Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Modern Search for the Historical Jesus

Some time ago at a conference we both attended, Robert Crotty gave me the hardcopy ms of a book he’d just written. Its title: The Modern Search for the Historical Jesus. It was later published by HarperCollins in 1996 as The Jesus Question: the Historical Search.

Thoughtful laypeople and Theology 101 students will find it enthralling. I
couldn’t put it down.

Crotty’s aim is to introduce us to the best modern scholarship about ‘who
Jesus really was’ (or ‘might have been’}, put their findings or hypotheses
side by side, and allow us to come to our own conclusions. His chapters
range over scholars from the radical Barbara Thiering to the conservative
John Maier, with Crossan and Borg in between. The material on the
historical, sociological, and manuscript backgrounds to the Gospels I found
particularly helpful.

To whet your appetite, here are some jottings I took as I read. I’ll leave
opinion-formation to you!

* Who is right and who is to decide? The scholars tend to presuppose a great deal of their audiences. The result is uncritical acceptance of unfounded theories and uncritical rejection of well-argued theories (5).

* One of the ‘greats’ in the field of biblical research in the mid-twentieth
century was G E Wright, who wrote that ‘history is the chief medium of
revelation’ (God Who Acts p. 13). Certainly mainstream Buddhists and Muslims do not engage in anything similar as regards their founders…. For
Christians it has become vitally important that Jesus really did exist and
really did do, more or less, what has been said of him. Some regard the
gospels as fully reliable history: any contradictions are harmonized by such
devotees even if it takes a veritable feat of mental gymnastics. Others
maintain that the quest for an historical Jesus is impossible since the
sources are too fragmentary and the faith of the early Christians has
distorted any historical value in the gospels. (7). And disconcertingly the
gap between the historical Jesus and the Jesus worshipped in Christian
churches has grown (8).

* Traditional accounts accepted supernatural elements such as miracles. But this did not sit well with Newtonian science which operated by a mechanical system of cause and effect. And the authority of church teaching has lessened over modern times (16)

* David Strauss (1808-1874) reckoned much of the gospels were ‘myth’ ie.
something that had not actually happened: they might have been broadly
historical fact but were very much embellished by the faith of the early
Christians. Between 1800 and 1900 some 60,000 lives of Jesus were written! (17)

* How do errors arise in ancient manuscripts? Imagine a monastery where
manuscripts are mass-produced with one monk reading the text aloud and
several copyists taking it down. One writes ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’ (nikos); another ‘Death has been swallowed up in conflict’
(neikos). The words nikos and neikos would have sounded the same. Then
further copyists would have continued the mistake… Or a pious scribe
writes in the margin of Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer the comment ‘For thine is
the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever’ which
subsequently another scribe added into the text. (44)

* Jewish high priest/king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) – supported by
Sadducees – slaughtered 6000 people in the Temple courtyard, and later had 800 Pharisees crucified, forced to watch as their wives and children were slaughtered in front of them (68)

* Jesus (Matthew 5:43): ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love
your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, “Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you’. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible speak of hating enemies. However Qumran’s Community Rule exhorted the monks to ‘hate all the sons of darkness’ and ‘to hate everyone whom God has rejected.’ (85)

* Re the Dead Sea Scrolls: There is no reason and no evidence to suggest
that there was ever a ‘Vatican Plot’ to stifle research into the scrolls.
Any suggested conspiracy theory is ludicrous. (86).

* Two peasant farmers in upper Egypt – Nag Hammadi – discovered some ancient texts. But some were lost forever, because the mother used some of the papyrus sheets as fire-starters! (91)

* Jesus was a carpenter (‘tekton’). The tekton in first century Galilee
would have been marginalized, a step down from a subsistence farmer who
still had land. A tekton would have come from a family that had lost its
land (103).


Rowland Croucher

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Harvested from a friend's Facebook quotes:

"Besides Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters." ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"The church is measured by Christ: more Christ, more church; less Christ, less church." ~T. Austin Sparks

" and I will never be Christians, or servants of the Lord, in real spiritual life and effectiveness beyond the measure of our inward apprehension of the Lord Jesus." ~T. Austin Sparks

"Jesus is either the flesh-and-blood individual who walked and talked, and lived and died, in first-century Palestine, or he is merely a creature of our own imagination, able to be manipulated this way and that." ~N.T. Wright

"It is not only possible, but actually highly likely, that the church has distorted the real Jesus, and needs to repent of this and rediscover who its Lord actually is." ~N.T. Wright

"A spiritual life without prayer is like the Gospel without Christ." ~Henri Nouwen

Shalom/Salaam/Pax! Rowland Croucher

More here...

Thursday, December 31, 2009


Excerpts from an Expository Times article by Rev. Selwyn Dawson (Auckland NZ) December 1975. Google for the full article...


* For some 'the faith' is clearly set out in the Scriptures, as 'containing all things necessary for salvation'. How true - yet how specious. It is rather like saying 'All of Shakespeare is to be found in the Concise Oxford Dictionary'.

* The creeds are not sufficient [either]. There is the great gap in the Apostles' Creed between the Birth and the Passion - which seems to say that the earthly life, teaching and ministry of Jesus are of no account. There is the omission of any ethical implications of belief, the absence of any apparent concern for the world for which Christ died - these make the Apostle's Creed quite inadequate to sum up for a sensitive modern the essence of the Faith... [It's like] interpreting a living, breathing man [Jesus] only in terms of a skeleton. Many an impeccable theology has done this.

* How then can I, a modern man, define the essence of Christianity, without using the traditional terms of creeds fashioned in and for a long vanished age? My answer, however tentative, would go something like this:

The essence of Christianity consists in building one's life upon a living relationship of love, trust and obedience in Jesus Christ in whom the invisible God has chosen to reveal himself to our human race.

If this on its own should seem too individualistic a definition, one must go on to say that:

In doing so, one becomes a part of that living fellowship, the Church, in which Jesus has chosen to manifest himself - and within whose fellowship and testimony, faith is born, and sustained.

* The familiar words of Herbert Butterfield: 'We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm rock, and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds; the principle 'Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted' (Christianity and History, 1950, p. 146).

More articles like this here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

KNOWING JESUS (James Alison)

Knowing Jesus (James Alison) S P C K 1998

What does it mean to 'know Jesus'? Conservative Christians answer with a formula - 'receiving Jesus as your personal Saviour, and witnessing for him in the world', or a dogma (Jesus is God) and/or as an experiential relationship (Alison calls this the 'intimist' approach, from the Spanish 'intimista' - a 'way of being spiritual to do with personal feelings'). Liberal Christians, says Rowan Williams in the forward, 'will dismiss all this as inappropriate, since our relation to Jesus is a pervasive (but rather elusive) one of being... enabled by his memory'.

James Alison urges us rather to view Jesus as the 'resurrected victim'. The world is essentially a mosaic of interlocking systems of oppression and 'victimage', reparation and/or settling scores. In contrast, the resurrection of Jesus frees us to engage in a lifestyle of forgiveness, equality and care for others - especially the oppressed.

This book is a brilliant application of the French critic and anthropologist Rene Girard's views (expounded especially in his 1972 'Violence and the Sacred' followed by 'Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World' 1978). Briefly: all archaic religions involve sacrifices of the innocent: from scapegoats to 'victim-gods'. Such sacrifices restore 'order' or 'peace'. Human society/culture continues at the expense of 'victims': whether victimized by humans or by the gods. We may not now offer bulls or lambs as sacrifices, and moderns have a sophisticated understanding of the 'victimage' of the oppressed, but wars are getting more ugly, more violent, and more widespread. Why is that?

James Alison's response is that we're all in great danger of 'missing the point'. Christianity (='knowing Jesus') is not essentially about dogmas (winning doctrinal battles) or mystical experiences (retreating to an inner peaceful world), but about imitating 'the self-giving victim'... 'drawn on by the intelligence of the victim which both sets us free to act gratuitously, reveals to us our and other people's outcasts... and empowers us to works of service, of solidarity with them...' Thus our whole person becomes formed by 'new desires' which is the only effective way to relate to a violent world with its 'rivalistic desires'.

'We become possessed by the crucified and risen one, by a slow process of entrancement... which has to pass through concrete acts of freedom and service' (p. 101).

This new 'understanding' begins with the resurrection of Jesus: it's only when disciples encounter the risen Jesus that they work backwards past the cross into his life and teaching that they finally 'get it'.

There's nothing here about the Jesus Seminar and other critical modern biblical scholarship. The inference from this, it seems to me, is that those people are also asking the wrong questions (like 'who actually said what to whom and when, for what purpose?'). The disciples did not invent a new 'theological schema' after they encountered the risen Jesus: rather they began to understand more clearly what Jesus 'was on about' from the very beginning of his public ministry.

James Alison has a unique adjective for Jesus - the 'intelligent' victim. This little descriptor is to be found on just about every page of this little (114-page) book. The idea here is that Jesus has a new perspective when he refutes the ways humans relate to one another (especially in destructive hierarchies) or solve problems (victimizing others so that their opposition to our schemes is supposedly neutralized).

James Alison is (was? - there is no clue here) a Dominican theologian and has lived and worked in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and the United States. He currently lives in his home-country England.

I can't wait to read his book about Original Sin - 'The Joy of Being Wrong'.

Rowland Croucher

February 2009.

SMore articles like this here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


In his seminal work on Christology, Jesus - God and Man, Wolfhart Pannenberg emphasizes that the resurrection is the crucial event by which Jesus the man is attested to be also divine. Like Jurgen Moltmann (The Crucified God) Pannenberg sees the resurrection as absolutely vital to Christian faith - and this means the resurrection as, in some sense, a real historical event, and not simply a subjective vision or existential experience among the disciples, as 'demythologizers' would lead us to believe.

And here's another - Bishop N T Wright's - take on it -

Thursday, May 15, 2008


First, from the negative side:

It is easy to trawl atheist websites and come up with a conclusion like this, which I read somewhere on a Usenet newsgroup:

'More evidence that supports the fact that Jesus the Christ is pure myth and fable. For being considered the most influential person in all of history, it is strange that of the 29 first century historians who existed at the time of Jesus, none of them mention Jesus at all...

A learned friend responds:

1. Philo Judaeus

A philosopher, not a historian.

2. Apollonius of Tyana

Virtually no writings survive

3. Valerius Maximus

Not a historian - wrote a manual on "historical tales for rhetoricians" based largely on Roman history

4. Marcus Manilius

Not a historian - a poet and astrologer

5. Velleius Paterculus

A historian, but dead before the crucifixion (19 BC - 31 AD)

6. Quintus Curtius Rufus

Only surviving work is an autobiography of Alexander the Great. Oddly, Jesus doesn't appear.

7. Pomponius Mela

Not a historian - a geographer

8. Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Not a historian - a very bright man, but not a historian

9. Petronius Arbiter

Not a historian - a satirist

10. C. Musonius Rufus

Not a historian -- a philosopher, none of whose works now exist.

11. Aulus Persius Flaccus

Not a historian - a poet and satirist

12. Marcus Annaeus Lucanus

Only surviving historical work concerns the Roman Civil War. Oddly, does not mention Jesus

13. Hero(n) of Alexandria

Not a historian - a mathematician and engineer

14. Geminus

Not a historian - a mathematician and astronomer

15. Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella

Not a historian -- a writer on agriculture.

16. Cleomedes

Not a historian - an astronomer

17. Phaedrus

Not a historian - a writer of fables in imitation of Aesop

18. Dioscorides

Not a historian - a physician and pharmacologist

19. Plutarch of Chaeronea

A historian whose only extant works in this field focus on Alexander, Pliny and Herodotus. Oddly, does not mention Jesus

20.Justus of Tiberias

A historian whose work is lost and is anyway described by Photius as very brief and largely fictitious.

21. Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus)

His history is lost; the surviving work is a National History, discussing drugs etc.

22. Dio Chrysostom (Cocceianus Dio)

Regarded as a historian by his contemporaries but no historical works survive

23. Marcus Fabius Quintilianus

Only extant work is a textbook on rhetoric

24. Publius Papinius

Publius Papinius **Statius**, you mean? A poet, not a historian.

25. Dio of Prusa

Same person as Dio Chrysostom!!!

26. Silius Italicus

Not a historian - a poet. Only surviving work an epic based on the Punic wars

27. Sextus Julius Frontinus

Not a historian - a soldier and administrator

28. Marcus Valerius Martialus

Not a historian - read his "Epigrams".

29. Hierocles of Alexandria

Writing in the 5th Century AD by which time Christianity was the official religion of the Empire!!!

Watch for more...

Saturday, March 22, 2008


According to the respected New Testament scholar Raymond Brown:

When asked whether the NT calls Jesus God:

1. Three NT texts unmistakably do (Hebrews 1:8-9, John 1:1, 20:28)

2. Five others probably do (John 1:18, Titus 2:13, 1 John 5:20, Romans 9:5, 2 Peter 1:1)

3. And most, if not all, of these seem to spring from a context of worship. (Expository Times, June 1968, p. 258)