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“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.