Daily Archives: June 4, 2010

Choose your own Jesus

I understand that the Holy Father’s second volume of his book “Jesus of Nazareth” is now at the translators. The first volume made a beautiful and timely argument for holding together what many “scholars” today prefer to separate: Jesus of Narareth and the Christ of God. (See here for a review of the book in The Times which takes decided issue with this approach and roundly condemns “canonical exegesis” as “groundless” and “an approach to biblical studies [which] would force back Catholic Bible experts, already the objects of frequent papal disapproval in Jesus of Nazareth, to a preCopernican stage of history”).

Now there is a remarkably sensible article in the New York Times, featured in Cathnews this morning, by Ross Douthat titled “Choose your own Jesus”. He begins:

Here’s a striking passage — an aside, really — from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker essay on the continuing (and continuing, and continuing) quest for the historical Jesus:

“James Tabor, a professor of religious studies, in his 2006 book “The Jesus Dynasty,” takes surprisingly seriously the old Jewish idea that Jesus was known as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera—as well attested a tradition as any [emphasis mine — RD], occurring in Jewish texts of the second century, in which a Jesus ben Pantera makes several appearances, and the name is merely descriptive, not derogatory.”

The whole problem with two centuries worth of historical Jesus scholarship is summed up in those seven words: “As well attested a tradition as any.”

The article is worth reading in its entirety, but here is Douthat’s main point – which squares well with that of Pope Benedict/Professor Ratzinger:

In the event, the synoptic gospels and Saint Paul’s epistles do make absolutely extraordinary claims, and so modern scholars have every right to read them with a skeptical eye, and question their factual reliability. But if you downgrade the earliest Christian documents or try to bracket them entirely, the documentary evidence that’s left is so intensely unreliable (dated, fragmentary, obviously mythological, etc.) that scholars can scavenge through it to build whatever Jesus they prefer — and then say, with Gopnik, that their interpretation of the life of Christ is “as well attested” as any other. Was Jesus a wandering sage? Maybe so. A failed revolutionary? Sure, why not. A lunatic who fancied himself divine? Perhaps. An apocalyptic prophet? There’s an app for that …

But this isn’t history: It’s “choose your own Jesus,” and it’s become an enormous waste of time. Again, there’s nothing wrong with saying that the supernaturalism of the Christian canon makes it an unreliable guide to who Jesus really was. But if we’re honest with ourselves, then we need to acknowledge what this means: Not the beginning of a fruitful quest for the Jesus of history, but the end of it.


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