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Historical Jesus
By David Sedivy

The authors of Jesus Under Fire, Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, argue against the philosophy of John Hick and the theories of, among many others, Marcus Borg. Their direct assault is launched against the findings of the Jesus Seminar, of which Borg is a participant, and though they raise some interesting questions worthy of discussion, I feel they fall short of soundly proving their arguments. In other words, they did not change my mind. They only offer alternatives that resort back to traditional Christian teachings and in some cases reveal a sense of hysterical orthodox paranoia. Though I do not choose to accept all the findings of the Jesus Seminar, I have achieved a level of comfort in the individual studies of Marcus Borg, supported by Hick's philosophy. It is my decision to make educated choices on how I perceive Jesus that seems to cause the Fire authors discomfort. In the following I will examine some of the convictions of Hick and Borg and the arguments of Jesus Under Fire authors as they pertain to the Historical Jesus and his significance to Christianity.

The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars who for the past eleven years have been examining and voting upon the historical accuracy of all the words and deeds attributed to Jesus in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. The conclusions of the Seminar have stirred up controversy that has caused some Christians to examine their religion. Marcus Borg, a widely read scholar and professor of Religion and Culture, is a high profile member of the Jesus Seminar. It must be understood, however, that all of these scholars have personal opinions and the findings of the Seminar are not necessarily the one hundred percent convictions of each member. There are actually subjects where Borg's theories agree with those of the authors of Jesus Under Fire and in conflict with those of the Seminar. As Jesus Under Fire is a compilation of works by authors with two editors, I will address their works individually as I am sure there are variations among their convictions, as well.

To develop some understanding of the differing views of Jesus, I think the question of God must be addressed and whether one must have a relationship with Jesus to know God. Borg's belief in God is based on personal experience and the study of religious experiences of others within various cultures and religious traditions. "...God does not refer to a supernatural being "out there." Rather that the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us." God, "Is common to the religious experiences of men and women across cultures and religious traditions." I believe Borg’s concept of God is supported by Hick's philosophy of pluralism. Hick explores the pluralistic hypothesis that, "The great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real from within the major variant ways of being human."

If we accept the theory that there is one ultimate Real (or God) for the world’s humanity and Borg's theory that Jesus is one of the many mediators of the sacred, then the question of Jesus being the only way to acquire eternity would, in the least reek of, "bigoted narrowness and rigid exclusiveness," but on a grander scale mocks the intensive studies and devout convictions of all other world religions. "Affirming the existence of God is only the tip of the iceberg. That is, believing in God is only the beginning. Christian faith moves on to confess, among other things, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Some conceptions of God are quite at home with this confession about Jesus Christ; others are much less so. Thus, we should never assume that two people who affirm God's existence are entitled to the same verdict concerning the significance of Jesus. The belief that Jesus is the only way is the foundation of, in my opinion, all of the authors of Jesus Under Fire. It is an agreed consensus among Borg and the scholars of Fire, that our perception of Jesus depends fundamentally upon what we believe about God. Hence the foundation is laid for the debate. Contemporary Jesus Scholars and religious philosophers challenge the traditional teachings about Jesus. In a sense, they rock the foundation.

Borg explains that, images of Jesus matter. There is a strong connection between images of Jesus and images of Christian life, between how we think of Jesus and how we think of Christian life. Our image of Jesus affects our perception of the Christian life in two ways: it gives shape to the Christian life; and it can make Christianity credible or incredible. The Historical Jesus is not the same as the Christ of Faith. I would like to explain Borg's image of Jesus and support this with Hick's philosophy. I would then like to present a rebuttal by Scot McKnight the author of the chapter, "Who Is Jesus? An Introduction to Jesus Studies."

The base of Borg’s beliefs about Jesus is that he was a spirit person, one of those persons in human history to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality. Spirit persons share a strong sense of there being more to reality than the tangible world of our ordinary experience. They share a compelling sense of having experienced something "real." Their experiences involve not simply a feeling of ecstasy, but a knowing. What such persons know is the sacred. Spirit persons also become mediators of the sacred. They mediate the Spirit in various ways. Sometimes they speak the word or the will of God. Sometimes they mediate the power of God in the form of healings and/or exorcisms. What they all have in common is that they become funnels for the power or wisdom of God to enter into this world.

The Historical Jesus was a teacher of wisdom who regularly used the classic forms of wisdom speech (parables, and aphorisms) to teach a subversive and alternative wisdom.

Jesus was a social prophet.. He criticized the elites of his time, was an advocate of an alternative social vision, and was often in conflict with authorities.

Jesus was a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church.

None of these statements challenge the roots of Christianity. It is when you delve deeper into Borg’s research that his studies of Jesus can raise alarm. Borg states that:

We have no way of knowing whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah or as the Son of God in some special sense. According to the earliest layers of the developing gospel tradition, he said nothing about having such thoughts. They were not part of his own teaching. His message was not about believing in him. Rather he consistently pointed away from himself to God. His message was theocentric, not christocentric -- centered in God, not centered in a messianic proclamation about himself.

According to Borg, In all likelihood Jesus of Nazareth was noneschatological. What is being denied is the notion that Jesus expected the supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God as a world-ending event in his own generation.

Some other impressions of Jesus include that he was clearly exceptionally intelligent, used dramatic public actions such as eating with untouchables, not only generating criticism but also symbolizing his alternative vision of human community. He performed symbolic actions such as the destruction of the temple. He was a remarkable healer who was capable of attracting followers who left their previous lives behind and he also attracted enemies, especially among the rich and powerful. Finally, he was young, his life was short and his public activity was brief. It is exceptional that so much came forth from such a brief life.

Borg's image of Jesus denies that Jesus was God. What it suggests is that Jesus was not simply a person who believed strongly in God, but one who knew God.

Hick supports Borg’s image of Jesus when he states:

I see the Nazarene, then, as intensely and overwhelmingly conscious of the reality of God, and addressing God as abba, father. His spirit was open to God and his life a continuous response to the divine love as both utterly gracious and utterly demanding. He was so powerfully God-conscious that his life vibrated, as it were, to the divine life; and as a result his hands could heal the sick, and the ‘poor in spirit’ were kindled to new life in his presence. If you or I had met him in first century Palestine we would - we may hope - have felt deeply disturbed and challenged by his presence.

Borg stated in lecture that, "Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of his own day and taught in his own way that the unexamined life is not worth living. He had an enlightenment experience and taught the way of compassion. He was a healer who challenged a sharply stratified social system. He must have been a remarkable figure."

The understanding of Jesus as God the Son Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, "true God of true God," etc. Is far from anything, according to Hick, that the Historical Jesus can reasonably be supposed to have thought or taught. However, in Jesus' presence, we should have felt that we were in the presence of God - not in the sense that the man Jesus literally is God, but in the sense that he was so totally conscious of God that we could catch something of that consciousness by spiritual contagion. Jesus was so overwhelmingly conscious of the heavenly Father that he could speak about him with authority, could summon men and women to live as his children, could declare his judgment and his forgiveness, and could heal the sick by his power. Jesus must thus have been conscious of a unique position among his contemporaries, which may have been expressed by accepting the title of Messiah or, alternatively by applying to himself the image of the heavenly Son of Man -- two categories each connoting a human being called to be God's special servant and agent on earth.

The foundation of Scot McKnight's discussion about Jesus is that, "Such a Jesus would never have been crucified, would never have drawn the fire that he did, would never have commanded the following that he did, and would never have created a movement that still shakes the world." Scot's not comfortable with the humanization of Jesus. He does not argue against the majority of the descriptions of the Historical Jesus. He agrees that he was a spirit person, an amazing speaker and motivator. He just thinks there has to be more and that lies in the Traditional Jesus. McKnight sights specific examples of Jesus' actions to support his belief:

Jesus calls twelve apostles: A new people

The Synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ appointing and sending out twelve of his followers as special ambassadors in ministry and promising them a special role in the coming end times. If Jesus called twelve to be apostles, then it follows that he thought they would be the new leaders for the twelve tribes of Israel who would be the chosen people of God. It was widely believed in Jesus' day that the lost tribes would be restored in the last days.

McKnight feels that this indicates that Jesus was eschatological:

Jesus performs miracles: A significant person

Scholars of all persuasions today contend, from one angle or another, that Jesus did perform some stupendous acts. One essential feature of his ministry was his healing and restoring of people. When John the Baptist queried whether Jesus was the Messiah or not, Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, he dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."

(Matt. 11:2-5). Fundamental to understanding this charge of Jesus is that he saw his miraculous cures and the wondrous events of his ministry as fulfillments of prophecy.

Pockets of Judaism knew of only one person for whom such a ministry would be notable: The Messiah. McKnight feels that from the connection of Jesus with the Twelve and the eschatological nature of his miraculous deeds we can derive, at a bare minimum, the insight that Jesus should be seen as the end-time agent of God, the inaugurator of the kingdom of God.

Jesus sits at table with the unlikely: Pardon for the new people
McKnight sees all the same reasons as Borg for Jesus sharing his table with nobodies -- as an act of social interaction, a radical egalitarianism, to break down boundaries but he also sees this act as one with religious dimension. Because Jewish meals were religious, McKnight believes Jesus saw sharing his table with others was visibly demonstrating forgiveness of God, acceptance by God, and fellowship with God for those who ate bread and drank wine with him.

Table fellowship with Jesus was probably also an anticipation of the final feast of God, that the regular course of table fellowship with his followers was in anticipation of final forgiveness and full acceptance with God.

McKnight sees the actions of Jesus in the temple as more than symbolic:

Jesus cleanses the temple: Purification of the old system

The action of Jesus in the temple was a purification of the temple from the pollutions caused by religious obstacles and exploitations. This action was preceded by the provocative public entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Together, the entry and the cleansing for a whole picture of Jesus: He is the Messiah who enters Jerusalem, warns of judgment, and calls people into the kingdom.

Finally, McKnight debates the statement that we don’t know that Jesus truly believed himself to be the Son of God by citing the following:

There is a consistent strain in the records about Jesus that he, in some way, claimed to be uniquely the Son of God. I believe that this claim by Jesus is rooted in his experience of God as the Father, but I also believe that Jesus is, in fact, uniquely the Son of God. Jesus called God "Father," never included himself in the "our Father" kind of prayers, and addressed God as Father in moments of crisis. In addition, he claimed to have special access to the Father's mysteries, and only those who learned from him would gain similar access. Jesus compared himself to a son in a parable that spoke of God's sending, his rejection, and the Father's vindication. Jesus conferred a kingdom on his followers as the Father had done to him. This theme is greatly developed in the Gospel of John, where the divine Logos is the Son, the preincarnate one who was sent to earth to obey his Father and bring life.

Say what you want, these claims by Jesus -- to obey him, to confess him, and to perceive him as the revealer of God -- are special claims."

I believe the above examples make a strong argument that the Historical Jesus was quite a man. They are very powerful and thought provoking words and serve the reader well by making them contemplate Jesus' being. Where I struggle with McKnight and the other contributors of Jesus Under Fire is that it all comes down to what you want to believe. The majority of their supporting arguments come from quotes taken from the bible. This is legitimate unless you question the factual accuracy of the bible -- whether it is a book of stories or a historically accurate account of the times. Hick and Borg both address Jesus' deep spirituality and the passion with which he lived his life. He was remarkable, no doubt, but every argument presented by McKnight can be rebutted by Borg or Hick, and vice-a-versa. There are two sides to every coin and the scholars of Fire continuously revert back to the traditional way of seeing things - they provide an alternative masked in the cloak of contemporary research that is nothing more than a new way of saying the same old thing. If a Christian is examining their faith and finds themselves uncomfortable with the theories of those like Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar, the authors of Jesus Under Fire give them a safe out. I think this is okay because in the end, no one knows what's out there and if you reach a place of comfort and feel that you do not need to seek out more, than that is were you should be.

It is all about belief and choice. According to Michael J. Wilkins, author of "The Furor Surrounding Jesus," in Jesus Under Fire :

The very act of believing something means that you take the thing believed to be true. You may not be one hundred percent are more convinced that it is true than that it is false. Put differently, a belief does not require complete certainty; it does, however, require that you are more than fifty percent certain about the belief. Otherwise, you would be in a state of suspended judgment and not really have the belief in question.

Through choosing, or not, to expand our knowledge on the Historical Jesus, we find ourselves in a position to trust what we believe and, "It is as reasonable for those who experience their lives as being lived in the presence of God, as for all of us to form beliefs about our environment on the basis of our experience of it." Borg's theories on the Historical Jesus do not mean one cannot believe in Jesus. He simply states that Jesus was likely God's messenger to a group of people. Following the teachings of Jesus does not mean that you have to believe that his way is the only way but is perhaps your way.

Marcus Borg, the Jesus Seminar, and the authors of Jesus Under Fire, all present us with different ways of interpreting the Historical Jesus. All these choices about something so sacred can cause discomfort and fear. I feel that John Hick hits the nail on the head when it comes to how we approach the choices we make about our spiritual life:

Two people are traveling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to a Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere; but since it is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before, and therefore neither is able to say what they will find around each next corner. During their journey they meet both with moments of refreshment and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of her journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City, and interprets the pleasant parts as encouragements, and the obstacles as trials of her purpose and lessons in endurance, prepared by the sovereign of that city and designed to make of her a worthy citizen of the place when at last she arrives there. The other, however, believes none of this and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble. Since he has no choice in the matter, he enjoys the good and endures the bad. But for him there is no Celestial City to be reached, no all-encompassing purpose ordaining their journey; only the road itself and the luck of the road in good weather and in bad.

Whether we believe in a Celestial City or not, we have the choice to decide how we approach our journey through spiritual life. We have the option to believe what we want about the Historical Jesus and his significance in our conduct. The authors of Jesus Under Fire are strongly convicted to their orthodox beliefs that the Jesus of Faith was one and the same with the Historical Jesus and that only through him will people receive salvation. I choose to travel the road of Marcus Borg and John Hick who believe that the Historical Jesus was a very wise teacher, an incredible human, one of the messengers of the Spirit, who became one with the Real. I choose to travel down my road looking forward to the next bend and anxiously anticipating what will be around it.

In conclusion, I cannot say what way is the right way for you, nor can you for me, Marcus Borg, John Hick, the contributors to Jesus Under Fire, or anyone else. The world has provided us with a smorgasbord of options. We can only hope to find a path that feels right, if, it is a path that you are seeking.

Bibliography is available by email request.

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