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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.