DID Jesus one day step out of the desert, shake the dust off his feet and begin preaching a gentle message of love and peace? Or was he a charismatic moralist who sought to encourage the poor and the wretched? Could he possibly have been a revolutionary soldier who might have joined Umkhonto we Sizwe? Or was he an apocalyptic prophet who wanted to warn humanity to repent because the end is near?
While the debate about the historical Jesus — the man who lived in Galilee until his crucifixion on Golgotha — has raged for decades in Europe and America, it is yet to take off in South Africa.
One of the reasons for this, says Prof Andrie du Toit of the NG Church's theological faculty at the University of Pretoria, is that “we come from a fundamentalist past, and consequently the questions are a bit threatening for people".
Last week, Prof Willem Vorster from the Institute for Theological Research at Unisa touched on the subject in a public lecture, upsetting quite a few people. Once again, this shows that the intense emotions stirred up by the crusades over the centuries still lie just beneath the surface when traditional concepts about Jesus are challenged.
“There is a gaping abyss between scholarly research and what the man in the street believes," says Vorster.
Reliability of the gospels
The search for the historical Jesus is intertwined with the fundamental question about the reliability of the synoptic gospels of the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Apart from a few references in other ancient documents, the New Testament remains the only source of information about the most influential person who ever lived. New Testament scholars generally agree that the four gospels were written at least 40 years after Jesus's crucifixion. There is also consensus that the gospel writers were not aiming to create precise historical records that would meet modern standards of science.
“Early Christians did not have the concerns about ‘historical accuracy' that we carry today," says Vorster.
The biblical writers were infused with faith in Jesus, and it is from that perspective that they wrote. They looked at the earthly Jesus through a lens coloured by his resurrection and ascension. They were not objective observers.
The search for the historical Jesus, which began tentatively in 1778, temporarily came to an end in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Theologians, including Albert Schweitzer, said the gospels were written from the perspective of faith in Jesus, not from the perspective of the historical Jesus. The Jesus of faith is thus what matters, while the historical Jesus is not of importance.
Since 1953, there has been a renewed inquiry into Jesus the Jew who lived in Galilee.
The various images of who Jesus was must be sought in the nature of the sources that exist about him. Until the beginning of this century, it was commonly believed that the gospel of Mark was the oldest of the four and that it painted a reliable picture of who Jesus truly was. Today, it is widely accepted that Mark, like the other gospels, presents an image of Jesus that was crafted for a specific audience and with a specific purpose in mind.
It is not known whether Mark had written material at his disposal or whether he had to rely largely on oral traditions. “He also invented some of the material he wrote about Jesus and attributed it to Jesus himself," says Vorster.
It is commonly thought that the other gospels borrowed from Mark. It is now believed that there was also a collection of “Jesus sayings" used as a source by all four writers. This is known as the hypothetical source Q (from the German word “Quelle").
Archaeological discoveries have also contributed to knowledge about New Testament events. An inscription uncovered in Caesarea in 1961 confirmed that Pilate was a first-century Roman governor.
Another important discovery was the so-called gospel of Thomas, which was part of the Nag Hammadi documents found in the vicinity of the Dead Sea in 1947. The gospel of Thomas contains many of the “Jesus sayings" that correspond to Q.
Theologian James M Robinson, the director of the Claremont Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, uses the documents to support his view that Jesus was a kind of charismatic teacher who sought to make the world a better place.
The efforts of modern scholars to extract the true historical Galilean from the veils of the centuries — a process known as the historical-critical method — have brought forth several unusual views of Jesus.
Vorster focuses on two, namely the historical Jesus as an eschatological prophet who expected the end of the world and foresaw the judgment of God, and Jesus as a wisdom teacher who aimed to persuade people to lead more meaningful lives by changing their value systems.
The Jesus portrayed by figures such as the renowned missionary Schweitzer had a clear vision of the impending end of the world. Eschatology pertains to the final things and refers to the Jewish expectations of that time that the world would come to an end, followed by the last judgment, rebuilding would take place, and a new era would then commence.
He was clearly influenced by John the Baptist's calls for repentance. Statements of John the Baptist as recorded by Matthew are seen as references to the impending judgment, such as the axe already laid at the root of the trees, the threshing floor needing to be cleaned, and the wheat being stored in the barn while the chaff is burned.
Schweitzer believed that Jesus' life, work and teaching were directed towards an anticipation that the end “of the world is about to break". This also influenced Jesus' ethical teaching, leading Schweitzer to speak of Jesus' “interim ethics" — a kind of emergency ethics until the world went up in smoke and flames.
The concept of the “kingdom of God" is central to Jesus' eschatological expectations, says another theologian, CH Dodd, but he believes the kingdom was already present for Jesus in his work on earth.
Theologian Ed Sanders of Oxford argues that Jesus expected the kingdom to come in the near future and believed his followers would play a significant role in its rebuilding. After his death, the disciples continued within this framework.
Vorster points out that many of Jesus' parables, metaphors and narratives are in aphoristic form, meaning concise truths about life. For example, in the gospel of Matthew: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven." Or: “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness."
Wisdom ranges from the practical skills of a craftsman to the art of governance, the ability to deal with people and the pursuit of ethical behaviour. Wisdom, says Vorster, comes from God and is associated with creation and the law in the Old Testament.
How do they explain the concept of the “kingdom of God" — a significant argument in Jesus' eschatological view?
Vorster says there is consensus that the concept simply means the “reign of God".
Burton Mack, a colleague of Robinson, argues that the eschatological interpretation that Mark gives to the kingdom concept relies heavily on Mark's own apocalyptic expectations. The term “kingdom" is a metaphor for sovereignty, freedom and trust.
Vorster says Jesus' mission was to teach people a new value system. He offers a symbolic reality for people in need, those who are lost and oppressed.
Vorster concludes his discourse as follows: “Jesus' teaching was radical. It was not revolutionary in the modern sense of the word. The Romans misunderstood him as someone claiming to be a messiah and a threat to the empire, and thus he was crucified.
“After his death, he was placed in various roles due to his significance for his followers. Before his death, he empowered people through his teachings to cope with life and to follow a lifestyle in accordance with his perception of God's will."
The two models leave believers with more questions than answers. Does this mean that the wisdom teacher Jesus negates the eschatological Jesus, and the resurrection and ascension that go with him?
No, says Vorster. Although he “leans more" towards the latter Jesus, the two are not opposed but complement each other.
“The main question I want to address is what role Jesus played in first-century society. I cannot place him in the role of a contemporary revolutionary or political agitator, but rather in the role of someone who could have had a tremendous impact on society through the new value system he preached."
Regarding the aforementioned models, Du Toit says: “Scientific discussions and theories about Jesus can deepen and enrich one's insight, but they can also be misleading. For this reason, they should not be taken too seriously."
Even the two models combined would not be able to capture the full Jesus of Nazareth, says Du Toit. For example, they don't explain the Jesus who heals or casts out demons.
“Through the centuries, Jesus has survived numerous such theories … Jesus cannot be classified. Our theories will come and go, but Jesus will remain."
The ways in which scholars attempt to unravel the gospels pose specific problems for organised religion and the average churchgoer. An example is the implicit assumption that the gospels are too complex for the ordinary reader to fully understand.
The question also arises whether the quest for the historical Jesus has any relevance for believers, those who care about the historical Jesus but want him to align with the Jesus they believe in.
Vorster says religion cannot solve the world's poverty or political problems, but it can teach believers to have certain values in their daily interactions with people. Rediscovering the historical Jesus as a wisdom teacher, for example, and conveying that to the ordinary churchgoer, can help them to understand that faith is not an escape from life but has implications for daily living.
♦ VWB ♦
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