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).