Will the real Jesus lie down?
A while ago, Sea of Faith published a little book called Will the Real Jesus stand up? David Boulton wrote it to coincide with the a visit to Britain by the late Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar. It's a wonderful collection of different interpretations of Jesus in words and pictures. (It's still available from SoF for £2.50 incl p&p.)
Today, there's an unholy alliance between some Christians and atheists in wanting the real, historical Jesus to stand up. For Christians the argument is simple: we follow Jesus and therefore we need to know who Jesus really was and what he really said and did. For the atheists the argument goes like this: Christians make claims about Jesus so we need to know who Jesus really was and what he really said and did to show that those claims are false. My argument is that the real, historical Jesus hasn't much to do with faith at all, Let the real Jesus lie down.
Don't misunderstand me, as a historical puzzle, who Jesus was, and what we can know about him, is endlessly fascinating. Trying to deduce which sayings of Jesus are original and which gospel accounts are more historical can be addictive. But . . and it's a big but . . it hasn't got much to do with faith.
First, Christians are not Jesusians. They don't follow Jesus, they follow Christ. Indeed they don't follow Christ, they are in Christ. As Paul says they are baptised into Christ, died and risen with Christ, one body in Christ, a new creation in Christ. A Christian's faith journey doesn't begin by investigating the real, historical Jesus and making a decision about him. It begins in the community of faith and baptism into Christ.
Second, it's in the community of faith that Christians read their bible. And for them, the bible isn't a history book, it is, they say, the living word of God. They don't therefore try to extract from its pages the real, historical truth, or the one true message. They perform the scriptures. They look for them to speak to them in their situation today. In the theological college, those old forms of criticism - source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism - have given way to reader-response criticism, narrative criticism, deconstructive criticism, social criticism and feminist criticism. The job of the preacher is not to dig out the one true historical meaning from the text but to make meaning with the text.
Third, theological doctrines cannot be proved and disproved by historical research. The classic example is the resurrection. When Christians say in their services "The Lord is here" or "Christ is risen" they quite clearly don't mean that a 2,000 year old Palestinian man has just walked into their service. In the gospel stories, the risen Christ does not appear as a resuscitated corpse. The disciples don't say "Oh, we thought you were dead! You've come back to life." Jesus hasn't been brought back to life to die again like Lazarus. This is the risen, glorified Christ in a risen, glorified body. Resurrection is not demonstrated by history. It's demonstrated in the lives of those who have been "raised with Christ" and "live the risen life". As Paul puts it: if there is no resurrection, no living the risen life, what's the point?
And fourth, the fulcrum of faith is now. Faith doesn't revolve around the axis of the year dot or even the year 32 CE. It hinges on the present. Anything that tempts us away from engaging with the present should be put behind. To say the historical Jesus is a devil in disguise maybe a step too far. At least let the real Jesus lie down.