The problem with “Historical Jesus”

As I began to question elements of my faith I came to realize that there were many people, some of them respected theologians, who were years ahead of me. I learned that people had been studying what they called “Historical Jesus” using the tools of archeologists, linguists, and historians to determine factual information about the life of Jesus, his times, and his surroundings. Most of them were associated with respected schools of theology and their findings were being studied and expanded.

To me, what they were doing was removing a lot of layers of “varnish” that had been applied over the surface of Jesus’ life story much like people in earlier times had applied varnish over old paintings to rejuvenate them or restore them. They began to convince me that some things like the idea that Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem, that he might not have been as illiterate as first believed, and that the crucifixion (Easter) might not have occurred in the spring, were very likely. I read with increasing interest accounts of how many of the things I had taken for granted and were major themes in my religion, probably didn’t take place as I had believed.

Eventually, my fascination was replaced with a deep sense of loss. I realized that I could never read Luke’s account of Christ’s birth the same way again. I had lost some of the important images and ideas that formed my belief. By reading the “Historical Jesus” accounts superficially, I had lost my connection to my faith. I sensed a deep nostalgia for the simpler days of my youth when shepherds and wise men on camels following stars were integral parts of the story.

After delving more deeply into the subject, I came to realize that most of these writers, although they worked to debunk many of the images that many people held sacred, had alternative interpretations of many of these events that filled the void left by the lost images and concepts. What they taught me is that the New Testament is a collection of writings that was not intended to be a textbook or a history as we know it. The gospels are a collection of the oral tradition that was passed down by the first-century followers of Jesus to be read in the synagogue as part of worship. According to John Shelby Spong in his book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, “They were “Jewish revisionists” who were dedicated to incorporating Jesus into the ongoing Jewish story in the same way that prophets like Isaiah, Amos and Micah had themselves once been incorporated, with their words subsequently being added to the sacred story of the Jews.”

Spong shows, pretty convincingly, that at least three of the gospels are written so that they map over the Jewish liturgical year and he shows how various parts of the gospels are intended to show how Jesus fit into this theology. Many of the stories in the gospels are metaphorical and make references, literal and symbolical references, to the Old Testament stories these observant Jews knew very well. Spong suggests, and I have come to believe, that in order to understand what these gospels are saying they must be read for what they are – first-century Jewish stories.

But the good news for me is that the story is not diminished. It is simply more work for me to read it now because I must constantly look for the meta-message in these anecdotes and accounts. I must constantly remember that I am not reading a novel or a textbook or a history. I find it challenging but rewarding. I’ll share some of my insights and findings in future entries.

The Progressive Christian