Brian LePort asks: How much of your Christianity can be ahistorical?

LePort asks:

What events recorded in Scripture must be historical for you to affirm the truthfulness of Christianity?

How much of your Christianity can be ahistorical?.

As someone who was once a very devout Christian (Catholic, if anyone asks), now an apostate, I can tell you that this is a very important question, but perhaps no longer relevant. One must ask if the first Christians who wrote about the Gospels accepted it all as historical–certainly Christians like John Dominic Crossan don’t even need the resurrection–as it is recounted in the Gospel narratives–to be historical in order for him to accept Christ.  At the same time, others like NT Wright (or these guys) have to accept even the most outrageous positions on historicity–like the dead rising from the graves and walking all over Jerusalem from Matthew’s Gospel (27.52-53).

The difficulty in this question is in deciding, for yourself, which is more important: the historical truth or the theological truth?  I am certain that early Christian minimalists didn’t care for the historical reality of the Gospels–if they did, there would not four canonical ones (and there certainly would be dozens of noncanonical ones!).  The theological message above all else seems to have been more valuable a truth and thus why we have multiple theological messages in the narratives (even between the epistles and pastorals).  The historical value of the text was only useful when it suited the functions of the theology.

For example, Paul believed that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical, functional event (whether on this earth or another, is still up for debate in my opinion), but then again Paul does not once quote Jesus on anything nor does he cite any specific examples of his life to make a point (except for matters of theological significance like the crucifixion and resurrection).  It is not until the church fathers (mainly from late antiquity and Latin Christendom) that we find the historical value of the narratives taking a precedence towards explaining theological values.

However this is a slowly dying trend; I believe with the continued advancement of science many will search the Bible for that theological meaning as the historical value continues to diminish.  Still, I would become a Christian immediately if the resurrection of the figure of Jesus was proved to be a historical event.  Likewise, if the resurrection of Ishtar were proved to be a historical event, I would start singing her praises.

17 Responses

  1. @Tom: While I tend to be closer to Wright than Crossan on this scale, it does seem that for many there are certain claims that need to be historical for traditional Christianity to hold whereas other events (though important) aren’t essential. The creeds take the time to outline things like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, but not the Flood or even the historicity of Adam and Eve.

    I know that those who formed the creeds didn’t include these things because they weren’t part of the debate they were addressing, but as a doctrinal canon of sort for Christians the creeds continue to inform what matters to many of us and what is secondary (though again, important to discuss and debate).

    So I think for Wright and others like him (so-called Post-Evangelicals) it really, really matters that the Resurrection happened in history, but Adam and Eve, the flood, and even the zombie apocalypse are in that gray area outside the center. At least if I am honest I think this is part of how I wrestle with what is to be taken most seriously and what doesn’t keep me awake at night if proven highly unlikely to have happened (e.g. Enoch’s “rapture” or Elijah calling fire from heaven).

  2. A few thoughts:

    “Paul does not once quote Jesus on anything nor does he cite any specific examples of his life to make a point (except for matters of theological significance like the crucifixion and resurrection)..”

    -Paul does (unless I am missing something) cite Jesus on non-theological issues, e.g. I Cor 9.14: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. ” ( a tradition recorded at Luke 10.7)

    “It is not until the church fathers (mainly from late antiquity and Latin Christendom) that we find the historical value of the narratives taking a precedence towards explaining theological values.”

    – But surely Paul’s exhortions for his readers to follow the example of Jesus’ way of life (e.g. Phil. 2:5, 1 Cor 4.16-17, 11.1 ) shows that Paul would have placed great weight on the given narrative of Jesus’ life.

  3. […] Brian LePort asks (and Tom Verenna responds): […]

  4. Emacg,

    Thanks for responding. I am not certain you can say that Paul cited Jesus here; I believe that any interpretation which interprets it as a citation may be colored by the tradition of the Gospels, which come later. So it is perhaps presumptuous to assume that this is the case. In either event, citation is not the same as quoting.

    As for your second point, I don’t see how you came to that conclusion. Living ‘in’ Christ is not the same as living ‘as’ Christ did. One is a metaphorical variable that Paul uses (much in the same way he tells his readers to ‘put on Christ’ as if he were a cloak or a robe), and not a literal announcement to be like Jesus. There are subtle variances in his language that are quite proper when one applies literary criticism and this just happens to be one of them.

  5. Brian,

    I can appreciate what you’re saying. I imagine the resurrection, for most Christians, needs to be a historical event. But I wonder why that is so. Would your faith in Jesus be shaken, and I mean really be shaken, if you discovered that the resurrection was really a literary trope or motif the authors used to express spiritual rebirth? If your faith rests on so sharp an edge, I wonder about its value, truly. What does that say about post-evangelicals? What does that say about their faith? I wonder about that, since my own deconversion was nothing at all related to the resurrection. Would a spiritual resurrection–a theological resurrection–really be less significant? And if it is, I have to wonder how the physical act of dying (but, not really dying–he is God after all, right?) or the death of flesh is so spectacular. But this is perhaps a conversation for another time. I appreciate your response and thank you for it.

  6. Tom, great to see “is this not the carpenter” is available. I’m afraid it is out of my price range. What would be your suggestion for seeing your contribution? Would it be available for ILL? I would love to read your contribution, I’ll have to keep my ears open for the reviews.

    On the question at hand, I suppose one could identify themselves as Christian just based on agreement with the basic precepts of Jesus’ philosophy as presented in the Jesus tradition. I would assume this would be close to Crossan’s angle. As for issues of Jesus as Christ, god, or his resurrection, they all seem subjective. I mean he is the Messiah if you think he is, basically. There isn’t an official committee for this sort of thing. Justin Bieber could crown himself the King of Pop if wanted to endure the ridicule. As to his status in the world beyond, so far all trips are one way, so there is no confirming who’s right hand he might be seated at. Paul thinks he knows, but I’m not privileged to his vision. Some may find the subsequent chain of events since then as sufficient evidence of Paul’s sincerity and interpretation (that is, how did he really know it was Jesus in the vision?), but I’m skeptical and will need a lot more to be convinced that Jesus has a unique position in regards to God.

  7. Mike,

    Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, ‘Is this not the Carpenter’ won’t be published until April, 2012 (Equinox pushed it back from November, 2011 unfortunately) though a copy will be available at SBL in November for interested parties to browse through. I recommend checking out Equinox’s table there if you happen to go. I imagine that if the book sells enough copies, it will eventually go to paperback and be much more affordable. I don’t know if Google books will pick up the volume at all, but if so you can wait it out that way. Or, if you are feeling generous, go to your local library or school library and request they preorder a copy and you can read it that way.

    As for the question at hand, I think you’re right for the most part. Though I don’t know if Paul was being slick with the name ‘Jesus’ (since it means ‘Savior’), so quite frankly it might very well be an eponymous name rather than a literal name, which might be why he often says ‘Christ Jesus’ (anointed savior) but this remains to be seen. Still, interesting perspective. Thanks for posting it.

  8. If I may join in … Along with emacg I think Paul does think he’s citing Jesus on three occasions (all interestingly in the same letter, and perhaps before he starts having run-ins with circumcisers). There’s the aforementioned “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:14), there’s “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband” (7:10) where I think the following verses make it clear Paul thinks he is quoting Jesus, and then there’s the institution narrative in chapter 11.

    It would seem to me that for all three Paul is presenting himself as quoting Jesus. One could of course argue that he is inventing history or channeling a spirit vision which coincidentally finds its way back into bedrock synoptic tradition, but it seems to me simpler (I’m a fan of William of Ockham on this) to assume that he is indeed quoting.

  9. It is likely Paul believes he is citing Jesus, or at least that he is citing a tradition associated with him. But there are bigger issues underlying this whole discussion:

    1.) Paul actively juxtaposes Jesus’ words for those of scripture (and he uses scriptural metaphors often in place of events from the past involving Jesus). This to me suggests that if Paul knew of a historical tradition, he cared little for it and saw more usefulness in the LXX than anything floating around about the figure of Jesus. And this was my main point, afterall. Still, it makes little sense that Paul would cite Jesus here over such a minor discussion point. Why not cite Jesus in more appropriate places like the stability of the church or when people were confusing Paul for the founder?
    2.) The whole divorce issue seems to me to be a social problem in Paul’s own day rather than that of Jesus’–and we know that wives and children were the first among the Pagan populations to convert to Christianity in gentile regions like Corinth, for example. For me this would make more sense that Paul is addressing this issue by calling on scripture, placing it in the mouth of the Lord–which would not necessarily be wrong at all, since Paul believed scripture was inspired (even while he often changed it–an interesting phenomena that Erich Gruen points out in his books on the Jewish concept of ‘inspired’ and ‘sacred’ among scripture).
    3.) I would not be so quick to dismiss revelatory experiences, since these experiences are important to Paul and of which he places above the words of men (i.e., Gal. 1, 2 Cor. 12, etc…). Paul does claim to get his words from revelation directly, so I would not at all be surprised if this turned out to be the case in these instances.

  10. Thanks for the detailed comeback, Tom.

    I’m not sure I know what words of Jesus Paul might have cited about “the stability of the church”. Nor indeed, how much Jesus tradition he knows. I’m just suggesting that his words indicate he knows some, and seems to treat it as authoritative.

    If one gives the criterion of embarrassment any credence, the complexity of Jesus’ saying on divorce (not only between the gospels but within the manuscript tradition – see the point made by David Parker in The Living Text of the Gospels) suggests this is not simply Paul’s problem.

    Finally, I don’t think I intended to dismiss revelatory experiences, only to say that they don’t seem to me the best explanation for these particular apparent citations of Jesus tradition.

  11. Fair enough, thanks for the clarification!

  12. While I can understand scholars talking about how they can have their religious texts to provide theological truths, I don’t know how they can make the claim of any book having theological truth, at least any more than any other. Perhaps the point of holding onto historicity is that without it the text would become as valid as any other work of mythology; hence, why be a Christian or think it’s the best path (let alone the only path) to understanding divinity? I think this is a problem even given a god exists and wants social relations with humans.

    Perhaps the question can be put differently: what justifies the theological positions of the Bible as true? How does anyone justify any position about what God is, wants, or does? Why the Bible over the Qur’an, the Rig Veda, Dianetics, or anything I write? In science and history, we can point to objective evidence; perhaps some things will be ambiguous, but we can admit that and say no conclusions can be drawn. Is there anything similar in theology? Considering the number of religions and denominations per religion and their general bifurcation rather than unification over time, it doesn’t look likely.

  13. ‘“To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband” (7:10)’

    I thought the prohibition in Judaism on women divorcing their husbands did not stem from Jesus, but was given by the Lord, long before Jesus was conceived.

  14. Going back to my mentality at deconversion, I guess you could say that I considered the “theological” truth more important. I was convinced by Jewish arguments against Christianity that Christianity was not true theologically. I accepted 100% of the NT, at the time, being historical. But none of that mattered since, according to what I considered more cogent Jewish arguments, Jesus wasn’t a Jewish messiah.

  15. The ironic thing about it all is that there is no singular definition of ‘messiah’; especially not in the center of the rich cultural diversity of the first century.

  16. […] Thomas Verenna picked up on it, as did Gavin at Otagosh. […]

  17. […] Brian LePort asks: How much of your Christianity can be ahistorical? […]

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