I have been corresponding with this person for most of this school year. This letter, however, seems destined for the Jesus Creed community and so I asked his permission — and he gave it. So here it is. I will answer some of the top half of the letter today; tomorrow we’ll look at the second half. You are more than welcome to enter into this correspondence.
I realize this is complex and in depth topic but I am hoping you can help me with some questions regarding the quest for the Jesus of history. Correct me if I am wrong but there seems to be a lack of consensus among Jesus scholars on a number of issues even on basic and historic tenets of the classic Christian faith. This makes it difficult for people like me to determine exactly what we can know about Jesus with a general degree of certainty. I mean, when scholars of equal ability and with equal credentials disagree:
on the very nature of the resurrection (i.e. was it metaphorical or physical),
on whether or not Jesus even claimed to be the Son of God,
on whether the Kingdom of God has only a present or only a future reality or both
and so on
it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
If scholars of such excellent ability come to such different conclusions and cannot agree on what exactly Jesus said and did or when to date the Gospels or what historical reliability they possess with what kind of confidence/certainty can we trust that Jesus did and said all that is in the New Testament or that he made any unique claims about himself?
I know you are a New Testament/Jesus scholar and that you are in touch with the things I am talking about and I assume you are even in contact with many of these scholars (Wright, Crossan, Borg, Meier, Powell and so on) and I am wondering if you have any advice on how to deal with this or any good scholarly works that are in support of the historic Christian understanding of Jesus?
I am also wondering why some of the above mentioned scholars still consider themselves Christians when they have abandoned so much of what seems to be the essence of Christianity. I mean Borg and Crossan do not really see anything unique about the Christian faith in comparison to other religions from what I can tell, they deny the physical resurrection of Jesus instead seeing it as metaphorical, and don’t even necessarily believe in an afterlife. Where is the hope and power of Christianity in such a view? If we are responsible for creating our own paradise as Crossan seems to think (one in which we won’t even participate since we will die before we could ever make the world perfect) and if there is no resurrection from the dead and if God’s people ultimately won’t serve God in a perfect world for eternity what is left to hold on to? Why follow Jesus and be despised by the world if God’s love and justice will not win out?
I am just quite confused by claiming to be a follower of Jesus while rejecting most of what the Bible says and was wondering how you view these two scholars in particular.
Again, I realize this is a complex topic and an e-mail probably cannot do justice to it, but if you have any insight or any suggestions I would really appreciate it as always.
I know what you are going through: I’ve been there myself. When I was in college, during the last semester of college, I bought and read Ralph Martin’s NT Foundations. I had never dealt with the major criticisms — Form criticism, Source criticism, and Redaction criticism — and more importantly, I had never thought of the Evangelists as authors shaping the “records” about Jesus. All I can tell you is that, for some reasons I will never know, I dedicated my life to the pleasure of studying the Gospels.
One thing I learned up front is that there is no such thing as a genuine “consensus” on most issues because — and this seems to help many of us — issues are issues because there isn’t a consensus. No one really disputes that Jesus talked about God and about the kingdom and warned leaders of Israel … and, if you think about this long enough, you realize there really is an understated consensus on most of what we find in the Gospels. The issues are both historical — what really happened — but even more when the cutting edge of faith and commitment manifest themselves. So, I’ll stop at that with this consensus issue. Maybe you want to pursue this more.
Perhaps I can narrow a central concern here down to this question: What is history or, slightly different, what is historical?
Let me begin with this though: if Jesus really wasn’t raised from the dead, then I think the apostle Paul got it right — we are still in our sins. It makes very little sense to believe the resurrection overcame the power of death, broke the powers of the Enemy, justified us (Rom 4:25), and provides forgiveness of sins (1 Cor 15), if we are really talking about a novel-like good ending. If Jesus wasn’t raised — physically, then the foundation for the apostles’ preaching and the basis for the early Christians willingness to go to their own martyred deaths is a myth. To me it would be like choosing not to fish in the ocean for marlin because the sharks will eat the fish we catch — because The Old Man and the Sea tells us that story. Or like believing in eternal life because of Little Red Riding Hood’s good ending.
No one dies for a myth, or at least they shouldn’t. I do think the evidence — and a good place to begin is with Murray J. Harris’s 3 Crucial Questions about Jesus — is solid. Either we believe those early (otherwise) truth-telling apostles were lying or we believe they were telling the truth. I see this is getting too long and I’m not getting to my major question. Each of these specific questions deserves separate treatment, and I can’t answer them here.
So, the question: What is history and what is historical?
Any careful reading of Matthew and Mark and Luke, and by that I mean comparing the three to see all variations, leads the serious reader to one significant conclusion: the Evangelists were not simply recording verbatim quotations of what Jesus said. They were, in fact, recording both what he said and what he did and they were interpreting what he said and what he did — sometimes with just a whiff of alteration (Blessed are the poor vs. blessed are the poor in spirit). Othertimes, however, there is more than just a whiff of alteration.
Take the words of Peter when he confessed Jesus: Did he say “You are the Messiah” or “You are the Messiah of God” or “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” What did Peter say? The problem, we might say, is a biblical one. Whatever compels your conclusion is a biblical view of “History.” Think about that because it’s important.
Let me give you an experiment in thinking about what history is and therefore what is historical. Let’s assume that Mark got down exactly what Peter said: “You are the Messiah.” Now let us assume that Luke, when he read Mark (and I think he did), decided that “of God” would make this even more emphatic. He’s the Messiah that God sent into this world, Luke infers from the bare meaning of the word “Messiah.” But, let’s now assume that Matthew saw this and said, “Well, we now know more about Jesus than Peter did on that occasion, and what we now know is both true and what Peter was getting at though he didn’t know so at the time.” So, let’s add a little here: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Now how do we look at this? In general, these words are reliable. Each of these versions tells the truth of what Peter meant and what he intended, and Matthew even “updates” what Peter said. Now, we could say that Peter said what Matthew has and that Luke and Mark shortened what he said, but that is nearly the same as seeing Matthew and Luke expand Mark’s words.
What then is history? It is the responsible use of what was said or what was done in an interpretive context. At least this is how the Evangelists “did history.” They felt no need to quote Jesus verbatim — no more, no less, nothing else. Instead, they reported what Jesus said and did and they also adjusted those words and events to their own literary designs and historical contexts.
In other words, “certainty” is the wrong question: We can’t answer historical questions with certainty. We can answer them with probability. We can answer them with confidence, and sometimes we can be nearly certain. I am certain (as we can be in a world of probable conclusions) that Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God and said and did things that made his contemporaries upset about what he thought of himself. I am not certain Jesus told Peter to go catch a fish and pull out a coin. How does one prove something like that?
Now, here’s where I have come: I believe in the Gospels and what they say about Jesus not simply because I have learned that they can be trusted on the basis of historical methods and inquiry, but more importantly because God has spoken to me through those records, because I have found Jesus to be utterly saving and wonderful, and because the Spirit who speaks to me is the Spirit who has spoken to others — beginning with the apostles who put down these sayings and events into words in such a way that the Church — the Church that is led by the same Spirit — has constantly told just this story about Jesus. It is the only story of Jesus I know; it is the story of Jesus that tells my story. Faith, my friend, is always involved in everything we confess in our faith, including the truthfulness of the story about Jesus.
PS: Sorry this was long, but you asked a big set of questions.