The Jesus of History and The Future of Faith
Responses and Comments

Issue #6 of DIALOGOS -- continued

Updated 4/14/99

Reader's Comments and Responses

Our first set of responses come from Eric Sotnak, a philosopher at the University of Akron (Ohio), who has also graciously volunteered to be an editorial consultant to DIALOGOS.

Regarding the appeal to the "metahistorical" or "existential" truth, there seems to me to be a not inconsiderable problem here, viz., are there really any claims whose truth has this kind of meta- historical status? In virtue of what, specifically? That is, it seems that insofar as one is rationally justified in accepting a claim as true, one either requires evidence for the truth of that claim, or one must be in such a situation that one is somehow unable to interpret one's experience in a way other than supporting that claim. Now it is perfectly possible to step outside of criteria of pragmatic justification, and perhaps this is what happens when one takes the existential approach. As I interpret Kierkegaard, for instance, this is the sort of position he takes -- it is impossible to reason oneself into Christianity. Instead, one adopts a religious (Christian) world- view by a leap of faith which is not motivated by dispassionate rational justification, but rather by an attempt to endow one's life with a significance that is not perceived, but is rather hoped-for. Something like this also seems to be at work in the pragmatic justification of religious belief found in William James.

As to the distinction between faith and belief, this distinction seems exactly right to me. However, one might ask whether or not faith is warranted. That is, granted that faith is unconditional trust, it still is legitimate to ask whether or not unconditional trust is warranted relative to one's situation... as when one plays the "Trust Game" where one person stands with his/her eyes closed and falls backwards, trusting another to catch him/her. But would you be warranted in placing your trust in me if you were unsure whether or not I was (and perhaps ever had been) in the same room with you? What if my invitation to play was extended to you over the telephone, or in a letter? Suppose it came by letter and I asked you to fall backwards at precisely 12:00 noon, Eastern Standard Time, on January 1, 2000. What should you do if you knew that the letter was not written by me, but rather by some people who claimed to know me? Suppose further more that you know the letter was written some 2000 years ago and you were aware of some rumors that I had died, even though other rumors circulate that I have come back from the dead, etc. So it seems that the claim that faith as unconditional trust can be entirely abstracted from epistemic considerations and that may not seem right to many people. ("Epistemic" -- having to do with "epistemology" which according to Webster's New International Unabridged Dictionary " [is] the theory or science that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of knowledge." Ed.)

Here again one might appeal to Kierkegaardian or Jamesian considerations; acknowledging the inadequacy of the epistemic situation to provide sufficient warrant for faith, but justifying faith by existential or pragmatic considerations. Notice, however, that if we take this route, it will not be legitimate to explain these existential considerations by appeal to (or in terms of) faith, for faith presupposes such considerations.

Finally, the question as to whether or not Jesus himself was in serious error (regarding the end of the world) raises the epistemic problem in another way, for if we are to take the approach that Jesus provides any sort of a model for us at all, do we not need some assurance that our understanding of what Jesus did is historically accurate? Perhaps not. Perhaps it suffices for him to be an ideal figure (like the figure of the Buddha or of the bodhisattva ideal within the Buddhist tradition). In the ideal-model view, it doesn't matter whether or not our model is historically accurate. What matters instead is what the model can do for us. However, one might object that whether or not it is prudent to adopt a model depends, to a considerable extent, on whether or not we are justified in believing that adopting/emulating the model is really likely to produce the hoped for results.

Our second set of comments comes from Mahlon H. Smith, a member of the "Jesus Seminar":

Kropf's reflections on the relevance of the renewed quest of the historical Jesus to the future of faith are among the most balanced & insightful comments on this topic in any publication (electronic or print). He is particularly on target when he concludes that the current Christian faith crisis has the POTENTIAL for a recovery of the faith OF (rather than IN) Jesus. But that all depends on whether people are ready to abandon an IDEAL image of Jesus for the REAL THING.

As an ordained minister (United Methodist) & biblical scholar I cannot disagree more with Prof. Sotnak's seemingly tolerant suggestion that it does not matter whether our image of Jesus is accurate, so long as it is an ideal model that we can believe & emulate. The history of Christianity is strewn with the carnage of Jews, Muslims, & dissenters of any stripe produced by inaccurate "ideal" models of Jesus. And misrepresentations of Jesus' message & behavior continue to be used by demagogues posing as pious pastors to mislead,torment, subjugate, fleece or otherwise abuse those who "believe in" Jesus. The only truly "Christian" antidote to this situation is to train people to distinguish the authentic voice & behavior of that radical Galilean Jew, Yeshu bar Yosef of Nazareth (John 1:45), from the ideals & aspirations that followers have projected upon him for almost two millennia.We can trust the historical accuracy of the gospels on at least one point: from the first, people tried to tailor Jesus to fit ready-made models (John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophet like Moses, the messianic son of David, the apocalyptic son of Man, the eschatological Judge, the eternal & only Son of God). These models helped spread the name of Jesus. But they blinded & deafened people to what the real historical person behind that name actually said & did. It is the latter that really deserves to be believed & emulated.

Everyone who wants to know a real son of God should listen to the liberal Jew who said "ANY ONE who does my Father's will is my relative" (Matt 12:50) not to Gentile bigots who claim Jews who do not accept a particular "ideal" image of Jesus do not know the Father. More than two centuries ago, when the old quest of the historical Jesus was just starting, J.G. von Herder said: "The so-called religion ABOUT Jesus inevitably has to change with the passage of time into a religion OF Jesus & do this imperceptibly & irresistibly. His God, our God! His Father, our Father!" But for this to happen people have to be clear about how Jesus himself portrayed God. Without rigorous historical analysis, it is very easy to substitute our own theological views for those of Jesus.

As a charter member of the Jesus Seminar I am genuinely pleased with Kropf's generally positive assessment of the potential of our work for renewing the faith OF Jesus. For this is what has really prompted most of the Seminar Fellows to devote the past 12 years to this project. I would just like to correct some misimpressions of the Seminar at points in Kropf's essay. To describe us as "historicists" is [itself] a gross "category mistake." None of us is "trying to establish faith on the basis of first level historical-critical scholarship." Faith is an absolute; it is an existential response to something beyond history. But when that faith is qualified as "Christian"---whether it is faith IN or faith OF Jesus---it is automatically historicized. For anyone who has recited a traditional Christian creed with his/her mind as well as mouth, it is of utmost importance to distinguish the historical Jesus from an ideal Bodhisattva. For it is the Jesus who was really "crucified under Pontius Pilate" that Christians call Lord. If calling Jesus "Lord" is not just a charade, it is important to distinguish the voice of THAT Jesus from even the most inspired scriptural ideal. Thus, for most members of the Jesus Seminar the historical quest is the inevitable consequence of faith rather than its basis.

There is, of course, some hermeneutical circularity in this. But historical criticism is the measure that keeps faith honest. If all faith is a leap, historical criticism is what insures that there is something solid to land on.

Mahlon H. Smith
Religion Department
Rutgers University

The next set of comments come from Australia:

I consider that the sensitive history of that period is still being kept quiet from the general Christian populace at large as it could be too politically embarrassing for the establishment of all forms of Christendom to handle. Your presentation of 5/6/97 avoids mention of the turmoil of the time, the anti-Roman resistance movements, the division within Judaism and the part Jesus had in it.- The 'gentle' Jesus concept of the past is no longer accepted. His status and that of his brother, as heirs to the David throne is ignored. The status of Mary Magdelene as his companion or consort as outlined in the Gospel of Philip is ignored as are other statements from that gospel; and why it in particular was omitted from the Bible etc. etc., all are ignored.

Is it that this is really too hot to handle and could do the very foundations of Christianty irreparable harm, that this is ignored?... But the real truth in the Gospels and Acts and Revelations, buried in secreted double meanings by the "pescher" technique, would ,if revealed, simplify things and give Christianity a valid basis for its faith, instead of its persistence of requiring belief in pious myths. The contradictions and inconsistencies which currently prevail serve only to confuse and turn potential members away unless the have been heavily indoctrinated as a children.

Ken Moncrieff,

Certainly there will much to be gained in further historical and sociological research into the period that was most formative of the Christian movement. However, one of the strengths of the approach taken by the "Jesus Seminar" is that a very wide variety of the latest opinions can be surveyed and evaluated by a whole body of accredited scholars of ALL backgrounds, ranging from committed biblical to more or less "agnostic" specialists in the field. The disadvantage, however, is that opinions such as those expressed above may not always fare so well when advanced as the "THE" key to understanding the whole situation be studied.

Much the same goes for plugging of this or that particular ancient manuscript among the surprisingly large number of documents proporting to be the real key to the truth. The best example of this is the advancement of the Gospel of Thomas (the fifth "gospel" in the The Five Gospels volume published by the seminar -- Polebridge/ Macmillan 1993). This ancient text has been promoted by one of the seminar members, John Dominic Crossan of Loyola University, Chicago, as being of crucial value in understanding the true Jesus of history. Most other scholars, while admitting its importance as throwing some light on the history of the various "sayings of Jesus" as found in the New Testament, are considerably less impressed with its value for telling anything significant about the actual Jesus of history. Quite the contrary, this "fifth gospel" is almost universally seen by scholars as being an early gnostic sectarian revision of what came to be understood as orthodox Christianity. In the eyes of the majority of serious historians, the other so-called hidden "gospels", "acts" and "epistles" fare even less well as being of significant historical value.

In contrast, however fanciful some parts of the four "canonical" gosples may appear to modern readers, they are amazingly sober documents compared to much of the rest of the religious literature of the period, or even in comparison to some of our "New Age" spiritualities and even a few recent biblical scholars, one of whom (back in the hippie era of the 1960s) even went so far out as to suggest that early Christianity really was an elaborate disguise of a mid-eastern sacred mushroom cult! (RWK, ed.)

Further comments:

I assume [from remarks in the lead essay] that you mean Jesus' resurrection cannot be proven. I agree. But then you go on to write about "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." After having been so critical for the first two third of your article (I do not blame you on that), you quickly assume (from what?) that Jesus believed in resurrection of the dead, possibly his future own. What reliable evidence do you have on this?

In Mark's gospel (the earliest one and the only one disclosed to Christians who heard eyewitnesses), Jesus is not teaching about the subject. His alleged beliefs on this issue are only implied or stated when he is answering questions (Mk10:17-25,12:18-27). And many scholars reject the authenticity of Jesus predicting his own resurrection in Mk8:31,9:31,10:34 and the mini apocalypse. And then, according to your basic proposition: I can claim (have faith) I will resurrect, then I die. No one can prove I did resurrect. So what then?

Bernard Muller

I would certainly agree that is all probability Jesus did not actually predict his own resurrection within three days and that the passages that seem to give this impression are retrospective interpretations belonging to the second-level "kergmatic" stage of the the tradition. However, it seems to be stretching the point considerably to conclude on that account that therefore Jesus himself did not believe in the possibility of his own resurrection. Indeed this seems hardly likely when most scholars now see Jesus (contary to the other impressions given by the gospels) as actually having been part of the pharisaic revival in which belief in the resurrection of the dead played a significant role. Besides that, remove some kind of promise in an after-life, and can anyone make much sense of the preaching of Jesus? Or, given the traditional Hebraic anthropology of the time, how could this faith be expressed in terms other than belief in a future resurrection of some sort?

As for the assertion that Mark's gospel is the only one that can be claimed to have been written as result of the testimony of eyewitnesses, the whole issue is considerably more complicated than that. All of the four (or even five) Gospels can lay claim to having passages that scholars can unanimously attribute to Jesus. But on the other hand, all of them contain material of the second and third level or stage of tradition as well. One of the major tasks of professional New Testament scholars has been to sort all this out.

But to conclude from all this that the early Christian conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead was some kind of an imposition of pagan myth upon the teachings of Jesus would seem to be leaping to a conclusion that would make the rise of Christianity even less probable -- given what was most fashionable in the non-hebraic world (note the reaction to Paul's preaching of the resurrection in Acts 17:23) than it was. Nevertheless -- in response to Muller's final question -- I would like to again stress the difference between faith or a loving trust in God and the belief that this faith will be rewarded in some particular way, such as an afterlife made specifically possible by means of something called "resurrection". (See also Dialogos issue # 12 on "Faith & Belief") Or to put it another way, as echoed in Smith's remarks (above): there is a difference between sharing the faith of Jesus (his overwhelming trust in God, his "Father") and having faith in Christ as a Redeemer or Savior. From this point of view that the latter largely depends on the former, and the key link between the two is "resurrection" -- both Jesus' and ours -- whatever is to be understood by that term. Without that linkage, it would seem, at least as Paul's reasoning (see I Corinthians 15:12f.) Christian faith is in vain. I would also add, however, that without the linkage between our faith and the faith of Jesus himself, Christianity, like any other reglious belief, can turn into ideological fanaticism. But I would also urge readers to have a look at Muller's website and judge for themselves: see! mullertb/). (RWK, ed.)

Recently, we have added links to two comparative book reviews in which a book by John Dominic Crossan -- one of the more controversial principals of "the Jesus Seminar" is discussed. The first of these reviews concerns Crossan's The Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant as compared to Joseph P. Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. The second link is to a review where Crossan's more recent book , The Birth of Christianity, is compared to Charlotte Allen's The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.

Jim Harrison poses some thoughtful questions:

Would not historians contrast the life, ministry, death and resurrection/ascension of Jesus with other mythological motifs and genre of First Century Hellenistic world in which it was born. Readings in the Christian scripture reveals two Jesuses.

On the one hand, it reveals a Jesus of First Century Judaism. This Jesus is shown interacting with other Jews of his day. The confrontations, sayings, statements and events coincide with Jewish religio/political figures and cultural-Hebrew scriptural foundations that have been proven existed at that time.

On the other hand, the authors of the Christian scripture reveal a Jesus looking very much like the cult-gods that were rife in his lifetime. Of interest to the historian and Christian alike, would be the Great Mother motif of Rhea/Cybele. Also the similarities of Mithras' birth complete with star, magi, shepherds, etc. The changing of water into wine by the priests of the Dionysus cult, and the death and resurrection of Attis. Resurrection was so common in the First Century that even Agrippa Postumus' slave could let his hair/beard grow and claim to be Agrippa resurrected. The port city of Ostia was so thrilled by this event that they partied in the streets. Finally, however, the slave was found out and put to death in Rome.

Once the faithful in the pews begin to compare First Century Hellenism with Christian scripture will the unconditional faith or trust in Christ's faith and trust in God be enough to bring a share of divine into this mortal life?    Jim Harrison

Some editorial response:
Harrison (who tells me that he is not, alas, the famous Michigan novelist) confronts us with the fact that Jesus, or at least what many early Christians thought about him, is perhaps not all that unique. But is this really surprising, considering that the authors of the Gospels and missionaries such as Paul sought to present him in the light of the language and concepts of their day? Hence the Jesus of Mark (the divine wonder-worker), the Jesus of Luke (the "divinely- human" , the so-called "theos-aner"), Matthew (the Jewish prophet & messiah) each differ in their own way. And as for the Jesus of John's Gospel, who can doubt that here we have a very different picture from even the first three?

Personally, it has always seemed to me quite logical that if Jesus was God's intended self-revelation to the human race, necessarily located in a specific place and time, one cannot avoid the "scandal of particularity" and all the problems (language, mentalities, etc.) that come with it. A classical example here is the story of Jesus' virginal conception and birth. Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) has pointed out how common this theme is -- and given the human archetypical thinking regarding divine self-manifestation and/or incarnation. So how we should expect that this would not be the case. The question then becomes, would God in fact conformed to human expectations or not? Or are we simply dealing here with a literary convention of sorts?

The same goes for the theme of "resurrection". That belief in or expectation of the return of the dead to life was widespread in certain quarters or segments of society at the time goes without saying. But whether or not Jesus actually did rise (as apart from the various myths or stories told about other people) is another question. In this latter case would be, or at least it seems to me, rather difficult to explain the astounding spread of Christianity unless something rather unusual in fact had occurred that had convinced Jesus' disciples that the promise of eternal life was something more than just a pious wish.

However, that being said, I don't think that strictly speaking, any of this can ever be "proved" to the satisfaction of those who want to escape the real risk involved in faith. Most "believers"-- as well as most unbelievers -- seek to avoid that risk at all cost. As to whether or not accepting that risk in imitation of Jesus would be enough to bring us to divine life, well, I guess that is part of the risk -- isn't it?   Maybe this is the place to initiate a discussion of Pascal's famous "wager", or if not here, certainly in conjunction with Dialogos #12.
(R.W.Kropf, ed.)

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