Robert D. Brinsmead
Duranbah, NSW 2487,
A Christmas Essay:
ON THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN HISTORY AND ITS INTERPRETATION (PART 1)
Most Jesus scholars today tell a good news story about Jesus of Nazareth. That good news story is called "the gospel." Like any good story teller, although we donít know who these NT authors are, certainly not eyewitnesses who don't simply recite the history of Jesus or write up his biography. They invest that history with a certain meaning or interpretation.
This NT blend of history and interpretation helps us to understand why the NT contains diverse or even contradictory accounts of Jesus of Nazareth.† It was inevitable that his history came to mean different things to different people. The Palestinian Christians saw him through very Jewish eyes, while the Gentile Christians saw him through the eyes of their culture and world-views. No story teller simply recites history, but he or she will invest that history with the kind of interpretation that brings it alive with meaning for both the story teller and the audience.
The whole point of this discussion is to draw attention to this fundamental distinction between history and its interpretation.†
To say that Jesus was put to death on the charges of blasphemy and sedition is history. The matter is open to historical investigation and verification through weight of evidence. This history is not a matter of faith, because the historical fact of his death is something that is generally acknowledged by believer and unbeliever alike.
But to say that Jesus died for our sins, or that he was offered up as some kind of blood atonement for the sins of the world, is an interpretation -the Christian interpretation - of what, on an historical level, appeared as a brutal Roman execution. The interpretation invests the visible historical tragedy with a supra-historical meaning not apparent in the event itself.
Instead of seeing just another mundane killing of another innocent man, the Christian interpretation presents to us a drama of enormous cosmic and theological significance.
Unlike the historical event itself, the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death is not open to any kind of historical investigation or verification.
It can neither be proven nor disproven? If it could be proved like any other historical event, if would not be an article of faith. The same thing, of course, holds true for claims made about the existence of God, angels, miracles, the after life, the inspiration of the Bible or not of anything else of a transcendent, supra-historical or theological nature. Demonstrable proof and faith are mutually exclusive.
The same thing holds true for the most important and impressive point of the Christian faith, namely, the divinity of Jesus. That Jesus of Nazareth actually lived, said and did a number of things is a matter of history that even Moslems, Hindus like Ghandi, Jews like Buber, and atheists like Jack London find impressive.† It can neither be proven nor disproven?
In Jesus' own time, people responded to the historical event of his life in different ways. Some said he was a worker of magic who was inspired by the devil.† Others said that he was one of the prophets risen from the dead. Some Jews said that he was the son of God or Messiah in a Jewish or OT sense of a man being adopted and annointed by God to be a king like David. Christians finally came to say that he was God in human form. Now all these claims, including the Christian one, are interpretations of history. They are not subject to historical investigation and verification. The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is like the doctrine of his blood atonement. It can neither be proven of disproven. It is an article of faith.
The same thing applies to all Christian doctrines whether they be the virgin birth, the sinlessness of Jesus or his bodily resurrection,† They are all an interpretation of history.
To say that the Christian religion is founded on the history of Jesus of Nazareth is not entirely correct.† The Moslems agree with Christians on nearly all the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth, and for that matter so do many Jews like Buber. Hindus like Ghandi, and atheists like Jack London. But that does not make them Christians.† The thing which defines Christianity and sets it apart from the rest of Jesus' admirers is the interpretation it puts upon his history. Christian doctrines or Christian theology is all about interpretation.
The Creeds of the Christian Church say practically nothing about the history of Jesus of Nazareth. Neither do all the tomes devoted to Christian theology and Church dogmatics. Christians have killed each other all too often over these matters of interpretation or articles of faith, but it would be hard to find examples of people killing one another on the basis that Jesus of Nazareth said things like "love one another," "judge not," "forgive seventy times seven," etc.†
Paul says almost nothing about the actual historical circumstances of the death of Jews at the hand of the Jewish and Roman authorities, but he has a lot to say about the cosmic and theological meaning of his death.
It is a matter of history that Jesus was born or even that he was born in irregular circumstances. Two NT authors provide the interpretation of a virgin birth. Although that interpretation of history is conspicuously absent in Paul and two of the NT Gospels, the doctrine of the virgin birth eventually became one of the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy. This kind of miracle, of course, is not accessible to historical investigation and verification. Like all the other doctrines of the Christian religion, it is simply an article of faith which can neither be proven nor disproven.
On the matter of the resurrection of Jesus,
the only thing that is accessible to history is that after his death a group of
people became convinced he was alive again. A few claimed they encountered him,
and many more claimed they experienced his presence, but the account of these
things was not written up in the Gospels until 50 to 70 years later. These
accounts are in some important respects contradictory and even mutually
exclusive. For instance, did these "appearances" take place in
The church came to interpret these encounters or experiences of the risen Jesus in terms of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. If we can accept that the Gospels were the creative interpretation of different story tellers in the second and third generation after the event, we will not be troubled by either the diverse or contradictory details of the stories. And since the resurrection is not subject to demonstrable proof, it too is an article of faith.
The Christian movement gradually became a monolithic institution wherein all the articles of the Christian faith were securely tied down in an ever increasing number of Creeds which defined orthodoxy and exposed heresy. Only one version or interpretation of the history of Jesus was tolerated. This kind of arrogance, exclusivism and intolerance led straight to the Dark Ages.
But did the early Christian movement present only one version of the Jesus story? Scholars are becoming more and more agreed that the early movement presents us with an amazing diversity of interpretations concerning Jesus - from the Essenic Christians on the far right, down through Pharisaic
Christians, Jacobine Christians, Petrine Christians, Pauline Christians, Johannine Christians to Gnostic Christians on the far left - and then Alexandrian Christians, Palestinian Christians, Antiochian Christians, Roman Christians and differing geographical groups too numerous to mention.
None had a complete NT, some had a small part of what was later put into the NT canon, some had books that were never included in the NT, and some only had a brief collection of Jesus' sayings.† And 90% of them could not read or write anyway!
But even if we look at the documents which much later made it into the NT canon (by consensus of the monolithic church) we find an astonishing diversity there. For instance, Christians have tended to assume that all the NT authors subscribe to the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus. But a fair reading of Mark would indicate that the unknown author is not only silent about the virgin birth, but the way he tells his story about the unbelief of his mother and siblings seem to rule it out. John's Gospel appears to assume that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus, and of course, Paul's silence on the subject is quite deafening. The discovery of many non-canonical gospels this century plus a careful reconstruction of the history of the Jewish church indicates quite clearly that most Jewish "Christians" (a misnomer because they never called themselves Christians), including the original apostles, did not have a doctrine of the virgin birth.† I don't draw attention to these things to canvass one view against the other, but only that we will finally take our Christian glasses off and let† each NT author tell his story of Jesus in his own way.†
Take as another example, the Christian doctrine of the blood atonement. We have tended to read the NT through the prism of the Pauline interpretation of the death of Christ. But it may come as a surprise to many that the author of Luke-Acts, who contributes a larger body of NT material than any other NT author, has no theology of atonement. Luke's doctrine of forgiveness of sins is not predicated on the death of Jesus but on the risen Jesus. With no subsitutionary atonement, Luke would not even qualify as an orthodox Christian according to the standards of Creedal Christianity.
It may also come as a surprise to some, that Paul does not subscribe to a physical or bodily
resurrection of either Jesus or the saints. His explanation about the
flesh-body and the spirit-body in l Corinthians 15, and his statement saying
that the body of flesh and blood cannot inherit the
Now we come to the really big Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. There is no denying that Christians have traditionally read all four Gospels, and even the entire NT, through the lens of the so-called Gospel of John. But if we will let the other Gospels speak to us on their own terms and quit forcing them into the theological mold of either the fourth Gospel or the Creeds of the Church, we will have to admit that the Jewish historian and NT scholar Geza Vermes is right - the Synoptic Gospels do not teach that Jesus is God. In their over-all account of the historical Jesus, he eschews all titles, refuses to be called "good Teacher",("there is none good but God,") and if there is a Messianic secret in their story, he is son of God only in the Jewish or OT sense of an annointed man of God. Their interpretation of the historical person differs considerably from John on many points that we cannot go into here.
Most Jesus' scholars today, whether Catholic
or Protestant, conservative or liberal, acknowledge that the the first church in
It is easy to define orthodoxy according to the Creeds of the Church and the Confessions that† proliferated from age to age. But it is not so easy to define orthodoxy according to the NT - unless of course we become very selective or insist on homogenizing its diversity with predetermined Christian formulas. When it comes to the NT, to say nothing of many other versions of the early Jesus movement, there is not just one interpretation about the birth of Jesus, there is not only one right interpretation of the death of Christ, there is not only one doctrine of resurrection, and there is not only one correct interpretation about the person of Christ. It therefore appears that most judgments about who is orthodox or who is not are very arrogant, and judged by the NT, not very orthodox after all! And judged by the historical Jesus, they might be worse than being a pagan!
In saying these things, I am not making claims to any grand discovery, because this now appears to be the consensus of a very broad stream of NT scholarship that includes Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all over the world. It all represents a refreshing liberation from the narrow prison of a narrow orthodoxy which is, after all, completely at odds with the spirit of the historical Jesus.
I cannot help suspecting that some Protestant Rip Van Winkle will start waving around his paper Pope, declaring that sola scriptura, the authority of the Bible, is the true test of orthodoxy. What can I say to these Rip Van Winkle Christians who have been able to sleep through the last two hundred years of Biblical scholarship as if nothing has changed?†
In the first place I could point out that the Christians of the first century did not even have a Christian Bible. They could not agree what books to put in the NT and what books to leave out until three hundred years had passed. Further, Jesus did not write anything, did not instruct the apostles to write down anything, and very little got written down anyhow until two or three generations after his death.
We don't know who wrote any of the four Gospels despite a tradition which said that in the NT we have eyewitness accounts of Jesus life, death and resurrection. These NT authors, most of them anonymous, and certainly not eyewitnesses, did not claim to be writing holy Scripture, did not claim what the church later claimed for them (i.e., infallibility), and did not tell us to put their writings into a holy NT canon.
None of these claims about the special authority of certain ancient documents or theories about their inspiration are capable of any kind of historical verification. Like all the doctrines of Christianity, they are at best only one interpretation, another article of faith which, of course, is not provable. Believing these things won't put anybody at odds with the spirit of the historical Jesus, but being arrogant and judgmental about it certainly will.