Revelations about the historical Jesus, Christian origins, and related topics can come as a shock. To cite a few common surprises, often the first to startle people into historical consciousness, consider these: Matthew and Luke relied on Mark to write their gospels. Furthermore, since the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were assigned to gospels by believers, not appended to the manuscript as in modern times, we don't really know who wrote the gospels. The Apostle Paul certainly wrote some of the letters attributed to him, but some letters are almost universally rejected: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example. Likewise, the Jesus Seminar is famous for pointing out that Jesus didn't say every word attributed to him in the New Testament.
Such information might not be upsetting to someone who sees the Bible as literature or as a collection of texts. But for those of us who were raised within the Christian tradition, or surrounded by it in our culture, we can be left reeling. As one person asked recently at a Westar event, "What am I supposed to take home from this?"
In other words, is there nothing left? Does Christianity disintegrate under a withering historical lens? At the Fall 2013 Meeting, Westar Fellows Dennis E. Smith and Dennis MacDonald discussed this topic with attendees. You can hear their thoughts in the audio clip below.
This topic has come up before. Last October Tara Isabella Burton made an appeal to study theology in this article for The Atlantic. She writes, "If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the 'outside,' the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events 'from within': an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today."
Alana Burton soon responded in Religion Dispatches, "Burton is right to implore non-theists to 'engage with the great questions—and questioners—of history on their own terms.' But to discuss the great questions and questioners in the past tense is to suggest that the most important theological questions have already been asked and answered. Theological inquiry has present and pressing applications in the world and we would be wise not to leave all the fun to historians and the clergy."
Is it unfair to challenge our assumptions about early Christian history? In his book A Scandalous Jesus, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler defends professors' right to challenge their students to think critically. "Can one also imagine, I wonder, the gall of professors in other graduate departments, in physics, for example, or psychology, or cultural anthropology 'forcing' their students to learn a methodology: How outrageous!" In The Craft of History and the Study of New Testament, Beth M. Sheppard expresses concern for the lack of historical consciousness sometimes present in biblical studies. But she also points out that a historical approach can still be flexible and doesn't necessarily lead to a single conclusion. "History is the arena in which we explore the past. Not every historian will come to the same conclusions or find the same insights about a single episode that happened days, decades, or centuries ago."
Applying this to the historical Jesus, Joseph Bessler observes that we often reach for the historical information that helps us interpret the problems of today. Quests for the historical Jesus, for example, matter deeply to theology because "they have, in their differing ways, sought to argue that the central figure of the Christian faith continues to hold open the horizons of religious and cultural life."
So what do we take home? As Dennis E. Smith suggested in the context of his work with the Acts Seminar, when we accept stories uncritically, we can be tempted to see what we have as inevitable. We may think it was the only possible outcome. Paying attention to history can serve as a corrective, or at minimum a caution, against oversimplifying what it means to be Christian, to follow Jesus, or—and this is especially relevant with the rise of secularism—to be religious at all.
Consider this an appeal to study Christian origins in spite of discouragement and frustrations along the way. Is it difficult to explore alternate versions of the story of Christian origins? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Definitively, yes.