Thursday, March 16, 2017

I guess most Catholics are not very into historical Jesus stuff? I don't understand why that's so.

Last year at this time CNN had a special series, Finding Jesus. I paid attention for a number of reasons, including that some interesting people were involved ... Mark Goodacre, David Gibson, Candida Moss, Ben Witherington, James Martin SJ, and Michael Peppard. I wrote a few posts about it back then and I mostly liked it, although I found the stuff about the Shroud of Turin pretty disappointing in that it seemed to give some hope in the authenticity of the shroud despite all evidence to the contrary (even David Gibson, who I think of as conservative, described the shroud as a 13th century forgery).

But anyway, the series is back ... Finding Jesus ... and it looks like it's dealing with some interesting stuff again. Duke NT professor Mark Goodacre has an article on the show. Here's a bit of it ...

The Historical Jesus: Separating Fact from Fiction

[...] Goodacre, a professor of New Testament and Christian origins in Duke’s religious studies department, helped plan the series and served as the production’s lead fact-checker. He also appears in each episode along with other scholars of early Christianity. “The big worry about any documentary in our area is, ‘Will it be sensationalist? Will it represent my field badly?’” Goodacre said. “The nice thing about this series is that it is robust academically, as well as being good TV.”

The series blends reenactment with scholarly commentary. Each episode homes in on a key character or location that figured in Jesus’ life, examining what contemporary scientific evidence, history and archaeology reveal about the world of the historical Jesus. For instance, an episode about Pontius Pilate considers physical evidence about the man who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. In this case, the archaeological record contains rich sources, including coins minted by Pilate, Goodacre said ...

Here's a trailer for the series ...


  1. Sounds interesting, I'll have to check it out. I'm glad to read they have rejected a sensationalist approach; there's been some sketchy stuff represented as historical Biblical scholarship.

  2. Finding the historical Jesus was a topic of MANY Sunday talks in my childhood Unitarian church at Easter time. Two things were at work there:

    1) The UU church I attended was populated largely by people who had been hurt or turned off by traditional Christianity. They were actively looking for proof that their former denominations had got it all wrong.

    2) Unitarians do not believe that Jesus was divine, so studying Christ's life was an attempt to restore Jesus's humanity and develop their own, more believable gospel.

    I think that when Christian scholars approach the life of Christ, they do much the same thing. They have deeply held beliefs that will be enriched by a historical study ... because that's what they want to find.

    That said, I think that studying the life of Jesus in the context of his time should be more interesting to more people!

  3. When I first became a Christian I was actually afraid to read about the historical Jesus in case I learned something that would make it impossible to believe in the Jesus who did miracles. It's still a work in progress but I'm glad I decided to give it a try.

    What I don't understand are the people who don't think the historical Jesus matters, only the Jesus of faith - it's as if they don't think he can be both.

    1. I think your fears are well founded. I have spent a great deal of time over the past couple of decades reading historical Jesus research, and many more questions are raised than answered. I discovered Finding Jesus is available on-demand (on FIOS), including the entire first season and what has been aired of the second. It looks like it might be of some interest, but I am not sure how much it really deals with the historical Jesus, at least as I understand the term.

      I noticed in the trailer the actor playing Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). Even some of the most conservative biblical scholars I have read would be hesitant to claim that Jesus actually said many of the things John places on his lips. They are taken to be theological reflections of John, not actual words of Jesus.

    2. David, yes, I think you're right about the CNN series. I have only seen bits of the first season, like the parts about the shroud, and I think they err on the side of faith rather than evidence, so 'historical Jesus Lite' maybe :)

      I remember when the Jesus Seminar was on the cover of TIME or Newsweek years ago - I was shocked at how little of what we attribute to Jesus was probably really what he said. I find it discouraging.

  4. Have any of you read the books by Geza Vermes [Jesus the Jew; the Changing Faces of Jesus; Christian Beginnings]? I would love to know what others think of them. Lorna

    1. Lorna, Vermes's translation of the Dead Sea scrolls was in our Unitarian library. For those interested in Vermes and his work, here's his obit from the NYT back in 2013:

    2. Lorna: N.T. Wright called Vermes the "John the Baptist of the Third Quest for the historical Jesus," this for his emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus. John Meier has a severe footnote about Vermes and the latter's openly proclaimed "disdain for 'methodology' and his preference for muddling through." Meier has three complaints: 1) Vermes implicitly works with the criterion of multiple attestation but doesn't apply it properly; 2) he does not take seriously enough the problems of using later rabbinic material; and 3) there are "some surprising gaps in Vermes' knowledge of the contents and theology of NT books outside the four Gospels."

      I have not read Vermes, so I do not know if these criticisms are valid or fair.

  5. I have been following the quests for the historical Jesus for decades. In the first of his volumes on the historical Jesus, John Meier mentions me as one of those who encouraged him to embark on his project. He has this passage that serves as a warning about putting too much faith in any single historian’s Jesus:
    "Despite all the encouragement I have received, the scattered rubble left by two centuries of questing for Jesus has often made me ask: Why even try where so many have failed? Why join the legion of scholars who have peered narcissistically into the pool of the historical Jesus only to see themselves? No other line of research seems so geared to making skeptics out of scholars. From Jesus the violent revolutionary to Jesus the gay magician, from Jesus the apocalyptic fanatic to Jesus the wisdom teacher or Cynic philosopher unconcerned about eschatology, every conceivable scenario, every extreme theory imaginable, has long since been proposed, with opposite positions canceling each other out and eager new writers repeating the mistakes of the past. In one sense, there are enough “Jesus books” to last three lifetimes, and a sinful Buddhist might well be condemned to spend his next three incarnations wading through them."
    This, of course, did not deter him from his own effort. Instead of the single summary volume we thought would be useful, Meier has already published five volumes, and at least one more is to follow! His method, and the results to which it has led him, are, of course, not uncontroversial–he thinks only four of the parables can be attributed to the historical Jesus–, and his “marginal Jew” takes its place among the many rivals competing for the “Jesus of history.” So when I hear references to the “Jesus of history” or to “the historical Jesus,” I always want to ask, “Which one?”
    (In case you’re wondering, the four parables are: the mustard seed; the evil tenants of the vineyard; the great supper; the talents/pounds. None of the others, including some of the favorite ones–the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Last Judgment–makes the cut.)

    1. Father Komonchak,

      How seriously do you take John P. Meier's assessment of the parables? Do all the parables go back to Jesus himself? Most? Only four? Would any attempt to determine such a thing be worthwhile, or would it be utter speculation? As I read Dei Verbum (and I don't pretend to be an expert), it seems to imply much more strongly than Meier, that the Gospels are historically accurate.

    2. David: As I said above, only four parables survive Meier's analysis. That no convincing argument for the historicity of the many other parables, as he says, does not mean that they do not come from Jesus, but only that his criteria for authenticity don't allow a certain conclusion that they do. He is aware that this will disconcert many people, accustomed to deriving their chief sense of what Jesus preached and taught from the parables. He is right about this, and my first impression was that there must be something wrong with the method if such are the scant fruits it allows one to gather. But I haven't read the book yet.

    3. Father Komonchak,

      Thanks for the reply. But don't Catholics believe in the Gospels because the Church vouches for them and considers them divinely inspired? I could understand concern if someone taking a purely historical approach claimed to disprove that certain parables came from Jesus, but why would it be of concern that a purely historical approach could not "prove" the bulk of the parables are authentic? The Church does not rely on historians to tell it what to believe in cases where historical methods can't tell one way or the other.

      I have found over on Strange Notions—for all intents and purposes a Catholic apologetics site—that all it takes to disconcert "conservative" Catholics is The New American Bible (Revised Second Edition), which seems to be considered (the notes, at least) dangerously misguided if not downright heretical. For example, a number of people there made objections to the suggestion that the Magnificat might be a Jewish Christian hymn and made various arguments as to how Mary's exact words from perhaps 70 or so years past could have been accurately recorded by Luke.

  6. Hi Fr. K. I think you and JP Meier are correct that the historical Jesus one finds will probably tell them more about themselves than Jesus, but I think that's true of the Jesus of faith too. Maybe it's not finding the real Jesus that matters so much as the searching?

    I saw a really interesting video talk Meier gave once - "Jesus the Jew - But what sort of Jew?" ... ... He has a funny sense of humor :)

  7. Great question Crystal

    People should be interested not only in the historical Jesus but also in the historical First Century Jesus Movement(s). Jesus started a movement in Galilee, sometimes journeyed to Jerusalem, and spoke in Aramaic. We have a literature in Greek produced by a Jesus movement active in Hellenistic cities. How are they related? Surely everyone should be interested in this puzzle to which we have only some of the pieces.

    What limits this interest not only by Catholics but many others?

  8. (1 of 4)
    The biggest factor is the nature of the academic enterprise:

    1. It generates many competing pieces of new information that are hard to evaluate.
    2. Consensus about these pieces of information is always shifting.
    3. Academics build their own virtual communities through journals, conferences, etc
    4. These communities do not overlap and have difficulty understanding each other.
    5. People outside these communities with doctorates in other disciplines like myself, and even world class scholars like Father K in closely related disciplines have difficulty evaluating what is going on.

  9. (2 of 4)
    Karl Rahner wrote a paper on his work as an “amateur” philosopher in which he claimed that the only way to do significant work valuable to the general public is by being an amateur through crossing disciplinary boundaries.

    At an annual joint meeting of American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature about a decade ago, Publishers Weekly had a session for people on publishing dissertations as books. The bad news: academic publishing such as university press was declining. Good news: increasing numbers of college educated people had created a market of people who wanted to be entertained by popular presentations of academic work. Advice: add quality of your vita by publishing it the academic market, and add quantity to the vita by entertaining the “college (and probably now internet) amateur” market with the importance of your work and area of study

    These TV presentations are geared to that college educated market; they have to avoid any appearance of pandering to the tabloid market.

  10. (3 of 4)
    This amateur/entertainment market usually fails to connect to the lived personal and social religious experience of its audience.

    Furthermore, these works may produce a negative reaction when people are told their favorite bible passages may not be related to Jesus at all. There is also a disconnect with what they hear in their churches, or experience in bible study groups. Are they going to reject their personal and social religious experience to adhere to any of these ivory towers.


  11. 4 of 4)
    However there are the people who are disaffected from churches which is captured by Jean’s experience with the UU.

    Nones are growing. Is the UU growing? Will it grow? I have my doubts. A lot of the Nones are young. They do not have a long history of” church going” to undo and redo. I get the impression they are more interested in avoiding than dealing with conflict.

    Maybe Jean has more insights on this. Others who have commented may see themselves as amateurs, or seeking entertainment, or experiencing a disconnect with their personal and social religious experience.

    I think it is very unlikely that any “historical Jesus” generated by these ivory tower communities will connect with the positive experiences in people’s lives. Even more unlikely that they will generate or connect with a network of people with similar positive experiences. That is what would be necessary to generate a religious movement and lasting impact beyond academia.

    1. Jack, UUs along the University of Michigan-MSU corridor are vibrant and seem to be growing. Their social services programs are impressive. Their Sunday schools are full of kids. They seem far less dour and cold than I remember.

      Millennials are far more likely to meet UUs than Catholics at events they care about--Bernie rallies, women's marches, and indie band concerts. Catholics (and probably other Christians) tend to organize events for their own inside their own tents; UUs tend to look for ways they can participate in events outside the tent.

      In our UU youth group, we had to write our own gospel. When I was 26, I started revisiting it every few years. Now I read and revise it every Good Friday because, for me, Good Friday is at the crux of my own faith. That exercise has led me to some interesting places!

      Here's a story about the growth trend of UUs nationally. With apologies to Crystal for my dragging things off topic.

  12. Jack,

    Good analysis of why more people don't delve into historical Jesus stuff. Before the advent of Twitter and Facebook there was a group of "bibliobloggers" on the web ... mostly academics who worked in the area of bible study. Their blogs made the historical Jesus stuff much more accessible to the average person. Here's a list of some of the blogs ... ... I often read Mark Goodacre's NT Blog ...

    Plus there are sites like the NT Gateway ...

    I do think the Catholic church tends to discourage people learning more about bible study. The church has a long history of "let us think so you don't have to". And with the idea that the church never makes mistakes, a Catholic bible scholar cannot always follow the truth where ever it might lead without worrying about being censored.

  13. Thanks for the compliment on “my good analysis.” It was inspired by the previous comments. In my role as planner in the mental health system I often listened to many diverse comments, then tried to bring the discussion together. I thought I would try doing that sometimes on this blog. I am thinking of using a series comments using (1 or X) to signify that is what I am doing.

    Catholic priests (e.g. Meier, Fitzmeyer, Raymond Brown) have done an excellent job in being biblical scholars recognized by the general scholarly community while remaining in good standing. So there is not a problem at that level.

    Many Catholics are interested in bible study. The Little Rock Bible Study program uses the Liturgical Press commentaries. Mostly this has been a grassroots movement of laity in parishes. Dioceses and priests have rarely taken a leadership role. When I was on pastoral council in my parish the people wanted bible study. Not a problem at that level.

    The real difficulty is that priests are not well trained in the Bible and do not see on going Bible study as essential to their homiletic and pastoral ministry. So they are not much help, and probably would not have the time even if they had the ability and interest.

    As part of my masters degree at ND I took Meier on the Historical Jesus, and Psalms. Here in Cleveland I had graduate level courses on Paul, John, and Mark as part of program whereby John Carroll and the Seminary offer non-credit graduate level course at very low continuing education rates. Most college educated adults can be accepted, all they are concerned about is do you have the ability. (However this option is not widely advertised).

    So the diocese could have adult volunteers take these courses, and then be a resource in developing bible study in the parishes. That is what I proposed in my letters to our Apostolic Administrator, and the Apostolic Delegate should be a part of the agenda in their current search for the next bishop.

  14. I've hear of Meier and Brown. The only Catholic guy I know of contemporarily is Felix Just SJ. He has a site. But what happens when, for instance, a Catholic NT scholar sees the evidence shows Jesus had siblings but the church says he has to believe Mary is a perpetual virgin?

    1. I think many Catholic NT scholars believe that the weight of evidence based on the Gospel texts is that Jesus had siblings. However, for a Catholic biblical scholar, the weight of evidence based on the text is not proof, and tradition and Church teaching must be taken into account. Also, there's always the option of interpreting doctrines such as the perpetual virginity of Mary as embodying truths that are not literal. There are at least two different books titled Creative Fidelity, neither of which I have read, but I like the phrase. It seems to me there are many ways to interpret doctrines in such a way as not to accept them literally but not to deny them either. (I should stress I have no idea whether the books I have referred to use the concept of creative fidelity as I have here.)

      Of course, where do you draw the line between reasonable interpretation and rationalization? There are some conservative Christians who would deny that Jesus drank wine at the Last Supper (or ever), since they believe it is wrong to drink alcohol and Jesus wouldn't have done it.

    2. Yes, I've seen that idea mentioned too where tradition and faith are seen as a kind of truth that may be as important as historical info in primary sources.

      I guess I don't like that idea (except when I do it myself ;) because it almost seems to reduce what was a real historically existing person and the events of his life to the level of Tinker Bell .... if we just believe hard enough, she will become real.

  15. Catholic scholars write for scholars in general, with a secondary interest in the general public including Catholics. Many scholars accept that Jesus had siblings; Protestants have long accepted this too. The church has long had explanations for the data. Catholic scholars tend to repeat the status of the question. Providing a new insight would be the only reason they would venture beyond this.

    Providing new insights based on new data(.e.g. archeology) or new methodologies e.g. Meier) generally does not produce direct conflicts with Catholic beliefs. The church does not require literal interpretations of the Bible, and accepts that an Evangelist may not be quoting the historic Jesus but putting words in his mouth for purposes of conveying what Jesus taught

    Going beyond literal to spiritual interpretation has a long history going back to the Church fathers, and even to Paul use of the OT and in the way one book of the Old Testament interprets another. Fundamentalist readings of the Bible are very modern in reaction to the Enlightenment. The literal historical meaning of the Bible was considered the lowest level of interest in the early Church.

  16. When the (sadly, forged) fragment from the Gospel of Jesus' Wife was in the news I was wondering what the church would say if it turned out to be authentic. James Martin SJ wrote an article saying that Jesus wasn't married ... something no one knows ... even in the face of what might have turned out to be true -