Monday, May 31, 2010

Matthew: On History and Faith

To the charge that the truth of the gospels seems in some way diminished because of historical ‘problems’ with the gospels, I would first say that one doesn’t go to the gospels for history anymore than one goes to the gospels for science, because the gospels antedate both history and science. Which is not to say that the gospels don’t deal with the historical world or the natural world – but is to say that they do not do so in the ways that we modern readers might expect.

There must be more work to ascertain how ancient people generally thought about history in general and scripture in particular. What kind of truth were first-century Jews looking for, say, when Jesus read Isaiah in the synagogue? It certainly wasn’t journalism, nor a double-blind study. While we can’t go to the gospels for history, I do think we might be able to go to history for gospel. Because it might be that for these people the historical world was the world of faith. Our dualisms may not apply.

This is perhaps the largest problem with historical criticism, in that it carries too many of our own polar assumptions, and not enough of ancient peoples’, into the study of historical texts. Literary criticism, something of a corrective to this, puts together what form critics rend asunder because many have found it easy, even in the history of historical criticism, to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

When one spends too much time debating where exactly Jesus was born, it’s easy to lose sight of what the sheer weight of Christ’s advent has meant to the world for believers and non-believers, and for the story of Jesus Christ itself. One recalls here the old analogy of the scientist dissecting a dead butterfly and the poet describing a living one in flight. They both tell us key things about the species, though we must admit that the scientist-poet is a rare bird indeed.

Yet this is, of course, what Christians are compelled to be. It is the vey spirit of Christ which inspires us to seek his flesh. Thomas might have needed to put his hands in Christ’s side in order to believe the resurrection, but it was Christ’s own person that made him seek belief to start with. We are historical creatures with particular questions, and that inquiry is anything but dispassionate. It is profoundly faithful, and must be fair.

Christianity’s own core is that flesh is spiritual and that temporal, historical events have eternal significance. Our God is only ever revealed in the historical, the limited, the concrete...the human. How then could we dismiss the particulars of Christ’s life or fail to ponder their everlasting import? It’s not that history or scripture can never be wrong about details of Christ’s life, but rather, our journey of life in Christ is the walk into Jesus of Nazareth – and back out into faith again, enriched and reborn.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Christology: The Historical Jesus

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, in James Charlesworth's 'The Historical Jesus': 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 at 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 .

Monday, May 24, 2010

Matthew: On the Gospels as Portraits of Christ

The image of the portrait of Christ denotes an intimacy between artist and subject - the artist is sitting with the subject for some hours, the artist knows the subject on some personal level, and the subject, let's be honest, is usually giving the artist money – which skews the 'objectivity' of the portrait.

But all of this connotes relationship. And, I would add, all of this connotes some degree of spirit (we've all heard of the beliefs about photographs stealing one's soul - there's nothing stealthy about a portrait, no paparazzi with a paintbrush and a canvas. does anyone even do portraits anymore?)

It makes sense of course that this idea of portrait would describe the gospels more than a snapshot. The writers of the gospels had some relationship with Jesus Christ. And their affection for the personality and work of Jesus Christ ‘colored’ what they wrote about him.

But because the Jesus Christ of faith is worthy of praise and honor in the first place, it matters less that the Beloved Disciple didn’t catch Jesus making a fool of himself at a party, or drinking milk straight from the carton at 3AM. The whole person of Christ matters more than individual moments about him, right? This would include details about his birth and diet and stray comments – the whole matters more than the sum of its parts, and that comes in a portrait.

On the other hand, the image of the portrait implies only one artist, and we now know this simply could not have been the case for the gospels. I suggest the image of the mural would be more apt – that beautiful art form that is often whole communities of people building on each other’s work, sometimes over days and weeks, each adding their piece to a greater, messy harmony.

This brings up the subject of canonization, of course, because there were and are other murals. And we are hard pressed, frankly, to say with any degree of certainty as to who was and wasn’t truly inspired by God when they wrote accounts of Jesus – in large part because so many people seem to have been involved in all the oral traditions, and in all the communities of people of the early Jesus Movement that kept traditions about Jesus going.

What does that sort of inspiration even look like, what would the criteria be? Would the person have to glow to be inspired? Would they have to hear the voice of God audibly, or would a prompting of one’s consciousness suffice? If the latter, how do we know that the fourth person remembering a parable of Jesus to add to the book of Mark is inspired, but a second person remembering one of Jesus’s stray sayings for the Gospel of Thomas is not?

What we can say with greater certainty is that we choose these gospels, these four that we have today. We chose them in antiquity and we choose them again in our own time. We choose them all over the world just as we have chosen them for 2000 years because they describe the Jesus Christ we ourselves have relationship with better than the alternative murals of the Gnostic or other apocryphal gospels – these are the gospels which build faith.

Yes, we choose them because they have better historical bona fides than the gospels we have not chosen, but at this point the sheer weight of our collective choice must matter more than any one reason for it. It’s like ‘dating’ manuscripts in the other sense of the word. It matters less that he has blue eyes and quite a bit more that he’s your boyfriend.

Notice: Semester Rewind

All (two of you):

Since I didn't have the chance to post throughout the semester, you'll be seeing my relatively few posts on Matthew, Christology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics all summer long, a post or two at a time. I'll start you off with Matthew.

the Curious Monk