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