Jesus Quest(ions)

Jesus and the New Testament Canon

For nearly 1800 years, Jesus of Nazareth was regarded as the "King of kings" and "Lord of lords" -- the divine Logos, the ruler of the universe, to whom all creation would one day bow down. It was he, the Son of God, who willingly entered into the human realm -- yes, the great mystery of the Incarnation, of God becoming man, of which Thomas Aquinas once wrote, "involved no change in God's eternal state, but united him in a new way with what he created, or rather, united what he created with himself." It was that great mystery which C.S. Lewis so eloquently called "the Grand Miracle," the miracle of God descending into the human sphere, "down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity . . . to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him." Indeed, this was the orthodox portrait of Christ - in fact, the only christological portrait that hung in the museum of classic orthodox theology. Now, however, the gallery is full of a number of portraits, all depcting something different, all reflecting contrary interpretations of the Jesus figure -- meanwhile, the orthodox portrait seems to be decomposing . . . How did this come to be?

In about the year 1600, when the Copernican Revolution began to change the landscape of man's thinking, overthrowing the beliefs of the ancients which had persisted for several thousand years, Western philosophers, too, began to question ancient roots and the procession of truth down through the ages. Of course, the guardian of that truth had been the Church; thus, the aim of skepticism would be directed at the Church, even as it is in our day. However, during the era leading up to the Enlightenment (ca. 1800), philosophers such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and scientists such as Isaac Newton (1647-1727) began positing a "mechanistic view of the universe," which essentially states that the physical universe is governed by certain inviolable "laws." Indeed, so powerful and far-reaching was this concept that scientists, philosophers, and many theologians began shifting their views about the ancient world. In 1748, the Scottish philosopher David Hume asked the question, "If the universe is governed by certain invioable laws; from whence do miracles come, for miracles are a "violation" of the laws of nature." As C.S. Lewis once said, Hume devastated biblical studies along with theology, positing the notion that many of the miracle stories in the Bible "probably" did not occur. With Hume and others, then, "Skepticism" became an academically credible exercise.

From that cue, many biblical scholars started questioning the authenticity and reliablity of the Bible -- and for our purpose here, the life of Jesus of Nazareth was being prepared for "reevaluation." In 1776, the "Synoptic Gospels" (Matt, Mark, Luke) were evaluated by setting the respective texts in three parallel columns, and from this ensued a comparative, critical analysis of the first three Gospels. Until this time, most scholars accepted the Augustinian teaching adopted by the Church that the first Gospel was written by Matthew, the second Mark, the third, Luke, and the fourth John. Augustine's theory had been inferred from the writings of such early Church Fathers as Clement of Alexandria (third century), Origen (third century), and Eusebius (fourth century). It is important to point out, however, that the most influential Church Fathers who indicated the actual authors of the Gospels were Papias of Hierapolis (Phyrigia, Western Asia Minor) and Irenaeus of Lyons (Gaul = France) (both Papias and Irenaeus were important second century bishops and theologians). Nevertheless, it must be said that the writings of Papias are not extant, but they are contained in the writings of Irenaeus, which are from the late second century. Let's examine these writings independently for a moment:

1) Papias (pA-pE-us, accent on the first syllable) -- Irenaeus wrote, "Now testimony is borne to these things in writing by Papias, an ancient man, who was a hearer of John, and a friend of Polycarp . . . Papias was not simply a hearer, but he was an eyewitness of the apostles themselves." (Most scholars believe that he lived between AD 70-155, therefore making it impossible for him to have been an eyewitness to the apostles, save the Apostle John, which he makes clear). Anyway, here are the words of Papias, according to Irenaeus: --From the Fragments of Papias, chapter 6. ANF 1:154

"Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the saying or deeds of Christ. For [Mark] neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him. Yet Mark made no mistake in writing them [as he remembered them from Peter]. For of one thing he took special care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the sayings of the Lord in the Aramaic language, and each one interpreted them as best he could."

Because of some of the chronological problems in "Fragments," and because the above text seems to have an apologetic overtone, many higher critical scholars are suspicious with regard to the reliability of this witness. However, recent scholarly work, especially that of Richard Bauckham, has vigorously defended the credibility of Papias as an early witness.

2) Irenaeus (E-ren-E-us, with the accent on the third syllable) -- In reading Irenaeus, one comes to the conclusion that the tradition of Gospel origins was firmly in place, and that a second tradition came down to Irenaeus, which bears some similarity to Papias, but also contains some original elements. Essentially, this is what the orthodox Church would come to believe about Gospel origins, and most conservative scholars still hold to this tradition. --From Irenaeus's Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 1. ANF 1:414 (ca. 180)

"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterward, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God. If anyone does not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ himself the Lord . . ."

It is worth noting here that Irenaeus places special emphasis on the four canonical Gospels. This is done to millitate against certain Gnostic tendencies to identify a heterodox New Testament canon. Marcion, the Gnostic of Pontus, by 150 had formulated his own canon, and since he believed that YHWH was only the God of the Jews, his canon excluded any writings which contained Hebrew overtones - e.g., Matthew, Mark, parts of Luke, Acts of the Apostles, Hebrews, and he only accepted ten letters of Paul, excluding the three Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim, 2 Tim, and Titus). Obviously, this sent shockwaves through the Church, which had been reading as canonical and semi-canonical all of our present New Testament, as well as the 7 Epistles of Ignatius, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, Polycarp, the Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas, and a few others. Nevertheless, the orthodox/catholic Church set out to isolate those New Testament books which were apostolic in origin, and, for example, Irenaeus's NT canon consisted of 26/27 books which we accept today, Philemon excepted. (It is also important to note that the early Church was predominantly Greek speaking, so the LXX, which contained the Apocrypha, was used used for purposes of the Old Testament.)

Thus, the process of canonization had begun, and after Irenaeus, important canon lists began to appear - e.g. the canon of the Church at Rome (Muratorian Canon) - ca. 200, which excluded 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 3 John, Hebrews - yet included, the Revelation of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. In 250, Origen of Alexandria, articulated his canon as 20/27 books that we accept today, excluding Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. As time progressed, the Church wrestled with this issue, until Athanasius, in his Paschal Epistle of 363, identified the canon as the precise canon that we receive today. This authoritative declaration was chiseled in stone, at the Council of Carthage in 397. This is not to say, however, that the "church council" which convened at Carthage in 397 decided to admit certain New Testament books into the canon while tossing others onto the ash heap of history (a common misconception). Rather, the key NT books (e.g. the Four Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, et al.) were accepted early on by all the churches, while the remainder were read in the churches as well, albeit in a semi-canonical status. The evolution of the canon, say in the ante-Nicene era, was not a negative process which served the theological interests of the Church (as is so often is asserted by critics), but rather a careful assessment of the particular books, a consideration of their oral tradition and apostolic witness, and the identification of the theological stream which correlated with companion canonical works. It is believed as well by Christians that the process of canonization was guided by the Holy Spirit.

The History of the Jesus Quest

Now as we indicated earlier, the post-Enlightenment paradigm gave rise to higher critical biblical studies, especially New Testament studies, as NT scholars sought to discover the "Jesus of history" as opposed to the "Christ of faith," the former having to do with the rabbi who walked the land of Galilee 2,000 years ago, the latter having to do with the "heavenly Christ," worshipped by the Church. The central objective of this study was to try and probe into the historical past and literally unearth the man from Nazareth.

In 1906, Albert Schweitzer surveyed the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment (Romantic) attempts to exhume the historical Jesus from the pages of the New Testament, and he concluded that the First Quest (1778-1901) had failed miserably because the researchers brought so many philosophical presuppositions to the table, that such a quest was doomed to fail because it simply reflected the presuppositions of the researcher -- thus, every Jesus figure was simply a reflection of the respective researcher. Schweitzer's comments have haunted the New Testament scholarly world to this day, warning all who participate, that their invesigation of Jesus will be more eisegetical than exegetical -- thus, an individual Jesus portrait for every researcher.

For the record, Schweitzer's Jesus was an apocalyptic fanatic like John the Baptist who was deluded, thinking that he could usher in the kingdom of God by forcing the hand of God and thus create a new age, an age spoken of by the prophets. Thus, Jesus was an eschatological, apocalyptic prophet. How then was Jesus victorious, according to Schweitzer? His powerful words bear repeating here:

There is silence all around. The Baptist appears and cries: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." Soon after that comes Jesus and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions; he has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great man, who was strong enough to think of himself as the spiritual ruler of humankind and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is his victory and his reign. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest Of The Historical Jesus - 1906, p. 370

During the post-Schweitzer era (1906-53), the period of the First Quest was supplanted by the era of the No Quest, such was the power of Schweitzer's condemnation of historical Jesus studies. This was the era of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann who believed that the Synoptic Gospels contained little or nothing regarding the historical Jesus. Instead of viewing the Gospels as historical sources for a life of Jesus, Bultmann and his students decided that the Gospels were valuable because they could reconstruct the kerygma (preaching) of the early Church. In other words, the historical Jesus was literally unreachable, but by examining his words, we could understand the intent of the early Church since it was the Church who composed the Gospels and put their late first century concerns on the lips of Jesus. For example, when Jesus cleanses the Temple (which has now been expanded and is referred to as Jesus's confrontation in the Temple), this is the Church saying that Christianity has superseded Judaism, much like the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us.

Another aspect of Bultmann's methodology was to "demythologize" the Gospels - in other words, to take out the mythological elements such as miracles, etc., and thereby discover the heart of each pericope (i.e. short story, for instance, Jesus's baptism by John, the feeding of the 5,000 and/or 4,000). By taking out the apparent mythological elements in the Gospels, Bultmann believed that he could discover the "real Jesus," and through this process, understand the concerns of the early Church. Moreover, according to Bultmann, who was highly influenced by the existentialism of Martin Heidegger, it wasn't the historical Jesus who was so important (after all, it was impossible to totally reconstruct him) -- rather, it was the Christ of faith who demonstrates his power to believers in the hear and now. Bultmann's Jesus no longer walks the countrysides of Galilee, or the streets of Jerusalem; no, instead, Bultmann's Jesus walks the battlefields of war torn Europe, an alienated landscape of death, destruction, misery, starvation, and ultimate sorrow (World War I).

Beginning in 1970, New Testament scholars proceeded to embark on what is called the New Quest for the historical Jesus. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, and their long-awaited reconstruction and availability (which didn't occur entirely until the early 1990s), and with advances in Josephan scholarship, along with a greater sociological understanding of the Roman world, the new questers believed it was now possible to avoid Schweitzer's conclusion, and thus come up with a basic core understanding of the life of Jesus. *(Remember, during this era, as in other post-Humian eras, the presupposition of naturalism and Gospel problems remained in tact.)

The scholar E.P. Sanders, in his study called "Jesus and Judaism," as well as in his "The Historical Figure Of Jesus," uncovered eleven undisputable facts about Jesus, a core around which the rest of Jesus's story could be reconstructed. By only resorting to undeniable "core facts" in the New Testament, Sanders uncovered at least fifteen undisputable facts about the life of Jesus around which one can rebuild the essential New Testament portrait of Jesus:

1) Jesus was born ca. 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great.
2) Jesus spent his childhood and early adult years in Galilee (Nazareth).
3) Jesus was baptized by John the baptist.
4) Jesus called disciples to follow him.
5) Jesus taught in towns, villages, and in the countryside (but not in cities).
6) Jesus preached the kingdom of God (justice, peace, equality, love, etc.)
7) Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover when he was about 30 years old.
8) Jesus created a disturbance in the Temple compound.
9) Jesus had a final meal with his disciples.
10) Jesus was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities - high priest.
11) Jesus was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.

Sanders's aftermath of the life and death of Jesus is as follows:

1) His disciples fled at first.
2) His disciples saw him after his death (but in what way is uncertain)
3) His disciples accordingly believed that he would return to found kingdom.
4) His disciples formed a community to await his Messianic return, and sought to win others to faith in him as God's Messiah.

The importance of Sanders's work is (1) his emphasis on the sociological and political elements which were present in the first century AD, and (2) the idea the Jesus's action in the Temple is what eventually led to his crucifixion. The latter would become a standard for nearly all liberals involved in the New Quest. The most recent research has hearkened back to the period of "oral tradition," where stories about Jesus were told over and over in the context of an "oral culture." The difficulties for us to understand the "oral culture" (due to our post-Gutenberg paradigm) are nicely illustrated in James Dunn's work "A New Perspective on Jesus: What The Quest For The Historical Jesus Missed." Other criteria for uncovering the historicity of the real Jesus can be determined by invoking the methodology of the oral culture.

The Jesus Seminar

Without doubt, the most controversial group to arise in recent years is The Jesus Seminar. The Seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, and it was essentially comprised of 40-200 North American scholars who would gather twice a year to "vote" on which sayings of Jesus were authentic, and which sayings were not. Although the inferences of these scholars would be better read on a horizontal continuum, the "four-color" scheme that they devised and utilized in their The Five Gospels became notorious. Just as many New Testaments have the words of Jesus in red text, the so-called Scholars Version separated the sayings of Jesus into four categories:

Red = "that's Jesus" (It's something Jesus would definitely say)
Pink = "sure sounds like Jesus" (It's something Jesus might possibly say)
Gray = "well, maybe" (It's something consistent with what Jesus might say)
Black = "there's been a mistake" (It's impossible that Jesus could have said such a thing)

It is important to note that the Jesus Seminar is a self-appointed body with a mission to offset the conservative scholarly thrust which is present throughout North America. The Seminar, regardless of subjecting its works to peer review (except in some cases), has determined to bring liberal academic scholarship to the common man -- for this reason, the aisles of Barnes and Noble are adorned with books written by fellows of the Jesus Seminar. Also, special television shows on National Geographic and Discovery Channel are crammed with liberal scholars spouting out all sorts of heterodoxies to an unsuspecting public. All in all, as a polemical campaign, the effort has been somewhat successful because most readers and viewers are not widely read in these areas. Thus, the effect of the Jesus Seminar has been rather shocking to the North American public. Heralds such as Time and Newsweek have quoted many of the fellows of the Seminar, stating that only 25% of the Jesus sayings in the New Testament are authentic. Or, Jesus never uttered the Lord's prayer. Or that the Gospel of John is a complete fabrication. Without the Jesus Seminar preparing the field, books and films like "The Da Vinci Code" could have never been made.

So although the Jesus Seminar has succeeded in offering alternative Jesus theories to the public, theories that run counter to the traditional Gospel portrayal, it should be pointed out that the Seminar does not have the blessing of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) which is the authoritative governing body for biblical scholarship, comprised of 6,900 members. In fact, only a handful of fellows from the Jesus Seminar are connected in any way to the SBL. Nor is the American Academy of Religion (AAR) supporting the efforts of the Jesus Seminar. A great problem has arisen because the Jesus Seminar has portrayed itself as a "representative scholarly body" when, in fact, it is not, and because of this, many biblical scholars (conservatives, moderates and liberals) have heaped scorn upon the Jesus Seminar. Fr. Luke Timothy Johnson has written a scathing critique of the Seminar in his book The Real Jesus
(HarperCollins, 1997).

Though the methodology of the Jesus Seminar has been exposed for its flaws and biases, the fellows of the Seminar present themselves as doing inductive, scientific work (with an air of triumphalism), exploring the sayings of Jesus against the cross-currents of first century sociological and political conditions. Some might respond, "Yes, but their work is scientific and democratic. What's wrong with that?" Well, sadly, "appearances" aren't always what they seem to be, especially in the case of the Jesus Seminar. Their methods are neither scientific or democratic, and the ghost of Schweitzer has come back to haunt them, accusing them of creating a Jesus figure in their own image. Nearly all of the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar already had a presupposed construct of the historical Jesus, not only in their minds, but in their writings - even before the advent of the Seminar. There is nothing objective about the method and process of the Jesus Seminar, although they have hoodwinked the North American populace into thinking that what they are doing is sound scholarship which is representative of cutting-edge hypotheses. In sum, no one comes to the Seminar's table with a tabula rasa - each scholar has his own hypothesis, and he or she will pick and choose which sayings of Jesus fit into his or her presupposed construct.

Some Key Sources For Understanding The Historical Jesus

1. Jesus Under Fire - Moreland/Wilkins, IVP
2. Historical Figure of Jesus - Sanders, Penguin
3. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was And Is - Wright, IVP
4. A New Perspective On Jesus - What the Jesus Quest Missed - Dunn, Baker
5. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography - Crossan, HarperCollins
6. Backgrounds of Early Chrstianity - Ferguson, Eerdmans
7. The Real Jesus - Luke Johnson, Harper
8. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods - Bock, Baker
9. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Blomberg, IVP
10. A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1 - John Meier,
11. Death of the Messiah (2 vols.) - Raymond Brown, Anchor
12. The Resurrection of the Son of God - Wright, Fortress
13. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels - IVP
14. Dictionary of Paul and his Letters - IVP
15. Dictionary of New Testament Background - IVP
16. New Testament Introduction - Guthrie, IVP

*It is important to note that there are numerous key works on the topic of the Historical Jesus which range from the popular to the scholarly. In the above list I have tried to provide a combination of works, some specific, some encyclopedic, all scholarly, in order to enhance the student's understanding of this most interesting and important topic.