Historical Jesus, Theology

Historical Jesus, pt 2 – The New Spirituality

Learning precisely who wrote the gospels may be beyond us. But it may be more important to learn how the church did, and does, tell the story of Jesus vitally in each new generation. – John P. Meier1

Inherent in the development of Jesus scholarship was the development of a new, strange mold of spirituality. It maintains a separation from the Jesus of faith and yet continues to adhere to him. He is, of course, not the Jesus of the gospels, and yet he is seemingly important to the writers.

It is important to note that to a person these Jesus scholars consider themselves Christians and believe that what they are doing is forwarding the cause of God. Of course, their understanding of God is something foreign to the mainstream Christian’s view, but that is beside the point.

Crossan’s Obsession

If you read anything by John Dominic Crossan, you will encounter his constant parallels between Augustus Caesar and Jesus. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Crossan sees Jesus as the anti-type of that first emperor. He casts Jesus in the opposite mold, a Mediterranean peasant.

Of course, Jesus and Augustus were historically unaware of each other’s personal existence. While Jesus must have known of Augustus, the man died before Jesus was 20 years of age; and Augustus certainly took no interest in just one of his subjects in a somewhat distant but important part of his empire.

I would actually agree with Crossan that the Gospel writers (particularly Mark) intentionally cast a light on Christ to compare him to Caesar, to make him an anti-Caesar of sorts. But Crossan’s parallel has nothing to do with that. Instead, he sees them as two men who had been equally deified by their followers. More specifically, Crossan sees Jesus as a myth surrounding a man. Just as Augustus Caesar was something more than Octavius, so to Jesus Christ is something more than the Mediterranean peasant.

He chooses not to separate the myth and the man in his spirituality, although he does so on paper, and proposes:

“Jesus Christ is the combination of a fact (Jesus) and an interpretation (Christ). They should neither be separated nor confused, and each must be found anew in every generation, for their structural dialectic is the heart of Christianity.”2

Crossan’s fellow founder of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk says, “The New Testament is a highly uneven and biased record of orthodox attempts to invent Christianity.”3 By contrast, however, “The kingdom [which Jesus preached] is a journey without an end.”

Rudolf Bultmann and Natural Mysticism

The writings of Rudolf Bultmann are intrinsically linked to the work of the Seminar. They are updating and expanding his work. We must then know what Bultmann believed. He is, in a very real sense, the true founder of their thinking; and we must know his thinking in order to understand their own.

Although Bultmann’s works are prodigious, his ultimate conclusions can be reduced simply. Bultmann believed that Jesus was essentially a good man whose followers made him into something he never intended to be and the quest to determine his actual words is an exercise in scholarly futility.

Critical investigation shows that the whole tradition about Jesus which appears in the three synoptic gospels is composed of a series of layers which can on the whole be clearly distinguished, although the separation at some points is difficult and doubtful…By means of this critical analysis an oldest layer is determined, though it can be marked off with only relative exactness. Naturally we have no absolute assurance that the exact words of this oldest layer were really spoken by Jesus. There is a possibility that the contents of this oldest layer are also the result of a complicated historical process which we can no longer trace.4

Notice the ambiguity of Bultmann’s own words: difficult and doubtful, no absolute assurance, a complicated historical process which we can no longer trace. At every turn, his view of the situation was one of abstracts and generalizations. Such was the nature of all his predecessors’ work as well.

Bultmann held that the world of the gospels was, in fact, mythological in character and that the mythology must be stripped away before one can even begin to understand the historical Jesus that lies under the pre-scientific world view.5 To that end, the entire context of the gospel narrative is mythological (or at least based in mythology) and must be rejected.

Bultmann pushed the boundaries of the forced history-faith dichotomy. He insisted that the myth of Jesus was an expression of his followers’ faith and not inherent to their trust in Him – that you could strip Jesus of the myth of the gospels and still be able to trust him.

“It is easy enough to deal with the doctrine of Christ’s preexistence and the legend of the Virgin birth in this way. They are clearly attempts to explain the meaning of the Person of Jesus for faith. The facts which historical criticism can verify cannot exhaust, indeed they cannot adequately indicate, all that Jesus means to me. How he actually originated matters little, indeed we can appreciate his significance only when we cease to worry about such questions. Our interest in the events of his life, and above all in the cross, is more than an academic concern with the history of the past. We can see meaning in them only when we ask what God is trying to say to each one of us through them. Again, the figure of Jesus cannot be understood simply from his inner-worldly context. In mythological language, this means that he stems from eternity, his origin is not a human and natural one.”6

Bultmann adhered to a view of the presence of Christ that was quite separate from the Jesus of the Gospels. He felt that he could have faith in Christ without investing the Gospels with authority since his relationship was with the “living Jesus.”

This view was the result of an understanding of Paul’s relationship with Jesus which involved a number of statements Paul attributed to Jesus that do not appear in any gospel record, either canonical or non-canonical. In this sense, Jesus is and not was.

This attitude continues in the works of the modern Jesus scholars who always speak of Jesus in the present tense, as he relates to them. The life is, as Marcus Borg – among others – calls it, “a perpetual odyssey” or “the non-literal approach.” In fact, Borg explains the basis for this type of relationship with Jesus in profound terms:

  1. The gospels are not primarily history, but “proclamation” (kerygma, as we learned to call it).
  2. The oldest parts of the gospel tradition are Q (a collection of sayings) and Mark (the oldest narrative).
  3. The gospel of John is highly symbolic and essentially not historical.
  4. Even the material in the synoptic gospels is the product of a long process of development, shaped by Christian communities during the time of oral transmission, and further redacted by the evangelists. Using them as historical sources for Jesus is thus difficult.
  5. Most (perhaps all) of the “exalted titles” by which Jesus is known in the Christian tradition do not go back to Jesus himself.
  6. It follows that Jesus message was not about himself or the importance of believing in him.
  7. Jesus was an eschatological figure. He expected “the end of the world” in his own generation. This expectation was quite literal, involving the coming of the Kingdom of God “in power,” the gathering of the elect, and judgment. This expectation was central, not peripheral, to shaping and animating Jesus’ ministry and message. This point, along with the next three, has fallen away as a foundation to my work.
  8. His central message was the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, understood eschatologically.
  9. Jesus also spoke of “the coming of the Son of man,” whose advent would be associated with end of the world events. Scholars were divided about whether he was referring to himself (that is, to his own future role), or whether he was speaking about a figure other than himself (that is, though he expected “the coming of the Son of man,” he did not identify himself with that figure).
  10. Finally, we cannot know much about Jesus. Any very specific claim about him is highly problematic. 7

While specific claims about Jesus were problematic, the experiences of “natural mysticism” – as Borg calls it – create a connectedness to the divine without the hindrances of the literal Jesus. God becomes a sacred center of existence – a holy mystery – and Jesus’ experiences with God become a model for one’s own spiritual connectedness.

Borg concludes: “I see that Bible and the tradition as ‘icons,’ mediators of the sacred. The point is not to believe them, but to be in relationship to that which they mediate: God, the Spirit, the sacred.”8 His is a self-admitted fusion of the 1960’s mentality and theological speculation – most of which was Bultmann’s. And he shares this fusion with most of the other modern Jesus scholars.

Bultmann might not have personally agreed with him, but Borg’s conclusion is the ultimate destiny of Bultmann’s path. To sacrifice worship and authority for the living Jesus is to surrender to a universalist spirituality. It is to make a cross-cultural guru from the singular Messiah.

It is to this spiritual journey or some variation of it that the Jesus scholars adhere. Jesus is seen in the context of cross-cultural spirituality and then read back into the existing record.

Dialectic Jesus

This is the vital component of the spirituality that underlies the interpretation of Jesus that pervades Jesus scholarship. Whether the individual scholar arrived at the dialectic before, during or after his experience in developing the historical Jesus, the truth is that the dialectic view of Jesus transforms the scholar’s view of the narratives.

Briefly stated, the dialectic is the concept that the living Jesus is communicative in this world in a non-literal way. He connects to the person but not through text or ritual. Instead, these are the agency of the connection but the connection is completely independent. For this reason, these scholars can call themselves Christians while abandoning the text which determines Christianity.

They see their spiritual odyssey as superseding the Scriptures, passing on to a higher level of understanding. In a very real way, they are the Gnostics of our day – believing that they have discovered the “real” Jesus that the masses cannot know because of the fetters of faith. Their faithlessness becomes their faith.


1 Alice Camille, “An Interview with John P. Meier” (U. S. Catholic, vol 66 iss 6, June 2001) p 18 5p

2 John Dominic Crossan, “Almost the Whole Truth” (The Fourth R, September/October 1993)

3 Funk, “21 Theses of the Coming Radical Reformation.”

4 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word trans. Louise Pettibone Smith & Erminie Huntress Latrino (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934) On-line edition, http://www.religion-online.org

5 Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: S.P.C.K., 1953) On-line edition, http://www.religion-online.org

6 Ibid.

7 Marcus Borg, “Me and Jesus: The Journey Home” (The Fourth R, July/August 1993)

8 Ibid.

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