Summary: Understanding our historical faith
There are Two Extremes in the consideration of who Jesus is...
One extreme in this debate is a radical skepticism. Ever since the publication of the writings of H. S. Reimarus in 1778, the belief of the church that Jesus was and is the Christ, the divine Son of God, born of a virgin, pre-existent deity incarnate in human flesh, worker of miracles, crucified for our sins, and resurrected to glory, has been under constant attack. The story of Jesus is undergoing a constant, radical reconstruction at the hands of skeptical critics. This revision of the portrait of Jesus claims to get behind the later embellishments of the original story to present the real Jesus of history. It is claimed that the Christ of faith, the Christ preached and worshipped in the churches, bears little resemblance to the real Jesus of history. The simple story of a Galilean peasant was supposedly enlarged and transformed into the story of a divine being.
The skeptical critics believe we can know almost nothing about the real Jesus of history. Dr. W. R. Inge, the former Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, was supposedly asked by a publisher to write a life of Jesus. He responded: "As there are no materials for a life of Christ, I regret that I cannot comply with your request." Similarly, Rudolf Bultmann, the leading scholar of this century in demythologizing the story of Jesus, declared: "I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus."
What needs to be understood very clearly is that this radical, skeptical way of thinking about Jesus did not come about due to some archaeological discovery. It did not result from some historical document, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which called into question the picture of Jesus in the four Gospels. It did not come into existence because something was discovered in the biblical text which disproved what the church had always thought about Jesus. The skeptical view of Jesus is a historical reconstruction which is theory, and a tenuous one at that, which is based on certain presuppositions. The skeptics begin by affirming that there are no miracles, nothing supernatural in this world. Therefore, the story of Jesus cannot be true. They approach the text under the guise of doing dispassionate, unbiased historical research, when from the beginning the game has been fixed.
Critical study forms theories and then tests those theories against the evidence to see which theory best explains the evidence. The theory that Jesus actually was the divine Son of God is never given a chance to explain the evidence, because a presupposition eliminates it from consideration before the test even begins. Thus the skeptical critics offer a variety of alternative explanations, most of which can be summarized under one, single concept, their belief that the early church embellished the story of the real Jesus of history with later additions. They believe it is the critic's job to peal away those later additions and expose the small kernel of truth that remains.
Since an anti-supernatural presupposition has skewed the skeptic's research from the beginning, it is not surprising that different scholars find a different Jesus at the conclusion of their study. They are like people who look into a pool of water and observe a reflection of their own image. The Jesus they rediscover is different from the Jesus of the four Gospels. He is also different from the reconstruction of other critics, but he is very much like the Jesus each of the critics wants to find. Claude Montefiore, a liberal Jew, discovers that the real Jesus was a liberal Jew. Another writer finds a Jesus who advocates "living at ease" and "floating in the womb of the universe," the perfect Jesus for a new age world.10 Others find a politically correct Jesus who crusades for women's rights and the poor in a counter cultural egalitarianism. And, of course, we must admit that many Christians begin with traditional presuppositions. Not surprisingly they find the traditional Christ after a simple study which has not really confronted the problems and issues at hand.
The Jesus Seminar has warned others against finding a comfortable Jesus. That is good advice which the members of the Jesus Seminar should have heeded themselves. When E. V. Rieu began a translation of the Gospels, his son is reported to have said: "It will be very interesting to see what Father makes of the Gospels."
It is very interesting to see what many have made of the Gospels. Most find the Jesus that they want to find. Their reconstructions often tell us more about the historian than they do about Jesus. One of the most damaging criticisms of these liberal reconstructions of the real Jesus of history is from the pen of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, who said: "Why anyone should have troubled to crucify the Christ of Liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery." Similarly, one of the greatest Jesus scholars of our generation, the Roman Catholic John Meier, said that "a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field--such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one."