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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Proof of Life

Credit for this reflection goes to Professor Laurie Brink OP, a Biblical Studies Professor at Catholic Theological Union. This post is heavily influenced and inspired by her closing thoughts and remarks to our fall New Testament class. If anything sounds odd or comes off strange, that is probably the result of my paraphrasing.

Today in our New Testament Biblical Studies course, we examined the concept of the Historical Jesus. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Historical Jesus studies are the attempts to find out what we can be fairly certain is historically, objectively accurate about the man Jesus of Nazareth. It is focused on examining Jesus in the way that we would examine any other historical figure. It is unconcerned with how the early Church viewed him, what we believe about him now, or with how he looks in the light of faith. It is very concerned with how his contemporaries would have viewed him, and with what all scholars, believers or not, can agree upon in light of the evidence as examined through methodologies agreed upon by scholarly consensus.

What can we know about the Historical Jesus? People have written volumes on the subject, so it’s hard to hit the high points in a single paragraph. He was a Jewish preacher, probably an apocalypticist who preached the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. He was heavily influenced by and associated with John the Baptist, another itinerant Jewish apocalyptic prophet. He probably followed many Jewish laws and customs, but probably also defied many Jewish norms, like associating with women and social outcasts. At some point, he was arrested, tried, and executed on the charges of insurrection. He was crucified. At the time of his death his followers abandoned him.

This is about all we can safely say. This is the sketch of Jesus of Nazareth, the man. At this point in class, we had to beg the question: what next? What about the resurrection? What does the humanity of Christ tell us about the divinity of Christ?

Strictly speaking, there is very little historical (as in acceptable to the modern discipline of history) evidence for either the resurrection or the divinity of Christ.

Why, then, do we believe?

The greatest evidence that something unusual happened concerning Jesus is that we are around, studying and following him. There were numerous itinerant apocalyptic Jewish prophets wandering Israel: numerous miracle workers, prodigious numbers of preaching exorcists. All their stories ended when they died. No followers. No churches. And everyone in Judea at the time would have assumed that Jesus’ story would end with his death too. It looked like it was going to be that way for him too… one of the most historically plausible facts we have about Jesus is that his disciples abandoned him at the time of his death.

However, Jesus’ story did not end with his death; his story was just getting started. A little while after his death his followers re-grouped and set off in all directions, preaching the resurrection. They pledged their life to an executed criminal who should have been forgotten: all the other marginal, strange preachers of the day were. They suffered hardships, and many died for this belief. What’s more, and stranger still, is that many lived for this belief in mystifying ways, like selling all they had and living with the poor and sick. And what’s even stranger still, is that they were successful in their quest. The faith spread, the Church grew.

Three days after Jesus of Nazareth died, Christ the Messiah rose. There is only one real convincing physical proof of this: us. We, the Church, are still around. We shouldn’t be. It makes no sense. Given all that we know about the biography of the Historical Jesus, there is just no reason at all that we should still be talking about him, much less learning from him, much less pledging our lives to him. And yet, here we are, and thus we do. It should give us pause, at the weight of our responsibility. The Church is the enduring legacy and proof of life for the Risen Christ. Do we recognize this? Do we act as such?

Historical Jesus studies are important. They can help us overthrow the idolatry we sometimes have towards images of Christ, images of Christ that we have made in our own image, images we construct when we make Jesus baptize what we are and how we live, rather than let him challenge us to become like him. They can remind us that he was fully human, that he sweated and struggled; a necessary reminder that we can forget when we divinize Christ in a way that means we feel he had no struggles, so could not be imitated, so we need not try to do so. However, Historical Jesus studies by themselves are ultimately incomplete. They cannot explain what we, the Church, are still doing here. Everyday, around the world, we gather and say “He is Risen,” and the very fact that a handful of nobodies from nowhere spread this belief far and wide, across the seas and across two millennia, is the greatest physical evidence we have that He Is.


Anonymous said...

thats awsome,very deep.

Anonymous said...

To probe beneath the superficial 4th century Hellenist Roman-gentile redactions of stories from Hellenist Jews, and consequent re-imaging, read Oxford historian James Parkes (The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue). THEN you'll be in a better position to relate to
(especially their History Museum pages).