Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On the Scriptural Jesus

This shall be a brief note, following on from a comment earlier made. It needs must be proceeded by acknowledging I am neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar.

The genesis of this idea was a discussion of whether an individual today could know anything about Jesus. (To avoid an obvious complexity, it is assumed that there was a single actual individual whose variation of Judaism is the origin of Christianity). It seemed an obvious retort to base any claims about this Jesus on the Christian Scriptures. As such, the claim would take the form ‘I know x about the Scriptural Jesus’ (for, ‘I know that Scriptural Jesus regularly employed metaphor’).

A problem with this stratagem (for want of a better word) is that it seems difficult to actually construct a ‘Scriptural Jesus’. Reliant on the accepted Gospels – those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – it could be argued that there are at least four different ‘Scriptural Jesuses’. How so? Each of the ‘authors’ (whose existence and nature are currently contested issues) creates a different Jesus in their text. I am, at this point, going to have to reach for authority. I first recall encountering the idea that the Gospel authors presented different ‘aspects’ of Jesus in Studies of Religion nearly a decade ago, and have since discussed the idea with a couple of theologians who have accepted it. It’s theological basis is that, on consideration of the Gospel texts, there are differences between the Jesuses in terms of their teaching styles and, where comparison is possible, their actions. It does not seem too great a step from a claim that Mark presents different aspects of Jesus to John (and I would like to be able to make evidential reference to the texts, but I do not have them at hand) to a claim that they actually present different Jesuses. This takes the 'character' presented in the Gospel as a Jesus distinct from the Jesus character protrayed in the others. It is akin to a step that classicists seem willing to make in regard to Plato, where there is an accepted distinction between the early Platonic Socrates and the later Platonic Socrates. It is also akin to the acknowledgement that the Socreates of Plato is different to that of Xenophon.

At its crux, the problem is one of reconciling the differences between the accounts contained in the Gospel. As there are differences, to claim a Scriptural Jesus would require a reconciliation, which in turn would require a justification of the decisions made. As such it may be safer to make claims in regard to the Jesus portrayed in the different texts (returning to the example, ‘Mark’s Jesus regularly employed metaphor’).

As a brief post script, it should be acknowledged that, if there are four different Scriptural Jesuses, then there are more as each Gospel not included in the Christian Scriptures contains a different Jesus.


Samuel Douglas said...

I think I see your point.

If four authors all observe a single person/event/object, and all give a different account/description, then what can we draw from these accounts as a whole in terms of knowledge about this person?

To use the example of an object, I would only see difficulty where the authors contradict each other. Eg: Four people all see something, and they all agree that it was a car, but they can't agree what colour it was. I think it's plausible to argue that there probably was a car there, but also that we can't reasonably infer what colour it was.

To return to the matter at hand, the outcome of approach would hinge on where the points of difference and similarity are in the accounts given in the different gospels. Wherever they agree on X we could more safely say that we know X about the scriptural Jesus.

However, in cases like this it seems fair to cast doubt on the reliability of this information. If the witnesses can't agree on what colour the car was, can we be sure that they all actually saw the same car?

The analogy lets me down a bit here, but the point is that the more inconsistencies there are between witness accounts, the less reliable the collective information becomes.

If the witnesses are available and an investigation can be undertaken, then we might be able to get to the bottom of the question regarding the colour of the car.

But to perform such a reconciliation of the gospels is in practice an entirely different matter - there isn't really anyone left to ask! So any reconciliation (or even explanation of the differences) must come from some other source. Would this be historical investigation, personal revelation, or more commonly someone else's personal revelation? (I'm not much of a Bible scholar either). If the historical investigation is inconclusive, then the reconciliation or explanation must be based upon private experiences, or a historical rendering of someones private experience from the past. Neither of these strike me as particularly reliable and there would be good reasons for both atheist and theist to question their authority.

Samuel said...

If I attempted to show that we can know certain facts about the life of Jesus, I would first like to have some idea of what sort of proof will be expected. Is certainty some kind of ideal that is never met in the real world? If that is the position being taken, then it removes much of the meaning from the assertion that one may not be sure of this or that. For we don't need to be absolutely certain of something in order to alter our actions around it; we (often) only need to be more certain of it than of the alternatives, or even (in some cases) convinced that something is a real possibility. How we treat the information should depend on the circumstances, or the discussion will become irrelevant to life.

In the light of circumstances such as the uniqueness of the Bible as a set of documents, the importance of the claims contained within it and the nature of the effect which it has had and continues to have on the world I think it is justified to ask if one can be sufficiently certain that it is not true.

This is not to concede that idealistic certainty in the the gospel's veracity is unsafe. What if one became somewhat surer that the Bible was the most direct and available expression of the will of an almighty, personal God? In that situation being certain of the reliability of the Bible would be a safe move in a practical sense.

To the assertion that it is difficult to construct a scriptural Jesus I would answer "yes".

(If a Christian approach to the Bible involved as little thought and as much money and dishonesty as is sometimes implied it would be taught by the Business faculty)

To deal with the idea that differences between the gospels suggests unreliability I would like to return to a familiar example involving seven blind men and an elephant. Suppose five of the men described the beast in different terms: "flat, wall-like", "round, pillar-like", "flexible, tube-like", etc. But the remaining two say they felt something "small and whip-like, with a brush on the end". If you was trying to find untruth among the seven on which (two) of them would your investigation center? Perhaps this example is not obvious enough. Suppose one was marking 30 essays.
Which students would one suspect of knowing the least about the question: the students who wrote the most inaccurate essays or the students whose essays were most exactly the same as other student's essays?

Partly for this reason I don't see the fact that the Gospel accounts differ as problematic. People (probably moreso than elephants but less so than God) are multifaceted. If the gospel writers described too many of the same things in the same terms it would suggest that they were either copying or writing in concert. And which writer should more reasonably be suspected of carelessness or deliberate falsification of the substance of his work: the writer who can reasonably be suspected of falsifying his claim to authorship, or the one on which no such suspicion rests?

But to return to an earlier example: Suppose one is trying do discover the form of an elephant by sending blind men to feel it, and suppose all of the six blind men you sent brought back completely different descriptions of the elephant. In this case one might wonder what other aspects of the elephant had gone undiscovered, and even if the men were all feeling the same beast. But suppose that all six of the blind men said to you, after repeating their varied and independent descriptions of how the elephant felt, that "it uses a lot of metaphors when it talks". Your opinion regarding the accuracy of your information might improve. It might improve still further if your blind men brought back six complex and independently varied but uncontradictory accounts, each containing some ideas common to all six, some unique ideas and some ideas shared with some of the other six but not the others. It might improve even if the number of elephant-feelers was reduced to four.

With regard to all of the above, what, if any, meaning does the claim that "it may be safer to make claims with regard to Mark's Jesus and Luke's Jesus separately" have?
If one sees the gospels as four different and complementary points of view on the same Person, would one see more than a semantic difference between "John's Jesus" and "Jesus Christ, historical figure"? To question a possible alternative meaning of MH's claim: is it safe to regard the Gospels as four biographies of four different men who all happened to be named Jesus, all performed miracles and all died on a cross?

And is not the substance of a discussion or criticism of a particular book often improved if the critic/discussion participants have read the book in question?

MH said...

There are a couple of different points here that I would like pause to reflect upon. One is Samuel’s use of the object analogy, as I fear that it may confuse my purpose. Another is the entirety of the Other Samuel’s comment, as I may need to grapple with his ‘blind men and an elephant analogy’.

One request I would make, of the Other Samuel, is a justification of the assertion ‘In the light of circumstances such as the uniqueness of the Bible as a set of documents, the importance of the claims contained within it and the nature of the effect which it has had and continues to have on the world I think it is justified to ask if one can be sufficiently certain that it is not true.’ I ask, as similar claims could be made about the Koran and the numerous scriptural texts regarding the Buddha (I would have included the Hebrew Scriptures, but you have referred to the Bible). Thus, it seems on my reading, that you are automatically favouring your preferred religios text and shielding it from a form of criticism that you may reserve for those of other religions.

Another request I would make, of the Other Samuel, regards clarification of your comment ‘And is not the substance of a discussion or criticism of a particular book often improved if the critic/discussion participants have read the book in question?’ If it is myself, I take offence at your implication that I have not read the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. I would not have authored the original post if I had not done so. I would point out there is a difference between not having read a text and not having it on hand at a particular moment (when I authored the post, as at present, I am in a University library, and thus do not have access to my personal library). I agree that my point may have been better illustrated with textual examples, but this is a discussion that need not employ them.

I will apologize in advance for my inability to make substantive comment for the next couple of weeks. I have my exam period commencing, and will not be able to give this discussion the attention that it requires until after that period.