The Jesus of History and The Future of Faith

Issue #6 of DIALOGOS:
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology

First posted June 5, 1997. Updated, Jan 25, 1998.


Among the "sciences" which must be taken seriously today is the study of history. An inexact science to be sure, yet with its foundations in archeology, archival research, and a host of other related disciplines, many of which were practically unknown until modern times, the role of the historian has become increasingly critical in many fields, not the least of which is religion. For Christianity, in particular, which stakes its claims on the facticity of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the verdict of history seems crucial in a way that seems to go beyond the requirements of any other of the world's religious faiths. Hence the following article which was written in the spring of 1996 and which after further editing is represented below. DIALOGOS invites your comments.

The Jesus of History and the Future of Faith

Perhaps there were periods like this before, but 1996 was surely a banner year in terms of the number of articles appearing in the popular media devoted to the historical truth of the Bible, the life and teachings of Jesus, and the belief in his resurrection, and even the personalities of the writers and experts involved in this debate. Maybe it is one of those proverbial "signs of the times", but it seems to me that the Christian world is undergoing more than ever before a crisis of faith.

The phenomenon itself is hardly new. In its present form, it goes back at least several centuries to Reimarus, the German scholar who, imbued with the growing sense of historical perspective that was sweeping much of European thinking, made the first tentative steps toward separating "the Jesus of History" (the figure of Jesus of Nazareth as revealed, as accurately as possible according to the canons of historical scholarship) from the "Christ of Faith" (the Savior, "Son of God", as defined in Christian belief). The effort to separate the two continued for most of the 19th. Century, then was apparently abandoned for awhile -- especially after the great scholar, Albert Schweitzer, concluded the effort was hopeless. Yet the effort was soon to be taken up again in the "New Quest for the Historical Jesus" that has dominated much of 20th. century biblical scholarship and which seems to have even undergone a revival as of late. How can we account for this latest phase of this old debate?

To begin with, there is the vast input of the latest techniques (enhanced by modern technology) in archeology, linguistic, historical, and even sociological analysis. The last of the undeciphered "Dead Sea Scrolls" are finally being reconstructed and translated. And perhaps most of all, scholars both Christian and Jewish, whether believers or skeptics, have brought a renewed enthusiasm and sense of urgency to the task. Perhaps it is part of a renewed interest in the importance of religion in human culture -- whether for good or for ill. In any case, it is safe to say that there has lately been a real rebirth of interest in that figure whose short life has so marked the passage of time these past two-thousand years. Who really was Jesus of Nazareth? How account for nearly a third of humanity's belief that he was, or still is, the definitive self- revelation of God? And if he was (or still remains) that, at least for those who call themselves "Christians", how are we to account for or justify this belief?

Taking Sides

As has been the case from the beginning of this debate, there are two major camps representing diametrically opposed views. On the one hand we have today's "historicists", who like the periodically assembled members of the so-called "Jesus Seminar", are very much determined to separate the actual words and deeds of the Nazarene from their incrustation of myths, legends, and beliefs in hopes of getting down to the bed-rock of a historically reconstructed picture of Jesus -- one would hope leading to a better grasp of what he really intended to bring to the human race.

At the other end of this spectrum are all those Christians who, agree in taking the scriptures, or at least the four Gospels in their "received" form, as divinely inspired, and hence as equally reliable, in all aspects, as the foundation for Christian faith. Fundamentalists and other "evangelicals" may differ from traditionalists in claiming that somehow the truth of the scriptures is independent of the tradition or handing-on process that brought them to us in the first place, but they seem united with the traditionalists in believing that once given to us, these scriptures are an inerrant and or infallible guide. For such as these, the idea that these core documents, like any ancient writings, should be scrutinized according to the rules of historical-critical scholarship seems not only impertinent, but highly dangerous to the faith.

One cannot help wonder if there can be a middle ground, a "third way" between these two extremes, even a compromise of sorts. Can there be, on the one hand, an accurate historical reconstruction of the Jesus of history that serves, at the same time, as a reliable foundation for the Christ of Faith? We might hope so, and judging from all the serious New Testament scholarship emanating from the pens (or word- processors) of scholars identified with the "mainline' churches, both Catholic and Protestant, apparently these experts think so too. But the problem still remains: how much scaling back the claims of historical accuracy can take place before credibility is fatally compromised? For example, if one ends up, as did Schweitzer, by concluding that whatever else he may have done, the historical Jesus of Nazareth really was an eschatological prophet who forecasted an immediate or immanent end of the world, then what else in Jesus' teachings can be taken seriously? How can someone who was so obviously wrong about that be trusted to have been correct about everything else? Or even if one holds, with the new questers of the "Jesus Seminar", that this mistaken apocalypticism was the product not of Jesus but of his followers, one is still faced with the problem of which parts of the scriptures to take as a foundation for faith.

Levels of Tradition?

As if in answer to this dilemma, the Vatican's own Biblical Commission some years ago recommended an approach that distinguishes between three levels or stages of tradition that combined to form the Gospels as they now exist. The first level or stage consists of the remembrance or recovery of the actual words and deeds of Jesus -- the goal of much of today's scholarship. The second level consists of the proclamation of the "Good News", the "kerygma" or saving message that forms the core or essence of Christian belief -- the most central of these being the belief in the Resurrection of Christ. Finally, there exists a third level reflecting the particular writer's (or school of writers') socio-cultural and theological outlook -- for example, the very obvious attempt by the compilers of the Gospel According to Matthew (at least in its present form) to show that Jesus was the Messiah by means of their particular readings of certain passages deriving from the Hebrew scriptures.

As reasonable as this approach appears, however, it has one serious drawback. How can we distinguish, in any unanimous way, to what level or stage this or that particular passage (or even a whole book, like John's Gospel) belongs? Do we leave it to a vote among scholars (which is what the whole "Jesus Seminar" is about), the decisions of a Biblical Commission, or to just the "gut feelings" of believers? Is there, in some sense, a kind of recognizable criterion by which we might be led? Otherwise, we seem left with the same dilemma: how much in the Gospels is trustworthy as history and thus as a foundation for Christian belief? If so, then do we not end being caught up, like so many of the traditionalists and fundamentalists, in a circular argument where the promise of the Holy Spirit is used to justify the claim that all scripture -- including those parts that promise the Holy Spirit -- is inspired? Or else, like the Pentecostalists, feeling that Holy Spirit is already guiding us, do we not we end up claiming divine authority for whatever other "inspiration" passes through our minds?

However, there may be a better way out of all of this. The kerygmatic core of the Gospel must be seen as operating on quite another level than either the one sought by historical-critical scholarship or that which depends on theological elaboration and or which reflects literary form. This kerygmatic meaning is primarily neither historical nor metaphysical (or even theological) in content. Instead, (as the philosopher Berdayev claimed about the Resurrection) it is "meta- historical" -- or if you will, is primarily "existential" in content. As such, it is a truth that transcends all other categories of time and existence, depending primarily on one's own personal commitment or relationship to the ultimate. Thus, whatever it was that happened to Jesus after his death and became the source of a whole new faith -- the growth of which is a phenomenon that no historian can deny -- yet that core "metahistorical" reality is itself something remaining accessible to faith alone.

But if that is the case, must not the resurrection of Jesus be in some way itself the product of faith? For those who are closed to the possibility of faith -- which as we will see, is something quite distinct from a particular set of beliefs -- there can not only be no objective proof of Jesus having risen from the dead, but the very possibility is itself unthinkable. Thus, in contrast to the first level perspective, even if the empty tomb stories are true, and the zeal of the disciples is unexplainable in any other terms, there still can be no historical "proof" of the Resurrection. Trying to establish the validity of faith on the basis of first level historical-critical scholarship is what can be called a "category mistake", or in other words, it is simply to be barking up the wrong tree.

Likewise, on the other hand, would be the mistake of trying to found faith on the third-level or stage of the Gospel tradition, that of theological expression or beliefs. To begin, it would certainly seem that the use of such terms as "Christ", the "Son of God", should be read first of all as third level doxological statements proclaiming the status of Jesus who is "raised" (by God the Father). Only later, almost as a second sub-stage within this final level of tradition, did these statements become metaphysical statements defining his ontological nature and in light of which it is Jesus himself who "rises", by his own divine power, from the dead. In addition, might not the fact that these kind of metaphysical statements are cast primarily in terms of pre-existence or atemporality, or else in terms of an eternity yet to be fully realized, be seen as a clue of their intent? So too, we should note the striking difference of approaches to achieve the same end, for example, the Pauline and Johannine use of personified Wisdom recast in Stoic and even Platonic philosophical terms, as compared to the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives, no matter how much they have been joined together in Christian doctrine. Aside from this, even if these latter are accepted as inspired statements of belief, we must be on our guard lest we confuse our agreement with them (however they be understood) as the essence of faith.

Faith vs. Belief(s)

There is little doubt that for those who are unused to such distinctions, even if only hinted by such bastions of tradition as the Vatican, such hair-splitting in itself can precipitate a crisis of faith. But religion is not alone in facing such a crisis. Writing in the 1930s about the "foundational crises" -- today we'd call them "paradigm shifts" -- undergone by the various sciences (just think of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, for instance) the philosopher Martin Heidegger observed, after commenting on the effect of modern historical consciousness on contemporary thought, that theology was also undergoing its own crisis. This crisis is one in which theology is, according to Heidegger, "slowly beginning to understand again Luther's insight that its system of dogma rests on a 'foundation' that does not stem from a questioning in which faith is primary and whose conceptual apparatus is not only insufficient for the range of problems in theology but rather covers them up and distorts them." (From Time and Being, emphasis mine.)

What Luther stumbled upon, and what I think Heidegger was referring to, can be understood in light of the analysis provided by Wilfred C. Smith's (Faith and Belief, Princeton Univ. Press 1979) distinction between faith (in its biblical sense of a loving trust in God) and belief (in the sense of the mind's assent to a set of doctrines or "beliefs"). Although closely connected in our minds, in the end there is a world of difference between the two. The first has to do with our unconditional sense of trust. The other, with its incessant demand for "proofs" (be they signs, miracles, or intellectual arguments) may often be seen as an attempt to articulate faith but often, in terms of faith's inner dynamic, ends up being the very opposite of faith. (For more on this important distinction, see DiaLogos Issue #12.)

What Rudolph Bultmann, foremost among those who turned aside from the "quest for the historical Jesus" (after Schweitzer's giving up the task as hopeless) was doing, by way of his systematic attempt to "demythologize" the scriptures, was to lay the groundwork for a return to the kind of existential commitment of faith that Heidegger seems to have described. Unfortunately, Bultmann's critics, of whom there are still many, only saw the first part of his agenda and largely have overlooked the rest.

Ironically, and perhaps just as unconsciously, the new questers carry on the task in a way that Bultmann never saw possible, because when all is said and done, the results of this new quest will be not unlike that of the old -- an impasse of sorts. We will end up with as accurate a picture of Jesus of Nazareth as can ever be known and yet it, in itself, will never be enough to ground "faith" -- particularly as it is misunderstood by the traditionalists and, oddly enough, even by the fundamentalists who have, in their unending quest for rock-bottom certainty, seem to forgotten what faith is all about.

The Faith of Jesus

So what then? Will this renewed quest for the "Jesus of History" end up destroying the "Christ of Faith"? Perhaps so, at least in the estimation of some. But this need not be so, providing we grasp the crucial "missing link" that binds the two poles -- which is the faith of Jesus himself. In other words, it is Jesus' own trust or "faith" in his Father, expressed in his own belief in the resurrection of the dead that is the existential foundation of the Christian belief that death is not the end. From this perspective Christian faith is not so much a belief in the historical accuracy of the stories relating Christ's post-resurrection appearances as it is a share in the self-transforming experience born from confidence (literally a faith lived in union with) the death-defying faith of Jesus himself.

Unfortunately, in the development of Christian teaching, this point seems to have been lost rather early on. Nevertheless, a remnant of it can still be found as late as the Epistle to the Hebrews, where despite this document's clear proclamation of Christ's divinity, Jesus is nevertheless characterized (in 12:2) both as our "leader" (archegon in Greek -- usually translated, though inaccurately in view of the context, as "author") as well as the "finisher" (teleioten) in what is described through much of the epistle as a contest or ordeal of faith.

Instead, in its hurry to divinize the figure of Jesus, Christianity seems to have, almost from the start, begun to dehumanize him, to the extent that despite the insistence of the early theologians that Jesus possessed a complete human nature (or as they were wont to say "What was not assumed was not redeemed") the figure of the nearly wholly divine Christ in the end prevailed, so much so that by the early 5th. century, Augustine was able to reprimand a lesser theologian who dared speak of Jesus's own faith in God being tempted, as being seriously mistaken, and nary a word was raised in his defense.

That shortly after, in 451, the Council of Chalcedon did define Jesus as having a complete human nature as well as a fully divine one seems to have not changed the judgement on our hapless heretic. Mainstream Christianity, from that time forward began to be, despite its best intentions and definitions to the contrary, technically "monophysite". The human Jesus was all but completely swallowed up by the divine Christ for whom a faith that may have included specific beliefs of any sort was a virtual impossibility because, of course, according to such views, he would have already known all the answers.

In the face of all of this, it would seem that instead of ranting and railing about the deconstruction of the divine Christ, we should be applauding the work of The Jesus Seminar and the other scholars, some of whom claim to be more conservative, but really aren't all that different from the rest, for doing their level best. Sure, no doubt most of them have their own special biases. Who on earth doesn't? But what I think will emerge ever more clearly out of this whole movement is, in the end, a much more balanced view of Jesus, and most of all a portrait of Jesus who as a paragon of faith who committed himself unreservedly to carrying out God's will as he understood it and who called others to follow in the same path of total commitment and trust in God. And if so, this will happen regardless of our uncertainty over the time-table of ultimate events or our admission that Jesus' own particular estimate may have been mistaken -- a long-accepted "liberal" view that, paradoxically, the Jesus Seminar categorically denies.

Yet aside from this and his belief in angels and most of all, his belief in the resurrection of the dead, what other doctrines or dogmas did Jesus teach that marked him as any different from the rest of Jews? Nothing really, than a call to universal love and service to God and our fellow human beings in supreme confidence in the face of suffering, that in God we all shall live.

Does all this mean that the follower of Jesus will have to give up his or her belief in the divinity of Christ? No doubt some will, but that need not necessarily follow. Granted that it is difficult to fit the two pictures together -- was it any easier for the theologians at Chalcedon? And no doubt this "christological problem" will keep us theologians busily, if not gainfully, occupied till kingdom come. (More on this in a future issue of DIALOGOS, to be sure.)

Meanwhile, what should characterize the committed follower of Jesus most of all: a trusting faith in God like that of Jesus or a set of formal beliefs about who he really was? I'm not saying that the latter can't follow the former -- as they did and is amply illustrated by that third level of tradition in the Gospels and in the New Testament that grew up almost immediately with the rest. But what I am saying is that until the second kerygmatic level of the tradition is grasped and appropriated into our existence, first of all by a life lived in the pattern of the Jesus of History, a life of loving trust in God in the face of doubt and despair, we almost invariably will end up by missing the whole point, and, in the process, distorting the foundations of Christian faith. It was Christ's own, unconditional faith or trust in God that is the key that ultimately reveals him to be, for us, the Son who through the power of God's Spirit, brings us a share in divine, thus immortal, life

So if nothing else, the new quest for the Jesus of history may bring us back to this necessary fundamental or foundational shift. If it doesn't, then Christianity, the movement that began as a way of hope and salvation through the faith manifested by Jesus, is in deeper trouble than we realized.

(R.W. Kropf, as emended, June 5, 1997)

Note: the author/editor is currently in the process of making his book,
The Faith of Jesus: The Jesus of History and the Stages of Faith, available on the internet.

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