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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.

The Once and Future God

What is the future of God? How can we talk about God, and what do we mean by that word in a postmodern, perhaps even post-atheist world? With these questions Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler, author of A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better, and David Galston, author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, kicked off the first day of Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? with “The Once and Future God” at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. As Joseph Bessler said, “We are living without an end to the story” of what life means, individually and communally. Bessler and Galston, with insights from conference participants and presiders Jarmo Tarkki and John Kelly, tackled this very modern problem by exploring how earlier generations have confronted and explained God conceptually.

Christian Theology’s Debt to Plato

Early Christians recognized that the significance of Jesus required a wider context than a simple narrative of his life and teachings. They cast the life of Jesus through the lens of the life of Socrates, which we can see in texts such as 1 Corinthians 1-3, in which Paul is confronted with the problem that the cross is a “scandal” – humiliation in the extreme – in Roman culture. He needed to give the cross a new meaning. To kill Christ was to kill a wise one, and this was something Hellenistic culture had done 500 years earlier, with Socrates. Even the condemnation of the State could not undo Socrates; so, too, the Christ.

Joseph Bessler

Joseph Bessler

It is important to understand that Plato, the student of Socrates, created a foundation for Christianity that lasted over a thousand years, so much so that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would later describe Christianity as “Platonism for the masses.” Plato’s theory of the Forms enabled Christians to articulate that appearances are different from reality. What seems like a scandal is in fact, the power of God. There’s a sort of longing in Platonism that translates into Christianity, too – a longing, perhaps, for stability. While we can participate in ultimate reality from a Platonic perspective, it’s “shadows all the way down.” Without guidance, we cannot fully grasp reality. According to Plato, we can reach ultimate reality through reason, which is reliable with proper training. The Christian theologian Augustine would later argue differently, that we cannot reach ultimate reality (God) because of moral fault brought about through moral freedom. This necessitated a savior, the Christ.

God: The Modern Problem

The Platonic view of reality dominated until the 13th or 14th century, when the West shifted toward nominalism, a focus on words and the relationships among words. We have a concept of something not because we know the Form but because we experienced it: a horse is a horse because I saw one, experienced it, and named it. In a world like this, God is free of nature … and nature is free of God. This shift in thinking about reality simultaneously opened up theology for Protestant revolutionaries and nature for scientists.

David Galston

David Galston

This transition didn’t come without losses, however. We can no longer have a transcendental relationship with the universe anymore; we now experience the universe as all there is. What happens to the idea of Jesus if he does not participate in the eternal substance of God? We woke up to the notion that the historical Jesus is really very, very different from the Christ of theology. We are struggling in the wake of this transformation, brought about by modernity, to find the rhetoric for modern religious language.

Modern theologians have attempted to save God: they have explored God as the Word beyond word, God as a mystery in which we participate, God as pluralistic (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology), and God as the energy of becoming. All these models struggle with modern language about God. Buddhism offers some help in this situation, inasmuch as it expresses how the world arises all together in relation with everything else. All is defined by relationship, and this fact is experienced as liberating. But we have by no means resolved the issue.

God and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

As modern society gained historical consciousness, theologians like Martin Kahler set aside the historical Jesus as less important, less historic, than the Christ of faith. Theologians didn’t do this arbitrarily; the various quests for the historical Jesus are marked by the sociocultural context in which each quest arose. While Kahler found the Christ of faith a better route, theologians like Reimarus and Strauss responded to the hostile environments of their times by appealing to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith might be associated with princes, but the historical Jesus related with peasants and told parables that upended normal social expectations. The Christ of faith, which society embraced, stood for an important end; the historical Jesus spoke parables without aim, playful in Nietzsche’s sense. This opened up the possibilities of Christian language.

Neitzche, too, found a role for the historical Jesus where he rejected the Christ of faith. Neitzche prioritized vitality, forging one’s own path, as a direct response to the dominant Christian framework of his era. Neitzche’s child, inspired by the historical Jesus, is the one who is open to experience and embodies the “eternal return.” Jesus’ parables break down the habits of everyday life in a similar way; the stories can be humorous, but they have an edge to them. They are critical. The child, too, is about creativity, critical imagination, seeing things differently. That is the challenge of theology today. Perhaps God as a metaphor has run its course. We need to reawaken our language. The historical Jesus succeeded at that.

A Way Forward

Conference participants asked a variety of questions about the way forward. What role can mystical and ecstatic religious experiences play in our language of God? How do individuals like David Galston and Joseph Bessler, who are both affiliated with particular religious communities, make new language “work” within those communities? What questions will be addressed by the emerging God Seminar?

Want to know more? You can see a video clip and Twitter timeline of live updates from The Once and Future God Q&A Session. Follow @WestarInstitute on Twitter to get updates about future Westar events and projects.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly responded to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly respond to conference attendees’ questions in the final session of the day.