While I was in the process of becoming Catholic twenty-nine years ago (click HERE for Part 1), I tried to make sense out of the ‘historical Jesus’ problem.
We never really discussed it in RCIA class, but it seemed important to me. So I read a bunch of books about it.
What is the ‘historical Jesus’ problem?
One the one hand: Jesus of Nazareth, a human being, like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. We have historical records about Jesus, like we have historical records about other luminaries of the ancient world. The records about Jesus have been gathered into a unique collection called the New Testament.
Human beings wrote the records we have about Jesus. And those writers had their human reasons for writing, and particular human audiences in mind, when they wrote.
History = reconstructing the past by studying written records. Nothing magic about it, or holy. It’s a field of study that we human beings must engage in, in order to understand our situation. Jesus of Nazareth, an important man of history, fits into that study.
On the other hand: The Church believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal Word made flesh, the God-man. The Church believes that He is the heart of the holy and divine Scriptures, the books that reveal God Almighty to us. God Who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
The Church reverently reads the Bible as not just true, but as the key to understanding The Truth.
As a candidate for the Easter sacraments, I encountered some ideas about how to deal with this problem. And I couldn’t bring myself to accept those ideas.
Jesus as portrayed in the Bible is the Christ that Catholics believe in, and what actually happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago doesn’t matter. History is one thing, faith is another. There’s no point in struggling with an impossible task, namely making the Bible’s testimony about Jesus seem reasonable or accurate.
But hold on. Don’t Catholics believe in the actual, factual Jesus Christ?
As in: He instituted the Holy Mass, using bread and wine, with His own human hands and voice, at a particular Passover celebration, with His apostles.
And: He rose from the dead in the flesh.
Doesn’t the whole religion absolutely require that these are true facts?
I knew I had no intention of joining a Church founded on myths, even lovely myths.
In other words: critical thinking about Holy Scripture seemed absolutely necessary to me. Not just on the grounds that we are rational animals, we human beings. But also on the grounds that: Christians believe in a God-man who actually did walk the earth, talk, eat, sleep, bathe, etc.–like us. There is no Christianity without the actual, historical Jesus of Nazareth.
Here’s another idea that floated my way during my RCIA year, one that I couldn’t accept:
We ‘enlightened,’ modern people have more learning than the ancients, so we can understand the human beings who wrote the Scriptures better than they understood themselves.
We now have the skills necessary to interpret Scriptural statements that seem hard to accept; we can render them perfectly reasonable. When you can psychoanalyze the human authors, and their original intended audiences, then you can understand what they really meant.
For example: Matthew’s gospel says that St. Joseph took the Blessed Mother and the baby Jesus to Egypt, to escape the slaughter of the innocents ordered by King Herod.
According to the school of thought I’m talking about, a ‘naive’ pre-modern reader thinks: This means the Holy Family made a difficult journey. But an ‘educated,’ modern interpreter understands: The author traditionally known as ‘Matthew’ wrote this to tell his readers that Jesus is the new Moses. (Since Moses came from Egypt to Israel, in the Exodus, with the whole people.)
Now, Jesus certainly is the new Moses. And we could read Matthew’s gospel and know that, even without the detail about the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt.
But call me naive, I think that if the trip did not happen, then the book contains an untrue statement.
I read and re-read the gospels, and went looking for some help in the writings of St. Augustine. The following began to dawn on me:
1. Some ‘historical critics’ insist that the gospels contradict each other on certain points. But that is not true.
Finding ‘contradictions’ requires over-interpreting the significance of particular statements, as if they were meant to exclude other related facts.
But if you avoid over-interpreting gospel details like this, then the ‘contradictions’ disappear. The apparent discrepancies arise from the multiple points-of-view that the New Testament offers: multiple points-of-view on one underlying set of facts.
That underlying set of facts is no more–and no less!–complicated than our own complicated lives, with all their relationships, conversations, confidences, etc. etc.
The gospel accounts of disciples seeing Jesus after He rose from the dead seem complicated and disjointed? How would the accounts of your friends seeing you, in different places and at different times, after you rose from the dead seem, if that happened?
How many facebook posts would be involved? Could those posts be gathered together into an easy narrative? Please. The facebook posts about your family’s last Thanksgiving dinner could hardly be gathered together into an easy, coherent narrative. Very few family Thanksgiving dinners could be.
2. The four gospels corroborate each other–and corroborate the Christian tradition–on the basic narrative about Jesus of Nazareth. If the written records of the first century A.D. give us anything, they give us a solid picture of this man’s life.
He traveled Palestine as an itinerant rabbi; He taught a distinct message about His identity and His significance in Jewish history that got Him crucified. His followers claimed that they had seen Him after He rose from the dead (even though it cost many of them their own lives to make that claim). They celebrated Baptism and the Eucharist at His command.
Thoroughly verifiable historical facts, these.
3. Most of the content of the gospels, however, can neither be proven to be true history, nor disproven. You can’t prove that Jesus said all the things the gospels say He said. But you can’t prove that He didn’t say them, either.
These books give the reader the intimate point-of-view of the disciple of Christ. They were written by disciples for disciples, by Christians for Christians. These books continue the experience of intimacy with Christ that the disciples had; the books allow the authors’ experience to continue now.
It is an undeniable historical fact that the original disciples had the experience of intimacy with Christ. What that experience involved can only be known by fellow believers. When you read the New Testament, as a member of the Church, you have it–the same experience as the gospel authors.
That is, the experience of communion with the triune God, on the terms that Jesus laid down in His teaching and example. (And made possible by His gifts of grace.)
I realized, twenty-nine years ago: Historical inquiry gets you right to the front door of the church, without any doubts. Or any leaps of faith.
Then the Catholic, apostolic faith gets you inside, to hear and read the gospels for what they are.
There’s nothing irrational about believing every word of the Bible, assuming we are humble enough to admit that we don’t fully understand them all.
We quickly leave the question of historical accuracy behind, however, as we enter the realm of intimacy with God that the New Testament open up to us, here and now.