Letting Go of Jesus
“But I tell you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also. Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again.” (Luke 6.27f)
Let’s pretend the year is 1757 and you have just come away from reading a new treatise by David Hume called an “Enquiry concerning Miracles.” Let’s assume you are a believing Christian who reads the Bible daily, as grandmother taught you; or perhaps a priest, a vicar, a Methodist minister. Part of the reason you believe in God, and all of the reason you believe that Jesus was his son, is tied to the supernatural authority of scripture. You have been taught that it is inspired—perhaps the very word of God, free from error and contradiction–passed down in purity and integrity from generation to generation. –A reliable witness to the origins of the world, humankind and other biological species.
You know many verses by heart: Honor your father and your mother. Blessed are the poor. Spare the rod, spoil the child. The love of money is the root of all evil. Lots of stuff about disobedient children and the value of being poor, confirmed in your own experience: there are many more poor than rich people, and children often don’t listen to their parents. You think the Bible is a wise and useful book. If you are a member of an emerging middle or merchant class—whether you live in Boston or London or Edinburgh—you haven’t read enough history to wonder if the historical facts of the Bible are true, and archeology and evolutionary biology haven’t arisen to prove them false.
The story of creation, mysterious as it may seem, is a pretty good story: it will do. As to the deeper truths of the faith, if you are Catholic, your church assures you that the trinity is a mystery, so you don’t need to bother with looking for the word in the Bible, where it doesn’t occur.
If you are a churchgoing enthusiast who can’t wait for Sunday mornings to wear your new frock or your new vest, it doesn’t bother you that there’s no reference to an 11 o clock sermon in the New Testament. If you are a Baptist and you like singing and praying loud, your church discipline and tradition tells you to ignore that part where Jesus told his followers to pray in silence, and not like the Pharisees who parade their piety and pile phrase upon phrase.
But what really convinces you that what you do as a Christian of any denomination is the right thing to do is what theologians in the eighteenth century, the great period after the Newtonian revolution of the 17th, called Christian Evidences.
The phrase was introduced to make the supernatural elements of the Bible, and especially for Christians the New Testament, more up to date, more in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment.
Reasonable men and women who thought the medieval approach to religion was fiddle faddle—something only the Catholics still believed, especially the Irish and Spanish—had begun to equate reason with the progress of Protestant Christianity. Newton had given this position a heads up when he suggested that his entire project in Physics was to prove that the laws of nature were entirely conformable to belief in a clockwork God, the divine mechanic.
Taking their cue, or miscue, from Newton’s belief in an all powerful being who both established the laws of nature and could violate them at will, as “Nature’s God,” it seemed as though miracles had been given a new lease of life. No one much bothered to read the damning indictment of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, twelve years Newton’s junior, who had argued that belief in a god whose perfection was based on the laws of nature could not be proved by exceptions to his own rules. –You can play basketball on a tennis court, but it doesn’t explain the rules of tennis very well.
Anyway, you’re comfortable with Newton, the idea of Christian “evidences”, and all those lovely stories about impudent wives being turned into pillars of salt, the ark holding good old Noah and his family teetering atop mount Ararat (wherever it was) those vile Egyptians being swept up in the waters of the red sea, and the miraculous acts of kindness and healing and bread and fishes recounted in the New Testament. As a Christian, you would have seen all these stories as a kind of prelude to the really big story, the one about a Jewish peasant (except you don’t really think of him that way) getting himself crucified for no reason at all, and surprising everyone by rising from the dead.
True, your medieval Catholic ancestors with their short and brutish and plague-besotted lives needed the assurance of a literal heaven more than you do in the 18th century. But in general, you like the idea of resurrection, or at least of eternal life, and you agree with Luther—
“The sacred Book foretold it all:
How death by death should come to fall.”
In other words, you believe in the Bible because it’s one of the only books you have ever read–and perhaps not even it, cover to cover. And in a vague, unquestioning, socially proper kind of way, you believe the book carries, to use the language of Hume’s contemporary Dr Tillotson—the attestation of divine authorship, and in the circularity that defines this discussion before Hume, the divine attestation is based on the miracles.
Divinity schools in England and America which ridiculed such popish superstitions as the real presence and even such heretofore protected doctrines as the Trinity (Harvard would finally fall to the Unitarians in the 1850’s) required students for the ministry to take a course called Christian Evidences. The fortress of belief in an age of explanation became, ironically, the unexplained.
By 1885, Amherst, Smith, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, Dartmouth and Princeton mandated the study of the evidences for Christian belief, on the assumption that the study of the Bible was an important ingredient of a well-rounded moral education.
Sophia Smith, the foundress of Smith College, stated in the third article of her will that [because] “all education should be for the glory of God and the good of man, I direct that the Holy Scriptures be daily and systematically read and studied in said college, and that all the discipline shall be pervaded by the spirit of evangelical Christian religion.”
But all was not well, even in 1885. Hume’s “On Miracles” was being read, and was seeping into the consciousness, not only of philosophers and theologians, but of parish ministers and young ministers in training and indolent intellectuals in the Back Bay and Bloomsbury. Things were about to change.
Within the treatise, Hume, like a good Scotsman, appealed to common sense: You have never seen a brick suspended in the air. Wood will burn and fire will be extinguished by water. Food does not multiply by itself with a snap of my fingers. Water does not turn into wine. And in a deceptive opening sentence, he says, “And what is more probable than that all men shall die.”
In fact, “nothing I call a miracle has ever happened in the ordinary course of events.” It’s not a miracle if a man who seems to be in good health drops dead. It is a miracle if a dead man comes back to life—because it has never been witnessed by any of us. We only have reports. And even these can be challenged by the ordinary laws of evidence. How old are these reports? What is the reliability of the reporter? Under what circumstances were they written? Within what social, cultural and intellectual conditions did these reports originate? Hume’s conclusion is so simple and so elegant that I sometimes wish it, and not the ten commandments, were what Americans in Pascagoula were asking to be posted on classroom walls: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish….”
–So what is more likely, that a report about a brick being suspended in air is true, or that a report about a brick being suspended in air is based on a misapprehension? That a report about a man rising from the dead is true, or that a report about a man rising from the dead is more easily explained as a case of mistaken identity, or fantasy—or outright fiction.
The so-called “natural supernaturalism” of the Unitarians and eventually other protestant groups took its gradual toll in the colleges I have mentioned. At Smith College, beginning in the 1920’s, Henry Elmer Barnes taught his students:
“We must construct the framework of religion on a tenable superstructure. To do so is to surrender these essential characteristics of the older religion: (1) the reality and deity of the biblical God; (2) the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus and His special relevance for contemporary religion; (3) and the belief in immortality.” Sophia Smith’s college had taken a new turn.”
At Williams, John Bissett Pratt began his course in philosophy by telling his students, “Gentlemen, learn to get by without the Bible.” At Yale, the Dwight Professor of theology in 1933 repudiated all the miracles of the Bible and announced to his students that the Jesus Christ of the Christian tradition must die, so that he can live.”
Perhaps I should add that when I got to Harvard Divinity School in the 1970’s I was told by the reigning professor of theology who out of deference will remain anonymous, that my way of speaking about God was too literal—almost as though I “believed the metaphor was a real thing.”
This little reflection on Hume and how his commentary on miracles changed forever the way people looked at the gospels is really designed to indicate that in educated twentieth century America, between roughly 1905 and 1933, the battle for the miraculous, Christian evidences, and the supernatural was all but lost—or rather, it had been won by enlightened, commonsensical teachers in our best universities and colleges.
Of course it was not won in the churches and backwoods meeting houses of what we sometimes call the American heartland, let alone in preacher-colleges of the Bible belt, or the faux-gothic seminaries of the Catholic Church.
Hume’s logic and the theological consequences of his logic barely penetrated the evangelical mindset
When the tide rolled out on miracles, what was left standing on the shore was the Jesus of what became, in twentieth century America the “social gospel.” He wasn’t new—actually he had a long pedigree going back to Kant and Schleiermacher in philosophy and theology. He’d been worked through by poets like Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, who detested dogma and theological nitpicking and praised the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and ethical teaching—his words about loving, and forgiving, caring for the poor, and desiring a new social order based on concern for the least among us.
In Germany and England and finally in America where ideas, especially religious ideas, came home to roost more slowly, something called the “higher criticism” was catching on. Its basic premise was that the tradition about Jesus was formed slowly and in particular social conditions not equivalent to those in Victorian England or Bismarck’s Germany. Questions had to be asked about why a certain tradition about Jesus arose; what need it might have fulfilled within a community of followers; how it might have undergone change as those needs changed—for example—the belief he was the Jewish messiah, after an unexpected crucifixion, might have led to the belief that he was the son of God who had prophesied his own untimely death.
The social reality that the community was an impoverished, illiterate, persecuted religious minority might have led the community to invent sayings like “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are you who are persecuted,” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” But if this is so, then the gospels really weren’t the biography of Jesus at all. They were the biography of what the community believed about him.
The Victorian church was as immune to the German school of thought as Bishop Wilberforce was to Darwin’s theories—in some ways even more so. Even knowledgeable followers of the German school of higher criticism tried to find ways around its conclusions: Matthew Arnold for example thought the gospels were based on the misunderstanding of Jesus by his own followers, which led them to misrepresent him; but then Arnold went on to say that this misunderstanding led them to preserve his teaching, although in a distorted and conflated form. They added their words and ideas to his, but in their honest ignorance was honesty. Arnold’s influence was minimal.
The deeds were gone; now people were fighting over the words.
When the twentieth century hit, few people in the mainline Protestant churches and almost no one in the Catholic Church of 1905 was prepared for the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus—a long, not altogether engaging survey of the 18th and 19th century attempts to piece together a coherent picture of the hero of the gospels. Schweitzer pronounced the quests a failure, because none of them dealt with the data within the appropriate historical framework. No final conclusions were possible.
We can know, because of what we know about ancient literature and ancient Roman Palestine, what Jesus might have been like—we can know the contours of an existence. But not enough for a New York Times obituary.
Beyond tracing this line we get lost in contradiction. If he taught anything, he must have taught something that people of his own time could have understood. But that means that what he had to say will be irrelevant or perhaps incomprehensible to people in different social situations. His teaching, if we were to hear it, Schweitzer said, would sound mad to us. He might have preached the end of the world. If he did, he would not have spent his time developing a social agenda or an ethics textbook for his soon-to-be-raptured followers. (Paul certainly knows nothing about ethics—just some interim rules to be followed before the second coming of Christ.)
Schweitzer flirts most with the possibility that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in an era of political and social gloom for the Jews. But Schweitzer’s shocking verdict is that the Jesus of the church, and the Jesus of popular piety—equally–never existed.
Whatever sketch you come up with will be a sketch based on the image you have already formed: The agnostic former Jesuit Alfred Loisy (d. 1940) after his excommunication wrote a book called The Gospel and the Church, in which he lampooned the writings of the reigning German theologian Adolph von Harnack (d. 1930) who had published a book called The Essence of Christianity.
In the book Harnack argued that the Gospel had permanent ethical value given to it by someone who possessed (what he called) God-consciousness: Jesus was the ethical teacher par excellence. Loisy responded, “Professor Harnack has looked deep into the well for the face of the historical Jesus, but what he has seen is his own liberal protestant reflection.”
In America, Jesus was undergoing a similar transformation. In New York City around 1917 a young graduate of the Colgate Divinity School named Walter Rauschenbusch was looking at the same miserable social conditions that were being described by everyone from Jane Addams to Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in literature.
Rauschenbusch thought that the churches had aligned themselves with robber barons, supported unfair labor practices, and winked at income disparity. So, for Rauschenbusch, the gospel was all about a first century revolutionary movement opposed to privilege and injustice. In his most famous book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he writes, “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”
Like Harnack before and dozens of social gospel writers later, the facts hardly mattered. Whether Jesus actually said the things he is supposed to have said or they were said for him hardly mattered. Whether he was understood or misrepresented hardly mattered. Liberal religion had made Jesus a cipher for whatever social agenda it wanted to pursue, just as in the slavery debates of the 19th century, biblical authority was invoked to defend buying and selling human beings. Having given up on the historical Jesus, Jesus could now be made to say whatever his managers wanted him to say.
Unfortunately, ignoring Schweitzer’s scholarly cautions, they failed to demonstrate how the words of a first century Galilean prophet, fixated on the end of a corrupt social order, could be used to reform a morally bankrupt economic system.
For many of us who follow the Jesus quest wherever it goes, it’s impressive that the less we know about Jesus–the less we know for sure–the longer and many the books that can be written. In what will surely be the greatest historical irony of the late 20th and early 21st century, for example, members of the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 to pare the sayings of Jesus down to “just the real ones,” came to the conclusion that 82% of the sayings of Jesus were (in various shades) inauthentic, that Jesus had never claimed the title Messiah, that he did not share a final meal with his disciples (there goes the Mass), and that he did not invent the Lord’s prayer.
They come to these conclusions however in more than a hundred books by Seminar members, of varying quality and interest, each of which promises to deliver the real Jesus. The “real Jesus,” unsurprisingly, can be almost anything his inventor wants him to be: prophet, wise man, magician, sage, bandit, revolutionary, gay, French, Southern Baptist or Cajun. As I wrote in a contribution to George Wells’s 1996 book The Jesus Legend, the competing theories about who Jesus really was, based on a shrinking body of reliable information, makes the theory that he never existed a welcome relief. In a Free Inquiry article from 1993, I offended the seminar by saying that the Jesus of their labors was a “talking doll with a repertoire of 33 genuine sayings; pull his string and he blesses the poor.”
But all is not lost that seems lost. When we look at the history of this case, we can draw some conclusions. We don’t know much about Jesus. What we do know however, and have known since the serious investigation of the biblical text, based on sound critical principles, became possible, is that there are things we can exclude.
Jesus was not Aristotle. Despite what George Bush thinks, he wasn’t a philosopher. He did not write a book on ethics. If he lived, he would have belonged to a familiar class of wandering, puritanical doomsday preachers, who threatened the wrath of God on unfaithful Jews—especially the Jerusalem priesthood.
We don’t know what he thought about the messiah or himself. The gospels are cagey on the subject and can yield almost any answer you want.
He was neither a social conservative nor a liberal democrat. The change he (or his inventors) advocated was regressive rather than progressive. But it’s also possible that we don’t even know enough to say that much.
He doesn’t seem to have had much of a work ethic; he tells his followers to beg from door to door, go barefoot (or not), and not worry about where their next meal is coming from. He might have been a magician; the law (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]) which punishes sorcery with death speaks of the witch and not of the wizard, and exorcism was prevalent in the time of Jesus, as were magical amulets, tricks, healings, love potions and charms—like phylacteries.
But we can’t be sure. If he was a magician, he was certainly not interested in ethics. After a point, the plural Jesuses available to us in the gospels become self-negating, and even the conclusion that the gospels are biographies of communities becomes unhelpful: they are the biographies of different perspectives often arising within the same community.
Like the empty tomb story, the story of Jesus becomes the story of the man who wasn’t there.
What we need to be mindful of, however, is the danger of using greatly reduced, demythologized and under-impressive sources as though no matter what we do, or what we discover, the source—the Gospel–retains its authority.
It is obviously true that somehow the less certain we can be about whether x is true, the more possibilities there are for x. But when I took math, we seldom defined certainty as the increase in a variable’s domain. The dishonesty of much New Testament scholarship is the exploitation of the variable.
We need to be mindful that history is a corrective science: when we know more than we did last week, we have to correct last week’s story. The old story loses its authority. Biblical scholars and theologians often show the immaturity of their historical skills by playing with history. They have shown, throughout the twentieth century, a remarkable immunity to the results of historical criticism, as though relieving Jesus of his obligation to be a man of his time and culture–however that might have been–entitles him to be someone who is free to live in our time, and rule on our problems, and lend godly authority to our ethical dilemmas.
No other historical figure or legendary hero can be abused in quite the same way. We leave Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Cleopatra in Hellenistic Egypt, and Churchill buried at the family plot in Bladon near Oxford.
The use of Jesus as an ethical teacher has to go the way of his divinity and miracles, in the long run. And when I say this, I’m not speaking as an atheist. I am simply saying what I think is historically true, or true in terms of the way history deals with its own.
It is an act of courage, an act of moral bravery, to let go of God, and his only begotten Son, the second person of the blessed trinity whose legend locates him in Nazareth during the Roman occupation. It’s (at least) an act of honesty to say that what we would like to believe to be the case about him might not have been the case at all.
To recognize that Jesus—whoever he was–did not have answers for our time, could not have foreseen our problems and moral dilemmas, much less rule on them with godly authority, frees us from the more painful obligation to view the Bible as a moral constitution.
The history of Jesus-scholarship is a progression of narratives about what might have been the case, but probably wasn’t.
If men and women in the New Testament business wish to pursue the construction of counter-legends as though they were doing history, there is no one to stop them. If they announce to an unsuspecting and credulous public that they have found “new historical materials,” better “gospels,” the “real story,” or the bone-boxes of Jesus and his wife and family, they simply prove the axiom: Jesus may not save, but he sells.
It has been a long time since theology’s dirty little secret was first whispered: “The quest for the historical Jesus leads to the door of the church.” But that is still where it leads. We leave him there, as Schweitzer lamented, “as one unknown.”