My Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part 2 of 3
© 2015 by Alan F. Zundel
As mentioned in Part 1, I was raised a Roman Catholic Christian and taught that the biblical stories of Jesus portrayed how things actually happened. The gospels were something like news stories reported by two eye-witnesses (Matthew and John) and two reporters who had access to the accounts of eye-witnesses (Mark and Luke).
I left the church in my late teens, having grown disinterested in religion, but still admired the words and actions of Jesus. In my early twenties a series of events pushed me into a spiritual quest, and by my mid-twenties I had a conversion experience in which the central symbols of Christianity (the man-God who came to die for our sins and was resurrected from death) suddenly made sense and the story became believable to me.
Having become a Christian I thought I should join a church, but there were (are) a bewildering variety of churches out there. Since the Catholic Church had a tradition of meditation (which I had been practicing) and was familiar to me, I looked there first. The church’s argument against Protestants that the bible came out of the teaching of the church and not the other way around also seemed pretty persuasive.
But I wasn’t going to just go into it blindly. I wanted to go back to the bible to determine for myself what, exactly, Jesus was all about.
The problem of the gospels
My mother did volunteer work in her local church library and I asked her to borrow a bible for me so I could read it. (She tried to hide her excitement that her prayers had been answered.) The edition she got had extensive introductory sections for each part of the bible and footnotes written by biblical scholars. Fascinated by what I was learning about the principles and techniques of modern biblical scholarship, I read the whole thing completely and thoroughly.
A couple years later, when I was 28, I went back to college (I had dropped out ten years earlier) and majored in the academic study of religion. I was considering becoming a bible scholar and took several years of Koiné Greek, the language the books of the New Testament were written in, as well as courses on studying the bible. I still hoped to understand better what Jesus actually said and did, but there was a problem.
This was called the “synoptic problem.” Three of the gospels—those attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke—are similar in striking ways, both in the ordering of most events and in numerous passages that are word-for-word copies of each other. Yet in other ways the three accounts are strikingly different, with one or another changing something to fit the author’s own particular interests and view of Jesus. “Synoptic” means “to read together,” and to understand the gospels these three gospels must be carefully compared to one another.
The fourth gospel, attributed to John, is different from the other three gospels in more dramatic ways: the order of events, the things Jesus says and the way he talks, the kinds of miracles he performs. It raises even more problems concerning the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts.
Scholars were in agreement that the process of putting the story of Jesus in writing was much more complex than tradition had maintained. The best theory to fit the evidence seemed to be that the process went something like this: Jesus lived, stories about him were passed on by word of mouth, somebody wrote down a bunch of his sayings, somebody collected stories and sayings of Jesus into a kind of biography of his career, and then several other people rewrote the biography using other stories and writings, thus producing our four gospels—and a few other gospels that didn’t make the biblical cut.
A political Jesus
However, there was no agreement on what the historical Jesus actually did and said. By that time (the early 1980s) two waves of academic “quests” for the historical Jesus had already foundered, one in the early 20th century and the other in the 1970s. There were lots of ideas out there though, so I read a lot and formed my own views as best I could.
The version of Jesus that I gravitated to was a politically-oriented one. This view was built on the recognition that Jesus is portrayed in the synoptic gospels as a prophet in the model of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus’ announcement of the advent of the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven,” often thought to refer to life in heaven after we die or after the resurrection, is better understood as a parallel to the prophets’ call for a reformed community of God in Israel. As the prophets challenged the political and religious leaders of their time, so did Jesus in his time.
I was primed for this version of Jesus by my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., and work I did with the inner city poor in Detroit, where I saw how political and economic forces shaped people’s lives. I was also to some extent already involved with Christian political movements of both the political right (opposition to legal abortion) and the political left (opposition to nuclear weapons and to the role of the U.S. in Central America).
Although my professor of biblical studies encouraged me to go on to graduate school in religious studies, I was more interested in living the bible than studying it and decided I needed to understand politics better, especially the problems of poverty and war. I went on to study political science and eventually became a university professor specializing in ethical issues of public policy.
New problems and a change of direction
Years later, although I had made it through tenure, I was discouraged by my academic career. My interests had put me outside the mainstream of my field and I found that academic research had little if any effect on political decisions. I also came to the conclusion that there was no way to settle policy disputes by purely rational analysis, which is what I had been hired to teach.
I was also discouraged by the Catholic Church. I had long ago determined that not all of their teachings were correct (such as the ban on “artificial” birth control), and more liberal and progressive-minded priests and sisters had been stifled by a conservative hierarchy. Then the clergy child abuse scandal hit the papers and a new conservative pope was elected. Those were the final straws of an already heavy load on my Catholic back.
My spiritual life seemed stagnant as well, and turning to the bible for the guidance of Jesus’s example had become more and more problematic. A new academic quest for the historical Jesus had started up in the 1980s, and new books appeared regularly throughout the ’90s right on through the present. I tried to keep up with the deluge, but each book was presenting a different version of the historical Jesus, backed by mounds of research. It seemed futile any more to try to figure it out.
Then something dramatically changed in me, and my life took a whole different direction. I left my academic career and left the church, and soon came to a new understanding of Jesus.