St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
Jesus Research: Pros and Cons
When someone the age of most of us here walks away from his church after sixty years, generally there have to be good reasons. After all, it can mean severing social networks and lots of explanation. But it happens. Some months ago I ran into a friend of many years, whom I knew to have been a pillar of his church; he had walked away. I asked why. "Last year," he said, "I saw a TV Program on what they call 'the Jesus Seminar'. I'd read an article on it in TIME magazine. I asked our minister about it. He said 'Silly stuff, Len. Forget it.' John, I think there's a conspiracy," he said, "to stop us asking questions."
Sad to say, it's true in some churches. Knowledge is power, and holding on to religious knowledge is a way of guarding one's power in a religious institution. "We can't afford to let them know what we know," a priest of another church once said to me. Another one said, "Take my advice, John. Talk to them as you would to twelve-year-olds." As a christian educator developing adult work in the 1960s, I was sensitive about this, and committed to the idea of an educated people of God – not a passive people resigned to Sunday school stuff. Every person ordained has a sacred obligation to deal with the latest and best.
Today we start a series called "The Real Jesus: A Serious Investigation." We'll look at some questions being addressed by the Jesus seminar and innumerable other scholars as well. Study of the historical Jesus has become one of the major 'industries', you could say. It has generated a massive amount of scholarship – some good, some not so good – and publications galore. It has also led to some fierce in-fighting, and to some clergy getting into trouble for failing to toe the party line. Catholic priest Michael Morwood is a case in point. Let me tell you why some resist the search for the historical Jesus, and why others support this.
First, why some resist. Resistance is apt to take one of three forms. Some say, "It's not practicable; we can't do it." Their argument is that our first source of information, scripture, is so loaded with 'interpretation' that historic facts are obscure if they're there at all. Scripture is not historical; it's not biographical. It's 'preacher talk' from people who believe Jesus is God's last word to the world, and are declaring this in the idiom of the day. In theological school I had on my wall a copy of Herbert Beecroft's head of Jesus (auburn hair and beard), and remember my consternation in first year when told that attempts to reconstruct an historical Jesus were pure fantasy; that I should take this silly thing down!
Second group opposed to Jesus research say, "It's not necessary; we don't need it." They rest their case on the fact that Christianity (following St Paul) is all about the crucified and risen one made present to his followers by the Holy Spirit . . . etc etc! They say the gospel is not about the life and teaching of an historical Jesus, but about the saving death of a martyred messiah, through whom we are brought to God and who sits at God's right hand. Faith pivots on this – not on any earthly Jesus.
Third group opposed to Jesus research say, "It's not safe, it could unsettle people." They are jittery lest investigation disturb something they held dear. What would it mean if we found incontrovertible evidence that he wanted no clerics, no sacraments, no church, no new religion? If he didn't think he was divine (whatever that means!), or didn't think he was a perfect person. What would it do if someone were to ask if he was married? Would that sort of discovery destroy our faith? As Mark's gospel says, "He could do no deed of power there." Where? In the place where people knew him most intimately!
So, broadly speaking, you meet this kind of resistance – and more – when you start to talk about retrieving the historical Jesus. So, why is it so important?
There are three reasons why Jesus research is important. First can be called 'the new neighbours on the block'. Like most of you, I grew up in a culture that was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – 'WASP' for short! On coins, after the monarch's name, were the Latin words for 'by the Grace of God, Ruler of all Britain, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India'. When someone took a trip to England, they 'went home'. Following World War II, bedraggled people with little but the clothes they were wearing poured down gangplanks. We called them 'reffos', and hoped they would quickly grasp our language and culture. Britannia ruled the waves, and by the end of the 20th century Christ would rule in the hearts of all. We sang "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun . . . "
In barely half a century Australia has become multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious. Except when we imprison asylum-seekers, we are seen by much of the world as a good example of polyglot society, achieved with minimum difficulty. But all this raises questions for people of faith who maybe at one time thought theirs was the only real faith. How do you cherish your own and at the same time respect the other's? It's a question we've not had to face. Who is Jesus in a world of many faiths?
Some of them have already made up their minds. In Islam, which knows him as 'Isse' (the Arabic equivalent of Jesus), he is one of the great prophets. The Buddhist scholar Thich Nhat Hanh, widely known in the West, has written a book called "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers." Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous Hindu of the 20th century, drew his inspiration from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Even some Jews see him as a luminous exemplar of Torah ('the Way'). And Christians, meeting this world of many faiths, are re-opening the question, "Who was Jesus? What was his agenda?" So, that's the first reason Jesus research is important: the new neighbours on the block.
Second reason is new knowledge of the world – the kind of thing we have been looking at in the series "God, Humanity and the Cosmos." [Series in 'Food for Thought Archive', this web site]. Traditional Christian thought comes out of a mindset that is pre-scientific and what we call 'mytho-logical'. It talks easily of God having intercourse with a young woman, of her son duly walking on water and through walls, and soaring finally through the clouds to vanish from mortal gaze. It's the way people thought and talked at the time, and we shouldn't demean it. But not surprisingly, many have trouble with it today. If we're to interpret Jesus in a way that addresses the 21st century, we need to try to get behind the gospel stories and the ancient creeds. Let me try to illustrate this with a similar situation in a different context.
Suppose you thought America needed a new biography of Abraham Lincoln, highlighting how he can speak to the 21st century. After all, Lincoln is arguably the fourth person of the trinity if you're American! He is remembered as "Honest Abe", "The Great Emancipator", the symbol of national unity at the most critical point in the nation's history. With very little experience as an administrator and only minority support (initially), Abe Lincoln saw the country through a long and bitter war, and was instrumental in ending slavery. He was shot in 1865; it was Good Friday. If you decided to write that biography, you could consult the other interpreters of Lincoln and write a synthesis of them – or you could go behind these to what we call 'primary sources',: diaries and letters of those who knew him, his own journals and speeches, the newspaper reports of the period. This is the sort of thing we mean by 'Jesus research'.
So to the third reason why it's important: the new data coming to light. Lots of it! The net result, according to James Charlesworth of Princeton Seminary, is that we now know more about the historical Jesus than we do about almost any other Palestinian Jew up to the year 70, when Jerusalem fell and the great temple was razed to the ground. So, what's happened to refute what I was taught in theological school – that the historical Jesus was inaccessible?
One, the discovery in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt of Coptic documents containing sayings of Jesus. Then in 1947, just west of the Dead Sea, a vast collection of literature from what we call the Qumran community – the Dead Sea scrolls.
Two, archaeological work much more refined than half a century ago. For instance, we've located what is now fairly confidently believed to have been the house of Peter, where the earliest followers met.
Three, a huge amount of research and writing by Jewish scholars who have been delving into the period and, for their own reasons, attempting to construct a picture of the historical Jesus.
Four, the application of anthropology and sociology to understanding the biblical world around the Mediterranean; the 'background' of scripture.
Five, some very skilful literary analysis (unheard of when I was a student) which is helping us to sort what are the likely words of Jesus from what are 'less likely', shall we say.
I want to close with this story. Years ago, when we were holidaying at a beach resort in South Australia, I watched a rather large man lying in the shallows. Some kids were throwing water on him, as you do to help a beached whale stay alive. I didn't know the body, but I was sure I knew the face; that I had seen him recently.
Was it on a tram, in a shop, at some function we had both attended? I went back over places I had been and people I had seen. Then something clicked. We had watched a telecast service on TV, and that was where I had seen him. Not clad in trunks, though! He had been togged up in what looked like lacy curtains and brocade bedspread. He had a tall hat of some kind for part of the service, and he carried what looked like a shepherd's crook.
Now I was seeing him as a real, live, laughing, splashing human being – evidently holidaying at the same place we had elected. And didn't he look different when all that ecclesiastical paraphernalia was shed! He actually looked human like the rest of us: like a man who could get cross and feel depressed and experience life as the rest of us. I felt that if I saw him now on TV, he would sound different. In my mind's eye I would see him as a real person, without all that overlay.
I pray that our search for the real Jesus will yield something like that. For a start I propose that we give him his proper name, at least for the series – what he would have been called by his friends and family. Yeshua! Next Sunday we're going to ask "Who did Yeshua think he was?"
Exodus 4:10-13 Moses' humanness nearly gets in the way of his vocation.
Mark 6:1-6 Knowing Jesus as carpenter neutralised his mystique.
address delivered at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury, by the Rev Dr John
Sunday, June 29, 2003.
MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT