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The Historical Jesus

[Ancient Faith Radio; January 30, 2008]

There was a time, back in May of 2006, when The da Vinci Code movie was just about to come out, and then did come out and cause a lot of consternation among Christians of every description, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox—controversy about this whole phenomenon, the terrifically popular pop novel, The Da Vinci Code, and the high profile Hollywood movie that was made of that book. And a lot of worry about how can we respond to something that seems to be grasping the imagination of so many people, when you can hardly engage it; the basic ideas are so preposterous that it doesn’t have any historic grounding, you don’t know how to grapple with it.

Well, the good news is the movie was a flop. There’s not much interest in making follow-up movies of others of Dan Brown’s books. Whatever this phenomenon was, it just did not come across very well on the screen. And in fact a year ago now, when we were choosing the movies to consider for the Beliefnet awards, the movies that were the most significant or important spiritual movies of the previous year, The Da Vinci Code was not even on the list. As big as the impact was, it just was not worth considering.

But it continues to be something, I think, that concerns Christians who are followers of Jesus Christ, who take him seriously, that there’s something about this bizarre undertaking, what we might call fan fiction, Jesus fan fiction, where people are not content to leave well enough alone and just have nothing to do with him; they want to use Jesus, as it were, as a puppet in these imaginary plays that they’re writing.

I read something the other day that was interesting; it was an interview with John Dominic Crossan at the Washington Post. And John Dominic Crossan is one of the founders of and spokesmen for the Jesus Seminar, that group of historians who are dedicated to finding out who the historical Jesus was. They don’t think it’s the guy in the Gospels. They think that those of us that rely on the Gospels and read them carefully and see Jesus as a single person represented behind those four texts, they think that we’re deluded and that we should discount a lot of what’s in the Bible and the Scriptures and in the Gospels, and that we should be including things in some of these other so-called gospels and Gnostic gospels. That they should be taken as reliable sources, maybe even more reliable than the Gospels in our Bible.

I read this interview with John Dominic Crossan in the Washington Post, and it was sort of his take on the Da Vinci Code type stuff that I thought was so interesting. He says that he started out, I think he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1957, so that’s quite awhile ago, he was in a monastery as, I think a Dominican monk, and left it and is no longer a priest, and I think his connection with Catholicism is pretty tangential at this point. John Dominic Crossan said,

My study of the historical Jesus and the matrix of Christianity, within Judaism, within the Roman Empire, steadily pushed me toward the left wing of the contemporary Christian tradition. It is probably fair and accurate to describe the Jesus Seminar as the left wing of Christianity, in terms of its conclusions about what is factually original in the Jesus tradition. Life was simpler then; there was only a left and a right with regard to Jesus. At least in popular culture, we ended the last century with two visions of Jesus. One vision was of the literal Jesus,

Now by this, I think he means something like the literary Jesus; he means the Jesus of the Gospels.

One vision was of the literal Jesus, the figure obtained from the careful harmony of the four New Testament Gospels. The other vision was the historical Jesus, the figure reconstructed through those and other Gospels, behind those and other Gospels, before those and other Gospels.

So he thinks he’s arrived at a more historically accurate Jesus by consulting all these other works. He goes on,

Then came my surprise as we moved deeper into the first decade of the new century. A third vision of Jesus started to appear to the left of people like myself. The vision was of the fictional Jesus. The Jesus married in a novel, The da Vinci Code.

So now there are three divergent base visions of Jesus. The literal, the historical, and the fictional.

I myself, in other words have not changed, but I find myself more in the middle than on the left wing.

Or of course the right wing. He concludes,

I now find it fascinating to look to my right, bemused permanently at the literal Jesus, masquerading as the historical Jesus, and to my left, amused recently at that fictional Jesus masquerading as the historical Jesus. I have not moved except forward, but I am now in the center and not in the left wing or the right wing.

So John Dominic Crossan is amused and surprised to see that, at the emergence of this Jesus fan fiction movement, where they’re not much interested in the Jesus of the Gospels, or in the Jesus that is recovered by the historians, that to the best of their ability they think is a more accurate Jesus. No, they just want to make stuff up.

It helps a little bit to put this in perspective, I think. To remember that there has been a hunger to know “who is the real Jesus”? We see hints of when we see him moving through the Gospels but we don’t see the whole thing. Who is the real Jesus there? And we think of that as a pretty modern and a daring movement, questioning the Gospels, questioning whether these great sayings of Jesus were actually said by him or not.

One of the important things that Albert Schweitzer did, was that about 100 years ago he wrote a book about the quest for the historical Jesus: The Quest of the Historical Jesus is the title, actually. He saw that, now he’s writing in 1904, I think, or 1907, and he’s noticing that all around him are these people trying to throw out all of the Gospels and to get behind them somehow to who the real historical Jesus was. Now that was 100 years ago; it isn’t a brand new movement. But at the time Schweitzer wrote, he was saying that this desire to uncover the, quote, ‘historical,’ unquote, Jesus actually goes back to the 1700s. But it’s so important for every generation to think they’re doing something new and daring, that they can never acknowledge the work that went before them. They have to always posture as if they’re starting totally from scratch, asking questions that nobody ever asked before. If you start googling around, you find century after century of this kind of skeptical approach to Jesus.

Now Schweitzer had some interesting things to say about this. He says, for one thing, that people who are questing for the historical Jesus tend to find themselves in Him. That there is something about Jesus that inspires admiration. No one ever dislikes Jesus. Nobody ever wants to debunk Him or say that He was a phony. Instead, the line of argument always is that His followers misunderstood Him. Or His followers were duplicitous and lied and made things up and manipulated in the cause of gathering more power. This is so absurd, because of course they were being martyred for being Christians; you didn’t get power for being a Christian. You got killed for being a Christian. But nevertheless, this is the quest these scholars are in, they don’t want to believe the guy that’s in the Gospel, but somehow they can’t leave Jesus alone. They find themselves drawn to Him and admiring Him and respecting Him, despite all their opinions about how terrible Christians are and how wrong the Bible is.

I don’t remember if it was Schweitzer or somebody else who said they looked down the well of history and they saw their own faces gazing back at them. That when people quest for the historical Jesus, they tend to discover whatever it is they admire. Currently we live in a culture where being a revolutionary, challenging the establishment, being daring, and upsetting the status quo, all of this is very much admired, so therefore it must be what Jesus was like. Whatever we admire must be what Jesus is like. I think this insistence on always admiring Jesus and attributing to Him the very highest of values that we have, I think that’s a sign really of Jesus’ power and His presence, that people sort of know instinctively that they cannot question him.

Schweitzer called this tendency of people to look into Jesus and to see themselves there, here’s a quote, ‘A uniquely great expression of sincerity.’ It’s very sincere. Schweitzer went on to explain that each individual created Him in accordance with His own character. And so the question is, why do we keep coming back to Him, though? Why this appeal?

Here’s a terrific quote, Schweitzer said,

Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from him and flows though our time also.

So it isn’t merely what He was in the past; it isn’t merely the historical Jesus, it is the Jesus alive, present now. ‘A mighty spiritual presence that streams forth from him and flows through our time also.’

So it isn’t just the Jesus in the Gospels or the Jesus in the past. It is the Jesus who is present now, whose power continues to exert its force in our entire culture and draws people to Him whether they want to come or not. They know instinctively that He is the one who needs to be adored.

I’m going to conclude with this paragraph written by Albert Schweitzer that I think is so pointed and so accurate. People may be trying to reinvent Jesus but the very fact that they consider that a worthwhile thing to do says something about Jesus’ lordship, and the instinct they have to recognize Him as our leader, as our teacher, as our master, as our Lord. As Schweitzer said, “He was not a teacher, nor a casuist, He was an imperious ruler”

So Schweitzer wrote this book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, looking at how scholarship had tried for, at that point about 150 years, to uncover who the real Jesus of history was. And this is his conclusion, the last paragraph of his book:

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow thou me,’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands, and to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship; and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

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