How do we know about Jesus?

As I pointed out in my New Years Resolutions, this year I have decided to explore my relationship with Jesus. Who is Jesus, and what does he mean to me? This has always been a sticky question that I avoided. My first book in my quest is: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. Borg is a liberal Jesus historian and Wright a conservative one. The book is a set of essays which outlines an ongoing discussion that these two friends have continued for years. 

In the introduction, they list three target audiences: first, they hope that this book will be of interest to Christians and non-Christians alike. 

“We both believe strongly that what we say about Jesus and the Christian life belongs, not in a private world, inaccessible and incomprehensible except ‘from faith to faith,’ but in the public world of historical and cross-cultural study, in the contemporary world as well as the church.”


Second, they hope that this book will provide new insight into a debate that has become gridlocked among Christians – liberal vs. conservatives.

Third, they hope that their book will speak to people who want to better understand how different visions of Jesus translate into Christian life. This, I suppose, is why I bought the book originally – though the academic arguments will probably be of more interest to me. 🙂

In their first section, they ask the question: How do we know about Jesus? In their separate essays, Borg and Wright point out the difficulties of deciphering the historical data about Jesus. They agree that everybody’s interpretation of history is viewed through the lens of their own perception or worldview. Borg describes four lenses through which he views Jesus: 

  1. Gospels are history remembered as well as history metaphorized
  2. Jesus was a Jewish figure teaching and acting within Judaism
  3. Jesus’ legacy was developed by the community of early Christians
  4. Jesus’ legacy was developed by a variety of modern forms of Christianity, as well as other religions.
Borg and Wright agree that modern secular culture, which believes that the universe can be studied, understood, and described by natural laws, can be used as a weapon against faith. Borg says that it is easy to lose sight of the divine Jesus when you have a strongly secular worldview. Wright points out that with a secular worldview, you are focused on data and theories. Both scientists and historians ask the questions: 

Does the theory make sense of the available data? Does it have the appropriate simplicity? Does it shed lights on other areas of research? 

History differs from science in that there are no agreed-on criteria for what counts as “making sense” and “simplicity.” Therefore, it is very hard to for Jesus historians to come up with any consensus. 

Both Wright and Borg focus on the difficulty of working out the historical evidence of Jesus and the gospels. Borg thinks it is necessary to see and appreciate both the historical Jesus and the spiritual one, lest you lose sight of Jesus altogether. These two entities are not the same – the first is an actual man who was once alive, the second is a concept that has influenced spirituality for thousands of years. 

“When we emphasize his divinity at the expense of his humanity, we lose track of the utterly remarkable human being that he was.” 


On the other hand, Borg believes that if you emphasize only historical fact and what Jesus meant in his own time to his own people, you lose sight of how strongly his message has influenced today’s culture, and what he means to us today. 

In contrast, Wright says that he doesn’t think the early Christians made a distinction between the historical Jesus and the divine Jesus, so why should he? He feels that these “two versions” of Jesus are one and the same, and that whenever he reads literature about the historical Jesus, it reinforces his faith in the spiritual Jesus. 

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Borg on this subject. I think that he nailed my problem directly on the head: all my life I’ve tried to combine the historical Jesus and the divine Jesus into one entity. Thus, my faith and my secular worldview were battling for prominence in my perception of Jesus, and I lost sight of Him altogether. If I can separate the two entities in my head, I will be able to appreciate both the wisdom of the historical man and the divine love of the Christ Jesus. 

2 thoughts on “How do we know about Jesus?

  1. Very thoughtful post Rachel.

    Personally I do look at Jesus as a literary character. Whatever the real person was like I have no trust human's tendency to describe real life events as stories unless extremely vigorous standards are followed. I suppose I mostly adhere to Borg's point number 3. Of course when I talk to other people, I think that a lot of number 4 comes into peoples views. I am basing my view of Jesus entirely upon the Gospels.

    With that said I am in near awe of the character of Jesus and the story told in the Gospels. I think that the character of Jesus and the Gospels have played a profound part in human ethical and moral development that cannot be overstated. So in an odd way I am in agreement with many folks who call themselves Christians on many things.

    I think that your separation of the two entities is in your mind is indeed very helpful in terms of understanding both the concept of “Jesus” and oneself. I think that such a well thought out approach to religious belief is wonderful!

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  2. Yeah, looking at Jesus as a literary character is a pretty straight-forward way to go about it. When you know that oral traditions will see the man Jesus through their own lens, how can you expect the traditions to be completely accurate? Unless you believe, as many Christians do, that the writing of the New Testament was divinely guided and therefore completely accurate.

    But even looking at Jesus as a literary character based upon a true man, there's still an amazing amount to admire in the stories – both in Jesus himself and in the writers of the New Testament. That's why the Bible has touched the hearts of so many throughout the centuries.

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