Sunday, November 14, 2010


Biblical Archeology Review is a popular magazine (on newsstands) that so impressed my seminary classmate Annie that she wanted to buy subscriptions for everyone. I never did subscribe to Biblical Archeology Review, though I enjoy reading it. But I subscribe to a daily aggregator of articles called “Art Daily” which defines art rather broadly, often listing rather peripheral materials. They supply a photo, a first paragraph or so, and then a link to the actual online article. Today they linked to an article about the academic study of Jesus. Here’s the link:

Someone was so threatened by it that they hacked the link so it sends the inquirer to a website about wine. Since liberals (however much they are fond of wine) would support the scientific study of Jesus, I presume that the hacker was from the religious right wing and is committed to the idea that one must not question any theological assumptions. That’s fine, but they’re in the wrong pew. This article is at a kind of meta-level, talking about how the various disciplines that research the period of Jesus differ, and what entering the same subject in different ways can reveal.

The various disciplines include history (the record of events in writing), literary (the style and use of the writing), archeology (the study of the places and buildings by looking at their traces), and theology (the doctrines that have been handed down in institutions as matters of faith). The study of Biblical materials (perhaps including writing from the same period that didn’t get included in the canon we read today) is focused on the content rather than which discipline, but has in the last decades become increasingly literary, for instance, analyzing the four gospels as different genres of writing. This is partly a shift in the analysis of subtext, partly a growing understanding of ancient languages (maybe with the help of computers), and partly the expansion of scientific capacities like analysis of the actual paper and ink of the original documents.

This hacked-link article, entitled “Jesus of History vs. Jesus of Tradition” is an interview with Sean Freyne, “director of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies, as well as emeritus professor of theology, at Trinity College Dublin. His research focuses on the integration of literary and archaeological sources for understanding the social and religious world of Galilee in Hellenistic and Roman times.” Basically, he thinks that the figure of Jesus arises from the paradigm shift caused when the more ancient context of Jewish culture is challenged by an increasing influence from Hellenistic Rome. There are plenty of people who would go farther and say that a mythic Jesus draws on a host of messianic savior figures whose names begin with J, including John the Baptist and Joshua, and that elements are well-mixed with what we call “Greek mythology.” An editor of the magazine, Herschel Shanks, is asking the questions.

You are an expert in historical Jesus studies. I have always wondered about that name. Are there nonhistorical Jesus studies, or unhistorical Jesus studies?

[Laughing] That’s a good question. Some people confuse the notion of the historical Jesus with the notion of the actual or the real Jesus. I think the historical Jesus is a construct, a theological construct, really. It’s the figure of Jesus as he is represented in the documents of Christian faith as a historical person.

I thought it was just the opposite, that the historical Jesus was opposed to the theological Jesus.

What we’re trying to do, I think, in this quest for the historical Jesus is to find the figure who stands behind the gospel narratives as a historical figure. If we look at the Gospels, all we have, in the case of the Synoptics [Matthew, Mark and Luke], is one year of his public ministry. If we include John, we make it three years. It’s a bird’s-eye view of this figure who walked the roads of Galilee. We have no record whatever of Jesus’ early life. We have the infancy gospel stories, which of course are highly theological and highly literary, made up later. So we really can’t build anything historical on those narratives.

So this scholar is trying to find the actual historical Jesus who may very well exist, but can’t be proven by theological materials. The Christian theologians who interpret these materials are afraid and opposed to this search for a real person, because they think it will take away the “magic.” They believe that familiarity breeds contempt.

By now those who read what I write know that I often sneak around to a radical shift. Here it is: modern journalists (and many voters) have developed a kind of Satanic assumption, that all politicians are corrupt and should be revealed. It’s the opposite of the theological assumption that Jesus was a divine or near-divine man and should be left unknown in any other way, because disillusionment will mean broken faith. These guys think they SHOULD break all faiths. This new “take” is that the journalist should be a Judas, who reveals to all the mere humanity of people who sleep around, take bribes, hire illegal immigrants and neglect their children. And there is a particular animus towards fathers, old guys with power, as well as a kind of pride in aspiring to iconoclasm and disillusionment. They are "wised up," in a sophomoric way.

There are two other ideas that Sean Freyne proposes. One is that in the time of Jesus the group was more important than the individual. Jesus did embody (incarnate) something, but he did it on behalf of the whole group, the inclusive society. The other is that Freyne resists the idea that there was a clash between Jewish culture and Hellenistic culture, resulting in crucifixion. He proposes that the Jewish culture was elastic enough to accommodate the ideas of Hellenism, even to integrate them and benefit from them. Both of these ideas are presently very much submerged in contemporary American culture. We want crucifixions.

These ideas Freyne suggests are sources of peace: to include and integrate in a time of surging populations and changing relationships between nations. These ideas move from “last man standing” attempts to prevail by killing/discrediting all competitors to Jesus’ (theological) assertion that “whosoever cares for the least of us also cares for me.” Freyne says, “The Jesus movement is thus a renewal group built around the figure of the servant of God, as depicted in Isaiah, who is not militantly opposed to foreigners.”

How about that, religious control-freak monoculture hackers?

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