Friday, March 30, 2012

The Quest for the Mythistorical Jesus (Part One): The Problem Stated

Modern scholars have routinely reinvented Jesus or have routinely rediscovered in Jesus that which they want to find, be it rationalist, liberal Christianity of the nineteenth century, be it apocalyptic miracle workers in the twentieth, be it revolutionaries, or be it whatever it is that they're looking for, scholars have been able to find in Jesus almost anything that they want to find. Even in our own age scholars are still doing this. People are still trying to figure out the authentic sayings of Jesus...All of our middle class liberal Protestant scholars who will take a vote and decide what Jesus should have said, or might have said. And no doubt their votes reflect their own deep seated, very sincere, very authentic Christian values, which I don't gainsay for a moment. But their product is, of course, bedeviled by the problem that we are unable to have any secure criteria by which to distinguish the real from the mythic or what we want to be so from what actually was so. (Samuel Ungerleider, Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University)
Albert Schweitzer could not have said it better himself...

In his 1906 classic work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer had challenged the foolhardy "Lives of Jesus" movement of the nineteenth century by revealing the scholarly presumption and bias behind all attempts to make up the life of Jesus of Nazareth out of whole cloth. What is now called the "original quest" for the historical Jesus had been going strong since Reimarus's initial investigations into the "historical Jesus" question in the eighteenth century. By Schweitzer's reckoning, the quest had run its course and should now be considered dead, marked his own work (as well as that of William Wrede).

The original quest had been a characteristically Enlightenment project in its dismissal of the miraculous elements of the gospels along with what was considered the "pretentious divinizing" of Jesus by misguided first and second century followers who sought to make sense out of their teacher's tragic demise. The result was a Jesus completely divorced from the New Testament, variously portrayed by nineteenth century liberal theologians along imaginative lines of what a first-century Jewish prophet might look like. Yet, ironically, Schweitzer's critique of this approach did not end the quest as much as it unwittingly anticipated its future course. Schweitzer's attempt to understand the historical Jesus in light of what he saw as the (misguided) apocalyptic nature of Jesus' preaching and mission as revealed in the gospels now paved the way for future "questers," in their respective ways, to take the New Testament seriously as a historical source. The "new quest" would focus its investigation on the continuity between the preaching of Jesus and the preaching about Jesus (kerygma) in the New Testament.

And so the "quest for the historical Jesus" has continued with interesting twists, curves and turns in the road, with only a brief rest-stop or two, right up to our own day. Newer approaches (as different as the works of N.T. Wright are from those of Marcus Borg) seek to understand Jesus and the character of his mission in light of his peculiar context within the Palestinian setting of Second Temple Judaism. But they all work under the same guiding principle: the significance of Jesus is of utmost importance in understanding the course of history, so we had better get it right. By the second century the early Jesus-movement had burst forth on the scene in a major way. By the beginning of the fourth century Jesus himself was well on his way to becoming the most influential figure who ever lived. All this to say that Jesus of Nazareth simply cannot be ignored as a historical figure, even by the most radical of skeptics. Yet as enlightening (and as helpful at times) as these "quests" have been, in the final analysis, every attempt to reconstruct the "historical Jesus" is doomed from the start.

This is true because Jesus is not the kind of person that history typically remembers. Indeed, the shortcoming of "questing" for the historical Jesus is simply that what can be known about Jesus historically, apart from the rare incidental comment by otherwise disinterested observers (like Josephus and Suetonius), is relegated exclusively to the writings of his followers, particularly the gospels. The problem is, however, that the gospels are not "histories," at least not in the sense that we understand that term today; nor are they what we would call "biographies." Rather they are "faith-narratives," i.e., stories about the "Christ of faith."

This is not to suggest that the New Testament is completely mute with respect to the historical Jesus. Indeed, there is every reason to affirm that the New Testament is replete with stories that are rooted in actual events. But rather than giving us straightforward history, the New Testament gives us projections of the "Christ-event" rooted in the faith-encounters of the earliest believing communities. The Jesus presented therein is not merely a figure of firsthand memory (which in any event would have been fading quickly by the time of composition), but rather a Jesus whose life and ministry had been re-imagined in light of post-resurrection theological reflection; a Jesus whose story had been re-told through the pages of Israel's sacred story; a Jesus whose mission had been re-crafted into the personification of Israel's prophetic tradition; a Jesus who was seen as recapitulating the role of hero in Israel's ancient mythos by taking it up into his own mythos (e.g., the "new Moses," the "second Adam," the "High Priest in the Order of Melchizedek," etc.). In light of this, how much of what we read in the gospels can be considered in terms of empirical fact? From the historian's perspective, it is impossible to know.

The difficulties inherent in the historical question become even more acute within literalist or fundamentalist circles, where the canonical gospels are taken to be entirely historical, thus compelling proponents to attempt harmonizing or reconciling contrasting and even contradictory features within them. But how do we reconcile the two very different infancy narratives presented in the Synoptic tradition (i.e. Matthew and Luke)? Which one of their genealogies represents the true lineage of Jesus? Did the Last Supper take place on the night of the Passover (as all three Synoptics testify) or on the night before (as in the Gospel of John)? Did Jesus institute the Lord's Supper at this meal or simply wash his disciples' feet? Which account of the trial is most faithful to actual events? Which account of the crucifixion? Did Jesus carry his own cross to Golgatha or was it Simon the Cyrene who carried it? Which of the four different accounts of what happened at the empty tomb do we take as factual? And what of events that do not normally happen in the physical realm? Miracles? The virgin birth? The resurrection?

In stating the historical problem in this way we can more easily understand the demythologizing project of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). Bultmann had regarded the quest for the historical Jesus to be a dead end, and for a brief time he had nearly convinced the entire academy of his day of this as well. Bultmann considered the mythological worldview of the New Testament to be unintelligible and unacceptable to modern people. Hence, for Bultmann, a historical consideration of Jesus from the gospels was simply not relevant to modern Christology, at least not the kind of historical consideration attempted by the "questers." Rather, Bultmann reduced the historical significance of Jesus to a single word: "that." It was important only to believe that (das Dass) Jesus existed. Whereas many were attempting to connect the actual preaching of Jesus to the preaching about Jesus (kerygma), Bultmann saw kerygma as the only event of continuing significance -- the here-and-now divine act of judgment and salvation, confronting the hearer and necessitating a decision. In this way, Bultmann had managed to reduce the historical significance of Jesus to a mere presupposition.

In the final analysis, we are left with a conundrum that even Bultmann, try as he might, could not avoid. The Christian faith is grounded in Jesus of Nazareth, a figure in history whose existence and significance can only be established through the testimony of texts that we cannot entirely regard as historical accounts. In Part Two, we will offer a way forward that was anticipated by the great Karl Barth in coming to terms with the significance of the empty tomb.

Part Two

Friday, March 23, 2012

Mythopoeia Ancient & Modern: Myth, History, and Sacred Text

History is distinguished from all other sciences in that it is also an art. History is a science in collecting, finding, penetrating; it is an art because it recreates and portrays that which it has found and recognised. Other sciences are satisfied simply with recording what has been found; history requires the ability to recreate. (Leopold von Ranke, from The Theory and Practice of History, edited by Georg G. Iggers, 1976)
If we have learned anything from the postmodern critique of modernity it is that history is essentially storytelling and thus a near kin to ancient mythology. Both history and mythology attempt to explain how things got to be the way they are by telling some sort of story. While von Ranke, the 19th century founder of modern source-based history, would have demurred at this comparison, he nonetheless unwittingly exposed his own subjective underbelly by insisting that history was both a science and an "art."

In any case, the task of the storyteller, whether ancient or modern, is to portray and recreate events into a meaningful reality that is both relevant to (while at the same time constitutive of) the storyteller's context. Both ways of storytelling may in this sense by termed "mythic," as postmodernists are keen to point out, yet only one of these ways can properly be called "myth." That's because ancient storytelling is markedly different from modern storytelling. Despite von Ranke's subjective underbelly, we still expect our modern histories to be "rooted" in brute fact. Fantastical tales of gods, demigods, and other imaginative descriptions of forces beyond human grasp could never satisfy the modern mind as faithful descriptions of reality if such tales were composed today, though they might entertain us as fiction.

Indeed, what we have come to expect in our modern stories -- our "histories" -- is empirical accuracy. We expect a high degree of awareness of the universal laws that govern nature. We expect a faithful retelling of events as they actually happened or at least a very close approximation of what happened. We also expect a fair assessment of and appreciation for the social and societal contexts that serve as the all-important interpretive grids through which our storytellers filter their modern tales. Even when persons and events take on "larger-than-life" legendary status, we hold fast to their empirical "rootedness" so that they may continue to have meaning for us as icons of our culture.

In contrast, we afford to the ancients a high degree of imagination in their story-craft, a dabbling in the absurd, a dreaming of innocence. There is little to no expectation that the ancients should have been interested in our conventional ways of looking at the world, or to have had a similar preoccupation with accuracy or brute fact. From our perspective, stories about Osiris and Horus (Egypt), Prometheus and Atlas (Greek), or the Gilgamesh Epic (Ancient Near East), do not count as history in the modern sense, no matter how much they may have served to shape and mold their respective worldviews in the way that histories do today. And we're okay with that.

Yet this is more than just a casual acceptance. We recognize the value of ancient mythologies as "portals" through which we view a "mind-world" that otherwise would be lost and forgotten. Whether explained in terms of the evolution of the brain or the evolution of culture (or no doubt some combination of both physiological and social factors), the fact remains that the ancients thought very differently than we moderns do; they were conscious in a different way -- not just by degree, but in kind. Something has radically changed in human consciousness over the last three milliennia or so. No doubt there have been many such "mind-changes" in the 200,000 years of our existence as a species, but this happens to be one that we can actually see because the stories are still with us.

The most ancient of these stories stem from a period that Henri Frankfort termed mythopoeic thought: a time before philosophy, logic, and rationalism; when human beings did not view the governance of the cosmos in terms of impersonal laws but rather in terms of personal agency. The rise and fall of rivers, the seasons of the year, the occurrences of drought or deluge -- all events controlled as an act of the will by some god or spirit. Simply put, we value ancient myth because instinctively we know that the mythopoeic mind is gone forever, though, paradoxically, the archetypes formed by this mind still haunt our modern psyche and inform our own pursuit of meaning. They stand as shadows of a lost "embeddedness" we once had with the cosmos, communicating the earliest aspirations of our species to realize transcendence, to grasp the divine, and, in so doing, convey to us the earliest realizations of our estrangement from the Ground of Being itself.

Needless to say, the shift from ancient to modern consciousness did not happen overnight. Evolution involves gradual change over time. Standing between the ancient and modern minds -- in the transition -- is the so-called Axial Age, characterized by the emergence of a new sense of self-awareness, "when people began to see themselves as objective, distinct entities" (Mayer). This period also saw the parallel developments of the major religious traditions -- Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and, of course, Judaism. Meanwhile the Greeks were imbibing in logos, while vestiges of their old mythologies continued on in local cultus, as old wives' tales, or were re-crafted as quasi-histories (e.g. Homer).

Standing right at the pivot point of the Axial Age are the sacred texts of the biblical tradition, written over the course of some eight centuries, more or less, but certainly preserving stories that are much older; stories of the ancient mythopoeic mind, remembered and re-crafted into Israel's sacred story. It should not surprise us then to find myth, quasi-history, and even early attempts at empirical history within the same corpus, or even within the same book, as in the case of the Book of Genesis. Herein we see ancient cosmologies, descriptions of paradisiacal conditions, talking serpents, life and knowledge giving fruit, angelic unions with humans and the giants they produced, an epoch flood (Israel's version of a common myth of the ANE), and heroes that live incredibly long lifespans. But we also see names, empires, cities and other locales, customs, and events that are consonant with, if not supported by, modern archaeological finds.

In many places Holy Scripture turns out to be a cacophony of ancient folklore mixed with actual historical persons, places and events, making it notoriously difficult at times to tease out the threads of "brute fact" from their mythological embroidery. This is true even for the later portions of the biblical corpus when stronger and stronger urges towards historical "rootedness" (on the part of the human authors) were not necessarily matched with equally strong concerns for empirical precision or with any particular regard to, or consciousness of, cultural bias. Yet, paradoxically, these are the conditions that must exist, and the kind of sacred texts that must emerge, within any religious tradition that would make the audacious claim that God actually and truly discloses the divine-self to humankind by fully assuming and participating in the human condition: "The Word of God en-fleshed in the words of men."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part Four): Divinizing Our Estrangement

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism. For a brief historical analysis see Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One).

Marcion's Dilemma strikes at the very heart of what Christians believe about their sacred scriptures, not only because it compelled the early church to define its canon and embrace the old-new dichotomy of the testaments, but also because it imposed upon theologians the persistent task of having to reconcile the picture of the capricious God of the Hebrews with the picture of the all-loving God and Father of Jesus Christ. In Part Three, we briefly considered two approaches to this dilemma, namely the theologies of discontinuity and continuity.

Given these options, we were left with a god who either suffers from multiple personality disorder (discontinuity) or bipolar disorder (continuity). In either case, the Cross is viewed as the "means of satisfaction," the purpose of which is to appease the part of the divine personality that we would rather not face, indeed, that we "could not see and live." Perfect justice, we are told, demands divine retribution, whereas divine love seeks to forgive. What to do? The proffered solution sees God the Father as unleashing punitive justice upon the Son, thereby satiating divine wrath and opening up the way of forgiveness for those who believe. It's a tidy system; the problem is, it is not a just system. There is simply no way to uphold the righteousness of a God who would allow -- nay, demand -- the substitution of an innocent party for a guilty one, even if such a substitution were done voluntarily.

Ironically, the only way out of Marcion's dilemma is to acknowledge it. Marcion was right to point out the differences between the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the God and Father of Jesus Christ, because, in general terms, this is where the greatest differences are to be seen. However, a closer examination would reveal that we are not just dealing with one or two portraits of God, but rather with many different portraits of God, and many different kinds of portraits of God, appearing throughout both testaments. For example:
  • In Genesis 1, God is pictured as a transcendent being who moves like wind over the primordial, dimensionless seas of heaven and earth; speaking forth from the darkness to call the chaotic abyss to order. 
  • By Genesis 2, God appears as a mysterious figure who takes morning walks in a garden, who shapes a man (adam) from the dust of the earth (adamah) and then breathes life into him; later he fashions a woman from the man's rib.
  • God is portrayed in the OT both as a tribal deity who occasionally visits his friends and an inapproachable national deity who must be worshiped at a particular mountain in the desert. 
  • God is the traveler for whom Abraham plays the host and offers a meal; he is the mysterious angel who wrestles the whole night with Jacob and is defeated! 
  • God is the jealous judge who would have destroyed the nation of Israel had it not been for the intercession of Moses, yet relents in the destruction of pagan Ninevah despite Jonah's protestations. 
  • God is the capricious deity who strikes down Uzzah, whose only crime was to touch the ark of the covenant with his hands; yet later he declares through his prophets that he is not nearly as concerned with their temple observances as he is with justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger within their gates. 
  • Supremely, God is portrayed in his Son, Jesus Christ, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:6-7).

Indeed, such an examination compels us to go further than Marcion's original observation to admit that Scripture simply does not present us with a coherent picture of God at all. Rather the scriptural testimony of God is equivocal, and, if equivocal, then eminently human. The implications of this admission are startling at first, at least to the traditional-minded, for what this means is that we can no longer consider the Bible in terms of direct divine disclosure to humankind. Rather Scripture constitutes a multifaceted witness of distinctly human experiences of, and encounters with, the divine. Such descriptions of God are inextricably woven into the fabric of the human condition, and thus are anthropomorphic rather than theophanic, analogical rather that literal, poetic rather than propositional, dynamic rather than static, progressive rather than fixed, rudimentary rather than complete.

In this sense the biblical portraits of God tell us more about the human condition than they do about divine nature qua nature. They are not pictures of the way God actually is, but rather are projections of how human beings have encountered the divine in history. These are very human portraits, and yet sacred: human, because they ascribe to God human motives and emotions, even reflecting at times the pettiness and darkness of the human heart; sacred, because they are encounters with the divine, and thus "word of God" enfleshed in human condition, wholly and without qualification.

Often glorious, sometimes crude, but always meaningful, these portraits express and "divinize" our deepest sense of estrangement from what Tillich terms the "Ground of our Being."

Part One
Part Two
Part Three