“The historical Jesus was a person like us who struggled in life to realize, through his own personality and situation in the world, the Christ of himself.”
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 214
We can be really short-sighted, historically speaking. We struggle to keep more than one human generation’s beliefs and ideas in our heads at once. It seems obvious these days that when somebody says, “I’m Christian,” he or she probably means they believe Jesus died for their sins and rose again on the third day, but of course in the earliest generations of the Jesus movement, that was not a given. “Christianity has always engaged in a struggle of self-definition,” Galston explains in the final chapter of Embracing the Human Jesus (203). There is no monopoly on the name, and Christian has held multiple meanings across time.
That’s actually the subject of the next blog series, so let me tell you a little about that before I come back to this important final chapter of David Galston’s book.
What are we reading next?
Next week I’ll be starting a new blog series on Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? Karen King is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, best known these days for her role in studying the Jesus Wife Fragment. In What Is Gnosticism? she specifically addresses the fact that “Christians of the first centuries were deeply engaged in controversies over such basic issues as the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, the significance of his death, the roles of women, sexuality, visions of the ideal community, and so on” (vii). This book forms the basis for the next Christianity Seminar at the Westar Fall Meeting in San Diego, so I hope you’ll join me in reading the book in preparation for that event, whether you’re planning to participate in the conversation here on the blog, on our Facebook page, or in person.
Can a historical Jesus community be Christian?
It’s tempting to reach for one of two extreme responses to the historical Jesus. Like me, maybe when you learn about Christian history in all its convoluted and uncertain terms, you find yourself preferring an atheistic or humanist outlook. Or, like others, you may find yourself courting neo-orthodox Christianity, a fancy word for Christianity that applies the Christ-myth more metaphorically, even prophetically, often in the service of social justice issues. In a variation of this second position, still others prefer a more mystical outlook, one that interprets Jesus as the key to a more universal spiritual pattern that manifests across all religions (although David Galston didn’t mention them, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung as possible examples).
When it comes down to it, though, all these positions have something in common. They tend to prefer the Christ to Jesus. The historical Jesus is dismissed in favor of the clear, straightforward Christ who can either be rejected or embraced—but not engaged.
So as I read this, what I was left asking myself was the question, “Do I really want to engage the historical Jesus?” I feel almost blank in response to that. What do I know about the historical Jesus? It’s hard to engage with someone you’ve been taught to ignore and elide into the Christ over and over again through weekly rituals. Yet throughout this book Galston has introduced a Jesus who is clever and compassionate, a man whose stories especially reveal him to be a careful observer of human relationships. He left a mark on the people who knew him. For that reason Galston has suggested the banquet should replace its closely-related cousin, communion, as the center of religious life.
Also, and this seemed to be problematic to many of you who commented on the past couple chapters, Galston is suggesting we see the Jesus movement as a school and Jesus as a teacher. A school may simply not be an adequate replacement for the mystery that religious practice often offers.
We’re left, then, with a lot of questions about what shape ultimately an historical Jesus community would take, whether it can still be relevant, and especially whether it can speak as powerfully for Christianity as orthodox forms have in the past. We’re living in the era in which that will likely be decided. Maybe the reason education—biblical literacy and religious literacy more generally—has to play such a big role in our generation is that it has failed to do so in the past for the everyday person, regardless of what was going on in the academy. “A major roadblock to taking the historical Jesus to church is precisely that he comes with some assembly required and no miracles, no mystery, and no authority provided,” Galston explains. Then, once we’ve delved into the stuff we’ve been missing, “sometimes the humanistic wisdom of the historical Jesus is not mysterious enough to be attractive” (199).
Coming back to the quote with which we began, what I find most compelling in this final chapter is the call to give Christian a new definition, and to do so without fear. It’s okay to see the Christ nature not as something absolute or essential, but rather as something to be practiced and experienced—as long as we do it inside the accountability provided by a community. We do it by imitating the historical Jesus’ parable-world. We change the world by living it differently, and we do so together.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.