Questing for the Historical Jesus

Dear friends,

As you know, the theme of my sabbatical is deepening my personal relationship with Jesus. I’ve been doing this in prayer, but also in study. I’ve always been interested in scholarship and debate around the historical Jesus (spoiler: I am not a fan of the Jesus Seminar) so this is an opportunity to get up to speed with the latest in that field and connect it to my personal prayer and spiritual journey. You may be hearing more from me on this later in the winter or spring, as I believe I am going to be offering an adult forum series on this subject, depending on what Andrew has on the schedule.

One book I’ve read so far does a good job of explaining why engaging in Bible study and historical study about Jesus is important for our faith. It is “The Challenge of Jesus” by N. T. Wright. I certainly recommend it; it’s an abbreviated, popularized version of Wright’s longer 3-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God series. A lot of biblical scholars seem to to publish a “reader’s digest version” of their own longer academic works, e.g. John Crossan’s “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography” is popular, shortened version of his more scholarly and footnoted “The Historical Jesus,” and there are many other examples.

Wright’s shorter book is an attempt to answer the question, “Who is Jesus and what did he accomplish that made a difference?” It occurred to me that many Christians might ask “Who is Jesus for me?” but Wright is not in favor of that version of the question. He says, “we are not at liberty to manufacture a different Jesus” than the one we find in the Bible. (Of course, many theologians, such as Anglican scholar John Macquarrie, would argue that we also find Jesus in our own lives, and that Jesus of our personal experience must also be taken into account.)

Wright says that we can’t just read our own issues into the Bible but must do the “hard historical work” of understanding the context that Jesus lived in to really understand what his words and actions meant and mean. This reminded me of what one of my favorite seminary professors, Deirdre Good, taught me (Please do keep Deirdre and the whole General Seminary community in your prayers – the seminary is not doing too well at the moment as Andrew may have told you or you may have read about here). I remember writing a paper on a Gospel passage and noticing that half the scholars seemed to think that Jesus’ Jewish background was deeply important to understand the passage, and the other half seemed to completely ignore the Jewish context. Deirdre said “That’s interesting. Why don’t you look at the dates of those references”. She knew, of course, that I would find that all the references that didn’t mention the Jewish context would be prior to 1985 and those that did were after that date. 1985 was when E.P. Sander’s groundbreaking book “Jesus and Judaism” was published, an important step forward in our understanding of who Jesus was in his earthly lifetime. Wright’s book does a great job of unpacking why this matters for us today.

Wright says that without grounding our spiritual lives in a real understanding of Jesus in his historical context, the church has often remade “him in our own image, and then wondered why our personal spiritualities have become less than exciting and life-changing.” He says, “the disciplines of prayer and Bible study need to be rooted again and again in Jesus himself if they are not to become idolatrous or self-serving.” I feel like he summed up the point of my sabbatical right there — rooting myself once again in Jesus himself.