The “historical Jesus,” yet again

Sunday, August 18, 2013

OK, here we go again. It seems that there is to be no end to the “Jesus books.” In the Saturday/Sunday 8/3-4 edition of The Wall Street Journal, the noted classics scholar Sarah Ruden takes up the subject of the now-celebrated new book Zealot (Random House), by Muslim Reza Aslan (interesting surname, that), along with Géza Vermès’ Christian Beginnings (Yale University Press). Aslan’s scholarly credentials have been questioned repeatedly, but the towering reputation of Vermès puts him far beyond the reach of any such challenges. (Vermès–who died in May–was of Hungarian Jewish parentage. His parents had converted to Roman Catholicism, but perished in the Holocaust. Vermès’ own story is very unusual; baptized a Catholic, he became a Catholic priest and then reverted to Judaism, saying that he “outgrew Christianity.” He is known for his pioneering work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and his reductionist portrait of “Jesus the Jew.”)

Many people have pointed out the limitations of these endless attempts to recast Jesus in light of what scholars think they can discover behind the New Testament, the so-called gnostic gospels, and other early texts, but these caveats do not reach the typical person who is either 1) reading about the books in the media or 2) actually reading them because (sigh) they have been recommended by their church leaders. We have an entire generation of churchgoing people who have been robbed of faith in Christ by these misbegotten searches for a “historical” Jesus.

It must be stated as clearly as possible: we do not have access to “the historical Jesus.” Every single one of these attempts to discover the historical person behind the New Testament text is doomed from the start. All that is known of Jesus is in the New Testament, which was written by faith for faith. In that sense the entire Bible is indeed a unique document, because it simply does not yield its mysteries except to those who receive it in faith.

Sarah Ruden’s article is a confusing mixture of hits and misses. She has flashes of insight, but on the whole I don’t recommend the piece. She concludes by praising the “generous” and “engaging” way in which both authors “lay out the facts.” To equate the two in this rather glib way seems an easy way out, and speaking of the “facts” could be construed as downright irresponsible, since we simply cannot know the “facts” of Jesus’ “historical” life. What we know is the death-defying proclamation of the earliest apostles and converts that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).

(Parenthetically, Sarah Ruden, who has taught at the Yale Divinity School and whose translations of Greek classics have been praised, has written a book about St Paul. I haven’t read it, but from what little I have gleaned, she is helpful–up to a point–in analyzing Paul’s rhetoric; however, as a Greek scholar she seems to locate him essentially in the Hellenistic milieu rather than second-temple Judaism. Thus, in discussing “justice”–dikaiosune in Greek–she casts it in Hellenistic terms rather than the Old Testament concepts that Paul draws on in Romans when speaking of the dikaiosune theou–the righteousness [or justice] of God. This is a crucial point. Ruden makes the same mistake in discussing the Gospel of John in her WSJ piece. I thought the older view that the “logos Christology” of John was derived from Greek Platonist philosophy, rather than the Hebrew scriptures, had been thoroughly abandoned, but she rehashes that idea here.

She writes one thing that I like. She calls crucifixion a “vile death,” which it certainly was. She writes also that his crucifixion and resurrection “abruptly and necessarily split him off from the Jewish tradition and establishment.” That’s partly right. There was a sharply discontinuous, apocalyptic shape to the apostolic kerygma about Jesus. But at the same time it seems wrong to separate him arbitrarily from Judaism and make him sound “Greek.”)

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