My Quest for the Historical Jesus, Final Part of 3
© 2015 Alan F. Zundel
(Part 3 of 3. Starts with Part 1.)
By the year 2002 as I approached age 50, I was discouraged with my career and disillusioned with my church. My spiritual life felt stagnant, like it had not progressed very much in several years. A crisis in my family added additional pressure. I felt I was become unmoored from everything that had defined my life for decades.
As I often did over the years, I returned to the bible for guidance and inspiration, but was no longer finding what I needed there. My wife and I tried different churches and I attempted to keep up with the tsunami of new books about the historical Jesus which had been rolling in since the 1990s, hoping for a helpful new perspective, but it just reinforced the impression that everyone had their own version of who Jesus really was. Which one, if any of them, was the truth?
Since I had a regular meditation practice and was familiar with Buddhism, I began sitting with a local Zen group. That did not do it for me either. One thing that did help is when I began writing a novel on my weekends; it engaged me creatively and kept my mind off my problems for a while. Creative writing seemed to unlock the spirit of possibility I had when I was younger, that new things in life were always possible.
Then a friend lent me some cassette tapes by a teacher from the Zen Buddhist tradition. While listening to one of the tapes something unexpectedly but decisively shifted within me; it seemed all the pressure of the last several years had led me to a point where I was ready to let go. Something in me did let go and I discovered what I had been seeking for a long time without knowing it.
I might put it this way. Previously I lived through the understandings of my mind while trying to stay in touch with an inner sense of God’s guidance and presence. After the shift I lived from that inner place and saw my mind as but a small part of what composed my sense of a “me.”
It Doesn’t Really Matter, Does It?
After talking with my wife I left my job and we moved to California with our children, where for a time I went to a graduate school in religious studies. I wanted to research Buddhist and Christian traditions which might explain this change I went through, but I also spent time researching early Christianity.
Behind some of this study was a question: where now, in the religious world, did this new “me” belong? Was I still a Christian? Could I see myself as a Buddhist-Christian? Or did I fit anywhere at all anymore?
During that period I had an opportunity for a private talk with the teacher who was on the tape I had been listening to when I went through this change. I had sought him out to ask about something else, but at one point while discussing an experience I had at the graduate school he asked, “Do you still see yourself as a Christian then?”
He sounded curious, without any other agenda. I began stumbling for an answer, “Well, yes, I do—although I wonder, you know, if it’s all true.”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” he responded.
“No,” I suddenly found myself saying. “It doesn’t.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Our thoughts about what actually happened 2,000 years ago are just that—thoughts. Who I am now and how I live my life would be the same whether I believe it is all true or whether I believe none of it is true, because my thoughts no longer define my reality.
Besides, I had never accepted the idea that we would stand in God’s favor depending on what we believed about God or Jesus, for two reasons. One was that this seemed too arbitrary and bizarre a standard for a loving God to judge people by. The other was that it was simply not well-supported by the bible. There were plenty of passages in the bible that contradicted this idea, and the word translated as “faith”—now usually taken to mean holding a set of beliefs—most often actually means “loyalty to God and God’s ways,” as in “faithful.”
That faith, for me, no longer depended on what I believed.
Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus
I never finished a degree at that graduate school, and my wife and I ended up moving to Oregon, where we still live. I went on to a new career as a mental health counselor and continued to write, including a book about Christian concepts and spirituality.
Whether I was a Christian or not was not a pressing issue for me, but there was still a corner of my mind that wanted an answer to the historical puzzle. The story of Jesus had played such a large role in my imagination and my life that I was left curious—did the gospels get the story somewhat right, or did it get it garbled?
From time to time I would come across another new book on the historical Jesus at the public library, which I would usually take home and read. They were interesting, but there was never anything definitive in them.
Then I heard about an intriguing book. A Catholic priest and biblical scholar had written about how he came to believe that Jesus never actually existed. His name was Fr. Thomas Brodie and the book was “Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.”
I looked into it and found he had been an accomplished and respected biblical scholar but his religious order had now forbidden him to teach or write. I obtained a copy of the book and read it. It was mostly about how his own search had unfolded over the decades and how his conclusions were based on his research. He gave a synopsis of his findings and I was interested enough to get his earlier scholarly book, “The Birthing of the New Testament,” which went into his method and findings in more detail.
In brief, he found that the gospels showed signs of being reworkings of earlier writings, a common practice in the ancient world. He showed parallels with the story of Elijah in the biblical Book of Kings in particular. Although other scholars attacked him as being “out there” and his research as inconclusive, it seemed to me from my previous studies that his thesis was as well-supported as any other. Rather than assuming that behind the gospels was an oral tradition about the deeds and sayings of a real person, he posits that behind the gospels were stories and sayings from the Jewish scriptures.
The Story of Jesus
I have no way to prove or to refute his thesis, nor have I a desire to. But what it did was give me a whole different way to see the problem of the historical Jesus. If he is right then the search for the historical Jesus ends up where we started: the historical Jesus is the Jesus of the gospels, simply because that is the only Jesus there ever was.
For most of us it is the story of Jesus in the gospels that is important anyway. Like any other story, whether historical, biographical or fictional, it is told in order to teach something. Does the story inspire you? Does it teach you something valuable about life and how to live? Does it help you in your relationship with God?
I have learned a lot from the gospels, and that is true no matter how they originated. I still have the story of Jesus in me, and I always will have. It has inspired me and guided me throughout my life.
But now I also have a new story, one about a writer who gathered materials and shaped them in such a way as to inspire and guide millions of people across the centuries. Whatever that writer’s sources were, he—or perhaps she—affected people by writing.
As a writer myself, I like that story too.