Will the real Jesus Please Stand Up?
Do you remember the old game show: To Tell the Truth? Three people were introduced to a panel and told the identity of one of them. The two others were pretenders and it was the job of the panel to figure out the real from the counterfeits. It seems today there is a plethora of books claiming they know who the real Jesus is as opposed to the many phonies and usually the traditional canonical Gospels are deemed the pretenders. The quest for the “historical” or “real” Jesus has been underway now since the 1800s and gained credibility with Albert Schweitzer in the early 1900s. Schweitzer claimed via historical research to go behind the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) to the real Jesus, one not shaped by the Gospel writers and early church. His real Jesus was an apocalyptic-world coming to an end-savior heralding a cosmic battle between good and evil and not the “lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36) or one who gives himself as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28). Albert may have given life to the party but many others have followed suit, each claiming via research and special criteria that they can get behind the shaped or even invented picture that we find of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. The “Jesus Seminar” founded by Robert Funk and energized by modern scholars like of Markus Borg and John Dominic Crossan created detailed criteria to filter out what Jesus really said and did vs what he might have or for sure didn’t say or do. When the Jesus Seminar folks are through there isn’t much of the content of the canonical Gospels that is deemed to actually have happened. Yet, there are more. Many today are excited about a new book called Zealot by Reza Aslan. The best I can tell is that Aslan would have us see the real Jesus as one who was militaristic-ally duking it out with the Romans which was the sole cause of his crucifixion. Even Bill O’Reilly has joined the fray with his new book Killing Jesus. Bill goes out of his way to say his book is historical vs theological and claims the ability in some instances to fetter out the real historical details in the Gospels from the religious. However, I don’t think Bill discredits the canonical Gospels like most of the historical Jesus questers do (its on my reading list). These I’ve mentioned are only a few of the books birthed in recent years. What is up with this popular money making search for the historical Jesus?
On the positive side, perhaps we are striving to get at the truth and some of these efforts actually do help us understand the world of the canonical Gospels better. However, there are two very important problems with this industry. First, many of us have swallowed hook line and sinker the notion that because the canonical Gospels are theological and have an evangelical purpose, they are not historical. For sure, the canonical Gospel writers do shape their stories and comparing them with each other helps us see their specific concerns. However, to say that the canonical Gospels are completely or even mostly removed from history shows a total lack of understanding of Middle Eastern culture and how stringently they guarded oral tradition. Mediterranean communities would never allow inventing or changing the story midstream. Even the most theological, the Gospel of John, can be shown to be very rooted in 1st Century Judaism. Second, what we find in these attempts to get behind the text of the four canonical Gospels is that people tend to find the Jesus they want. On the positive side, these attempts to get behind the Gospels might help us see something about Jesus we have overlooked. On the negative side, they can be the epitome of human arrogance and idolatry where we decide the savior we need. Dr. Ted Peters, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, speaking about these many historical Jesus quests has said it best,
“In order to counteract the existing interpretive frameworks of the biblical writers, the historical scholars have to substitute an interpretive framework of their own. The Jesus they find looks curiously like themselves, a modern and secularized human being. In other words, the so-called historical Jesus is not found but invented. He has to be invented because the only sources we have—the biblical sources—confess Jesus as the Christ, the miracle-working, unique Son of God who is our Lord. There is no ancient disinterested or theologically neutral rendering of Jesus’ actual words and deeds.” (God the World’s Future, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 65)
Want to know the real Jesus? Stick with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and the rest of the New Testament—there is more than enough material there to keep one busy for a life time. Stick with them and the real Jesus will indeed stand up.