Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
July 19, 2009
THE HISTORICAL JESUS AND THE MORE-THAN-HISTORICAL JESUS
Texts: John 1: 1-5; 14-18; 20:30; 21:24-25
I Corinthians 15:3-8
II Corinthians 15:3-8; 5:16
This sermon is about the historical Jesus and the more-than-historical Jesus -- and the relationship between the two. We at Myers Park Baptist Church have a lot invested in the historical quest, what scholars count as the “third quest for the historical Jesus.” A number of these questers have spoken here over the past twelve or so years. This conversation keeps us connected with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. And it helps correct fanciful or false versions of Christ and Christianity which are disconnected from the historical Jesus or contrary to his message and life.
But that’s not all there is to Jesus. There is the more-than-historical Jesus, the one alive in the mystery of the resurrection and the presence of the Spirit. He is the one we call the “Christ” because he is more than the historical figure, a “more” we are always trying to figure out.
I begin with the “historical Jesus.” John P. Meier, a premier Jesus scholar, begins his three-volume work on the historical Jesus with these provocative words:
He goes on to explain:
We cannot know the “real” Jesus through historical research, whether we mean his total reality or just a reasonably complete historical portrait. We can, however, know the “historical” Jesus.2
For Meier the “historical Jesus” is the Jesus we can “recover” and “examine” using the scientific tools of modern historical research.3 In other words, the Jesus modern historical tools let us see. A telescope can show us the planets, but it shows only the planets it can register on its lens. We cannot equate the cosmos with what we can see through our telescopes.
Meier concludes: “the historical Jesus may give us fragments of the ‘real’ Jesus but nothing more.”4 What Meier hopes to offer is “a reliable sketch.” Such is an impressively modest judgment about the possibilities and limitations of his craft.
He set up this imaginary scenario for his research: We lock up a Jewish scholar, Catholic scholar, Protestant scholar and agnostic scholar in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library. We say: “You can come out when you can arrive at a consensus document about the historical Jesus.”5 I hope someone was bringing in food.
Where can we begin with such a sketch?
He was born a Galilean Jew in a period between 7 and 4 BCE, just before the death of Herod the Great.
His ministry began 26-29 CE, when he was in his early to mid-thirties.
He was arrested, tried and executed by the powers that be in a time between 28 and 33 CE. His death by Roman execution on a cross was under the governorship of Pontius Pilate. Here is one extra-biblical record of his death by Roman historian Tacitus in the second century: “Chrestus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberias at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out, not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the city [Rome].” 6
John Meier places the “last supper” on Thursday, April 6, 30 CE, the beginning of the Day of Preparation for Passover, and his death the next day, Friday, April 7.
Meier places his public ministry as beginning in 28 CE and lasting two - three years.
His ministry was largely in Galilee, but he made several trips to Jerusalem on feast days, where he attracted large crowds.
He was still attracting a large following up to the time of his death, though with mounting opposition as well. Both the size of his following and the intensity of his opposition led to the decision of the powers that be to put him to death.
His primary message concerned the kingdom, or reign, of God, which he believed was drawing decisively and graciously near. He called people to turn, change, and enter and receive the kingdom.
The gospels record that in the power of God and in the presence of the kingdom Jesus forgave sins, healed people of disease, demonic possession and death. These miracles were witnessed by friend and foe alike, his foes attributing his miracle-working power as coming from Satan.
His most distinctive form of teaching was in parables, stories which helped people imagine the nature of the kingdom of God and imagine their lives as part of it.
The above is a beginning sketch. There is much more. The quest for the historical Jesus, however fragmentary, is important because it helps prevent us from creating Jesus in our own image. We are always tempted to do so . We thus turn the psalmist’s words: “This is the day the Lord has made” on its head – “This is the Lord the day has made.” Our day. This quest helps correct a church so easily captive to its culture.
But the historical quest cannot capture the “total reality” of Jesus. It falls victim to its own kind of literalism, a “liberalism of facts,” as we define fact, and of a kind of “historicism” which determines what qualifies as history and dismisses the rest. We worship the telescope rather than what the telescope hopes to see.
Morever, the “total reality” of Jesus is more than the “total reality” of his first-century life. It also includes for us who follow him the experience of the more-than-historical Jesus, the one alive to us for two thousand years in the power of the resurrection and the presence of the Spirit. There would be no Christianity today without this more-than-historical Jesus.
So now we turn to the “more-than-historical” Jesus. The poet Hopkins wrote:
For Christ plays in ten thousand places
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
...through the features of men’s faces.7
And women’s, and boys’ and girls’.
Christ is present in the ten thousand places, in the loveliness of others and in the compassion of others, in the justice-ing of others, and where two or three are gathered in his name.
But Christ also becomes present in the inner sacred sanctuary of the self where the Living One is present to us and speaks as wisdom and love, as grace and truth. In this meeting we experience God as Beloved.
The Apostle Paul, for all his ferocious weaknesses and blindnesses, was intoxicated by Christ. His new-found faith begun on the Damascus road was a Christ-mysticism. “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me,” Paul speaking like one ravished by God.
He took the historical Jesus seriously, his teaching, his life, his moral and spiritual example, and his life given away in love. And Paul used Jesus’ life and teaching to confront those he called “false-apostles, “pseudo-apostles,” who preached a “different gospel” and “another Jesus” (II Corinthians 11:1-15).
But what was most important to him was the post-Easter Jesus, the more-than-historical Jesus, the one we now meet and know in the Spirit:
He now supremely looked at Jesus and knew Jesus from the vantage point of Easter, in light of the New Creation.
Jesus was raised to become part of the life of the Divine. And this new way of knowing him, experiencing him is a transformational one. We become, in some measure, what we behold in life. So Paul writes:
So now Christ speaks to us through and in between the lines of the gospel pages. In the play Beethoven’s 10th, a character says, “The problem with fundamentalists is that they can’t read between the lines.” The Living One now helps us all read between the lines.
And more, Christ speaks into our lives and into the life of the world. At the end of John the author says:
Then continues with these last lines:
We’re writing still. I think the writer of John had in mind not just what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, but also what the Living Christ had been doing in their midst the sixty years since his death and resurrection. And now ever since.
The living Christ came to St. Francis in “one of the least of these,” a leper on the streets of Rome, and Francis led a new movement of Christ followers.
The living Christ came to Simone Weil in a monastery in Spain while she read a poem by George Herbert. It was an unlikely meeting. She grew up in Paris in an agnostic Jewish family. As a young girl she would not wear socks to school because children in poor families had no socks. She would not eat sugar because soldiers fighting on the front had no sugar. Such was the sensitivity of her conscience. She went to the university, became a teacher, joined the Socialist Workers movement, quit teaching to work in a factory. Then she had a breakdown and went to a Spanish monastery to convalesce, not because she was religious, but because it offered sanctuary. A priest there introduced her to the poetry of poet/pastor George Herbert. Then one day as she read his poem, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” the recitation of the poem, she said, took on the quality of a prayer and, in her words, “Christ came down and took possession of me.”
He came to a freed slave in nineteenth century America. Her name was Sojourner Truth. Christ called her to be a preacher, a worker for the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women. One day while she was preaching some men in the crowd began to heckle her, shouting that a woman could not preach. She fired back: “And how did Jesus come? Through God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with it!”
He came to a West Coast novelist, Anne Lamott, in a quite unexpected way. Her career had been going well, but her life careened this way and that. She had always had a spiritual side, but this Jesus business was for the birds.
Somehow she found (or God found for her) a little ghetto church in Marin County across from a flea market. “It is where I was taken in when I had nothing to give,” she writes, “and it has become in the truest and deepest sense, my home. My home base.” She writes:
I did not mean to be a Christian.... My first words upon encountering the presence of Jesus for the first time were, “I would rather die.” I really would rather have died at that point than to have my wonderful brilliant left-wing friends know that I had begun to love Jesus. I think they would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond.8
The encounter with Jesus took place in her houseboat, where she was just home recovering from an abortion. She was weak from loss of blood and in a kind of haze produced by a combination of pain medication and whiskey. She suddenly sensed his presence in the room, sitting in the corner of the room “watching with patience and love.” She turned away from him to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.” She fell asleep, and in the morning he was gone.
The next day she wondered whether it was hallucination “born of fear and self-loathing and booze and the loss of blood.” 9 This Jesus, she writes, “was ‘relentless:”
I didn’t experience him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, as the alley cat of heaven who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up, mewling outside your door, you’d eventually open up and give him a bowl of milk.”10
She resisted until a week or so later when she returned to her church, which had become God’s salvation to her. “That’s where I was when I came to,” she writes, “and there I came to believe.”11
In church that day, the sermon seemed to be about as sensible as someone trying to convince her of the existence of extraterrestrials. But the last song in worship did it:
...the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling - and it washed over me.12
She began to cry and left before the benediction. As she raced home, she felt Christ, like a little cat, running along at her heels. When she arrived at her houseboat, she paused, opened the door and said to Christ, “Screw it [or something like that], I quit .... All right. You can come in.” This, she writes, “was my beautiful moment of conversion.”
I close with one more story: Albert Schweitzer. Before the age of 30 he had become an accomplished organist, student of Widor, and a Bach scholar, and he was at the same time a brilliant theologian and Biblical scholar.
In his monumental Quest of the Historical Jesus sought to use all the best historical tools to recover the historical Jesus. He studied all the scholars who had sought to reconstruct his life. He concluded that they had created their Jesus in the image of nineteenth-century liberalism rather than revealing the historical Jesus. Their work was like looking down a deep well and seeing at the bottom in a pool of water the reflection of your own face.
His own best reconstruction of Jesus’ life concluded that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who thought his death would usher in the final kingdom of God and died a mistaken man, in that the final, completed kingdom did not then come.
You can sense in the pages that Schweitzer is shaken by his own conclusions; then you see him reaching for another place to find the deepest significance of Jesus.
He had begun his task saying that this “Quest” was the most important scholarly venture in the history of the church. In the last pages of his The Quest of the Historical Jesus he wrote:
We modern theologians are too proud of our historical method, too proud of our historical Jesus, too confident in our belief in the spiritual gains which our historical theology can bring to the world.... There was a danger of thrusting ourselves between men and the Gospels, and refusing to leave the individual man alone with the sayings of Jesus. There was a danger that we should offer them a Jesus who was too small, because we had forced Him into conformity with our human standards and human psychology.13
We had, he said, tried to force Jesus into our time: “But he does not stay; he passes by our time and returns to his own.” Schweitzer writes in the conclusion:
But the truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known, but Jesus as spiritually arisen with men, who is significant for our own time and can help it.14
And then the very last paragraph of the book, words I met first in the anthem you will hear sung by the choir today. They go where his scholarship could not lead him:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” And sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.15
The passage was prescient of what was to come. Soon after writing this book Schweitzer awoke one morning and decided to enter medical school so that he could go to Africa and found a hospital. He wrote of that decision:
His friends thought he was crazy and needed to reconsider his choice. Widor, who loved him like a son, said he should not go. Schweitzer commented that earlier in his life he would have given the same advice. But he had heard the call, and he went. He wrote, “I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk.”16 (These words are especially poignant for this preacher.)
His following of Jesus led him to found the hospital in Lambarene. He was approved by the Paris Missionary Society to go as a doctor only if he promised not to confuse the missionaries and Africans with his teaching and preaching! They regarded his thought heretical. (I would prefer the word “hetero-dox”.) His theology might have been considered heretical, but his life was conformed to the way of Jesus the Christ.
When Schweitzer was given the Nobel Prize someone said, “I’d like to be Albert Schweitzer if only I could commute!” Christ won’t let us commute. His call involves the whole of us, or as much of the whole of us we are able to give at the time. We start where we are, not where we aren’t; then who knows what the historical and more-than-historical Jesus will do in you, through you?
1 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol.1 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p.21.
2 Ibid., p. 24.
3 Ibid., p. 25
5 Ibid., pp. 1-2. Jesus scholars use the following criteria to determine the most authentic of Jesus’ sayings.
1) The criterion of embarrassment: sayings which would likely have caused embarrassment to the early church and thus would not have been retained unless it was felt these sayings were authentically his.
2) The criterion of dissimilarity (or discontinuity): sayings of Jesus distinct from both first-century Judaism and early church writings.
3) The criterion of multiple attestation: sayings which are seen in a number of texts, not just one.
4) The criterion of coherence: sayings which are consistent with sayings which pass the tests above, # 1-3.
5) Meier adds a fifth: The criterion of rejection and execution: sayings which make sense of the intensity of opposition which led to his execution.
These are important instruments of historical investigation, but they are crude instruments. Let’s take the criterion of dissimilarity. It is dependent on our knowledge of first-century Judaism and the early church writings, which are, of course partial.
Also, any number of Jesus’ sayings may be continuous and not discontinuous with either first-century Judaism or early church writings. That they may be like either tradition does not invalidate them. This criterion can only determine what may have been most uniquely the sayings of Jesus.
6 Tacitus, Annals 15.44.2-8.
See also other extra-biblical references by Josephus, the Talmud, Pliny and Lucien of Semosota as reviewed in Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), pp. 112-117.
7 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As kingfishers catch fire....” Poems and Prose Of Gerard Manley Hopkins (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 51.
8Quoted from her salon.com column, “Spiritual Chemotherapy,” Feb., 1997, p. 3.
9 Traveling Mercies (New York: Random House, 1999).
10 “Spiritual Chemotherapy,” p.3.
11 Ibid., p. 4.
12Traveling Mercies, op. cit., p. 50.
13The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Paperback Edition, 1998), p. 400.
14Ibid., p. 401.
15Ibid., p. 403.
16Out of My Life and Thought, 1933, pp. 114-115.