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
« Chapter One  Chapter 3 »

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.

11 replies
  1. Brian says:

    I will be curious to learn more about what the voiceprint means. I’m not sure how Galston defines the voiceprint, but my guess is that James Bond has one as well. Different writers have to capture that or else it isn’t James Bond.

    I think Funk’s seven points are really helpful. The complication for me in #2 is that so many people today have a mythical world view. Belief in superstition, omens, mystical ideas, and even miracles are rampant. Although, which ones a person chooses to believe in determines which “team” a person is on:

    Stephen Prothero likes to say that the world is “furiously religious” today.

  2. Mike Short says:

    Cassandra is raising some good issues. From the first pillar of scholarly wisdom:
    1. There is a distinction between what Jesus taught and what the gospel writers taught.

    When the Jesus Seminar came up with what they called the “voiceprint” of the historical Jesus, HJ, those texts voted red and pink, there were many more texts voted as gray and black and not attributed to the HJ. Those gray and black texts were included in the canon for some reason. I had a conversation with John Shuck several years ago about his preaching of a series of sermons on the gray and black texts. The gist of it was, “This is what the early followers of Jesus thought was important even if Jesus himself did not say it.” The gray and black texts provide us with a window into the thinking of the early Jesus followers. I have always appreciated his point.

    Using the authentic sayings of Jesus, his voiceprint, as a basis for living is a challenging task. As Brian wrote, “I will be curious to learn more about what the voiceprint means.”

    I have been studying that voiceprint for years now. I have some confidence the seminar has gotten the texts sorted out properly. The meaning of the voiceprint, however, is not easily evident.

    Cassandra wrote: “But personal religious experiences should not hold power over members of a larger community without their consent.”

    That is an insightful point. That kind of power begins at a family level with the generally accepted practice of indoctrinating children into the family religion and unfortunately extends to the belief around the world that the majority religious position in a country should be the philosophy of the nation.

    “Maybe we’ll even come up with a new parables or two in coming weeks.” Cassandra, I don’t know if you have tried parable writing projects with students. My experience has been that it is not an easy task but often worth the effort.”

    I believe Peter is traveling and hope he has a moment to chime in. And, of course, anyone with a point to share is welcome in the conversation.

  3. Brian says:

    That is an important point — that those who claim to have had a religious experience often use it as a persuasive tactic. In my experience, the teller’s eyes also grow large while relating the experience, and the teller moves closer to the listener’s face, if possible. If the listener is young or inexperienced, it makes it hard to deny the sincerity of the teller and his or her religious experience (seeing a healing, receiving a healing, something like that, some miracle).

    I find it best to not question someone’s sincerity but to repeatedly ask them to consider the fantastical, improbable story from my point of view, and to emphasize that I don’t think they’re a liar (often a defensive accusation), but that I’m a sincere skeptic of the extraordinary, and I do think they’re mistaken.

    I heard untold versions of these stories growing up, and a kid simply does not have the wherewithal to deal with them. Kids are basically saturated with this stuff.

    • Peter Kane says:

      Mike – yes, am traveling…Acadia NP is spectacular – even though foggy today. I think this chapters 7 points could be used as outline for an introductory discussion series for adults. Helps me organize in my own mind.

      Brian – People are having more problems finding meaning in church and wherever. “Is it true?” doesn’t help much with meaning as people assume. Not surprisingly you start to find meaning when you start to ask, what does it mean. Duh!

      Cassandra – Horsley would have some problems with 7, voiceprint. He has issues with the Crossan database. Prefers to work with larger texts historically as a unity rather than fragments. My dream world be to have Crossan and Horsley square off at Westar on the way forward for HJ scholarship.

  4. Cassandra says:

    Sorry for the late entry into the discussion, everybody, but I see you have it well in hand!

    I really like the comment from John Shuck shared by Mike. As I’ve studied this subject, and as the overpowering cosmic Jesus in my brain has come down in size, I’ve become more curious and moved by the communities that purported to follow him. When Jesus is human, then it becomes okay to be interested in other human beings in his era, not the characters in the stories but the people who WROTE the stories.

    I do think it’s still important to recognize Jesus was prioritized by those early communities, and so it’s natural to focus on him. But the historian has a right to choose her subject. I’ve stepped back a few paces recently and noticed that I’m generally more interested now in what motivated the communities that followed Jesus, and how they differed from one another.

    That really struck home for me when I was reading The First New Testament. It was the first time I ever learned about the Marcionites. Suddenly I had this clear image of this separate group that could still reasonably claim ties to Jesus and to Paul, yet wasn’t in any way the version of Christianity that eventually became orthodox. I can appreciate why the classic on Marcion by Harnack was subtitled, “Gospel of an Alien God.”

    As Brian knows, I was raised in Mormon territory. In fact, my maternal family converted and immigrated to the US from England specifically to settle in “Zion,” what became modern-day Utah. I grew up surrounded by a religious movement that holds strong ties to the Jesus stories and yet has a truly “alien” view of things when compared to orthodox versions. Yet when “orthodox” doesn’t equal “correct,” it becomes possible to feel curious instead of condemning.

    If we shift the debate to matters of truth, of course, it’s not possible to remain wholly neutral. As I said, at some point you have to stand up for what you have come to understand through experience and observation.

  5. Brian says:

    “…as the overpowering cosmic Jesus in my brain has come down in size…”

    Oh really? Oh ho!! I would like to hear more about how this happened : )

    Same thing happened for me, with Jesus of course, but also with Gandhi. I read his autobiography — big disappointment.

    How heroes are made, and how they fall. That is the stuff of epics, perhaps in the unwritten novels of our lives.

    • Cassandra says:

      Brian, have you ever read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom? Same feeling. I read it as a college student. One thing that really took me by surprise was his self-admitted failures as a husband and father. Basically, he said he sacrificed family obligation for national obligation. I admired his honesty in acknowledging his (very human) limits, though. The other thing that caught me in that autobiography was his explanation of why they did certain strategic violent acts. He essentially said (I’m paraphrasing), “The oppressor dictates the terms of the resistance. When the oppressors violently suppressed nonviolent protests consistently over time, it became necessary to act strategically to destroy their resources.” That clued me in that nonviolent protest is not as straightforward as it sometimes appears in documentaries. It may benefit from and even require threat of violence and shows of power, either from within or from the broader community against the aggressor, inasmuch as the nonviolent protesters anticipate a broader audience who is moved by their actions. But that’s a whole other subject.

      I wish more people would publicly connect the dots between these contemporary heroes and Jesus; we all know the story is more complicated, but we put up such a huge shield around him. It has something to do with his role (for that matter, also other heroes’ roles) in teaching moral obligations; maybe that will come up as I’m reading David’s book and I’ll have a chance to develop the thought more completely.

      • Brian says:

        Wow, that’s exactly how it happened with Gandhi (for me), as well. What disillusioned me were his descriptions of how he treated his wife, which was dismissively. He left her in India for many years at a time, not considering her wishes at all. He wrote about all this with an unaware and unsympathetic tone. Of course this treatment was normal, but I thought he was enlightened. That really struck me. In addition, I learned his resistance movement was not the only one in India; there were multiple resistance movements, often armed, and to my mind these contributed to their independence more.

        I also find it really intriguing that Gandhi and MLK Jr. were inspired by the mythical Jesus story, particularly his admonition to love your enemy and turn the other cheek, two of the many admonitions that most Christians completely ignore.

        I guess I would say that Gandhi was not enlightened, but he was a passionate, idealist, and defender of India, and he was really inspired by and devoted to Jesus extreme message.

  6. Brian says:

    (No, I haven’t read Mandela. But it sounds like if you’ve read one you’ve read the other.)

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