Yesterday I was listening to a conversation with a historian on the difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith. It was interesting, but I’ve heard it before. You know, the Jesus of faith being the result of a mossy, mythical, build up. The conversation sounded like a rehashed John Dominic Crossan PBS special. Earlier yesterday morning I had given a lecture to college freshman about the the way the gospel writers present the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’ve been trying all semester to help them see that the biblical authors aren’t concerned with objective history, they’re always much more interested in what events and people mean. Put bluntly, they gospels are trying to convince us of something. Most students find it interesting, but some think it’s dangerous. They don’t want to focus on meaning… it’s not about interpretation. It’s about facts. Did things happen exactly as the biblical writers said they did? That, after all, is the measure of truth–whether something happened exactly as it’s described in the text.
The problem with both liberal and fundamentalist Christianity is that they end up arguing two sides of the same coin; they both overemphasize historical fact. The liberals try to show why certain events could not have happened as the text describes, so you end up with the Jesus Seminar placing bead wagers on what Jesus said. The fundamentalists try to prove the exact opposite–that Jesus did and said exactly what the gospel text says. The problem, of course, is that the different versions don’t match up. Either Jesus gave the sermon on the mount, as Matthew describes, or he gave the sermon on the plain as Luke describes–both can’t be right. And yet, the truth of the event doesn’t necessarily hang on objective, factual, truth. The meaning of the event, including the meaning of the differences in the text, seems to be the focus of the gospel writers. Early Christians, from what I can tell, didn’t struggle with the differences in the gospels. Maybe it is because they had a different sense of history–a different sense of what the gospels proclaimed.
Increasingly, people are uncomfortable with the tension. They can’t accept the idea the bible is not objective, historical, fact; it’s too messy, and it leaves too much wiggle room. The truth of the bible, and the truth about Jesus, in this context hangs upon the historical objectivity of the gospels. Please don’t read this wrong–I believe the gospels proclaim a historical event. I believe in the incarnation and in the death and physical resurrection of Christ from the tomb. But the gospels aren’t content to tell us “what” happened–they want to clue us in as to the “why.” As far as I’m concerned the Jesus of “faith” and the Jesus of “history” are the same Jesus. Not because the gospels are objective fact, but because they are meant to be read poetically from the heart. They are concerned with God’s action in Jesus Christ–how God is at work in the world bringing grace, love, and an end to Israel’s exile. They are meant to be read in the context of hope, desire, and longing–a longing for peace and justice in a world constantly distorted by sin and death. This is the truth of the bible, and this is the truth we encounter as we prepare to celebrate Easter.