After reading “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism”, I felt brave enough to tackle any book written by New Testament scholars. Whether they were completing their scholarly inquiry as theologians, or as atheist scholars trying to nitpick the Bible, made no difference. I just wanted to learn about a Historical Jesus.
Finding the mangled, human version of the Historical Jesus
I think my hunger for understanding and knowledge is admirable, but the wisdom of my choices can definitely be reexamined.
One of the books I picked up was “How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman”. Ehrman is very brutal in his historical analysis of the material we have available on Jesus and the church. Many of my preconceived ideas about Jesus were brutally bashed into a million little pieces, with no grace towards the Christian faith.
Unlike John Selby Spong, Ehrman has no desire to land his book gently into a plane where people are invited into a faith story that is remarkable and worthy of respect. Which is understandable, because Ehrman is in pursuit of historical accuracy, not a reformation of Christian thinking.
On the plus side, Ehrman achieved what no other person had been able to – his book helped me see the human Jesus, which is invaluable.
Calming the muddy waters with a theologian’s historical Jesus
Somewhere in the middle of Ehrman’s book I tapped out. There was a statement Ehrman made that felt disingenuous and hollow, which was my queue to put it down.
To calm the turbulent waters, I picked up an academic book on the New Testament by Donald A. Hagner. A New Testament scholar, theologian, and Christian. Much of the content of Hagner and Ehrman’s books overlapped in nature – describing the sources of the New Testament books, the order of their writing, and who the books were written for.
But there was one argument, on the validity of oral tradition, that brought me to the conclusion that:
- No one sees what you see, even if they see it too.
- Only the fool is certain
No one sees what you see, even if they see it too
Historical inquiry into Jesus is done by reviewing the earliest written sources pointing to him. The earliest being Mark, which was written 30 years after Jesus’ death. Luke and Matthew were written, using Mark and another source (Q), between 85 and 95 CE. Nearly 50 – 65 years after Jesus’ death. The book of John was written between 90 CE and 100CE.
Which brings up a tricky point for historians. The Gospels would have had to been compiled based on oral tradition and stories, since no one took the time before this point to record Jesus’ life. So, how accurate can written material about Jesus be if it was written nearly a generation after Jesus died.
Well, it depends on who’s doing the inquiry.
According to Hanger, first century Jews were predominantly uneducated, and therefor relied more on oral history to transfer knowledge than written records. As such, they would have more regard for the oral tradition that was carried over, and their memories would also better than that of modern men.
Ehrman on the other hand inflates the fallibility of human memory and our love of fabrication to increase the story’s appeal. He disregards the possibility that memory may have been better, and that the first century Christians may have had a high regard for keeping as close to the facts as possible.
Both authors had the same materials and resources in front of them, yet each came to completely different conclusions on the topic.
Only the fool is certain
Which brings me to “Only the fool is certain.” When placing these author’s conclusions next to each other, it is clear that both can’t be right. Even though both are certain that their conclusion is correct.
But this certainty doesn’t make any of it true. We have no idea of being absolutely certain what first century Jews’ memory was like. Or how accurate the oral tradition about Jesus was. The only way we can be certain is if we had a time machine to record the information, so up until time travel is possible, it’s all speculation.
Where that leaves the Historical Jesus
Well, in short, there is no concise answer about the person of Jesus when it boils down to the details.
Was there a Jesus? Yes. Was he believed as the unique representation of God? Yes. Did he come from Nazareth? Yes. Was he an itinerant prophet that was ultimately crucified in Jerusalem? Yes. Did he have disciples? Yes.
Did he say that one thing exactly like that? We don’t know. Did he do that thing in the way it is recorded? Again, we don’t know. The details boil down to hearsay. Some of it more reliable, but hearsay is the best we have.
Where does that leave me?
I had to let go of all certainties about the nitty-gritties of Jesus in the last couple of months. It has been a uniquely terrifying experience. There is the prevailing fear that if I don’t cling to these certainties (or doctrines) to stand for something, then I will fall for anything.
But, despite having every certainty blown out of the water, I’ve experienced a remarkable amount of peace and freedom. There is no opinion I need to defend. No observation that is essential to my identity or faith.
In many ways I feel as if God blew out the rickety scaffolding of doctrine, to show me that the sky stands on its own. And it is in this that I feel like I’m truer to who Jesus was, and what he stood for, than I would have been if I wanted to hold fast to a certain type of “historical” Jesus.