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Friday, September 23, 2011

Reflections on the Historical Jesus

Recently, I was asked a question about my thoughts on the "Historical Jesus"... ie searching for those words and acts that Christ ACTUALLY said and did.  I'll admit that, at the time the question was asked, I had had very little exposure to what the Historical Jesus actually was.  Basically, I lumped every analysis of the "Real Christ" as falling under John Dominic Crossan's "Quest for the Historical Jesus" and the subsequent "Jesus Seminar".  For the record, even after brief subsequent study on the historical Jesus, I still think the work of Crossan and the Jesus seminar is inspired by Satan... but more on that later.

For my Eucharist class I was required to read an article (The Eucharist at the Last Supper: Did it really happen? Theology Digest 42:4, Winter 1995) by Roman Catholic Historical Jesus scholar John Meier. I'll admit, Meier has begun to change my view on Historical Jesus, and has shown me the value the paradigm has in answering certain theological questions and gaining a deeper understanding and love for the person of Christ and Sacred Scripture.

Meier starts off by saying that, while his book A Marginal Jew is often "yoked" with the Jesus seminar, he nevertheless disagrees with Crossan on key issues of Catholicism, for instance... whether or not the Last Supper actually happened.  Meier also points out the value of knowing the historical Jesus in reaction to fundamentalist's literal readings.

Without giving away the whole article, or just quoting applicable one-liners from Meier, I'll just give you my general assessment:

Theology is faith seeking understanding, and faith is also rooted in the intellect, which requires some element of reason to truly assent to God.  It is for this reason that the Church has always upheld faith AND reason as essential to true belief in God.  While different believers are responsible for various levels of understanding concerning faith, it is important for theologians, teachers, and priests to have a deep wisdom and understanding of theological knowledge in order to defend the Truth and help uphold the faith of others.

The Historical Jesus, and historical criticism in general, when applied correctly, in respect to tradition, right reason and intent, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can be a wonderful tool and paradigm in gaining a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the doctrines of our faith.  It is for example, in learning the formula that Christ used during the last supper we can begin to see, as Meier says that,

"...what the hallowed bread and wine first of all mediate or communicate is not a static thing but a dynamic reality, the whole saving event of Jesus' death and ultimate vindication" (350).

It is through such study that we begin to see our doctrines in new and beautiful ways, as they were handed to us by Christ himself.

However, this paradigm is not for everyone, for those who are not firm in their faith, sound of reason, or guided by the Holy Spirit, may fall into serious and grave error such as that of the Jesus Seminar who has concluded that, "Jesus was a mortal man born of two human parents, who did not perform nature miracles nor die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead.[3][4][5] Sightings of a risen Jesus were nothing more than the visionary experiences of some of his disciples rather than physical encounters.[3][4][5]"   I'll let you figure out exactly that is not in accord with the core of Christian belief.

So, when we aim to de-mythologize and legalize the words of Christ, we can fall into serious error.  But for those of us who approach this aspect of historical criticism with the intent of greater understanding and in respect to already established doctrines of the Church, we can come to a deeper faith.

So my brethren, happy (and appropriate) "Questing".


Ian Mills said...

Thank you again my friend for a thoughtful article. In due form, here are a few of my respectful criticisms.

It appears that you (at least in a qualified sense) reject the Jesus Seminar's methodology, arguments, and objectives based on the fact that you disagree with their conclusion. We of course, have both done enough philosophy to know that in argumentation one cannot simply reject a conclusion but must rather demonstrate that the arguments for its sake are false or invalid. Simply quoting one of their conclusions and pointing out that it differs from Christian doctrine proves nothing. If their arguments and methods are good, then so much the worse for Christianity... our Founder is not who we thought He was.
Again I appreciate you willingness to engage difficult issues.

Ian Mills said...

Another (simpler) way to put this: It appears you are determining what is "appropriate" questing and what is not based upon whether or not you agree with the conclusion. This should be self-evidently wrong... we build our conclusion based on the evidence and the legitimacy of the arguments.

R.D.L. said...


Thanks. I'll admit I don't know a whole lot about the methodology of the JS... but based on what I DO know, here are my criticisms.

1) Intent: While they may claim that their primary intent is truth, the JS has no regard for authority or tradition, which, as a Catholic I cannot condone. I'm fine with a search for truth, but I also hold that the tradition has value and is what it is for a reason. They also seem to not have have any regard for revelation as inspired, and thus my gripe with not caring about the "Spirit of the Word"

2) Textual sources: It seems that the JS interprets and publicizes its own translations of the Bible. This seems to suggest a confirmation bias from the very beginning. Why can they not get the same results from multiple translations?

3) Eschatological Premise: The JS posit that Jesus didn't preach an apocalyptic eschatology, which to my understanding is contrary to not only atmosphere of Jews at the time, but also against the inspired message of the bible.

4) Voting procedure: It seems that the process by which they decide their conclusion is itself flawed... 1st in that not everyone in the seminar is adequately educated to be making said decisions, and 2ndly that they use colored beads to vote, which seems to leave a lot of area for error, lack of discussion, inability for nuance, and an overall inability to intellectually establish a common conclusion.

That, in brief, are my criticisms of their methodology. And that being said, as "fallacious" as it may seem, no matter their methodology I cannot, in good faith, assent to certain conclusions they've made.

Ian Mills said...

You are aware, I am sure, that the Jesus Seminar represents only a small group of "Historical Jesus" scholars. Issues like apocalypticism remain a matter of contention for HJ scholars, Christian or secular. I too tend to disagree with the Jesus Seminar.

As for the translation, this one strikes particularly close to home as I have regular conversations with the man who put together their (Scholars Version) gospel of Mark. Not all HJ scholars use or endorse this translation and the vast majority of legitimate scholarship has no need for it as they all use Greek. I just read a HJ type article (not Jesus Seminar) and there wasn't a single verse written in English (I, unable to read Koine, had to look it up :P).
I agree with your criticism of their voting methods, but the individuals have put forward extensive arguments for their conclusions. Poor voting method does not negate their arguments or conclusions. I don't really care about majority consensus anyways.

I'm guessing they would ask you to justify why they should place any weight or trust in scripture when it gives obviously conflicting accounts of Christ. It is a project of history, you must justify the historical trust-worthiness of a source.

R.D.L. said...

"You are aware, I am sure, that the Jesus Seminar represents only a small group of "Historical Jesus" scholars. "
which was part of the point of the post--to distinguish between the Jesus Seminar and "in my opinion" methodologically authentic Historical Jesus criticism. JS is extremely controversial, and while i'm sure many of the people involved have good intent and eduction, I still disagree with their methodology and conclusion. That doesn't however discount other methods of Historical Jesus, and I encourage other people to see that distinction as well

Ian Mills said...

I caught that and I think that's both great and genuinely admirable. But the distinction, I'll repeat, can't be made based on their conclusions. We can't say we like this methodology because we agree with the conclusion and not these because we don't.

I don't think you and I, in theory, actually disagree on this poin, but I thought I'd point out that your line of argumentation from reading just your blog appears to be operating in the manner criticized above.
Much Love,