Monday, June 07, 2010

Let the Dead Bury Jesus

[Jesus and Mo]

The last time I talked about historical Jesus, I concluded:
[W]e don’t know much of anything at all about the historical Jesus. All we can say for certain is that the New Testament reports on him as a teacher, executed rebel, and religious icon.
Biblical scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann, whom I admire, seems to be of the same opinion. His years of scholarship on the matter and involvement with the relevant sources lead him to conclude that --
[T]he sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus.
This statement from Hoffmann's important essay on historical Jesus scholarship declares that there's not much we can know about the historical Jesus. But the picture gets even more complicated because what we know has often been wrapped tightly in what we believe. To Hoffmann, we need to reality check both the content of our knowledge and the emotional investment we often make in that knowledge:
I accept that most of what we have learned about Jesus is “wrong” in one sense or another. Almost all of what the churches have taught about him--the christology that undergirds the doctrines of the Christian traditions, for example--is wrong at a literal level. It has to be because it is based on doctrines derived from a naive supernaturalist reading of sacred texts whose critical assessment had not even been contemplated before the eighteenth century.

But so too, the critical assessment is wrong, because it has been motivated by a belief that by removing the husks of dogmatic accretion--a process initiated by Luther’s liberal scholastic predecessors, in fact--a level of actuality would eventually be reached. There would be an assured minimum of truth (often assumed by the end of the 19th century to be primarily ethical rather than Christological, as doctrines like ascension and virgin birth were sent to the attic) which some historians on both the Catholic modernist and Protestant side thought would be unassailable.
In both church and school, our understanding of the historical Jesus has traditionally had more to do with ideology than reality. But if I understand Hoffmann, the historical Jesus is also a decidedly modern phenomenon in the West:
Odd...that the historicity of Jesus should be of any concern at all in relation to a person whose humanity, in the letters of Paul and in the gospels (to a lesser extent, perhaps) is of no consequence to the core tradition. The battle of the post-New Testament period in the early Church, as Harnack recognized, was not to define the divinity of Jesus but to defend his humanity.
Hoffmann notes that in the formative centuries of Christianity, the humanity of Jesus (which is not quite the same thing as his historicity) was actually de-emphasized in favor of his divinity--so much so that keeping hold of the idea that he was a walking and talking person at one time was a struggle. By comparison Hoffmann discusses a bit of the Islamic tradition, in which the humanity (again, not the same as historicity) of Jesus was cherished:
Love, fear, joy, pleasure, mother-love, and compassion equally have their origins in emotion and human evolution and are nonetheless “real” in daily life–indeed, shape daily life–constantly expressing themselves in thought and action. Religion consolidates these aspects of existence in a way that simple curiosity and information does not. It roots them not in the self but in something external, like God, or incarnates them in messengers like Jesus and metaphors like sin, forgiveness and redemption. That is what is going on in the New Testament, not an episode of To Tell the Truth.

For this reason–starting with a certain lack of profundity—it is difficult not to find the musings of (many) myth-theorists frankly ridiculous. The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: that is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity. Besides, a god without humanity could scarcely be expected to comprehend human suffering, or desire to do anything about it. History did not require Jesus; emotion did. It required as well the incredible and fantastic aspects of his personality. History required Muhammad and the non-divinity of Muhammad for other reasons. That is why the two traditions are different.
What Hoffmann is trying to do here is establish a positive space for religion and religiosity. That first paragraph above stakes out the battery of intense human passions for which religion allows such expressive power. Religion--not Christianity, Islam, or any other major religion--has never been about relaying information but rather about presenting all experience as holding overarching significance and connectedness. That second paragraph challenges mythicists who dismiss religion out of hand as superstition and fantasy. Hoffmann defends Jesus and religion against the mythicists: it's not entirely fair to crow about the lack of evidence for the historical Jesus, he says, because early Christianity didn't realize it would ever need it (assuming there was evidence).

Instead, Jesus-as-God-incarnated was very much shaped by early Christianity's battles among believers and believers-to-be:
Stuck with the Bible, the gospel, a growing body of doctrine, necessitated by struggles with heretics, and the religious demands of a growing community–a lot of weight to carry–Christianity could not very easily take the turn toward disembodied and denatured divinity. If, for the pagans, the resurrection of the flesh was a nauseating idea, for the Christians it became a useful absurdity and the prelude to two millennia of “paradoxical” theology.
Hoffmann thus seems to be heading toward an idea that we are captive today to the sources available, and those sources emphasized the divinity of Jesus while subduing his human aspect. We cannot know if there was a "real" Jesus, but we can perhaps filter out the semblance of a human being from early Christian beliefs about who Jesus was:
If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed? It is not the same as asking whether Muhammad existed since nothing but one kind of reality has ever been claimed for him, and that is historical.

My defense of debates and discussion of the historical Jesus is not based on any confidence that something new is going to be discovered, or some persuasive “template” found that will decide for us a question that the early Christian obviously regarded as irrelevant. Still less is it based on some notion that the Church will retract the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union, clearing the way for an impartial investigation into the life of Jesus. That is already possible, and as always before the journey gets us to the front door of the Church. Nothing has been more depressing than the search for the Jesus of history, and nothing more hollow than the shouts of scholars who have claimed to find him. Except the shouts of scholars who claim there is nothing to find.

Not that the shapers of the Jesus tradition, whatever their real names were, should have the final say, but they did draw the map and bury the treasure. We are the victims of their indifference to the question.
Hoffmann argues that just because early Christianity made Jesus a magical, fantastical being doesn't mean that Jesus was all magic and fantasy. So, he's calling for measured applications of skepticism--agnosticism, even.

As I said, Hoffmann is one of those scholars I admire. I like his knowledge and his application of reasoning. However, I only find a weak case here against the mythicist position. Hoffmann appears simply to dislike the attitude of mythicists--maybe they seem too biased or too gleeful at the prospect of what a 100% no-Jesus would mean. I see Hoffmann as suffering from the same problem that many smart people have when it comes to religion:

On the one hand, religious beliefs are false and wrapped up in so much of what has been both immoral and tyrannical in world history. On the other hand, many people--including those we love--have drawn strength from their religious beliefs and have powerful personal ties to religious celebrations and rituals.

The problem is one of how to let go of religious beliefs, how to finally release them into the air.

Hoffmann seems not to want traditional belief. Yet he also wants to retain some appreciation, veneration even, of religion. I agree that it's important to have a a clear and unfiltered understanding of both religion generally and religions specifically. It's important to know their beliefs, their history, and their impact on cultures and individuals.

But we also have to accept that so much in religion describes stories which rise to the level of the impossible: the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Exodus, the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Assumption, and so on.

It really is OK that these are just stories. It's alright that they did not actually occur as reported. We can appreciate the stories, and we can listen to them and even learn from them. They just aren't true, and they are not stable pillars of a life.

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