Stephen Mitchell thinks about... The Real Jesus

*** Stephen Mitchell thinks about Jesus ***

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.


Martin J said...

Sorry Stephen, it won't do. I left the church 35 years ago. Richard Holloway says somewhere that it is Jesus the literary character who has abiding influence. I think Christ is a literary character created by the church.

I respond more closely to Rob Wheeler in the 3 October Bubble about the crucifixion:
"My portrait is of the man of nearly twenty centuries ago who talked passionately of a mode of living so rich that it deserved to be called "God’s Kingdom".And, in that sense, he is still with us."

I think the church community is a powerful force but I could only come back to it if it acknowledged its debt to and origin in the Jesus of History mediated by Jesus the literary character.

Anonymous said...

Martin - I'm not sure where you disagree with me. Yes Christ is a literary character - what else? But when you talk about a debt and origin in the Jesus of History, what does that amount to?


Martin J said...

Stephen - too much matter here for a bubble. I shall re-read "God in the Bath" and get back to you by other means.

Anonymous said...

This could make for a very interesting discussion at a Lent group meeting

DominickG said...

5 years after the last comment. Will anyone read this? I feel I am posting a message into the ether waiting for someone who sometime may stumble across this comment that may shed some light some way.

Do we a need an historical Jesus Christ? Isn't the very very best explanation for the origin of Christianity that Jesus Christ was created as a composite figure. Christ (the "anointed" one) appropriated by the original Christian anarchists as a title for those who saw Christ within themselves. Jesus (from Joshua) - the companion of Moses who accompanied him part of the way up Mount Sinai when he received the 10 commandments as the title of the external authority that we are asked to obey.

Here is a God of freedom and a God of restraint with a dynamic tension. Isn't this the best we can do in a personification of the Logos?

And actually, isn't this something, someone who is well worth worshipping?

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