2018-10-22

Postscript to my Constructive Exchange post

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by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to comment left by db on that post I was alerted to a perspective on the historical Jesus expressed by Jesus Seminar pioneer Robert Funk:

Why did this book [Gerd Luedemann’s The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology] provoke such violent reactions in Germany? The book itself states the reason: “. . . in the church the serious crisis of present-day Christianity is not recognized” (8). Scholars, theologians, and ministers attempt to pave over the crisis with load after load of verbiage, but to no avail. The crisis in what the church believes about Jesus will not go away. The only remedy for Luedemann, as for us, is to face the issues squarely, honestly, with complete candor, and ask, as Luedemann does, whether in the face of the evidence we can still be Christians.

The crisis does not arise merely from the way in which the gospels and later interpreters have treated the resurrection. The crisis arises, in large part, from what we can know about Jesus himself. For example, as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations. I therefore find it difficult to assent to Luedemann’s final affirmation:

Compare p. 17 of Ludemann, Gerd. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology . [Translated by John Bowden]. London: SCM Press.

If one assumed that the resurrection of Jesus were not a historical fact (so Jesus did not rise, and remained in the tomb – in contradiction to the classical confessions of the church and probably also to Paul), but was grounded in the vision of Peter and Paul, a new explanation would have to be given of whether in that case Easter can still be regarded as an experience from outside (extra nos) or whether it does not prove, rather, to be a wish of the human spirit, as critics of Christianity, ancient (Celsus) and modem, have claimed.

And the further question whether the extra nos is guaranteed is to be answered with an emphatic affirmative, because Jesus is not an invention or a projection. (182) [see insert]

The extra nos refers to something beyond us, outside of us, something of which we can be absolutely certain. While share Luedemann’s conclusion, I do not share his conviction.

In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt. In the mortal life we have there are only probabilities. And the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings. Everything I believe in or want to believe in lies in that no man’s-land of uncertainty—a region of anomalous, ambiguous, and indefinite claims. Both as Christians and as scholars, we must stop laying claim to transcendent certain ties and submit to all the conditions of finite existence.

Nevertheless, I can agree with Luedemann that Jesus is the ground of our faith as Christians (182). Even so, we do not learn from Jesus that faith means the overcoming of death or that faith inspired by him is the final faith. On the contrary, we find in Jesus the willingness to accept finitude and the provisional as the basis for liberation. I subscribe wholeheartedly to this formulation of Luedemann:

Christians should live by the little that they really believe, not by the much that they take pains to believe, That is a great liberation, which already bears within it the germ of the new. (184)

If Jesus was an advocate of an unbrokered relationship to God, then we cannot and should not posit the resurrection as the threshold of faith. For if we were to do so, our faith would be made to depend on the faith of Peter or the faith of Paul or the faith of someone else in the fourth decade of the first century. Congratulations to those who have faith prior to and apart from the resurrection!*

Luedemann’s book is a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of scholarly discourse. It belongs with Sheehan and Spong and Fuller and Crossan as a truly ground-breaking study. . . . .

——

*In more traditional language this beatitude would read: Blessed are those who have faith prior to and apart from the resurrection!

.

I will add an extra note to my commentary on the list of non-Christian scholars that Tim presented as significant for his argument.


Funk, Robert W. (1995). “The Resurrection of Jesus”. The Fourth R. Westar Institute. 8 (1): 9.


 

12 Comments

  • Pingback: A constructive exchange with Tim O’Neill on the question of the historicity of Jesus |

  • 2018-10-23 00:13:39 UTC - 00:13 | Permalink

    Funk said “as a historian I do not know for certain that Jesus really existed, that he is anything more than the figment of some overactive imaginations.” A few sentences later he qualifies what he means by that statement: “In the mortal life we have there are only probabilities.”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-10-23 00:17:21 UTC - 00:17 | Permalink

      He does not qualify his position as a historian. The context explains that his qualification arises from his faith.

      (“Not knowing for certain” is tautology for “only having probabilities”. It is not a qualification.)

      He did not say “He does not believe Jesus really existed.” I expect readers not to read more or less into words like “I do not know for certain” and I give enough text for readers to be left with no doubt about the context.

      Funk allowed mythicists as Fellows into the Jesus Seminar.

      • 2018-10-23 00:25:03 UTC - 00:25 | Permalink

        I have no idea what you are trying to say with that oddly worded response? McGrath too would say we don’t know for certain Jesus existed, in that historians deal in probabilities. Given that, what’s the point of focusing on Funk, since any critical scholar would admit the same thing? How does your post about Funk add anything new to the discussion?

        • 2018-10-23 00:43:45 UTC - 00:43 | Permalink

          [T]he historical evidence available, and the tools of historical study, cannot deliver certainty. – James McGrath

          see: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof?s=certainty+jesus+existed

          • Neil Godfrey
            2018-10-23 01:24:26 UTC - 01:24 | Permalink

            Exactly what I said. But only if you read the half sentence you cited in context:

            Yet this does not mean that it becomes more probable that they were invented, or were originally thought of as mythical celestial entities and later historicized, simply because the historical evidence available, and the tools of historical study, cannot deliver certainty.

            And so it is certainly true that work on the historical Jesus has featured problematic claims and anomalous methods. Those developments have been challenged, not in the first instance by internet crusaders, but from with the field itself, and the conversations about method and conclusions have consistently been part of a broader conversation encompassing the rest of the discipline of history. Historical study itself has changed significantly over the last century, in many different ways.

            First paragraph: a blatant disrepresentation of the argument. No-one says, as McGrath here clearly suggests, that absence of certain kinds of “hard evidence” means Jesus was a celestial or mythical being. McGrath’s typical disunderstanding and misrepresentation of the point being made!

            Further, the claim that certain kinds of evidence cannot yield certainty is also bogus claptrap and word-games. You see a tombstone and a death certificate then you have certainty that X is dead. Theoretically it could all be wrong but only theoretically, not in the real world.

            Second paragraph: His opening sentence only allows for uncertainty about some of the things Jesus said and did. Nothing more. And his next sentences confirm this: the points challenged in scholarship are the details of what Jesus said and did. No-one challenges his existence because that is assumed, a priori.

            McGrath is talking rubbish when he says the study of Jesus has been “part of a broader conversation encompassing the rest of the discipline of history.” I know he’s talking rubbish because I tried to get him to verify his assertion years ago without any success.

            Yes, historical study has changed significantly over the last century, but biblical studies have not, as a rule, taken any of those changes or methods on board, but instead gone with methods that other historians dismiss as nonsense.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2018-10-23 00:57:14 UTC - 00:57 | Permalink

          McGrath’s statements are far removed from Funk’s. McGrath believes absolutely that we can know certain things about the historical Jesus “as historians”. He has indeed, like Tim, made the technically correct nod to “probability” but push him on that point and he will (as he has in fact done) prove he means none of it. There is no probability, in McGrath’s claims, that Jesus was crucified, baptized, preached, had followers.

          The Funk post demonstrates that yet one more name in Tim O’Neill’s list is indeed more open to the very concept of mythicism than he wants us to believe. Funk, as I demonstrated in the post, also believes in Jesus as a Christian. But he has enough intellectual nous to know how to separate that faith from his work as a historian.

          Funk reminds me of Schweitzer, another scholar, and one who wrote extensively against mythicist views of his day. But he did so with honesty. And he conceded the problem that strict historical method did not allow us to be certain that Jesus even existed. Tim O’Neill and James McGrath argue the very opposite — that the probability only refers to details about his life and not some “fact” of his existence.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2018-10-23 02:17:10 UTC - 02:17 | Permalink

          A qualification suggests that one overstated a point earlier. Funk overstated and qualified nothing. He explained that quite apart from his stance as a historian, he had faith, but that faith was limited by his uncertainties that arose from his insights as a historian. If Funk qualifies anything it is the depth of conviction ohis faith — which he says is not as deep as Ludemann’s because of his understanding of historical insights.

      • MrH
        2018-10-23 01:34:27 UTC - 01:34 | Permalink

        Neil, (you’re missing a closing ” and your first ‘context’ would be better as just ‘text’ ie. –

        “I give enough text for readers to be left with no doubt about the context.”)

        please delete this whether you agree or not

        • Neil Godfrey
          2018-10-23 01:40:33 UTC - 01:40 | Permalink

          Fixed, I hope. Thanks.

  • MrHorse
    2018-10-23 03:02:41 UTC - 03:02 | Permalink

    Funk (1995) from above –

    In my view, there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we can know beyond any possible doubt.

    That’s a bit hard to parse and decipher. It might have been better if he had said something like “there is nothing about Jesus of Nazareth that we [presently] can know [with certainty].”

    But the near next passage of Funk’s is nuanced –

    “… the Jesus that scholars have isolated in the ancient gospels, gospels that are bloated with the will to believe, may turn out to be only another image that merely reflects our deepest longings. Everything I believe in or want to believe in lies in that no man’s-land of uncertainty—a region of anomalous, ambiguous, and indefinite claims. Both as Christians and as scholars, we must stop laying claim to transcendent certain ties and submit to all the conditions of finite existence.”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-10-23 07:26:04 UTC - 07:26 | Permalink

      “Nothing about Jesus we can know beyond any possible doubt”– that reads to me like a deliberately provocative statement. Funk knows (or knew- – he is no longer with us) the common “truism” that “the only thing we know for certain about Jesus is that he was crucified by the Romans. Funk is making a statement that is meant to startle even the “extreme liberal” Gerd Ludemann whose work caused such a controversy in Germany. Funk is saying that his historical sense does not allow him the same conviction of faith as Ludemann has.

      The statement strikes me as very easy to parse and decipher. It is very plain and deliberately so, I suggest. Perhaps it’s stark plainness is what is so hard to accept and that leads us to think, No, he must mean something less than that, something more nuanced or qualified.

      Not even Crossan or Borg were so “liberal” or frank in anything they wrote.

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