by Pastor Doug Kings
In my sermon last Sunday, I talked about modern biblical scholarship. This is the approach to the Bible, beginning about 250 years ago, which asks not only theological questions but historical questions as well. For that reason, this approach is usually called the historical critical method. Such questions include asking who wrote the passage being studied, what was the cultural situation in which it was written, and when the passage is a quote or an event, how historically accurate it is.
Many Christians, fundamentalists and evangelicals especially but also some moderates, are skeptical of this approach, to say the least. Not a few view it with horror. Biblical truth has been thrown to the wind, they say, and people don’t know what to believe anymore. To which I say, thank God. The Spirit is still at work.
For conservative Christians, the Bible is entirely “true”, inerrant even, simply because they’ve decided to view it that way. Why the Bible should have this special status is never explained. And modern scholarship shows why such an idea simply makes no sense. Rather, it reveals biblical writings to be entirely human yet capable of profound spiritual truth, which is what the mystery of incarnation is all about.
To a surprising degree the historical critical method is just applying common sense. Take, for example, the gospel reading from Matthew we had a few weeks ago. It’s part of section where Jesus is talking about managing conflicts and offenses in the church. There’s just one problem: there was no church in Jesus’ day. That’s what followers of Jesus called themselves years later.
That little “slip” tells us that writer of Matthew is writing his gospel with his Christian community in mind. All the gospel writers do that, which is partly why we have four different gospels (and more outside the official New Testament canon). Is that a problem? Not necessarily but it does raise a caution flag that what we read may have been skewed for a particular audience.
All the gospel writers have an ax to grind. That’s not surprising or a bad thing but it’s important to understand that they are not like news reporters or objective historians telling us “Just the facts” as Joe Friday wanted. The earliest gospel, Mark, was written 40 years after Jesus’ death. That’s a long time. The other gospels came 15-30 years after that.
Today scholars believe that no one who ever saw or heard Jesus wrote anything down. The gospels all rely on the early Christian community’s collective memory, two or three generations after the events and words they report. Paul’s letters are earlier but by his own admission he never knew Jesus and says almost nothing about Jesus’ life or his teaching. His interest is the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and their implications for the lives of Christians.
When it comes to the New Testament, the primary interest of scholars and the person in the street is the historical Jesus. What did he say? What did he do? What happened to him? After working at this for more the two centuries, scholars are aware that these are much harder questions to answer than they perhaps first thought. Who was Jesus? Frankly, we don’t know. Not for sure, though we have clues.
The problem, as scholar Robert Price has said, is that we have too many Jesuses. The gospels were written not just to tell Jesus’ story but to tell it in a particular way, and they all do it differently. In other words, they were each trying to cement their understanding of Jesus as the right one. Yet one thing the gospels agree on is that even during his lifetime, Jesus not only puzzled his opponents but his followers as well.
Over all of the Jesus’ narrative hangs the question, “Who is this?” What modern scholarship has shown is that after his death there remained no clear answer. Paul’s letters and the book of Acts show that from the start there were divisions within the early Christian community about the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and his life. The multiple gospels that came later only reinforce that impression. Thus, the stage was set for 2000 years of squabbling within the church about its own central figure. The question Jesus poses to his disciples echoes down through history: “Who do people say that I am?”
Conservative Christians bristle at the exposure of this reality. Ironically, however, there is good evidence in the gospels that Jesus himself shunned or even rejected the labels people put on him. The one title he did use according to the gospels, “son of man”, basically means the quintessential human being. Not surprisingly, it was never adopted by the church, which wanted something “bigger.”
So, if Jesus’ identity was so murky, then how did the Jesus’ movement ever start and grow? I think the only answer can be that it wasn’t about who Jesus was but the impact he had on people. In other words, Jesus changed the lives of people, who then told other people, whose lives also were changed.
Stories of this are found throughout the gospels. I suspect they represent not only what happened during Jesus’ life but also what was going on in the early Christian community. Many of the gospel stories involve healings and we get distracted asking if Jesus really healed people. I think he may well have, but it’s been long recognized that healing is metaphorical and holistic. Countless Christians have known the “amazing grace” that led them to say, “I once was blind but now I see.”
Over time, Christian identity became wrapped up in “official” scriptures, theology, doctrine, creeds, rituals, and clerical hierarchy and authority. Jesus, however, seemed to have little if any interest in such things. Unlike us, Jesus was not focused on ideas but on experience. It’s that Jesus that needs to be rediscovered: the Jesus who says in John, “I came that they might have life and it abundantly.” The Jesus who showed that God’s realm is all around and within us. The Jesus who helped people find eternal life in the Eternal Now.
Blessings in your life and ministry.