Modern Scripture Scholarship and Its Search for the Jesus of History

What I call “modern scripture scholarship” refers to the essentially inter-disciplinary approach to the Bible that has developed over the last 400 years. To me it seems nearly criminal that the nature and results of this intense and fruitful study has been kept secret and not shared with the “faithful in the pews” who are perfectly capable of understanding its processes and conclusions.

In fact, not sharing this secret has driven many thinking people away from the church as they reject as fantastic and unbelievable the understandings of faith they accepted as children, but which seem incompatible with what they know about science and the world in general.

As our inroad to understanding this topic, let’s examine the distinction it makes between the Jesus of history and Jesus the Christ. “Jesus of history” refers to the prophet who was directly experienced by his community in Palestine for a short period around 30 C.E. (Common Era). “Jesus the Christ” refers to the identity Jesus assumed in the faith of the early Christian community, especially between the time of Jesus’ death (between 31 and 33) and the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), when Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God was defined. As we will see, the Jesus of history is quite different from the Jesus of faith. (By the way, there is a wonderful PBS film series on this topic that I highly recommend, “From Jesus to Christ:” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/)

For starters, let’s try to understand how modern scholars got to the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. It all began with the 17th century’s initiation of the Scientific Revolution. Galileo Galilei’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” set the tone. The letter responded to criticisms from the Vatican’s Holy Office of the Inquisition advanced in 1616 charging that Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric universe was “absurd in philosophy, formally heretical, and expressly contrary to scripture.”

In his response, the great astronomer argued that God is revealed in two ways, in Sacred Scripture and in nature. Sacred Scripture was written for simple folk, he said. Its statements are often ambiguous and metaphorical. They cannot be taken literally in every case. Even St. Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, and other master theologians, Galileo said, had recognized such truisms centuries earlier; they were not literalists. Galileo further reasoned that since it is frequently so difficult to ascertain the exact meaning of biblical passages, one must often resort to God’s revelation in nature to determine the truth. When God’s written word conflicts with natural revelation, the latter is to prevail, because it is clearer and less ambiguous.

Key milestones in subsequent biblical studies include the following (If some of the historical references are unclear, don’t worry, it’s not necessary to “get” them all; they are included here only for the sake of completeness):

–          17th century: Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Richard Simon question the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Jewish Testament).

–          18th century: The “higher criticism” movement emerges. “Higher” biblical criticism dealt with issues of authorship and original intent, and with literary forms and their meaning. It is contrasted with “lower criticism” which confined itself to close examination and comparison of texts.

–          18th century: Herman Samuel Reimarus applies critical methodology to the Christian Testament. He concludes that very little is incontrovertibly factual.

–          1870s: Julius Wellhausen examines the Bible as a human document.

–          19th century: Albert Schweitzer, David Strauss, Ernest Renan, Johannes Weiss and others embark on the “Quest of the Historical Jesus.”

–          1893: Pope Leo XIII condemns higher criticism in “Providentissimus Deus.” He establishes the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

–          1940s: Joachim Jeremias and C.H. Dodd identify layers in the Christian Testament attributable to (1) Jesus, (2) the gospel authors, and (3) the early church.

–          1943: Pope Pius XII endorses the new biblical scholarship (“textual criticism”) in “Divino Afflante Spiritu.”

–          1st half of 20th Century: Protestant theological giants, Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann conclude that the quest of the historical Jesus had reached a dead end. Almost nothing can be known of the historical Jesus, they claimed. They and their followers concentrate their analysis and theology on 1st century post-resurrection proclamations about Jesus (kerygma).

–           1945: Apocryphal gospels (i.e. gospels other than Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are discovered at Nag Hammadi (Upper Egypt).

–          1948-1956: Discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls in Palestine.

–          1970s: Discovery of Gnostic Gospels in a cave in Egypt. The texts date from the 2nd century.

–          1965: Second Vatican Council publishes its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (“Dei Verbum”) embracing interpretations of Scripture that centralize the original author’s context and intent.

–          1968: The Latin American Bishops’ Conference meeting in Medellin, Colombia adopts liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as a central tool for interpreting Sacred Scripture and as a guiding commitment for church practice.

–          1990s: Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and other members of “The Jesus Seminar” develop criteria for identifying the actual words of Jesus as opposed to the inventions of the gospel authors and/or the early church including: (1) multiple attestation from independent sources;  (2) dissimilarity i.e. words or deeds attributed to Jesus that would be embarrassing to the early church [e.g. Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John and (especially) the crucifixion]; (3) coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus; (4) Semitisms; (5) sitz im leben (context) reflecting the circumstances of Jesus rather than of the early church, and (6) vividness of description.

Next Week: the significance of the events in the above timeline (P.S. I would love it if readers would submit questions concerning any of this. It would give me direction for future posts on this topic.)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

9 thoughts on “Modern Scripture Scholarship and Its Search for the Jesus of History”

  1. Mike…

    I recently saw an interview with Marcus Borg during which he stated that most of his ideas were not his own…rather they were attempts to rescue almost ancient ideas from critically thinking scholars/Christians who lived centuries ago. Yet many (if not most) Christians treat Marcus Borg and company as though their proposals are so far out that they deserve no hearing. As your timeline above reflects, the Christian community has resisted nearly all attempts to ground our beliefs in history (although our understanding of history is limited). So…I often wonder what to do with this trend in the Christian community/church. How does history require us to engage the church?

    Trevor

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  2. Thanks for initiating this series. I look forward to learning your insights. This is not quite a question, BUT: I would like to see you expand on the fact that the incidents and words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were not so much intended to portray the historical Jesus interacting with his contemporaries as to show the risen Jesus speaking to and through the faith community; e.g., he wasn’t condemning the Jewish leaders as whited sepulchres, etc.; the Christ of faith was condemning the unworthy leaders of the early ecclesia. The implications are vast for a critique of the contemporary clerical caste, which, in my opinion has hijacked Vatican II.

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    1. Good point, Bill. However, I’m convinced that despite the accuracy of what you say, very significat traces of the historical Jesus can be discerned in the gospel narratives. And those traces represent the final criteria for judging authentically Christian beliefs. It’s the Jesus of history that provides our “norma non normata” for what he actually taught. The rest may be insightful, but represents more the cultural inheritance from the Greco-Roman world.

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  3. Mike…

    I recently saw an interview with Marcus Borg during which he stated that most of his ideas were not his own…rather they were attempts to rescue almost ancient ideas from critically thinking scholars/Christians who lived centuries ago. Yet many (if not most) Christians treat Marcus Borg and company as though their proposals are so far out that they deserve no hearing. As your timeline above reflects, the Christian community has resisted nearly all attempts to ground our beliefs in history (although our understanding of history is limited). So…I often wonder what to do with this trend in the Christian community/church. How does history require us to engage the church?

    Trevor

    Like

    1. Trevor, this is a great question. I think Borg is showing us how to answer it. He’s done his homework, and is trying to exploit every venue possible to communicate his findings. Some will listen; others will not. Whether or not they listen is due to the stage at which they find themselves. As Ken Wilber would say, it’s impossible for a person at the egocentric or ethnocentric stage to hear and understand someone speaking from a world-centric or cosmic-centric point of view. Borg is speaking from a rational and mystical standpoint. If listeners are at the mythological stage of development, they won’t hear him — not today, but possibly tomorrow, when they’ll be able to understand.

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  4. I’ve seen some very good stuff lately about the Shroud of Turin. While it may not come up in this series I’d love to hear your opinion.

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      1. There was an interesting theory, that the carbon dating tests which were done in the 70’s, on the parts of the cloth least likely to destroy the integrity of the shroud as an artifact, were skewed to a false result. The reasoning for this was possibly because the edges (where the samples were taken from) were heavily handled through the middle ages as it was displayed, and so the results reflect this handling of the cloth and not the origin of the cloth or its stains.

        Here is the link to the quickest read on the recent developments in this subject, but which includes enough information (names of major researchers) that a good search can turn up the more detailed information.

        http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3445_162-57410982/controversial-new-theories-on-the-shroud-of-turin/

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