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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.

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
« Introduction   Chapter 2 »

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.

 

God: The Modern Problem

Ancient Christians thought of God as an absolute, unchanging essence, based on the thought of the philosopher Plato. This underpins our concepts of the Trinity and even the salvation story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. But with the rise in the Middle Ages of nominalism, a new philosophy that emphasizes language over substance, the ancient view of God began to fall apart. Christianity is still struggling to pick up the pieces. Here David Galston, Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University and author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, describes this problem in more detail. He explores different attempts to save or defend God against the problems presented by modern thinking, and introduces some ideas for moving forward with the historical Jesus.

David Galston presented the above talk during the Once and Future God Session of the “Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?” conference, sponsored by the Westar Institute in October 2013. He refers a couple times to the God Seminar: this is a new project by scholars affiliated with Westar that is still in the planning stages. You can also watch a discussion of the future of Christianity from this same session.

The lecture is available as five separate video clips. You can watch all five continuously below, or visit the YouTube playlist to browse different topics.