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Thursday, December 03, 2009

The real Jesus


- Lazarus and Jesus from Jesus

When I wonder about the point of being a Christian, what matters to me (I think :) is the possibility of getting to know God. I say "possibility" because the whole subject's so mixed up - does God really exist, was Jesus an historical person about whom I can learn facts, how reliable are the gospels as factual, is there a way to move beyond knowing "about" him to interactual knowing, and if so, how, and is the one I get to know the Jesus of history or the risen Jesus, and what's the difference or is there one?

Thinking about this, I noticed today a post at A Thinking Reed that discusses the worth of the gospels as evidence for what Jesus was/is like ......

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Dale Allison on the limits of the quest for the historical Jesus

Over the holiday I read Dale Allison Jr.’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Allison is a well-regarded historical Jesus scholar with a number of tomes to his name and a practicing Christian. This book is his attempt to come to terms with how his work as a historian affects his personal faith .....

He argues that trying to isolate particular sayings and deeds as authentic rests on faulty assumptions about the way memory works. Empirical studies suggest that human memory is far better at grasping overall impressions or gestalts of events and much worse at accurately recalling specific details like, say, the precise words spoken by someone or the exact order of a series of events .....

Allison, however, is critical of the standard procedure for historical Jesus reconstruction. He argues that trying to isolate particular sayings and deeds as authentic rests on faulty assumptions about the way memory works. Empirical studies suggest that human memory is far better at grasping overall impressions or gestalts of events and much worse at accurately recalling specific details like, say, the precise words spoken by someone or the exact order of a series of events .....

Moreover, he says, if the primary sources we have for Jesus’s life – the four gospels – are as unreliable in their understanding of who Jesus was as many of the historical Jesus scholars claim, then we are simply reduced to agnosticism. To try and reconstruct an entire personality apart from the impression that person made on other people completely misunderstands the nautre of personhood and memory. Instead, he says, we should focus on the whole rather than the parts: the general impression that Jesus made can be found in the gospels, even if we can’t say with certainty that any particular saying or deed goes back to him .....

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I've also just started reading Garry Wills' book, What Jesus Meant, and in his foreword, he has something similar to the above. He mentions how people from Thomas Jefferson to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have frittered away at the gospels' scandalously unbelievable parts [the supernatural stuff, etc.] to get to the real Jesus, but Wills seems to believe that the real Jesus is actually pretty unbelievably scandalous. He also seems to think that the historical Jesus of Jefferson and the Jesus Seminar is a different Jesus than the "Jesus of faith" ....

The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say. The Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus preached, who is the Jesus resurrected. Belief in his continuing activity in the members of his mystical body is the basis of Christian belief in the gospels. If that is unbelievable to anyone, then why should that person bother with him? The flat cutout figure they are left with is not a more profound philosopher than Plato, a better storyteller than Mark Twain, or a more bitingly ascetical figure than Epictetus (the only ancient philosopher Jefferson admired). If his claims are no higher than theirs, then those claims amount to nothing ...

I don't agree with Wills about there being a Jesus of faith and one of history that are separate. I think facts do matter, even in the knowing of God. Maybe we'll never know the facts, but I'd still like to think there are some - the historicality of Jesus does matter. But he's right, if I believed Jesus was only an historical person, I wouldn't care about knowing him.

With the books I've read (and the Jesus movies I've watched :), with the retreat I've followed, and with my prayer life, such as it is, I still wonder who the real Jesus is and if and how I can get to know him.


10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You would find the historical info and documentation at

www.netzarim.co.il

immensely rewarding, particularly their History Museum pages with links to their glossary entries.

2:36 AM  
Blogger Liam said...

I think -- and this is what draws me to participate in the Church, no matter how frustrating the hierarchy can be -- that how the transmission of who Jesus was occurred is intimately tied up in his message. We come to him through a tradition, through a community. While it's extremely important to be rigorous in studying the historical nature of the Bible, we have to remember that we cannot separate the word of God from the Christian community. That, I think, is intentional.

Of course this doesn't mean that we have swallow whole whatever a given Church authority tells us -- it just means that the idea that all we have to do to know God is to shut ourselves in a room with a Bible (it's important to do this -- it simply can't be all we have to do) is to ignore the historical nature of the Bible itself, especially the New Testament. Its various books were created among certain communities from various oral traditions, and the canon was eventually formulated based on what was accepted by the community as the appropriate texts to be read aloud in church.

Like Allison says, the essence of the meaning is more general than specific. The human part of its transmission is an essential part of it, and to pare away at it hoping to find indisputable facts and to disregard the rest is to miss the point. Also, if we do believe God is involved in this whole thing, we have to imagine that God wanted this to be transmitted through memory and community, and not through the words of a reporter who followed Jesus around recording every event as it happened and published it in Jesus' lifetime. The text, like Jesus himself, is both human and divine.

6:17 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Anonymous - interesting link.

12:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Liam,

I like what Allison wrote about the gospels and memory too.

we have to remember that we cannot separate the word of God from the Christian community.

I have such a hard time getting this. I keep thinking it's about me and God maybe because I don't really belong to a community (except for you and the others online). But you're right - what we know about Jesus, we know because of the communities that remembered him. Are you someday going to tell me about your conversion experience?

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

"The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith." That's my impression too. The gospels are the faith documents of the early Christian church and not historiography.

As I understand it, we don't have knowledge of Jesus that can accurately be termed historical.

5:32 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Paul,

I don't think the Jesus of faith is the only Jesus we can know about - there is evidence other than the gospels that he did exist as a historical person - check out this page.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

Crystal --

Maybe when classes are over I can blog about that.

As far as the historicity of Jesus goes -- I don't think any serious historian, believer or not, would doubt that there was a religious leader in Palestine at that time named Jesus, and that the gospels were based on the memories and oral tradition of what he said and did. However, the evangelists were not journalists or historians, they were spiritual writers -- they write about the tradition of the Christian community regarding Jesus, and one must approach the gospels first with the heart. I think that's what it means to say that he is "the Jesus of faith."

11:57 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks, Liam - I think you're right.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

Interesting article, btw. I think it's weakest when arguing the impact and growth of Christianity is evidence for Jesus' historical existence, but everything else is right on. The Alexander comparison is a good one. In terms of the records on has for most things in this period, the ones documenting Jesus are pretty convincing. Obviously, things like his divinity and the resurrection are questions of faith, as they should be.

As a PhD in history (forgive my vanity, it's still fresh and I worked hard on it, so I'm milking it for all it's worth), I proclaim the people who doubt the historicity of Jesus as silly. Russell and Durant were of course brilliant and erudite men, but affected by the bias of their times' secular positivism. When I hear people say there's no direct record of Jesus' life, I consider them historiographic illiterates, similar to the scientifically illiterate creationist who keep saying "evolution is just a THEORY," with no understanding of what a scientific theory actually is.

12:09 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Heh - thanks, Professor :)

I remember once asking Fr. Marsh once about the reliablility of the gospels and he said what you said - that as documents they're actually better attested to than much of what we have about other historical figures. I think sometimes people over-estimete the quality of the documentation on which we rely for info about guys like Julius Caesar, Alexander, Plato.

2:45 PM  

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