The "Historical Jesus" and Christian Faith

by Narkissos 75 Replies latest jw friends

  • Narkissos

    Thanks lrkr (I hope XJW and Tuesday won't mind your hijacking their ongoing discussion by coming back to the thread topic ).

    This suggests that, although Protestant scholarship has initially (since the 19th century) taken the lead in the "Historical Jesus" research, the Catholic (or Catholic-like) church(es) may actually be better equipped to face its results...

    And, indeed, myths live by their enactment in community and ritual, regardless of any connection with "history". This is true of Protestantism too, but inasmuch as it tends to tone down the theoretical importance of community and ritual, it might be more reluctant to forego an appeal to "historical truth" as objective ground.

  • drew sagan
    drew sagan

    I'm coming in late to this thread, but i'm giving my opinion anyway.

    There may be a bit more theological flexibility under the second option, but I think the is better for the believer. Many Christians don't believe stories such as Jonah to be completely true, so why not the gospels. Sola Scriptura isn't everything.

  • hmike

    Leaving aside my option n1 which would leave no "events" to be remembered by anybody (hence no "witness" objection to the Gospel stories), what do you think are the chances of Palestinian followers of a very different (e.g., nationalistic) Jesus (my option n2), most of which would have been washed out with the Roman-Jewish war, of coming across Greek stories circulated in the diaspora about their hero? And what about the chances of their eventual objections being heard and received in mostly Gentile Christian churches, with a socially established relationship with Christ as their Saviour?

    Be it Paul's original point or not, his argument in 2 Corinthians 5:16 would easily dismiss any suggestion of "another Jesus," even on "historical" grounds: "Even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know (him) no longer in that way."

    Whether they were linked with a "historical" Jesus or not as they claimed to, the tragic fate of 2nd-century "Jewish Christians," rejected by both Pharisee-led Judaism and by the "great Christian church," shows how little hypothetical "witnesses" (let alone their descendents) would have actually weighed.


    You have a premise for a novel here, which could become a mini-series or movie.

  • Narkissos

    Thanks drew sagan,

    Interesting parallel. I personally feel that the point of Jonah's story is actually better understood when it is read as a fictional tale (in that case, about a possible historical character, cf. 2 Kings 14:25); otoh it is completely missed when people focus on whether it's a true story or not. Seems like complete naïveté, or a pure literary approach, yield better exegetical results than the in-between: if you don't have any problem with Jonah's really singing Psalms in the belly of the big fish, or if you take it as a pure fiction right from the start, you may get the point. If you're uneasy with both options you get stuck in the critical vs. apologetical debate, and you miss it.


    Incidentally, a few years ago I got the idea of writing a short novel featuring the meeting of a "historical Jesus" (having survived crucifixion) and Paul... I wrote a few pages and it was fun, only I didn't "believe" the premises long enough to finish it... I'm definitely not a fiction writer (or perhaps of the unwilling kind).

  • hmike

    This is a good thread to bookmark. There's much more to say on the this topic in general, and maybe new members or ones here who missed it will have something to add later. I expect to have more questions and comments later.

  • hmike

    I wanted to return to this topic because there is so much more that can be said, and, from a theological standpoint, it is an important topic. Also, since the previous post, many new people have joined the forum and I wanted to bring it forward in case someone else wanted to contribute.

    I'd like to start this post by diverting slightly from the original topic of the "Historical Jesus" to the more general issue of how we treat the historical elements of the Bible—the canononical Gospels in particular. From there I'll go back to the original question.

    From the writings we have from the early church fathers (probably not more than a generation or two removed from the time the gospels were written), it appears that they considered the Gospels contained eyewitness accounts of actual events in and around Jerusalem ca. 30 CE concerning a man named Jesus from Nazareth—that he taught about and proclaimed the will of the God of Israel, performed miraculous deeds, was executed, and was then seen alive again. The fathers also trusted the interpretation of those events contained in the accounts, as well as other writings that came to be accepted. So, at the earliest times, the Gospels were considered books of history, and the existence of God and Jesus as his unique Son was evidenced by events that were recorded and how those events were understood by those involved—those who would be in the best position to know.

    I recently read some of the writings of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an 18th century German philosopher better known for his work as a playwright. In Lessing's theological writings, and in the introduction of this particular collection by Henry Chadwick, it's interesting to see what happened to the historical perspective of the Bible by 17th-18th century Europe. Chadwick writes concerning the philosopher Leibniz (whose writings influenced Lessing):

    "According to Leibniz's theory of knowledge, there are two kinds of truths: necessary truths of reason, and contingent truths, knowledge of which is attained by the senses." Further quoting Leibniz, he writes, "The original proof of necessary truths comes from the understanding alone, and all other truths come from experiences or from observations of the senses." Chadwick goes on to explain, in his own words, the position of Leibniz, "Truths of reason belong to a higher order and valuation than mere truths of fact. For [again quoting Leibniz] "truths of reason are necessary and their opposite is impossible; those of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible." Chadwick concludes this paragraph about Leibniz by writing, "Truths of fact are thus less certain and more untidy; truths of reason are tidy, mathematically certain, and known a priori."

    Chadwick writes, "Seventeenth-century philosophy is not at ease with the untidiness and irrationality of history." He then goes on to quote Spinoza, whose writings also influenced Lessing. "[Natural divine law] does not depend on the truth of any historical narrative whatsoever, for inasmuch as this natural divine law is comprehended solely by the consideration of human nature, it is plain that we can conceive it as existing as well in Adam as in any other man...The truth of a historical narrative, however assured, cannot give us the knowledge nor consequently the love of God, for love of God springs from knowledge of him, and knowledge of him should be derived from general ideas, in themselves certain and known, so that the truth of a historical narrative is very far from being a necessary requirement for our attaining our highest good."

    Chadwick later quotes from Lord Herbert of Cherbury: "My belief in not derived from history, but from the teaching of the Common Notions." As Chadwick says of Lord Herbert's position, history is "theologically irrelevant."

    For Lessing, the historical accounts of the Bible were too far removed from his own experience to hold great significance. His faith had to rest on his own experiences and insights. Ancient history simply didn't have the impact or reliability that personal experience did.

    So what I see happening is that the significance of history has yielded to the subjective. Perhaps this was a reaction to what they saw as problems and inconsistencies in the historical records. Historical accounts, they perhaps reasoned, were subject to errors made by the observers and to corruption of the accounts by others. Rather than deal with the problems of history, they simply chose to disregard it. Instead, they opted for what they considered were the obvious evidences in nature and their own reasoning: the evidence of God was around them and in them. There was truth, and it was evident here and now, and that was reliable. Maybe this is the basis for Option #1 proposed by Narkissos in the initial post; we don't need the historical accounts because they are probably flawed anyway, or at best, leave us with considerable uncertainty. Since we don't know who the real Jesus was (or is), we are free to design our Christianity to be whatever we want it to be. Problems or inconsistencies in the historical records wouldn't bother us because it's mostly (or even completely) myth anyway.

    The time of Leibniz, Spinoza, and Lessing was before Darwin, Joseph Smith, and C.T. Russell. Many new philosophies and belief systems have been introduced or re-introduced and developed since then. Far eastern ideas have become popularized in the west. What has since happened is that there are more ways than ever of looking at the origin and nature of life. What is evident to one person is different than what is evident to another. Reliance on the subjective and reasoning leaves us open to virtually any possibility, all seemingly justifiable. So if we want to attempt to arrive at truth, it seems preferable to put more stock in the historical record, apparent warts and all. Dealing with the problems or inconsistencies and possibilities of corruption is preferable to the alternative. Perhaps statements from the people who lived at or close to the time the events were written are more reliable than our own ideas. It's easier to trust them than it is to trust ourselves. Dealing with possible corruptions of the text are preferable to dealing with the corruptions in our own thinking.

    Now, to get back to the choices posed by Narkissos:

    If we take the perspective of these European enlightenment philosophers and choose to disregard history, particularly what appear to be intended as historical accounts in the Gospels, then we have a great amount of freedom to construct our own Christianity. They might have not agreed with that statement, but what may have been self-evident to them in that time and culture no longer appears to hold true for us. What we discern is framed by whatever bias we have, for good or bad. So, along the lines of what I wrote in an earlier post, if all we are looking for is a nice philosophy of life, guidelines for living in this world, then Option #1 certainly will work for us, and even Option #2. We can choose what teachings we want to appropriate. If that's all we want, then it doesn't matter who Jesus really was. For this person, the answer is, "It doesn't matter." If we reject the accounts in the canononical Gospels as fabricated or altered history, and we reject the explanations and teachings contained in the other NT documents, then we are truly left wondering who Jesus really was. There is not enough information in extra-Biblical writings to help us form a picture of who he was.

    For the person looking for redemption of the world, for peace, for an end to injustice, suffering, and death, for eternal life, and for vindication of faith in the midst of challenges, then the answer has to be, "Neither!" This Christian looks for something more than a philosophy of life for this world. The Jesus of Options 1 and 2 has no more power than anyone else ever had because he was no different than us, so we cannot look to him for anything.

    I'm having a hard time seeing the difference "from a believer's perspective."

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