The Historic Jesus

So I’m currently taking my second last course towards my degree in New Testament studies.  It’s an intensive course (i.e. assignments before and after one week of all-day classes), and part of my load in taking it was to lecture/present on Jesus as a historical person, and the research that is done to discover Him.  Some of the highlights of my lecture (and please don’t expect too much of them, this is just regular old me giving the lecture) are summarized here.

The earliest excursions into Jesus’ life were by people like St. Augustine (of Hippo) who wrote Gospel Harmonies.  Gospel Harmonies were a way that scholars tried to account for the slight differences that exist between the telling of the same stories between the different gospels.  Were they different occurrences?  Were they the same occurrence from different vantage points?  How could such things be accounted for?  This laid the groundwork for the impetus which keeps Historical Jesus research going, even to today and beyond: how do we account for our different gospel accounts?

The next stage of Historical Jesus scholarship was carried out through the efforts of scholars who wrote Lives of Jesus.  These were broadly intentioned works that sought to capture glimpses of Jesus as He could have been.  Unfortunately, they were all-too-often works that just expressed views of Jesus that were agreeable to the authors.  Nonetheless, these began to use critical apparati (a word which I will use, regardless of how much my computer tells me it should be apparatuses) in their studies.

In general, for contemporary Historical Jesus studies there are three main points of consideration.  These points are the context, the sources, and the criteria.  In question form, these bring up issues of What is Jesus’ historical context?, Where do we find information about Jesus?, and What are the criteria for studying Jesus as a historical person?

With regards to the question of context, there are both the historical context and the social context at work.  For the first, the findings that inform the work are taken from the work of historians and archaeologists.  For the second, the findings that inform the work are taken from the studies of anthropologists and sociologists.  The first will teach us about events and physical places; about art and craftsmanship; about food trends and letter-writing.  The second will teach us about the forces that drove people to do the things they did and within which they operated – things like purity systems, patron-client systems, honour-shame systems, literacy levels, challenge and riposte.  All of this together helps us to build the world that Jesus lived in, and thus to better understand Him and His interactions.

With regards to the question of sources, ultimately I think that it’s responsible to hold the canonical gospels as the most reliable sources about Jesus’ life.  Some will argue otherwise – claiming that these works are biased as they were written by religious people for their own purposes; others will claim that other so-called gospels contain original traditions about Jesus, independently of the canonical gospels.  In the end, however, there is no really great evidence that any of these other works were written before the canonical gospels, nor that they show any traditions reliably more ancient or innately authoritative than what the canonical gospels do.  If a scholar decides a priori that s/he will take them in such a way, then they do – but there is a very difficult burden left on them to substantiate that claim.

With regards to the question of criteria, there are various criteria that scholars employ in looking at the sources in the light of the context.  What one must remember on this point is that most scholarship views the Biblical gospels as highly suspect – they will cut out as much as they can, and see what remains.  One is of proximity, which is to say that if a tradition about Jesus is thought to be older (i.e. provably dating closer to Jesus’ own time), then they are more likely to accept it as authoritative.  The next is Multiple Attestation, which is the criterion that looks for the same tradition about Jesus rising from different trustable sources.  The criterion of Dissimilarity is used by scholars to try to find traditions that are “uniquely” Jesus: that is, they are more likely to accept traditions as authoritative if they don’t seem to be particularly Jewish, nor particularly Christian (i.e. not proto-rabbinical, attributed to Jesus; not of the early-Church, attributed to Jesus).  The problem with this criterion is that it would present Jesus as having no context (no connection with the past; no legacy into the future).

As it is widely believed that traditions about Jesus were sustained in oral form before written form, scholars will give authority to traditions that seem to have Memorable Content and Form, that is, for traditions about Jesus that would be easy to remember and transmit.  At the same time, they look for traditions that fit Jesus’ particular context – this is the other side of the criterion of Dissimilarity, which diminishes the authority of traditions that don’t seem to fit Jesus’ specific context; this increases the view of the authority of traditions that do fit it.  Scholars are likely to view traditions about Jesus that give Explanation for the Church greater authority as well (well, some scholars do).  Finally, if they feel that a tradition doesn’t fit any of these criterion, but that it sits well with other traditions that do – if there is Coherence – then scholars are likely to view it along the same lines.

These are the tools that can be used by scholars to help them “find” the actual historic person Jesus.  But scholars are a strange bunch, cutting the gospels to pieces instead of reading them as God gave them to the Church.  Actually, not all of them do this.  One of the best ways to read the gospels (which you already know of) is to read them as whole units.  They tell the story differently, but they tell the same story – and isn’t that the story that we’re all here for?

Incarnation, Part 3

Back to the topic of making the Incarnation accessible to the average person. A couple of days ago I floated the idea of the Author writing Himself into the script of the play (Lewis’ idea originally, not mine). Yesterday I wrote about the Christmas story being an adult story, rather than a children’s story (though still accessible to children on some levels). Today, I’d like to draw attention to a particular story that I became familiar with when quite young (a movie made in 1982 told it): it is a story that holds some affinity to the Incarnation; it is a story that bears some meaning to children; it is a story with the potential to bear more and deeper meaning to adults. That is, Tron.

Now, I haven’t been big on Tron for a long time. I prefer the Narnia stories and The Lord of the Rings. Yet, at the same time, there’s something about Tron that resonates with the Christmas story. The story opens with an evil (artificial) intelligence that’s taken control of Flynn’s creation (a set of five video games that a software empire is built upon). This evil entity is commandeering, taking control of, whatever it finds useful. Those it can’t use, it pits against each other so that its enemies are destroying one another. Sound familiar at all? Well, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the programs have no hope of saving themselves from this tyrant (the MCP) – though they still hold out hope: “Do you believe in the users?” “Of course! Who else programmed me?”

By a turn of events, Flynn is transported inside the computer system. He displays uniqueness: he is able to control things in the system by his thoughts; he is able to absorb the power (red/blue) of whatever program he is in contact with; he is able to transfer power to dying programs to save them; he is able, ultimately, to enter the MCP’s mainframe (certain death) and come out the other side. I could be seeing something more than is intended, but… doesn’t that sound Incarnational to you?

But maybe that’s another way to think about the Christmas story. Certainly the Tron movie is accessible (I haven’t seen the new one, yet, though I’d like to) to people; the concepts it wrestles with are presented pretty clearly. There are some differences, like the MCP zaps Flynn into the system, rather than him choosing that path as the path to save the programs that are being dominated by that artificial intelligence. But differences aside, there’s something about the idea of the maker being a part of the made… something about the programmer becoming a program… do you see?

Because that’s the other thing about the Christmas story. It’s not just about God choosing to be born in time, bound by space. It’s about the context that He chose to be a part of, to step into. He came to a world full of trouble – a world in which the devil reigned supreme, and the godly were few. Those who weren’t being used directly by the devil for misled worship or misguided distractions were being used by the devil to destroy one another through war. It was mentioned to me, not long ago, that Simon was a zealot and Levi was a tax-collector – that the zealots were sworn, in Jesus’ time, to kill such people. How many uncomfortable nights on the road did Jesus sleep in between these two men to stay the hand of Simon? What kind of turmoil did Simon suffer from, around the knowledge of befriending a tax-collector? The devil uses what he can, and sets the rest (as far as he is able) to destroy itself (and each other). This is the context that Jesus came to – not unlike, in some ways, the MCP’s hold on its own world in Tron.

And so if you’re going to think about the Christmas story this year – as I think you should – I want to encourage you to consider it on its own terms. Consder the world that Jesus was born into; consider the meaning that His birth carries; consider the significance of His birth for today, not just yesterday; consider Him. How great His love for us, that He would give Himself for us! What a blessing to know that He loves us in such a way that He would not abandon us – but is the Creator who choicefully shares with His creation.

Incarnation, Part 2

For many, today, the story of Jesus’ birth is – at best – a good children’s story (which doesn’t say anything about its truth value, just its intended audience), and at worst a “myth” (which in vernacular English refers to something that isn’t true, as opposed to scholastic English in which it refers to a story which may or may not be true – which is beside the point, in this usage – but which conveys truth – which is the primary purpose of myth in this usage). This idea of it being a children’s story is juxtaposed against the idea of it being an adult’s story. It’s fine for children; not for adults.

This puts the Christmas story alongside such stories as Goodnight Moon, or Green Eggs and Ham, and I’d like to examine the question of whether that’s an appropriate place for it, or not. Consider what makes children’s stories: generally, they’re stories that are easily understood – it doesn’t take an adult intellect to wrap the mind around a “great green room” in which there’s “a telephone, and red balloon, and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon…” Nor does it take an adult intellect to understand the different possibilities that Sam puts forward (would you eat them in a box with a fox?). And so it’s probably fair to say that one mark of a children’s story is that a child can comprehend it.

But we’re not talking about “See[ing] Dick run!” here. We’re talking about the Creator becoming a part of His creation; about the Most High becoming the lowliest; about the One whom the heavens cannot contain becoming fully present in one baby. This isn’t the stuff of children’s stories! This is the object of some of the greatest philosophy by some of the greatest minds that the world has ever known – and these have struggled to express it appropriately! It is not a simple task to wrap one’s mind around this concept – any who think that it is have failed to understand the problem, which is the only explanation for their having found the answer.

Secondly, consider what children’s books are “about.” Admittedly, my encounters with children’s books these days are for very young children – and there are children’s books with larger/deeper meanings than the ones I spend my time with (I know there are, because I used to read them decades ago). So what, then, is Goodnight Moon about? It’s about a child going to bed! At a most active level, it challenges children to say goodnight to everything in their room (a task which, if you’ve ever tried, can put a good many people to sleep). At a less active level, however, it just passively puts kids to sleep. If you think about Green Eggs and Ham, too, you’ll see a similar-level moral. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it” is the obvious meaning of the story (though multiple layers of deeper meaning can always be read into it, much more dependent on the reader than on the story itself though). These are simple morals for children; these are simple meanings – and these are another mark of children’s stories.

Consider, then, the Christmas story. Does it have a similar moral? Does it have a similar simple meaning? I think that rather than having this, it shows something quite complex. On the one hand, its meaning is encapsulated in all of that theological jargon that deals with incarnation, and calling Jesus the branch of Jesse’s stem, the Key of David, the new Adam, the New Israel. All of this is to try to express the significance of Jesus’ birth. But on the other hand, its meaning for the average reader today (the “carry away”) is hardly revealed in the same way as children’s stories reveal such things. It is, rather, a matter of interpretation – and any modern interpretation of it must take into account the significant interpretations of those who originally did so in the canon of Scripture. Jesus’ birth means that God is not an unmoved mover: the implications of this cosmological reality are far-reaching! The Christmas story is certainly accessible to children on one level, but it begs for a mature and responsible reader on another. It can certainly be read as a children’s story, as so many do, but it cannot be limited to such an audience – to do so would be to miss the entire point that the story begs us to find in it!


One of my favourite Christmas hymns has been Once in Royal David’s City. I think it’s one of my father’s favourites, which may mean that it’s inevitable that it would be one of mine. In the old blue hymnbook it has six verses, and one verse that particularly sticks out to me (both in memory and as I sing the hymn itself) is the second.

“He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

The opening line of that verse is, I’m sure, problematic for some people. Even I can’t help thinking of Kirk and his, “Beam me up, Scotty,” when I recite that “He came down to earth from heaven.” It’s a theological statement, but it conjures up images of aliens visiting earth – or of the crew of the Enterprise going on an away mission to the surface of whichever new planet they’re visiting on any given week. Don’t people have enough trouble believing in, and understanding, the Christmas story without notions of extra-terrestrial beings surfacing in the fore of their thought? I think they do – so how can we go about helping people understand the incarnation in words and terms that aren’t confusing and/or misleading?

Imagine, if you will, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Remember the story? If not, there are dozens of interpretations of it on tv this time of year so you can refresh your memory. I don’t remember Star Trek doing it, or Family Matters (ie. Steve Urkel), though Simpsons satirized that both of them did. But you can catch it live-action, or animated, or told by the Muppets, or by Black Adder. It is an enduring tale, and that’s why so many tell it – because everyone wants to take part in something so obviously “bigger” than themselves. So imagine the story:

Scrooge is visited by four ghosts – Jacob Marley (his old partner) and three others, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Their purpose in visiting him is clear: that he might reform and change his ways; that he might learn to keep Christmas, “if ever a man possessed the knowledge”; that he might be saved from the end that Marley himself met. Writers will sometimes tell of how the characters in their stories take on a life of their own, as they’re writing, and that the characters can guide and lead the story into places that the author never intended, but must then go. The characters themselves have personalities and must have integrity to themselves.

Imagine, then, that Dickens had written Scrooge as a less dynamic character (ie. one who doesn’t change too much from the beginning of the story to its end). What would Dickens have done if, at the end of his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the character that he’d given Scrooge had begged to be unmoved – if his statement to the Ghost had been, “Good – I’m glad Bob has that crippled boy. It makes it all-the-more-sweet that I’m stiffing him on his pay.” What if Scrooge had, in the morning when he discovered it was Christmas Day still, gone to Bob’s house and let him know that he’d reconsidered and would dock him the day’s wage if he didn’t come to the counting house immediately? What if all the messengers had failed? Well, for one it wouldn’t be a great and enduring Christmas story. But secondly, and more importantly, it would force Dickens (as the author of the story) to take more drastic steps in order to get the story to end as he wanted it to.

So imagine that Dickens himself suddenly appeared to Scrooge. “Scrooge,” he’d say, “I am the author of your story; I am the writer of your destiny. You need to know that I’ve got a much better ending for you than what you seem intent on making for yourself. Let me show you a better way.” Now, there’s every chance that Scrooge would still disregard such a warning – but there’s a special kind of force that Dickens himself could have with him that nobody else could. So what if he’d written himself into the story?

It was Lewis, I believe, who wrote (speaking of the Incarnation) that the writer wrote Himself into His story. For centuries; for generation upon generation, God sent His prophets. But people disregarded their message. Time and time again they would return to Him for a fleeting moment, only to return to their wicked ways. And so the author wrote Himself into His story – into history. God’s Son, who is God, became flesh of the virgin Mary and dwelt among us. “I’ve got a better ending for you than the one that you seem intent on making for yourself. Only believe; trust in Me.”