Why Bother with the Historical Jesus?

I’m about to offer a Lenten course on the historical Jesus to the members of my faith communities – to my fellow parishioners at St. Clare’s Catholic Church in Berea, Kentucky, and to an “Ecumenical Table” fellowship I attend.

A course on the historical Jesus? A friend of mine asked why. After all, everyone knows we can’t know much about the Jesus of history. Virtually all we have for sources are the highly subjective gospels produced by several Christian communities long after Jesus had died. And close examination of those gospels show them to be unreliable in terms of modern ideas about history. At best they’re propaganda intended to win converts to Christianity. They contain lots of made-up stories and words attributed to Jesus long after the fact. If that’s all we have, how can we really say anything about the Jesus of history? And what does it matter?

Many highly credentialed and very credible scholars have seconded my friend’s skepticism. Theologians as weighty as Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth have said in effect “fagedaboudit.” It’s not for nothing that St. Paul concentrated on Jesus’ death, resurrection and glorification “at the right hand of the Father.” And he was writing less than 20 years after Jesus’ death. For Bultmann and Barth (and it seems for Paul) that’s all Christians have to know. Jesus words and deeds actually matter very little.

Still, others have disagreed – most notably the four canonical evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) and the authors of more than 20 “gospels” discovered since the middle of the 20thcentury at the Dead Sea and Nag Hammadi in Palestine. They found it necessary to record what Jesus said and did.

Modern scholars on a par with Barth and Bultmann have followed suit. Albert Schweitzer, liberation theologians, and members of the Jesus Seminar have insisted that it’s necessary and possible to know what Jesus said and did. He after all (and not what later believers made of him) was the definitive Symbol of God. His every word and action is full of meaning in terms of revealing God’s identity. In that sense, Jesus is not God. Rather God is Jesus. Without the historical revelation of what Jesus said and did, we would have very little idea of who God is.

In order to know what Jesus revealed, it is therefore necessary to decipher the symbols of God that Jesus’ words and deeds provide. And besides, the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole claims to be historical. It’s not mythological like Greco-Roman religious systems. So the historical Jesus is important as a final criterion of faith. We impoverish that faith by relying merely on Jesus’ death, resurrection and glorification as related by Paul and others.

Not only is it necessary to know what Jesus said and did in order to know the fullness of revelation of God that Christians find in him. It is also possible to do so – at least according to “Jesus scholars.” They have developed an elaborate set of criteria for separating the events of Jesus life that surely took place from those made up by the early Christian community. Similarly, their standards help readers identify what Jesus actually said from the words that early Christians put into Jesus’ mouth.

Chief among such criteria is the standard of “embarrassment.” That means that events and sayings that would have caused embarrassment to the early Christian community must have happened, otherwise early believers wouldn’t have recorded them. The crucifixion of Jesus is a case in point. And so is his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist – as well as his association with outcasts and “unclean” sinners. Jesus’ baptism gives the impression that John was superior to Jesus. His crucifixion was a huge stumbling block for those trying to convince people that he was the Messiah. Nobody would have made up such events from whole cloth. They were too embarrassing.

Still doubts remain about the historical Jesus – as they do by the way for all historical characters and events all of which become obscured by rumor, myth, falsehood, and the agenda of those writing the “history.”

What we can know a great deal about is Jesus’ historical context. In fact knowledge of Jesus’ context is knowledge about him. Take for instance the work of forensic archeologists. They can tell us what the people of Jesus time and place looked like – something none of the gospels offer. Forensic archeologists tell us that he stood about 5’1 and weighted about 110 pounds, and looked like this:

SON OF GOD

Not like this:

th[7] (2)

The bottom line here (and in the course I’ll offer) is that the work of the Jesus Seminar and others involved in quests for the historical Jesus is extremely helpful, but not crucial. What is crucial is to read the gospels we have with as much knowledge of context as we can. The gospel reading that results is called “historical literal.” It takes the gospels at their word keeping in mind what we can know of the author’s intentions, literary strategy, theology, and context (social, political, economic, religious . . .).

Reading the gospels with such new knowledge in mind yields an extraordinary picture of an individual the likes of whom mainstream history routinely ignores, denigrates and erases from the collective memory — a poor man who inspired other poor people to realize that they meant a lot more to God than their rich and powerful contemporaries.

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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.

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