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Jesus, History, Church: Some Thoughts

Posted on: December 20, 2014


The assumptions of a person who approaches the Bible historically and with best contemporary knowledge available are threefold: 1) the ancient world and the modern world are different places with different understandings of science, religion, and psychology; 2) Jesus and the gospel writers had different understandings of both Jesus and God, that is, they had different theologies; 3) Jesus was a human being like anyone.

These assumptions can be spelled out in more detail, but I’d like to focus especially today on the second one, which is the theology of the gospel writers and that of the historical Jesus.

No gospel writer in the Christian New Testament is a contemporary witness to the life of Jesus. Every gospel writer composed his or her text after the fall of the Jerusalem temple in the year 70 C.E. To the extent that we can trust facts and claim facts in history, this is a “fact.” The author of the gospel of Mark knows the temple has fallen, and every other gospel writer (Matthew, Luke, and John) records and compiles their sources after the gospel of Mark is already in existence. Accordingly we can still say today with confidence exactly what Samuel Reimarus said in the late 1600’s, which is that we are justified to distinguish what the apostles taught about Jesus from what Jesus himself said and taught himself.

This brings us to what might be the most crucial point in biblical studies. The gospel writers were not historians. They were theologians. All the gospel writers held a theology. They all held a set of beliefs about Jesus. We can talk about the “theology of Luke,” meaning we can talk about what Luke believed about Jesus. And we can compare what Luke believed about Jesus to what Mark or John believed. The gospels do not have the same theology. Each is unique. Each understands the significance of Jesus differently. Each advocates different beliefs about Jesus.

When we raise the question about the theology of Jesus, we are not asking what the gospel writers believed but what the Jesus of history believed. It is certain that whatever Jesus believed, it did not concern himself. He did not walk around talking about himself and what to believe about him. His “theology” was about the Kingdom (or Domain) of God. In Greek this is called the basileia tou theou.

The only known way to approach what Jesus himself said is called Form Criticism. This type of criticism is about capturing the oral tradition behind the written gospels. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s all we have. According to Form Criticism, parables are performances. They are not just told but also acted, and they relay in a vivid fashion the theology of a movement. Form criticism gives us the parables of Jesus as a way to access the theology of Jesus.

Some critics say that Form Criticism is about creating Jesus in our own image, but let us be clear that the gospel writers have already created Jesus in their own image. What Form Criticism tries to do is take Jesus out of the hands of the gospel writers and put Jesus back into the living context of first century Palestine.
When we look at the parables of Jesus in context, they end up presenting some remarkable things to us. For one, Jesus uses a wisdom form to teaching, which is the evasive parable. Secondly, Jesus does not talk about God directly but rather about life. He focusses on a women and bread, a son and father, a traveller, some workers, and the questionable motives of a stewart. A third element in this is that Jesus compares the “realm of God” to the most ungodly (surprising) things: labour disputes, mustard seeds, leaven bread, dishonest workers. The God of Jesus is not directly available but rather comes through the parables as a fragmented and often weak God, not the grand or powerful we are used to.

An example of this strange God is the parable of the lost coin. We are taken in by the woman searching and finding money, but we either forget or are surprised to realize that in fact she spends all of the money and more to celebrate finding it. The Realm of God is not really about finding but losing. “Whoever would gain their life must lose it.”

The Christian church often does not like Jesus and his God very much. The fragile God of Jesus is betrayed in the church’s language about God’s will and what God wants. This language blocks the view of the God of Jesus who does not necessarily have answers here. In place, the church has to listen to some challenges that come from weakness and not from control.

A non-apocalyptic theology. The apocalypse is about controlling things from people’s lives to history itself. But the historical Jesus does not pronounce control. The Christian church has to get over the idea of the apocalypse if it wishes to be serious about Jesus.

The gospel of Jesus is about celebrating life in its clumsiness and its mistakes. The celebration is in the banquet where the open meal is also an open conversation.

A church that is inspired by the historical Jesus centres on life language, not on God. Jesus did not speak of God directly but rather spoke of reality and life situations. The move to life language is a move from heaven to earth, from the deeply abstract to the deeply particular.

Any community that takes the historical Jesus seriously and that seeks to define itself along this path will confront at least these three challenges: non-apocalyptic theology, banquet practices, and life language. There is no secret formula when it comes to how these three points work themselves out in one community or another. Still, they do form the challenge both of taking history and Jesus seriously.

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