Myth and the Historical Jesus

When Jesus is deconstructed and when it becomes clear that the Christ of miracle, mystery, and authority never existed, it is a short step to wondering if the Jesus story as a whole is a myth—something made up, perhaps by a creative school, reflecting both the deepest construct and value of human spirituality. But the historical Jesus as such never existed.

Very few scholars of history and of biblical studies draw the conclusion that a Jesus of history never existed. The main division in scholarship concerns how to appropriate Jesus. Was he an apocalypticist or a wisdom-centered teacher? Few question if he ever lived. Still, on a popular level, Jesus understood as a myth, and strictly a myth, seems to be gaining ground. So, was he or wasn’t he? Did he ever live or is it all a good story?

The critical examination of the Christian gospels, especially with the rise of form criticism*, recommends the conclusion that Jesus as the center of Christian dogma emerged in the itinerant preaching of the earliest Jesus movements. Basically, people spoke in the name of a “living” Jesus who had died. Preachers spoke “in the spirit” of Jesus, thus making him alive in their witness. The Gospel of John is the least historical gospel in that Jesus said basically nothing found there. But John is “historical” in the sense that it records the “speaking in the spirit of Jesus” of a relatively early community. We find in the speeches in that gospel characteristic expressions of unknown individuals who spoke as if they were the living Jesus. This was the charisma of the early church, which, of course, eventually needed to be regulated in some form.

The earliest social movements related to Jesus preserved his memory in this way. Sometimes an individual or group might speak “as if” they were Jesus—making up things believed to be consistent with the living Jesus—but sometimes the memory preserved expressed something Jesus very likely did say, or almost said, as a historical being. The parables and aphorisms of Jesus are the case in point. These forms of speech do reflect the voiceprint of a historical person whose basic mode of teaching was preserved, if re-interpreted, in the teaching and preaching of the next generation. Form criticism was all about finding the voiceprint of the teacher that was carried forward in new shapes by the students.

Now comes the myth problem. It all starts by asking how much of the Jesus material is fictional, arising from later generations who spoke “in the name of” Jesus without actually saying anything the historical Jesus said. And how much of the Jesus material can be identified with some confidence as an originating voiceprint, something close to historical? The line between these two questions is often blurry, and it is exactly this blurriness that inspires the possibility that all the material is mythical, that is, made up “in the name of” Jesus. Once that step is taken, the natural conclusion is that there was no historical Jesus.

It is actually hard to prove there was a historical Jesus using conventional forms of history. Jesus was an unknown. We have to remember that the big name in his lifetime was Socrates. Everybody, including Jesus, had heard of Socrates. He was famous. Jesus as a Galilean peasant was not famous, and he had no chance at ever being famous. In light of the rise of Christianity it is hard to imagine that Jesus was so unknown. Added to this is the immediate context in which Jesus lived. He was illiterate, or very likely so, and poor. His community was also illiterate and poor. No one was able to hire scribes to read great works to them, to record great thoughts by them, or send letters home. The Christian gospels recording the popularity of Jesus and his large following is almost certainly imaginary. His crucifixion by the Roman authorities was done without blinking—another nobody in a long line of nobody rabble rousers.

We look at Jesus from the perspective of 2,000 years of history, and he seems to us to be among the greats. Indeed, he is among the greats, but in the immediate experience of his life he belongs to a minor school or movement that was largely ignored and mostly unknown. Accordingly, it is not possible to expect a great recovery of contemporary witnesses to his life and times. What we can expect is second- and third-generation historians mentioning him in light of a new and rising movement that claims him as the true Caesar (the Lord, Savior, and Son of God).

Now, with this, the ancient historians’ attention is grabbed and among them the general questions arise: Who was this Jesus and who are these people? And, by the way, what are we to do with these folks, anyway?

History witnesses to Jesus in this secondary way. Later historians know about the rising movement and relay whatever information they can gather regarding its founder. The information is humble. It concerns that followers call him Christ, that he was related to another teacher named John the Baptist, that he was crucified, that the followers are poor and even ignorant, spreading rumors and lies. This is what we can read in Josephus (minus later Christian redaction), Tacitus, Suetonius, the letter of Pliny the Younger, and others (Mara ben Saparion, Lucian of Samosata, and possibly Thallus).

So why then does the idea that there never was a Jesus not only persist but gain popular assent? The answer here is the plain fact that despite the above, there is no extant contemporary witness to the Jesus of history. The earliest we can get is Paul, who said that Jesus was once historical (2 Cor 5:16) and who met and knew the “brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19). Still, it remains simply true that there has never been found an eyewitness report about any incident in the life of Jesus. This simple fact is often the foundation for believing Jesus was only and purely myth.

The second element that supports the belief Jesus was a myth emerges because this belief is partially correct. Much about Jesus is indeed a myth. Really, much about anybody, including our own selves, is myth. With Jesus, like with Confucius or other ancient teachers about whom nothing contemporary exists, myth is part of the package. The earliest Christian movements did interpret Jesus in light of Jewish scripture—especially the prophets and especially 2 Isaiah. The dying and rising Jesus is consistent both with 4 Maccabees, where there is the notion of divine vindication, and Pagan gods, where there is the notion of regeneration. Jesus, his death and resurrection, fit right in with these common, and universal, mythic patterns. Early Christians could draw upon both Jewish and Greek sources in this regard.

Third, it is just a plain fact that many early Christian preachers spoke in the name of Jesus, saying things that Jesus never said. So, it is true that Christianity created Christ to the extent that the movement created a cache of Jesus sayings that contained both historical and non-historical (inspired) sayings. They are sometimes easy to tell apart. For example, sayings about the nature of Jesus and his divinity are made up; parables about the nature or reality of the Kingdom of God are not. Commentary on parables (on how they should be interpreted) is made up; the use of parables to convey teaching is not. Jesus never said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus did say, “A sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:3). And Mark did interpret the sower parable as an allegory about the quality of Christian believers. So, even within the Christian sources that witness to Jesus, much of the witness is myth. There is not much a historian can do about this situation except understand it. Still, it does not prove the case that Jesus never existed.

We all want something to believe, and sometimes when what we used to feel certain about become questionable, the reaction is to throw the whole thing out. I believed many things as a child about my family that turned out to be myth. I threw out the family when I was a teenager, but when I became an adult I discovered how I was also often a “myth” to my own self (believing things about myself that were not true). When I was an adult, I forgave my family for being human and learned to love in a mature way.

When the historical Jesus becomes someone who can inspire us and teach us about life outside of the Christian myth, this involves, and perhaps is the consequence of, the act of forgiving Jesus for being human. It is part of his fate, even his unfortunate fate, to be one of the greatest myths of human history. But this does not erase the voiceprint of a historical figure. True, it makes Jesus an enigma, as Albert Schweitzer famously said, but it does not eliminate the basic fact of his humanity.

© David Galston

*Form criticism is the analysis of the history of literary units like parables and aphorisms.

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David GalstonDavid Galston is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (2012).

 

Did the Historical Jesus Bring about His Own Death? (EHJ series)

"We don't need to take the apocalyptic Jesus to church; he is already there."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 4 of 9, "Unhearing the Apocalypse," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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Did the historical Jesus know he was going to die? For some of us, this is a non-question that takes us too far into the realm of the impossible. A human Jesus could not possibly have foreseen his own death. But did he want that outcome? Did he, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, propel himself willingly toward his own death? Did he act in such a way as to bring it about? The word for this is apocalyptic.

Maybe it makes more sense to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher of sorts. Even saying it this way, I feel a drop in pressure. Wisdom teacher? Big deal. Why would history remember a guy who went around spouting aphorisms? I'm not saying, if he was a wisdom teacher, that he didn't stir up controversy—quite the opposite. To forward our parallel with Socrates from last week, recall that that wise man's life ended with a dose of hemlock for all-too-political reasons.

Was Jesus an apocalyptic end-times prophet who incited outrage, even purposefully, with an intent to go out in a blaze of glory? Or was he a wisdom teacher whose cheeky, barbed remarks got him in trouble once too often with the authorities?

We have examples of both in history, including specifically in ancient Jewish history and literature. Anyone who has read the later books of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Elijah stories, will easily recognize the prophet motif. The wisdom motif is there, too, in books like Job and Ecclesiastes, although these books as wisdom are emphasized less often in Christian contexts. I certainly noticed, growing up in the pentecostal tradition that I have since left, that it is very much possible to read such stories as a community while still downplaying any interpretation outside the apocalyptic. I certainly learned that wisdom all occurred inside an end-times framework, and the wisest action of all was submission to the cosmic Christ.

It doesn't have to be interpreted that way, of course.

Wisdom Traditions in Ancient Jewish/Israelite Culture
I opened with a quote from Galston about the apocalyptic Jesus already "being in church." Church rituals, stories and interactions all cater to an interpretation of Jesus as bringing about the end of history as we know it. This being the case, I thought it might be helpful here to share a couple quotes about Jewish wisdom traditions as a way to counterbalance the more dominant apocalyptic view. For instance, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in The Essential Talmud (2010) explains,

The sages themselves said, 'Random conversations, jests or casual statements of sages should be studied,' and sometimes important halakha is derived from chance remarks made without any educational intent. This being so, the actions of the sages are of even greater significance. Everything a sage does in every sphere of endeavor must be carried out in a spirit of truth and should be Torah itself. Disciples often studied closely the behavior of their rabbi in order to learn how to conduct themselves. (138)

Carl S. Ehrlich, in From an Antique Land (2009), helpfully summarizes types of wisdom literature in ancient Hebrew/Israelite culture:

According to James L. Crenshaw's categorization, there are four types of wisdom literature: "natural, experiential, judicial and theological" (Crenshaw 1993). Natural wisdom reflects observations of the real or natural world. This type of wisdom literature in the ancient Near East includes lists of various types and reflects a precursor of what has become known as the method of scientific observation. Experiential wisdom deals with the workings of the world and more specifically of human society. It is closely allied with what may be termed folk wisdom in the modern world. Judicial wisdom deals with the adjudication of disputes and how to settle them. Finally, theological wisdom is the one that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature and is the type that is arguably predominant in the Hebrew Bible, but not necessarily within the book of Proverbs itself, in which experiential wisdom is quite heavily represented. (376)

On the other hand, it's good to remember that just because clever sayings were written down does not mean they were part of popular culture. Gonzalo Rubio, in a discussion of Sumerian literature, calls on a more recent example to show how far divorced an intellectual exercise can be from popular practice in the ancient world, too:

The divorce between production and consumption (i.e., writing and performance) of artistic works is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. For instance, J. S. Bach composed his Mass in B Minor according to the Roman Catholic ordinary cycle in Latin, as an expansion of a Lutheran missa brevis. However, there was no occasion for the performance of such a Mass in Lutheran Leipzig, and there is no indication this Latin mass was commissioned by any patron, such as the Catholic court at Dresden (Wolff 2000: 441–42). By producing such an apparently decontextualized Mass, Bach was establishing a musical dialogue and placing himself within a learned tradition that was initiated by Catholic composers, such as Palestrina. ... [Likewise] many Sumerian literary compositions are thoroughly scholastic and appear detached from performative goals of any kind. (From an Antique Land: 25–26)

Rubio is not saying that scholarly and artistic ventures like Bach's are fruitless, but rather that they belong to a particular community and stream of tradition that may not have touched the lives of everyday people. He specifically uses the word "decontextualized" to convey precisely what came up in discussion in last week's blog: the situation of a new stream of knowledge/performance, or the reason it came into existence. Why did Bach create such a Mass? To continue a multi-generational conversation he found meaningful about a certain genre of music. We don't always think of that as a context, but it was the context for his Mass.

Why did Jesus tell parables? Why did he tell those parables? The religion that developed out of it overshadows the original context, but what was that context, and why was it remembered in such a way that it eventually became an apocalyptic religious movement? Galston introduces his interpretation of life practices and philosophy recommended by the parables in the next two chapters of Embracing the Human Jesus, but for now, where does Galston find wisdom traditions in surviving texts about the Jesus movement?

Everywhere in the Jesus tradition there is evidence of wisdom as the fundamental memory of Jesus. In the canonical gospels, Jesus teaches mainly in parable. In the gnostic gospels, Jesus is almost exclusively a figure of wisdom. And the Apostle Paul is acutely aware of the wisdom tradition that defines his opponents and that he claims to know equally well (1 Cor 2:6). It cannot be said that apocalyptic material holds the same omnipresent characteristic. ... Other Christian options [apart from apocalypticism] that were eventually labeled heretical were originally as prolific as the orthodox tradition and shared with it the wisdom associated with Jesus. (78)

Galston goes on to cite the examples of Diogenes versus Thales to say Jesus not only employed parable but also short pithy sayings known as chreia. Even though this is traditionally a Greek form of wisdom, Galston and Steinsalz share the view that a man like Jesus need not be ignorant of wisdom traditions outside Judaism. "The spiritual world of sages was not closed to external influence or knowledge," Steinsalz explains after citing several examples of rabbinic interest in physical sciences. "'If you are told that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it,' they said" (140). Steinsaltz also observes that some branches of Judaism were aware of Greek and classical literature but purposefully muted their reliance on it, while others, like the Egyptian Jewry, purposefully "tried to combine Greek culture with Judaism" (141).

Returning to the parables, one thing I find very interesting is Galston's definition of a parable as a way to see this world differently rather than transport oneself to another, better world. Case in point: Some of you may be familiar with Wendell Berry's agricultural interpretations of the Bible. I found it helpful to ask myself how Galston's view differs from Berry's, by way of example. Berry's theology is not interested in the historical Jesus, so it doesn't add much to the discussion in that sense, but it's exemplary of an interpretive approach that does not focus on an apocalyptic end that comes from outside the world. Where Berry imagines an almost certain-to-come human-caused apocalypse caused by our failure to work with the earth that sustains us, I see Galston as turning away from that model entirely to a tradition that is complementary to Berry's concern with the impact of human action on the world, but is not apocalyptic at all in that it doesn't imagine a virtually inevitable, destructive end.

To frame this same point in light of Carl Ehrlich's four types of wisdom, I feel that authentic Jesus sayings generally suit experiential and judicial wisdom. What's the right thing to do, and how should we behave when the world does not operate by just and fair rules? These questions rub up against the problem of the Roman elite's displays of military and economic power, so they are not merely moralistic.

I noticed in last week's discussion, however, that we aren't all in agreement or clarity about what sayings of Jesus we would consider authentic, versus what should be attributed to Jesus' followers. I see the parables as largely experiential, but maybe if you include some of the more mystical sayings in your repertoire you see theological wisdom—"that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature"—as more dominant. How many angels can dance on the head of pin? Which answer will get you crucified? Sometimes even the speculative questions can get you in trouble.

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud (Carl Schleicher (fl. c. 1859 – after 1871))

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bibliography

Ehrlich, Carl S. From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near East Literature. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Steinsaltz, Rabbi Adin. The Essential Talmud. London: Maggid, 2010.

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

“No News Here”—Historical Truth and the Jesus Voiceprint (EHJ series)

"To be 'over there' is not to be in a different world, but to be in this world differently."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 3 of 9, "The Jesus Voiceprint," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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"In ordinary life we all carry around what we can call an imaginary baseboard: an electrical baseboard that jolts us whenever we encounter what feels like a problem," says Charlotte Joko Beck in Nothing Special: Living Zen.

We can imagine it with millions of outlets, all within our reach. Whenever we feel threatened or upset, we plug ourselves into it and react to the situation. The baseboard represents our fundamental decisions about how we have to be in order to survive and get what we want in life. As young children we discovered that life wasn't always the way we wanted it to be, and things often went wrong from our personal point of view. We didn't want anyone to oppose us, we didn't want to experience unpleasantness, and so we created a defensive reaction to block the possible misery. That defensive reaction is our baseboard. We're always plugged into it, but we especially notice it at times of stress and threat. (31)

This accurately describes my experience of conversations about the historical Jesus. And in chapter 3 of Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston begins with a catalog of the hazards faced by scholars who attempt such conversations: accusations of blasphemy (implied or stated), hostility, and ad hominem attacks.

Nevertheless, honesty demands the conversation. It is in this sense that Galston appeals to the Buddhist sense of Right View, which "involves a commitment to understanding things as they truly are" (EHJ: 50).

The critical issue continues to be how we approach history. Using words like "true" or "authentic" can make us feel like we're uncovering something absolute, but this isn't really what we get in historical inquiry. Our access to truth is limited by human perspective, which it often short-sighted and turned toward itself. Good historians need a more modest goal—Paul Ricouer's "model that suits," which Galston poses here as a question: "What makes the best sense of the available data?" (EHJ: 52).

This isn't a unique perspective to the Jesus Seminar, and in fact has been used against it. In a 2007 online article critical of the Jesus Seminar, N. T. Wright claimed "First-century Jews, for all their wide variety, were living within a story, a controlling narrative," which he defined as a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. "The Jesus Seminar, however, and many others beside, have said that all we know about Jesus are fragmentary sayings—a little nugget about this, a little wise saying about that, and a fragment of a parable here—that do not actually retain the stories." In other words, he accuses the Jesus Seminar of taking things out of context. Later in the article, he encapsulates the problem in the following manner: "To be historically credible, you have to picture a Jesus who is both comprehensible and crucifiable within first-century Judaism. That, simply stated, is a problem history must always deal with."

I find it ironic that Galston and Wright have framed this historical problem in almost the exact same terms, and yet represent very different attitudes toward the historical Jesus. Wright continues to emphasize the apocalyptic prophet, while Galston places Jesus in the Jewish wisdom tradition.

With all respect to Wright (full disclaimer: I've read only some of his work and am probably not the best person to address his views on the relationship between faith and historical inquiry), it seems patently unfair to claim that apocalyptic consciousness is the only historically credible attitude in the first century ce. Jewish wisdom traditions are well represented prior to this period by, at the very least, the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. At the very least, we ought to allow it is possible that Jesus could contribute to such a tradition and not solely to end-times thinking. There is more than one way to criticize the Roman Empire, after all, and therefore plenty of ways to end up crucified. Which explanation best suits the evidence?

This brings us back to the Jesus voiceprint of last week's blog post. Galston explains:

Identifying that voiceprint in greater detail helps us talk about the 'lifestyle' associated with a teaching tradition. This is not at all atypical of antiquity. Virtually all schools in antiquity not only had identifiable teaching but also complementary lifestyles. Jesus and various schools in ancient Judaism were no different. (67–68)

What was that voiceprint? What characterized it? The answer is right under our noses: Socrates gave us the allegory of the Cave; Jesus told parables.

Any of us who have read the Bible know what a parable is, more or less. It's a story Jesus told to illustrate a point. It can be pulled from its immediate context and be told on its own, and it holds together pretty well. Other people have told parables, both in ancient times and in the present. It's a rhetorical strategy, a mnemonic device.

Well, it's a bit more complicated. Here's the problem: sometimes, even most of the time, the gospel writers thought they understood the parables but really didn't, or blatantly chose to interpret the parables in such a way that it served a need in their own communities. So we have this interpretive clutter around the original story. Some historians are absolutely fascinated by that interpretive clutter. Maybe they want to know how Plato framed Socrates' Cave story and what it tells us about Plato. Maybe they want to uncover the historical "Matthew" for instance, or at least the community responsible for the gospel named after him. That would be a legitimate historical exercise.

However, if what we're after is the historical Jesus, and we can reasonably understand the concerns of a given gospel writer, we can also figure out what the gospel writer might have added or embellished. We can bracket out such embellishment and get a sense for the original kernel of the parable. In its more basic form, the architecture of the parable should "fit together" for the listener, even if he or she doesn't understand it. For example, the parable employs a recurring image like in the story of the Good Samaritan, where three people pass by the injured man in succession, giving us a key to remember how the story progresses.

Is there any reason to believe these mnemonic devices couldn't have survived by passing from an original teacher (Jesus) to his students? Could those sayings, passed around, have caused enough controversy to lead to his crucifixion? If you find this credible, the historical Jesus as wisdom teacher may not seem quite so far-fetched, after all.

Next week's post will revisit the "the apocalyptic complaint" mentioned above in more detail. For now, let me end with an excerpt from a rather parabolic poem by Anne Sexton, "Jesus Dies":

From up here in the crow's nest
I see a small crowd gather.
Why do you gather, my townsmen?
There is no news here.
I am not a trapeze artist.
I am busy with My dying.
Three heads lolling,
bobbing like bladders.
No news.
The soldiers down below
laughing as soldiers have done for centuries.
No news.

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin

Bibliography

Beck, Charlotte Joko. "Nothing Special: Living Zen." San Franscisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

Miller, Robert J. The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 1999.

Sexton, Anne. "Jesus Dies." Pp. 272–73 in Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women's Spirituality. Edited by Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.

Wright, N. T. "Setting Scholars Straight about the Bible." March 5, 2007. Accessed August 1, 2014. http://jesusseminar.blogspot.com/2007/03/setting-scholars-straight-about-bible.html

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

Seven Hard-to-Deny Limits to What We Can Claim about Jesus (EHJ series)

"When our ancient ancestors wrote about a famous person, they wanted to show how that person embodied an ideal. ... [Today,] the point isn't to show how closely an individual reaches the eternal and immovable divine or demonic ideal but exactly the opposite: to show how close an individual reaches the greatness of being human."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 2 of 9, "Biblical Criticism Comes of Age," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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I had the pleasure this week of listening to interviews with Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson, editors of Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report, on Pastor John Shuck's radio program Religion for Life. Back in 2000, the Acts Seminar posed a critical question, "How far can we rely on the book of Acts for historical information about the earliest generations of Christianity?" Their answer after ten years of research—not to mention soul-searching—is, "Not much."

The book of Acts, they explain, serves as an origin myth, an idealized story of the beginning of Christianity. We can glean information from this ancient document, of course, but we won't necessarily walk away with the message its writer intended.

If this is a new topic for you, you might be surprised to learn that we've actually ended up in a much better place when it comes to the the historical Jesus. In chapter 3 of Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston warns that "in order to uncover the human Jesus it is necessary to wander in the land of the legendary Jesus" (34). This is because the historical sensibility of his era idealized him, transfigured him. The way you did history back then was to nudge a person toward an eternal ideal archetype. What did that mean for Jesus? He became the ideal sacrifice.

Nevertheless, we actually do know some really useful and important things about Jesus. That's where those seven hard-to-deny limits to claims about Jesus come in handy. Westar founder Robert W. Funk introduced seven "pillars" of scholarly wisdom we've accumulated over several hundred years of the quest for the historical Jesus, which Galston revisits in this chapter of EHJ.

These pillars represent items that "are extremely difficult to deny without creating even greater problems as a consequence." Think Ockham's Razor: all else being equal, the simplest explanation rules the day. If you imagine a circle of plausible explanations of who Jesus was, these seven points are what limit our answers. Like fences, they more or less close in the possible from the improbable.

  1. There is a distinction between what Jesus taught and what the gospel writers taught.
  2. The ancient view of the world was mythical, so to use modern explanations to understand incredible reports (such as miracles) from antiquity is to misunderstand antiquity.
  3. Mark is the earliest narrative gospel in the Christian Bible and a source for Matthew and Luke.
  4. A second literary source was used by both Matthew and Luke, now lost but reconstructed by modern scholars and known as the "Q" (from the German Quelle or "Source") Gospel.
  5. The teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus are different. Jesus was a student of John who eventually went his own way. "Neither does it seem that Jesus, accused of loose living and carousing, modeled very closely his austere and abstinent teacher" (EHJ: 43).
  6. The Gospel of John belongs to a wholly different context and outlook than the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke).
  7. Jesus had a "voiceprint," a unique rhetorical style, that enabled his sayings to survive in the memories of the people around him, even though they employed those sayings for their own purposes.

I recognize that some more conservative readers will want to fixate on point #2. I know quite a few people, many of them good friends, who will want to leave open a door for the mystical and miraculous. However, I'm comfortable defending this point. If you have had a personal religious experience, I can respect that. But personal religious experiences should not hold power over members of a larger community without their consent. Even a well respected scholar like Elaine Pagels doesn't wave around her personal religious experiences for the purpose of shutting down historical inquiry; quite the opposite, in fact.

Rather, it's the final point, point #7, that Galston draws to our attention for the sake of a more fruitful and invigorating future for anyone interested in holding onto some aspect of our inherited Christian traditions: Jesus had a voiceprint. There is a familiar flavor to Jesus' sayings and stories. In the world before the printing press, where oral and visual storytelling had the most likelihood of success at transmitting ideas, Jesus' signature style survived in memory. We can look at what of that memory remains, and carry it forward. Galston explains:

The point for those who seek to follow the historical Jesus is not to determine precisely what Jesus said but to recognize the style or voiceprint of the teaching. ... Ancient students, and hopefully modern ones, did not just repeat what the teacher said. The point is to integrate the teaching into one's own practice of life. (47–48)

So we move cautiously forward, attentive to the limits offered by biblical criticism as a way to keep ourselves honest. For those of you keeping tally, this is the final "set-up" chapter before we start getting into some really interesting stuff, like what exactly that Jesus voiceprint sounds like, and what might happen if we tried it out today. Who knows? Maybe we'll even come up with a new parables or two in coming weeks. I think I'd enjoy that very much!

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Fences to hold back infinity

Photo credit: Kerryanna Kershner

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

How Well Can We Know Historical Figures? Not a Rhetorical Question (EHJ series)

"To go forward boldly, it is not necessary to solve every problem of interpretation or to determine a definitive historical Jesus. ... The challenge is to move forward with a human Jesus, not to interpret him conclusively. In the end, being human is exactly about the problem of interpreting others."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

Chapter 1 of 9, "Why the Historical Jesus Is the New Path," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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How well can we know historical figures? These days, it seems like there are so many claims made about the historical Jesus and other famous individuals that I want to throw my hands in the air in frustration. In Chapter 1 of Embracing the Human Jesus David Galston urges readers to recognize that our encounters with historical figures share something in common with our everyday, in-person interactions. That is, we can't know one other completely, and yet we still manage to make things work. It's not a hopeless cause.

Perhaps because I'm an identical twin, I've always been fascinated by the question of how deeply we can know another human being. What struck me as I read chapter 1 this week, is the supreme anxiety that underlies our desire to know. It's like we're holding the other at a certain distance, as a painter would, and saying, "Now hold still."

Jesus didn't hold still for his many ancient portraits, not because he's unique but because he's human. We all fidget; we can't help ourselves. Human beings, as part of this ever-changing world, cannot help but change. As Galston explains, this is a fact of existence, not an insurmountable obstacle. Roy W. Hoover, in his introduction to Profiles of Jesus, illustrates this issue in the context of historical Jesus research:

"The yield of the profiles [of Jesus] is what can be characterized as a collection of studied impressions of Jesus as a figure of history. They are different from the first impressions the young man known as Jesus of Nazareth would have made on the peasant farmers and fishermen, the homemakers and artisans of the small towns and villages of Galilee in the first century ce. We lack the direct access they had to what he looked like and how he sounded when he spoke, and we lack the ability to observe his behavior and what we would call his personality. We are also without that sense of their life situation and prospects that would have affected the way they perceived him.

But that we lack what they had is not the only thing that should be acknowledged. We also have what they lacked: the advantage of hindsight, the comparative capacities of knowledgeable and interested observers from another country, comparable in some respects to the case of the young Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville, who, during a nine-month visit in 1831–1832, noted things about America that had not been recognized by Americans themselves. Also available to us, but not to them, is not just one, but several texts by different authors, all written within a few decades of Jesus' life, that preserve a selected residue of his life and teaching in the context of their own assessments of his significance." (Hoover, Profiles of Jesus: 2–3, emphasis mine)

Hoover is making what seems to me a helpful point here, that immediacy of contact with a person or place doesn't necessarily equate to understanding it. Direct contact with a person is just a different form of human experience, which doesn't automatically trump the careful reflection of a later generation. Later generations depend on the immediate experiences of their predecessors, but may find things in the story that the original tellers didn't want or expect to matter.  These discoveries are not any less legitimate than the messages of the original tellers, as long as the claims can be anchored to the text and era.

Which brings me to another point. It's easy to get stuck on the variability and limits of knowledge, in part because it encourages greater tolerance for difference. I certainly like being able to say, "How interesting that you think that way. I don't, but I can see your point." But after learning the basic principles of tolerance and open-mindedness, even if we can't apply them as well as we'd like, at some point a person has to take real steps and leave real marks on the world. That requires making decisions, discarding some options in favor of others. As Galston says,

"What we mean by justice, by love, by forgiveness, and by hope is in our hands. These are the forms of life that we create, that we employ, and that we share with one another, but we and not a god are responsible for them. Love does not exist where people refuse to love." (EHJ: 29)

The concrete reality of those actions in relation to the historical Jesus, and rituals that might be associated with them, will come up later in the book. Although the historical Jesus is open to some interpretation, the possibilities are not infinite. If we take all inherited texts about Jesus—those found in the Bible and otherwise—and factor in the basic skills and insights of historical-critical research, we can reasonably squeeze our circle of interpretation into a manageable range. Was Jesus a purveyor of wisdom, or an apocalyptic prophet? These both may fit into the circle based on different arguments, but nobody to my knowledge claims Jesus was a Roman soldier, a woman, or an Italian. These fall outside the realm of realistic possibility. What else can we discard, while still acknowledging a range of options within the smaller circle?

Stone Age Panel of Hands (detail), Source: Anonymous - artdaily.org. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Anonymous, artdaily.org (Wikimedia Commons)

Beyond this question of a basic historical portrait of Jesus, though, I get the impression Galston is pushing for something more immediate to our daily lives. He's pushing us toward connection with others through the uncertainty, a step that cuts through the absolute obedience engendered by an Augustus Caesar, or multinational corporations, or whatever else seems so large we can't overcome it. Hands raised in praise—of Jesus or Caesar—can look alarmingly like hands raised in surrender to the powers that be. To connect is very different. To connect is to reach across a table and offer food, drink, a probing conversation, or basic human touch.

Dare we?

Continue to Chapter 2 » 

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.