by Neil Godfrey
Some of the most sensible words I have read about the Gospels are in a 1954 lecture by Ernst Käsemann. Käsemann makes no strained attempt to “explain” how similar the Gospels are to “history” or “biography”. Rather, he works with what we all can see as plain as day: the Gospels are what some scholars have called “faith documents”: they are written to support faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of “the world”. They are written like, well, books of the Bible. Believe or die.
History is only comprehensible to us through interpretation. Mere facts are not enough.
Rationalists, for example, have sought to show that Jesus was an ordinary man like us. That’s all the facts allow us to acknowledge.
Supernaturalists, on the other hand, have sought to show that Jesus is a “divine man” who performed real miracles. The facts allow us to believe nothing less.
But what is the point of either view? If Jesus were an ordinary man like us, so what? Did not Schweitzer show that each scholar saw in that mere man a life just like his own? This observation is said to have effectively put a hold on historical Jesus research in many quarters.
And if the facts told us Jesus really did perform miracles and even rose from the dead, then in what way would he be any different from other lives embedded in other religions that also wielded supernatural powers?
No one has ever been compelled (in the true sense) to make his decision between faith and unbelief, simply because someone else has succeeded in representing Jesus convincingly as a worker of miracles. And nothing is settled about the significance of the Resurrection tidings for me personally, simply because the evidence for the empty tomb has been shown to be reliable.
The handing own of relatively probable facts does not as such provide any basis for genuinely historical communication and continuity. (Käsemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” in Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 19)
And it is here where Käsemann’s insight into the nature of the Gospels makes several modern studies look embarrassingly myopic.
It is obvious that primitive Christianity was well aware of this. We cannot otherwise explain why its Gospels were not written primarily as reportage and why its own kerygma actually overlays and conceals the figure of the historical Jesus, thus facing us as historians with incalculable difficulties and very often making any reconstruction quite impossible.
The community did not inadvertently and senselessly amalgamate its own message with that of its Lord, much less did it merely repeat the latter. If it was indeed concerned with reproduction of a notable happening, but with that decision between faith and unbelief which was demanded of it, then it had no alternative but to act as it did. (p. 20)
That is, the early Christian community was writing a gospel that it found meaningful. What was meaningful was not that Jesus was a wonder-worker but that Jesus was the Son of God and Lord.
For mere history becomes significant history not through tradition as such but through interpretation, not through the simple establishment of facts but through the understanding of events of the past which have become objectified and frozen into facts. . . . Mere history only takes on genuine historical significance in so far as it can address both a question and an answer to our contemporary situation; in other words, by finding interpreters who hear and utter this question and answer. For this purpose primitive Christianity allows mere history no vehicle of expression other than the kerygma. (p. 21)
Käsemann then remarks upon another point of utmost significance. It is only the Gospels that show any interest in the “life” of Jesus. The other writings of the New Testament only find relevance in the Cross and Resurrection. These other authors the historical element of Jesus has “shrunk almost to vanishing point.” And not even the Cross and Resurrection are written about as historical facts.
For Cross and Resurrection are no longer regarded from the standpoint of the historian, but are expounded in their saving significance. Seen from this angle it will appear strange that we encounter in the New Testament any writings like the Gospels, which concern themselves with the life of Jesus. (p. 21)
And so forth. . . . I post this here for reflection. We will each follow our own pathway to our own conclusions . . . .