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Why the Historical Jesus Question Matters

Posted on: September 22, 2019

Category: Theology

Why the Historical Jesus Question Matters

Quest Thoughts: Why the Historical Jesus Question Matters

I have a friend in the United States who says he is an atheist and has been for years. Nevertheless, he loves the historical Jesus question and says that he dreams of writing a book called "Jesus for Atheists." I tell him that I love the title and that he better get going on his dream because I'm tempted to write the book myself.

To the outside world, atheism and Jesus probably do not go together. The common assumption is that a convinced atheist would wish to stay far away from religion. This assumption though is seldom true. My best conversations about religion are invariably with atheists and agnostics. There is a good reason for this: people do not usually arrive at the position of atheism without thinking. An "atheist" has usually thought about religion...a lot!

The historical Jesus can be appealing to skeptics and atheists alike because understanding this question requires thinking. It is necessary to sit with this question, understand the critical arguments, and over time figure out what the information means to you. It's not an easy task. And there are several versions of the "historical Jesus" out there, so one must also figure out which version makes the most sense. I have always gone for the "wisdom Jesus" version because the question of the historical Jesus to me always leads back to the parables. I have found no way, so far, to avoid the primacy of the parables, which are wisdom teaching forms.

There are two critical methods used to research the historical Jesus. The methods are called Source criticism and Form criticism. To start the historical Jesus question, one must admit that the Christian gospels are not biographies about Jesus. The gospels are early expressions of rising Christian beliefs. The gospels reflect developing beliefs about Jesus. They are proclamations of the beliefs early communities held. They can contradict each other because the writers do not believe the same things and they are living in different communities. So, to get to the historical Jesus, one must break through the level of gospel beliefs about Jesus to reach down to what Jesus really said and did (and even if he really existed). It's not an exact science, but the two criticisms named above allow the journey to unfold. Source criticism notes that the gospel writers Matthew and Luke copied from Mark. So, Mark is a source for the later gospels. It also notes that Matthew and Luke had a second common source, which has been named the Q Sayings Gospel. Form criticism focuses on the types of language that would have survived over decades of oral transmission before being written down in a gospel. Form criticism gives us the parables as the best and most likely authentic material to survive decades of oral transmission. The historical Jesus question is undertaken by moving through the gospels back to the original figure of Jesus using Source and Form criticism.

With this background, it might now be easy to see why my atheist friend is fascinated by the historical Jesus question. Finding the historical Jesus is like engaging in great detective work. There is the question of evidence. There is the question of interpreting the sources. There is the question of what material, among Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is fictional and what holds some elements of truth.

But there is a second reason why the historical Jesus questions matters, which is deeper than the initial excitement involved in solving a mystery. The second element is that most significant of human questions, what is true? How do we arrive at something that is credible and that should be held collectively as the best expression of knowledge at this time? We struggle today, it seems to me, with allowing opinions of all sorts equal authority. Common opinions stand as truth statements. When this happens, "truth" is whatever appeals to my prejudices and preferences. I would like, for example, that climate change be a hoax. I like my present lifestyle, and, like anyone, I'd prefer not to struggle with the question of how I should live. If I take the opinion route to truth, I will allow my reluctance to change to become my "truth" about climate change. My opinion, based on my private inclination not to worry about climate change, becomes the truth of a climate change hoax. Of course, I do not think climate change is a hoax. I do accept the evidence. And I do struggle to change myself and my living habits accordingly. But I worry that our age is one where opinions easily slide over to the side of truth.

The historical Jesus question is important because it requires people, who take the question seriously, to recognize that the question is not about opinions. It is about a genuine question requiring study and evidence. Because Jesus is such a large figure in the Western tradition, the historical Jesus question can wake up the need to think critically about subjects and to encounter information outside our comfort zones. The historical Jesus question can also create a crisis of belief, a time of re-evaluation, and a decision to make a change in life. All these factors make the historical Jesus question more than an academic exercise. They turn the question into one that addresses our understanding of history, our methods of attaining knowledge, and our present social and political values.

My American atheist friend is interested in writing "Jesus for Atheists" not because he is religious and not because he is a historical detective. He is interested in the question because he is interested in contemporary culture learning to change as a result of critical investigations rather than postponing change because our opinions would prefer otherwise.

©By David Galston

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