Recently, I was asked a question about my thoughts on the “Historical Jesus”… ie searching for those words and acts that Christ ACTUALLY said and did. I’ll admit that, at the time the question was asked, I had had very little exposure to what the Historical Jesus actually was. Basically, I lumped every analysis of the “Real Christ” as falling under John Dominic Crossan‘s “Quest for the Historical Jesus” and the subsequent “Jesus Seminar“. For the record, even after brief subsequent study on the historical Jesus, I still think the work of Crossan and the Jesus seminar is inspired by Satan… but more on that later.
For my Eucharist class I was required to read an article (The Eucharist at the Last Supper: Did it really happen? Theology Digest 42:4, Winter 1995) by Roman Catholic Historical Jesus scholar John Meier. I’ll admit, Meier has begun to change my view on Historical Jesus, and has shown me the value the paradigm has in answering certain theological questions and gaining a deeper understanding and love for the person of Christ and Sacred Scripture.
Meier starts off by saying that, while his book A Marginal Jew is often “yoked” with the Jesus seminar, he nevertheless disagrees with Crossan on key issues of Catholicism, for instance… whether or not the Last Supper actually happened. Meier also points out the value of knowing the historical Jesus in reaction to fundamentalist’s literal readings.
Without giving away the whole article, or just quoting applicable one-liners from Meier, I’ll just give you my general assessment:
Theology is faith seeking understanding, and faith is also rooted in the intellect, which requires some element of reason to truly assent to God. It is for this reason that the Church has always upheld faith AND reason as essential to true belief in God. While different believers are responsible for various levels of understanding concerning faith, it is important for theologians, teachers, and priests to have a deep wisdom and understanding of theological knowledge in order to defend the Truth and help uphold the faith of others.
The Historical Jesus, and historical criticism in general, when applied correctly, in respect to tradition, right reason and intent, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can be a wonderful tool and paradigm in gaining a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the doctrines of our faith. It is for example, in learning the formula that Christ used during the last supper we can begin to see, as Meier says that,
“…what the hallowed bread and wine first of all mediate or communicate is not a static thing but a dynamic reality, the whole saving event of Jesus’ death and ultimate vindication” (350).
It is through such study that we begin to see our doctrines in new and beautiful ways, as they were handed to us by Christ himself.
However, this paradigm is not for everyone, for those who are not firm in their faith, sound of reason, or guided by the Holy Spirit, may fall into serious and grave error such as that of the Jesus Seminar who has concluded that, “Jesus was a mortal man born of two human parents, who did not perform nature miracles nor die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead. Sightings of a risen Jesus were nothing more than the visionary experiences of some of his disciples rather than physical encounters.” I’ll let you figure out exactly that is not in accord with the core of Christian belief.
So, when we aim to de-mythologize and legalize the words of Christ, we can fall into serious error. But for those of us who approach this aspect of historical criticism with the intent of greater understanding and in respect to already established doctrines of the Church, we can come to a deeper faith.