The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus

Is Jesus Christ best understood as a prophet of the apocalypse?  Yes, argued Albert Schweitzer in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Moderns, said Schweitzer, tend to miss this reality, turning Jesus into a wise and pacific God-man.  Schweitzer’s claim has been renewed and popularized by Bart Ehrman in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.*  

It’s a strong argument, though a complicated one, for there exists no history of Jesus without its own theological agenda.  The first Gospel, Mark, as well as the hypothetical source called Q, are filled with apocalyptic sayings of Jesus, many emphasizing that the end of the age would fall within the lifetime of his followers. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mark 9:1).

The problem, of course, is that Jesus was wrong.  The Kingdom did not come within the lifetime of his followers.  It has yet to arrive.  Though the revision of the message is present in all the Gospels after Mark, it was most clearly changed in John.  The Kingdom was in heaven.  It was not coming to earth, at least not for some time.  Jesus was telling us how to live now, not how to prepare for the apocalypse.

“Already but not yet” makes it complicated

The complexity is best captured by what is called inaugurated eschatology, and reflected in the phrase already but not yet.”  There is much in the New Testament, virtually our only historical source, that says that the Kingdom of Heaven is already at work among the followers of Jesus.  The Beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit . . . ) or the antitheses, also in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (5:21–48), are exemplary.**  There is virtually no way to read them but as advice for how to live in this world now.  It is a stretch to argue that the Beatitudes are a statement about the reversal that will occur when God’s Kingdom is realized on earth.  About the antitheses, Ehrman argues simply that they are not independently attested, an especially weak argument about a Gospel he relies on heavily (p 171).

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Heaven can wait: Three Views of Heaven

Heaven can waitHeaven can wait: Three Views of Heaven.

If you’re good, then when you die, you’ll go to heaven.  This seems to be the traditional Christian view.  In fact, Jesus never said any such thing. 

The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found either in the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell. (Ehrman, p 16)

Ehrman is correct, but he is making some implicit distinctions that are not obvious.  Jesus believed in the resurrection of the body, not the soul.  Jesus also believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be established on earth, not somewhere in the sky.  So, one could just as well say that Jesus believed in a glorious life after death for some, and death for others.  Hell plays a relatively small role in Jesus’ teaching. 

Three views of the afterlife

Three views of the afterlife are present in the Bible.  The third is implicit, and probably the most important.  The three are:

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Constantine and Christianity

Constantine and ChristianityConstantine and Christianity.

For some time, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that it was Constantine, Emperor of Rome (306 CE-337), who transformed Christianity from a persecuted religious sect into a world religion.  Some say he supported Christianity as part of a cynical strategy to promote his rule.  Others say he had a genuine religious conversion.  It seems it was a bit of both, and more besides.

I approach Constantine by way of The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, by Bart Ehrman, whose study of the history of religion led him to lose his faith.  He cites the fact that of over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, no two are alike.  This realization led Ehrman to become an agnostic.  If God inspired the scriptures, which one?  Fifteen years later his personal struggles with the existence of evil and suffering led Ehrman to become an atheist.  He remains fascinated with Christianity, and often appreciative.

To serve the poor, the sick, and the other

Ehrman argues that the very idea that society should serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized became a distinctively Christian concern.  I wonder if the way he puts it is right.

Without the conquest of Christianity, we may well never have had institutionalized welfare for the poor or organized health care for the sick. Billions of people may never have embraced the idea that society should serve the marginalized or be concerned with the well-being of the needy, values that most of us in the West have simply assumed are “human” values. (p 6)

Is it so simple?  Consider Marxism.  Some have argued that Marxism is but a this-worldly version of Christianity, heaven brought down to earth.  But one could make this claim about any teaching that cared about the poor.  What Ehrman means is that in making Christianity a matter of state, Constantine made its concerns a matter of state.  Perhaps, but it is interesting to consider that today the happiest states, according to their own citizens, are among the least Christian: Denmark and the Nordic States.  Finland is number one, Norway is number two.*

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But Jesus never said that

But Jesus never said that. 

In my last post on Jürgen Moltmann, I pointed out that the passage he relies on so heavily, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani) appears in only two of the four gospels.  In Luke, Jesus seems calm and in control of his own death.  The same applies in John, where Jesus says that the power to crucify him comes from God, not man (19:11).  The conclusion I draw is that one cannot rest an entire argument on a single verse from the Bible, especially if (as in this case) different gospels quote Jesus quite differently.

The problem arises because the gospels were written forty to sixty years after Christ’s death.  They rely primarily on second generation oral tradition, a source called Q   and Mark.  The first to write about Jesus was Paul, who wrote the letter to the Corinthians about    53-54 CE, a little over twenty years after Christ’s death.  But Paul, who was concerned with missionary matters, never wrote about Christ’s crucifixion.

The problem runs deeper than this.  It’s not just a question of which gospel, but which of the hundreds of copies of the book in question are we going to rely on, each a little different, and sometimes a lot, from the other.  We possess no autograph copies, as originals are called.  We possess only copies of copies of copies of copies.  The first copies of Mark (the first gospel) that we possess are fragmentary, and were written around 200 CE.  Others come later.

How many differences?

In the early eighteenth-century, the theologian John Mill published a version of the New Testament with notes indicating about 30,000 variations in about 100 different manuscript copies he had drawn upon.   Recently, Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, estimates there are between 200,000 to 400,000 variants, based on 5,700 Greek manuscripts, and 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and other ancient translations (pp 87-89).  Other estimates run higher, though it’s important to note that most of the variations are minor, and do not change the meaning of the text.  But some do.

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C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs

C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the most popular Christian writers of the twentieth century, and our century as well. Though he would have disliked being called a theologian, that is exactly what he was, even as he had no formal theological training. In fact, this is exactly what makes his works on Christianity so popular.  Mere Christianity, begun as a series of radio lectures during World War Two, is almost conversational in tone.  It is still taught in adult Christian education groups (Urban).  By the way, the fact that Lewis had no formal theological training does not imply that he lacked intellectual standing, having taught medieval history at both Oxford and Cambridge.  He also wrote the fictional Chronicles of Narnia.  Unless noted, all pages numbers refer to Mere Christianity.

Most critics of Lewis as theologian are Christian evangelicals, and others, who believe he was too loose with doctrine, such as saying that other religions might contain a portion of truth about God.  My take is somewhat the opposite.  He is too literal about what it means to follow Christ.  For Lewis it means to become “little Christs,” which to me makes no sense at all.  Nevertheless, there is a charm and simplicity to his religious writing which has no equal, though perhaps G. K. Chesterton comes close.

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