Sunday, February 21, 2010

On the Historical- Critical Reading of Scripture


The task of Christology is to hold in tension the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith. It is very difficult to do this, and people of faith often err on one side or the other, with academics erring on the side of the Jesus of history and pastors often erring on the side of the Christ of faith. What Charlesworth does is try to presuppose and respect the Christ of faith while giving us as accurate a glimpse into the Jesus of history using as much archeological evidence as possible provided by the Scriptural witness to this man. By understanding as much as possible about the Jesus of history, we can continue to find fresh ways to speak of the Christ of faith.



I think you have the sense of it; whenever I read any of this historical-critical stuff, I feel like something of an archeologist myself – much of it is tedium, confirming or solidifying what we already know. Some of it is troubling or shocking or difficult to fathom; a few things are real, wonderful, and substantial finds. And I found all three here: the basic thrust of Jesus’s biography must certainly be familiar to many Christians, at least one would hope so. And I’m not as troubled with all of the conflations as the author tended to be – I think it’s probably okay, for example, to assume that the garden John mentions before Jesus’s arrest is indeed Gethsemane, though that name isn’t specifically there; I don’t see what harm that could really do. So most of the book was a recast for me, and that’s fine.

And there were certainly some points that were profoundly troubling; the suggestion, seriously entertained, that the wedding in Cana was Jesus Christ’s own wedding. Now I don’t, myself, have much of a stake in the answer to this question, it wouldn’t change my faith overmuch if Jesus had married – but to argue that there was a strong possibility of this specifically from the absence of evidence in the Gospels as to what the wedding was actually about assumes an almost maniacal editing of the Jesus traditions before we get them in Johannine form. Because so many of the historical-critical findings have been eventually overturned or revealed as exaggerations or distorted understandings of Christ, I wonder how easily, and at just how many points, contemporary historical-critical scholarship makes the same over-reaching mistakes. We say we’re getting better, but are we really?

But of course I did find several gems, the most recent of which in Charlesworth was the argument that because Jesus most likely did not know Greek, he would have lacked that language’s (and our New Testament’s) more sophisticated understanding of past, present and future, and would have dealt instead in the simpler Semitic paradigm of fulfilled or un-fulfilled time. That is a profound realization, it’s both based on historical data and consonant with the Hebrew Bible, and it helps us understand what the man was actually trying to say. That’s premium work; I wish all historical scholarship went down a similar vein and perhaps spent less time battling through the authority of sources.

Which brings me to the actual question: it’s not that I side with the Christ of faith or the Christ of history so much as that I choose the Christ of history because of the Christ of faith. Because and only because I believe that Jesus was the Son of God who was crucified for our sins and resurrected for our salvation, it matters what he taught and where he lived and how he understood God. That’s why the historical details matter to me, albeit in varying degrees. And that’s probably true for most Christians – I think the discussion of the historical Jesus alone is perhaps best for an outward-facing conversation, because the degree of certainty that we can have about Jesus’s human life is significant and telling in an apologetic sense, as a defense of the reasonableness of our faith .

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