Letting Go of Jesus: Reprise

ascension

“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.”

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Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No

I have come to the following conclusion: Scholarship devoted to the question of the historicity of Jesus, while not a total waste of time, could be better spent gardening.

In this essay, however, I will focus on why it is not a total waste of time.

What seemed to be an endlessly fascinating question in the nineteenth century among a few Dutch and German radical theologians (given a splash of new life by re-discoverers of the radical tradition, such as G A Wells, in the twentieth) now bears the scent and traces of Victorian wallpaper.

Van Eysinga

Theologians in the “mainstream academic tradition” have always been reluctant to touch the subject because, after all, seminaries do not exist, nor for that matter departments of religious studies, to teach courses in the Christ Myth. For that reason, if the topic is given syllabus space at all it is given insufficient space and treated as the opposite of where sober, objective scholarly inquiry will take you in New Testament studies.

It sometimes, but not often or generally enough, occurs to my colleagues that much of what passes for real scholarship is equally slipshod, constructed on equivalently shaky and speculative premises and serviced by theories so artificial (Q, for example) that (to quote myself in the introduction to George Wells’s The Jesus Legend) it can make the theory that Jesus never existed a welcome relief from the noise of new ideas.

I umpired what was (as far as I know) the only direct conversation between George Wells and Morton Smith (Jesus the Magician, 1978) in 1985, in Ann Arbor Michigan. On that occasion, Smith said naughtily that “the only thing Professor Wells and I have in common is that we each hold a theory that the other regards as absurd.” So much for “real templates.” Especially ones that ask us to accept that “everything we have previously learned is wrong.” Not even the Novum Organum asks us to believe in that kind of paradigm shift. As for myself, the only thing I have in common with both those who want to argue the myth theory as a provable hypothesis and those who believe the gospels provide good evidence for the life of Jesus is that we are probably all wrong.

Arthur Drews

I accept that most of what we have learned about Jesus is “wrong” in one sense or another. Almost all of what the churches have taught about him–the christology that undergirds the doctrines of the Christian traditions, for example–is wrong at a literal level. It has to be because it is based on doctrines derived from a naive supernaturalist reading of sacred texts whose critical assessment had not even been contemplated before the eighteenth century.

But so too, the critical assessment is wrong, because it has been motivated by a belief that by removing the husks of dogmatic accretion–a process initiated by Luther’s liberal scholastic predecessors, in fact–a level of actuality would eventually be reached. There would be an assured minimum of truth (often assumed by the end of the 19th century to be primarily ethical rather than Christological, as doctrines like ascension and virgin birth were sent to the attic) which some historians on both the Catholic modernist and Protestant side thought would be unassailable.

It never happened of course, and the great conclusion to the whole enterprise after notable false stops in the twentieth century was the Jesus Seminar. It was never clear to me how a methodology with its roots tangled in a kind of cloddish German academic hubris (husk, husk, husk, sort and sift) could come to a salutary end. And it didn’t, unless we can assume that giving birth to a Jesus who said nothing for certain and might have said anything at all is a “result.”

Harnack

I admit to being a bit prickly on the subject, having finally concluded that the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus. Some of my reasons for saying so are laid out in a series of essays included in the anthology Sources of the Jesus Tradition, coming out in August. The main argument for Jesus-agnosticism is being developed in a more ambitious study, The Jesus Prospect, for which watch this and other spaces. (The prologue on method will be ready later in 2010.)

But before all of that, let me say a few words about why I believe Christianity benefits from discussions like this, and especially from Jesus-agnosticism (as opposed to Jesus-loving and Jesus-denying scholarship)–without ever having formally to acknowledge them.

For just over four years of my academic life I have taught in predominantly Muslim universities. Both were highly selective places, the sort of institutions contrived to train “tomorrow’s leaders,” highly aware and critical of the dangers of madrasah education, more than willing to make judicious room for the comparative study of religion. But secular approaches to the Quran were not high on the agenda of either place. Even in “liberal” circles in the Islamic world there is an enclosure for religion which is to be treated respectfully, or ignored, but not questioned extensively.

American University of Beirut, Main Gate, blt 1866

The question of the historicity of Jesus does not arise naturally in Islam–or I should say among believers–any more than the “question” of Muhammad naturally arises. The status of Jesus in Islam is assured not because he is the star of the New Testament but because as Issa he is a a revered figure in Islam. He is not the unique prophet. He is not the way, truth and life. People do not “get” to Allah through him. But he is sui generis. That is, he is an indispensable rung in a ladder that leads to God through the Prophet who is unique: Muhammad.

Myth-theorists, to the extent they pay attention to other religions, tend to regard Muslim belief with the same defensive disdain one often associates with Christian fundamentalists’ view of Islam: Islam is later, derivative, probably bogus (they reason); Muslim rejection of what the prior tradition specifies about Jesus, fatally injures their own contingent tradition. –As Jesus goes, so goes Muhammad. Revelation is whole cloth, not patchwork, and it is often more annoying than interesting to Christians (and some secularists) that Islam seems to be a sequel to the Bible with a slightly revised cast of characters and substantially revised course of events.

Isa in Turkish Islamic art

Needless (I hope) to comment that western views of the sort described above are ignorant. Jesus’ “role” in Muslim teaching does not depend on any Christian beliefs about Jesus but on the Quranic incorporation of Jesus. The status of Jesus in Islam is contingent on Islam, not Christian teaching about Jesus. Muhammad ur-rasul Allah: The Prophet is the seal (guarantor) of the prophets and at the absolute center of a religious cosmos–which nevertheless includes satellites like Jesus, David, and Abraham in orbit around him.

“Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; (but) I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him,
who hopes to meet his Lord, do good deeds, and let him join
no one in the worship of his Lord!’ [Surah Al-Kahf 18 :lll).

Interestingly, however, this apparent protest of humility actually enhances the prophet’s stature. He’s an earthen vessel, but all the more credible because he bears human testimony to the miraculous and to the reality of a personal encounter with the divine will. More than the scholars of Islam, the sufis and mystics would preserve this belief.

To the extent this encounter is reflected in prior religious traditions, Muhammad is more a prophet like Moses on Sinai than a water-walking miracle-worker like Jesus. Maybe this signals a continuity of desert tradition largely missing in the artifice of Christianity, but the Quran is far more Torah than Gospel. The directness of the dialogue between Allah and the Recorder, Muhammad himself, is the directness of the instructions of Yahweh to Moses. True, in Islamic tradition Muhammad is sometimes credited with miracles, like splitting the moon (a gloss of Surah 54.1-2). But “orthodox” Islam in its sectarian complexity does not tie itself to these supernatural occurrences: the final miracle of Islam is the Quran itself and the place of Muhammad in its promulgation. What he said, did, and taught (and there are plenty of hadith projects in departments of Islamic theology devoted to just that question) are of secondary consequence. It is vital that he existed because without that the divine will would never have been known in an authentic form and the correction of existing inauthentic forms, like the biblical tradition, would never have taken place.

The Annunciation in Islamic Context

Odd, then, that the historicity of Jesus should be of any concern at all in relation to a person whose humanity, in the letters of Paul and in the gospels (to a lesser extent, perhaps) is of no consequence to the core tradition. The battle of the post-New Testament period in the early Church, as Harnack recognized, was not to define the divinity of Jesus but to defend his humanity.

What’s usually missed in the discussion of the war between right and wrong believers before 325 is that both camps agreed on the essentials: whatever else Jesus was, “human” doesn’t do justice to it. The bitterness of battle, and the cheer-leading that has gone on for the victors ever since, leads us away from the fact that even the pro-humanity orthodox camp did not leave us with an historical figure but with a luminescent god-man whose finger perpetually points to his own breast as the source and explanation for his mission to earth.

Mission to earth? Yesterday’s gnosticism is today’s science fiction. It is all too easy to fall into gnosticism or science fiction when we examine such images in the writings, art, and liturgy of the church. Especially if we also see religion, more generally, as a species of superstition–resurrections and ascensions into heaven as undiagnosed instances of mass obsessional disorder.

Women at the Tomb

But to discover elements of the fantastic in religions like Christianity and Islam, vestiges of thought-processes that fail our requirements for modernity, is not the same as “demonstrating” that religion is fantasy.

Love, fear, joy, pleasure, mother-love, and compassion equally have their origins in emotion and human evolution and are nonetheless “real” in daily life–indeed, shape daily life–constantly expressing themselves in thought and action. Religion consolidates these aspects of existence in a way that simple curiosity and information does not. It roots them not in the self but in something external, like God, or incarnates them in messengers like Jesus and metaphors like sin, forgiveness and redemption. That is what is going on in the New Testament, not an episode of To Tell the Truth.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

For this reason–starting with a certain lack of profundity—it is difficult not to find the musings of (many) myth-theorists frankly ridiculous. The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: that is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity. Besides, a god without humanity could scarcely be expected to comprehend human suffering, or desire to do anything about it. History did not require Jesus; emotion did. It required as well the incredible and fantastic aspects of his personality. History required Muhammad and the non-divinity of Muhammad for other reasons. That is why the two traditions are different.

I say could not “quite grasp” the idea of a disincarnated divinity because some of the Christian fathers flirted with Neoplatonism–Clement of Alexandria, for example–and they were saved by a pragmatic hair from being gnostics themselves, as I think–if we are being honest and not pedantic–the author of the Gospel of John was.
The writer’s tortured theological prologue is our best evidence of the philosophical dilemma confronting some early christian communities.

Clement of Alexandria

But the true (non-Christian) Neoplatonists like Porphyry despised Christianity because, they said, a disembodied divinity is the only form divinity takes. To reach the far-distant god of a Plotinus you need not just a little water, a few words to a confessor and a healthy appreciation for the Eucharist but a very big invisible ladder and the annihilation of all fleshly encumbrances.

Stuck with the Bible, the gospel, a growing body of doctrine, necessitated by struggles with heretics, and the religious demands of a growing community–a lot of weight to carry–Christianity could not very easily take the turn toward disembodied and denatured divinity. If, for the pagans, the resurrection of the flesh was a nauseating idea, for the Christians it became a useful absurdity and the prelude to two millennia of “paradoxical” theology. The earliest shapers of Islamic thought were scarcely seduced by ingenious verbal strategies for mixing and mingling the human and divine: Muhammad therefore stayed vigorously human.

If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed? It is not the same as asking whether Muhammad existed since nothing but one kind of reality has ever been claimed for him, and that is historical.

My defense of debates and discussion of the historical Jesus is not based on any confidence that something new is going to be discovered, or some persuasive “template” found that will decide for us a question that the early Christian obviously regarded as irrelevant. Still less is it based on some notion that the Church will retract the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union, clearing the way for an impartial investigation into the life of Jesus. That is already possible, and as always before the journey gets us to the front door of the Church. Nothing has been more depressing than the search for the Jesus of history, and nothing more hollow than the shouts of scholars who have claimed to find him. Except the shouts of scholars who claim there is nothing to find.

Not that the shapers of the Jesus tradition, whatever their real names were, should have the final say, but they did draw the map and bury the treasure. We are the victims of their indifference to the question.

The really good news is that to the extent we don’t know who Jesus was or even whether he was, Christianity is spared the awful theological and religious certitude that drives Islam to do sometimes outrageous and violent things in defense of that certainty, the totalizing imperative that all religions in their history have struggled to keep in the cave.

The incredibility of the divine and the uncertainty of the human is a potent defense against a totalizing imperative, an inadvertent safeguard created by the extravagance of early doctrine. The vulnerability of Christianity is a vulnerability created by critical examination of its sacred writings–the legacy of its scholars, including its religious scholars, its secular scholars, and even scholars whose speculation outruns caution and evidence. It was Christian scholarship that first put Christianity at risk. Islamic scholarship has played no equivalent role in relation to Islam.

In the end, Jesus and Muhammad are more unalike than alike. If both are unique, they are unique in different ways and not because either’s claim to invulnerable authority can be treated as true or false on the basis of evidence.

Because of accidental but real historical circumstances, inquiry has invulnerated the Christian tradition in a way that has yet to happen, and may never happen, in Islam. If it does happen, it will not be because the west compels it, or because science requires it or because secularism requires it. Islam is not in retreat from the forces of reason. It will certainly not happen because some absurd theorists, mainly western, under-informed and under-equipped, and working on western assumptions, claim that (like Jesus?) Muhammad never existed.

But that is a subject for another time…

The Jesus Prospect

The indefinite suspension of the Jesus Project by its original sponsor, the Center for Inquiry, was a serious blow to an effort that had reached a critical point and was in need of an infusion of trust and money.

Funding such a project appears to have been a factor in its “relative” demise. It’s also true, however, that certain organizations suffer from a kind of chronic indecisiveness about the core premises of their existence and hence the causes they want to support. The Jesus Project in my view was simply an illustration of where a messy mission statement and messier programming gets you. The JP was naturally suspect in the press and among biblical professionals of having an axe to grind because its providing organization ground axes, usually for the purpose of cutting the heads off religious truth claims.

In the long run, no harm done. Groundbreaking (and who doesn’t hate that word) scholarship is actually more common without the razzmatazz of conferences and media hits–through the normal and often isolated networking habits we develop as scholars and critics. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Jesus Project was trending (like the Jesus Seminar before it) to produce not a conclusion but Jesus Vishnu, a god with multiple faces, disguises, incarnations and questionable plausibility.

I was once asked why the Jesus Seminar was so much more visible than the Project and my answer, which was halting, was that the Seminar, while Robert Funk lived, had a better press agent. A little like Paul was to Jesus.

As a matter of fact, online, offline, in a series of articles for the popular web-journal Bible and Interpretation, and in ordinary conversation, I spent more time defending the Project than developing it.

However Jesus would have come out of this inquisition, it would have been the equivalent of a new scourging and crowning with thorns, if not an outright crucifixion. The sensationalist clatter that greeted the announcement of the project in 2007-“What if the Most Significant Man in Human History Never Existed?“–was enough to send chills up the spines of thoughtful men and women who reasoned that scientific investigation began with an accumulation of evidence and not with conclusions in search of support. We have seen bibliosensationalism for decades now, and it seems to be getting worse each year. It’s about selling newspapers and the Christmas week edition of Time, not scholarship.

Felix culpa, then, that the suspension of the Project has worked out well for those of us who felt CFI was simply not “scholarly” enough, not academically credible enough, and not neutral enough to sponsor such an inquiry. This is not to say that what they do they do not do well. But biblical research and historical inquiry, even in their most radical, secular and revisionist forms belongs in a different circle. Ideally it begins in the seminar room, not a marketing session and is driven by the desire to know or discover something, not the opportunity to get flakes and nutters on the same platform with dues-paying scholars.

That is what most of those associated with the project thought before the freeze, what the freeze confirmed, and what set many of us looking for alternatives more suited to the currents and trends in New Testament studies. That is where the Jesus Prospect comes in.

The name reflects the state of the question that the Jesus Project was trying to address: it is an historical issue. It is not a question that was going to be answered by men and women whose minds were made up, some of them laying out new documentary hypotheses, some of them assuming the essential historicity of the gospel story, and some of them fundamentally committed to the doctrine of a mythical Jesus. Here there be monsters. Or more precisely, here there be three different games being played, each with its own set of rules, but using the same all-purpose ball.

I am happy to be working with New Testament scholar Stephanie Fisher in re-writing the script and continuing the work we had begun. We will be making an announcement of consultation members very soon. This space should be watched for who is in and who is not (Matthew 22.14). But unlike the Jesus Project, we want to avoid any impression that results are dictated by foregone (or are they forlorn?) conclusions or that an earth-shattering result is at hand.

D F Strauss, an original myther of sorts

At a speech in Berkeley given by Richard Dawkins last year, the papal atheist was asked why he didn’t debate creationists. He smiled like the cat who knows the canary cage is wide open and that a bird sits tremulously on its perch inside. “For the same reason a geneticist wouldn’t debate a believer in the stork theory,” he announced to the approval of the audience.

That is why the Jesus Prospect must be restated and restarted as an evaluation of evidence, not bullish hypotheses that have been held by their postulators with the same zeal Catholics propose local saints for the calendar.

In fact, there is a good prospect that Jesus of Nazareth existed. It is the most efficient explanation for the gospels, the writings of Paul and the formation of gospels and the church. There is a possibility he did not. The thin possibility cannot be supported by sweeping away the gospels like so much Palestinian debris that occludes a master-theory, anymore than the uncertainty of who the Scythians were proves that Herodotus made them up. I am of one mind with April DeConick when I assay the work of the “mythers”–the born again pre-committed–a term I don’t like very much, but in an odd way one that points to the hollowness of many of the non-historicity arguments.

Jesus Christ or a Jesus Impersonator?

And let me reiterate what I have said, and what’s been blogged about far too much. I don’t know what really happened, the Archimedean point at which Christianity “began.” I think I could construct a perfectly plausible if not indefeasible argument for the non-existence of Jesus. I can do this by ignoring the bare story of the gospels and concentrating instead on the political and literary needs and the quiver-ful of analogous myths of the early church, the door through which Christ entered as savior. But the savior the mythers begin with is not the historical Jesus, and perhaps the Jesus of the gospels has already achieved that status. Everyone (almost) agrees that most of Jesus is a myth of the church, and even the church trades on the mythical power of a name that is basically unhistorical. We don’t need to convince scholars of that. They know it already, and rather wonder why it’s such a big deal to mythers. It’s really a question of knowing where to begin.

Methodologically (if I can be brave) there are two problems. Despite considerable changes to this pattern in the last century (namely an awareness after Walter Bauer that Christianity was not one thing but many, virtually from its cultic origin) there are those scholars who focus too much on the New Testament as a self-authenticating corpus of evidence waiting to be explained through context and various forms of criticism. And there are those, although still a minority, who use context to explain almost everything, particularly the arousal of the religious interests that lead to the New Testament (and the literature of other groups, such as the gnostics). The Jesus assumed to exist as an historical figure exists in the canon of the former. The Jesus of the mythers and pangnosticists exists in penumbra of the latter.

The Jesus Prospect is essentially, in the French sense, an essay–a try–at developing a middle way where the obvious influence of Judaic and Hellenistic belief and the myths that enfold it do not totally suffocate the prospect of an historical Jesus, and the primacy of canon does not totally obliterate the prospect of a savior god who became historicized as a matter of religious evolution, from cult to church.

The headline “Jesus never existed” is not the end-game of this process. But an insistence on the importance of a hearing and verdict on the best available evidence is. And while you are keeping things in mind, keep this in mind: it is almost inevitably true that the result of such an investigation will not pay big dividends. No one will ever be able to render a “scientific” conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was made up. It is waste of time to try. The proof of this axiom is its opposite: No one–at least no one interested in doing this kind of work or addressing this kind of question–has been convinced by the discovery of the “tombs” of the Jesus dynasty or the Nazareth domiciles. No reputable scholar feels that the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas is any more historical than the canonical Jesus (and perhaps vice versa) or the Jesus of Nag Hammadi.

Increasingly, scholars are returning to question whether the existence of “Q” is more a quest for the grail than a quest for a real document. I count among my friends many who have memorized two, four, and twelve source theories with the enthusiasm ordinarily reserved for a good bottle of wine. But in my opinion, the search for Q ended with Austin Farrer; its reconstructions have been fanciful. And they have been the greatest distraction in New Testament studies for almost a century.

Negative as these tendencies are, they are very healthy tendencies because they show that skepticism is not dead, that a will to find out more is still alive It shows that quick-fix radical, and quick-fix apologetic faith-engendering and overly speculative studies may not win the day, even in the study of the Bible. What hath Schweitzer wrought?

Information about the Prospect and its literary program can be obtained by writing to me, rjosephhoffmann@gmail.com The remains of the Jesus Project are collected in a volume to be published by Prometheus Books in August 2010, The Sources of the Jesus Tradition.

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Of Love and Chairs

Lazarus

A longer version of “The Importance of the Historical Jesus,” excerpted from my book The Sources of the Jesus Tradition (due out this summer) is at Bible and Interpretation: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/love3141509.shtml

In the case of the “Jesus-question,” there is no point at which the theological imagination does not shape the subject matter. Love comes before the chair, feelings and impressions before the “facts” have been put into place, and interpretation before detail. No matter what element of the Jesus tradition comes first, that element—as scholars for the most part today are willing to acknowledge—comes to us as an act in a religious drama, not as a scene in an ordinary life….

Adapted from: The Sources of the Jesus Tradition, to be published in August 2010 (New York: Prometheus Books,ISBN-10: 1616141891)

Letting Go of Jesus

ascension

“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.”
Bultman

Thirty Theses: Plausible Propositions for the Existence of a Historical Jesus

Schweitzer

Thirty Theses: Plausible Propositions for the Existence of a Historical Jesus*

1. The primary data for the beginning of Christianity are the documents of the New Testament.

2. Secondary data including apocryphal and Gnostic sources and testimonia are primarily valuable for the reconstruction of the growth of the Christian movement

3. The gospels are about the life of a man called Jesus of Nazareth

4. Their probable genesis before the end of the first century is strong support for the basic historicity of the events they portray.

5. Jewish polemical sources do not challenge the historicity of the life of Jesus, rather his messiahship and resurrection.

6. The silence of classical writers concerning Christianity is explained by the inconspicuous nature of Christianity in the first two centuries of its existence.

7. The existence of interpolations in the work of non-Christian writers such as Josephus expresses an interest in enhancing the historicity of characters portrayed in the gospels and cannot be used to “prove” the deceit of gospel writers of an earlier generation.

8. The silence of classical writers with respect to Jesus cannot be used as an argument against the historicity of the gospels.

9. The ridicule of later pagan critics of Christianity does not include the premise that Jesus did not exist. Conversely, all pagan critics assumed the historical existence of Jesus.

10. The fact that early Christians worshiped Jesus [ap. Pliny jr.] does not suggest they denied his historicity.

11. There is little of purely belletristic interest or value in the gospels.

12. Compared to known examples of Roman fiction and legend the gospels lack the artifice and design of purely literary work.

13. Compared to known examples of “philosophical biography” such as that of Philostratus, the gospels show marked resemblance of style and purpose to philosophical biography

14. Pagan critics of the gospels recognized the genre of the gospels as being comparable to philosophical biography, viz., Apollonius of Tyana.

15. The existence of a “spiritualized” gospel attributed to John does not diminish the value of the synoptics, especially as the fourth gospel is clear about its apologetic motive.

16. The existence of myth and miracle in the gospels does not diminish the historical framework of the gospel story.

17. The presence of healing stories and magic does not lessen the historicity of the subject of the gospels.

18. The gospels conform to beliefs, expectations and practices typical of the community from which they arose and beliefs known to exist within Hellenistic Judaism and the larger Roman world

19. The gospels are the kind of literature we would expect of a time and culture that valued myth, miracle and the improbable.

20. It would be more extraordinary for the gospels not to reflect the religious-supernaturalist worldview of its writers and auditors than to reflect the worldview they do.

21. The gospels’ position towards the miraculous, the divine, and the supernatural reflects views common in the ancient historians whose essential historical value we acknowledge (e.g., Herodotus on the Battle of Salamis). Conformability is a crucial argument in favour of the historicity of the gospels.

22. The stories of cult gods, ranging from Dionysus to Mithras to Asclepius, bear only a superficial resemblance to the story of Jesus

23. The selection of the canonical gospels was based on criteria that included the element of plausibility and historicity. This can be judged on the basis of patristic testimony and more directly from the nature of the excluded material.

24. Central to the historicity was the information that Jesus had been crucified in the time of Pontius Pilate. The narrative of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus represents the earliest stratum of historical interest and probably the oldest stratum of gospel development.

25. The redaction of the gospel traditions from older sources represent only the tendencies of individual writers and do not constitute a coherent argument against the essential historicity of the Jesus tradition.

26. The teaching of Jesus in the synoptic sources is not extraordinary. The tendency over time to make it extraordinary, as in the discourses of the fourth gospel, is evidence in favor of the historicity of the earlier tradition.

27. The teaching of Jesus without theological gloss is conformable to the teaching of preachers known to exist in the first and second century AD.

28. The character of Jesus of Nazareth is not extraordinary but typical of his time and context.

29. The ordinariness of Jesus is presented plausibly and directly in the synoptic traditions about him. The Christological context of this portrayal does not weaken the historical description.

30. As a statement of belief, the resurrection is not a statement of something that happened to the historical Jesus but a statement of what was believed to happen to him. The existence of the resurrection tradition, which can be traced by literary evolution from Mark to John, is not a proof of the non-historicity of the pre-resurrection tradition.

————————

*Update on comments so far: If you respond to these theses, do a bit of work and find out what a thesis is and how propositions can be argued. A few have written with the misconception that these bald controversial statements are “amputated arguments” rather than debating points. No time for that kind of thing. Also, I suggest you read the statements carefully, since as far as I can tell none is eo ipso false: e.g., the existence of a written description of an event whose social effects are known is support for historicity, if not accuracy. It is not analogous to say that stories about Herakles (eg) also produce social effects since it is not asserted that Herakles (or Dionysus) founded movements. It is also inaccurate that “the pagan critics of Christianity assumed the historicity of Dionysus…et al.” (re thesis 9): they did not, and one at least, Julian, regards the Greek stories as literally implausible. No points for misinformation, therefore.

I provide the following for entertainment, serious but not mordant discussion, debate, and argumentation (above all, argumentation). Please keep your argument to the proposition, rather than, “Haven’t you read,| or “Surely you haven’t considered…” Discussion. Also, please post your comments to this page and not to “About.” As the above relate to work being done by The Jesus Project, I would welcome especially additional premises or propositions (or variants) not listed above.jc

The Jesus Tomb Debacle: RIP

The following is a repost from Butterflies and Wheels 2008JesusTomb1R_468x327

By R. Joseph Hoffmann

So much will have been written about the Discovery Channel presentation of the James Cameron extravaganza, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” that a further dissenting voice will neither be needed nor missed.  In my initial preview of the program, published within hours of the CNN “announcement” and public unveiling of the alleged Jesus and Mary Magdalene matrimonial ossuaries, I wrote that the entire project was based on bad assumptions, and that since “following the science,” as the logorrhoeic Simcha Jacobovici says he was doing, can only take one where assumptions lead, let me spell out why the assumptions underlying this project are not only flawed but positively malicious to good scholarship and science. It seems to me uncontroversial and indisputable that the entire exercise hangs on an assumption that modern scholarship knows and accepts the names of Jesus’ family recorded in the gospels and passed down in Christian tradition; that the gospels coincide with other ancient testimony, for example, that provided by Paul in his letters or Luke in his two-part history. There is an assumption which more and more asserts itself in semi-scholarly work that while we can rely on the gospels for the names of the family of Jesus, we cannot rely on them for information about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene; that in the latter case we have a cover-up abetted by early theological interests and a desire (by whom?) to suppress the “secret” life of jesus, this despite the fact that it is public celibate life, and not a married life, that would have been scandalous in first century Judaism. The same brand of scholarship is also characterized by a willingness to credit ancient sources that are contemptuous of history – the gnostic gospels especially – as the primary sources for information about the secret life of Jesus and his family. New Testament scholarship has struggled for two centuries to explain the complex literary relationshiop between the synoptic gospels, between the synoptics and John, and between the canonical four gospels and extra-biblical sources such as the gnostic gospels. A part of that struggle has been the recognition that each gospel has its own perspective and expresses a tradition unique to the community from which it emerged. If scholars cringe at the style, and the substance, of this most recent assault on good sense and critical method, it is because they will detect in the methods underlying the docu-drama a violent conflation of sources, not different in style from the sort of thing we normally associate with fundamentalist Christianity with its credulous approach to the Bible as an undifferentiated collection of religious truth.

As this controversy unfolds, there will perhaps be time to challenge and expose the sheer ignorance of these assumptiuons, but for the present, and because so much hinges on the names scrawled on the Talpiyot ossuaries, I propose only to deal with the “name game” being played by James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici, and their historical “advisors.” History that is disrespectful of logic and facts, and the accumulated wisdom of two centuries of the historical critical method in biblical studies, deserves to be known by a new name. Assuming that at least some of what is being presented by the film-makers on the project corresponds to some of what has emerged from the Talpiyot tomb site, it is best to talk about the “faccidents” of the case – facts that do not fall into place without the benefit of a prior commitment to an established conclusion.

1. Faccident One: The Name Game

(a) The earliest Christian literature, that written by Paul, knows the names of none of Jesus’ family members. It is sometimes pointed out that Paul makes reference (Galatians 4.4) to Jesus having “been born of a woman, under the law,” but it is widely believed that these words are an insertion into the text of Galatians: Marcion, our earliest witness, does not know them, and as Hilgenfeld once noted, if his opponent, Tertullian, could have quoted them against Marcion, a docetist thinker, to prove the essential humanity of Jesus, he would have. We are left with the bare fact that Paul knows nothing of the human family of Jesus. He does know the names of some of Jesus’ followers, and in the same epistle uses the phrase “James the brother of Lord,” which makes it the more remarkable that he would not know of an extended family with a strong female influence operating in Jerusalem. As suggested below, Paul’s use of the term “brother” is not dispositive since he is not using it in reference to a biological relationship.

(b) Complications: The apostle named “James” in the earliest written gospel, Mark, is specifically catalogued as the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Mk 1.19) and thus not a member of the family of Jesus; a second James is named as a son of Alphaeus, along with Levi (Mk 2.1) and thus specified as being of a different family. This leaves James, the “brother” of the Lord mentioned in Mark 6.3, outside the community, and it is only by force of speculation (and conflation with Paul) that we can bring him into the fold. A skeptical eye might note, however, that Mark attributes the name “James” to three individuals in his narrative, a fact that suggests a compositor’s lack of historical information, an absence of historical memory, or both. There is good reason to think, considering the apparent overlap in names between the family of Jesus and the followers of Jesus given by Mark, that he was merely using garden variety names associated with the Jesus-tradition as he knew it. As noted below, textual force majeure will not solve this riddle.

(c) The author of the fourth gospel shows a thoroughly characteristic reserve. He, and his editors, provide no catalogue of followers of Jesus, although they give the names of most of the apostles, and once only, in the appendix, and then quite incidentally, speak of “the sons of Zebedee” (21. 2). There is nothing whatever to be said for the suggestion that the dialogue with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross is a dialogue with Mary Magdalene, or that the agapetos or “beloved disciple” was a son of Jesus, a piece of speculation so wild in view of John’s theology that it scarcely deserves mention.

(d) Mark’s theological point of view centers on Jesus’ rejection of his family, in favor of a narrowing inner circle that includes a new kind of “brotherhood” with Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee), at its core. In Mark 6.3, James, Judas, Simon and Joseph (Joses) are listed as family members (cf. Matthew 13.54), while Luke omits any reference to this catalogue preferring to have the congregation cry, “Is not this Joseph’s son.” (Luke 4.22b). These differences might be explained redactionally, but this would not explain why Luke, or his editor, with his considerable admiration for the mother of Jesus, would omit her from the family list, as also seems to have been the case in an earlier version of Luke’s gospel used by Marcion. The tradition of names is so fluid that in Luke’s redaction of Mark’s resurrection account, he gives Mark’s list of “Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, Mary Magdalene, and Salome” as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the daughter of James” as companions at the end (Lk 24.10), and in John’s gospel, the list expands to three (!) Marys: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary, her sister, also named Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19.25-26). The proliferation of Marys can also be explained as parablesis – a scribe inserting names from names previously encountered in the text in order to flesh out detail – and a paucity of verifiable historical information.

(e) The confusion over the names provided in the gospels and letters of Paul relating to Jesus, his “family,” and his circle, is a persistent one in New Testament studies. “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” not only fails to acknowledge this controversy and the literary complexities of sorting through data that is at least as charged with theological interests as with a concern for factuality, it exploits it. As a matter of simple integrity, if the gospels are being used to provide the sole literary artifact evidence for the names we can associate with Jesus and his “family” – and this is the only possible standard of evidence – then in view of the above textual aporiai, it is significant that the only family grouping of factorial significance would be Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and Joseph only in two gospels, or three if we accept Mark’s listing of Joseph as a brother of Jesus.

The conflation of names – three (+) Jameses, three Marys – suggests redactional confusion between and among evangelists as well. This does not account for nominal confusion over “James the Just”, “James the Righteous”, “James of Jerusalem”, “James Protepiscopus” (first bishop of Jerusalem) and “James the Less,” all of whom turn up in diverse Christian testimonies.

2. Faccident Two. The Historicity of James. At odd junctures in the “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” we revert to a dramatized scene of the stoning of James, partly in keeping with the director’s intention to “drive home” the James-Jesus connection forcibly through images, partly as a way of redeeming the James ossuary which has fallen into disrepute since news of its “discovery” surfaced in January 2003.

(a) The death of James is not recorded in the New Testament. For that we rely on a late 1st century work by the historian Josephus in his Antiquities (20.9). It is known by scholars, however, that Christian references in Josephus’s work are pious additions. In the case of the Jamesian reference, the hand of the Christian editor is especially badly disguised by the addition of “who is called Christ” following the use of the name “Jesus” in discussing the trial of a certain James. It is an echo of the same device used in the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3), sometimes cited as a proof of the existence of Jesus but today normally regarded as a Christian forgery. If we purge the Christian interpolation, it is clear that the James mentioned by Josephus, who is delivered to stoning, is the brother of a significant Jewish leader and contender for the priesthood, Jesus bar Damneus, whose name appears in the same passage. In Antiquities 20.9.4, a Jesus bar Gamaliel succeeds Jesus the son of Damneus in the high priesthood. Josephus does not mention – at all – the James known from New Testament sources. The James sentenced to stoning is a completely different man. In his Jewish Wars, Josephus sees the death of Ananus – not James – as a precipitating event leading to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Christian interpolator has (bunglingly) inserted the relationship into a passage where he located the name of the wrong Jesus. It is therefore also impossible, outside Christian legend, to say anything of historical consequence about the later history of the James known to us from Paul’s letters.

(b) Complication: Paul’s language. The basis for the suggestion that James is the brother of Jesus depends on early references in Paul, especially Galatians 1.19. There is no doubt that James was regarded by Paul as a significant player in the Jerusalem community, together with Peter and John (Galatians 2.9, repeated in the legendary primacy-catalogue of Mark 9.2ff.). But his use of the word adelphos, as many scholars recognize, refers to James as a member of the brotherhood, as in Galatians 2.4; 3.15; 4.12, or as when he speaks of “false brothers” in Gal 2.4,5. James, according to Luke, uses the same language in calling Paul “brother,” (Acts 21.20) and the community the “brotherhood” (20.17).

The early Christians were renowned for their use of familial terms to describe their fellowship, a fact which led to their rituals being castigated as incestuous by pagan onlookers. In short, the use of the term “brother” to refer to James is honorific (religious) rather than genetic. Paul nowhere refers to other “Jameses” – no biological brother, no “James the Just” or “the righteous” or “the younger.” Those characters are created by necessity and fleshed out in the future, by gospel writers, and perhaps echo late first and early second century confusion over misremembered details of the historical period that Paul represents, more or less contemporaneously. In the light of Paul’s complete disregard for the “historical” Jesus, moreover, it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and “the Lord.”

(c) Finally, the James, Joseph, and Judas of the gospels, if not merely stock figures invented by Mark and dis-invented by Luke, play no role in the ministry of Jesus, while the unrelated son of Zebedee does. To turn Mark’s James into the head of the Jerusalem community after the death of Jesus, one would have to imagine that the James of the family who rejects Jesus (Mark 3.31) and is rejected in turn, repents of his action and joins the apostles, in Jerusalem, at some point following the death of Jesus, and rises to a position of prominence. While this scenario is not impossible, parsimony dictates that it is not likely. Mark’s theology implies that the scenario in chapter six is a fictional one designed to subordinate ephemeral family relations to the needs the wider community – the “true brotherhood” of believers.

The James who is head of the church in Jerusalem is not a biological brother of Jesus. Later but inconsistent gospel references to James are muddled reminiscences based on the more prominent James of the Pauline tradition.

(3) Faccident 3: The Identity of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is one of multiple Marys in the gospels, and never listed as a member of a family group.

It is unnecessary to go into detail about her role in the “family” of Jesus. That association is rooted in commercial interests, based on modern fiction and poorly understood ancient sources.

(a) The obvious points are that Mary is not listed as a relative of Jesus in the sole passage in Mark that gives the names of Jesus’ hypothetical family (Mark 6.1.). Mitochondrial DNA tests on ossuaries belonging to Jews of the Herodian period seem a far-fetched way to prove a fact attested in the gospels, that Jesus and Mary were not related. The suggestion that she is the “wife” of Jesus goes beyond anything given even in apocryphal and gnostic sources, where she enjoyed an expanded reputation for reasons grounded not in history but in gnostic theosophy.

(b) This in itself is not insignificant however, because Mary Magdalene is a vivid character in Christian imagination, lore, and in heresy. Her “extrapolated” importance points to the priority of the community over the family in the telling of the gospel story. In other words, “Mary Magdalene’s” significance emerges out of the gospels’ focus on the followers of Jesus and the unimportance attached to real-life family relationships, the very opposite of the significance asserted for her in the present controversy.

(c) She is especially important in two contexts: As a feminine prototype of discipleship, and as a “witness” of the resurrection of Jesus. It is wrongly supposed that she is named as the woman accused of adultery in the floating tradition associated with John 7.53-8.11, or following Luke 21.28, but is missing completely from some manuscripts. The woman is anonymous.

It is also wrongly assumed that she is the “immoral” woman who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7.37ff. That woman also is unnamed. In the prototype of this story in Mark 14.3-6, the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with oil is also unnamed by the synoptic writers, and is a resident of Bethany. It is unlikely that someone remembered as “Mary Magdalene” would be the same as Mary of Bethany, known from John’s gospel as the sister of Lazarus (Jn 12.1-8).

(d) This means that the sole reference to Mary Magdalene outside the resurrection tradition is a passage in Luke 8.1-3 where she is listed as “Mary called Magdalene,” a woman exorcised by Jesus, who is traveling with other women – including Joanna and Susanna. Luke finds a role for Joanna in his resurrection narrative as well (24.10), possibly to appeal to the wives of wealthy patrons who have commissioned his gospel.

(e) In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene has become the primary female witness to the resurrection (John 20-1-8), and the intimate dialogue between the weeping Mary and the risen Christ at the site of the tomb in unique to the fourth gospel. Jesus’ resurrection appearance to her before the male apostles, while a piece of Christian fiction, was a powerful incentive to her further career in Christian literature. She appears therefore as a leading character in a variety of gnostic texts: In The Dialogue of the Savior (2nd century?), she assists Jesus in explaining the hidden meaning of the parable of the mustard seed in characteristically gnostic terms; in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (late 2nd century), she is called by Peter the one with the key of the Savior’s knowledge (gnosis) and the one loved by the savior more than males (a fundamental text in the eroticization of the relationship between Mary and Jesus); in the Gospel of Thomas (2nd century), which may be related to the traditions embedded in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Jesus offers to “make her male” since the female spirit cannot resemble that of the father.

(f) In the texts touted by the filmmakers responsible for the “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” the Gospel of Philip, dating from the 4 th or 5th century and trading on the confusion of Mary’s in the gospels, she is numbered among a “trinity” of Marys including the mother of Jesus and the sister of his mother, also known as Mary. In the text, she represents Sophia or wisdom, and Jesus, in symbolic but erotic language, is accused of “kissing her on the mouth” by disgruntled apostles, who equally symbolically represent their inadequate search for divine gnosis. In the Pistis Sophia (late 3rd, 4th century), in language skimmed from Luke 1.36-49, she is called “blessed beyond all women of the earth.because she shall be the pleroma of pleromas.” In this scene, she plays the part of a gnostic Virgin Mary of the Magnificat, prostrating herself submissively at Jesus’ feet. While this skims the surface, the following curriculum vitae is clear enough:

(e) From inconspicuous beginnings in Mark’s gospel (15.40, 16.1; 16.9), Mary Magdalene’s legend grows sufficiently by the 90’s of the first century that she becomes the beneficiary of a private dialogue with the risen Jesus in the Gospel of John. Based on the high gnostic evaluation of the risen Christ, the dialogue is formative for her exaggerated importance in gnostic circles from the late second century onward. In this role, she is of symbolic importance only.

(f) There is nothing of historical value in these sources, just as there may be little of historical value in the canonical sources upon which they are based. But in the (seemingly) most explicit of the gnostic sources, the Gospel of Philip, reputable scholars have fallen into the trap of searching for historical references to a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. What makes such a connection preposterous is Gnosticism itself: Gnostic dualism, with its emphasis on a world-denying asceticism and chastity, makes any suggestion that a “physical” relationship is being posited for Jesus and Mary Magdalene theologically absurd within the system from which the texts emerge. It is only by literalizing late sources, such as the Gospel of Philip, at the expense of the propagandistic Gnosticism they represent, that one can begin to suggest a physical relationship between the two protagonists.

(g) An intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is based on the legendizing and the Gnosticizing of a single passage in the canonical gospel least sympathetic to this-worldly relationships, one which actually trivializes her human significance as a witness to the resurrection and emphasizes the non-physicality of the risen Christ (John 20.17) and the unimportance of human relationships. With Thomas, also a favorite of gnostic speculation, she becomes a witness to the divine gnosis, enfigured in Jesus as the logos of God – not a potential bride.

Conclusions:

The jigsaw of names and their conflicting theological contexts is fatal to the filmmakers’ approach to the Talpiyot tomb inscriptions. Far from representing a univocal tradition concerning Jesus’ “family” the evidence suggests a positive disregard for family relationships, ignorance and confusion over names, and theological situations which make the family configuration suggested for these ossuaries impossible to accept:

1. In the earliest literature, that produced by Paul, the family of Jesus is unknown. References to James as the “brother” of Jesus in Paul’s writings must be explained in terms of the familial usage adopted by the early Christians themselves.

2. Outside the New Testament, there are no early references to the family of Jesus, the sole candidate for such references, the work of Josephus, being forged.

3. The gospel writers beginning with Mark convey confusion or ignorance about family names. In the sole passage where names are given in sequence (Mark 6.3) three are lifted from the catalogue of apostles and one is the name later assigned to the father of Jesus, about whom Mark is otherwise silent. In a passage not repeated by Matthew and Luke, Mark records another “family” tradition in which the brothers (and mother) are unnamed. (5.31-32). John knows nothing of an extended family of Jesus, replacing the mother of Jesus mentioned (nameless) in John (2.5) with a post-familial and quasi-gnostic tradition of Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20.1ff.). John is ultimately confused about the proliferation of “Mary-names” (19.25-6), making both the name of the mother of Jesus and her sister “Mary.”

4. The later tradition concerning Mary Magdalene is historically vacuous and the possibility that she was invented to counter Jewish aspersions against the chastity of Mary the mother of Jesus cannot be dismissed out of hand. In Jewish tradition, the mother of Jesus is known as a harlot, a “dresser of women’s hair,” and is thus indistinguishable from Mary Magdalene: “Did not Ben Stada (Yeshu = Jesus) bring spells from Egypt in a cut on his flesh?” They replied, ‘He was a fool and one does not prove anything from a fool.’ Ben Stada is Ben Pandira. Rabbi Hisda [a Babylonian teacher of the third century] said, “The husband was Stada, the paramour was Pandira.” The husband was Pappos ben Jehudah; the mother was Stada. The mother was Miriam [Mary], the dresser of women’s hair – as we say in Pumbeditha [a Babylonian town where there was a famous rabbinical college], “Such a one has been false to her husband” [Shaddath 104b]. The phrase “Miriam m’gadella nashaia” (an aspsersive for the mother of Jesus) may indicate the origins of a bitter debate between Jews and Christians over the chastity of Jesus’ mother and the apologetic origins of the “second Mary.” The spelling of the name “Miriamne” or Miriamne (‘e) Mara is a red herring in the recent documentary. Mary Magdalene is never referred to in any source as the latter, and the former is widely attested as a name in Hellenistic Judaism, especially in the writings of Josephus.

The Importance of the Historical Jesus: A Jesus Project Quodlibet

And he asjesus_photoked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8.28)

For the last three years I have been associated—perhaps identified is a better word—with something called the Jesus Project.    Enough has already been said and written about that for me (mercifully) to be able to avoid another “introduction” to its aims and objectives.

This essay therefore is about something else.  It is about why we should care about the historical Jesus

My guess is that there are just as many people who sort of believe in God as there are people who sort of believe in Jesus.  But the two beliefs are different.  The existence of God can be argued theologically or philosophically.  If theologically (using archaic language) the proofs are usually called “demonstrations” and include some of the classical arguments of the theistic tradition—such as Anselm’s and Thomas Aquinas’s five ways.  It is quite convenient for philosophers to have these arguments because they don’t have to go about inventing their own. They can simply take aim at these rather good ones and fire away, and top it all off with a heavy syrup of philosophical naturalism.  If that last sentence sounds mildly sardonic it is because I think we are living in a post-naturalistic world and that philosophers had better find another island to swim to.  Theologians at least believe they have someone to save them.

“Believing” in Jesus can be argued historically or theologically, but not philosophically.  Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown.  The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events.  For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Jesus of Nazareth would be very helpful.  But we do not possess such a record.  Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and interested reasons for retelling his story.  And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.

Having said this, I don’t mean to suggest that the gospels are made up, that they are like Greek myths, though bits are, or that they possess no historical value.  The Iliad is Greek myth, mainly made up, perhaps seven hundred years older than the earliest gospel, and yet seems to point (however obscurely) to actual events that transpired six centuries before Homer (?) immortalized them.  Herodotus, who lived more than five centuries before the gospels, is known to us primarily as a purveyor of history, but freely uses mythology and the supernatural without totally discrediting the stories he has to tell.

Why then, it can plausibly be asked, can we not assume the gospels point to events that transpired within (say) a generation of their tellers’ lifetimes?  It would be more unusual not to find the mythical and supernatural as part of their fabric than to find precisely the kind of documents we possess—especially coming from a class of writers who were not historians or literary craftsmen.

Belief in the existence of Jesus can also be argued theologically, but I am not good at it.   Paul does it this way by quoting (we assume) a hymn in Philippians 2.5-11. It locates Jesus in a cosmic time-frame that might be Gnostic except for the emphasis on his death and exaltation. The Eucharistic narratives do it this way as well, by making Jesus the centerpiece in an unfolding drama of betrayal and martyrdom.  The crucifixion story is as much a theological memoir as a historical one—or rather a peculiar blending of two interests, a kind of intersection between historical expectation and super-historical completion.  The earliest church fathers, especially Ignatius of Antioch, saw Jesus not just as the fulfillment of prophecy but as the way in which prophecy acquires its meaning through the Church.  The Quran also depends on the existence of Jesus, but rejects certain elements of the Christian story in favor of Islamic interpretation. Still, without the gospel its own claims are fatally jeopardised.  The increasingly elaborate theological framing of Jesus may distract from the fading image on the canvas, but it is the enthusiasm for ever-more ingenious frames that kept the historical figure from disappearing entirely.

These theological arguments are better described as constructions of the “reality” or necessity of the human Jesus, and lead to various controversies that historians have left it to the theologians to sort through.  In effect this has created a kind of scholarly apartheid in which secular historians have treated the theological debates of the fourth and fifth century as the weird preoccupations of a bygone era, while (except among scholars who represent Anglican and Roman Catholic orthodoxy) many contemporary theologians regard the debates in just the same way.

Yet these debates irreversibly coloured the picture of the historical Jesus and created in his place the Byzantine cosmocrator who ruled the aeons.  The one-personed, two-natured Christ, the hypostatic union (the doctrine that Jesus is both God and Man without confusion or separation of natures) would probably count as myth if it had more of a story line.  But at all events the fully divine and human Jesus had become a theological necessity before the end of the second century. The historical presupposition was buried in this controversy, if it had ever existed independently.

Given the “two ways” of approaching the question of the historical Jesus, it may seem a bit strange that the theological comes first.  But there is simply no evidence that the early Christians were concerned about “whether” Jesus had really lived and died.  They became Christians because of the gospel, and the gospels were preached, not read—except by very few.  If there is one cold, hard, unavoidable historical datum that virtually everyone who studies the New Testament can agree on, it is that the early Christian community existed and came into existence because of the gospels.

It may well be true that the beliefs of these communities were as varied as coloured buttons for more than a century.  But the Jesus they “proclaimed” (a good first century verb) was part of a story, not a doctrine—a story they believed to be true.  You can’t go very far into the second century without seeing the story becoming clouded with doctrine and definition, however.

The church fathers and the Gnostics were really two sides of the same obscurantist process:  the Gnostics needed a Jesus whose humanity was transparent or unreal, the church fathers needed a Jesus whose humanity was real but disposable.  It is not surprising that the disposable won out over the unreal.

The resurrection stories, as they lengthened, seemed to suggest that a kind of transformation took place in the hiatus between death and being raised from the dead.  In other words, the historical (human) Jesus who rose from the dead won out over the Gnostic Jesus who does not, not because the gnostic story is fabulous but because the familiar story was human—grounded in history. Paul seems to have caught on to the market value of this fact very early (I Corinthians 15.4-8)

The historical Jesus is not important in the same way that a Roman emperor’s existence is important –that is, as a simple causa prius to his being declared divine, or (for example) as a way of averaging human and divine qualities, as the ancient world was fond of doing with demigods and heroes.  We tend to forget that men of the fourth century, confronted with defining the humanity of Jesus, still had the images and stories of Achilles, Dionysus and Heracles in view.  It was not a thoroughly Christian world, but a world still infused with the seductive images of demigods and their courtesans—the same world whose attractions Clement had anguished over a hundred years before Nicaea.  Saving the saviour from that kind of emulsion prompted some of the more intricate doctrines of the early period.

The preservation of the humanity of Jesus came at the expense of his historicity.  In making sure he would not be confused with Caesar, Apollo or Mithras, they focused on the way in which he was God and how God became man.  At the end of the makeover, however, no first century Jew remained to be seen.  Even a spirit-struck Pentecostal preacher who has only the dimmest idea of what Chalcedon was all about calls on a “Jesus” who was born there—a man-god who can walk on water, heal the blind and save from sin.

The historical Jesus is important because he is a presupposition for the faith that millions of people have placed in non-historical consequences, and not only Christians.  His status if primarily significant to Christians is also important, in different ways, to Jews, Muslims, and even unbelievers.

I do not know whether the recovery of a Jesus after two thousand years of theological repair is possible.  John Henry Newman died in 1890.  He was buried in a wooden coffin in a damp site just outside Birmingham.  To the disappointment of many, when he was exhumed as part of the normal process for canonization in October 2008, no human remains were to be found—only artifacts of wood, brass and cloth.  We are considerably better off of course, in the case of Newman.  The grave site was known, we have letters, diaries, treatises, biographies, the memories of friends and relatives—even his own instructions for burial.  But that is because he was a man living in an age of documentation, and moreover a man of some prominence and means.  We have photographs, and well into the twentieth century the recollections of people who had known him or heard him preach.

Everything we  think we know historically about Jesus points in a more depressing direction: a man of no prominence, living in a widely illiterate age in a backward province, even by Roman standards, with few friends who could have told his story.  Yet the story is oddly similar—a remembrance of a life, wisdom, preaching, struggle, and death.  One of the fathers of the Birmingham oratory on being told that Newman was not to be found in his grave replied calmly, “It’s enough that he was here.”  In the long run, that may be all that can be said about the historical Jesus.

Quodlibet: The Jesus Project

jesusWhat can you say about a thirty-three year old Jew who died.  History suggests, a lot.  The Jesus Project, previewed here, isn’t so sure.

Even before the Jesus Project had resolved itself into a critical mass of scholars with ideas, goals, and vision, bloggers of various persuasions pronounced its fate. It was quickly bloggled into one of three things: More of the Same Old Thing, A Radically New Thing, or a Thing that Wouldn’t Make a Difference whether old or new. To chop these positions finely: the first group consisted of apologists—those who believed that the questions proposed by TJP, or their formulation was impertinent, so were happy to declare the question dead at asking; but also of skeptics who had seen the grunts and groans and fissiparation of previous quests and seminars and were skeptical that anything really new would come from another set of scholarly calisthenics. The second group, which might have included me but didn’t, was giddy at the prospect that stalwart scholars were going to blast the timidity of the Jesus Seminar when it came to the edge of the Big Question, and march on to Baghdad, if the analogy between Gulf I and Iraq isn’t an inappropriate one.

I was not the inventor of the preposterous slogan “What if the Most Influential Man in Human History Never Lived?” but I should have been its destroyer. I was however the “creator” of the suggestion that the non-historicity of Jesus is a testable hypothesis and can no longer be ignored and I still believe it. The second group also included, along with people who wanted to ventilate their “myth theories” in a serious forum, many who were interested in the formative power of myth in the creation of social groups and religious movements. The third group, mainly post-Christian and post religious skeptics wondered why in the twenty-first century anyone would worry about such an issue: whatever motives underlay the founding of TJP they were not (surely) as important as such pressing matters as getting God out of the Pledge and getting evolution back into the schools. For two years seriously concerned people wrote, emailed and phoned asking whether I had nothing better to do with my time.

In this space, I want briefly to address each of these positions directly—not to put straight a record that has not yet been written, but to alert both scholars and onlookers that we have everything to gain from confronting our critics as well as our theories. TJP was never construed as a sequel to the Jesus Seminar. (I have now written that sentence eight times in different places.) That has not prevented linkages in the press of the “Mars-is-to-Earth …”variety. It did not begin as a corrective or a replacement to the Jesus Seminar.   I recently wrote that the Seminar asked some of the wrong questions in the wrong order, skated past others, and that to accept any critique of TJP methodology, as it evolves, from a seminar whose own methods were often seen as risible would be–risible. Hence without being dismissive of the Seminar Jeremiahs who’ve been there, done that, TJP cannot proceed without an evaluation of what the Seminar accomplished, failed to accomplish, and the reasons for its performance. While I take the term “scientific” as it is used in the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion both cum grano salis and in its most German sense as “scholarly,” it’s my impression that all of those so far associated with the project take “scholarship” very seriously indeed and want this to be, at the very least, a faith-free process. My colleague April Deconick has recently offered her own superb assessment of the Seminar in a blog-series called “The Jesus Seminar Jesus is Bankrupt” (http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/).

Critique is always a postmortem enterprise, and I believe the post-mortem has begun. From what has been said above, it follows that the other part of the category who see the JP as a rehash of the Seminar, the apologists, need to look again. There are certainly associates who hold to a “myth theory,” and there are others who hold to a non-super-naturalist or radical historicist position. There are textualists who believe that a careful and positivistic reading of canonical sources will provide more information than a “fuller” view of Christian origins, and others who believe that there is only a notional difference between what canonical and non-canonical sources have to offer. There are advocates of Matthew Black’s famous view that we need to get behind the text to an Aramaic context to understand what it going on in the translations (if that’s what they are) we possess, and others who think a Galilean folk hero has been inserted into a Greek myth. Obviously that degree of non-unanimity is discomfiting to those who think the New Testament is self-authenticating text without context, but it can hardly be seen as business as usual to invite a free and open discussion of these positions knowing that they cannot all be right.

As to the idea that TJP is “radically new,” let me be the first to say calm down. There has been nothing “radically”—that is, theological-foundation-shatteringly—new in this area since Strauss, and almost no one reads Strauss anymore. Even if they did he’s virtually impenetrable without reading the heroic Hegel first. There has been, to be sure, a great deal of jockeying to say something radically new, as though Jesus-research is no different from looking for a new isotope.  At a certain point in contemporary New Testament scholarship the quest to be the puzzle-solver largely replaced the quest for the historical Jesus—another caution we can take from the Seminar. In a culture of celebrity, the slow pace of scholarship is painful; in a dozen interviews about TJP, the first question, almost without fail, is “What are you people trying to prove?” or “What’s the conclusion?” Presumably, if I had said that we had stumbled on impressive information that, prior to his ascension Jesus gave to James the instructions for making a camera, and that we now had photographic proof of the event, they would have hung up. But if I say that new papyrus discoveries, combined with some pretty impressive canonical clues, substantiate the claim that the followers of Jesus were a first century gay alliance, they become more interested. Reporters will call you back.

As a matter of fact, TJP needs to be new, but new also in eschewing sensationalism and exhibiting a certain lack of intellectual concupiscence as we trudge on. It is not enough to be “non-theological” since what is not theological is not eo ipso “right”; the Project also needs to be bold enough to say that some conclusions will be out of its reach, either for lack of evidence or lack of measurement. Again, the analogy is the sciences. There is nothing about the world of the twentieth century (save global warming) that is physically different from the world of Thomas Aquinas’s day. Our mode of describing the same things about that world has changed dramatically, however, and with it our understanding of how life evolved and human beings assumed their place on the planet. There is nothing in the nature of old evidence that cannot provide better understanding if the right methods of description are developed. TJP, if it is new, will be new to that extent.

And finally to the indifferent, the skeptics-with-portfolio (as distinct from the “detractors” in group one). The question “What does it matter?” is a fair question. It’s a sort of distaff to the view that Jesus matters as a self-evident proposition—matters to the life of faith, to the heart, or, as a moral teacher, to our conduct—not just the necessary presupposition of the movement that bears his title, but as the centerpiece to the religious life. The slogan “What if [he] had never lived” was somewhat bluffly and mistakenly directed at them, as though the sole legitimating reason for the Project is to disabuse religious men and women of their beliefs. Yet why would a Jesus who “did not exist” be of more value to unbelievers than a Jesus who existed in the “ordinary” way and died in an ordinary way? And why would religious folk be troubled by any conclusion reached by any group with such a siloistic objective? That Jesus matters in one sense is a statement of faith, therefore he cannot matter historically anymore than any other event can matter. It is not legitimate to read back into his original story, whatever that may have been and however it may have evolved, a significance that was three hundred years in the canonical and doctrinal making and millennia in the revising. It seems to me that women and men who have decided that most historical questions have no bearing on the meaning and purpose of life are dead right. That disjunct will have to be acknowledged and almost all scholars do acknowledge it today. But to say that “Jesus does not matter” is a different sort of statement and strikes me as immensely uncurious if not downright tiresome. Does it mean that the question itself is uninteresting because the asker has decided that religion, being bogus anyway, causes us to indulge in inherently silly pastimes? Or does it mean that the question lacks what Aristotle called “Magnitude”—greatness—as might be claimed, for example, for the question of the origins of the universe, or human life, or language? I have to say that people who have asked me the question seem shocked when I ask them why they are asking it. As if to say, “You seem like an intelligent man; why don’t you know the answer yourself?” But it seems to me that intellectual curiosity cuts in two ways, and that people need to be able to say why they are bored by something as much as why they are intrigued by it. As you may gather, from this little discursus, my sense is that the people in group three are displaying hostility rather than boredom. I remember telling my mother once that I was working on a research paper on the history of Christian marriage and had become fascinated with how relatively late the Church decided to ecclesize nuptial arrangements. Her immediate “Catholic” response was that such inquiries are better left to bachelors and maidens and she hoped that I wouldn’t publish the paper. That kind of hostility.

As to magnitude, I think it has to be said that the “big questions” are always etiological and hence always to a certain extent historical; where things come from matters, and without subscribing to historicist or originalist positions, I would find it odd to maintain that the origins of a religion—any religion—are not at least as deserving of investigation as the origins of the English language or the trans-Asian migrations of the early Americans. Some things are worth knowing not because they are matters of fact or de coeur, but because they have achieved magnitude by assent or influence. I would regard it as more informative to know why the “question” of Jesus is not interesting than to explain its interest. And so to “knowledge.”

TJP might begin where Descartes did in 1637 with the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason. Those who have kept their sophomore philosophy anthology on the shelf will remember that Descartes had professed “perfect confidence” in the ability of reason to achieve knowledge. His own “project” involved a preparation which he compared to the architectural destruction of a whole town. Towns, he recalled, had not developed “rationally” but in fits and starts creating a chaos of a landscape. This he compared to the state of knowledge in the seventeenth century, heavily dependent on everything that had come before, when nothing that had come before achieved the systematic standard he set for himself. “We must begin,” he wrote, by “deliberately renouncing all of the firmly held but questionable beliefs we have acquired through experience and education.” And as we know, while Descartes was not occupied with the question of scripture, having learned a thing or two from Galileo’s fate, he was immensely interested in the question of God.

No one who lives in a post-Enlightenment and postmodern world can believe that Descartes fulfilled even his own hubristic agenda, but he did provide a “method” that TJP might consider (and is considering) as it moves along. In his seminal Book III, the philosopher proposes that a proper investigation should always include four parts:

1. “To accept as true what is indubitable.” That is to say, ascertain to the extent possible what is factual, and what is based only on the prestige of authority. This requires a method within the method. No other field of investigation is so authority-laden as Jesus-research. Thus the question has to be, ‘what sort of authority is it and does it have bearing on the kind of investigation TJP wants to be?’ Do scholars in Christian origins regard anything beyond the mere fact of early Christian literature and aspects of its context as “indubitable”?

2. “Divide every question into manageable parts.” This seems self-evident, but it has not been the pattern of previous investigations. Neither the question “Did Jesus exist?” nor “What did he ‘really’ say?” was manageable. Formulating the sub-questions and prior questions is likely to be a painstaking business. If it is not done systematically and in a free and open debate, the Project may as well disband now.

3. “Begin with the simplest issues and ascend to the more complex.” It seems to me that this is the one step we have a grip on—the early reports came from communities. Their historicity cannot be doubted. That is a simple fact. These communities were called into existence by an event or sequence of events, the precise nature of which scholarship has spent over two centuries trying to reconstruct. I do not think those reconstructions, from the most radical to the most “traditional,” can escape our scrutiny. The road from simplicity to complexity cannot be shortcut by an appeal to the sanctity of consensus. The scientific nature of TJP is on trial precisely at this point; can we be as iconoclastic and skeptical as the Cartesian method requires us to be or do we look for safe havens in the competing correctnesses of our educational or political investments?

4. “Review the process consistently, so that the objectives of the process (the “argument”) is always in view.” The “argument,” it follows, should not be a conclusion, a favorite hypothesis, an agenda. What Virgil says of “Rumour” (Aeneid, IV, 173) can be applied here to “Reputation.” It flies aloft, moves with a strength of its own—threatens every collaboration, and it threatens this one. The ability to keep an objective in view derives from the successful execution of steps one through three. The Seminar evoked attrition because it lost sight of an objective and became a cloud of unknowing rather than a cloud of witnesses. It is important that TJP does not become a sounding board for private or exotic fantasies about Who Jesus Really Was

In short, TJP must not become an opportunity for its members to proselytize others to their point of view. Above all, Descartes understood the importance of deconstruction, landscape, and using precise measures for “what is known.” His naïve faith in certainty comes to us from a different world, with a different sense of “measurability” and expectation of success. But I submit the process still has on its side simplicity and intellectual candor, and that is what I personally would like TJP to display.