Friday, 3 October 2014

Jesus and the Object of History

I spend so much time on philosophy and method of history in historical Jesus studies that sometimes I forget to take a step back and consider the man himself. So I want to spend time thinking about that here. I begin with two observations. First, Jesus was Jewish. Second, although he was not Christian, Jesus's life and ministry were a direct cause of this thing we call Christianity. Thus we must demonstrate how Jesus represents a development within Judaism whilst he laid the groundwork for developments within Christianity. The same holds really for most if not all of the apostolic generation; even Gentile figures appear to have been deeply immersed in Jewish thought, but here I'm thinking specifically of Jesus. Thus rather than a criteria of double dissimilarity we have a principle of double continuity: a Jesus continuous with Judaism and from which Christianity reasonably continues in turn is a desideratum put upon us by the content of the data.

This almost immediately eliminates such oddities as the Cynic Jesus, even its somewhat odder variant, the Jewish Cynic: the former because it does not adequately situate Jesus within his Jewish matrix, the latter because Cynicism is no part of said matrix. It also calls into question narratives that proceed by posing Jesus in radical opposition to Paul. Part of what we need to explain is how we get from Jesus to Paul. Despite what I just said, the Cynic Jesus offers a powerful insight in this effort, for by emphasizing Jesus's social criticism it helps to retrieve an oft-neglected aspect of Jesus's work. This is better situated within a prophetic paradigm, however, which is to say that I think we best understand Jesus when we think of him as the latest in a long lineage of Israelite and Jewish prophets, persons who turned the rich resources of the Israelite and Jewish theological tradition to critique abuses of power in their immediate context. They were, in Lonergan's language, reasonable and responsible, which is to say authentic, persons, railing against the irrationality and irresponsibility, which is to say inauthenticity, of the cultural and social matrices in which they found themselves, using the conceptual resources available to them, namely those of the Israelite and Jewish theological tradition. Jesus was one such person, as was Paul later.

That both Jesus and Paul at times focused their critique upon perceived problems with Judaism and Jewish life itself is not in and of itself anti-Jewish, anymore than my critiques of the current state of things in Canada makes me anti-Canadian. Quite the opposite: it was out of their love for and commitment to their tradition and their people that they spoke up. I thus see Jesus increasingly as what we might call the loyal opposition: out of his love for his Jewish kinsmen he critiqued what he considered to be abuses of power within his Jewish milieu. This he did using the resources of the Jewish theological tradition, even more specifically the prophetic, although certainly there were likely valences of the apocalyptic and the wisdom. I add that qualifier because in point of fact the lines between prophetic, apocalyptic, and wisdom were porous in the Second Temple period.

I also have no problem describing him as eschatological, but only if it is understood that Jewish eschatology is always also protology: it is an account not simply of the end but of a new beginning. Jesus I think anticipated an imminent renewal of Israel and through Israel all creation. It seems very likely that he expected this to occur via what would seem to us miraculous and supernatural means: the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Yet I think that he, with some degree of paradox, worked to effect change in the here and now, to encourage people to live together in a better, more perfectly and heavenly way. The extent to which he envisioned a continuity between such contemporary renovation and the impending cosmic renovation is open to question. Did he think that through his work there would emerge communities of goodness and light that would endure through the eschaton and into the coming new era? I suspect that this was the case, but I would not at this point press the case. That said, I am playing with the possibility that Jesus intended to establish communities that he expected would be protected from God's wrath during the eschaton and endure into the new creation, and that this best accounts for the distinctive forms taken by Christian communities and identity.

Anyways, that's a very brief synopsis of what I currently think about the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing particularly radical. One can easily detect hints of Ben F. Meyer, but also of Richard Horsley. This reflects my appreciation for both Lonerganian critical realism and the liberation tradition. But with all the talk of method and philosophy, sometimes it's good to just sit back and think about the object of study. So there you have it.

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