Thursday, September 19, 2013

How Can We Be Sure Jesus Ever Lived?

I just picked up Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot.

It has been selling well and after hearing several young people comment on it, I decided to read it.

I began as I often begin a book, by scanning through it at the bookstore. Naturally, any commentary I offer on the book is premature and risky. Even so, I have a few thoughts about the spirit in which I will read the book as I get started.

First, I know already that we have next to no information about Jesus outside of two sources: tradition and scripture. Since the days of the Protestant reformation, many of us have had little regard for tradition. That has left us with a single source for our information: the Bible.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to separate scripture from tradition.  Since Jesus didn’t write anything of his own, everything we believe about the life or words of Jesus came to us through someone else. The reason we have trusted the writers who told us about Jesus is because the Church said they were the most reliable witnesses about Jesus. However the Church didn’t do that for several centuries. When it did, it made its selection based on – guess what? – Tradition.

Fortunately, ancient people had a higher regard for tradition than we. 

In a letter to Timothy, St. Paul told his young student to “teach faithful people what you have learned and tell them to teach others.” So he was deliberately setting up a chain of tradition through which he could transmit stuff to us.

Copyists did their best to faithfully reproduce the text.

Christians kept repeating the sayings of Jesus and the Apostles in the weekly liturgy. In fact, for nearly fifteen hundred years, that was the way the vast majority of believers encountered the Bible.

So, once again, I insist that all believers know about Jesus came through the Church.  His words and the stories of his life were deliberately passed down to us from antiquity, century after century. This information made its way to us through a network of mentors and apprentices, generation after generation. At an early point in this process, disciples wrote down the most vital portion of that information. However, relatively few copies of that record existed for a long, long time. 

My point: By actively ridiculing tradition, theology and ecclesiastical structure – as many Evangelicals have been doing the past few decades – we have left ourselves without a sufficient reason to defend what we think about Jesus. After all, there are other views of Jesus that are themselves quite ancient.

Jews have an image of Jesus – not usually as disparaging as Christians have sometimes believed. Most Jewish scholars believe Jesus was much like other itinerant teachers in first century Palestine. For that reason, he offers Judaism a picture of and important era of their own history.

Muslims have an image of Jesus. They honor Jesus as a prophet. Some Sufis come very close to Christianity in their views about the Lord, though Islam forbids them to cross over into any confession of His deity.

Secular historians have an image of Jesus. Few of them now doubt that Jesus lived. They believe Jesus at least the central inspiration for the birth of Christianity. They know that Western Civilization is imposable to even study without trying to get to some explanation for the tenacity and passion the reported life and words of Jesus insired.

New Age practitioners have a picture of Jesus. They often like manuscripts about Jesus that the early church decided did not belong in the biblical canon. These sources often depict a Jesus who is more like a Hindu guru than a Jewish rabbi. Nonetheless, they get a lot of press nowadays as “books about Jesus that the Church suppressed.” (Not stopping to ask themselves evidently how those same books happened to get preserved in old monasteries and church libraries.

So, in view of all these alternative views of Jesus, what make us think that the picture of Jesus we formed by reading the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and the other New Testament writers is the right one?

Indeed, how can we not be certain that Jesus even lived?  What makes us think that Jesus is not like King Arthur – a legend generously built around someone who probably once lived but whose existence we cannot prove?

Well, the unthinking believer may respond, “I believe it just because I do!” If that fails, he can shout louder and angrier. Of course, that won’t work in the end, even with our own Christian children.

There is a better response. Paul could already admit in his day, “we no longer know Christ after the flesh.” Nonetheless, he could add, “I have given to you that which I have received.”

The Apostle Peter on the other hand assured us that he and his fellow disciples had not “constructed cleverly devised fables” but were “an eyewitness of these things.”

Can we trust those ancient voices? Can we trust the people who copied the words of those early witnesses in a book? Can we trust the people who assembled their writing and declared the writing to be Holy Scripture? Can we trust the translators, without whom many of us would not be able to even read those writings? Can we trust the long process that brought these words from Jesus and His apostles to us through centuries of barbarism and illiteracy? And, for Evangelicals, do we have the right to trust this book we honor as the Word of God while denying the authority of those who assembled it?  

There were not very important questions for earlier times, even a generation or two ago. In the days when Christian people read their Bibles within a culture that was profoundly Christian, believers rarely thought to even inquire about the Bible’s foundation. Today however, no educated Christian can avoid such questions. At least they can’t do that without committing a type of intellectual suicide.

So we do ask the questions and quickly discover that these questions lead to old, old disputes about canon, creeds, and counsels and, above all, about The Church.

We don’t usually like those questions. Increasingly, Christians like to say that they love Jesus but dislike religion. As it turns out though, there is no way to know who Jesus even was without the structures of religion. If we reject the means though which we first heard and believed about Jesus, we will discover we are left with a confusing smorgasbord of images of Jesus, none of them more compelling or authentic than the other.

I look forward to reading this book, and I may say more after I do. Everyone reads any book through a set of lens. If we are going to honestly share our opinions about an author's words, we ought to first declare the opinions through which we read them.

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