What do we really know about Jesus?
There is a great deal of attention focused on this question. This month when the American Academy of Religion convenes in Atlanta for their annual meeting this topic will dominate selected sessions.
Among those at the forefront of this dialogue are Paula Fredriksen of Boston University and Marcus Borg of the University of Oregon. She wrote an award winning book entitled Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. He has written a slew of books, including Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.
One thing these learned and articulate people do is separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.
Of course, most believers don’t make such distinctions. For centuries, people have read these Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus and responded in some version of the soon-to-be-immortal words of actor George Clooney, “You fascinate me!”
But Borg, Fredriksen and friends say this: the life of Jesus—his words, his mighty deeds, his teaching of the Jewish Law—is one thing, but what his followers said about him—risen from the dead, Savior of the world, Lord of all—is another thing.
They say those who wrote the Christian documents, which we now call the New Testament, described the life of Jesus to support their confession of faith: “Jesus is Son of God.”
The same is true also of the creeds of the church, written in the centuries after Jesus but still recited in many services of worship. These confessional documents, they say, highlight not the life of the miracle-working, Torah-teaching, kingdom-announcing Jesus, but rather the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of the one believed to be the redeemer of the world.
In other words, they describe the “post-Easter Christ” rather than the “pre-Easter Jesus.”
When I reflect on my own experience as a Christian, I realize my testimony also highlights the words and works of Jesus. At those critical junctures in my spiritual pilgrimage, what I found compelling was not the virgin birth, not the trial before Pilate, not the death on the cross and certainly not the descent into hell (which we Baptists, being ignorant of the creeds, were not even aware of).
No, what inspired me was the strong, simple, sacrificial life of Jesus. It was his direct appeal to “take up the cross and follow me” that challenged me like nothing else recorded in the New Testament.
That being said, I find troubling the life of Jesus as revised and refurbished by “mainstream scholars.” In an effort to place Jesus genuinely and authentically in his historical setting–a noble goal, to be sure–he loses much that startles, mystifies, troubles, confounds, even fascinates.
The rule of faith that evaluates the Gospel narratives and separates the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith becomes: Is this episode plausible given what we know about that time period? Is this saying explainable in terms of his environment? Is this mighty deed consistent or congruent with his context?
This reductionist approach to the historical Jesus is unreliable.
When such a strategy is applied to politics in our day, it produces a program like the “West Wing.”
This popular Wednesday evening television show is realistic and inventive, dramatic and award winning, precisely because it is so believable, because it reproduces in winsome ways the political culture in Washington.
But using political realism as a norm would never produce the political drama on the West Coast. What we are watching in California is quite the opposite of “West Wing”: it is unbelievable, incredible and previously unimaginable. In short, the California recall is indescribable in the categories and context of even West Coast culture.
I don’t want to say that Jesus is more like Arnold Schwarzenegger (the new governor of California) than Jeb Bartlett (who plays the president on “West Wing”). But it is worth noting that one is historical fact and the other is television fiction. Here and in many places in human history, the facts are far stranger, far more inexplicable than the fiction.
It just might be so with Jesus, as those original eyewitnesses seem to suggest.
This awareness just might save us from a more credible, comfortable, even domesticated Jesus (and I mean no disrespect to Borg, Fredriksen and friends), even as it emboldens us not to fear a Jesus whose ideas, words and deeds we can not easily fit into either the ancient or modern world.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.