Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fleming Rutledge: "We do not have access to 'the historical Jesus'"

Writing in response to a Wall Street Journal review of Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and Géza Vermès' book Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge succinctly undercuts the idea that we can get "behind" the New Testament to the "real" Jesus.  She writes:

Many people have pointed out the limitations of these endless attempts to recast Jesus in light of what scholars think they can discover behind the New Testament, the so-called gnostic gospels, and other early texts, but these caveats do not reach the typical person who is either 1) reading about the books in the media or 2) actually reading them because (sigh) they have been recommended by their church leaders. We have an entire generation of churchgoing people who have been robbed of faith in Christ by these misbegotten searches for a "historical" Jesus.
It must be stated as clearly as possible: we do not have access to "the historical Jesus." Every single one of these attempts to discover the historical person behind the New Testament text is doomed from the start. All that is known of Jesus is in the New Testament, which was written by faith for faith. In that sense the entire Bible is indeed a unique document, because it simply does not yield its mysteries except to those who receive it in faith.

Read it all.

As I've noted in a previous posting entitled "Jesus Trumps the Bible," the Rev. Rutledge has made similar points before with respect to Jesus Seminar fellow Marcus Borg's false dichotomy between the "pre-Easter Jesus" and the "post-Easter Jesus."  Here's part of what she wrote about that:

... this often-heard distinction is based on a false assumption. We have no access to the pre-Easter Jesus. Every single word of testimony to him in the New Testament is refracted through the Resurrection. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct a Jesus before anyone knew he would be raised from the dead are doomed to fail, because such projects, again, will always reflect the personal agenda of the interpreter.  
Like it or not, therefore, we must rely upon the Scripture as our only witness to Jesus. There is no other witness.

It is a rich irony that those who seek to usurp the authority of Scripture by painting a portrait of Jesus at odds with the Church's proclamation are forced to tacitly acknowledge Scripture's authoritative witness by citing New Testament texts among their principal sources.  


Peter Carrell said...

Here is another irony. Jesus is so special he is the only historical person (i.e. has had histories written about him) in history for whom we have no historical access.

Or does that sound nuts?

In which case, maybe Jesus, the ordinary human guy, left traces of historicity to which we have access!

Stephen Sottile said...

Nice article, but it does not address the most serious points in Aslan's book. First, the resurrection is factually questionable. Second, Paul did not have the blessing of the original apostles and preached despite their strong disapproval. One really struggles with the implications of all this.

The Underground Pewster said...

I have not read Aslan's book, but I have always felt that a non-resurrected Jesus would not be worth giving up my life for, and that the Gospel witness testifies to something that is worth just that.

ericfromnewyork said...

The quest for the "historical" Jesus (by which is meant an actual person who once lived and who is OTHER than the Jesus presented in the New Testament)is not only futile, it is pointless.
All of Jesus' historical contemporaries had the historical Jesus standing in their midst. Those men and women, even with Jesus standing in their presence, did not, and could not, agree on who he was. This is because the real Jesus demanded, then as he does now, faith in his own person. This requires a decision about Jesus' claims regarding his own relationship to the person, will, word, and work of God.
Jesus himself wryly observed that, if you will not believe the Bible then you will also not believe even if someone were to come back from the dead.
Obviously, there are many true things about Jesus not presented in Scripture (John says as much explicitly), but there is no Jesus apart from the Jesus in Scripture. Never was. Never will be. That is a pipe dream that has only one purpose: avoiding his claim on our lives.
If you don't want to say "yes" to Jesus, man up and just say "no."

Joe said...

I very much appreciate your post. Our adult formation class began, but aborted, a study of Phyllis Tickle's "Great Emergence" and a primary reason that we did so was her initial premise about an every five hundred year "rummage sale" within the church in which we (the Church) deconstructs itself and rethinks "authority." Several of us in the class expressed real difficulty with what seemed to us to be a clear attack on "the authority" of Holy Scripture (at least as we Anglicans understand Hooker's three legged stool concept - Scripture, Tradition [of the Church] and Reason) and frankly I put "The Jesus Seminar" movement and their renewal of the search for "the historical Jesus" in the same category of thinking.

I agree with some of the other commentators that a Christian's belief in Jesus is not something that can be proven by human standards or scientific evidence. Christians believe in Jesus as a matter of faith - - believing something to be true even though it cannot be seen, heard, felt, touched, smelled or otherwise established to a legal certainty on this earth. We Christians are a community of faith, we are not a society of scientific investigators.