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.)