Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: A Perpetual Discussion

"And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6)

"The excellency of a believer is, not that he has a large apprehension of things, but that what he does apprehend, which perhaps may be very little, he sees in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving, soul-transforming light; and this is that which gives us communion with God, and not prying thoughts or curious-raised notions" John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classical Works (p.117).

The next set of posts are intended for those who have had some vital connection with Christ, who can grasp the significance of the preceding quotations as the very basis for believing and radically committing to God within the context of our fallible and flawed human condition, yet who, at some level have somehow lost the intensity and sureness of that connection through a broad array of factors which make an earlier faith stance, however naive or sophisticated, no longer tenable. I do not claim to have an adequate response, since the Christian pathway at its root is one of faith in search of greater knowledge in which the latter can only be processed by the former, and can only be by the very nature of its content, extremely partial in scope. As limited as the following may be in providing responses that one might describe as satisfying, as someone who has walked in such space through a world view that I would refer to as Christian agnosticism, I would like to offer my thoughts.

The Gap Between the Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith

A common notion is that Paul "invented" Christianity" in which the march from the initial teachings of Jesus in proclaiming the kingdom of God became as interpreted in the gospels, written from between 70-100 AD, Christ as that proclaimed as the Son of God. No doubt something emerged after the death of Jesus that was not fully explicit in his earthly ministry and there may have been some interpreting back from the Gospel writers to the historical personage. Nonetheless, the traditional liberal time line of a late proclamation of the risen Lord is overblown if we take Paul as the earliest direct witness as to what was believed by the earliest followers in the 30s. With Paul's earliest writings; the letters to the Thessalonians completed in the early 50s, one can draw on plausible historical evidence that Paul's conversion in his encounter with the "risen Lord" could have been as early as the mid-to late 30s. One can assume as well through reasonable interpretation that for an organized Jewish prosecution of the followers of Christ to have occurred there had to be a visible Christian community in place that warranted such concern.

What one might also discern is that the vision of the resurrected Christ surprisingly "kicked in" sometime after the death of Jesus even as in the immediate aftermath of his death, the disciples were dispirited if not downright despondent. What that something was I cannot say, but it seems indisputable that what was perceived was some type of communal "seeing" of the risen savior that depended on the exercise of radical faith. This perception of seeing seems indisputable, whatever it was that they actually saw and was profound and downright shattering in the most fundamental sense as characterized most poignantly in the Pentecost experience (Acts 2). This "seeing" is the primary evidence that needs to be explained rather than the claim of the empty tomb in that there is no available corroborating evidence for the latter even as the legend of it fit in well with the sightings.

None of this proves anything in any indisputable sense. However, it does provide evidence that a late explanation for the risen Christ as an act of the church that only came to full fruition in the Gospels, especially John's late (circa 95 AD) Gospel is faulty. In short, this core assumption of 20th century liberal biblical scholarship necessitates serious rethinking in light of Paul's early testimony and the evident beliefs of the earliest followers, which the work of British biblical scholar and early Christian historian N.T. Wright has done so much to open up to some fresher perspectives. For whatever might be thought about these matters cannot be based on the argument that the early church and the earliest followers of Jesus believed something fundamentally different about the reality and significance of the resurrection and about the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit as a deposit for things hoped for but not seen until the ultimate unveiling in the eschaton "when God will be all in all" (1Corinthians 15:28).

What actually happened during the immediate period surrounding the execution of Jesus is not at this time totally clear based on the historical record. Simply put, one cannot "prove" the resurrection based on the evidence given, particularly since what is being claimed, that God was in Christ reconciling the world (2 Corinthians 5:19) is well beyond that which can be totally grasped by reason or concrete historical evidence. One thing that is clear is the profound shift in the belief of the early followers based on their collective perception that they had attained some first-hand perception of what they took as the indubitable reality, however ultimately veiled, of the risen Christ and its powerful impact throughout the ancient world.

The faith is revealed in part through history, but more fundamentally through a historically realistic narrative that includes but transcends the mere facts of the case. What is clear, especially as documented in the major books of N.T. Wright, the vision of early 20th century biblical and early Christian scholarship of a "late" Christianity as the outcome of the church as reflected in all of the gospels, but especially John is substantially overblown if we take Paul as our first primary resource. However much theological development took place throughout the first century, it is at least an extremely plausible that as documented in Paul's letters the core foundation (even a biblically-grounded basis for the Trinity) was encapsulated in Paul's letters written in the 50s and 60s which emerged from a coherent and consistent two decade theological development extending back to the late 30s.

The crucially important issue of the historical validity of the resurrection itself I will need to leave for another place. I'll let it rest here with the thought that the central issue is less historical argumentation itself, particularly if one accepts the broad picture Wright presents in his two key books, Jesus and he Victory of God and The Resurrection and the Son of God. The more fundamental issue has to do with the relationship between religion and science on the notion on whether (a) any such trans-national phenomenon like the resurrection is possible, which most would agree in the affirmative, or (b) remotely likely, given the laws of nature and the universe. I cannot take the time to address this crucial matter here, other than to note two things; (a) the earliest followers testimony emerged through the prism of faith in which "seeing" required believing in the most fundamental sense. However, I note in passing that Thomas was granted the right, following the testimony of the others, of seeing first, interpreted by the Christian community as a lesser form of faith; (b) that whatever did occur in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Jesus affected the disciples profoundly with a fundamental re-orientation of their view of the outcome surrounding the events of Gethsemane and Golgotha in which Christ became victor rather than vanquished.

Whatever did happen and whatever actually affected this change in establishing a religious movement that has had an enduring and world-wide impact, there was nothing self-evident or guaranteed about the outcome as it did emerge in history before the actual unfolding of the events that ultimately gave shape to the New Testament and the formation and widespread dissemination of the early church. These events cannot simply be explained away through “natural” causations without taking the “God hypothesis” seriously into account regardless as to how scandalous such an interpretation might be. At the very least, serious ongoing investigation into these matters remains essential both among those within the household of the Christian faith as well as those outside the camp whether representing other religious communities or purely secular perspectives.

1 comment:

  1. "Historical J....."!?!

    The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

    To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?