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Historical Jesus Theories
January 30, 2003 3:01 AM   Subscribe

Jesus H. Christ: That's H for Historical. A person of interest to several schools of inquiry, historical whereabouts unknown, somewhere between palimpsest and projection. You have your Jesus Seminar, for one. Earl Doherty asks Was there no historical Jesus? Mystae's The Jesus of History and Archeology is a bit more on the X files tip. A decidedly nonbeliever overview is Infidel.org's The Search for the Historical Jesus. And Gospel.Net provides Jesus of Nazareth in all gospels known to have been written within 200 years of Jesus' birth, a number considerably larger than the canonical four.
That should be enough for a start. Now go in peace and sin no more.
posted by y2karl (26 comments total)

 
Historical-Jesus stuff has always fascinated me. I read that whole series of Lincoln, Leigh, Baigent 'grail=womb' Templar-connection-Rennes-Le-Chateau-davidian-bloodline books avidly, years and years ago, knowing that the whole secret-society thing was laughably unlikely, but Wanting To Believe nonetheless.

Thanks for this post. It feeds one of my many brain-hobbies : I will bookmark it and follow the links when I'm sober.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:14 AM on January 30, 2003


O ye of little fraith.

The historical evidence of Jesus is forever corrupted by its own inherent entanglement in myth and contradiction. It could be fairly assumed that the Christian idea of Jesus was loosely based on the teachings of one man, a composite of several people, or a complete Prestor John-like invention- a fictional man never-the-less made real (in a meaningful sense of the word) through others.

Even to those who reject his claim to deity a priori (the only reasonable choice), I think it still takes a leap of faith to believe in a man as important or popular in his own day as the account in the bible would have us believe. Like the Jewish exodus out of Egypt, the tale, if it happened in some form at all, was much grander in the telling then common sense or all available evidence would suggest it did in its actuality.
posted by dgaicun at 4:22 AM on January 30, 2003


What I always found peculiar was the suggestion in one of Clement of Alexandria's letters that the three Synoptic gospels currently known are in fact not the authoritative versions of those gospels, and that in fact, there were esoteric versions of these manuscripts that contained additional information about Jesus and his teaching but that outsiders weren't allowed to see. That of course, ignores the fascinating issue itself under debate in the letter (whether or not this secret version of the Gospel can be construed to indicate Jesus was a homosexual, which Clement disagrees with).

For anyone interested in a quick introduction to the field, the Tomb of Jesus homepage contains a lot of interesting material on what the historical Jesus may have been like.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:31 AM on January 30, 2003


I was always told that the H stood for haploid.
posted by piskycritter at 4:38 AM on January 30, 2003


I forgot to add Early Christian Writings--The New Testament, Apochypha, Gnostics and Church Fathers. the first two hundred years.

Jesus Seminar Premises and Rules of Evidence.


The Jesus Seminar: Decisions of Authenticity.

These are the sayings of Jesus as agreed upon the Jesus seminar, who are quite the exigetes.
posted by y2karl at 4:47 AM on January 30, 2003


No, the "H" is for Herai, the town in northern Japan where the REAL tomb of Jesus can be found. Would Coca-Cola lie?
posted by planetkyoto at 4:53 AM on January 30, 2003


The always enjoyable Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope takes on the twin mysteries of Jesus's middle name/existence (and might I add in a way I totally disagree with in that latter one).

That of course, ignores the fascinating issue itself under debate in the letter (whether or not this secret version of the Gospel can be construed to indicate Jesus was a homosexual, which Clement disagrees with).

Few historical genres annoy me more than the "who was secretly gay" one (though its nice to see it has a pedigree). Canuk blogger Colby Cosh recently chewed on this one in a way that connected with me.
posted by dgaicun at 5:30 AM on January 30, 2003


It's that link of yours that's forever corrupted, by the way, o ye of much opinionation. Or is it too a matter of fraith?
posted by y2karl at 5:37 AM on January 30, 2003


Side note:
palimpsest and palimpsest, or find the palimpsest
...cool new word, thanks! (or at least new for me)
posted by madamjujujive at 5:50 AM on January 30, 2003


Everybody knows that Jesus was buried in Japan.

Domini dominus pass the sake already...
posted by zaelic at 6:13 AM on January 30, 2003


oops. I meant Jesus was in Japan. Really. He was.
posted by zaelic at 6:16 AM on January 30, 2003


Anyone interested in this subject should read The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. The authors lay out a massive amount of evidence (with 50 + pages of notes and a dozen pages of bibliography) showing that pre-Xian "pagans" originated every aspect of the Jesus myth. Even the early Xian writers acknowledged that pagan messiahs prefigured Jesus in every last detail, but ascribed that fact to "diabolical mimicry"--i.e. the devil ripped off the future Jesus story in the fake pagan myths which originated centuries before Jesus. Uh huh.
posted by mooncrow at 6:26 AM on January 30, 2003


stavros: sorry to disappoint you, but that whole Rennes-Le-Chateau business has been pretty conclusively debunked as an elaborate hoax concocted by French royalists. Baigent and Leigh's books, while admittedly containing some entertaining speculation, take some appallingly bad research and truly laughable interpretations of canonical and pseudoepigraphical sources, and apply them to a presupposed conclusion in order to sell lots and lots of books.

The best deconstruction of the Priory-of-Sion mythos appeared in Gnosis Magazine's final issue. You can read the article here.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:36 AM on January 30, 2003


It's that link of yours that's forever corrupted

I noticed that, and linked anyway. I figured it was just one of those temporary Metabugs, that would smooth over as the day progressed. . . .Could be wrong. (of course if it is gone forever, that 'fraith' pun is gonna end up biting me on the ass. Oh well)
posted by dgaicun at 6:39 AM on January 30, 2003


There is also the Jefferson Bible, in which Thomas Jefferson set out to remove all of the supernatural events from the story of Christ:

Jefferson discovered a Jesus who was a great Teacher of Common Sense. His message was the morality of absolute love and service. Its authenticity was not dependent upon the dogma of the Trinity or even the claim that Jesus was uniquely inspired by God.

posted by whatnot at 7:08 AM on January 30, 2003


Even most liberal New Testament scholars (in places like Harvard, Princeton, and Duke) think that the Jesus Seminar is more about pushing an agenda than actual scholarship. Their picture of the "real" Jesus might be more convincing if he didn't come out basically supporting the values of the people behind the seminar. Hey! Jesus is just like a 20th century academic!

Here's a critique from a pretty reputable scholar at Duke (in, admitedly, a conservative magazine).
posted by straight at 8:28 AM on January 30, 2003


Jefferson didn't just knock out all of the supernatural stuff; he also eliminated "bad role model" stuff, like Jesus sassing his parents when they find him in the Temple.

For nineteenth-century precursors of the current "historical Jesus" debate, see David Friedrich Strauss (author of Das Leben Jesu), John Robert Seeley (author of Ecce Homo), and Ernest Renan. Albert Schweitzer's famous The Quest of the Historical Jesus is available on-line; a more recent take on the same subject is Colin Brown's Jesus in European Protestant Thought, 1778-1860.. The anti-feminist and religious radical Eliza Lynn Linton contributed The True History of Joshua Davidson, a sardonic novel about the likely result of the Second Coming (hint: he's treated about as well as he was the first time).
posted by thomas j wise at 9:07 AM on January 30, 2003


Jefferson discovered a Jesus who was a great Teacher of Common Sense. His message was the morality of absolute love and service

More likely, he was just trying to take advantage of a figure people already revered through tradition to strengthen common sense morality & absolute love. That's just what Spinoza recommended gov't do, and he himself (being a jewish scholar) reinterpreted much of the old testament to the same ends.
posted by mdn at 9:39 AM on January 30, 2003


Lotsa good links, folks. Thanks. It may be mentioned in one or two of them, but in case not, Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus stirred up a hornet's nest by "proving" that the historical Jesus was a bastard, which is what gave rise to the miracle birth narrative. The book is, I think, overreaching in that area, but offers a lot of good insight in terms of how the original gospels evolved.
posted by soyjoy at 10:28 AM on January 30, 2003


Here's a critique from a pretty reputable scholar at Duke

Who in another context, and noted there--Professor Hays is also an ordained United Methodist minister--wrote:

It is, in short, a textbook case of "eisegesis," the fallacy of reading one's own agenda into a text. ...

Now Professor hays, who takes issue with the Jesus seminar on the grounds, among others, that the JS rejects an eschatological Jesus, obviously wouldn't have any eisegesical axes to grind himself, like, no doubt, the rest of the nameless alleged reputable scholars straight alluded to...

That eschatology definition comes from The Postmodern Bible - Online Bible study through hypertext Bible commentary, a work in progress.
posted by y2karl at 11:38 AM on January 30, 2003


if you're interested in this topic (it's my consuming passion) you might want to check out N T Wright
posted by mhjb at 12:33 PM on January 30, 2003


stavros: sorry to disappoint you

Not at all - I knew it was all bollocks when I was reading it as a teenager. Entertaining and amusing, it was, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:39 PM on January 30, 2003


Now Professor hays, who takes issue with the Jesus seminar on the grounds, among others, that the JS rejects an eschatological Jesus, obviously wouldn't have any eisegesical axes to grind himself, like, no doubt, the rest of the nameless alleged reputable scholars straight alluded to..

No one comes to the issue of "who was Jesus" with no presuppositions. But the Jesus Seminar is way more into axe grinding than most mainstream scholars, conservative or liberal. If you read through their list of criteria for deciding what Jesus "really" said, you see that they come to it with a whole list of preconceptions, such as the one you mentioned about apocalyptic; since they "know" Jesus never talked about that, any saying that seems apocalyptic must be inauthentic.

Hays is much more circumspect in his scholarship. He sticks to discussing what Matthew or Luke wrote about Jesus rather than pretending he has some method of figuring out what (if any) of the stuff they wrote Jesus really said.

The Jesus Seminar is not a group that does scholarship together, it's a group for publicizing and popularizing scholarship that fits with a particular agenda. Of course, there's plenty of books like that on the other side of the aisle, cherry picking scholarship that "proves" that the Gospels are authentic.

The weird thing about the Jesus Seminar is that they end up arguing that the Jesus of the Gospels bears little resemblance to the original Jesus. If that's so, if Jesus was so ineffective that his teaching had little impact on the movement that followed him, then why bother studying him? If Jesus was just a misunderstood 20th century academic, then it's the Gospel writers and early Christians who are interesting, in that they came up with this movement that has had such a huge impact on the world.
posted by straight at 11:18 PM on January 31, 2003


If Jesus was just a misunderstood 20th century academic.

You keep repeating this opinion as if it were a fact.

I checked out the Amazon page for this and found a similar argument in a list for False Biblical Book No Christian Should Use by a self-identified Bible scholar.

And yet I find some of the same books listed by a theology major with a positive endorsment.

Intelligent and devout people can believe quite differently about the same things, it seems.
posted by y2karl at 12:02 AM on February 1, 2003


I checked out the Amazon page for this and found a similar argument in a list for False Biblical Book No Christian Should Use by a self-identified Bible scholar.

They repeat the argument because it's true. I can find all sorts of things in Matthew's gospel that challenge the way I think and make me uncomfortable. Try reading the Five Gospels and ask yourself, has Robert Funk left anything in his version of the gospels that doesn't just agree with what he already thinks? Did Thomas Jefferson? The whole exercise of thinking you can find the "real" sayings of Jesus seems to inevitably lead to re-writing Jesus in your own image.

If the gospel writers' portrait of Jesus is substantialy in error, then we probably don't know much of anything about Jesus.

As for your self-described "theology major," (this isn't a Theology argument, it's a History and New Testament Studies argument) putting John Shelby Spong on a list of "historical Jesus studies" is not very impressive. Spong is a bishop, not an academic. He's a popularizer of other people's scholarship mixed with his own ideosyncratic and myopic ideas about religion -- Christianity must change or die? Tell that to the exploding Christian churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Maybe New England Episcopalianism must change or die...
posted by straight at 7:51 AM on February 1, 2003


Like, I said, thanks for your opinions.
posted by y2karl at 8:39 AM on February 1, 2003


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