NEW TESTAMENT ANALYSIS

SKEPTICISM ON HISTORICAL CHRIST by Catholic theologian


Home | Intro to the Jesus legend articles | In the Gospels Jesus Was a Mortal--jk | Mark Describes Jesus' Gay Affair | SOURCE FOR JESUS LEGEND | SKEPTICISM ON HISTORICAL CHRIST by Catholic theologian | Published Commentary on the Previous Article | Fictional Christ--McKinsey | New Testament Studies, Professor Wells | EARLIEST CHRISTIANITY--Prof. Wells | Who Was Jesus--Prof. G. A. Wells | NO HISTORICAL JESUS, response to critic by Prof. Wells | Old Testament Messiah Prophecies and the Gospels | Balanced New Testament Analysis | THE HISTORICAL REFERENCES TO JESUS; A Scholarly Analysis | Jesus Legend Sources--Wikipedia | TEXTUAL CRITICISM OF THE NEW TESTAMENT | TEXTUAL PROBLEMS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT | THE HISTORICAL REFERENCES TO JESUS | Did Jesus Exist?--Walker | The Jesus Puzzle--Doherty | The Jesus Puzzle--Doherty, continued | NASTY JESUS & STUPID ADVISE | New Testament, Sources, Transmission, Variations, & Modifications | CONTRADICTIONS: New & Old Testaments | BIBLE CANON: History & Analysis Thereof | End of the World is soon, Bible Tells US--quotes

A Catholic publication has finally come forward and revealed what are the most reasonable conclusions (up to a limit) about the Gospels.

 The limit:  the problem of the Epistles.  The silence of the Epistles, being that they are much earlier than the Gospels, is strong evidence that the Gospels are as for history, biography, and actual teachings of Christ, that all these are fiction--a point well argued by Professor Wells

“Who Do Men Say That I Am”

 

Biblical scholars and theologians are sketching a new portrait of the man called Jesus

 

Kerry Temple, PhD. 

{Managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine, a quarterly publication of the University of Notre Dame)  

It all began because I wanted to know the truth about Jesus.  I heard the stories before I could see over the pew in front of me, knelling prayerfully at St. John Berchman’s Church.  I’d heard of the loaves and fishes, the wedding feast at Can, the prodigal son.  Jesus walked on water, calmed the storms, raised Lazaris form the dead, and said, “Blessed are the meek.”

 

I knew about the census and the trip by donkey to Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn.  I knew of the ….  Through 16 years of Catholic education I heard about the carpenter’s son …. And it was branded into me early on by the black-robed Daughters of the Cross that those who did not believe would burn in the fires of hell forever.

 

So here I was about to embark on a search for the historical Jesus, to discover who was the man called the Messiah, the Son of God, second person of the Holy Trinity.  Who was he really?  And as I began to wind my way back through 20 centuries of accumulated knowledge, trying to distinguished between fact and fiction, tryi9ng to peel away the layers of embellishment, I realized I was running counter to much of what had been ingrained in me.  And I felt myself entering a relm that felt foreign and strange and disturbing. 

 

 

The Jesus Debate

 

In many ways the figure of Jesus is like a poem—or, as one prominent Catholic scholar wrote, “Jesus is a parable.”  The story of his life has not come to us like a news report or documentary film that presents historical events literally and factually…. 

 

One day I sat in the office of the Reverend Robert Krieg, C.S.C., who teaches Christology at Notre Dame, and tried to explain this analogy to him.  “Looking for Jesus,” I said, “is like being back in a poetry class dissecting a poem.  The poem is layered with meanings, and everyone has a different opinion.  Nobody is certain any more what the poet intended, and you’re left with a variety of very subjective interpretations.”

 

Krieg nodded but cautioned against individual interpretations not supported by the Catholic faith tradition and centuries of scholarship.  And he warned against looking for the “truth” about Jesus in terms of literal or historical facts.

 

[“T]he first thing to remember,” he [Reverend Edward Schillebeck, O.P., a top Catholic, Dutch scholar] once said, “is that there are limitations to what we can know by using the historical-critical approach.  The only text that we have show Jesus already proclaimed as Christ by the church and by his first disciples.  The New Testament is the testimony of a believing people, and what they are saying is not history but expressions of their belief in Jesus as Christ.’…

 

The fundamental Jesus debate (mere man or divine messiah?) as been waged since before the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities contemplated his execution.  Many of the church’s teachings about his nature, so familiar to us today, were not hammered out until centuries after his death—and after heated argument. 

 

In a landmark book, The Life of Jesus; Critically Examined, David Friedrich Strauss concluded in 1835: “… if we would be candid with ourselves, that which was once sacred history for the Christian believer is, for the enlightened portion of our contemporaries, only fable.”  That view cost Strauss his job at the University of Tubingen, but he was not the only scholar whose rationalist approach demythologized Christ. 

 

Early in this century, Albert Schweitzer {famed humanitarian and doctor who served in darkest Africa} launched his own search and in 1906 he stated in Quest for the Historical Jesus:  The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration never had any existence.  This image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came too the surface one after another,

 

A year later, in 1907, says Krieg, “Pius X decreed in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis that to pursued historical research into the Bible and life of Jesus was a move into ‘modernism,’ so he condemned it.”  But, ads the Holy Cross priest, “in 1943 Pius XII in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu  permitted historical studies of the Bible, its formation and Jesus’ life.” …

 

So what are scholars saying today about Jesus of Nazareth?  And how is the explosion of Christology being incorporated into Catholicism’s continually evolving theology?

 

Hero Tales

 

One of the problems with retrieving the historical Jesus is that so little can be known of him with certainty.  He is mentioned briefly in about a half-dozen non-Christian texts of the time:  works by Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, and Pliny the Younger.1  But these say little more than that he lived, preached, and was crucified [which was based on what Christians said, rather than what they knew from their own historical research].

 

Most of what we know of Jesus come from the four gospels.  Yet scholars agree that these are hardly dependable as historical sources.  For one thing, they did not take shape until late in the first century, a generation or two after Jesus died; until then the stories and teachings of Jesus were spread orally, and it is probably that neither his exact words nor the stories’ details survived the retellings.  Scholars also agree that the gospels were not written by any of the 12 apostles (probably not by anyone named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, probably not by anyone who was even alive when Jesus was.2 … Most importantly, the four gospels were compiled not as historical documents but as testimonies of faith by communities of believers.3… One of the intended effects, he [John Collins, internationally know biblical scholar from Notre Dame] was to make the New Testament accounts fit Old Testament prophecies…. “The stories were generated,” say Collins, “by authors trying to infer facts from biblical prophecies.  And for that reason many scholars would regard these as fictions to make theological points.”…

 

Many of the stories about Jesus contained in these ancient documents [Gospels, canonical and not] Kannengiesser says, were tales commonly applied to mythical figures and heroes of the time.  “It was almost obligatory to have such stories available,” the theologian says; “they were stock stories told to convert people to Jesus.”  Tales of virgin births, divine heroes, and miracles workers were relatively common 2,000 years ago and simply did not mean what they do to us today.  [My emphasis, for this is central to this article by Kerry Temple]  

 

One such mythical hero was Mithras, a Persian deity introduced to Rome midway through the first century, shortly before the synoptic gospels were written.4  He, too, was said to have been sent by a father-god to vanquish darkness and evil in the world.  Born of a virgin (a birth witnessed only by shepherds), Mithras was described variously as the Way, the Truth, the Light, the Word, the Son of God, and the Good Shepherd and was often depicted carrying a lamb upon his shoulders.5

 

Followers of Mithras celebrated December 25 by ringing bells, singing hymns, lighting candles, giving gifts, and administering a sacrament of bread and water.  Between December 25 and the spring equinox (Easter, from the Latin for earth goddess) came the 40 days’ search for Osiris, a god of justice and love.  The cult also observed Black Friday, commemorating Mithras’ sacrificial bull slaying, which fructified the earth.  Worn out by the battle, Mithras is symbolically represented as a corpse and is placed in a sacred rock tomb from which he is removed after three days in a festival of rejoicing….

 

Pick-up Sticks

 

His name was Jesus, the Aramaic version of Yeshu or Yeshua, which is the common form of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning “the Lord saves.”  Historians estimate the year of his birth at about 6 to 4 BCE; the date, December 25, was adopted in the fourth century from a pagan-Roman feast day that coincided with the winter solstice….

 

The nativity stories are regarded by scholars as among the most recent and least authentic additions to the gospels.  “These narratives,” writes Murphy, summarizing Jesus’ status among [Christian] historians, “cannot be relied upon as historical fact” but were “inserted into the gospels of Luke and Matthews to assert certain claims about Jesus.”  The to versions, he adds, “are utterly divergent and cannot be harmonized.”  But they do provide insight into the evangelists’ storytelling devices and their intent to link Jesus to Old testament prophecies [emphasis added].6

 

One point is clear from the outset:  our understanding of “divine man” or “Son of God” is different today than it was to the world in which Jesus lived.  It was not an uncommon designation in those days.  Nor was it uncommon to have gods impregnate mortals who yield divine offspring; [see Genesis 6:1]…. Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander the Great were all born of woman by the power of a holy spirit.  Heracles, too, was the child of the Greek god Zeus and a human woman.  In 48 BCE, Julius Caesar was proclaimed “god manifest,” “savior of human life,” and “divine man.”  August whose reign Jesus was born, was said to have been sent by God….. Romulus, according to Livy, was conceived by a god and born of a virgin, left no bodily remains after his death, but reappeared to commission his successors.  Apollonious of Tyana, said to be the son of Zeus…. Even in scripture the tile “Son of God” was used in a variety of ways.  Notre Dame’s John Collins say it denotes angels, heaven being, the messiah, the king of Israel or the king of Judea …. “but it does not imply equality with God.”

 

    It was not until the Council of Nicea in 325 CE that church leaders determined that Jesus was of one substance with the Father…”If the gospel writers said ‘son of God’ they probably meant he was a specially chosen human being,” says Collins … “the interpretation of what was said about the messiah in the Old Testament.”… 

 

So I aksed Father Kannengiesser what we know for sure about the Jesus birth.  He smiled and said, “The fact is Jesus existed.  He was born.  Period.  That’s it.”   Accepting the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation, scholars will tell you, is more a matter of faith than reproductive biology, or linguistics, of the mythologies of ancient cultures…. “The  reason why it has never been possible to state a literal meaning for the ideal of Incarnation,” says theologian John Hicks, “is simply that it has no literal meaning.  It is a mythological idea, a figure of speech, a piece of poetic imagery.”…

 

The ear in which he was raised was well suited for his public mission.  Socially, politically, and religiously, the culture was in ferment.  Armageddon seemed imminent, and miracle-workers, charismatic holy men, nomadic teachers, and doom sayaing prophets were common, wandering the arid plains preaching, healing, exorcising demons, and attracting followers….

 

Scholars have estimated the length of Jesus’ evangelical life as lasting anywhere from several months to two years.  As with other aspects of his story, the events of this public ministry are shrouded in uncertainty and disagreement due to discrepancies in the sources and doubts about them.  No one really knows for sure what is authentic and what is not…. 

 

Similar questions arise when the miracles are discussed.  Historians indicate that healings and exorcisms were fairly common in Jesus’ time (and, they point out, are still considered legitimate occurrences in some cultures today).  While scholars agree Jesus was doing extraordinary things, other miracle workers such as Hanina ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, and Apollonius of Tyana were performing similar deeds. 

 

[The works of the New Testament do little to distinguish Jesus.]  “Son of Man,” bar nisha, a seemingly profound and mysterious appellation found on some 70 occasions in the synoptic gospels, was used in the vernacular as a found about way of saying “I” or simply meant “a person”—“someone.”  Otheres think it is an allusion to the mysterious figure prophesied in the seventh chapter of Daniel.  Son of God, most scholars agree , is an ambigious title at best; so, too, is lord, from the Aramaic mare, which could be interpreted in a spectrum of ways from the mundane “sir” to the divine “lord.”

 

      The meaning of messiah (“the anointed one”) is even more nuanced—a rich mine for linguists to excavate.  It could have meant several things, from a spiritual redeemer descending from David to a political and military king-and not necessarily a divine person [similar to the Maccabbees].  In the 150 years before Jesus, the messiah to come was anticipated in broader eschatological terms as the ruler of all nations whom God would appoint at the end of time…. Jesus’ virtual silence on the subject has left scholars with more questions than answers….

 

Did he see himself as one sent from God on some sacred mission?  Was he simply another Jewish prophet preparing his followers for the coming Parousia?    Did events unfold in such a way that he became aware of his role and divinity as time went on?  Or did he from the beginning considered himself God’s equal?  The answer to these questions doubtlessly pondered by those who talked and laughed and ate with him, remain elusive to us today.

 

The End of Time

 

Though the gospels differ somewhat on what happened next, it is believed that Jesus faced a stern investigation before the chief priests of the Sanhedrin (the supreme council of the religious establishment)…. But if the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death, it is unclear why it did not carry out the execution but, instead, took the case to Pilate…. He was executed by Roman authorities for being a messianic pretender.

 

Something Happened

 

The gospel accounts of Easter morning are sketchy and inconsistent…. No one is certain precisely what it was that happened…. Whatever happened had an incredible effect on Jesus’ followers.

 

Commentary--jk

 

At this point the following of Kerry’s account has lost all semblance of objective scholars;  it is in the realm of faith.  As state prior the most reasonable conclusion is that the Gospels are inventions to fulfill the gap.  This is affirmed with the candor by Paul:

 

       For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.  The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.”  Where is the wise one?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debator of this age?  Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?  For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom. But we proclaim Christ crucified a, a stumbling block to Jews {because he was to died according to OT prophecy} and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.  I Corinthians 1:17-25.

 

The Key words in this passage are wisdom and signs.  By wisdom he means that the Hellenised people of education want teachings that are philosophically sound, but Paul has no teachings to author for the “teachings of Christ” have not been created in the Gospels.  And the Jews demand signs because they believe the messiah will be greater than any of the Old Testament prophets and the messiah will be known by those signs.  The Gospels created those signs.  Randel Helms (a Christrian), in Gospel Fictions analyzes this process by comparison to the Old Testament Prophecies they parallel and by the changes Matthew and Luke make upon Mark, who was their source.  This ignorance concerning the life of Christ and this foolishness as per Christ’s counter to prophecy death and lack of wise teachings:  this silence of the first missionaries (those who wrote the Epistles) THUNDERS SO LOUD THAT I CANNOT HEAR A WORD OF THE GOSPELS.7



1 Historians Wheeler and G.H. Wells, to name two, have shown that none of these passages can be counted as evidence that proves there was an historical man named Jesus who founded the religion that was a problem for the Romans.  Moreover, several biblical scholars, because of this lack of evidence, have placed the source of the Jesus myth to be the Essenes teacher called the Teacher of Righteousness, who was executed about 130 BC.

 

2   What Kerry misses (though as a scholar he most know) is that the teachings and life of Jesus as found in the Gospels were very likely invented after the Epistles, after 70 AD, because they are not found in the Epistles.

3 The best, by far, of such analysis is by Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions.  The connections he and other scholars have made is the best evidence that the teachings of Jesus and his life were constructed for theological purposes. 

4   Kerry is informing the read of the types of beliefs common in the Roman Empire, for the new religion by the time of Paul, 60 AD had found the conversion of the Jews difficult and had gone unto the gentiles of the Roman Empire.  Thus while looking to the Jewish pseudepigrapha and apocalypses and the Gnostic works would be profitable for an analysis of the earliest of Christians, it would be much less insightful for the an analysis of the Gospels which were not written for the Jews, nor were they written by Jews.. 

5   If I read this description of Mithra by any less an authority, and published in other than a Christian scholarly journal, I would require the source before considering the statements reliable.  An example of an account done with hindsight is the life of Apollonius of Tyana, whose life was describe by Philostratus in a way that is consciously similar to Jesus’.  I would not say that of Mithra who worship proceeded that of Christ’s by centuries.

6   Kerry then develops the oft repeated problems with Luke and Matthew’ s versions.  One that Bethlehem was chosen for the OT prophecy of the Messiah being of the line of David, and this claim was strengthen by their genealogies; but they could agree on the name of Joseph’s father; and what differences does it make since Joseph was not Jesus father.  Nor could this problem be adverted by claiming that Mary was of the line of David (which Luke and Matthew did not do) for the Jews as did the Greeks and Romans believed that it was the father who supplied the seed, the mother was but the field in which it was sown.  The claim for a roman census is unsubstantiated, moreover, to require a journey to the city of birth was a hardship that no Roman governor has visited upon his people.  

7   Emerson said:  “What you are thunders so loud that I cannot hear a word that you say.”

Kerry Temple re-published his article on the internet, and I thought it worthy of being carried in its complete and redacted version.

SikhSpectrum.com Quarterly, No 27, Feb 2007, originally published in Notre Dame Review in 1998, by former editor of that Catholic Quarterly.

 

Who Do Men Say That I Am, by Kerry Temple

Biblical scholars and theologians are sketching a new portrait of the man called Jesus.

It all began because I wanted to know the truth about Jesus. I heard the stories before I could see over the pew in front of me, knelling prayerfully at St. John Berchman’s Church. I’d heard of the loaves and fishes, the wedding feast at Cana, the prodigal son. Jesus walked on water, calmed the storms, raised Lazarus from the dead, and said, “Blessed are the meek.”

I knew about the census and the trip by donkey to Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn. I knew of the manger and the magi, the shepherds and the angels heard on high. I memorized the words to “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” and at midnight Mass, as the Latin mantras and pungent incense flowed over me, I prayed for Jesus to come at Christmastime.

Through 16 years of Catholic education I heard about the carpenter’s son who healed the sick, preached to the multitudes, suffered, died, and was buried ... and on the third day rose again, according to the scriptures.

Even as a little boy, I knew the formula. I knew about Adam and Eve, the snake and the apple. I understood how God had to send his only son to die for our sins, how his death had reopened the gates of heaven. And how, at the end of time, he would come again to judge the living and the dead. And that the only route to heaven was through him. And it was branded into me early on by the black-robed Daughters of the Cross that those who did not believe would burn in the fires of hell forever.

The Gospel truth. The Word of God. And the Word was made flesh.

So here I was, about to embark on a search for the historical Jesus, to discover who was the man called the Messiah, the Son of God, second person of the Holy Trinity. Who was he really? And as I began to wind my way back through 20 centuries of accumulated knowledge, trying to distinguish between fact and fiction, trying to peel away the layers of embellishment, I realized I was running counter to much of what had been ingrained in me. And I felt myself entering a realm that felt foreign and strange and disturbing. But I wanted to know the truth about the charismatic holy man who roamed the Galilean countryside and how he became the Christ.

The Jesus Debate

In many ways the figure of Jesus is like a poem—or, as one prominent Catholic scholar wrote, “Jesus is a parable.” The story of his life has not come to us like a news report or documentary film that presents historical events literally and factually. It is more like poetry, which conveys a different kind of truth through symbol and imagery and opens to a multitude of interpretations.

So with Jesus. His parables, teachings, and acts are abundant with meanings, shadings, ambiguities, and apparent contradictions. It seems almost possible to shape one’s own Jesus from the array of proverbs and tales available in the Bible.

One day I sat in the office of the Reverend Robert Krieg, C.S.C., who teaches Christology at Notre Dame, and tried to explain this analogy to him. “Looking for Jesus,” I said, “is like being back in a poetry class dissecting a poem. The poem is layered with meanings, and everyone has a different opinion. Nobody is certain any more what the poet intended, and you’re left with a variety of very subjective interpretations.”

Krieg nodded but cautioned against individual interpretations not supported by the Catholic faith tradition and centuries of scholarship. And he warned against looking for the “truth” about Jesus in terms of literal or historical facts.

One of the world’s leading authorities on the subject is the Reverend Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., whose two massive books, Jesus: An experiment in Christology and Christ as Lord, are more than ample evidence that deciphering the life and times of Jesus is a formidable undertaking. The Dutch theologian has been challenged by the Vatican for his conclusions on three occasions and exonerated each time.

“The first thing to remember,” he once said, “is that there are limitations to what we can know by using the historical-critical approach. The only texts that we have show Jesus already proclaimed as Christ by the church and by his first disciples. The New Testament is the testimony of a believing people, and what they are saying is not history but expressions of their belief in Jesus as Christ. But that belief is filled up and determined by who Jesus historically was, and this allows us to reconstruct Jesus to a certain extent.”

The fundamental Jesus debate--mere man or divine messiah?--has been waged since before the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities contemplated his execution. Many of the church’s teachings about his nature, so familiar to us today, were not hammered out until centuries after his death—and after heated argument.

The modern search for the historical Jesus emerged during the nineteenth century when mostly European and Protestant theologians, spurred by the new naturalism, sifted through the evidence for the man behind the Christ. Some found the argument for his divinity unconvincing.

In a landmark book, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, David Friedrich Strauss concluded in 1835: “… if we would be candid with ourselves, that which was once sacred history for the Christian believer is, for the enlightened portion of our contemporaries, only fable.” That view cost Strauss his job at the University of Tubingen, but he was not the only scholar whose rationalist approach demythologized Christ.

Early in this century, Albert Schweitzer launched his own search, and in 1906 he stated in Quest for the Historical Jesus:

The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration never had any existence. This image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems, which came to the surface one after another.

A year later, in 1907, says Krieg, “Pius X decreed in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis that to pursue historical research into the Bible and life of Jesus was a move into ‘modernism,’ so he condemned it.” But, adds the Holy Cross priest, “in 1943 Pius XII in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu permitted historical studies of the Bible, its formation and Jesus’ life.”

Fueled by this freedom, by archaeological discoveries, and by scriptural analysis, Catholic scholarship flourished over the next few decades. Then, in the wake of Vatican 11, critical studies into the life of Jesus expanded dramatically, prompting one scholar to remark in 1986, “More has been written about Jesus in the last 20 years than in the previous 2,000.”

So what are scholars saying today about Jesus of Nazareth? And how is the explosion of Christology being incorporated into Catholicism’s continually evolving theology?

Hero Tales

One of the problems with retrieving the historical Jesus is that so little can be known of him with certainty. He is mentioned briefly in about a half-dozen non-Christian texts of the time: works by Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, and Pliny the Younger. But these say little more than that he lived, preached, and was crucified.

Most of what we know of Jesus comes from the four gospels. Yet scholars agree that these are hardly dependable as historical sources. For one thing, they did not take shape until late in the first century, a generation or two after Jesus died; until then the stories and teachings of Jesus were spread orally, and it is probable that neither his exact words nor the stories’ details survived the retellings. Scholars also agree that the gospels were not written by any of the 12 apostles--probably not by anyone named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, probably not by anyone who was even alive when Jesus was.

The waters may have been further muddied by translation and cultural discrepancies. Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic and, while some of the gospel material was probably composed originally in that language, the sacred texts as we know them came to us exclusively in Greek.

While some scholars maintain that the Greek version is remarkably true to portions of the original Aramaic, the Reverend Charles Kannengiesser, S.J., Notre Dame's Huisking Professor of Theology, cites problems of understanding that grow out of the cultural climate in which the gospels were written. The Jewish world Jesus knew, he notes; was destroyed by the Jewish War in 66 to 70 CE about the time the earliest of the gospels were written.

“The gospels were written in exile,” Kannengiesser explains, “when Jerusalem had been destroyed and when access to Jerusalem was difficult for the Jews because of the Roman occupation. It was a time of great upheaval, violence, and terrorism." The gospels were drafted, he says, "because cultural changes were coming so fast that the oral transmission of the stories might fade away and be lost." So these Aramaic-speaking people "had the stories written in a literary form in Greek. And there would be a serious cultural shift from the Aramaic world into the Greek world, causing the stories to change."

More importantly, the four gospels were compiled not as historical documents but as testimonies of faith by communities of believers. "They are not precise, factual accounts and they weren't intended to be," says John Collins, an internationally known biblical scholar and Notre Dame professor of theology. “There was a lot of embellishment. The evangelists were not reporters or historians in the modern sense. They were telling stories with a view to getting points across, not necessarily with a view to accuracy of detail."

Doubting the "gospel truth" of the New Testament is almost unthinkable for many Christians, even those who regard Old Testament stories (the creation myth or Noah's ark, for instance) as symbolic folk tales. But, said Cullen Murphy in an Atlantic Monthly essay on Jesus, "Ultimately, the authority of the Bible was undermined in two ways: first by the scientific study of the natural world, which cast doubt on the Bible's literal truth, and then by historical and textual study of the Bible itself, which likewise raised disturbing questions." Secular history and religious belief sometimes do intersect, some scholars say; the difficulty is knowing where.

Mark's gospel, probably composed for gentile readers in Rome about 70 CE, is believed to be the earliest gospel text, although some scholars speculate that a hypothetical source called the Synoptic Sayings Source (or Q for short) may have predated Mark. Luke and Matthew borrow heavily from Mark while embellishing the narratives. The gospel of John, probably the last of the four canonical gospels to be written, is decidedly less concerned with biographical information than with a developing theology laced generously with Hellenistic philosophy. (Several other texts, attributed to other disciples, have not been included in the official canon, and the epistles of Paul, though written before the four gospels, are primarily proclamations of faith in the risen Christ, with little interest in the earthly Jesus.)

Many of the stories about Jesus contained in these ancient documents, Kannengiesser says, were tales commonly applied to mythical figures and heroes of the time. "It was almost obligatory to have such stories available," the theologian says; "they were stock stories told to convert people to Jesus." Tales of virgin births, divine heroes, and miracle workers were relatively common 2,000 years ago and simply did not mean what they do to us today.

One such mythical hero was Mithras, a Persian deity introduced to Rome midway through the first century, shortly before the synoptic gospels were written. He, too, was said to have been sent by a father-god to vanquish darkness and evil in the world. Born of a virgin (a birth witnessed only by shepherds), Mithras was described variously as the Way, the Truth, the Light, the Word, the Son of God, and the Good Shepherd and was often depicted carrying a lamb upon his shoulders.

Followers of Mithras celebrated December 25 by ringing bells, singing hymns, lighting candles, giving gifts, and administering a sacrament of bread and water. Between December 25 and the spring equinox (Easter, from the Latin for earth goddess) came the 40 days' search for Osiris, a god of justice and love. The cult also observed Black Friday, commemorating Mithras' sacrificial bull-slaying which fructified the earth. Worn out by the battle, Mithras is symbolically represented as a corpse and is placed in a sacred rock tomb from which he is removed after three days in a festival of rejoicing.

Comparing religions and interpreting the scriptures is a task that leaves plenty of room for opinion. Not all scholars are ready to dismiss gospel claims as myth or propaganda. In his essay in The Encyclopedia of Religion, the Reverend Gerald O'Collins, S.J., recognizes certain mythical elements and ambiguities but adds, "The early Christian community and first three evangelists passed on with substantial fidelity what was remembered from Jesus' ministry. We are not simply left with pious legends or irresponsible fabrications about him."

So, mindful of warnings about the method and the sources, I went on looking for answers to a question Jesus reportedly once put to his disciples: "Who do men say that I am?"

Pick-up Sticks

His name was Jesus, the Aramaic version of Yeshu or Yeshua, which is the common form of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning "the Lord saves." Historians estimate the year of his birth at about 6 to 4 BCE; the date, December 25, was adopted in the fourth century from a pagan-Roman feast day that coincided with the winter solstice. Most scholars agree he was likely born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth, a remote and obscure village in southern Galilee.

The nativity stories are regarded by scholars as among the most recent and least authentic additions to the gospels. "These narratives," writes Murphy, summarizing Jesus' status among historians, "cannot be relied upon as historical fact" but were "inserted into the gospels of Luke and Matthew to assert certain claims about Jesus." The two versions, he adds, "are utterly divergent and cannot be harmonized." But they do provide insight into the evangelists' storytelling devices and their intent to link Jesus to Old Testament prophecies.

The placement of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, for example, is seen by many scholars as an attempt to establish Jesus as a descendant of David, whose own roots lay in Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke try to strengthen this connection by tracing Jesus' ancestry back to the Jewish king through Joseph's side of the family--a seemingly meaningless exercise if one accepts the premise of a virgin birth. Their elaborate genealogies are contradictory anyway; they cannot even agree on the name of Joseph's father.

Only Luke has shepherds attending Jesus' birth, and only Matthew includes the magi, whose number is never given. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary already lived in Bethlehem; Luke has Joseph and Mary traveling from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census (there is no independent evidence for a worldwide census under Augustus).

Astronomers and others have tried to use the star of Bethlehem to determine the birthdate, but to little avail. In 1603, John Kepler observed a striking conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation Pisces and calculated that a similar conjunction would have occurred in 7 BCE. According to a Jewish rabbinical reference, the messiah would appear when just such a conjunction took place.

Other biblical scholars, however, contend that the stellar phenomenon is simply an invention inspired by Balaam's "star of Jacob" from the Book of Numbers. More recently, three English astronomers suggested that the Christmas star was a nova, or exploding star, recorded by Chinese astronomers of the Han dynasty for more than 70 days in 5 BCE.

While these issues are more window-dressing than central matters of faith, other elements of the Christmas story penetrate right to the core of Christmas beliefs—for at the center of Christmas is the nature of Jesus as divine man, born of the virgin, the Son of God. And understanding the mysterious nature of this man-god is at the heart of Christianity.

Peeling away some of the nativity lore is easy--like the first few moves in a game of pick-up sticks. But unraveling the central tangle where faith is intertwined with myth makes the moves more dangerous. The removal of one stick has repercussions for the whole structure, and it doesn't take much for the game to be over.

One point is clear from the outset: our understanding of "divine man" or "Son of God" is different today than it was to the world in which Jesus lived. It was not an uncommon designation in those days. Nor was it uncommon to have gods impregnate mortals who yielded divine offspring; often the human partner was a virgin woman.

Divine heroes were conventional mythological characters--familiar figures in the culture in which the scriptures were composed. Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander the Great were all born of a woman by the power of a holy spirit. Heracles, too, was the child of the Greek god Zeus and a human woman. In 48 BCE, Julius Caesar was proclaimed "god manifest," "savior of human life," and "divine man." Augustus, during whose reign Jesus was born, was said to have been sent by God.

Other legendary figures were portrayed in terms surprisingly familiar to those who know the life of Christ. Romulus, according to Livy, was conceived by a god and born of a virgin, left no bodily remains after his death but reappeared to commission his successors. Apollonius of Tyana, said to be the son of Zeus, was a miracle-working ascetic who kept teaching after he met a mysterious death, again leaving no remains. Hanina ben Dosa, like Jesus, was a miracle-working charismatic who wandered Galilee during the first century and was proclaimed by a heavenly voice to be the Son of God (as was Jesus when baptized by John in the River Jordan). Honi the Circle Drawer was also called the Son of God.

Even in scripture the title "Son of God" was used in a variety of ways. Notre Dame's John Collins says it denotes angels, heavenly beings, the messiah, the king of Israel, or the king of Judea--"whoever that happened to be; it came with the office." In the Wisdom of Solomon, Collins continues, it merely meant a righteous man, and Paul used the term to describe anyone led by the spirit. "Son of God is a meaningful statement," Collins says, "but it does not imply equality with God."

Collins calls the term a metaphor similar to "lamb of God." He adds, "To call Jesus the Son of God in the first century did not imply what it came to imply at Nicea. That's indisputable."

It was not until the Council of Nicea in 325 CE that church leaders determined that Jesus was of one substance with the Father and had been "God" from all eternity. The council was convened by the Roman governor Constantine--whose father had been deified and who himself would be so honored after his own death--precisely to settle the debate over Jesus' nature. After heated deliberation, the council adopted the interpretation that has come to us as the Nicene Creed ("I believe in one God…").

The decision to equate Jesus with God, many scholars suggest, would have surprised those who knew him--even those who called him messiah, "If the gospel writers said 'son of God,' they probably meant he was a specially chosen human being," says Collins, who believes the "starting point" of attributing a divine nature to Jesus was "the interpretation of what was said about the messiah in the Old Testament."

The biblical scholar explains: "After his death and their experience of the resurrection, his followers went back to the scriptures to learn more about the messiah to see who he really was. One of the things they found about the messiah was that he was called 'Son of God.' Now it takes off from there, because they wanted to say he was more 'Son of God' than anyone else." The debate continued until Nicea.

That council, of course, installed Jesus as the second person of God (the Holy Spirit becoming the third person half a century later), possessing equal stature with God the Father. But, Collins maintains, "the idea of Jesus as God does not derive from the teachings of Jesus but from interpretations of the scriptures."

Divinity presented new problems about Jesus' parentage, so in 431, in Ephesus, another council was convened to settle the apparent paradox. It was then that Mary was pronounced Theotokos, or "God-bearing"--both virgin and the mother of Jesus through divine intervention. Not until this declaration did many of the Marian doctrines and beliefs emerge.

Marina Warner, in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, states that of the four Marian dogmas--divine motherhood, virginity, the immaculate conception, and the assumption--only divine motherhood can be "unequivocally traced to scripture." And in scripture, she continues, the Hebrew word almah, which means simply a woman of marriageable age in the Book of Isaiah, was changed to the Greek parthenos, which usually means a woman whose virginity is intact. "In the pre-Christian Roman empire," Warner adds, "virgin birth was a shorthand symbol commonly used to designate a man's divinity."

Sifting through all this, I wondered what was left of the nativity stories burned into my soul back when Christmastime felt as magical as Santa Claus and flying reindeer. So I asked Father Kannengiesser what we know for sure about Jesus' birth. He smiled and said, "The fact is, Jesus existed. He was born. Period. That's it."

Accepting the mystery of Jesus' incarnation, scholars will tell you, is more a matter of faith than reproductive biology. Or linguistics. Or the mythologies of ancient cultures. It is also, in the words of Cullen Murphy, "a subject that remains a matter of highly nuanced discussion." On the other hand, Gerald O'Collins affirms the doctrine of the Incarnation and asserts that Matthew and Luke "agreed that the conception came about without human intercourse and through the power of the Holy Spirit." And he calls for a belief in miracles.

Others may prefer the view of John Hick, who has written widely and controversially on the subject of Jesus as Christ and mythical figure. "The reason why it has never been possible to state a literal meaning for the idea of Incarnation," he says, "is simply that it has no literal meaning. It is a mythological idea, a figure of speech, a piece of poetic imagery. It is a way of saying Jesus is our living contact with the transcendent God. In his presence we find that we are brought into the presence of God, [and] that in living as his disciples we are living according to the divine purpose. Thus reality is being expressed mythologically when we say that he is the Son of God, God Incarnate, the Logos made flesh."

Believing Christians were quarreling about this mystery of God-made-man long before the scientific outlook came along. Even after Nicea, defining Jesus was a problem for many. In 451, another council was convened--this time in Chalcedon--to try to get at the truth about Jesus' nature. It was then, four centuries after his death, that Jesus was described as having two complete natures: that of God and that of man.

This determination, though, was based upon more than an analysis of the nativity narratives. The other factors--the next few moves in that game of pickup sticks--are waiting.

Messiah

Very little is known about Jesus' early years because almost nothing was recorded about them. It is unlikely, despite tales to the contrary, that he was an only child. Luke refers to Jesus as Mary's first-born, and Matthew alludes to sisters and names brothers. Historians are confident that he grew up in Nazareth and probably learned his father's trade, perhaps that of carpenter. But naggar, the Aramaic word meaning carpenter or craftsman, is often used in Talmudic sayings to mean a scholar or learned man. And although its Greek counterpart, tekton, is usually translated as carpenter, it can also mean stone, mason or smith.

It is also important to note, though the point seems obvious, that Jesus was a Jew. He therefore knew scripture, participated in Jewish ceremonies, and discussed the laws, teachings, and practices of that religion. Or as the Reverend John P. Meier of Catholic University has pointed out: Jesus did not intend to establish a new religion; he was Jewish.

Nor, says Meier, was Jesus interested in political or social reform in the world; he was, in fact, prophesying its end. The era in which he was raised was well-suited for his public mission. Socially, politically, and religiously, the culture was in ferment. Armageddon seemed imminent, and miracle-workers, charismatic holy men, nomadic teachers, and doom saying prophets were common, wandering the arid plains preaching, healing, exorcising demons, and attracting followers. One of these was John the Baptist.

In about 28 or 29 CE (or the year 3788 since the creation of the world, according to Jewish reckoning), during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Jesus left his home, joined the followers of one apocalyptic prophet, and--heeding John's call to repent and be saved--was baptized by him near the mouth of the Jordan River.

Historians surmise that Jesus stayed with the Baptist until about the time of John's execution, when Jesus prudently returned to Galilee. Shortly thereafter, Jesus began teaching his own theories of the coming Parousia: the kingdom of God, he said; was at hand.

Scholars have estimated the length of Jesus' evangelical life as lasting anywhere from several months to two years. As with other aspects of his story, the events of this public ministry are shrouded in uncertainty and disagreement due to discrepancies in the sources and doubts about them.

Academic conferences are often devoted solely to determining which sayings and parables may have originated with Jesus, which may have been drawn from older documents, and which may have come from evangelists putting words in his mouth decades after his death. "It's highly unlikely we get Jesus' exact words; says Adela Yarbro Collins, a biblical scholar and Notre Dame professor of theology. “Oral tradition doesn't work that way." But, she adds, "a fair amount" from the synoptic gospels is "close to what he said" and provides scholars with a starting point to analyze his teachings.

No one really knows for sure, though, what's authentic and what's not. Some words attributed to Jesus echo prior Jewish scriptures, and some parables and miracle tales may have been added later, with messages intended for the various faith communities struggling with their beliefs in the early decades of the church.

Similar questions arise when the miracles are discussed. Historians indicate that healings and exorcisms were fairly common in Jesus' time (and, they point out, are still considered legitimate occurrences in some cultures today). While scholars agree Jesus was doing extraordinary things, other miracle workers such as Hanina ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, and Apollonius of Tyana were performing similar deeds.

Less credence is given to the claims for other kinds of miracles. "Anything involving changes of nature," says Notre Dame's John Collins, "we are more inclined to regard as theological fictions." The purposes of these legends, scholars believe, are to give insight into Jesus' teachings, to demonstrate his supernatural powers, to affirm his divinity, and to reinforce faith. Among theologians today, the consensus seems to be: don't count on the miracles to prove that Jesus was God.

"These nature miracles," says Thomas Sheehan in the highly controversial book, The First Coming, "are simply legends which arose among early Christians and which were projected backward, under the impact of faith, into the life of the historical Jesus. The motive may have been to make him appear at least the equal of the numerous miracle workers widely reported in the rabbinical and Hellenistic religious literature of the times." It is significant, some scholars point out, that no mention of the miracles-or even of Jesus' resurrection-is found in documents other than those compiled by believers.

When dissecting the gospels for clues to Jesus' nature, scholars are more likely to concern themselves with simple terms like Son of Man, Son of God, and Abba. Exegetes (those who study scripture critically) have looked to those terms, attributed to Jesus when speaking of himself, for clues as to who Jesus thought he was. And they've also pondered designations like lord and messiah to try to understand how his disciples perceived him. The result, predictably, has led to differing opinions.

One theory suggests that Son of Man, bar nasha, a seemingly profound and mysterious appellation found on some 70 occasions in the synoptic gospels, was used in the vernacular as a roundabout way of saying "I" or simply meant "a person"--"someone." Others think it is an allusion to the mysterious figure prophesied in the seventh chapter of Daniel. Son of God, most scholars agree, is an ambiguous title at best; so, too, is lord from the Aramaic mare, which could be interpreted in a spectrum of ways from the mundane "sir" to the divine "lord."

The meaning of messiah ("the anointed one") is even more nuanced--a rich mine for linguists to excavate. It could have meant several things, from a spiritual redeemer descending from David to a political and military king and not necessarily a divine person. In the 150 years before Jesus, the messiah to come was anticipated in broader eschatological terms as the ruler of all nations whom God would appoint at the end of time.

In the first century, states Father Meier in his New York Times essay, there was no one doctrine on a or the messiah; in fact, several were expected. “The title messiah," writes Meier, "is often presumed to be central to Jesus' identity, but that is to read later Christian concepts and definitions back into a much more confused time."

But, counters Father O'Collins, Jesus' followers called him "messiah" and thought of him as being God's agent of salvation--the Christ. "At the very least,” writes O'Collins, "he thought of himself as God's final agent of salvation. Did he also see himself as a royal deliverer from David's line? It seems unlikely that Jesus would have been crucified on the charge of being a royal messianic pretender if he had never implicitly made such a claim. At the same time, he did not directly announce his messianic identity."

All this--and Jesus' virtual silence on the subject--has left scholars with more questions than answers. The puzzle becomes still more intriguing when scholars turn to the Aramaic Abba. Cullen Murphy explains: "What chiefly seems to distinguish Jesus from other Jewish charismatics is the intensity of what has been called his Abba experience, an experience that perhaps lies at the heart of his sense of authority.” The word is Aramaic for the male parent, but it is an intimate term, more like dad than father. And it would be remarkable for a Jew in Jesus' time to be on such close and casual terms with God.

"The word is not unique to Jesus," Murphy continues, "but it is employed by him in a unique fashion, and if there is any word in the New Testament that one can be absolutely certain that Jesus used, used frequently, and used with a particular meaning, it is this one."

The word is meaningful, scholars say, because it implies an extraordinary relationship between Jesus and God, and because Jesus assumes a special authority in that bond. Notre Dame's Father Krieg concurs: "While historical studies have not shown that Jesus called himself God, they have shown--at the very least--that Jesus believed he possessed an unusual intimacy with God, an intimacy so unusual it moved him to undertake a bold mission and to call God Abba, or papa."

The extent of that relationship hovers beyond the reach of biblical exegetes looking for an answer to the question, "Who did Jesus say he was?” That query suggests the next obvious step in the attempt to probe Jesus' psyche: his self-understanding.

While some scholars have ventured an informed guess on Jesus' perception of himself and his mission, no one knows what was going on in his mind. And as with the poet who is no longer around to explain his poem, it is impossible to know how the historical Jesus viewed his life's work.

Did he see himself as one sent from God on some sacred mission? Was he simply another Jewish prophet preparing his followers for the coming Parousia? Did events unfold in such a way that he became aware of his role and divinity as time went on? Or did he--from the beginning--consider himself God's equal? The answers to these questions, doubtlessly pondered by those who talked and laughed and ate with him, remain elusive to us today.

The End of Time

To those who knew him, Jesus was an itinerant preacher, an eschatological prophet forecasting the end of historical time. Unlike John the Baptist, whose message was fire and brimstone, Jesus spoke of a God of mercy, a caring father figure, a new kingdom of love and peace. He was a miracle worker, a holy man through whom God was said to work in this world.

Jesus was a teacher, a charismatic storyteller who conveyed truths in parables that were sometimes enigmatic but always rich in meaning. His stories often contradicted conventional wisdom or challenged the status quo. And in his teachings he emphasized the spirit and not the letter of the law: appearances and social or religious convention did not matter as much as inner truth. He spoke in favor of an individual spirituality, a personal relationship with God, even if it meant disregarding bureaucratic authority.

He was a radical--partial to the poor, the downtrodden, the outcasts of society. So his followers were often the marginalized, those on the fringes: fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors. But he consoled them, advised them to gather spiritual treasures rather than material ones, for the kingdom of God was at hand.

It was for these teachings and for speaking with such startling authority that Jesus was considered dangerous. It's not clear now which felt more threatened by him--the Jewish religious establishment or the Roman political structure. Perhaps the religious authorities feared military reprisals and didn't want to pay for the transgressions of a minor cult. It is unlikely that Jesus knew what was brewing, however, and his pilgrimage to Jerusalem simply brought tensions to a head. It was neither the first nor the last time that a messianic prophet was arrested, tried, and crucified for radical teachings.

Pontius Pilate, a stern and arrogant Roman prefect, had arrived in Jerusalem in 26 CE. He governed most of Palestine as a Roman province, gathering taxes and keeping the public order. Today, some historians say, he would be called an anti-Semite; he reportedly harassed and sometimes murdered pious Jews.

Apocalyptic preachers with messianic aspirations were a serious threat to the empire. Jesus did not ease any suspicions about his purpose by riding triumphantly into Jerusalem or by routing the sellers and moneychangers from the temple precinct.

While the date of the Last Supper is in dispute, the gospels agree it took place on a Thursday evening some 20 hours prior to Jesus' death. Jesus probably used the occasion as a farewell meal, bracing his disciples (perhaps representing the 12 tribes of Israel) for his death but expressing confidence in the fulfillment of his mission. Later that evening, probably in the olive grove of Gethsemane east of the city, Jesus was apprehended by the temple police, sent by the chief priests.

Though the gospels differ somewhat on what happened next, it is believed that Jesus faced a stern investigation before the chief priests of the Sanhedrin (the supreme council of the religious establishment) who interrogated him about what he was saying and doing. It is not known whether he spoke in his defense or simply deferred; but if the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death, it is unclear why it did not carry out the execution but, instead, took the case to Pilate. The confrontation with Pilate and his reasons for executing the Nazarene are clouded with uncertainty, myth, and interpretation.

It is believed that Jesus, as with most men condemned to crucifixion, was scourged with leather straps fitted with pieces of sharp metal and bone. He was then forced to carry a crossbeam weighing about 100 pounds to the place of execution. There he was affixed with ropes and nails to the beam and a vertical post. Over his head was placed a sign that probably read, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." He was executed by the Roman authorities for being a messianic pretender.

The end came slowly: death by exposure, blood loss, and asphyxiation. He was crucified around midday-probably in 30 CE. He was dead before dusk. It is ironic that just prior to his expiration he did not call out to Abba but was said to cry, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani" from the Aramaic interpretation of Psalm 22 ("My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?").

Shortly thereafter, if not before, virtually all of his followers were scattered on the wind.

Something Happened

The game of pick-up sticks is down to its final moves; only a few remain. This is the central tangle upon which the arrangement rests, for without the resurrection the Jesus story depreciates considerably. But if the accounts of Jesus' life are an indecipherable mix of fact and fiction, history and myth, the events following his crucifixion have become a veritable mystery.

When I was a boy at St. John Berchman's School, I heard the tales of Easter morning, of Jesus bursting forth from the tomb, blasting away boulders, and blinding the armed guards. An angel stayed behind to say he had left; the body was gone, risen from the dead. And those with doubts were admonished by the story of Thomas putting his hands into the wounds. But it didn't exactly happen that way, it now seems.

The gospel accounts of Easter morning are sketchy and inconsistent. Anyone looking for coherence finds mostly fragments—angels with oblique instructions, people fleeing not in joy but in fear an empty tomb but no immediate sighting. The uncertainty has spawned a multitude of theories, from saying that Jesus never died but went to live in India to speculation about what a movie camera would have recorded had it been placed outside the tomb.

"You can get a major migraine headache trying to put the resurrection together from the synoptic gospels," says Lawrence Cunningham, a Notre Dame theologian. "But it's clear that the early church felt that whatever the resurrection meant, something had happened not only to his followers but also to Jesus."

No one is certain precisely what it was that happened that morning or in the weeks thereafter. Nor is it clear what is meant by Jesus' "appearances." Scholars agree the visitations were sporadic and probably strange encounters. Theologians today dismiss the idea that a resuscitated corpse was randomly dropping in on the disciples during that. six-week period following the crucifixion. When I asked John Collins about the story of Thomas touching the wounds, he said, "What you have to remember is that the body which Thomas put his hands into was the body of someone who had not entered through a door. Paul calls it a 'spiritual body; whatever that is."

Other theologians have used the term glorified body, while some scholars proffer theories of visions, apparitions, or hallucinations. Still others say Jesus' followers merely felt his presence in an extraordinarily strong way, or that Jesus had been transformed--delivered from an earthly existence to an immortal one.

Whatever transpired, says Schillebeeckx, the Dutch theologian, is so alien to human experience that it cannot be fully understood but must be accepted on faith. That, of course, doesn't make the post-Easter events any less real. "The resurrection," he adds, "is a vindication of Jesus, and not only a kind of ratification of the values proclaimed by Jesus. It is also a ratification of the person of Jesus. Something happened to Jesus himself."

Whatever happened had an incredible effect on Jesus' followers. The very ones who had fled in fear now regrouped--probably with Simon, renamed Peter, who was reportedly the first to witness the risen Christ. They were willing to face death in order to spread the word. The depth of their belief and the stories they told attracted others to the Galilean holy man who was said to have been raised from the dead.

"The Christian movement began," writes Gerald O'Collins, "with the simple announcement that the crucified Jesus had been raised to new life and had appeared to some witnesses." These witnesses, he continues, "defined God in terms of the risen Christ,” whom they named "Lord and Son of God." It was then that claims were made about his divinity. "The starting point for Christology was Christ's existence after death," explains O'Collins. "From there Christians moved back through his baptism, his conception, and his birth and childhood to his preexistence when they sought to clarify and express his origins." The debate over these issues and Jesus' nature wasn't settled then. And it isn't settled now, despite the proclamations of Nicea and Chalcedon. And it isn't surprising, after all this time, that those looking for fact and truth and certainty eventually bump up against words like miracle, mystery, and faith--leaving the last of the pick-up sticks on the table where they've been for thousands of years.


Copyright 2007 Kerry Temple.

 

On Reading the Bible:  the Inadequacies of Translations

 

There are no translations which carry forth the original meaning, the meaning intended by the authors of each book of the Bible, the meaning which the audience at the time the work.  For example, the King James translation over and over again had taken terms and translated them into what was commonly believed in 1611; "the sea of reeds" becomes "the Red Sea" in Exodus.  Religious dogma colors translations.  Eramus in his diary, write how his associates wanted a certain meaning for a passage on the trinity found in the epistle of Paul translated consistent with Protestant faith, and Eramus obliged.  There are over and over again terms like "robes, satyr, and azazel" which found new meanings in translation.  People of faith do not make good historians, archaeologists or translators when the subject of endeavor is their sacred book.  The task of translation falls upon those of faith, and publishers want profits.