Quest for the Historical Jesus (Part 1: Quest History)

I have been giving this blog a hard think. I’ve received positive critical reaction to this blog, but I have not received as much reaction as I had hoped for. I’ve heard from some that this blog is too intellectual, too hard to follow, and perhaps not personal enough. I’m thinking about what to do to make this site a friendlier place for people to speak their minds.

In the meantime, on the Earliest Christianity site, I’ve had on and off discussions with Bgglencoeok, a man of considerable intellect and great passion. Our discussions there have focused on the “Quest for the Historical Jesus”. At my invitation, Bgglencoeok has posted a comment here, and I promised to write a post to go with his comment. You’ll (soon) find his comment below. Perhaps this is a metaphor for how to build a blog audience! First you comment, then I post.

So here goes. What follows is a summary of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus.”

I think this will take at least three posts. In this first post, I’ll describe the history of the Quest up to about 1953, when Ernst Kasemann first introduced the idea of “criteria of authenticity” to determine what materials in the Gospels are historical fact. This sets up a good context for Bgglencoeok’s comment, which introduces a possible alternative to these criteria. In my second post in this series, I’ll describe problems with the criteria of authenticity and with the works of history that have used these criteria. In my final post in this series, I’ll explore how we might approach the Quest from an interfaith perspective.

I’ll begin with a few caveats. In order to keep this discussion as brief as I can, I will need to make some gross overgeneralizations and gloss over significant points – if there’s anything you’d like me to cover in greater depth, just ask me. In this post, I’m relying heavily on the chapter “The Historical Jesus” in Raymond Brown’s important book, “An Introduction to the New Testament” as well as on lectures given by Amy-Jill Levine for The Teaching Company.  Please forgive me if I don’t cite these scholars as often as I should. Finally, for those of you wondering what happened to my discussion about religious asymmetry and the invitation to fellowship from Kurt Cardinal Koch … well, we will get back to that. I promise

The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” refers to the 200+ year effort to determine what can be known about Jesus of Nazareth by using the conventional methods of the historian. For most of its history, Christianity took for granted that the New Testament portrayal of Jesus was literally true. But by the 18th century, certain scholars began to apply to the Bible the historical-critical approach then being used to study other ancient works. Naturally, this approach has changed over the years, as the “First Quest” (which lasted until about 1900) was followed by a period of “No Quest” (until around 1953), a “Second Quest” (until around 1970) and a “Third Quest” (ongoing today).

The scholarship of the First Quest is not taken seriously today. For example, the earliest recognized First Quest scholar, H.S. Raimarus, argued that Jesus was a failed revolutionary, and that following Jesus’ crucifixion his followers stole his body and fabricated the story of Jesus’ resurrection. You won’t find many scholars today who view Jesus in this way. But many of the critical assumptions used by the First Questers remain in current use. Key among these assumptions is that the Gospel accounts contain a mix of good historical information along with stories that were adapted and expanded (or simply made up) to meet the needs of the early Church. Thus the job of the Quest historians was (and remains) to sift the valid historic information in the Gospels from the legendary/traditional/redactional material created by the Church.

The “First Quest” proceeded apace until 1906, when the famous theologian (and later, medical missionary) Albert Schweitzer wrote a book titled “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”. In this book, Schweizer reviewed the work of Raimarus and other important early questers, arguing that each of these works sets forth a skewed and arbitrary portrait of Jesus in line with the scholar’s preexisting presuppositions about who Jesus was. As Schweitzer put it, “each individual [scholar] created [Jesus] in accordance with [the scholar’s] own character.” Or as Amy-Jill Levine put it, each First Quest scholar was”hoping to look through a window into history but in fact they were just looking into a well or a mirror … reflecting back their own concerns.”

In his book, Schweitzer offered his own picture of the historical Jesus, one that is still influential today. According to Schweitzer, Jesus was a first century Jewish apocalypticist, an eschatological prophet who predicted the imminent destruction of the world as it then existed. First century Jewish apocalypticists believed that the world was under the control of a cosmic evil force, but that God would soon intervene in history to conquer this force and establish a divine kingdom on Earth. Perhaps Jesus saw himself as a herald for this new age, or perhaps (as Schweitzer believed) Jesus believed that he could force the hand of God to bring in the divine kingdom. Schweitzer put it this way:

[Jesus] lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.

Schweitzer’s picture of Jesus raised two problems for his readers. Schweitzer painted Jesus as a man of his time and place, preoccupied with a first century Jewish point of view that few shared in Schweiter’s day (and few believe today). Second, while Schweitzer describes Jesus as victorious, this “victory” may not have been the one Schweitzer’s audience was hoping to read about. In “An Introduction to the New Testament”, Raymond Brown bluntly describes Schweitzer’s Jesus as a “noble failure”.

The common view today is that Schweitzer effectively “killed” the First Quest for the historical Jesus, and ushered in the period of “No Quest”. The “No Quest” period was exactly what it sounds like: the leading scholars of the day abandoned the Quest to understand the historical Jesus. One important “No Quest” figure, Martin Kahler, argued that the Jesus of history does not matter to Christianity, in part because he saw the New Testament as focused only on the Christ of faith. In this, Kahler views are similar to those of two of the most important Christian theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. My oversimplified take on Barth is this: he argued that the humanity of Jesus cannot be understood apart from the divinity of Jesus – so any neutral, secular, historical-critical study of Jesus must prove to be misleading and illegitimate. An equally oversimplified take on Bultmann is this: little can be known about Jesus as an historic figure, so the focus of Christianity should be on Jesus’ message.

The “No Quest” period ended with a strong counter-reaction, provided in 1953 by one of Bultmann’s students, Ernst Kasemann. Kasemann argued that Christianity needs the historical Jesus – otherwise, Christianity is based on nothing more than a myth. In Kasemann’s view, “the life history of Jesus was constitutive for faith, because the earthly and exalted Lord are identical.”

To ground Christianity in fact and not in myth, Kasemann advocated a renewed Quest for the historical Jesus. But in order to inaugurate a new Quest, Kasemann had to address the problems with the old Quest. To combat the subjectivity exhibited by the old Quest scholars, Kasemann proposed a set of objective criteria by which to judge the historical accuracy of the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels. Kasemann’s criteria have been modified over the years, but they are very much with us today. (The criteria described below are taken from the ones discussed in volume 1 of John Meier’s “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus”, though I’ve also taken material from Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium”.)

  • The Criterion of Embarrassment confers authenticity on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulties for the early Church. This criterion is based on the old assumption that certain materials in the Gospels were inventions (or adaptations, or redactions) of the Gospel authors. According to this criterion, the Jesus materials most likely to be authentic are the ones that the Church would have had the least interest in making up.  A good example of an “embarrassing” Gospel story is the account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. As the thinking goes, it was “embarrassing” for Jesus (who was understood as being free from sin) to have been baptized for remission of sin, or to have submitted to the authority of an ordinary human being.
  • The Criterion of Multiple Attestation is easy to understand: material about Jesus is more likely to be true if it appears in multiple independent sources. An obvious example is Jesus’ crucifixion, which is mentioned in the letters of the Apostle Paul, all of the Gospels and the work of the 1st century historian Josephus.
  • The Criterion of Discontinuity is trickier – it confers authenticity on sayings or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from the Judaism of his day or from the early Church. Again, the idea is to think about what materials in the Gospels might have been invented — the thinking here being that the Gospel writers would have created stories that were representative of the mixed Jewish-early Christian context of the early Church. So if a story pointed out Jesus’ idiosyncrasies, or even his eccentricities, the story was likely to be true. In some ways, the criterion of discontinuity is similar to the criterion of embarrassment (and some scholars combine these two criteria into one).  Material validated by the criterion of discontinuity may include Jesus’ prohibition of all oaths and his rejection of voluntary fasting for his disciples.
  • The Criterion of Contextual Credibility is in certain ways the opposite of the criterion of discontinuity. According to this criterion, Jesus’ sayings and actions should conform to the historical and social context of the world where he lived. This criterion can be applied to certain sayings of Jesus found in Gospels outside of the New Testament. For example, Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas that “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.” Scholars see this saying as fitting into a 2nd Century gnostic context, but not the context of Jesus’ 1st century Palestine.
  • The Criterion of Coherence is one that can be brought into play after a certain amount of Jesus material has been validated with other criteria. This criterion looks to see whether a particular Jesus saying or story fits in well with other facts about Jesus that have already been accepted as valid.
  • The Criterion of Rejection and Execution favors stories that show Jesus doing things that might have led to his execution. If Jesus is shown doing nothing more than preaching love of neighbor, it’s hard to imagine why the Romans would have crucified him, but it is a different matter if Jesus is shown threatening the status quo and infuriating powerful people. In a sense, this criterion focuses not on validating individual gospel sayings and stories, but instead on the totality of an historian’s portrayal of Jesus.

There are obvious problems with these criteria, problems that are recognized even by the modern historians that use these criteria. Take for example the criterion of multiple attestation – how do we know which Gospel sources are independent of the others? Scholars believe that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are dependent to an extent on the Gospel of Mark, but disagree on whether the Gospel of John is independent of the other Gospels. But who is to say that all of these Gospels are not dependent on some earlier (now lost) source? We can make similar complaints about each of the other criteria. Who is to say what would have embarrassed the early Church, or that any amount of embarrassment would have caused the Gospel writers to change the Gospel stories? How certain can we be about Jesus’ historical context, particularly in light of our understanding that first century Judaism was sectarian in nature and possibly contained multiple and overlapping contexts?

No responsible historian uses the criteria of authenticity without pause. John Meier describes the use of these criteria as “more an art than a science, requiring sensitivity to the individual case rather than mechanical implementation.” But a more thoroughgoing critique of these criteria may be in order. In fact, such a critique is underway in certain circles. In my next post, we’ll look at this critique and we’ll consider whether it’s possible to improve on the existing criteria.

  • lbehrendt

    This is the comment I received from Bgglencoeok that inspired this post:

    ………………………………..

    Here are some excerpts from a book that reflect something close to my own understanding of the truth-content of the Gospels. The source is: Dale C. Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). The author’s thesis and its justification are based on broad research in the way human memory works — including group memory.
    ________________________________

    “…we can learn some important things about the historical Jesus without resorting to the standard criteria and without, for the most part, trying to decide whether he authored this or that saying or whether this or that particular event actually happened as narrated.” /10

    “We all know from introspection that our long-term memories, which are ‘constantly evolving generalizations’ tend to retain ‘whole events, whole faces, whole conversations, not the sub-plots, the features, the words that make them up.'” /10, 11
    “…remembering the gist of what happened is an economical way of storing the most important aspects of our experiences without cluttering memory with trivial details.” /12

    In the memory, “general impressions” are more trustworthy than “details.” So “it makes little sense to reconstruct Jesus by starting with a few details “that survive the gauntlet of our authenticating criteria — while setting aside the general impressions that our primary sources instill in us.” /14

    “…it would be peculiar to imagine that, although their general impressions of Jesus were hopelessly skewed, Christian tradents somehow managed to recall with some accuracy, let us say, two or three of his similitudes or parables and a handful of one-liners.” /13

    “The texts [of the Gospels] diverge on the specifics. Mark 6:8–9, for instance, has Jesus permitting a staff and sandals. Matthew 10:10, to the contrary, has him forbidding those. Likewise, the accounts of the Last Supper concur to an extent: Jesus, at a meal shortly before his death, broke some bread and said, ‘This is my body;’ he further took a cup and said something about ‘blood’ and ‘covenant.’ Beyond that, however, the discrepancies are notorious.” /13

    “The first-century traditions about Jesus are not an amorphous mess. On the contrary, certain themes, motifs, and rhetorical strategies recur again and again throughout the primary sources; and [we will find memory] in those themes and motifs and rhetorical strategies – which, taken together, leave some distinct impressions…” /15
    __________________________________

    The only corrective that comes to my mind in what I have read from Allison — and he may bring this up at some point — is:
    The research tends to cover cultural, crisis events and courtroom testimony that lack the intentionality of a rabbi-disciple relationship. This is to say, Jesus challenged the apostles to carefully listen to what he was saying and then act as his envoys to the Jews and the nations. This would tend to focus their memories — in the same generalized way that Allison describes — but with a greater concern for retaining and conveying what they learned from him.

  • Thank you very much for this accessible and thought-provoking post. I haven’t read the Schweitzer, but oddly just re-watched some of the MATRIX films (there’s a connection here, I promise). What’s interesting to me as a writer, is how _powerful_ the Schweitzer narrative is for contemporary representations of the messiah figure. Schweitzer’s description just about perfectly describes what happens in the last Matrix movie, in my opinion at least. So, that suggests to me that even theories or approaches to Jesus that seem intellectually obsolete may well operate in mass and popular culture, and these in turn may well affect our own personal readings and responses. Thanks again — you’ve given me alot to think about.

  • Bgglencoeok

    I don’t see how your post is a response to my original post.

    • lbehrendt

      You’re quite right! My post here is intended to provide a context for your comment. For example, your comment quotes Allison referring to the “standard criteria” for understanding the historical Jesus. My understanding is that Allison is proposing an alternative to the standard criteria, so I thought my readers should know what these criteria are and where they came from.

      You posted here earlier that you weren’t sure you wanted to discuss these matters here. I respect that, and it occurred to me that the most respectful thing I might do was to provide your comment with context and not respond. Also, your comment was very thought-provoking for me, and I wasn’t sure which of these thoughts might best serve as a response.

      I think, instead of a response, I’d like to pursue a question with your help, if you are interested. I find this question a difficult one to answer, and it leads to other questions that are even more difficult to answer. But the question is a simple one: is the standard historical-critical approach to the Gospels too suspicious of the material we find there?

      In his book “The Real Jesus”, Luke Timothy Johnson describes this approach as assuming that each account of Jesus’ sayings and deeds in the Gospels is inauthentic until proven authentic. I have not scanned my library (such as it is), but I’m pretty sure that Johnson is not the first or only person to make this observation. Yes, I have read the arguments on why the Gospels are not ideal historical resources: per these arguments, the Gospels are not contemporaneous accounts, and were not written by objective historians (in Meier’s words, they are “suffused with the Easter faith of the early Church”).

      But if we’re looking at the historical quality of the Gospels, do they TRULY compare unfavorably to the quality of other historical works produced at the same time? I suspect not, though I’ll admit I’m out of my element when it comes to qualitative comparative analysis of ancient historical works. I think that when I read a history of Alexander the Great, or Socrates, that the author utilizes the best available information to describe those historical figures, and even Bart Ehrman agrees that the best historical information we have about Jesus comes from the Gospels.

      So, my initial question to you is this: do we need to be so critical and so suspicious of the Gospel material when it comes to the Quest for the Historical Jesus?

      • Bgglencoeok

        Haven’t we both already answered the question to our respective satisfaction? I think we already agree: (1) The criteria are unrealistic. (2) The Gospels contain some historical material.

        Ehrman falls in line with other critical scholars, endorsing some of the criteria and then adding some of his own. In this way, he keeps what he takes to be the quantity of historical material in the Gospels to be very low.

        So he and other critics like him open to us a matter that we ought to discuss: Is the historical content of the Gospels substantial or minimal?

        But the question should be answered — not by appeal to artificial criteria that locks in a minimal outcome — but by a realistic appreciation of the characteristics of specific ancient documents and a realistic analysis of the way individual and human memory — and testimonials — work.

        The Gospels are obviously testimonies with the goal of producing faith. Testimonies appeal to objective reality and experience; then they encourage acceptance of the case being made on the basis of that reality and experience.

        So to the degree that the Gospels are faith documents, they are also historical documents. If the history is shallow, the faith is shallow. If the history is bad, the faith is bad. But if the history is good, the faith is good. In any and all cases, they stand and fall together.

        So just how good or bad or shallow is the historical content of the Gospels — based on how we understand the workings of human memory, expressed in testimonial statements?

        • lbehrendt

          BG, I can assure you that I know nothing about anything to my satisfaction! In particular, I lack anything approaching personal satisfaction when it comes to questions concerning the historical Jesus.

          You ask, is the historical content of the Gospels substantial or minimal? I’m not a scholar or historian, so take this for whatever you think it is worth, but I regard the historical content of the Gospels as substantial. My opinion is guided in large part on what I regard to be the rules of interfaith dialog: when I want to understand someone else’s religious tradition, the best approach is to ask that someone. I believe that Christians find considerable historic content in the Gospels, and first and foremost, I am guided by that finding.

          If you pushed me to put aside my interfaith considerations and asked me to approach the Gospels as a cold, objective, critical historian, I would STILL say that the Gospels contain relatively substantial historical content. If we go by the standard dating of the Gospels, then they were written between 40 and 70 years after the events they recount – that’s not contemporaneous, but neither is it impossibly distant in time. In contemporary terms, it’s something like writing a history today of Watergate, or the Vietnam War, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, the Gospels are based on earlier sources, some of them probably written sources. There are other reasons to trust the Gospels – you’ve mentioned some of them, and I’ll get to others in upcoming posts.

          It’s probably pointless to make comparisons between the historical information we have about figures from antiquity, Jesus included. Is the Jesus material better or worse than the material we have about the Buddha, or Mark Antony, or Rabbi Hillel? I don’t know – I suspect that at minimum, the Jesus material is at least as good as what we have on other historic figures of his time. If so, then why don’t we insist upon criteria of authenticity for the quest for the historical Buddha? Why don’t we give priority to information we have about Socrates that would have been embarrassing for Plato?

          I don’t intend these as rhetorical questions, and I don’t have an answer to these questions that satisfies me. Oh, to be sure, there’s some amount of anti-religious bias out there, plus there’s a dollar to be made by “proving” that the “real” Jesus was someone other than the figure portrayed by the Church. But there are also a lot of good religiously sensitive scholars out there producing fine work on the historical Jesus – John Meier is my personal favorite, perhaps you have someone you like better. It’s more interesting to me to focus on the best work performed by modern questers, and ask why this work relies on the kinds of criteria that you called “unrealistic”?

          My suspicion is that Jesus historical work is simply not comparable to the historical investigation we perform on anyone else. Clearly, we CARE more about Jesus than we do about, say, Socrates – this is obviously true for Christians, but it’s also true for most of the rest of us. Should this cause us to do Jesus history differently than we do history elsewhere? If so, why? Is it simply because of the importance we place on getting this history right?

          • Bgglencoeok

            It seems that we agree that the Gospels are loaded with historical reality, so:

            Do you believe, as I do, that the criteria of the critical scholars are realistic in a quest for the historical — anyone?

            • lbehrendt

              BG, for myself I prefer the way I put it – “relatively substantial historical content.” But let’s not quibble.

              Your question about the criteria of authenticity goes to the heart of my last set of questions for you. Why do we have these criteria for Jesus, when we don’t appear to apply these criteria to other historical figures? For an example, I’ve pulled a “fact” out of the Wikipedia article about the Buddha, that he was born to a royal Hindu family. Why do we accept this as fact, when we’re so willing to question that Jesus could trace his genealogy back to King David? Isn’t Buddha’s royal birth the sort of tradition that Buddhists might have been likely to invent?

              I think that some critics of the criteria of authenticity might respond that the criteria have been imposed by secular scholars, out of their anti-religious bias. But if the criteria began with Ernst Kasemann, then we have to acknowledge Kasemann’s religiosity, which was truly impressive (and at times, courageous). Perhaps this is worth a post of its own, but my understanding is that Kasemann proposed criteria of authenticity not to curb the enthusiasm of those who saw the Gospels as rich in historical data, but to combat the views of “no questers” like Barth, Bultmann, Tillich et. al. who saw almost no historical content in the Gospels. (And of course, Barth, Bultmann and Tilich were themselves deeply religious people.) In other words, Kasemann proposed the criteria in an effort to EXPAND the accepted historical value of the Gospels. Arguably, he succeeded at this, because even a Bart Ehrman sees much, MUCH more valid historical data in the Gospels than did a Rudolf Bultmann.

              So, if the criteria of authenticity arose out of an intra-Christian dialog over the historical content of the Gospels … it might be a good idea for us to explore this dialog and the way the criteria function in this context.

            • Bgglencoeok

              I meant to say that the criteria are — unrealistic.

              As to your response to this idea, I have no idea what motivates critical scholars. I just see how they treat the Gospels. It seems to me that:

              (1) They are asking much more of the Gospels than they can possibly deliver, believing they can inspect specific details and decipher both their origin and the motivation of the theoretical authors or “communities” who incorporated those details.

              (2) They concentrate on the wrong elements in the first place. The specific details of good sources may contain a variety of similarities and differences. But the value of such documents is in the broad impressions of both specific episodes in the story and in the over-all impact and appreciation of the central figure. So we can explore the Gospel’s level of general historicity, letting stand some of the differences — some of which may have a possible explanation and some of which do not. Then we must be content for that is as far as we can go.

              Apparently, Jesus said and did the kinds of things recorded in the Gospels, and many real episodes of his life along with many of his teachings were remembered well.

              The Gospels are remarkably similar in the broad sweep of what they convey concerning Jesus, including the events surrounding his death and resurrection. Taking into account the literary peculiarities of each of them, we can be sure they are all speaking of the same person with a familiarity and reverence that conveys what J. B. Phillips called “the ring of truth.”

  • lbehrendt

    BG, we seem to have run out of indent room for replies to replies to replies, so I am starting over with a non-indented comment.

    I am friends with the head of the Religious Studies department at a local university, and I had the chance to discuss with her some of the issues we’ve been talking about. It’s difficult to compare and contrast, but it’s fair to say that there’s something uniquely negative about the skeptical historical approach that scholars take to the Gospels. It’s not that scholars of (say) Hinduism or Buddhism approach their sources uncritically. But they don’t seem to be trying to winnow down these sources to what can be argued to be historically “authentic”. They don’t seem to approach their sacred source materials with the same level of suspicion.

    I also raised a question to Bart Ehrman on his blog. Bart’s reply was that “biblical scholars may be a bit more upfront about the criteria that they use to establish historically reliable information, but the basic procedures are the same for anyone dealing with the past, whether talking about Jesus, Moses, Caesar Tibrerius, Leonardo, or Abraham Lincoln.” He may be right about the procedures, but I think there’s something different about the attitude.

    While I think I agree with you about the criteria, I think that the Third Quest has produced some terrific historical work. I like N.T.Wright, John Meier and Amy-Jill Levine, and so far I like Dale Allison quite a bit. I think the emphasis on Jesus’ Jewish background has improved the overall picture (and good riddance to double dissimilarity!). I don’t think the Third Quest should be judged on the quality of the Jesus Seminar and its ilk (though I do enjoy reading John Dominic Crossan, even when he’s wrong).

    I am working on a follow-up post … but I’m curious if there are any historians (or histories) of Jesus that you like.

    • Bgglencoeok

      [I’ve been in the hospital, so am just now getting to my emails for the last several days.]

      In recent years, I haven’t read a lot of histories about anything. Most of my reading in the Gospels are in the nature of commentaries and apologetics — both negative and positive.

      A couple of sources that had an impact on me as a young pastor were C. S. Lewis’ essay that was originally called “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” and J. B. Phillips’ book, The Ring of Truth. (I’ve noted that responses to Lewis’ essay by many educated people include a misunderstanding of his main point and a lack of appreciation for both his philosophical and literary training and — what Lewis would call — a “taste” for good argumentation and good literature.)

      As to Bart Ehrman’s comparison between historical-biographical material in general and the “critical study” of the Gospels, I believe he is mistaken. In years gone by, I’ve read enough history — including advanced classes at the local university — and am certain that there is nothing like what has happened to the Gospels going on in any other historical field. Ehrman’s treatment of the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John, for example — in which he postulates massive editing and three distinct and conflicting portrayals of Jesus — has no parallel in any other historical analysis with which I am familiar. Both the theoretical basis and the application of his theory that Ehrman makes represent what you’ve called a “level of suspicion” and the “attitude” of a skeptic that guarantees a misreading of his material, rather than a tasteful, appreciation for the fascinating documents in front of him.

      What you call the Third Quest may have incorporated more defensible methods of analysis and may be trusted to the degree that they preserve a realistic appreciation of: (1) the way human memory works (2) the rabbi-disciple relationship of Jesus and his apostles and (3) the variety of literature represented in the Gospels, letters and other New Testament writings. However, I have found some statements in such authors as Luke T. Johnson, N. T. Wright and Mike Lacona that cannot be justified by a simple reading of the Gospels in their historical and literary contexts.

      • lbehrendt

        BG, IMHO I agree with you that the Gospels are being singled out for unique and unfavorable treatment, and that this treatment distorts the material in unfortunate ways.

        I am reading Dale Allison at your prodding. Very very interesting stuff. I particularly like Allison’s argument against classifying Gospel materials as authentic/inauthentic, in favor of more modest categories like “possibly authentic”.One thing that has long driven me crazy is the certainty in the proclamations made by Jesus historians. I don’t know, perhaps humility doesn’t sell books, but I for one appreciate scholars like Allison who take pains to tell us what he doesn’t know.

        • Bgglencoeok

          Because of the nature of gospel material, I believe no one can fully understand them till they realize the love for Jesus that motivated their authors.

          These documents are not speculative meanderings or artificial portraiture. Their core statements and the broad images and principles they convey are drawn from the proclamation and teachings of a relatively small group of discipled followers and their immediate allies — followers who were devoted to Jesus. This conclusion can be defended with clarity from the necessary parameters of the historical situation of the early churches as well as from the content of the Gospels relative to the rest of the New Testament — and in strong contrast with the literature of “alternative Christianities” that begin to appear in the second century.

          Allison accomplishes, on an intensely investigative scale, what most of us already knew at the gut-level and by common sense. Things are just not remembered in the way most critical New Testament scholars assume; and documents cannot be confidently dismantled and reassembled in the way source critics, form critics, redaction critics, and so-called literary critics in general have been doing with the Bible since the eighteenth century.

          The approaches of Kenneth Kitchen on the Old Testament and C. S. Lewis, with his literary background, on the New Testament seem to me about as sane as one can get in trying to recover historical content in faith-documents. They both see a sound historical core that is convincingly conveyed within discernible historical contexts.

          However — back to my first point — I believe Augustine and other theologians are right in stating that, without love and humility, sound theology is impossible.

          • lbehrendt

            BG, I disagree with much of what you say at the margins, but agree wholeheartedly with what I see as your core point. I think that an understanding of the Gospels must begin with this assumption, that the Gospel authors were sincere and intelligent, devoted to truth and wisdom, motivated by faith in God, and transformed by an encounter with the divine.

            I feel compelled to make the above statement because, when I first read your comment, I asked myself whether a person outside of Christianity can ever understand the Gospels. I think that there is a level of understanding that is only available to insiders. However, my ability to make the assumption I describe in the above paragraph is possible only because of my contact with Christian friends whose faith and devotion compel me to read the Gospels in a different light. Perhaps I should take this same assumption to my reading of other religious texts, such as the literature of alternative Christianities you mention, but I do not have any Ebionite, Marcionite or Gnostic Christians friends to compel me to read non-canonical gospels with the same sort of spirit.

            I think that we should try to read the religious texts of all important world religions with the same assumption I recommend for the Gospels. This may sound politically correct to you, and perhaps that criticism is warranted. I know that the Gospels merit this assumption, based on 10 years of studying Christianity as a serious hobby. But I brought something like this assumption to the study. As you effectively pointed out, without this assumption, my study would have gone nowhere.

            • Bgglencoeok

              I’ve read the sacred texts of the Mormons, the Muslims, the various heresies you named and — as we’ve been discussing — the various reconstructions of the Old and New Testament critics.

              I am compelled to recognize the uniqueness of the books and story that comprise the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in contrast to all these others.

              In the writings of the Jews and Christians, we are dealing with accounts embedded in history that testify to the reality and centrality of the person of Jesus Christ — as he is portrayed — at the conjunction of the stories told by ancient Israel and the ancient church.

              There is nothing and no one like him in any other religious text; and he weighs in on the truth of both the prophetic texts that preceded him and the apostolic texts that followed.

            • lbehrendt

              BG, I can reply to your last comment in two ways. This is an interfaith blog, and I want my readers to comment from their respective faith positions. Those of us who are devoted to a particular faith have (I presume) good personal reasons to prefer our faith over all others. My commitment to interfaith dialog does not require that I personally take up some kind of universal amalgamation of all faiths. I am particular in my beliefs, and I can respect your right to be particular in your beliefs.

              But if we’re discussing how to quest for the historical Jesus, then your last comment raises problems. You’ve argued that the New Testament can be properly understood only if it is read with an appreciation for the love that motivated its authors. My language differs from yours, but I think I’ve agreed with you in essence. But you appear to be arguing that only the New Testament (plus the Old Testament as it testifies to the person of Jesus Christ) merits this reading. Can you argue for an historical-critical-objective means to prefer the Christian reading of the Bible in this way?

  • AJ

    I don’t know nearly enough about this subject to respond meaningfully, but I will say that the idea of historicity and faith being tied together is something I’ve come across a great deal in the Jewish world. A great many Orthodox Jews will tell you that if the Torah isn’t historically true, they would “throw in the tallis” so to speak. I for one don’t hold that way, but I think among religious Jews I’m squarely in the minority. In any case, I certainly see where a person’s “wanting” something to be historically true (or not wanting it to be true) can have a serious impact on how they interpret the evidence. This is also the case for “political faith”, like for instance the way liberals and conservatives read the historical evidence on the U.S. founding fathers’ positions on the separation between church and state. To me, the main obstacle to determining historicity of the Bible is as much about people’s vested interests as it is about the criteria we use to evaluate evidence. (I know, I’m naively clinging to the hope of some semblance of objectivity, not a popular position in a post-modern world, but there you have it.) Interesting post – and discussion!

    • Bgglencoeok

      Do you assume that a statement about history — when it has religious or political implications — cannot possibly by analyzed for its truth-content?

      • AJ

        No, I think it absolutely can, and should. But I think we also have to acknowledge that people often gravitate to and emphasize evidence and lines of argumentation which those in their belief/ideology circles also happen to gravitate towards, and I don’t think this is coincidental. It’s because this evidence/argument affirms their beliefs, affirms their identity. And I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing – in fact it’s a very smart move for most people, who want stability and continuity in their lives, who like where they are in terms of their beliefs, affiliations, friendship circles, etc. At the same time, I think it’s a phenomenon that those of us who are serious truth-content seekers would do well to keep in mind.

        • Bgglencoeok

          First, you state that we religiously and politically interested people “should” seek truth-content in statements about history. Then you say it not “necessarily a bad thing” and is a “smart move” to avoid the search and bias our own conclusions. This indicates a conflict in your thinking.

          To be consistent, you should declare and practice the principle that it is never good to deceive ourselves — never.

          The fact that such self-deception is tolerated — and even encouraged — in our politically correct environment indicates the growth of spiritual darkness and the decline of sound and clear thought.

          • AJ

            What you’re hearing is indeed a conflict. I’m a great believer in the pursuit of truth, and I do think we should encourage people to challenge themselves, not be so emotionally/intellectually fragile that they hide from or skew evidence when it puts their beliefs into question. But at the same time, I’m sensitive to the fact that people need to live their lives, and if someone is not ready/able/tuned into taking on the challenge, I for one would rather not judge them too harshly for it.

            • Bgglencoeok

              We must begin by being relentless — “harsh” you would say — on ourselves. When difficult historical, religious and political questions arise, the most destructive temptation confronts us to grow tired of the heavy thought needed to sort things out and then reach conclusions that make sense. It is too easy to declare ourselves independent and “above” the conflict of ideas. In this way, we can pat ourselves on the back and display either indifference or contempt for those who have worked through to a sensible solution.

              What we should do is, humbly seek a breakthrough for ourselves that deals satisfactorily with long-range, life-impacting questions rather than settle for a self-congratulating neutrality.

              Then — regarding others — the compassionate thing to do when they are not “ready, able or tuned in” enough to face the challenge of answering life’s most vital questions is to urge them to get ready, to find enabling sources and to get tuned in.

              It is not being harsh to yell out to a man who is about to carelessly step into the rush of traffic — or even grab his sleeve and pull him back to the curb.

              And it is not being compassionate to observe him and leave him to his fate.

              Put another way, political correctness is anything but kind.

              But as with the broad question of testing faith and politics by history, you also put yourself in conflict with yourself on this a second, related matter. You begin by saying we should challenge people, and then you excuse yourself by saying that people need “to live their lives” even if in ignorance of truth that really matters.

              The solution to this self-conflict, like the first, is to make a decision. On the primary question, you should simply pursue the truth, though this is sometimes difficult and uncomfortable for you and for those around you; you should — never — succumb to self-deceit. And on this second question, you should — always — discourage self-deceit in others even when they or their friends accuse you of being unkind, harsh and judgmental.

              Diplomacy is good, but indulgence (p.c.’s super-tolerance) is not.

    • lbehrendt

      AJ, I think that the relationship between historicity and faith is quite complicated. There’s the view that “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, and to be sure we don’t want to make things TOO complicated. But history is not a science. Historians are in the business of crafting PROBABLE explanations for what has happened. Moreover (and here is where my current reading of Dale Allison is having its effect on me), historians piece together their probable reconstructions of history based on “primary” source materials that are themselves the product of human memory, and human memory falls well short of objective scientific observation. That is, if what we’re hoping for is to understand history as objective fact. But if we’re willing instead to consider history in a different way, where the point of history is to seek a bigger picture, or get the “gist” of what happened, or look for broader truths or even wisdom, then human memory may be a more satisfactory means to the end we seek.

      So, yes. I’ve heard a few Rabbis say that if it’s ever proven that Torah from Sinai never happened, they will go out and engage in mass consumption of bacon cheeseburgers. I will believe that when I see it. I think that these same Rabbis would also tell you that they trust the collective memory of the Jewish people more than the findings of archaeologists and historians. We now have scholars like Allison who are arguing that trust in collective memory may indeed be justified.

      More will follow in my next posts. But as an aside, I’d like to plug the interfaith effort we’re making here. A Christian scholar like Allison speaks to me about the validity of Jewish history told in traditional Jewish sources, with a big assist from your discussion with BG. Very cool.

      • AJ

        these same Rabbis would also tell you that they trust the collective memory of the Jewish people more than the findings of archaeologists and historians.

        My sense is that this is so not because they hold collective memory as being the most reliable source of information, but because this is the source which corroborates (and in fact generates) their beliefs. To wit, the same rabbis will in fact get very excited when this or that archeologist or historian comes out with a finding or statement that supports a literal/historical reading of the Torah/Bible.

        One thing to keep in mind (excuse the pun) about collective memory, is that memory does not only include “events”. It also includes dreams and imagination, as well as stories, parables and teachings. Which means that while collective memory may be a reliable source for understanding an ancient “tradition”, one has to work to tease out the event-related memories from within that tradition.

        In other words, I need a little more convincing! I look forward to future posts…

  • AJ

    Bgglencoeok,

    I understand what you’re saying in terms of leaving people to their fate not being compassionate. That is without a doubt a noble position. For me, it comes down to a couple of things: 1) the level of certainty in one’s own beliefs as representing “Truth”, and 2) the level of urgency involved in bringing others over to that Truth.

    On the first point, I suppose I’ve gone through enough change in belief myself that I’ve grown somewhat cynical of anything approaching “certainty” in matters of faith. Also, I’ve seen too many people who are all but certain that they have the Truth, who’ve devoted years of their lives in careful research and can provide tomes of sophisticated argumentation to that effect (this is especially the case with conspiracy theorists – man, can they write!). But at the end of the day, some of it (actually a lot of it) we know is nothing more than a mental construction. It may be a brilliant construction. It may even be a useful construction. It may be a construction built on for centuries. But in the sense of representing Truth with a capital T, it’s (like you say) total self-deception. This is clear when even when the conclusions are in the “rational” domain – i.e. not all of these brilliantly worked-out theories are true. But when the conclusions defy normal common sense experience, when evidence A + B + C + D = something in the supernatural realm, then I am extremely wary. That’s part of where I’m coming from in my reticence to yank people from stepping out into traffic, to use your metaphor. I’m not all that certain that there’s really a car coming, or that this car exists for anyone other than me (or perhaps several billion people who also believe in the car).

    And this brings me to the second point, which is about urgency. Even if there IS a car, maybe it’s going at only 2 mph and there’s no need to be alarmed. Maybe when you step out onto the street, the car door gently swings open and you just hop in… This really gets to the nature of the specific belief itself, and it seems to me that there might be a substantial difference here between Judaism and Christianity. From what I gather, the level of urgency for Christians to have others accept the faith is extremely high – higher even than life and death. It’s a scenario far worse than stepping out into speeding traffic because we’re talking here about eternal ramifications, infinitely higher stakes. Whereas in Judaism (to use an example I’m more familiar with), there isn’t nearly that same sense of urgency. Putting aside for the moment the issue of Jews not proselytizing to non-Jews (which requires its own conversation), there IS a substantial effort made in the Orthodox Jewish world to help bring non-religious Jews to observance. But even there, it’s not with the sense that they would otherwise be doomed to suffer eternally, with no Heaven, or no afterlife. True, some may see it in part as wanting to help people get a better “seat” in the afterlife or as helping people achieve “soul rectification”, but it also involves other things – a sense of bringing more Jews to “do God’s will”, the belief that keeping the commandments makes the world better, that it helps ensure the survival of the Jewish people, etc. And even if there are some who would stress keeping the commandments as matter a “life and death” urgency, that view is certainly not ubiquitous even among religious Jews. And… in any case, we’re talking here mostly about “doing”, whereby acceptance of Truth is seen as a means to the end of keeping God’s covenant.

    As for me, I don’t at present hold much in the way of supernatural beliefs. And even though one might accuse me of doing a bit of my own proselytizing insofar as challenging certain beliefs, it’s certainly not with the same sense of urgency of needing to save souls.

    I hope I’ve addressed your points. What I am “certain” about is that I share your idealism and zeal, at least in theory. And I imagine you’d agree with me that if the circumstances weren’t met (i.e. we lacked either the certainty or the urgency), that would be a good reason to be less zealous in practice.

    Best, AJ

    • Bgglencoeok

      So you are: (1) a “religious Jew” with no certainty about anything that is supernatural (2) you hold for a “semblance of objectivity” and (3) you are content.

      (1) I have no idea how to be religious without having a healthy recognition of the supernatural. A religion that has no necessary place for the supernatural, can only affirm, positively — in the philosophical sense — what is empirically testable and is necessarily non-religious, because religion necessarily exceeds the empirical.

      (2) I have no idea what a “semblance of objectivity” is if it does not mean what the politically correct affirm objectivity to be — a mirage. Either truth is objective and testable, or it is not, which is to say: You must either get off the politically correct path as an unjustifiable escape from reason, or you must stick to the path and abandon all hope for objective truth.

      (3) You are content with the current, politically correct intellectual landscape that relegates the large questions of life, religion and politics to the category of inescapable personal or group bias. (My response to this issue will end my posts on this matter. I yield the last word to you.)

      So this is my closing observation: I believe you are a person who has begun to see the holes and cracks and disintegration of political correctness and pluralism. Yet you have not taken the logical step of abandoning it. And yes, this is a very urgent matter. The continuance or rejection of pluralism will decide what the future of society will be and — I believe — what our personal eternity will be.

      I urge you to add your voice to those who are discontent with the empty and dangerous intellectual path that has taken over so many of our schools, churches and social and political institutions.

      • AJ

        Let me try to put it plainly. I don’t believe in multiple “objective” truths about the nature of reality. I believe there is one reality, and about 7 billion human interpretations of it, most of them (including religious interpretations) hopelessly deluded, and the rest (including scientific interpretations) hopelessly deficient.

        That does not mean that religion (deluded as it is) has nothing to offer, nor that scientific knowledge (deficient as it is) is worthless. It does not mean we give up on truth. It does mean however that in matters of “ultimate truth”, where I am not so arrogant to proclaim what that absolute reality/truth “IS” (no less with any certainty), I am therefore less inclined to bug people up about what is no doubt a deluded interpretation on their part, unless:

        a) I see that interpretation as potentially being dangerous, or

        b) it involves Judaism, where I feel a special responsibility to speak out against nonsense.

        Lastly, and this is key, I believe (meaning “I hold”) that the value of LIFE trumps the value of TRUTH (or any other value/virtue for that matter). Human life and living must always come before truth. Otherwise, one ends up killing or otherwise harming others in the name of God, in the name of “Truth”. Which is to kill/harm based on one’s delusion, a form of psychotic behavior we generally lock people away for.

        That is why I stress live and let live, allowing people to go about their lives. It has nothing whatsoever to do with political correctness or pluralism with regards to truth. It’s a matter of highest principle. Because while our assertions regarding “Truth” may be entirely deluded, an act of kindness is NEVER deluded.

        I see this in fact as the deepest message of Judaism – it is a worldview which loves and values LIFE above all.

        I hope that was clear.

        Good luck to you,
        AJ

  • Bgglencoeok

    In response to your last statement, regarding inter-faith dialogue and the claim of uniqueness for the Gospels:

    Just read an apocryphal Gospel, the Book of Mormon, the Koran or other sacred Eastern texts. You will not find anything like the personal devotion and vivid representation of a historic figure that is found in the Gospels.

    The Gospels are deeply personal at the core and convey a historic figure that you feel you know, because they incorporate material from those who knew him. This cannot be said of other ancient religious texts.

    C. S. Lewis says, purely fictional material, capable of conveying such life-like details — displaying what we call modern novelistic technique — was unknown in ancient times. (An example of an ancient novel is Philostratus’ Life of Appollionus of Tyana.)

    Then there is the broad theological unity of the Gospels, attributed to the Rabbi Jesus himself — that focuses on his practical teaching, his miraculous deeds, his promised return and, especially, his death and resurrection.

    My conclusions are not prejudice. They are the result of a simple, appreciative reading of all these sacred texts.

    I would have been satisfied if the result of my reading had been different. In fact, there was a time when I tried to develop a general belief in God that was open to a variety of religious interpretations and practice — then I realized that I was trying to shape the evidence to suit a prejudged outcome.

    My major problem with all your comments is that you say, you are studying early Christianity as a “serious hobby.” When I first read this statement, I pictured a man standing below Jesus’ cross as the life dripped and gasped out of him. The man is taking notes and using a pointer the way a college professor would in order to call attention to this or that detail of a classroom chart. But at the cross, the enthusiast is pointing at the wounds and calmly posing questions about the reality — or lack of it — in the details.

    My point is: To attempt to read the Gospels as a hobby can only serve to miss their purpose and nature. They are faith documents, written in the fire and storm of a church under siege. If you reject the message they are intended to convey, then questions about a “historical Jesus” are irrelevant, misleading and — in the most condescending form — a mockery of the Gospels’ purpose.

    I note that the graphic at the top of your blog is a danger sign. Have you ever thought of it that way? The intersection of ancient Judaism and early Christianity is not a safe place to stand if you are trying to move in all directions. This cannot be done. Jesus is so Jewish and yet so different from any other Jew of that or any time. He clearly built on the heritage, and just as clearly he went beyond it. And he poses a choice. Either he is what is claimed in the Gospels, or he is unimportant, because there is no possible substitute, based on our only reliable sources, the Gospels and the New Testament letters of the earliest Christians.

    • lbehrendt

      BG, when I describe my studies as a “serious hobby”, I am trying to describe the time and effort I put into these studies, and not the attitude I brought to these studies. I have a day job that itself extends into nights and weekends. I am not a professional scholar or a professional clergy.

      I understand how you might picture me in the way you described. I think the better picture begins with a lesson I WOULD teach, standing in the way you pictured, under Jesus’ cross. Jesus died as a Jew. On the day you described, there were three Jews crucified. Josephus describes single days when thousands of Jews were crucified. My father was born in Berlin in 1933 – try to imagine what my family tree must look like.

      I would teach that when it comes to torture and murder, the faith of the victim doesn’t matter. If I most feel the sorrow of the tortured and murdered Jew, that is a narrow perspective that reflects my human inadequacies. God weeps for every soul who has ever been tortured and murdered, not only because God possesses infinite wisdom, but also because God possesses infinite compassion.

      So, your picture of me at Jesus’ cross is essentially correct. My response to human suffering is inadequate. As I write this, my neighbors are suffering and I am not doing everything in my power to help them.

      There is a Jewish idea that we are born into a broken world, and while we are not obligated to fix it, we are not permitted to leave this responsibility to others.

      I found the last paragraph of your comment to be both moving and profound. The graphic I selected for this blog shows the sign we use to picture an upcoming intersection. In my mind, the sign functions as a warning, but also as something of a promise. Ahead lies an interaction between two paths, Christianity and Judaism. You’re quite right, this interaction is potentially dangerous. But the place where two paths cross is also a good place for meeting and to encounter friends.

      The sign also illustrates a simple fact. At the edge of the sign we can see the two paths heading in their own directions. But there is an area in the center of the sign where the two paths share the same space. The center belongs to neither path, or to both of them. As you wrote, there is great danger in standing in this center without a direction in mind. But (if you care to stick with this metaphor), the greater danger is posed by those who attempt to proceed through the intersection without slowing down, and without heeding the cross-traffic.

      Like any metaphor, the metaphor of the intersection eventually breaks down. For most of its history, Christianity has viewed the Jewish path as a road that effectively ends where it runs into Christianity (more like a “T” than a “+”). For most of its history, Judaism has seen Christianity as something of an off-ramp. Either view represents something like a dominant claim to the place of intersection. Nothing I say here is likely to change either view, but neither view denies the point of intersection.

      The point of intersection is a point of opportunity. It may be characteristically Jewish for me to see this point as an opportunity to learn. I don’t know what might be characteristically Christian, but my initial reaction to your last comment is that you see the point of intersection as an opportunity to change direction. Fair enough. I think we both understand that neither of us will change course to follow the path of the other. But so long as we’re both willing to learn, we have something in common, and speaking only for me a change in direction is possible.

      This is my only protest to the way you pictured me at the foot of the cross. You pictured me as someone who could observe the crucifixion without being changed by it. But I have been changed by my encounter with Christianity.

      • Bgglencoeok

        But the gospel is — a message — about the cross, proclaimed with a relatively specific desired result. The initial respondents were all Jews, and they indicate the kind of change that happened to them as a result of this message and that was intended for all who hear it — including you and me.

        Paul indicated the content of the essential, authentic gospel that he had “received” (a technical term, indicating the handing along of an authoritative declaration). He wrote:

        “Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”

        “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], …the twelve…over five hundred brothers at once…James…all the apostles, and…to me also.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)

        Either these things happened, explained under the guidance of the Rabbi Jesus, or they did not. If they did, then these are the most important events in all history. If they did not happen, then the proclamation that they did happen is an empty claim that should be forgotten.

        We cannot legitimately reject the message and yet embrace it as meaningful at the same time.

        Jesus is presented — and presented himself — as the point at which everything is centered, including the course of Jewish history — and the course of history as a whole.

        • lbehrendt

          To say that the initial respondents to the gospel were all Jews is, I think, to understate the point. I’d say instead (or in addition) that the initial gospel message was a Jewish message. The message was delivered at a time when the Jewish landscape was sectarian, there were numbers of different and competing Jewish messages, and many of these messages were sharply critical of other groups of Jews.

          But the heart of your comment comes near the end, when you pose a dilemma. You say that I cannot legitimately reject the gospel message and embrace it as meaningful at the same time. That’s a good argument, but it reminds me of the trilemma attributed to C.S. Lewis, that Jesus could only have been one of three things: a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. The usual response to Lewis is that there are choices other than the three he proposed, and my response to you is that there are choices other than the two you propose.

          You cite 1 Corinthians to the effect that Christ died for our sins and was resurrected. You argue that if I reject this message, I cannot embrace the gospels as meaningful. I have a number of replies to this argument, but the one I’ll raise here is the most direct: why not? Might it be meaningful to me that 2 billion fellow Earthlings embrace this message? Or that the picture of God at the heart of this message is beautiful and inspiring?

          At the heart of Krister Stendahl’s three rules for religious understanding is the concept of “holy envy”: that when we try to understand another religion, we should seek to find beauty in that other religion, even to recognize and admire elements in that other religion that we don’t find in our own.

          Please understand. I am a religious particularist. I do not believe in tossing every major and minor faith into some sort of religious melting pot, and consuming whatever results. I am committed to my Judaism. But it cannot possibly be the case that the only religious good in the world is found in my concept of Judaism. The history of the world is full of sincere, talented and intelligent people who dedicated their lives to the quest for truth. A few of those people were Jewish, or found their way to Judaism. Most of them were not and did not. Should I say that the non-Jews wasted their lives, that there is nothing I can possibly learn from them?

          Elsewhere you’ve affirmed the urgency of the quest for truth, both as a personal matter and as a matter determining the future of human society. This being the case, how dare I miss the opportunity to learn from someone else? And if I’m looking to learn something I don’t already know, doesn’t it make sense for me to seek out at least a few teachers whose experience differs from mine?

          • Bgglencoeok

            The gospel message is embedded in a first century Jewish context, but it is quite distinct from the various Jewish sects. (Jesus, as represented in the Gospels, is very clear on the distinction from Judaism was represented in its most public forms.)

            The gospel message is also very explicit in its content, and is pessimistic — to the point of being tragic — about both the condition of humanity apart from Christ and about the religious landscape.

            The gospel spread, not by finding beauty in either the world or other religions, but by the beauty of God’s love and glory seen in the face of Jesus Christ — who appeared in the midst of world that is broken down and feeding on darkness.

            If you find something in this message that you admire, in some comparative religious sense, then whatever you’ve found is an artificial reconstruction that avoids and even denies what the apostles were talking about.

            • lbehrendt

              I don’t want to drift too far off-topic. The topic specifically is how do we understand the “authentic” historical Jesus, but in general terms the topic is how do we understand the gospels (which nearly all acknowledge to contain 99% of what we might ever hope to know about Jesus)..

              I understand you to say that there is only one true understanding of the gospel message, that spread by the church. But is there only one gospel message spread by the church? Which church? If we go back to the first two centuries of Christianity, and if I follow what I think are mainstream historians, we might be talking about early Christianities instead of early Christianity. While such terminology is controversial, there’s no question that during this time there were a number of substantial Christian movements declared to be heretical by the proto-orthodox church, including Marcionites, Ebionites, Gnostics and others whose Christology differed sharply from what we would recognize as Christian today. (Of course, there’s controversy over how substantial these movements might have been.) If there is only one gospel message, then why such diversity in early Christianity?

              I don’t claim to be expert on the first 400 years of Christianity, but it took about that long for the church to establish the basic creeds setting forth its understanding of Jesus. I am thinking about the great church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries, in particular Nicea and Chalcedon. If the true understanding of the gospels is that which emerged from Nicea and Chalcedon, then why did it take so long for the church to get there, and why was the process so difficult and contentious?

              A thousand years later we find the Protestant reformation. Something as complex as the Protestant reformation deserves more than a paragraph. But in some ways the Protestant reformation represents an intra-church dispute over the meaning and centrality of the gospel.

              Let’s move to the church of the present-day. I take it from earlier comments that when you refer to the church’s understanding of the gospels, the church you refer to does not include the LDS (Mormon) church. Perhaps it excludes the Christian Scientists and the Seventh Day Adventists. We’ve never discussed Unitarians or Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m not sure what you make of so-called Messianic Jews,

              If we move away from so-called “fringe” churches, we still have Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, and the various forms that each of these churches can take. But even if I limit the “church” to the various Protestant denominations, I find sharp disputes over the meaning of the gospel. For example: how does a person come to a right faith in Jesus Christ? I think most Christians would say that such faith is a gift, and that it comes to people through the Holy Spirit. But is this gift resistible or irresistible? Are some people predestined (or double-predestined) to receive this gift, with the remainder excluded?

              On to a more down-to-earth level: on occasion I go to church. Frequently I hear that the message from that church’s pulpit is the true gospel, and the message from the church down the street is not the true gospel. From my (possibly naive) vantage point, the two churches in question appear to be Protestant and Evangelical.

              There may indeed be only one true gospel message, but as there does not appear to be (now or in the past) a unified church preaching a single gospel message, how can anyone be sure that they know this true message?

            • Bgglencoeok

              lbehrendt:

              This is a response to your reply to the above comment:

              The Gospels represent the authentic Jesus in various literary formats, as do — in general — the rest of the New Testament. There is substantial unity throughout these documents concerning who Jesus was, what he taught and what he did.

              Indirectly, Ehrman acknowledged this at some level when he invented the term “proto-orthodox;” and you acknowledge much the same thing when you say that 99% of what we can know of Jesus is found in the four Gospels.

              When Ehrman and others attempt to find deep-set divisions within the Gospels and divisions between Paul and Peter — as examples — their case is contrived. As an example, Ehrman fails in his portrayal of Mark’s “angry Jesus” and “Jesus out of control” in Gethsemane and on Golgotha — the latter substantiated, he says, in the letter to the Hebrews — vs. his conception of Luke’s portrayal of the “unperturbed Jesus.” (Ehrman does not “read” a Gospel; he attacks it.)

              Generally, it is clear that all the Gospels speak of the same Christ, doing the same kinds of things, dying for our sins (in spite of Ehrman’s argument that this is missing in Luke-Acts, an argument that most scholars reject), and rising from the dead.

              Jesus’ position as the one who gives the Holy Spirit is also clearly witnessed in each of the Gospels and Acts; and his eventual return and rule as Lord in the new heavens and earth are part of the shared portrayal of Christ. (Much more could be added to this list, including some pleasing minor details of characters and circumstances — all in the midst of some differences as well, in accord with the way human memory works.)

              As to the various “Christianities” and denominations, (1) I agree with, as a broad estimate, about 75% of what traditional Catholic theologians say and about 90% of what most traditional Protestants say. (2) The early “Christianities,” declared to be heresies by the early apologists and theologians, are obvious second century attempts to reconstruct Jesus in the image of a Gnostic sage. (Calling these movements “Christianities” fits nicely into both a comparative religious mentality and the current politically correct, pluralistic, super-tolerant atmosphere that distracts and distorts almost every moral and religious discussion of our time.)

              You excused your last reply as possibly being off-topic. I think it is. Material drawn from the second century and onward cannot contribute anything substantial that is unique in representing the historical Jesus.

              I think you’re stuck in the middle of your intersection, a dangerous place to be. Rather than face outright the one the apostles bear witness to — and either reject of accept him — you keep bringing up numerous excuses to look away.

              I make this last statement, not as an authority looking down on you, but as a fellow sinner — a beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.

              John wrote that he came to his own people, and they would not receive him (John 1:11). I believe that, just as the people of the holy city of his time (Luke 19:41), you are one his own who will not receive, who is breaking his heart.

            • lbehrendt

              BG, I struggle to find the right words. You have a strong aversion to anything that smacks of political correctness, so I try to speak to you from the heart and with (what is for me) unusual bluntness, to a point where I would normally not go, past the point where I risk offense. I feel, rightly or wrongly, that this is the way I must speak to you if I’m going to be heard.

              You speak about religious questions with the conviction that these are urgent matters where you (we?) have a personal responsibility to uphold a universal truth. You question why I do not speak with the same conviction. You describe my speech as politically correct, and you use words like “comparative”, “super-tolerant” and “pluralistic” to characterize what I say. In so doing, you understand me, but only in a small way.

              I belong to a religious tradition that is both universal and particular. Judaism teaches that Torah is the blueprint for all creation, that it existed before time and space (much as Christianity teaches that Christ existed before creation). Thus at the heart of Judaism is the truth with a capital “T” for everything that has been, is or ever will be. Yet at the same time we are not given anything like the “Great Commission” to cause even our planet to become Jewish. No such thing is in the instruction set we believe we’ve received from God.

              How can this be, that the blueprint for creation was given to such a tiny fragment of humanity? There is a tension between the universal and the particular that goes to the very heart of being Jewish, and perhaps different Jews resolve this tension in different ways. Doubtless there are Jews who feel that Judaism is the only source of truth, but then one must honestly wrestle with the question of why the Jews should have exclusive custody of the truth. Are the Jews trustees or custodians of this truth for the benefit of the rest of humankind, and if so, exactly how is that going to work?

              Jews are not a dogmatic bunch, so anytime you hear someone tell you what Jews think, take it with a grain of salt. But here is how I understand mainstream Judaism, whether you’re looking at Ashkenazic or Sephardic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist: THE RIGHTEOUS OF ALL NATIONS HAVE A SHARE IN THE WORLD TO COME. By this, I do not mean that Judaism acknowledges the remote possibility that someone might stumble into Torah righteousness on their own, through some genius or stroke of luck. By this I mean that the nations of the world all contain righteous people, in considerable numbers, numbers SO considerable that if one’s concern IS the world to come, there’s no particular advantage in being Jewish.

              OK. Here is the main point. Please take this to heart. What I’ve just described to you is not cultural relativism. It is absolute Torah.

              How can Torah contain absolute truth and there be considerable numbers of righteous people in every nation? I don’t know. The conventional explanation (not quite as Jewish mainstream as what I’ve described so far) is that righteousness in other nations is measured in reference to the Noachide laws (commands that some Jews believe were given by God to Noah and his family after the Flood, that are binding on Noah’s descendants – everyone). I personally don’t go along with this, as there’s so little content in these Noachide laws, I don’t see how anyone can be righteous with these laws as one’s sole guide.

              Perhaps there IS no satisfactory explanation for why Torah was given only to the Jews. Perhaps it’s just a case of divine mystery. Judaism has its mysteries, just like Christianity has the mystery of God in three persons and Jesus being fully human and divine at the same time. Perhaps God enters the hearts of non-Jews and fills the heart with Torah content. Perhaps Torah so permeates the universe that the seeker of truth can find it there, rather than within the covers of a book. In either such case, this Torah content might have entered into the religious traditions (or, perish the thought, even the non-religious traditions!) of other nations.

              Granted, this is rank speculation. But the predominant Jewish view of Christianity is similar to this, that Christians recognize and worship the one God, in a form that is monotheistic given the Christian world-view. I can’t say that this viewpoint is Torah, but it goes back to the great Rabbis of the middle ages. Is this view relativism? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure those Rabbis predate what you’d call relativism by roughly 1,000 years.

  • Bgglencoeok

    lbehrendt:

    There is no link to reply to your latest message below concerning Judaism and political correctness. So I will put my response here.

    Preceding your comment, I wrote trying to clear up the matter of your citing examples of theological diversity in the form of early “Christianities” and later varied Christian theologies and, what I and many others would call, historically recent heresies. I stated that a discussion of these is irrelevant in determining who the historical Jesus is.

    I also indicated that, in light of a simple reading of the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole — and in light of what we understand of the operation of human memory — an essentially unified portrayal of Jesus is communicated in our earliest Christian documents.

    Finally, I made the observation that you keep raising issues rather than looking Jesus in the face and deciding to either reject or accept him.

    I was not discussing the issue of political correctness as such, so your latest message seems to be another example of looking away and avoiding the implications in the life and message of the most well-known of anyone who has been called rabbi.

    • lbehrendt

      BG, I am struggling to make myself understood. If possible, struggle a bit harder to understand, and in turn I’ll struggle harder to be understandable.

      You are posing an either-or. Either I accept Jesus in the way you describe as being apparent from a simple reading of the Gospels, or accept that I have rejected him. I have countered that there is at least one additional alternative. You say that trying to make a third choice is effectively trying to occupy a no-man’s zone consisting of a kind of relativistic political correctness that can bear no relation to truth. I have countered that Judaism teaches the existence of a form of righteousness outside of Judaism, that even if there’s only a single Torah path to the world to come, that path may be known by many names in many nations – and that, moreover, there’s nothing relativistic or politically correct in this teaching.

      I am not looking away. I accept that the faith you describe in Jesus Christ can lead you to the righteousness Judaism teaches is a path to the world to come. In fact, what I believe goes beyond mere acceptance. I believe that Christianity is a true path to this righteousness. Going further, I believe that I can learn from the Christian message, and that I can grow spiritually in dialog with Christians who accept this message as you do. For me, this is acceptance of the gospel message.

      As you’ve pointed out, I cannot wander aimlessly around the Jewish-Christian intersection hoping for good things to happen. Instead, I am on a path I believe is true. Some Christians have told me that unless I abandon my path and accept the gospel message as the sole and exclusive route to salvation, I have in effect rejected the gospel message. But in truth, this is not the sole and exclusive message I’ve received from the Christians I know. As I’ve written about here, the official doctrine of the Catholic Church is that Jews AS JEWS “are participants in God’s salvation”.

      I believe that I have accepted the gospel message in a way that’s other than the “either-or” that you describe. In any event … the gospel acceptance you describe is impossible for me. I have a previous commitment.

      • Bgglencoeok

        What is a Christian?

        • lbehrendt

          Here’s a proposed definition: a Christian is a person who professes faith or membership in the religion of Christianity.

          • Bgglencoeok

            So by your proposed definition, a Christian is self-defined. The only stipulation is that one — claims — to be a Christian. (This also means that Jesus is whatever the professing person takes him to be.)

            Such a characterization is wide of the mark of an apostolic view. This would be true even if your characterization were expanded to include some formal tie to a recognized church.

            According to your definition, all who claim to be Christians — or who are members of some body that claims to be Christian — have equal input in a discussion of who Jesus is. In your terms, there is no “sole or exclusive message” of Jesus Christ, including what can be picked up from a simple reading of the New Testament documents.

            If you are content with this way of thinking, then proceed.

            This is my last post.

            • lbehrendt

              Thank you for participating here. I am grateful for the wisdom and learning you shared, and for your willingness to engage in dialog. You are welcome to participate here any time you like.

      • Stephaniebarbe Hammer

        Thank you for this lively discussion. I am replying here because there is not space at the end of the thread. I agree that coming to the New Testament as a Jew — in my case as a Jew by choice — can open up faith in important, and — for me, at least — inspiring ways. I will share — and I hope your readers will pardon me for a view that will appear stupid to many — that when I encountered the New Testament as a kid and as a young adult, I found Jesus to be a very unbelievable and –worse — an unalive, inhuman figure. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on in the New Testament, and what was at stake in the conversations and in the miracles. As a Jew, I encounter the New Testament with excitement and a sense of appreciation of the ways in which the Jesus of the Gospels seems to be tangling with complex Faith and Action questions from what is recognizably a Jewish perspective. I understand the value of miracle narratives from the many weird, problematic, witty, and thought-provoking narratives shared by the rabbis, and Jesus becomes an altogether vital person for me from this point of view. I feel more respect for Christianity and for Christian writers, and for the entire tradition that has brought this learning forward and at the rise of sounding corny, I do honestly feel that this change of perspective has made me a more thoughtful person, a more caring person, as well as a kinder, and more respectful person. Thanks.

        • Jscottcoe

          I, too, find this conversation intensely interesting. I’ve been meaning to respond to many of the posts on this blog, and will try to do so on a slow and graduated scale (I’ve never done much blogging). Specifically, I want to respond to lbehrendt’s last attempt to define Christianity as a profession of faith, and Bgglencoeok’s adverse response to it. This is a curious response, as professions of faith are synonymous with most Christian history–though that might be more of a Protestant theme. Regardless, I would suggest that the missing term in this conflict is the inferred voluntary nature of this profession, a sense of self-direction or definition that is foreign to the “calling” B associates with Christianity per se. One is hard pressed not to bring into this conversation the predestinarian aspects of free grace, and one might also suggest that predetermination may be in turn inferred into the surprisingly undetermined historicity of Christ. Such is the rock on which our church is built, God help us all.

          • Bgglencoeok

            I do not believe you got my point.

            I was responding to a particular definition of the word, “Christian.” My point did not undermine the idea that a Christian is self-professed. Instead I was stating that a Christian is not self-defined, nor is a Christian body.

            If equal value as a source for understanding this faith is placed on anyone who happens to claim it, then Christianity is a topic that is impossible to discuss in a meaningful way. (For example, the belief that Jesus was a mere man would stand beside the belief that he is the incarnate Son of God; and both beliefs must be considered equally Christian even though they are mutually exclusive.)

            In an earlier post from lbehrendt, I was told to consider in a balanced way the definition of “gospel” put forth by such diverse groups as Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Messianic Jews — as well as the supposed “early Christianities” of second-century Gnostics.

            I was also told that there were sharp disputes over the meaning of the gospel among Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, “and the various forms that each of these churches can take.”

            In response, I tried to point out that there is a great deal of agreement in doctrine among the latter groups — though the differences are very important. And I will add, the differences are legitimate efforts to recover what can be realistically called the “apostolic faith.”

            Now I add an explanation of the result I intended in the post upon which you commented: The definition, “a Christian is a person who professes faith or membership in the religion of Christianity” is simply unworkable and entirely misleading, especially if equal value is placed on the content of what each such person says about Jesus Christ. (By this definition, you could declare that you are a Christian, and then anything you say about Jesus is just as valid as what anyone else may say.)

            My contention is, there IS an apostolic faith that is recognizable in the general content of the four Gospels and the other documents of the New Testament. The attempt to slice and dice these documents, based on artificial criteria and a deconstruction and reconstruction of early Christian history, is misguided and is mostly a mind-game played by some educated people who have been trained to think that way.

            However — to the degree that these mind-games incorporate: (1) a thoughtful consideration of the nature of human memory (2) the expressions and standards of ancient literature and (3) historical and archaeological evidences generally — they provide some interesting and helpful material.

            Let me suggest a more realistic understanding of what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is “one who trusts in, clings to, and relies on Jesus as expressed in apostolic Christianity” — with the assumption that this faith is embodied in the New Testament documents.

            A Christian may not understand all that the apostles intended, and Christians may not always act consistently with what they understand. But the apostolic faith is the standard by which genuine Christian faith is measured — for Christians and for everyone else.

            By this definition, early alternate Christianities, Christian Scientism, Seventh Day Adventism (especially in the writings of its declared prophetess, Ellen White), Unitarianism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses — are definitely non-Christian, because they were established as overt opponents of the apostolic faith in earlier or later forms.

            Political correctness and religious pluralism dogmatically condemn such statements as the above for being dogmatic. But the attempt to blend and live-and-let-live that is the mode of operation of lazy minds today generates a fatal confusion. The definition of a Christian to which I was responding is an example of this sort of intellectual suicide.

            • lbehrendt

              BG, your latest comment may require more than one reply.

              On your paragraph (1) – did I imply that 1st century Palestinian Jews were open to validating faiths outside of Judaism? That was not my intention, and while I think we should be careful about claiming too much knowledge about 1st century Palestinian Jews, I would concur with what I think is the scholarly consensus, that 1st century Palestinian Jews were not particularly interested in other faiths. The point I wanted to make had to do with interest in the question of Jewish identity and the border between Jew and non-Jew.

              I think that your paragraphs (2) could be the source of a fascinating conversation, but I think I should skip to paragraph (3), which I read as your primary focus. You’re right, my proposed definition raised at least as many questions as it attempted to answer – that’s probably the cost of providing a short definition. So if I propose that Christians have the right to define what is Christianity, it’s a fair question to ask, who is and is not included in the group with the right to make the definition?

              However … while your question is fair, it is also circular: in theory at least, I need a definition of Christianity in order to determine who are (and are not) the Christians who can provide me with the needed definition. Again in fairness, your question is circular because my definition is circular.

              Is there a way out of the circle? You ask me what *I* mean when I refer to your “fellow Christians” who I propose to define the Christian border. To be as clear and blunt as I can be, the first thing I mean by “fellow Christians” is someone other than me! Even before I’ve defined the Christian border, I know that *I* am not inside it.

              The second thing I feel certain about is that I cannot appoint a hypothetical panel of “fellow Christians” who are all going to see this question in the same way. In an earlier comment you appeared to imply that Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox all fall inside of the Christian border, but for certain this has not always been acknowledged to be the case. Did not Catholics and Protestants consider the other to be heretics at the outset of the Reformation and for many years thereafter? If the true border of Christianity contains Catholicism and Protestantism, is that the border for all times or just for now, and if it’s just for now, then the border must be a changing thing. While I have no problem with the idea of shifting religious borders, I take your question as addressing something more timeless than current ecumenical conditions.

              But as I’ve stated, I DO see the need for religious borders, as fuzzy as they may be in practice, and as fuzzy as they may be by definition. I do not propose an “every-man-for-himself” definition.

              Can I revert to a practical definition? Even if I reject the right to impose a definition of Christianity from the outside, there ARE people in the world that I identify as Christian. I have friends who tell me of their experience of Christianity from childhood, who tell me that they go to church (I’ve even GONE to church with a few of them), and who sometimes talk to me about how their faith in Jesus transforms their lives. In practical terms, I “define” these people as Christians, and to a considerable extent these people define Christianity for me. I don’t quiz these people about denominations or creeds, we rarely discuss matters of fundamentalism or literalism – I take the Christianity of my friends as I find it, and as they describe it.

              But in my life I’ve also been friendly with a number of Mormons. They told me they were Christians, and I was inclined to believe them. In fact, I’m still inclined to believe them, even though today many of my Christian friends regard the Mormons as not Christian. I guess I regard the Mormons as something like Christians, but as standing outside of what I experience as more or less the Christian mainstream.

              So, yes. Putting aside what I think is a well-founded reluctance to define someone else’s faith, it’s true that in private and practical terms I form these definitions all the time.

              But when you asked what *I* mean by who is a Christian, you probably were not asking about any of this. You were probably asking about my experience of the Gospel, and what it is that the Gospel calls a believer to believe (another fragment of circular thought) and to do. Quite obviously, I’m pushing against answering this question. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion. For example, I think that so-called prosperity theology is nonsense. But even aside from my reluctance to define a group to which I do not belong, there’s a distinction I haven’t worked out between being a Christian and the right understanding of the Gospel.

              Let’s take John Dominic Crossan as an example. I have read a few of his books and heard him lecture online. I think much of Crossan’s thought is WAY off base. It’s not that I dislike the Jesus that Crossan describes; it’s that I don’t exactly see Crossan’s Jesus in the New Testament. So, MAYBE there’s a problem with the way Crossan reads the gospels … but I can barely describe how reluctant I am to say that. Crossan could be right and I could be wrong – in fact, the chances are reasonably good that Crossan is right and I am wrong, because Crossan has studied this stuff all his life, from the inside. I’m not speaking political correctness here – I think of it more as old-fashioned modesty.

              But here’s the thing, something I feel certain about, or at least as certain as I can be from a few books and lectures: Crossan is a Christian, even if in my arrogance I wonder how he can believe what he believes. Being a Christian MUST mean something more than creeds and right beliefs.

              I’ve wondered if, from the perspective of a Christian insider, the right definition of a Christian is one who has been saved by belief in Jesus Christ … or that a Christian is one who has the kind of belief in Jesus Christ that effects salvation … or that a Christian is one who (a) believes that belief in Jesus Christ effects salvation and (b) has such a belief in Jesus Christ. I wonder if this is close to your definition. I imagine you rending your garments when you read what I’m about to write, but I don’t see much difference between defining a Christian as (1) someone who professes to be a Christian, and (b) someone who professes to have saving faith in Jesus Christ. I can imagine a Gnostic professing both things.

              Where does this leave me? Pretty close to where I started. Religious borders are fuzzy things. If you want to know what a religion is about, ask its adherents. Yes, I might wish that there were easier and clearer answers to these questions, but better a fuzzy border than one drawn in the wrong place by the wrong person.

            • BG, thank you for this thoughtful reply. As someone brought up in the Seventh-Day Adventist tradition, I feel that you give our prophetess far too much credit for originality (she was a notorious plagiarist). More seriously, apart from some subcultural quirks, Adventists are pretty standard Protestants, and I think you would find a tremendous amount of commonality among its many thoughtful and faithful adherents. They are certainly not “over opponents of the apostolic faith” you seek to define.

              More broadly, I believe the history of Christianity challenges your assertion of one apostolic faith being derived from the gospels and the other NT texts. From the very beginning (one could even say, before the beginning) and for hundreds of years, different Christian understandings of the meaning of Jesus as the divine and human Christ spawned not just gnostic but miaphysite and dyophysite alternatives to what become the Chalcedonian compromise, alternatives that still exist, though barely, due to geopolitical events that one would be hard-pressed to call divinely ordained. This is not political correctness but, instead, an active engagement with a very troubled heritage that bred (and in many ways was bred by) some very troubled theological concepts–yet still with the ability, perhaps, to save.

              • lbehrendt

                Justin, thank you for the nice things you’ve said, here and elsewhere.

                For many of us, the process of finding our religious identity involves an encounter with religious borders. Either we’re drawing them, as BG did here, or we’re negotiating the borders someone else has drawn, as you have done here. There does not seem to be a way around this. Those of us who find ourselves outside the border cry out for open borders, and for borders drawn more inclusively. But wherever we draw the line, there’s someone standing outside the line wondering why they weren’t included.

                I know that relativism is a dirty word in many circles, but it seems obvious to me that things look very different depending on whether one finds oneself inside, outside or on the border.

          • lbehrendt

            Steph, Jscott and BG, thanks for your comments.

            I refer you back to earlier posts here on religious borders. I agree with those who argue that religious borders are “fuzzy”, My teacher Josh Garroway likes to imagine a reception line at a wedding, where the bride and groom have requested that the Jews line up in the front and the non-Jews at the back, and somehow the line organizes itself with the most clear-cut and obviously Jewish at the front, and those most evidently non-Jewish at the back. So you might imagine the “black hats” at the front of the line, followed by the “modern Orthodox”. Somewhere down the line you’d find Jews like me, who are strongly affiliated with a non-Orthodox Jewish denomination, but who do not keep all of the 613 mitzvot regarded as mandatory by the Orthodox. Behind me in line might be non-affiliated Jews, cultural Jews, agnostic and atheistic Jews, Messianic Jews, Universalists, Noahidists, Jewish Gnostics and Jewish Buddhists in some order, and complicating things are those in line who have converted to Judaism under the authority of one of these Jewish (or allegedly Jewish) groups. At the very back of the line would be those we’d consider obviously not Jewish.

            Three points emerge from this imagined reception line. First, while all is clear at each end of the reception line, things get messy in the middle. We may want to draw a hard border and say that everyone in line on one side of the border is Jewish, and everyone on the other side is not. But in practical terms, we find a number of people in that reception line who appear to be living ON the border and not on one side or the other. In practical terms, we might come to different conclusions regarding who is Jewish based on why we’re asking the question: who is entitled to Israeli citizenship as a matter of right, and who is entitled to read from the Torah on Shabbat, and who is to be regarded as Jewish if he proposes marriage to my daughter? BG, while you might find this thinking to be the sloppy product of modern cultural relativism, I’m confident that at least in Judaism, the drawing of religious borders is a problem stretching back over 2,000 years.

            Second point: regardless of whether we’re comfortable drawing religious borders, the borders have to be drawn. To use your word BG, I don’t think we can “blend” everyone religiously into one large fuzzy borderless mass. Distinctions matter, for reasons too numerous to mention, but I’ll mention one reason that is important to Jews: we are a nation as well as a faith, and a nation needs to have some rights regarding where its border is drawn.

            This leads to my third point: borders do not emerge clear and distinct from scripture or the word of God. They must be drawn. Yes BG, draw your borders from your understanding of the gospels, or even from an obvious plain gospel meaning that you believe flows from the gospel to anyone of right and honest understanding. The fact remains that others disagree with you, and it is going to be left to human understanding (guided we hope by God) and agreement, to human authority, to determine where that border is going to be drawn. This was MY point in the definition I proposed for Christianity, a point that you did not get: you asked ME as an outsider to propose where the Christian border should be drawn, and I (as politely as I could) proposed that the border must be drawn by you and your fellow Christians.

            As always, there is much more in your comments to respond to … hopefully down the road.

            • Bgglencoeok

              I was trying to clear up the idea that I had somehow questioned the voluntary nature of professing Christianity — or any faith — and of bringing in the issue of predestination. So I explained what I meant.

              Now in response to your latest post:

              (1) I am curious about your assertion that first century Jews (2,000 years ago) had a problem drawing religious borders — in the sense that they were open to understanding, appreciating and validating faiths outside of Judaism — as they must have — if your assertion is relevant in the current conversation. What specific ancient literary evidence do you have to support that claim — evidence outside of a reconstructed, postmodern reading of such sources?

              (2) I do not believe that a simple, honest reading of the New Testament will yield clear-cut answers to all questions about Jesus that can be raised by either Christians or non-Christians. (Therefore, in this sense, at some places the borders of Christianity are vague, while at the important expanses of the line they are sufficiently clear.)

              I do believe such reading yields a distinct and convincing portrait of Jesus Christ and a good general summary (that is unified at the core) concerning who he was, what he taught and what he did. People like Bart Ehrman, members of the Jesus Seminar and even more balanced critics like Larry Hurtado do not believe this. So dialogue with these people is not a matter of working out some common ground between the believing church and its critics. (It’s not that we don’t agree on how to understand a common faith. It’s that they begin by denying the validity of what the believing church bases its very existence upon.)

              (3) Finally, it did not register with me that you were proposing that “fellow Christians” should define Christianity in an every-man-for-himself fashion. Instead you appeared to give your own “proposed definition” (that’s what you called it); and after all, you were answering a direct question I had asked, “What is a Christian?” Furthermore it seems clear that your definition was anticipated in your vision of a “Christianity” that stretches far enough to cover what you called both “fringe churches” and traditional churches “in all their possible forms.”

              Your current explanation of your definition would still require an answer to my initial four-word question, because you say you were politely proposing that we “fellow Christians” come up with a definition of Christianity that establishes vague but palatable borders for us. So I ask, in a slightly different form, “Who are the ‘fellow Christians’ you are talking about?” You must have some specific people and/or groups of people in mind. (And let me be clear that I’m asking YOU for what YOU mean by this expression, just as I initially asked what YOU meant by the term “Christian.”

            • lbehrendt

              BG, your latest comment may require more than one reply.

              On your paragraph (1) – did I imply that 1st century Palestinian Jews were open to validating faiths outside of Judaism? That was not my intention, and while I think we should be careful about claiming too much knowledge about 1st century Palestinian Jews, I would concur with what I think is the scholarly consensus, that 1st century Palestinian Jews were not particularly interested in other faiths. The point I wanted to make had to do with interest in the question of Jewish identity and the border between Jew and non-Jew.

              I think that your paragraphs (2) could be the source of a fascinating conversation, but I think I should skip to paragraph (3), which I read as your primary focus. You’re right, my proposed definition raised at least as many questions as it attempted to answer – that’s probably the cost of providing a short definition. So if I propose that Christians have the right to define what is Christianity, it’s a fair question to ask, who is and is not included in the group with the right to make the definition?

              However … while your question is fair, it is also circular: in theory at least, I need a definition of Christianity in order to determine who are (and are not) the Christians who can provide me with the needed definition. Again in fairness, your question is circular because my definition is circular.

              Is there a way out of the circle? You ask me what *I* mean when I refer to your “fellow Christians” who I propose to define the Christian border. To be as clear and blunt as I can be, the first thing I mean by “fellow Christians” is someone other than me! Even before I’ve defined the Christian border, I know that *I* am not inside it.

              The second thing I feel certain about is that I cannot appoint a hypothetical panel of “fellow Christians” who are all going to see this question in the same way. In an earlier comment you appeared to imply that Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox all fall inside of the Christian border, but for certain this has not always been acknowledged to be the case. Did not Catholics and Protestants consider the other to be heretics at the outset of the Reformation and for many years thereafter? If the true border of Christianity contains Catholicism and Protestantism, is that the border for all times or just for now, and if it’s just for now, then the border must be a changing thing. While I have no problem with the idea of shifting religious borders, I take your question as addressing something more timeless than current ecumenical conditions.

              But as I’ve stated, I DO see the need for religious borders, as fuzzy as they may be in practice, and as fuzzy as they may be by definition. I do not propose an “every-man-for-himself” definition.

              Can I revert to a practical definition? Even if I reject the right to impose a definition of Christianity from the outside, there ARE people in the world that I identify as Christian. I have friends who tell me of their experience of Christianity from childhood, who tell me that they go to church (I’ve even GONE to church with a few of them), and who sometimes talk to me about how their faith in Jesus transforms their lives. In practical terms, I “define” these people as Christians, and to a considerable extent these people define Christianity for me. I don’t quiz these people about denominations or creeds, we rarely discuss matters of fundamentalism or literalism – I take the Christianity of my friends as I find it, and as they describe it.

              But in my life I’ve also been friendly with a number of Mormons. They told me they were Christians, and I was inclined to believe them. In fact, I’m still inclined to believe them, even though today many of my Christian friends regard the Mormons as not Christian. I guess I regard the Mormons as something like Christians, but as standing outside of what I experience as more or less the Christian mainstream.

              So, yes. Putting aside what I think is a well-founded reluctance to define someone else’s faith, it’s true that in private and practical terms I form these definitions all the time.

              But when you asked what *I* mean by who is a Christian, you probably were not asking about any of this. You were probably asking about my experience of the Gospel, and what it is that the Gospel calls a believer to believe (another fragment of circular thought) and to do. Quite obviously, I’m pushing against answering this question. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion. For example, I think that so-called prosperity theology is nonsense. But even aside from my reluctance to define a group to which I do not belong, there’s a distinction I haven’t worked out between being a Christian and the right understanding of the Gospel.

              Let’s take John Dominic Crossan as an example. I have read a few of his books and heard him lecture online. I think much of Crossan’s thought is WAY off base. It’s not that I dislike the Jesus that Crossan describes; it’s that I don’t exactly see Crossan’s Jesus in the New Testament. So, MAYBE there’s a problem with the way Crossan reads the gospels … but I can barely describe how reluctant I am to say that. Crossan could be right and I could be wrong – in fact, the chances are reasonably good that Crossan is right and I am wrong, because Crossan has studied this stuff all his life, from the inside. I’m not speaking political correctness here – I think of it more as old-fashioned modesty.

              But here’s the thing, something I feel certain about, or at least as certain as I can be from a few books and lectures: Crossan is a Christian, even if in my arrogance I wonder how he can believe what he believes. Being a Christian MUST mean something more than creeds and right beliefs.

              I’ve wondered if, from the perspective of a Christian insider, the right definition of a Christian is one who has been saved by belief in Jesus Christ … or that a Christian is one who has the kind of belief in Jesus Christ that effects salvation … or that a Christian is one who (a) believes that belief in Jesus Christ effects salvation and (b) has such a belief in Jesus Christ. I wonder if this is close to your definition. I imagine you rending your garments when you read what I’m about to write, but I don’t see much difference between defining a Christian as (1) someone who professes to be a Christian, and (b) someone who professes to have saving faith in Jesus Christ. I can imagine a Gnostic professing both things.

              Where does this leave me? Pretty close to where I started. Religious borders are fuzzy things. If you want to know what a religion is about, ask its adherents. Yes, I might wish that there were easier and clearer answers to these questions, but better a fuzzy border than one drawn in the wrong place by the wrong person.

            • Bgglencoeok

              Since there is no place provided for a response after your last post, I will give a response here.

              You state, “..borders do not emerge, clear and distinct, from scripture or the word of God” that would indicate who is and who is not a Christian. “The borders have to be drawn” by someone other than the authors of Scripture, you say.

              But I challenge you to take the Gospels and letters as they stand — without the filter of a Crossan or Ehrman — and read them, making a list of the GENERAL conceptions they convey in common, along with some interesting details, noting all the while, their different emphases and literary packaging.

              I believe you will — as I indicated earlier — see that some borders are vague and some details are difficult to harmonize; but the important things, especially the broad outlines of who Jesus is, how he spoke and what he did, are sufficiently clear.

              In this sense, the borders of who is and is not a Christian, come into a satisfying focus.

              An indication of the kind of results you can discover by such a concentrated study can be seen at: http://bible.org/seriespage/similarities-among-johns-gospel-and-synoptic-gospels. The major part of the article found at that link documents specific things that John’s Gospel has in common with the other three. It is written by Dr.James M. Arlandson. He received his doctorate in Comparative Literature, with a focus on the study of ancient Greek literature, religious studies, and critical theory.

              Your suggestion that the authentic gospel and the profile of an authentic follower of Jesus (a Christian) are amorphous and elusive conceptions comes, not from a direct study of the New Testament, but from the previous fragmenting of the sources by critical scholars whose conception of historical plausibility leaves no room for the miraculous narrative conveyed in the apostolic proclamation.

              It’s pretty easy to declare that no historical Jesus can be found in the New Testament’s declaration of the Incarnate Son of God who is the Messiah, when you begin with the assumption that the whole story is impossible in the first place. It’s also pretty meaningless.

              I had suggested to Jscottcoe that a Christian is “‘one who trusts in, clings to and relies on Jesus as expressed in apostolic Christianity’ — with the assumption that this faith is embodied in the New Testament documents.” But then you suggested that my definition might be the equivalent of “someone who professes to have saving faith in Jesus Christ” and followed that with the observation that this substituted definition is not very different from your original definition, “someone who professes to be a Christian.”

              My response to your suggestion is in three parts: (1) You seem intent on leaving very little in the content of a Christian faith that can be talked about with clarity.

              (2) There is a vast difference between claiming to have saving faith in Jesus Christ, and trusting in, clinging to and relying on Jesus AS EXPRESSED IN APOSTOLIC CHRISTIANITY — with the assumption that this is EMBODIED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS.

              (3) My definition gives something that can be discussed. But your explanation of the definition ends in utter — and unnecessary — confusion.

              You keep insisting that the indefiniteness is necessary; but my guess is, you come to this view only because of your desire to intersect the “Christian” and the “Jewish” in a mix that feels comfortable to you.

              Believe me, neither Jesus or the apostles intended to accommodate your comfort or mine. Their story — that comes through loud and clear in the New Testament — makes this perfectly clear. But only a well-thought-through, sympathetic reading can yield this result.

            • lbehrendt

              BG, an administrative note: all blogs have a limit on the number of replies to replies, before the blog runs out of indent space and won’t let you add further replies. This is not something I’m doing intentionally. So when we run out of indent room, simply leave a new comment, or reply to a comment where there’s indent space left over.

              A reminder that my last comment was in reply to you, where I tried to address your questions as to who it was I identified as Christian. You’re quite right, I don’t base this identification on my reading of the Gospels. Even if I could discern a border line for who is and is not Christian by reading the Gospels, I would not presume to judge who might be positioned inside and outside of the border. Matthew 7:1 … don’t you think?

              I have tried to read the Gospels in the way you suggest, more than once, though admittedly I didn’t make lists. The suggestion to make lists, to attempt this reading in a more systematic and less impressionistic way, is an interesting one … perhaps this might resemble the way Dale Allison reads the Gospels in his latest book. I DO see new things each time I ready the Gospels, and on a personal basis I try to leave room in my worldview for SEEING new things and revising my previous thinking.

              When I read the Gospels, I do so for two primary purposes: (1) to understand Christianity and what Christians believe, and (2) to simply get what the Gospels say, what I think they say. Of course, these two purposes could be one and the same purpose – there’s no reason why the Gospels have to mean one thing for Christianity and a separate thing for me, and I don’t believe I bring an assumption to this material that readings (1) and (2) must bifurcate. But up until now at least, the bifurcation always happens: I read the Gospels and think, “this is not the Jesus I was told to expect”.

              You say that I “insist” on intersecting the “Christian” and the “Jewish” when I read the Gospels. I disagree. I find the intersection in the Gospels; I don’t have to bring it there. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know: Jesus was born Jewish to Jewish parents, circumcised on the 8th day, raised and educated as a Jew in a Jewish village, spoke the languages of the Jews, ate kosher food, wore tzitzit and otherwise observed Jewish law (and argued about how to interpret that law in a thoroughly Jewish way), formed an association with the thoroughly Jewish John the Baptizer, formed a ministry made up of Jews and directed exclusively or primarily to Jews, preached the coming of the Kingdom of the God preached by the Jews in an apocalyptic/eschatological manner that was similar to the understanding of many Jews, formed an inner circle of 12 Jewish disciples (presumably in symmetry with the 12 tribes of Judah and Israel), and at the end died in the way prescribed by Romans for their Jewish enemies. If I’ve ever met a more thoroughly Jewish character than Jesus, I could not tell you his or her name.

              Maybe you need to be Jewish to understand this, but the fact that Jesus spends so much time arguing so sharply with other Jews simply serves to emphasize how Jewish he was.

              It’s funny you mentioned the idea that Jesus did not “intend” to accommodate your comfort, or mine! I do see different things in the Gospels each time I read them, but one thing has stayed consistent: the Jesus I experience in the Gospels is thoroughly uncomfortable. This is probably the primary reason why I cannot reconcile my reading (1) with my reading (2): the Jesus I read proclaimed by the church (or the churches) is a FAR more comfortable figure than the one I see in the Gospels.

              It’s not that I can’t manage a decent (1) reading. I can see where the church is coming from, just as I can see where Crossan and Borg and even Ehrman are coming from. Ultimately, I make the only decision I think is possible, that the interpretation of Christian scripture is a matter for Christians. I may have something to say, because our paths intersect.

              But getting back to borders … I’m not intent on sowing confusion. I find Jesus’ message to be complicated and multifaceted, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the message is unclear, or whatever we might want it to be. But I don’t find a Jesus interested in founding a new religion, let alone defining the borders for a new religion. If you want my (2) reading, it’s that Jesus called his fellow Jews to a radical form of Jewish discipleship, one intended not to define who was and was not Jewish or Christian, but who was and was not eligible to enter the Kingdom of God. If Jesus had an interest in religious borders, I think he was interested in destabilizing them. It’s clearly part of his message: that Judaism is not the same thing as Kingdom membership, that Jews don’t get to the Kingdom just because they’re Jewish. I have no trouble with a reading of the Gospels that sees Jesus preaching to all humankind and not merely to Jews, though on a practical and historical level I don’t think that’s what he was doing.

              Does any of this make my position any clearer, or any less objectionable to you?

          • lbehrendt

            Jscott, I want to respond to your comment separately from my ongoing dialog with BG. You’ve brought up a number of points that impact Christian and religious identity, and where the Jewish-Christian intersection is interesting.

            Let’s try to unpack the theological matters you’ve raised. We can say that Protestantism is based on the so-called “three solas” grace alone, faith alone and scripture alone. But within Protestantism, there’s a theological divide between those who believe that grace is irresistible and is offered to some (the elect, those selected in the process of predestination), and those that believe that grace is offered to all but can be resisted. The two beliefs are dramatically different views of who is saved and who is damned: either (1) only some can be saved, but all those in this select category WILL be saved (i.e., the gift of grace cannot be turned down), and (2) salvation is offered to all, but it can effectively be refused. I associate belief (1) with so-called “high” Protestantism (particularly the Calvinists) and belief (2) with American Christian evangelicals — anyone here who knows the landscape better should jump in and correct me. Also, to be clear, I’m trying to describe two poles in Protestantism — these doctrines play out differently in Catholicism, and probably in other Christian denominations.

            To be honest, I’m not sure that this divide is as wide and stark in practice as it might seem in theory, but let’s consider the theory. In theory, the divide between resistible and irresistible grace seems to shatter any hope that we can come up with a unified definition of Christianity that’s going to satisfy both sides of the divide. If I think of Christianity in terms of irresistible grace, then mustn’t “Christian” be defined as a member of the elect? How can someone not predestined to election, someone who is never going to receive grace and is (and there’s no nice way to say it) damned to hell for all eternity, also somehow be “Christian”? Moreover, if someone has faith in Jesus as a result of the irresistible gift of grace and is thus saved, could that person possibly NOT be Christian, no matter what he/she might say (or profess) or do that appears to us to be thoroughly non-Christian?

            If “Christian” = member of the elect, we then go to the next question, which is how do we know who is elect? Answering this question in depth would would require a deep dive into Protestant theology, but I think the simple answer is that we can’t know who is elect. A person cannot even be sure of his or her own election. So, putting two and two together, if grace is irresistible, the only answer to who is a Christian is “God only knows”.

            There’s more to discuss here, but I want to pause and see if you think I’ve unpacked this correctly.

            • First, apologies for the wait–trying to get better at this.

              I believe you have unpacked it correctly, without attempting to resolve (thankfully) the huge conceptual conflicts inherent in the theology of irresistible grace. The divide had huge implications in defining Reformed Protestantism against Arminianism in the 17thC, the latter taken up first by what became Anglicanism and then more forcefully by the Methodist Evangelical movement in the 18thC.

              The problem, as you say, is in knowing who is “elect,” which becomes an existential concern when brought down to one’s own status, as I found when reading early American Puritan “relations” used to prove one’s elect status to become a church member in 17thC New England. The point I’d raise here is that the problem (or solution) of Christian identity raised by BG is both externalized on the Christ of the NT and internalized in one’s necessary personal faith/belief in that Christ. One can’t help but relate this dual nature of Christian belief to the dual nature of Christ himself in Christian theology, the direct cause of most intra-Christian trouble from the very beginning (beautifully described in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” which I just finished an hour ago). What I would argue is that the radically unknowable nature of grace itself, particularly in the Reformed Protestant tradition, cannot help but infect (or, more likely, be the cause of) the certainties espoused by many of its adherents. I relate this to the historicity of Jesus only to say that it appears an open question whether Jesus didn’t in fact introduce another way of being human, one in which we are perpetually in conflict with ourselves.

  • Bgglencoeok

    Out of space for reply again…

    I have made it clear that all that interests me is the content of the New Testament. There we find “Christian” used as the equivalent of disciple (Acts 11:26b). To call Jesus’ disciples Christians is to emphasize that they acknowledge him as the Messiah.

    In addition, the conception is clearly stated, in the New Testament, that the believing church is the prophesied extension and completion of God’s work in faithful Israel (John 10:14-17; Ephesians 2:13-14; Romans 11:17-18; James 1:1; Revelation 21:12). Jesus “destabilized borders,” to use your term; but he was not legitimizing all religions, but was offering himself as an alternative to all other hopes and options.

    You are right, Jesus did not come to establish a new religion. But he did come to establish — the church with its message addressed first to the Jew and then to the “Greek” (Romans 1:16) — and to fulfill all that was written in the Jewish Scriptures.

    You claimed that “borders [as to who and who is not a Christian (a disciple of Jesus)] do not emerge clear and distinct from scripture…” However, they do emerge, somewhat obscure on some matters, but very clear on others

    You might accurately call what Jesus taught “a radical form of Jewish discipleship” and “who was and was not eligible to enter the Kingdom of God.” However, to state that Jesus did not intend “to define who was and was not..Christian” is to either use the term equivocally — Christian meaning an institutional post-apostolic body and at the same time meaning a disciple in the New Testament sense — or to simply miss just how radical Jesus’ claims were.

    He projected himself, claimed he would die for sins and rise from the dead the third day. He stated that he would judge all nations and that his message was to be carried to all nations in order for them to become his disciples (Matthew 25:31-32; 28:18-20).

    You are placed in the same position as the Jews of Jesus’ day and the same position as all Jews and Gentiles who have been confronted by Jesus. You must declare that you either reject or accept him.

    Your project sets Jews on one side, in a religious camp, and Christians in their own camp. You declare, at the outset, that whatever is written on you blog, you will remain a Jew; and Christians are free to define themselves and remain who they are, while discussing some general common ground in a Jewish Jesus — again defined in whatever fashion seems suitable to whichever party happens to be writing at a given point.

    But none of this takes seriously the actual content of the New Testament. What is written there has to be re-worked to a degree that it is unrecognizable to set up the kind of arrangement you have established in your blog.

    You advocate that people should “find beauty in” in other religions and even “recognize and admire elements in that other religion that we don’t find in our own.” That is a pleasant thought, but is is utterly unlike Jesus.

    Dr.James M. Arlandson, referred to in my last post, carefully read and taken note of the content of the Gospels. Who Jesus is, what he said and what he did are clearly depicted in these Gospels — very Jewish, yes, but also one in whom has been embodied “all authority in heaven and earth.” I don’t know what kind of reading you are doing, but the lack of making lists is only one indication that the actual content of the Gospels, thoughtfully considered is not a part of it.

    You may say, that you don’t agree with the very apostolic, very New Testament, very historical view of men like Arlandson.

    Whether or not to make that decision is up to you; but once the decision is made, realize that all this talk of beautiful religions and enlightening discussions is utterly divorced from the real Jesus.

    • lbehrendt

      BG, you may be right.

      Perhaps Jesus is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, accept or reject. Perhaps the only way to accept Jesus is the one you describe, and anything materially distant from what you describe amounts to rejection. I don’t know how many Christians would agree with you on that, but ironically the proposition you describe is the mainstream Jewish view. So, you may be right about this. I truly DO get what you are saying, and I truly DO acknowledge that you may be right.

      You may also be right that this blog is built on an untenable ground. You argue that if Jews remain in the Jewish camp to discuss the New Testament, the discussion will not take the New Testament seriously. Perhaps this means that Jews and Christians can engage in interfaith dialog, but only on other topics, such as whether the Lord’s Prayer is similar to the Kaddish. Perhaps not even that.

      Perhaps your argument is that so long as I remain Jewish, I should also remain politely and quietly on my side of the religious divide. As I’ve said, there’s a profound, widespread and long-held Jewish desire to do just that, but it hasn’t worked out in practice: our Jewish identity has consistently been a matter of (let’s politely say) interest to our Christian neighbors. To give you one example: I am consistently proselytized. Someone knocks on my door, on average once a week, to talk to me about Jesus. This happens not in spite of the mezuzah on my door post, but because of it.

      If Jesus is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, then what do I do with the invitation (described elsewhere on this blog) from Cardinal Koch for Jews to join Christians in a “pilgrim fellowship in reconciliation and hope”. Cardinal Koch is a top guy in the Vatican on Jewish-Christian relations, and the “fellowship” he describes is for Jews AS JEWS to join with Christians AS CHRISTIANS to reach a mutually correct right understanding of the will and word of God. Please understand: Cardinal Koch is not asking us to convert, and he’s not proposing a celebration of religious diversity. He posits that it is God’s plan for Jews AS JEWS to participate in God’s salvation, and he’s proposing that Jews and Christians perform a “reciprocal service” toward the faith of the other that would be aimed at GLOBAL reconciliation and salvation. Do I reply to Cardinal Koch that I can accept his invitation only if we can somehow keep the New Testament out of our conversation?

      I can’t even imagine the advice you’d give me concerning the messianic Jewish congregation down the street, the one that tells me that accepting Jesus is not a rejection of my Judaism, but is a “completion” of it.

      If I restrict my view to American evangelicals, I have to deal with the keen evangelical interest in the State of Israel, an interest that connects up with (though is in no way limited to) the evangelical eschatological interest in the “ingathering” of Jews in Israel. It’s hard not to discuss this interest and leave the New Testament off to one side. I can also point to the interest of evangelical scholars such as Anthony Le Donne in the Jewish Annotated New Testament. See http://bit.ly/UJCFN2.

      In short: I think you’re wrong when you say that my only choice is to accept Jesus as you’ve suggested, or else walk away from him. As a Jew I am forced to encounter Jesus, the New Testament and Christianity, like it or not. I doubt this comes as a revelation to you, and that your objection is to what you see as my setting up a blog where the encounter takes place on terms I’ve defined. That’s a fair objection, though perhaps you can understand my frustration at the terms of the encounter always being set by the Christian side, particularly when the terms change from encounter to encounter.

      At the end of the day, what I see is not just the importance of the Jewish-Christian encounter, but also the inevitability of it. That is what this blog is about. You can put the fate of my eternal soul to one side for the moment. This blog accepts the fact that regardless of what happens to me, there are going to be Christians and Jews peering across the religious divide at one another. Do we talk? Can we talk? Is each side an equal partner in the conversation?

      I sense your pushback, that the only legitimate terms for the conversation are those provided in scripture, that Jesus did not give us the gospel as a topic for debate. Whenever I consider the wider world of Jews and Christians, you have invited me instead to forget all of the other voices out there and to focus simply on the voice of the gospel and my reaction to that voice. I think you’ve characterized my reaction as inadequate. That’s OK, as far as I’m concerned, since my reaction is a work in progress. But the purpose of this blog is not my personal salvation. The purpose of this blog is interfaith conversation, wherever it leads us. If my faith in the value of this conversation is naïve, then so be it.

      I’ve written this elsewhere: I do not know the right rules for this conversation. But I don’t think the conversation can wait for the right rules to be established – I think we have to discover the right rules in the process of conversation. If you don’t think I’ve set up the right rules, good! Tell me why not. But if you’re telling me (or that you think Jesus is telling me) that religious conversation across a Jewish-Christian divide is illegitimate so long as I insist on the legitimacy of there BEING a Jewish side – that I reject categorically. If as a result my blog is untenable – a possibility that I’ve already acknowledged –then once again, so be it. Let that untenability be demonstrated in practice.

      • Bgglencoeok

        You have every right to dialogue with anyone you want about any topic you want on your blog. And it is fine to seek some meaningful response to the varieties of religious people around you, in day-to-day encounters.

        But those you dialogue with — in all communications — have no justifiable ground to call themselves Christians if they simultaneously sidestep or deny the apostolic declaration concerning Jesus. Those who respond to his message, by trusting wholly in him, are his disciples and can rightly and biblically call themselves Christians (Acts 11:26b).

        And as to your explanation of what Messianic Jews have said, I believe they are right: Accepting Jesus DOES complete the Jewish person, who is heir to the Jewish Scripture (Luke 24:44-45) — just as accepting him also completes the Gentile (Acts 11:13-14).

        What is thought by many to be the earliest of the four Gospels begins:

        The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophets,

        “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
        who will prepare your way before you. (Malachi 3:1)
        The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
        ‘Make ready the way of the Lord!
        Make his paths straight!’” (Isaiah 40:3)

        John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins…He preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen. I baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” — Mark 1:1-8

        The citation of Isaiah 40:3 is an acknowledgment that Jesus is Yahweh. This declaration is all the more clear, because it is given in conjunction with Malachi 3:1 and in the context of what precedes (in which Jesus is called “the Son of God”) and what follows (John the Baptist’s declaration of Jesus’ supreme authority).

        Furthermore the opening title includes the phrase, “the Good News of Jesus Christ,” indicating the unified nature of message that was being declared as a summation of the life, words and works of Jesus.

        I write to you with urgency and firmness, because popular approaches to Jesus begin by requiring that the apostolic faith be treated with no more respect than ancient alternative Christianities and various theories advanced by recent and contemporary scholars. This is historically absurd.

        If you want to know about Jesus, you’ve got to read — sympathetically — the New Testament — especially within its Jewish context.

        If you want to know about how to avoid Jesus, read the Gnostic Gospels of the second century and the modern to post-modern re-writing of his story that amounts to shaping him in the image of those doing the re-writing. (None of these are either Christianity or alternative Christianities; instead they are alternatives TO Christianity.

        • lbehrendt

          BG –

          A word of advice: be careful using the word “Yahweh” in a conversation with Jews. For some Jews, this sounds like an effort to pronounce the unpronounceable name of God, and you could cause unnecessary offense. Saying “God” is sufficient. If you want to refer to the particular name used for God in the Tanakh that is sometimes referred to as the Tetragrammaton, you could write “Y-H-V-H” or “Y-H-W-H” or “Yhwh”. I can explain further if you like.

          I appreciate your speaking with urgency and firmness, and when you speak about Jesus or Christianity I feel it is appropriate to allow you the widest possible latitude. On a related matter, it was probably a mistake for me to drag messianic Jews into our conversation. I’ll simply state: the idea of messianic Jews as “completed Jews” is a deeply offensive one to many (if not most) Jews. It’s an idea that I should stay away from until I confront it directly and on its own terms.

          From our conversation, I can see how difficult it may be to conduct interfaith dialog on this site. In order for this site to have a purpose, there has to be room here for differing points of view. Providing for the appropriate amount of room is not going to be easy. Elsewhere, I’ve cited Amy-Jill Levine as saying that we should not sacrifice the particularities of our individual traditions on the altar of interfaith sensitivity. But if our “particularities” deem a wide range of opposing points of view to be unjustifiable, then there is no dialog. Proper respect for our various religious traditions require that these traditions be represented responsibly, but the representation we deem “responsible” will turn on the amount of diversity we are willing to accept in our religious traditions.

          Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. So let me say thank you BG for your continued participation here. I appreciate the amount of thought and heart you put into your comments.

          For the next few days, I plan to focus on my next post on the historical Jesus, so please understand if I’m quieter than usual in the comments section.