[Image Lichfield Gospels circa 730 C.E. Courtesy Flicker-er Kernowseb]
I’m on a committee at my church thinking about how we should structure a class called Christianity 101, for seekers, those who were perhaps raised in a church but have gone away for years and perhaps are looking to come back, etc.
We started talking about the place and role of the Bible and it got me reflecting on my own seminary education. Which then led me back to my hobby horse/nearly favorite topic (or diatribe): namely the critique of the Historical Jesus Quest. (For the interested reader, background e.g. here and here).
NT courses are almost always designed by studying the Gospels first–my school is no exception in that regard. It’s a product of the modern era romanticist based hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey which influenced German academic theology.
On the positive side, truth (in that school) is understood to be historical and grounded in a time and place. On the downside, there is a romantic prejudice viewing tradition–later tradition–as inherently devolutionary and/or ideological. A heritage of the Lutheran-Protestant strain of this thinking. Moreover, truth is considered to involve us the reader in a quasi-magical mode reaching back and sympathizing and intuiting the original mind of the author.
With Historical Jesus views, we believe that the latter tradition (i.e. Christ of Faith) is somehow deficient as compared to the rock solid Jesus of History. We also believe that the gospels can be layered/sedimented according to our reconstructions of hypothetical stages of development within the text [serious possibility of reading what we want to into the text here].
And I find it ultimately as a modernist agenda separates discipleship from academic/historical criticisms of the NT. Now I’m not advocating some kind of neo-fundamentalist literalism, just that swallowing that view wholesale is to basically sell the farm to a secularization process. It leaves us unable to cross the great is/ought chasm that so undermined modern philosophy, like a low grade caustic acid just continually eating away at the foundations over time.
My alternate theory: we not start in a truly historical fashion in reading The New Testament by studying the authentic letters of Paul first? Which are in fact the first documents written in the NT. But Paul you’ll say teaches us about The Christ and the Gospels about Jesus, so while the latter were written latter they reflect an earlier period of the life of the Christian movement. And it’s that claim I think is up for a full on challenge.
Particularly in an area when Christianity is a choice or it is nothing in the Western world. The Gospel of Matthew comes first in the New Testament because the Church decided it was the best gospel to use to educate new comers to the faith. So we can arrange the texts however we decide–here the Catholics score over the Protestants. The tradition always interprets (see Gadamer for more on this point).
But our schools don’t teach Matthew first but rather Mark because according to the majority consensus view Mark was composed before Matthew. But Paul wrote before Mark…so what gives?
Because Paul didn’t discuss the historical Jesus. But if the historical Jesus as I believe is better thought of as a modern version of a Christ of Faith Quest, then this distinction falls apart.
“The Beginning of the Gospel [Good News] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark 1:1
Now if a text begins in this manner, this is not a biography. This is an ancient miracle and wonder worker gospel. It is meant to bring faith and entrance into the community of believers. It also is clear that there is never an Un-Resurrected Jesus in the Gospels. He is going to go through the story, and the Cross hangs over the entire story from the beginning, but the end has already been given away. There is no reason to tell the story—so argues the Bible contra our culture–of Jesus accept in light of the declaration of him as Resurrected and as Messiah-Lord-Son of God.
The next lines of the Gospel of Mark:
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
The story then tells of John the Baptist who the text believes to be the fulfillment of the messenger prophesy. Meaning in other words, that Jesus within three verses has already been declared The Son of God AND God God’s very self (i.e. “The Lord’).
All of the rest of the Gospels flow from this assertion. They are simply a story telling version of proclaiming the belief that the promises of the Hebrew Bible (then the only Bible) were fulfilled. They do this by telling stories to fulfill the promises of the OT in Jesus’ life.
The meals with sinners may have happened for all I know. They are also explained as simply a proclamation of the Lord is coming/is among us and is Saving the World. They allude to the Bread of Presence in the Jewish temple. The meals function a sign of that (pointing to OT prophesies) the poor and the outcast will be brought in by the Lord.
But notice then, the “historical Jesus’ in the story is actually already God according to the text. To understand how Jesus fills the same role as YHWH God in the OT, see Harold Bloom.
And teaching in this manner is the only way to release the text to call disciples of the Lord–as opposed to give learned treatises that support bourgeoisie academic and liberal culture–but without doing so in a way that revives a literalism. It opens a depth reading of the text and opens a world in which Jesus is the Lord and the world is changed. It is an opening to the Glory of the Lord.
The NT is then broken wide as a series of invitations to worlds in which the nuances and diversity of images surrounding the same basic affirmation (Jesus=Lord) are made. By reading Paul first, then the Gospels (in light of the stream I am advocating), the Gospels become–like Paul’s letters–depictions (in narrative as opposed to epistolary form) to those living with the aftermath of accepting Jesus as Lord, of accepting that the final restoration/redemption of the universe has already taken place.
An eschatology renewed in the manner proposed by N.T. Wright (though again I’m not a huge fan of his historical Jesus stuff) as opposed to either a de-eschatologized liberal theology (maintaining the insight of a critically intellectual faith), nor a utopian leftist liberation model (though including its central understanding of the poor and their view), nor most importantly having such energy transferred to a millenarian world-hating apocalypticism.