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‘Historical Jesus’ Scholars Create Christ in Their Own Image

BY George Sim Johnston

May 3-9, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/3/98 at 1:00 PM

 

One of the nice things about this spring season, apart from the amazing weather in the Northeast, is that Jesus Christ has not been on the cover of any news magazines. At least, not the “historical Jesus.” The Shroud of Turin on the cover of Time is a different matter. What annoys me is the annual spate of articles that try to strip away the “mythological” elements of the Gospels in order to find the “true” Jesus of Nazareth.

Cutting Jesus down to size is a thriving academic industry. It has even created a few minor celebrities. But now the tables have been turned. In an impressive new book, The Human Christ: The Misguided Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press), Charlotte Allen, a Catholic journalist, takes a hard look at what scholars have done with Jesus over two millennia. Intellectuals in almost every era have tried to deconstruct the Gospels in the name of science. Allen shows that this “science” has never been very objective. In fact, it is always driven by agendas inimical to Christianity.

The attempt to de—divinize Christ got going in earnest in the 18th century, when thinkers such as Voltaire thought it a good idea to apply the new scientific methods to the study of the Gospels. The result was curious: a “historical Jesus” who was an 18th—century deist just like Voltaire.

This has been the pattern ever since: The “true” Jesus turns out to be a self—portrait of the scholar writing the book. The “scientific” search has always devolved into autobiography—or ideology.

For Ernst Renan, author of the enormously popular Life of Jesus (1863), Jesus was a self—absorbed matinee idol like Renan himself. For Oscar Wilde, he was a sensitive aesthete. For 19th—century liberals, an egalitarian interested in progressive politics. Once you rule out the supernatural, it is easy to do a cut—and—paste on the New Testament to produce any Jesus you want.

The most annoying scriptural scholars are those who court publicity. The prototype is David Friedrich Strauss, a 19th—century German who applied Hegel to the study of the Bible and came to the conclusion that Christ was—Hegelian. “Not only was Strauss the first alienated theologian,” Ms. Allen writes, “he was also one of the first alienated celebrities who made money from his doubts.” The members of the Jesus Seminar, who call press conferences to announce that Jesus was not the author of the Lord's Prayer, are his unfortunate posterity.

At least Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, does not hide his motives. He detests the Christian right, and he endorses a new brand of Christianity which promotes “responsible, protected, recreational sex between consenting adults.” Who was it that said that heresies begin below the belt?

Most Jesus scholars pay little attention to the findings of modern archeology. And there is a reason for this.

Modern archeology supports the historicity of both the Old and New Testaments. For example, it seems that the walls of Jericho did come tumbling down (perhaps as the result of an earthquake), while buildings mentioned in the Gospels, such as the temple at Capernaum and the “five porticos” surrounding the pool in the gospel of John, have been identified.

In fact, we now have the curious situation where archeologists in the Near East treat the Bible as a dependable guide, while at places like Harvard Divinity School the one universal article of belief, apart from the tenets of feminism, is that the Bible is literature, not history—to be picked apart and debated but never, ever accepted at historical face value.

Another problem with most Jesus scholarship is what might be called the dating game. Scholars have assumed that the Gospels were written in the late second century, well after the deaths of the apostles.

This makes it easier to present Christianity as a confidence game that somehow got out of hand. But this assumption has been blown away by a number of discoveries, such as a papyrus fragment of John's Gospel dating from around 110 AD.

There is much additional evidence that the Gospels were written by the four evange—lists, especially from external sources like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch (who are ignored, presumably because they are Christian).

Scholars with no ax to grind now agree that the first three Gospels were known in their current form throughout the Christian world prior to the death of St. John around the year 95, and his own shortly after it.

Such facts are seldom noticed by the media when they turn their jaded eye on the “historical Jesus.” And, as the millennium approaches, it is doubtful that a fine book like Allen's will stanch the flow of bogus biblical scholarship.

George Sim Johnston is a writer based in New York.