Thursday, April 26, 2012

The week that wasn't (Sunday Reflections for March 25, 2012)

After a long hiatus I am putting up a few new posts. For the time around Holy Week and Easter, I ran a series of Reflections articles dealing with the problem of reading the biblical stories associated with this season as historical events. The first few are actually edited reprints of previous articles. The last two are new. I’ll post them here individually in chronological order. Feel free to comment any one or on the series.

Next Sunday is the start of Holy Week, the church’s reflection on the death of Jesus. Various events recounted in the gospels will be commemorated at services during the week, including Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, his last supper with his disciples, his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before the priests and Pilate, and his crucifixion.

Most Christians, as well as many people outside the church, will regard this as a remembrance of historical events. They would likely be surprised, and perhaps dismayed, to learn that most biblical scholars today (excluding fundamentalists, of course) regard little if any of it that way. “You mean someone made this all up?” a person might ask. Well, many people were likely involved but, basically, yes.

What we might call “scientific” biblical scholarship has been going on for a little over two centuries. Throughout this time most of these scholars have felt at least some restraint reporting their findings out of fear of how they would be received within the church. One result is that their work increasingly went “underground.” Scholars discussed their work among themselves but only a small portion leaked out to the general public.

After World War II, critical biblical scholarship became standard fare in seminaries and theology schools. Nonetheless, pastors-in-training knew to keep most of this to themselves. The bizarre result was that pastors became the only trained professionals I know of who were encouraged NOT to use what they learned in carrying out their work.

Much has changed in the church over the past 200 years and we may be able to tolerate more biblical honesty. The biggest change is that most people will not be in worship during Holy Week or on Easter. The culture’s attachment to these stories is much weaker that it once was and many people don’t even know them. This may, however, give the church some much needed freedom and fresh air.

The biggest problem with reconstructing the life of Jesus is that we simply have so little reliable information. The earliest writings after Jesus’ death are the letters of Paul, and for reasons still not understood, he tells us little if anything about the historic Jesus. The gospels were written 40-80 years after Jesus (some scholars would argue for even later dates) and are not eye-witness accounts. In fact, we probably have nothing in writing from anyone who actually knew or even saw Jesus.

While this might seem surprising, it really isn’t. I recently read the new biography of Cleopatra, who lived about a generation before Jesus. At the beginning of the book, the author laments how fragmentary are the sources for Cleopatra’s life. At the high point of her reign, Cleopatra was one of the most powerful persons in the world. Her life intertwined with the greatest of Rome’s rulers, yet no one at the time wrote an account of her life. The information we do have is written many years later, almost all by people attempting to discredit her. Indeed, reconstructing the life of any historically significant person of antiquity is almost impossible in detail and often difficult even in broad outline.

The difficulty in reconstructing the life of Jesus isn’t surprising then. Scholars today agree that Jesus came from the furthest margins of society: a Jewish peasant who lived in the backwater of a backwater: the region of Galilee on the fringe of Rome’s despised province of Judea. To observers of the time, Jesus would have been one of “a dime-a-dozen” wandering mystics, teachers, holy men, and miracle workers common to the region and the time. If Cleopatra could barely get her story told, Jesus didn’t stand a chance.

This is why the biblical events of Holy Week are now seen as literary fiction. The basic plot is certainly plausible. For whatever reason, Jesus may have gone to Jerusalem (perhaps for the first time), gotten himself in trouble by creating a commotion (in the temple?), which then led to his arrest and execution. But someone as insignificant as Jesus would never have rated the tumult or attention depicted in the gospels.

The details of that story are now viewed as the product of early church evangelists and writers. Their source, rather than eye witnesses, was primarily the Hebrew Bible, now the Christian Old Testament. Following a long and respected religious tradition, its stories were used to provide the interpretive framework for this new religious event, the life and death of Jesus the Christ.

Whatever its cause, Jesus’ arrest would have led to a minimal legal proceeding followed by a quick execution. It certainly wouldn’t have rated a hearing before the Roman governor. Public crucifixions were literally almost everyday occurrences. It would have been normal if repulsive to pass rotting bodies hanging on crosses as one entered Jerusalem. This was ancient state terrorism and crowd control. Most victims were not buried because wild animals and the elements quickly disposed of the bodies.

Nor is it clear that Jewish authorities would have ever been involved given that Jesus did little if anything to merit their intervention. Calling yourself the messiah (if Jesus even did that) might get you labeled as crazy but it wasn’t a capital offense. And Jesus almost certainly did not call himself the son of God. That was an identity given him after his death by the early church, to challenge the Roman emperor’s claim to that title.

As we read a novel or watch a movie, most of us easily enter the story as if it is real, and temporarily suspend our awareness that what is being depicted is the creation of the writer or director. The same is true for our hearing of the Holy Week narratives. Nonetheless, it is likely that the gospel writers and early church knew nothing about the events surrounding Jesus’ death. What is hinted at in the gospels themselves may have been truer than we realize: Jesus may well have died alone and abandoned—and unnoticed.

The earliest years of the church after Jesus’ death are essentially a blank slate. We know next to nothing about them. What we can surmise, though, is that some of his followers had experiences which convinced them that Jesus was yet alive (and the first of these may well have been women). “I have seen the Lord.” He lived now in God’s heavenly realm, yet somehow his Spirit also remained with his disciples on earth. As the church spread, and after most of his original followers had died, the story of Jesus was fleshed out, not to reconstruct the events, but in order to proclaim the “good news.”

For us a narrative like Holy Week now hides as much as it reveals. We are distracted by its over-the-top dramatics and flagrant anti-Semitism. Biblical scholars are helping us regain some perspective, shifting our attention from his death to his life as what is most important for us today. Yet this is something that perhaps even Mark, the earliest gospel, understood. For at its very end the angel at the tomb directs the women to go back to Galilee, the place of Jesus’ life and ministry. “There you will see him.”

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