The Historical Jesus vs. the Christ of Faith

I’m a practicing Christian, and that means that I go to church and I participate in ritual actions and I speak ritual phrases. We have a canon of scripture and a body of doctrine. The Bible which we hold sacred was written by the faithful — that is, the story is told through the viewpoint of other Christians who also had their ritual and doctrine.

On the other hand there is historical research in to the life and times of Jesus. While there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus outside Christian Scripture (and someone like Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus concludes that the historical Jesus must remain unknown), there is material about the times: about the culture, society and government; and there also those who try to uncover the layers in the Christian texts themselves to learn what lays behind them (for example as is done in The Historical Jesus by John Dominic Crossan or E. P. Sanders in his Historical Figure of Jesus).

The picture of Jesus which emerges from Historical Jesus research is wonderful and compelling — but it doesn’t look much like the Christ of Christian doctrine.

I’d like for it to all fit together and make sense and maybe it really does.

Historical research suggests that Jesus came into an oppressive society governed by a strict system of purity laws. The priests and the temple were the center, and observant Jewish males were next out then observant Jewish women, with the deformed, sick and other outcasts on the edge. Foreigners had no place at all.

What was liberating about the historical Jesus was that he cut through all that, associating with prostitutes, having lunch with tax collectors, providing healing services to anyone(!) without a fee. He proclaimed a new way for society which he called “The Kingdom of God” which would be characterized by compassion rather than purity, guilt and obligation.

However, what I have found in my life experience is that the problem of purity discrimination, outcasting the unfit/deformed/ sinful, is not something unique to 1st century Israel or to the Mediterranean basin. It is still with us. [Evidence the “Moral Majority” movement which sought to use morality (the modern formulation of purity) to distinguish the faithful from the “sinners” (homosexuals, pagans, liberals, feminists, atheists…).]

If “human nature” and “conventional wisdom” always drag us away from the Kingdom of God and into slavery, how can the historical Jesus return again and again to renew the vision of the Kingdom and to re-interpret it for our times?

The answer is that the historical Jesus cannot return; but the Christ of faith can. The Christ of faith rose from the dead and is mystically present with Christians who remember him through ritual action and maintain his central place through doctrine.

It is the task of the modern Christian (indeed, that of the Christian in every age) to continue the remembrance of Jesus to give him the central place in our lives while at the same time re-interpreting the Kingdom of God in their own time and place, and to continue to preach freedom to the captives and sight to the blind.

What is difficult about this dual responsibility is that one side may dominate. If ritual dominates, this leads to inquisitions and judgmentalism; if the Kingdom dominates, this leads to an evaporation of purpose and a loss of direction. (The job of the prophet is to see these things clearly and to call us back on course.)

We cannot do without either the ritual or the compassion; and we cannot do without the Historical Jesus or the Christ of Faith.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” [Luke 4:16-21]

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