Lessons Drawn from Modern Scripture Scholarship: (Part 3 in a Series on the Historical Jesus)

(This is the third in a series of Monday “classes” for those wishing to deepen their understanding of the historical Jesus and the biblical sources of their faith.) 

Last week we reviewed the history of modern scripture scholarship. The significant events recorded there have made a difference. For instance, since the seventeenth century, scientific method has greatly influenced biblical studies. New fields of study developed over the last 300 years and applied to the Bible have yielded unprecedented insight. These academic disciplines include archeology, linguistics, political science, economics, sociology, psychology, comparative religion . . . New literary discoveries (including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic documents of Nag Hamadi) have provided previously unknown versions of canonical texts as well as alternative gospel narratives suppressed since the fourth century. Obviously then we have more information about the Bible than any generation before us. This information has changed the way scholars view Sacred Scripture. It has led them to draw important conclusions that they didn’t tell you about in Sunday school, and still haven’t shared from the pulpit.

Let me name just a few of the conclusions I personally have drawn from my reading, studying, and teaching the sources I’m referring to. I’ll try to do so in the most direct unvarnished way I can. Obviously chapters might be written on each point:

1.       The Bible is not the inerrant or inspired Word of God valid for all time. Rather, the Bible represents the word of men (sic) who were trying to make sense of life in the light of their religious faith and the knowledge that was available to them at the time. The Bible is conditioned by history. It is full of historical and geographical errors, as well as understandings of God that are contradictory, primitive, repulsive, and not in line with the teachings of Jesus. Nonetheless many parts of the Bible can be considered “inspired” – just as parts of Shakespeare might be so considered.

2.       The Bible is not a single book with chapters, but a library of books. Literary types in the Bible include myth, legend, debate, fiction, law, parable, allegory, miracle stories, letters, gospel, apocalypse, and prophecy to name a few.  These entries were written and revised by many authors in many drastically different historical contexts. Moreover to mistake the literary form of any text is to mistake the meaning.  For example to read the myths contained in the Book of Genesis as though they were history is to miss the profound truths those myths contain. To read the fictional story of Jonah and to focus discussion on whether a human can live for days in the belly of a whale is to similarly miss the story’s powerful point about receptivity to prophecy.

3.       The ancient idea of history was different from our modern idea. Ancient history did not have the benefit of digital recorders or phone cameras. Words and accounts of events were published long after the fact. So speeches and events often had to be “reconstructed” according to what historians imagined took place or thought appropriate. Moreover, unlike their modern counterparts, ancient historians were more interested in the meaning of the events they reported than in accurately recording what happened. Hence we should not be surprised when events are exaggerated or otherwise enhanced to bring out the authors’ “lessons.”

4. The Bible should not be read a-historically, but contextually. The Bible was not written for us. Hence it is a mistake to read it “a-historically” (i.e. as it were written in a historical vacuum by writers who had us in mind). Rather, biblical entries were composed for the communities their various authors were addressing over a period of more than a thousand years.  The books should therefore be read “contextually,” i.e. with their historical circumstances and the intentions of their authors in mind. Of course, biblical inclusions do contain meaning for us. However discovering that meaning in circumstances vastly different from those characterizing their original composition is risky business, and must be done with caution and humility.

5.       Biblical content should be judged according to the “Principle of Analogy.” This principle states that “We should not ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present.” Application of this principle causes scholars to “demythologize” miraculous events such as the Crossing of the Red Sea or the Feeding of the 5000. Doing so doesn’t mean that believers can’t or shouldn’t take at face value the accounts in question. However it does make it possible for skeptics in a secular society to honor such accounts without having to take them literally.

6.       The Jesus of history is different from the Christ of faith. Examination of Gospel sources shows that faith about Jesus of Nazareth developed and deepened over time. During his life Jesus made prophetic proclamations about the Kingdom of God – what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. That was the Gospel of Jesus: “Repent the Kingdom of God is at hand.” After his death and the experience of “resurrection,” the Gospel of Jesus was replaced with the Church’s Gospel about Jesus: “Jesus is Lord.” Moreover, following the resurrection experience, faith in Jesus “real presence” in the community had church members believing that he continued addressing those communities’ problems through Christians endowed with the gift of prophecy. And so, gospel writers had no trouble placing those post-resurrection prophetic words into the mouth of the pre-resurrection Jesus.

7. Criteria are available to discover the Jesus of history. The difference between the Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith has made scholars (for example in the “Jesus Seminar”) wonder just what it was that the historical Jesus said and did. They have developed criteria for separating the words and deeds of the pre-resurrection Jesus from those of the post-resurrection Christ. Those criteria will be the focus of next week’s “class.”

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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.

4 thoughts on “Lessons Drawn from Modern Scripture Scholarship: (Part 3 in a Series on the Historical Jesus)”

    1. Thanks for your three comments, Mark. The one on taxes was especially thought-provoking for me. Again, thank you. I was just trying to point out how care of the poor and wealth-redistribution was structured into the religion that Jesus and the early Christian community embraced. It was not a question of voluntary charity. It therefore seems ironic to me that his contemporary followers would find capitalism so friendly and socialism (or what they call “communism”) so un-Christian. This position is often justified on the conviction that Marxist-inspired redistribution schemes are “Godless.” It overlooks the good reasons Marxists and others (including many of our contemporaries) have for being “godless.”

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  1. Mike…

    I find this to be one of your most compelling posts. I particularly appreciate your point about the principle of analogy. This post could be useful as a discussion guide for our LASP groups…

    Trevor

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    1. Thanks, Trevor. That principle of analogy is very important I think. Agreeing to it or rejecting it is what separates people in the kind of discussions we’ve become used to in LASP. It’s definitely worth discussing and hearing what students think.

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