History Verses Theology
Jesus said, "Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human." - The Gospel of Thomas v. 7, written sometime between 50 and 140 AD.
Next, he was going through the village again and a running child bumped his shoulder. Becoming bitter, Jesus said to him, "You will not complete your journey." Immediately, he fell down and died. - The Infancy Gospel of Thomas 4:1-2, written sometime between 140 and 170 AD.
In the first century, a philosopher named Apollonius of Tyana
lived in an area of what is known today as Greece.
Few historians doubt the existence of the man, though miracles were attributed to him that lead to comparisons to Jesus of Nazareth.
I haven't been saying much about the Pope's book, Jesus of Nazareth
, since I completed the Chapter on the Kingdom of God. I have just accepted that the book is not really historical investigation.
However, a couple of comments in my comboxes leave me feeling a need to explain what the historical-critical method is all about.
A couple of weeks ago, I criticized the Pope for treating the Gospel narratives of Jesus' temptations while fasting as "history", and suggested that a good historical argument can be made that the Jesus of history opposed the practice of fasting.
A reader asked me if I feel fasting is ever appropriate.
What I think about fasting is entirely beside the point.
The goal of historical investigation is to determine what Jesus most likely thought about fasting, not what I think about fasting.
The Gospels can certainly serve as a primary source of historical information to answer the question. Anyone who claims Jesus opposed fasting does
need to explain how the story of Jesus' fasting winds up in the texts.
But the case of Apollonius indicates that simply because a text makes a claim to miracles or other events that many people come to believe does not mean the text is is accurately reporting history as we mean history today.
As another case in point, the Gospel of Thomas
and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
quoted above were written around the same time as portions of the canonical New Testament.
Yet, few Christians think Jesus said lions become human, and fewer Christians find it plausible that the boy Jesus made another boy die for bumping into him.
Not everything written is equally probable.
To simply say that because the texts of three synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus fasted does not mean he actually did fast.
I don't want to go through all the arguments of whether Jesus fasted or not, per se
I simply want to try to explain very simply and at a very high level what people mean when they distinguish the "Jesus of history" from "the Christ of faith", and suggest that some of the Gospel stories don't convey "facts" in the manner we mean today.
I once ran into an African-American man in my undergraduate days of college who told me that Jesus was a black man with African or negroid features.
As evidence, he sited Rev 1:14-15 which describe Christ as having hair like wool and feet like bronze. He argued wooly hair is nappy hair, and bronze feet are brown feet.
To his credit, there is probably not a shred of counter-evidence, and I have no idea what skin color or racial characteristics Jesus actually had.
Theologically, and personally, I could care less what skin color Jesus was.
And this brings me as simply as I can to the point: certain questions about Jesus are simply matters of historical investigation, rather than theology. These are questions of fact.
What color was he? When, exactly, was he born? When, exactly did he die? Did he say what the Gospel of Thomas says he said? Did he say what the Gospel of Mark says he said?
Theologians cannot predetermine the answers to such questions anymore than theologians can determine that the earth is the center of the universe, is flat, and was made in six days.
Some of the Nazi's tried to form a theology that the Aryans were the true Hebrews, and twisted history to their theology - rather than letting history shape their theology.
History, as a science, is not as "certain" of its results as the natural sciences - but like natural sciences, historical investigation today employs rigorous methods to uncover the most probable sequence of events behind ancient texts that play fast and loose with the facts by our standards.
One reader commented on a critique of Pope Benedict's book I posted that stated most scholars reject the transfiguration as an historical event.
She stated that if we start with a bias against the possibility of a miracle like transfiguration, we miss the obvious meaning of the passage.
Philosophical musing about the possibility or impossibility fo a transfiguration entirely misses the point.
I might believe that genuine miracles surround Padre Pio, while thinking the healing ministry of Ernest Angley
I may believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and have sincere doubts about Elvis Presley sightings.
I may believe in miracles as a general principle, but I don't believe David Coperfield is a miracle worker.
I may believe in miracles, and question the veracity of my parent's claim to me as a child that a fat elf miraculously comes down our chimney on Christmas Eve.
And while I question this particular tale my parents told me, I trust them to be conveying the truth, even when they speak of "seeing fireworks" upon their first kiss.
The question is not whether unexlainable phenomenon can
happen. The question is whether such an event actually happened, or was intended to be understood in the manner we tend to take it today.
It is not what is possible or impossible that primarily guides the intepretation of history, leading many scholars to doubt the historicity of certain New Testament passages.
There are various linguistic clues for an author's intentions in telling a story.
If I begin a story with the words "Once upon a time,..." a twenty-first century American does not likely believe I'm about to relay objective historical facts.
The dating of texts is not done arbitrarily to cast doubt on historicity.
If you read the word "neocon" in a document, you have a pretty good idea that the document was not written prior to the 1990's.
I do not not have the time today, nor the inclination, to try to offer a full course in historical methodologies.
My point is that when a widesprad consensus is formed by historians - including leading Catholic scholars who served on the Pontifical Biblical Commission, like Raymond Brown - we have pretty good reason to believe that there is good argumentation behind what the scholars are saying.
The arguments need to be weighed on their own merits.
It must be presumed that when the diverse personalities that form the academic body reach a wide-spread consensus on some point, there is more to the argument than a personal bias in the crassest sense.
While all people have biases, the argument that is convincing these diverse personalities that form the academy must be logically compelling in its own right to gain a consensus.
Of course, the scholarly consensus can shift and change. Scholars can be wrong.
Newton's physics was displaced by Einstein's. That doesn't really take away from Newton's contribution to the advance of science and civilization.
I'm not claiming current scholarly consensus is infallible.
I am arguing it is not simply one person's bias against the Church that leads to a scholarly consensus or to its conclusions.
Scholars painstakenly examine details and weigh evidences and debate one another vigorously, and when a consensus emerges, it is because an argument seems to make a lot of sense of the data.
Some scholars are more painstaking than others, but by the time one is graduate school, one is learning to pay attention to detail and back up your arguments and document your sources and tie it all together logically.
Historical studies is not theology. It precedes theology.
Theology cannot predetermine the outcome of historical investigation anymore than it can predetermien the result of a scientific experiment.
Rather, theology must be informed by history.
What I personally feel about fasting or the possibility of a transfiguration or the color of Jesus' skin is entirely irrelevant to what color Jesus' skin actually was, and whether he actually was transfigured, or whether he actually practiced fasting.
On the other hand, when a scholar like John P. Meier sifts through all
the evidence (including every concievable relevant text from the canonical scriptures and/or early tradition) available paying minute attention to every detail and presents step-by-step and argument that indicates that the weight of evidence is that Jesus opposed fasting, I find that intriguing.
When the Pope ignores the process of going through such detailed analysis, I am unconvinced that he has presented me a case that Jesus did, in fact, fast.
Because of the lack of certainty in historical studies compared to the natural sciences, it is true that we can choose between competing but equally well argued and equally well reasoned historical theories, and pick a theory most in line with our theology.
It is even true that because there are equally compelling and competing paradigms, we can remind the community of historical scholars from time to time that their theories are never absolutely certain. John Meier or Raymond Brown would never claim absolute certainty.
What we cannot (or should not) do is formulate a theology with no consideration of history, and then try to formulate an historical theory based on our theological presuppositions.
For example, we cannot approach the Bible for the first time saying "I've been told and taught all of my life that this is the word of God, and God would not make his word difficult for me to understand, and therefore, every word must be literally true in the manner I understand it at first glance."