Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Historical Jesus

Over at Slate, three historians debate the historical authenticity of the Gospel stories. According to Alan F. Segal, the best way to come to the conclusion that Jesus even existed is through the criterion of dissimilarity.
The criterion sets a high standard: For scholars to arrive at an undoubted fact about the life of Jesus, they must eliminate as possibly biased everything that is in the interest of the early church to tell us. Conversely, for a fact about Jesus to be deemed historical, it must not be in the interest of the church to report it. It must be, in effect, an embarrassment for the early church. Thus, the criterion of dissimilarity is sometimes called the criterion of embarrassment.
If we apply this criterion, not much remains of the Gospel narratives but Segal believes it does prove Jesus' existence.
For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed. Here are some facts in the Gospels that embarrassed the early church: Jesus was baptized by John (a great theological problem). He preached the end of the world (which did not come). He opposed the Temple in some way (and this opposition led directly to his death). He was crucified (a disreputable way to die). The inscription on the cross was "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (the church never preached this title for Jesus and shortly lost interest in converting Jews). No one actually saw him arise (though evidently his disciples almost immediately felt that he had). Ironically, it's the embarrassing nature of these facts that assures us of their authenticity.
The last two historians converse about the historicity of the virgin birth and how religious claims are not of the same order as empirical factual claims -- essentially separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. (All biblical scholars for PC reasons love to do this.)As John S. Kloppenborg concludes:
To adapt a sentence from Norman McLean's A River Runs Through It, they are not true stories, but they are stories that are true.
I know what Kloppenborg's trying to say, but, damn, that's wishy-washy.

It bothers me when historians, scientists, and the like, all kneel before the fairy tales adults wrap themselves in to keep out the cold of a harsh world devoid of meaning. The essence and courage of humanity is the ability to see the world for what it is and to defy it with all our means. Our means lie within that miracle of biological evolution: the mind. It is the most sacred thing we have. We should use it to its fullest and not decry it when it leads us to conclusions we rather not hold. This, essentially, was the decision of the federal judge when he barred the teaching of "Creative ID" in Dover, Pennsylvania.

It's time we "worshipped" Jesus for what he was: an extraordinary human being that through the force of his moral teaching inspired a revolt against the oppression and the repression of the Roman Empire. In effect, he taught us how to live and he taught us how to die. Why do we need more?

P.S. If anyone is interested in more books on the historical Jesus, some of the most challenging and uncomfortable work has been done by John Dominic Crossan. If you're a Christian, his conclusion about what happened to Jesus' dead body might be a bit too much for you. Fair warning.