accusing someone of lying is a very serious charge. Evidence, please.

  • Todd,

    In my very first comment I presented evidence of you lying:

    Much in Scripture is non-historical not because it is not true, but because it cannot be verified by the modern understanding of historicity.

    Jesus was born. He did die. He did resurrect.

    You need to provide evidence for your lie.

    I have the Bible as the truth.

    Your discussion is causing a scandal just because we caught you in a lie.

  • No, Tito, you have misunderstood. As a person of faith, I recognize that there are truths that lie beyond the realm of reason and proof.

    For example, I state I love my wife and we share a sacramental marriage. One might say that the proof is in the sacramental records of the Church, or in the fact that our marriage license is dated 27 Jan 1996 and that we still live together, according to the records of Story County. Sadly, lots of 14-year marriages with sacramental records have ended in divorce, or that the couples involved cease loving one another and deny themselves certain sacramental graces.

    I cannot claim my love for my wife or the sacramentality of our marriage is a rational fact. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It will be forgotten long after my grandchildren have died.

    Where your breakdown of logic has occurred is with this error: Everything true is historical. Truth is not a subset of history, nor is history a subset of Truth. On a Venn diagram, they are overlapping figures.

    That Jesus existed is a historical fact. There are rational sources independent of the Bible that tell us so. His resurrection, while absolutely true as a matter of faith, cannot be verified by science or history, and thus by the modern definition, is not history. That disciples believed in Christ and his Resurrection: this is verifiable fact.

    You did not catch me in a lie. You misunderstood my point. You made an error.

    When Christian theologians say that a Biblical event is not history–the resurrection for example–they are not claiming it didn’t take place, or that they or others shouldn’t believe it. They are stating that rationally, it cannot be proved by modern rational standards.

    As far as my faith is concerned, I don’t need independent verification to profess faith in Christ or in every element of the Nicene Creed.

  • Todd,

    Well said.

    Most of what I read is above my educational level, so I’ll let the others discern it for what it’s worth.

    Good stuff.

  • His resurrection, while absolutely true as a matter of faith, cannot be verified by science or history, and thus by the modern definition, is not history. That disciples believed in Christ and his Resurrection: this is verifiable fact.

    Todd, I think this is an overly simplistic approach to defining ‘history’. Very little of the contents of history textbooks can be verified scientifically. History is almost entirely based on testimony from various available sources, from which the historian attempts to determine which sources are reliable. To decide ex ante that the Christian testimonies about the Resurrection are not reliable – that is, not to be accepted as history compared to other sources, is, I think, a first step that calls for some explanation.

  • As for sheer documentation, the life of Jesus is one of the best ones for near contemporaneous documentation which we have from ancient history. For example, our best near contemporary source in regard to Hannibal and the Second Punic War is Polybius who wrote about a half century after the event, and much of his work consists of fragments. We accept many matters as settled historical fact from the ancient world where our contemporary sources are ever so much slender than what we possess in regard to Christ.

  • JH, thanks for commenting. I would agree with you that modern rationalism is overly simplistic. As a church musician, I don’t operate in the realm of reason, at least not primarily.

    I do think that many of the facts of history can be verified. But Christians get trapped when they attempt to apply modern standards (post-1750) to truths that existed far longer in a substrate of faith and objective truth.

    I agree that testimony is helpful to faith. But Saint Paul himself cautioned about believers identifying themselves too strongly with Cephas, or Apollos, or Paul, or Christ.

    Testimony also takes place in a liturgical context. As a liturgy-minded believer, my faith in the resurrection (for example) is strengthened and confirmed in the liturgical celebration of the Triduum more than it is by the reading of resurrection narratives and the commentary of theologians.

    Another example: I can read Raymond Brown on the infancy narratives and gain insight, edification, and a warm fuzzy feeling of being educated. But without the context of Advent and Christmas, without the reinforcement and celebration of liturgy in the context of a Catholic community, such scholarship would be hollow and nearly meaningless as an encounter of faith.

    Now, I will grant that many scholars are less clear than I would be about the interplay between prayer, liturgy, charity, the application of morality to life and theological scholarship. I think a more integrated approach is needful. But I’m leery about placing blame at the feet of scholars when some homilists, bishops, catechists and others haven’t done their own homework.

  • There’s a claim that the ‘Jesus’ of Scriptural writings is as fictitious as the ‘Socrates’ of Plato’s writings and that neither reflect the actual historical person (i.e., the historical Jesus, the historical Socrates; respectively).

    With that said, it would have been interesting if the claims and research of that dreadful Jesus Seminar collective were examined in order to debunk such refuse.

  • I would further Todd’s point to discuss that the concept of historicity has itself been revised by many scholars in the past generation, who’ve moved beyond revisionism and taken some of the better lessons of deconstruction (there are some) and have become more transparent in discussing what might be historically verifiable well outside the religious context.

    An excellent short-version example would be in Chris Wickham’s introduction to his recent book, The Inheritance of Rome. His method in the book is pretty consistent, and it’s a good starting place to get a something of a feel for what serious historians are doing with regard to the historicity of events attested to in ancient documents. It gets us past the debunking of the past couple of centuries that became rather ritualistic.

  • Todd, is your position essentially that of Luke Timothy Johnson? There may be (presumably are) others who have advanced that, but it sounds a lot like the one he set forth in “Living Jesus.” Though you state it more clearly than he does–he gets maddeningly discursive and a little too agile on the point in “LJ”, even though it’s a worthwhile read.

  • Todd is on the right track here. The problem that many have is an assumption about history, its methods, and its ability; history as an actual science is very limited in its ability. It cannot recreate the past. It is not intended to recreate what happened or restate what happened — history, as a science, is about what we can legitimately say about the past on the most limited number of presumptions. Faith allows for us to go further than history; remember, we are to be faith + reason, and not reason alone; faith adds dimensions not available to pure reason. The search for the historical Jesus is merely a search for the purely reasonable reconstruction of the past. Read Vatican I and Vatican II on revelation: once one has a proper understanding of revelation, one understand why it transcends the science of history.

  • Dale

    I think you can look to the introduction to “A Marginal Jew” and you will find Todd’s point (which is stated better than than in Johnson, though I think Johnson is going that direction as well).

  • Non-Bible hearsay

    That is an interesting notion, as many portions of the Bible itself are hearsay.

  • Serious undertaking Eric. I am looking forward to reading it. I love studying history becuase it is the stroy of mankind. It is so mcuh more than dates, names, facts, etc. I find it interesting that we expect a perfect historical record when we can’t even agree of today’s historical accuracy. What hubris makes us think that we can determine the exact events and interpretation of events from the past when CNN (the real news) and FOX (the enterntainment channel with a specific perspective) can’t agree on what happened today?

    The beauty of the history of Jesus the Christ is that it didn’t end with His death. He lives and we have to have faith before we can have understanding. It took me near three decades to realize that. I’d been studying Jesus like I study Napolean or Washington or Lee who are all dead. Once I listened to Him and we had a conversation I began to realize that His Story isn’t only in the past – it is NOW, eternally NOW as well as in my present and future. Those with eyes of faith undertsand; those who do not believe cannot, until they choose to listen to His Story.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • This article was really interesting. My bet is that a lot of the issues Todd is raising will be clarified by the rest of the articles in this series. I look forward to them.

  • Thank you everyone for your comments.

    Certain things I wish I could respond to point by point, but unfortunately time will not permit this. Therefore, I must be general and hopefully what I have to say will offer any necessary clarifications. Hopefully other questions will be answered as the series continues and the direction I wish to go becomes more evident.

    Let me begin by clarifying that I do believe that there are some amazing biblical scholars in the field of historical criticism of the Bible. N.T. Wright comes to mind immediately. The problem goes beyond my admiration of such scholars.

    I first became interested in biblical scholarship roughly two years ago. This field of academia virtually is without end and it includes every conceivable kind of speculation.

    Now, it is clear that the New Testament (since that is the primary focus here) is not narrative history in the modern sense. The Gospels, in particular, do not seek to give us a biography of the person of Jesus as we would understand a biography today. We know very little about Jesus’ childhood. We know nothing of physical descriptions of his person. There is much we do not know.

    But it is not uncommon to pick a book where the Gospels are called secondary sources and virtually unreliable in terms of historicity because they are a part of a period some scholars would call “the rise of New Testament Christianity” which refers to the period after the Fall of the Temple of Jerusalem where “movements” within Judaism change forever – one to institutionalized Christianity which will move to become Hellenized with most of its Jewish character being obscured and removed and the other rabbinic Judaism. Inevitably, it is impossible to see any real continuity between what we today call “Christianity” and the origins of the “Christian movement” because the movement “created” its origin, though, it is likely (as it is argued) far removed from the original Jesus movement. This is a prevalent view—it is not the only view you will find. To other scholars, the Gospels are primary sources. To some scholars, the words of Jesus are something we can put up to a democratic vote (cf. the Jesus seminar).

    The history of Josephus and the works of Philo are subject to constant examination and contentions to their relevance or validity or whether they contain any truth is a question that has arisen in several books I have read.

    My point of criticism, which I will not go into it here obviously, is that contemporary biblical criticism rests upon a tyranny of unexamined presumptions—and it is these unexamined presumptions which has created a flawed methodology in study and has perpetuated theories built on fragile edifices.

    It will become increasingly evident, so I might as well admit it now, my progressive inclinations turn the other way in this subject matter—I am rather conservative. I do not wish to spoil my series, but one example is contemporary speculation in regard to the so-called Synoptic Problem. To say the least, I am not convinced by the two-document hypothesis, source Q, or Markan priority. I am also very fascinated by(and I will talk argue it at some point) the possibility of the priority of John rather than its dogmatic position at the end of the line—and priority here does not necessarily mean first, though, a good scholarly examination would never close itself to any possible conclusion.

    What all this means and how it affects our views of Jesus is more far-reaching than it seems at first glance, which is why I am raising the subject.

    I sense that Christians have been working within the framework of biblical critical thought that was established largely on the lines of Enlightenment thinking. Surely, we have kept our faith and we have made incredible strides in terms of exegesis. But I am going to argue for a different way of looking at the New Testament (and many of my arguments will have been made elsewhere by scholars more elegantly) that at best might suggest we should be rewriting our ‘Introductions to the New Testament’ and renewed in our understanding and appreciation of the figure of Jesus. I trust that not everyone will be convinced of my arguments, but my greater hope will be that my arguments will suffice to prove how flimsy are scholarly presumptions on a host of issues.

  • Excellent post, Eric! I, too, look forward to your further posts.

    Todd & Henry have both alluded to what I see as one of the primary problems in the whole debate over biblical criticism: the nature & method of history as a science. Numerous scholars note that history has sought to — as much as possible — take on the scientific method of the natural sciences. But this is impossible, in that — as others have noted — historians cannot recreate the events they are studying in order to test their hypotheses (as can the chemist, physicist, etc.).

    The problem of rationalism has also been raised, and along the same lines, many have noted the incongruity of biblical scholars who attempt to “shelve” their faith while exegeting in order to give greater objectivity to their academic pursuits. Not that they deny their faith… rather, they presume the objectivity demanded by science likewise demands that they must attempt to be neutral. The problem is that such a stance is inappropriate… one’s method must correspond to the object of study, and in this case, the object — the biblical text — is *not* best studied with a detached, neutral perspective, but can only *truly* be understood from a perspective of faith. Hence, Dei Verbum demands that exegetes employ not only methods of literary criticism, but also the analogy of faith, the content & unity of the entire Bible and the Tradition of the Church.

    Fortunately, we seem to be slowly waking up to the inadequacies of the critical methodologies & employing other methods which complement the former.

  • Chris (and Eric, and anyone else interested)

    I thought I would elaborate on what I said yesterday, and give an example of what the issue of historicity means for me as an academic who looks not only as Christian history, but Buddhist history as well.

    I wrote it rather quickly this morning, so it might have some typos/etc in it.

    http://vox-nova.com/2009/10/20/history-is-always-reconstruction/

  • Eric,

    Father Robert Barringer headed a Christianity and Culture program at the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s College in the late 1980s. He actually taught then a scripture course with the purpose of helping out students who went through a certain 200 level historical-critical based course and found themselves disheartened and/or perplexed.

    I was a student at the university and able to have a couple of conversations with him during that time, which spawned in me a love of the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

    It is good to hear his name.

    It

  • I have to say I’ve seen little of the disconnect between faith and reason attributed to modern Bible scholars. My professors knew of my aspirations to be a liturgist, and the dean of my graduate school recommended a broad approach to my studies, with an eye to the pastoral dimension. I have to say all of my profs were men (they happened to be all male) of prayer, clergy and laity who were engaged in parishes and who lived their faith visibly for me and my classmates.

    While we’re quibbling about the definition (actual and proper) of history, let’s also recognize that criticism in the sense of Biblical criticism doesn’t mean we treat Bible study as a medium of finding errors and giving insult.

  • Todd, Fr. Brown was a man of deep faith and prayer — Fr. Mitch Pacwa once related that he saw Fr. Brown praying the Rosary before a presentation — but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that his methodology was inadequate. The same applies to others… while some exegetes may not have a very robust faith (Crossan et al.), many certainly do, but I still have issues with a method of Scripture scholarship based exclusively on the tools of literary criticism.

  • Chris, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here. You question the lack of integration just as I did. And yet now you’re zeroing in on the actual merit of Biblical criticism. Is your criticism just searching for any reason to be critical, or do you have a scholarly alternative to offer?

    Literary criticism is but one of many tools of the modern Biblical scholar. In my course on Scripture, I was introduced to several others, and all have their applications.

    What’s missing from your critique is context. The use of modern Biblical criticism as a homily topic is, on the whole, inappropriate. The analysis of form, however, is essential for good lectors. A basic knowledge of what is being proclaimed–history, poetry, catechesis, prophecy, moral exhortation–is essential. A Bible study in a parish should be attuned to the learning level of the participants–and should stretch them in their faith, rather than exclusively offer comfort–we’re all in need of a little metanoia now and then. A college-level course should immerse students in modern and traditional methods as a matter of course. Confusion on the part of all students reflects on the professor, of course. But confusion on the part of some, or on the part of a particular mindset may reflect on a flaw in the faith formation in those students.

    Without specifics from Eric or you, or a context to analyze, I think a general argument against modern Biblical study methods is very weak.

  • Todd, I didn’t critique Biblical criticism, but an over-reliance upon it. Here’s my point: in my experience and reading, many exegetes today excel at Dei Verbum 12.2 — which focuses on literary criticism — but not as much at DV 12.3 — which calls for exegeting with the Spirit in mind.

    Ratzinger/Benedict has spoken to this on numerous occasions, as did the synod held in Rome last fall on the Word of God in the Life & Mission of the Church. A proper exegesis *does* employ literary criticism, but it also employs other methodologies.

    So, my concern isn’t with critical methodologies per se, but with their near-exclusive usage in exegesis.

    Is this more clear?

  • Much more clear; thanks, Chris. I suppose I can feel fortunate in that my training and experience has been with those multiple methodologies over the past 26 years. Although we’re getting away from Eric’s original post, the Synod on the Word also endorsed Lectio Divina and other spiritual ways of encountering the Scriptures. The undeniable benefit from Vatican II has been the opening up of all of these ways of engaging the Word of God, either personally, in liturgy, devotionally, or in a learning setting.

  • A simple change from the human to divine standard in method of research and data collection, just as a working hypothesis, will revolutionize our search for Jesus. Actually, Jesus himself taught that authentication of his identity should be based not on any hearsay (even his) but on the hard evidence of supernatural works identifiable for evaluation as a basis for knowing him firsthand and personally! (John 1: 47-51; 5: 31-37; 10: 17-18, 37-38; 19: 30-37).

    If we follow his advice, it is even possible to compose his self-portrait using his preliminary and final works at his death on the cross!

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