How Do We Know What Jesus Actually Said and Did?

(This is the fourth in a series of brief articles on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Last week we considered seven conclusions drawn from the biblical scholarship that has emerged since the “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century. As far as the Christian Testament is concerned, one of the most important discernments of that scholarship is the difference between the pre-resurrection “Jesus of history” and the post-resurrection “Jesus of faith.” How do scholars tell the difference?  For example, how do participants in “the Jesus Seminar” decide what Jesus actually said as opposed to words put in Jesus’ mouth by the early church? They do so by applying the following half dozen criteria.

a)      Multiple attestation from independent sources: If a saying or event is supported not only by the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, but also by newly discovered texts like the Gospel of Thomas, or of Mary Magdalene, then the saying or event  probably belongs to the historical Jesus.

b)      Dissimilarity: If words or deeds attributed to Jesus would be embarrassing to the early church, they were probably included because the words were actually said or the deeds performed. An example of such inclusion would be Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John.  This event diverges from the underlying and evident intentions of the Gospel authors. That intent was to present Jesus as the fullest revelation of God (and eventually as God himself). But being baptized by John suggests that Jesus was John’s disciple. It implies John’s superiority to Jesus. So having Jesus baptized by John is counterproductive – or “dissimilar” from the authors’ purposes. The Gospel authors, however, point it out anyway, indicating that the baptism actually took place; that everyone knew about it; and that it had to be explained away. The rationalizing explanations take the form of having John say, “I am not worthy to loose the sandals of this man” (Mk. 1:7). Or “I should be baptized by you. How is it that you come to me for baptism?” (Mt. 3:14). Dissimilarity also applies to the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus is presented as doing or saying something that radically departs from accepted rabbinical teaching (dissimilar to it), that’s probably the historical Jesus surfacing. For instance, when Jesus pardons the woman caught in adultery, and says, “Neither do I condemn you,” that’s probably Jesus’ voice. The immediate addition, “Now go and sin no more,” is probably the voice of the author who is still influenced by conventional rabbinical teaching and is scandalized by Jesus’ “liberalism” (Jn. 8:11).

c)       Semitisms: The Gospels were written in Greek. When Aramaic words (the language of Jesus) are included in the text (and immediately translated by the Gospel author), that’s good reason to believe that the Aramaic words were remembered as actually spoken by Jesus. For instance, in the cure of the daughter of Jairus, Jesus is remembered as saying “Talitha cumi” (Mk. 5:41).

d)      Context reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus: This is a negative criterion. It means that words and/or deeds that reflect the circumstances of the early church [e.g. about church leadership (Mt. 16:13-20); about resolution of disputes within it (Mt. 18:15); about divorce and remarriage (Lk. 16:18)] were probably not spoken by Jesus. Similarly, words and/ or deeds attributed to Jesus that do not accord with his historical context or with the overall thrust of his teaching are to be identified as inauthentic. For example if God is presented as punishing and vengeful, the presentation probably represents the voice of the authors who still could not break away from the traditional way of thinking that Jesus himself revised and rejected.

e)      Vividness of description. Inclusion of vivid details indicates a memory closely associated with Jesus’ actual words and deeds. For instance when Jesus is described as spitting on dirt and making a paste to cure a man’s blindness (Jn. 9:6), that’s probably what happened.

f)       Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus: Words or deeds that accord with those established as authentic through application of the previously mentioned criteria qualify as probably belonging to the historical Jesus.

Next Week: The Five Stages in the Development of New Testament Tradition

Women Show the Way to Fullness of Life (Not to Heaven)

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 53:10-11; Ps. 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb. 4: 14-16; Mk. 10:35-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102112.cfm

Marcus Borg, the great Jesus scholar, talks about his list of the “Ten Worst Contributions of Religion to Human Culture.” Topping that list, he says, is popular Christianity’s belief in the afterlife. When asked about the other nine, Borg says he can’t remember what they are. . . .

Second on my own list (perhaps even first) would be the idea that God has designated men to be rulers of the world and church, while women are to be seen and not heard. Today’s liturgy of the word addresses both of those items in Religion’s Worst Ideas.

Take that first one about heaven and hell. Borg sees belief in the afterlife is so harmful because it has led to a law and rule-based Christianity that centers on “going to heaven” as a reward for “keeping the commandments.” Such quid pro quo thinking, he says, is a complete distortion of Christianity.

Borg reminds us that the afterlife is not at all the focus of Christian belief – nor of Jewish “Old Testament” faith for that matter. In fact, ideas about life after death didn’t surface in Judaism till well after the Babylonian Exile six centuries before the birth of Jesus – probably as a result of contact with the Persians.  And the first unambiguous biblical reference to meaningful survival of the individual after death comes only in the book of Daniel which was written about 150 years before the birth of Jesus. That means that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and none of the prophets were motivated by desire for heaven or escape from hell. Those ideas were simply not part of their mental landscapes.

Instead, for those tribal people, faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about land – the Land of Canaan which was celebrated as God’s gift to his favored People. The word “salvation” then meant a Palestine free from occupation by imperialists, be they Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings and their references to “long life,” “fullness of days,” and “greatness” for the “Suffering Servant” who is “crushed” and loses his life on behalf of others. The words are reminiscent of Jesus’ pronouncement that sacrificing one’s life was the way to save it. Conversely, trying to “save one’s life” was the sure way to lose it.

Those are mysterious words. What might they mean: by giving one’s life for others, one actually achieves long life and fullness of days? How can one have long life and fullness of days when he or she is dead? (You can see how that question would lead subsequent generations of Christians to adopt the “afterlife” hopes of Greco-Roman, Persian and Egyptian cultures to answer that question.)

Given Jesus’ centralization of God’s Kingdom, the answer of Jesus (and that of Second Isaiah) seems to have been that self-sacrificial non-violent resistance to all forms of imperial domination provides such a powerful example and inspiring force that the community rises with new energy, life, and fullness of life when the suffering servant is inevitably killed by imperial forces.

For Mark’s community, that had proven true in the case of Jesus; its members experienced Jesus’ presence more intensely and more meaningfully following his execution than before. For us, we can see the same truth illustrated in the cases of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Rachel Corrie and Karen Silkwood. After their deaths, and arguably because of their deaths, they exercise more influence on us today than they did while they were alive. That’s the mystery Jesus gestures towards in today’s reading.

What can this mean for us? For one, it calls us to recommit ourselves to non-violent resistance of the anti-kingdom forces among us. That’s our political task as we live out our lives in the belly of empire’s beast here in the United States.

But Jesus’ words about servanthood show us that such resistance should permeate our lives at the domestic every-day level as well. (And here’s where the point about women comes in.)  In both cases, the political and domestic, the kingdom is not brought on by exercising the kind of “power over” that characterizes empire, and that apparently motivates the request of the Sons of Zebedee in this morning’s Gospel. The Zebedee boys have a typically patriarchal approach; they’re asking Jesus to let them exercise “power over” others.  This typically male idea sees force and violence as the solution to most problems.

Instead, the approach of “servanthood”—of putting the needs of others first – is typically feminine. And in Mark’s Gospel from beginning to the end it is women who are referred to in servant language. In the beginning of Mark (1:31), the first act of Peter’s mother in law upon being cured by Jesus is to serve food to her benefactor and his companion. And at the end Mark (15:41) Mary Magdalene along with another Mary and Salome are identified beneath Jesus’ cross as “those who used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee.”

All of that suggests, as scripture scholar Ched Myers has said, that Jesus here is proposing the notion of “servant leadership.” It suggests that the practical content of that concept is typically embodied not in men, but in women.

In fact, I think, it suggests that in a patriarchal system like ours (politically, domestically, and in the church) the only ones fit to exercise leadership are women. Typically, they are the ones who shed light on the meaning of “servant-leader” and of fullness of life. And they do so in ways that those bad ideas of heaven and “power-over” simply cannot.   What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

Thanks Amy Goodman For Breaking the Sound Barrier

Like 69 million other Americans, I watched the second presidential debate from Hofstra University last night. And I must confess I was pleased to see President Obama “win.” This was the Obama so notably absent from the first debate. He came out swinging, was feisty, incisive and smart. He clearly won, and was the more able of the two debaters. That made me feel better – but only because President Obama is the lesser of two evils and only because the parameters of debate were so narrowly set.

My point is that there were only two candidates on stage.  As a result, there was a remarkable convergence of assumptions and positions between the two. That convergence might have been avoided had other candidates been allowed onstage with the two corporate spokespersons now posturing before us as candidates presenting us with “stark differences.”

Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” has tried to remedy the situation in a series of debates she calls “Breaking the Sound-Barrier” (http://www.democracynow.org/).  The title’s reference is to her show’s inclusion of opinion beyond that endorsed by the corporate interests that shape public debate – that set the “limits of perception” more effectively than blinders on horses.

So this morning on Ms. Goodman’s program, she added three other candidates’ voices to the debate mix: Jill Stein of the Green Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. The three took part just as if Candy Crowley’s questions had been presented not only to Messrs Obama and Romney, but to them as well. Each candidate was given two minutes to answer. And by the way, Ms. Goodman was far more successful at imposing time limits than Jim Lehrer, Martha Radatz or Candy Crowley.

The upshot of breaking the system-imposed “sound barrier” was to remarkably soften the differences between candidates Romney and Obama.

For instance, both candidates sparred with each other over who was more the champion of dirty energy, drilling, and pipe lines. Yes, they mentioned “green technologies.” But with both Romney and Obama it always seemed an afterthought. Mr. Romney evoked “drill, baby, drill” memories with his emphasis on more drilling and on the XL Pipeline. Apparently, Mr. Obama was afraid to even mention that while reserving his decision on the XL Pipeline till after the elections, he’s very quietly allowed construction of the U.S. portion to actually begin.

Had Ms. Stein been admitted to the Hofstra debate, Americans would have been reminded of the impact of fossil fuel consumption not only on prices at the gas pump, but on the environment and global warming. (In fact, the notion of climate change received not a single mention in last night’s contest. And this even though it certainly represents the greatest threat to not only U.S. national security, but to life as we know it.) Ms. Stein’s presence would have made Obama and Romney define their positions on the topic, as she would have had the chance to make her case for a “Green New Deal” which draws connections between the consumption of fossil fuel and environmental deterioration, oil wars, and healthcare.

Rocky Anderson’s presence on stage would have brought front and center the concerns of his Justice Party. Without him the words “poverty” and “poor” crossed no one’s lips, even though poverty rates in the United States are at their highest rate since 1965. Similarly, Mr. Anderson would have raised questions of breaking up the “too big to fail” banks and the prosecution of fraudulent bankers not one of whom has yet been brought to trial.

Mr. Anderson would also have made the Republicans, Democrats and public at large reframe the “jobs debate.” Without him, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney could avoid facing the fact that the digital revolution of the last twenty-five years has rendered obsolete conventional ways of thinking about work. Robots have displaced people. As a result, it’s imperative to reframe questions of employment. Available jobs must be shared; it’s as simple as that. Work days, weeks, months, and years need shortening. Vacations need extensions. And the wealth the new technology is currently concentrating in the 1% needs redistribution.

Perhaps no question in last night’s debate more highlighted the need for “breaking the sound barrier” than the one about the differences between Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama, and George W. Bush. In his answer, candidate Romney talked about differences in personality and context, championing small businesses, and cracking down on China. Mercifully for him, Mr. Obama did not have to answer the question.

Neither Ms. Stein nor Mr. Anderson would have allowed such question-dodging to pass. The fact is, both Stein and Anderson agree, there is very little important difference between either the Romney or Obama positions or that of former President Bush. In fact under Obama, Bush policies have been exacerbated, and they promise to get even worse under Romney. The list of policy similarities is long: use of torture, promotion of free trade agreements, spying on U.S. citizens, detention of “terrorist” suspects with charge or trial, extra-judicial (drone) executions, championing dirty energy, off-shoring of jobs, misleading agreement that Social Security and Medicare are in crisis, refusal to prosecute Bush era war crimes . . .

Yes, Mr. Obama rose to the occasion last night. And I’m happy that he won. I’ll vote for him in November. But my vote is only a stop-gap measure. During the next four years I’m going to devote my political energies to working for the Justice and Green Parties so that in 2014 they won’t be excluded from presidential debates.

Even if their winning the presidency might remain a remote possibility, their inclusion in the debates will serve us all. Thanks, Amy Goodman!

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.”

Jesus Calls the Rich Man to Practice Wealth Redistribution (And “Communism”)

Today’s Readings: Wis. 7:7-11; Ps. 90: 12-17; Heb. 4: 12-13; Mk. 10:17-30 (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101412.cfm)

On October 19th, 1998, President Barrack Obama speaking at Loyola University in Chicago said that he believed in wealth redistribution. In this campaign season, the president’s opponents have revived that statement and denounced it as “Marxist,” “socialist,” “communist” and “un-American.”  Opponents also characterized Mr. Obama’s words as inciting class warfare. Please keep that in mind as I speak.

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It is very difficult to understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about the impossibility of rich people entering the Kingdom of God as long as we identify that kingdom with an after-life “heaven.” If we do that, then Jesus’ words about the exclusion of the rich from God’s kingdom seem very threatening, punitive, and almost unfair – as though a severe and angry God were unreasonably excluding the rich from the eternal happiness they desire and sending them all to hell. We’re all too familiar with that understanding of God. Most of us have had enough of it.

But Jesus wasn’t a punitive person; he was compassion itself. And the focus of his preaching was never the afterlife. His reference to “heaven” in today’s gospel is a circumlocution Jews of his time used to avoid pronouncing the unspeakable holy name YHWH. The “Kingdom of Heaven” was synonymous with the Kingdom of God — a vision of what life on earth would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.

According to that vision, everything would be reversed in God’s realm. The rich would see themselves as poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first. Jesus’ was a vision of a world with room for everyone – where everyone had a decent share of the pie. He knew however that getting from here to there would require wealth-redistribution and a kind of communism. Hence Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s gospel, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”

Just think about what Jesus meant in Jewish biblical terms.  He was asking the rich man to join the poor in a “Jubilee Year” as mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, in his world characterized by extortionist creditors and money-lenders, in his world of extremes of wealth and poverty that “Year of Grace” became the central point of Jesus’ message.

Recall what Jubilee was. It was a divinely appointed time of wealth redistribution. Such a year occurred every fifty years (i.e. after every “seven weeks of years,” or once in a person’s lifetime). During that special year, the land was to be left fallow, slaves were to be set free, debts were to be cancelled, and land was to be returned to its original owner. This was not voluntary; it had been central to God’s law since the time of Moses as recorded in Leviticus 25:8-18. In other words, this type of communism had been essential to the Jewish tradition from the very beginning.

Jubilee was also a critical part of Jesus teaching from the outset. That’s what he was talking about in Luke’s version of Jesus’ first preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). There, using the words of Isaiah 61:1-2, he summed up the program that would characterize his entire public life: to “…proclaim release to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus’ proclamation of Jubilee was sanctioned in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Of course the rich don’t want to enter the kingdom of wealth redistribution and debt forgiveness. So they enthusiastically or sadly but almost inevitably exclude themselves. They prefer the poor enjoying pie in the sky after they die rather than here on earth. The rich don’t like wealth redistribution; they have no use for communism. So they willingly walk away from Jesus’ utopia just as the rich man did in today’s gospel. They enclose themselves in their gated communities and from their verandas judge the poor as unworthy – as their enemies instead of as God’s Chosen People. And so it’s nearly impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom — by their own choice.

Nearly!  That is, Jesus leaves hope. When his disciples object, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.”  That is, without God’s help, it is impossible for the rich to redistribute their wealth.  Jesus’ joke was that it’s about as impossible as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Someone today might say, a rich man’s opting for wealth redistribution or communal sharing is about as unlikely as Warren Buffett squeezing through the night deposit slot in the Chase Manhattan Bank. But with God’s help, Jesus suggests, even old Warren could find the strength to actually sell his goods, give them to the poor, and follow Jesus. Metaphorically speaking, even W.B. could actually squeeze through.

Once inside, Jesus promises, the miraculous occurs: to their surprise, the rich discover that in giving all away, they end up with unlimited wealth, houses and possessions. That promise reflects the experience of the earliest Christian communities as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There they practiced a kind of Christian communism. Or in the words of Acts:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to any as had need.”  (Acts 4:32-36).

Those are the words of the Bible not of Marx or Engels. In other words the formula “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” comes straight from the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, those critical of President Obama’s statement about wealth redistribution speak as though Jesus were a champion of capitalism. It’s almost as if the passage from Acts had read:

Now the whole group of those who believed lived in fierce competition with one another, and made sure that the rights of private property were respected. They expelled from their midst any who practiced communalism. As a consequence, God’s ‘invisible hand’ brought great prosperity to some. Many however found themselves in need. The Christians responded with ‘tough love’ demanding that the lazy either work or starve. Many of the unfit, especially the children, the elderly and those who cared for them did in fact starve. Others raised themselves by their own bootstraps, and became stronger as a result. In this way, the industrious increased their land holdings and banked the profits. The rich got richer and the poor, poorer. Of course, all of this was seen as God’s will and a positive response to the teaching of Jesus.

On a world scale, most of us hearing these words are rich. Jesus’ advice to the man in today’s gospel is actually addressed to us. In order to enter the kingdom, we are called to somehow redistribute our wealth and support wealth redistribution programs. How are we to do that? Some would say by strictly voluntary “charity.” Jesus Jubilee proclamation suggests something more structural – something demanded by law.

Does that have anything to do with Warren Buffet’s idea of the rich and the rest of us paying our fair share of taxes? If used to improve the life of the poor rather than to fight wars against them, could progressive taxation represent the contemporary way of fulfilling Jesus’ injunction?

Ironically, is Warren Buffet trying to show us the way to squeeze thorough that night deposit slot? What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

ReFirement Not Retirement

I have a friend who like me walked away from his job in 2010. Here in Kentucky, where people talk about retirement as being “retarred,” my friend likes to refer to himself as “retarded.” Despite its political incorrectness, his line usually draws a laugh or at least a smile.

Last week when he was speaking at Berea College, the great spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox, had a better line. He said the adjective “retired” should itself be retired. It should be replaced, Fox said, with the word “refired.” Of course, he meant that the “third age” should not be characterized by withdrawal from the struggle for peace and justice. Rather it should represent a time for refocusing, re-evaluating and re-committing.

Matthew’s redefinition reminded me of another friend of mine (also a former priest and one of my colleagues in the Columban ordination class of 1966). A few years ago when we were both attending a reunion of former members of the Society of St. Columban, I had made a couple of public remarks – I forget about what. Afterwards my classmate said, “I can see you still have ‘the fire;’ I just don’t feel it anymore.” And yet as I spoke with him and his wife, it was clear to me that they both had as much “fire” as I did. They were both engaged, reading, thinking, discussing, and trying to be the change we’d all like to see in the world and in the church. They were refired but didn’t see it.

The fire in their bellies and in mine could be called “enthusiasm” in its etymological sense. The word comes from the Greek phrase “en Theos” – being “in God.”  A person who lives “on fire” lives in God; she or he is enthusiastic. She or he recognizes the spark of the divine in herself, in others, and in all of creation. As a result, she lives accordingly. To do so as never before is my refirement aspiration.

So I’m going to stop thinking of myself as retired. Instead I’m now thinking in terms refirement. It’s a time when as never before I’m free to go where the spirit leads me. Doing this blog is part of it. So is being faithful to the daily practice of meditation which by definition is immersion en Theos. Through both the blog and meditation I’m trying do my small part to rescue Jesus’ radical vision of a world with room for everyone (he called it the Kingdom of God).

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.)