Does the Historical Jesus Matter? Testing good theology

What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experiential terms?

—William James

This coming weekend will be marked by a 25th anniversary gathering and celebration for the important scholarly enterprise known as the Jesus Seminar. A good time to ask what difference it makes when the Jesus of history turns out to be considerably more interesting than the myth-encrusted Christ created by the church over the centuries. Or does it make any difference at all?

John Dominic Crossan, a leading figure in the new Jesus studies, will chair the anniversary gathering. I was privileged to spend some time with Dom Crossan this past weekend as he keynoted a conference for 300 clergy and lay leaders in Pasadena that was intended to fuse good theology to practical activism (Full disclosure: my agency helped to organize this conference in partnership with the D. L. Dykes, Jr. Foundation, All Saints Episcopal Church, and The Progressive Christian magazine.) Crossan was joined on the platform by a younger radical theologian who specializes in economics and power: Joerg Rieger, author of the well-received Christ and Empire (Augsburg Fortress, 2007).

Back when I was a theological pup attending the mildly neo-orthodox Yale Divinity School, I was taught that it’s actually a better move to place your bets on the Christ of Faith than on the Jesus of History, about whom nothing conclusive can ever be known. Dom Crossan and his Jesus Seminar colleagues have been systematically challenging the “nothing can be known” assertion, along with its peculiar corollary: “Whatever can be known matters less than historic church teaching and church practice.”

For example, they think it matters a great deal to be able to bracket the weirdly anachronistic and formulaic statements attributed to Jesus of Nazareth that were never spoken by the Galilean upstart but that were put into his mouth by early church types. They think it matters hugely to look at archeological evidence for what the early Jesus movement believed and how it functioned. They also think it matters hugely to separate out the authentic writings of the ultra-radical “First Paul” from the shrill screeds of the post-Pauline scolds who managed to shoehorn a good bit of Empire-friendly schlock into the New Testament canon.

But back to the difference their good theology makes. (Crossan himself uses the term “accurate theology” to describe the research-based work he has been doing for decades.) For myself, I do feel my head beginning to clear just a bit when I learn that what the Bible’s God abhors most is not poverty as such but the inequality created and reinforced by unjust power and greed. I nod that same head in sober and sad agreement when I hear someone like Joerg Rieger point out how so many millions on this Earth still suffer from the effects of malign theological economics: from the lash of free-market rules and precepts that mirror top-down and gravely mistaken theological concepts.

And as someone who has always found the fulminating figure of John the Baptist to be rather attractive, I find myself both humbled and strengthened to learn that Cousin John was stuck in an old and unhelpful paradigm. John thought that enacting a ritual purification in the Jordan would trigger redemptive divine intervention on behalf of the poor, whereas Jesus insists on a “collaborative eschatology”: Yes, God is eager to bring deliverance, but God is also still waiting for us to pitch in. Or as Desmond Tutu likes to put it, “Without us, God won’t; but without God, we can’t.”

I grew up thinking of Jesus as intimidating and distant and not very likeable. But Crossan and Borg and their lot can make you start to like JC again. After this past weekend, for example, I finally get the Palm Sunday joke: Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey because a pompous Roman emperor would have ridden in on a charger. And it becomes a matter of some charm that Jesus never asks anyone for blind faith. In answer to the question put to him by John from prison (“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”), Jesus responds to the courier: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Mt. 11:5: Crossan observes that in the context of grinding oppression, the most miraculous item in this list is that the poor are learning that God has good news for them.)

And then there is the radical nonviolence. Jesus is certainly among the great axial age figures who invites us to explore and apply the immense power of nonviolent direct action. Crossan teaches that failing to put equal emphasis on both terms in “nonviolent revolutionary” completely misses what Jesus was about. He drives the point home in his exposition of the trial before Pilate and the contrast between Jesus and Barabbas, a violent man whose band of marauders needed wiping out in order for Empire to feel secure.

Crossan had people chuckling over images from Western art (Titian, especially) showing Jesus bounding out of the tomb with a buff West Hollywood gym body. Crossan maintains that a heroic solo victory over death and defeat is not what Jesus achieves at the end—and is certainly not how he would want to be remembered. The earliest images of anastasis (resurrection) preserved in Eastern Church shrines show Jesus taking Adam by the hand and leading him and others into a different future; the resurrection is rendered as a collective exodus from the grip of imperial death, not an individual triumph over the grave.

All very well, you say, but I still haven’t answered the question about whether any of this makes a difference. Apart from the frisson experienced by smug types like me who imagined that we already knew almost everything worth knowing about Jesus, where is the “cash value”?

Here’s my answer: With the concurrence and the active participation of the visiting theologians, the final conference session was transformed into an in-depth consideration of how California’s much-deplored governmental dysfunction actually mirrors and expresses the main contours of empire and inequality as global phenomena.

For a full third of the conference time we moved from top-down to bottom-up theology, beginning with small-group conversations over boxed lunches in the open air. Although the shift gave some participants a slight case of the bends, the result was fascinating. A good many cynical and despairing people who had all but given up on Golden State politics started talking like competent change agents and started asking about where and how they can get trained to do the work.

Could it be that Crossan’s “collaborative eschatology” concept isn’t a second-best proposition after all (compared to the prospect of a powerful messianic deliverer showing up to kick some oppressor butt)? Could it even be that God’s choice of those who are weak and despised in this world to shame the strong (I Cor. 1:27) is no mere throwaway piece of Pauline poetry but an actual revolutionary formula?

And while I don’t much like feeling bad about myself, I am quite willing to consult the mirror and to see that we who imagine ourselves to be progressive Christians might well reflect on our own degree of infection with Empire God ideas, as against the “God’s reign is within you!” idea that Jesus preached and demonstrated. Self-awareness and serious repentance don’t need to be disempowering; quite the opposite.

If you wish, you can say that I’m just excessively enchanted by Dom Crossan’s ready wit and his lovely Irish brogue. But for the first time in a long time I am once again feeling some confidence in the theological enterprise. Maybe good theology does matter in a hurting world. Who woulda thunk it?

Originally posted on Religion Dispatches.

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