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Why Care About the Historical Jesus

Posted on: March 29, 2014

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(c)David Galston

The question about the historical Jesus boils down to this: who was the ancient human being named Jesus of Nazareth? The question does not ask about what Christians or other religious folk think about Jesus. The question does not consider any title for Jesus, like Prophet or Priest or King or Saviour. The question is simply about a human being of history. It is the same question we can ask about Socrates or Confucius or Aristotle. To many people, this question is purely an academic one. There is no need to have religious beliefs to study the historical Jesus.

Yet, the study of the historical Jesus, unlike the historical Aristotle, is never just a question of history. Jesus is also a myth who holds the central position in Christianity and a central position in Islam. In Christianity he is the myth of God Incarnate and in Islam he is the myth of a messenger of revelation from God. Like it or not, the study of the historical Jesus is not just an academic one. It is a question that challenges the very heart of religion and its meaning for well over four billion people worldwide.

The historical Jesus question is one of those few academic subjects that stirs a set of new questions affecting everyone. These new question can be reduced for our purposes to three: 1) mythology, 2) religion, and 3) scepticism. The historical Jesus question spills over the borders of academic learning to affect these other areas that are very important questions for our time.

Mythology is a difficult word to define because it needs to be understood on two levels. The first level, call it the superficial level, defines mythology as fictional stories usually about gods or miraculous events or fantastic explanations about the origin of things. For example, Hesiod’s Theogony tells the Greek version of earth’s creation. In the Bible, the miracle of water coming from a rock (Numbers 20:2-13) is a mythic story explaining the name of Meribah. Many events in the story of Jesus are, in this way, myths: walking on water, raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine, casting out demons, and of course the resurrection itself. These are literary-mythical rather than historical-factual events.

But myth has a second meaning that runs deeper. A story, like a creation story, is a way of seeing things. It is a way to interpret the world. The Greek creation story unfolds in such a way as to place their gods in order and explain why certain gods are particularly significant. Myths about Jesus also demonstrate the way Jesus is seen and understood in Christianity as the Lord or the Christ. In this second sense, myth is “the structure of interpretation.” It is the way we reason out the world. In this second sense, even modern science can be called a myth because it is the best way modern people have found to reason out the world.

The most significant question raised by historical Jesus research is the question about how should human beings relate to their own myths? At the deepest level, science and religion are myths. Science though has proven to be a very useful myth and religion has proven to be a very troubling one. Religion is troubling because often people do not accept religion as myth and, in place, seek from religion something it is not designed to give, which is absolute truth. Religion is a way of imagining life and lifestyle and of playing out mythic dimensions - celebrations like Christmas or Hanukkah - in our culture and lives. But it is not absolute truth; nothing is absolute truth. The historical Jesus question exposes the myth of Jesus to our modern eyes, and it is an important question because it asks us to consider what is the most responsible way today to relate to the myth of Jesus and, indeed, religious myths generally.

Another important issue historical Jesus research exposes is specific to Christianity but significant to all religions. The issue concerns the beliefs of Christianity. Doctrines about Jesus, like the Incarnation, are not factual statements. That is to say, they are not history. Jesus as a historical figure was absolutely as human as anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Muhammad, the Buddha, Confucius, etc., were also human like anyone. There is no other option: all human beings have always only been human; there is no exception. Yet, figures central to religion usually have beliefs or doctrines related to their identities. In Christianity, Jesus is the saving figure who comes from God - who is God - in human form: fully human and fully divine. This is a Christian belief or doctrine. However, it is not a historical fact; it is mythic belief. So, the historical Jesus raises an important question about religious doctrines not being factual but being created human beliefs. Historical Jesus research demonstrates this plainly. Accordingly, historical Jesus research, whether deliberately or not, raises questions about the future value of religion as a human creation. Does religion have a value? Does it have a future?

A third issues that emerges from historical Jesus research is the place of scepticism in religion. Scepticism often is not valued at all in religion, and that is a tragedy. Since religion is related to belief, questioning belief (scepticism) is considered irreligious. This however is misguided. Scepticism is necessary for religion to survive, if it is to survive, as a human value. Religion can be the one aspect of our humanity that causes us to question our assumptions and to take responsibility for our actions. But these two elements - questioning and taking responsibility - require scepticism. Scepticism is the foundation necessary for growth and change because it is the foundation for questions and for learning to take responsibility.

Historical Jesus research begins with scepticism about traditional Christian claims and, particular, the historical accuracy of the Bible. We can easily see, in the way modern fundamentalism has invaded religion, that religion needs scepticism in order to survive. It needs the ability to question itself and to openly engage the world of science and the world of international human rights. Religion has no future if it excludes the world and chooses the remorseful backwardness of fundamentalism. Scepticism is the saviour of irrelevant religion, and the historical Jesus question actually brings the value of scepticism to the fore.

These are three significant areas of growth for religion in the 21th century: understanding mythologies that define religions, understanding religion as a human creation, and understanding scepticism as a value. Historical Jesus research opens these big questions to public debate. They are utterly important questions, and that is why the historical Jesus matters.

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