Friday, July 15, 2011

From Jesus to Christ and back again (Sunday Reflections for July 17, 2011)

(I am at last posting again. I have a several Reflections articles I need to catch up on but I thought I should start with the most recent first. Watch for more to come!)

FRONTLINE is PBS’s premier documentary news program. So it probably seemed odd back in the late 1990s when it broadcast a 4-hour series about Jesus and the early church. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians (which a group of us watched last month) really did report news, however, as well as tell history.

The news was of the cumulative results of decades of scholarly research into that subject, and which was just then coming to a culmination. (When I was in seminary in the early 80s this scholarship was beginning to trickle in.) What had been found really was something new about the earliest years of the Jesus movement, but it wasn’t the kind of sudden discovery that might happen in a laboratory.

The study of ancient documents and archeological findings often takes many years to bear fruit. For example, shortly after World War II two ancient collections of documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library were found in the Middle East. Once they saw them, scholars knew immediately they were of immense importance. Yet it literally took nearly a half-century of study (and even physical reconstruction) to genuinely understand them. Many scholars did not even live long enough to fully appreciate what they were studying, and that study still goes on.

The question that scholars have been trying to answer is, Who was Jesus and what was the movement launched in his name about? Just asking the question shows we are in a different world from our ancestors. For centuries and generations the answer to that question had been found by looking at the church’s creeds. But that had stopped being satisfactory or adequate well over a century ago.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, scholars began looking at the Bible with new honesty. Among other things, they had come to realize that the creeds smoothed over a much more complex reality about Christianity’s origins. The four gospels, as well as Paul, each had distinctly different understandings of Jesus. They also came to realize that figuring out where the historical Jesus was in the midst of this was much more difficult than anyone had imagined. Some concluded that such a task was impossible.

As From Jesus to Christ reports, what needs to be said first is that nothing new has been found that can be traced back directly to Jesus himself. We still have no physical evidence of him or of anything he did or said. It’s almost certain he never wrote anything. In fact, it could be said we have taken a step backwards because most scholars now doubt we even have anything genuine from his followers or disciples, either.

And this is unlikely to change. Scholars and archaeologists have literally gone over Jesus’ Palestinian homeland with a fine tooth comb. More important than their thoroughness, however, is the realization of how amorphous Jesus’ life and ministry truly was. He just didn’t leave much of a footprint—and probably couldn’t have if he wanted to.

During his lifetime the number of people he interacted with or even knew he existed was probably very small. The “crowds” the gospels report him attracting are almost certainly exaggerative ways of conveying how important Jesus had become for the early church years later. In fact, the evidence for Jesus’ historical life is so thin and ambiguous that there are some who have concluded he didn’t exist at all.

That’s probably going too far. Yet it is true we are unlikely to ever have a very clear or accurate picture of him. This is due both to lack of evidence but also because his own ideas were so quickly mixed together with those of other spiritual leaders and movements of the time, Paul and the gospel writers being the most well known examples.

What seems to be the case is that Jesus was a genuine social catalyst. He was a spark which found an ample supply of human kindling. Scholars now have a much better understanding of Jesus’ world and it is evident it was ripe for change: spiritual, religious, social, economic, political. At the same time, however, that world wasn’t as ready for change as Jesus hoped and envisioned. The new “kingdom of God” of justice and equality he believed he was inaugurating was certainly more than those in positions of authority would tolerate.

His death by execution then was no surprise. What was (and still is) a surprise was that Jesus didn’t then disappear into the dust of history. And perhaps that was the genius of his vagueness and ambiguity. He said just enough to enflame people’s imaginations and give them a vision and hope of a better world. Yet his message was open enough to interpretation that many different and even conflicting people and movements could rally around him.

Thus from the start, the movement and church that followed Jesus’ death was fractious, conflicted, and marvelously chaotic. No one then or since knew what Jesus was really up to. And we will never know. All we have are the bubbling ideas that erupted from him and those around him, and which have challenged every generation since to hope and work for a better world.

Over the centuries countless church authorities have thought it their job to reign in this disorderly mess and get it under control. It’s now clear, however, that the man who upset the tables in the temple believed that such holy chaos is often the only way God’s will ever gets done. The religious chaos afflicting the church today may well be just what Jesus would have hoped for, or even ignited himself.

1 comment:

Michael_SC said...

Hi Doug, Great to see you back posting, I was afraid you had been gravely ill or left the ministry or something. On the post: most of my reading these days is on the historical Jesus, and it now seems clear that the 'Christ of faith' is partly or largely a theological construct, having little to do with the actual Palistinean preacher. I think or hope that the 'chaos' you write of is going to have to provoke (finally) an honest re-visioning of Christianity, appropriate for the modern world.