Historical Jesus Clearance Sale!

July 5th, 2011

Not only in the commercial world but in the realm of ideas as well, our age is holding a veritable clearance sale. -Kierkegaard

In exultant commemoration of the much anticipated, much invested-in new book about Jesus, whichever one, by the brilliant historian.

Think about how different it is to ask, “How do we teach the challenge of Jesus in this passage from Luke’s gospel?” versus “Now, what did Jesus really say (that was then altered by the writer of Luke’s gospel)?” It is my view that the first is a much more interesting question than the second.

The second (and boring) question, frequently asked today, rests on a (much too) strong assumption: 2000 years after Jesus lived, university scholars in a society of consumer capitalism will give us better insight into the “real” Jesus than the people whose lives were transformed by Jesus (and who became the church in a world persecuting them).

The version of C.E. history frequently veiled behind this woeful assumption might be summarized in four rough but distinct stages:

  1. Jesus probably taught individual autonomy on spiritual grounds.
  2. But Jesus’ disciples—who were less concerned with individual autonomy and personal spiritual quests than they were with developing Christian theology—misquoted and mythologized Jesus for their own agendas.
  3. The church started bad and just got worse because of these and many similar agendas. The “dark” ages ensue.
  4. At last, the Enlightenment arrived, along with capitalism. These twin developments mark the beginning of science and progress. The Enlightened capitalist worldview is really the first time for a human worldview to coincide with the way things really are. It is obvious—just look around. Thus, scholars in universities can finally look at the Bible and know what Jesus really said, and not just what his early followers wrote that he said—and sell it.

Progress be blessed, everyone is now free to pursue his/her personal spiritual quest at church, or even at the mall or cinema or through online bookstores while sitting at the chain coffee shop. Note that in such an arrangement the truth is, quite literally, for sale.

License to Sell (“Truth”)

Do we as the church have anything to say about such a cultural dynamic? I might start by suggesting that from a Christian point of view the requirements for becoming a historical Jesus scholar are ponderously low. You need: an advanced degree. You do not have to be a saint, or even saint-like, or even a participating member of any church.

The idea that someone who does not worship, pray, give to the poor, or forgive his enemies can tell you what Jesus “really” said or means is wrong. Having a brilliant intellect does not cut it, as the church has typically taught. Brilliant intellects reach views and judgments that are intimately related to the lifestyle and habits of the person embodying them.

The church treasures the Scripture interpretations of saints because it has always seemed to the church that someone who worships, prays, gives to the poor, and forgives really can interpret scripture more faithfully than someone of “equal” intellect who does not (if the notion of “equal intellect” is even valid in such a comparison). So why do advanced degrees so impress us that we want their words more than the thoughts of saints?

The simple answer is that—for those who can afford them—scholars ask less of us than saints.

But Indulge Me!

The function of the sale of “knowledge” about the historical Jesus today correlates strictly to the worst abuses surrounding the sale of Indulgences in the late Middle Ages. Both phenomena revolve on the sale of access to knowledges that lessen (or loosen) the real requirement of the gospel of Jesus Christ on the believer.

In the case of Indulgence-sale a theological knowledge was promulgated that, when most crassly abused, allowed folks to pay cash in exchange for Christ’s forgiveness.

In the case of historical Jesus scholarship, a thrilling consumer plethora of scholarly re-constructions of Jesus are sold on the cheap (see how the distance from movie cinema to bookstore to university grows less and less!). And how this allows us to rest easy! In our day there will always be an ambiguous and ever-shifting distance between the “Real Historical Jesus" and the Jesus of the New Testament.

In this marketed gap between the “Real Historical Jesus" and the Jesus in the New Testament, I may pick and choose, peruse, and generally make myself comfortable.

It is very easy to give my life to one or many of the “Real Historical Jesuses" scholars have imagined behind the New Testament texts. After all, they are fictive reconstructions! They are shifting and unstable—who could know which one is true?—and at any rate my preference for one or many of these portraits is private (in confidence between my book vendor(s), my creditor(s), and me). No community exists to hold me accountable to following any scholar’s portrait of Jesus.

But it is possible, a community may exist, to hold me accountable to following the Jesus of the New Testament.

In conclusion, and if I may be so bold: this Jesus in the Bible, this Jesus in sermons, and prayers, and poems, worshipped in song and proclaimed in the creeds, is living on the streets. He is there now, as he was in first-century Palestine. Just earlier this morning, before sunrise, he fed many of the homeless at the breakfast hosted by the old downtown church. You must understand, that is just his routine, his way. He is in all probability, right this minute, delivering someone from drug addiction.

While the burgeoning flock of Historical Jesuses are, at best, selling in the temple court.

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