Thinking about Scholarship about Jesus

One of the major questions I think about often – partly as a scholar, but more so as a questioning Christian – touches on how “history” as a discipline and “theology” as a discipline relate – or not.  Stick with me here, for a second.  You’ll see that this question actually matters.

Historians – even believing Christian historians – keep constant vigilance about inappropriately inserting theological claims into their conclusions.  You’ll notice that hesitance when, upon reading, for example, about some great leader in Christian history, you see the scholar say that so and so “believed that” God had done something.

What that Christian historian – as a historian – will not say is that “God did” action X, taking out the “believed that.”  In other words, historians focus on human actions, beliefs, statements, circumstances, etc.  As soon as someone makes a direct claim about God doing something, rather than clarifying that Person Y “believed that” God did something, that person is regarded as doing theology, not history.

Still, Christians, including most Christian historians, believe that God has acted decisively in history (leaving aside philosophical questions about the nature of “history” for the moment) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Thus, though this claim is a theological one, since it is believed to have happened in history, it messes with the boundaries between theology and history.

Which brings me to Scot McKnight’s recent post at his patheos.com blog, “Jesus Creed.”  He writes about a new book about the historical Jesus (he explains very clearly what this phrase means), written by Helen Bond of Cambridge University.  To read the post, go to http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/ and look for the title, “Jesus for the Perplexed.”)  And take time to read the comments, too, especially Scot’s own near the end of the thread.

United Methodists divide over how to understand the nature and mission of Jesus.  This is one of the reasons our mission statement – to makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – does not provide us with a sufficiently unifying vision, because it reveals how differently we think about the ground and source of the Christian life.  So, let’s look at what “Jesus for the Perplexed” can illumine for our thinking.

No historical Jesus scholar says that we can “prove” that Jesus rose bodily from the grave.  As Scot McKnight does in his comment, historians can establish that (1) Jesus was crucified and died, (2) the earliest disciples experienced appearances of Jesus (whatever “appearances” means) after his death and (3) claimed on the basis of these appearances that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead.

And right here things get really interesting.  NOT as a historian, but on the basis of good historical work, one then can believe (1) that Jesus actually did rise from the dead (the appearances the disciples saw were actually of a bodily Jesus, even if that body was radically transformed), or (2) that Jesus did not rise from the dead (the appearances were something like a faith-generated apparition or something else, perhaps just wishful thinking).  It all depends on how you read the evidence.

Now, does it matter how we answer?  Can United Methodists believe both yes and no on this matter of Jesus’ resurrection and still be part of the same church?  I don’t think so.

If Jesus died and is still dead, then the cross shrinks in importance (even if you see it as an act of supreme love, you still have nothing more than a heroic death, not a unique act of God).  It follows from this that if we want to claim anything from Jesus, we must turn to his teachings in the Gospels – rather than his crucifixion and resurrection – and you wind up with some form of the ethical religion that has gone through several variations in modernity.  And then, you discover that there is really not all that much unique and distinctive about what Jesus taught.  (You know, other religions have their version of the Golden Rule.)

If Jesus did rise from the dead as the first witnesses say, then you still have all Jesus’ teachings and they are enhanced, reinforced, strengthened (pick your predicate adjective or add others) by his death and resurrection.  In Jesus’ teachings, you have God teaching us.  In Jesus’ death and resurrection, you have one who shares God’s nature fully taking on human nature and taking sin’s best shot – and overcoming.

Have a look at Scot’s blog.  See how serious scholars wrestle with this question.  Let’s move it away from “liberal” and “conservative” labels. These are inappropriate political terms, having nothing to do with our thinking about Jesus.  We need to grapple with the nature of the Christian life and of the Gospel we Christians are supposed to share.  We need to figure out what vision we share.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally Steve Rankin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally Steve is married to Joni and has four grown children and two grandchildren. I believe a big part of my particular calling has to do with leadership development in the church and with church renewal (they go hand in hand). You can find his personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

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