Paul the first century apostle, for some unknown reason, appears on a university campus, befriends a professor named Don, learns English and much of our modern culture and then holds forums at the university.
Don: Alright, we have a number of hands raised. Rachel, would you like to be next?
Rachel: Thank you, Professor. Paul, I was wondering what you thought about the current thinking about the historical Jesus.
Paul: Well, Jesus is just as historical as I was. Am. I don’t know what else I can say about that.
Rachel: Perhaps you haven’t done the reading…
Don: Would you like to summarize, briefly, the argument of the historic Jesus?
Rachel: (Blushing) I’m not sure I can… Well, I’ll take a stab at it…
Paul: You are attacking it, then?
Don: No, Paul, that’s a figure of speech…
Paul: I understand. Just a little levity, that’s all.
Rachel: Okay. Anyway, the basic idea behind the historic Jesus is not a questioning of Jesus himself, but of discovering who Jesus really was. I’m sure that you understand that the four or five gospels we have—the oldest existing accounts about Jesus—were written with theological and cultural biases and so historians have been trying to strip away those biases to get to who Jesus really was, what he really said and what he really did. I was wondering if you, who saw Jesus in real life, could throw some light on the subject.
Paul: Well, there are many things I could talk about that. Let me say, first, that I am as in the dark about Jesus as you are in this century.
Rachel: But, you saw Jesus…
Paul: Yes, I did. For but a few moments going up to Damascus. Jesus didn’t say all that much to me. Enough for me to change the whole direction of my life, but still, very little.
Rachel: But that was just a vision…
Paul: I don’t believe it was. He stood before me as plainly as you do right now. In fact, he was closer to me. This was no vision—I’ve had those, too, and being in the presence of Jesus was very different.
Rachel: But, surely, you have some insights on the process of trying to discover the real Jesus.
Paul: The real Jesus? The only way to experience the real Jesus is through the spirit, not primarily through books.
Rachel: So… you deny the gospels as being a primary source of Jesus?
Paul: No. They are a primary source of what Jesus said and did while he was living on earth, ministering among his disciples. But I do not consider that to be the real Jesus.
Rachel: So you are saying that the historic Jesus…
Paul: Is different from the Jesus who lives right now in the heavens, ruling the earth beside the Father.
Rachel: So, you think that there is no point in us knowing that Jesus of old?
Paul: Just the opposite. I think that it is essential to know that Jesus.
Rachel: I’m really confused…
Paul: I’m sorry. Let me explain. To know Jesus is to have a relationship with Jesus. Jesus is—he exists. And to have a relationship with someone is to know who that one IS, not was. But the only way to know Jesus is through the Spirit, in an unseen relationship. But there is more than one spirit, and so more than one potential relationship. And just because a spirit claims to be of Jesus, this does not mean that it is the “real Jesus” as you say. Thus, we need to know the Jesus that lived and breathed and spoke as a man, so we can know the spiritual “Jesus” as being an accurate one. It is a litmus test, so to speak.
Rachel: So the reason we want to know the Jesus of the past is to affirm that the present Jesus we are connecting with is the real one?
Rachel: So what is the best way to know the historic Jesus today?
Paul: The same way it was for me: through eyewitnesses.
Rachel: But witnesses are so biased…
Paul: Yes, of course. So are we all. But does that make them any less reliable than us?
Rachel: Well, they had such theological prejudices…
Paul: As if your scholars don’t have their prejudices as well! We ALL have our biases and prejudices and all. The real question is: are we willing to recognize our prejudices when they are pointed out to us by Jesus and to set them aside?
Rachel: Our scholars are trained in objectivity…
Don: Could I make a point here? As a professor in a university, I need to say, Rachel, that every scholar is enormously biased and if they are trained in objectivity as students, that objectivity is almost universally set aside when they become a scholar in their own right.
Rachel: So you’re saying that even historical scholarship aren’t really dealing with facts?
Don: Oh, no. Historians very much deal with facts. But the job of historians is not primarily in discovering facts, but in sifting through the massive amount of true material to find what is significant and to draw conclusions about those relatively few significant facts. So the “truth” of historians is automatically different from the “truth” of, let’s say, chemistry. In chemistry, you set up a repeatable experiment and only one set of facts “works”, meaning fulfills the terms of the experiment. But in history, a number of sets of facts can “work”, or create a plausible theory to account for historical events. Thus, history is actually LESS objective than many other kinds of study.
Rachel: So what is history about, then?
Don: In my opinion? To uphold a cultural consensus of how human society works and what is important in society.
Paul: Which is to the point of what I was trying to say. It seems to me that the “historic Jesus” you were speaking about has little to do with finding the “real Jesus” and more to do with finding a Jesus that is acceptable and communicable to the cultural standards of your present society. You are not looking for the “real” Jesus. You are looking for the Jesus that meets your needs.
Rachel: I don’t think so. Otherwise, the scholars would have a consensus of what Jesus would be like, and that consensus would reflect our cultural standards. But it seems that we have as many Jesus’ as we do scholars.
Paul: Is that so? Don was telling me the other day about this… Jesus Seminar? Is that part of this movement you speak of?
Rachel: It is a populist form of it, I admit, but they were just disguising democracy as scholarship and then publicizing it.
Paul: Did they not reach some kind of consensus?
Rachel: Well, of course, but it wasn’t accurate scholarship.
Paul: Do not the scholars who participated in it uphold it as accurate? And generally reflecting their view of Jesus?
Rachel: I suppose.
Paul: And what conclusions did they come to?
Rachel: That most of the sayings in the gospel could not be attributed to Jesus.
Paul: Were there any surprising findings?
Rachel: Well, they did affirm the saying “love your enemies” saying, even though it was attested to only one source.
Paul: And did they affirm this because they approved of this concept, whether Jesus historically said it or not?
Rachel: I’m sure I wouldn’t know.
Paul: I think you do know. Let me tell you, Jesus was his own man. I know pretty much all the sayings of Jesus by heart. Every disciple needed to. That was our job: to memorize and repeat the sayings and life of Jesus. And these written forms of the teachings of the disciples, which you call “gospels”, are fairly representative. While the text you call “John” is certainly different, I have heard such teachings in my former life. And while I might wish that some of these traditions passed to you were written differently, nevertheless, I cannot dispute the basic content of a single one. This is what, fundamentally, I taught to every church I ever started.
Rachel: YOU used the gospels?
Paul: Not the gospels as you know them, per se. But the teachings that they contain. Don’t you realize that the ideas found in those gospels were the foundation of every church. When we had disputes, we disputed what the sayings and actions MEANT, but not about what they SAID. These sayings were Jesus in a distilled form. No, they did not, nor do not, represent the whole Jesus. Jesus was so more complex and multifaceted than could be described in a single book. But these sayings formed a foundation upon which we could build our understanding of who Jesus IS.
Rachel: So wouldn’t you support an accurate history of Jesus?
Paul: Absolutely. It sounds like your scholars desperately need it. But if they saw an accurate, historical account of Jesus, they would reject it. Because if Jesus broke all of our expectations, hopes and theologies, he would certainly break yours, built up over two thousand years of misunderstandings and wanderings.
Rachel: But if Jesus is real and speaks to people today, like you say, then wouldn’t he lead his people to the truth about him?
Paul: Certainly—at least the truth that was significant for them to know at the time, anyway. But only those who were his. I have read enough of the history of the church to know that the majority of the people who claim to follow Jesus are not following the real Jesus at all. They have long set aside any semblance of the historic Jesus—the foundation of the real Jesus—and instead have pursued an acceptable Jesus for them. Like I said, there are any number of spirits that claim to be Jesus or to represent him. And they have led the church astray in so many ways they are innumerable. But there are those few, those poor, those persecuted, those outcast by the carnal church, who truly follow Jesus—the real Jesus—with all their heart. But they are either rejected as crackpots by those who gain the publicity of seeking the “real Jesus” or they are exalted to “saint” status and so ignored for real life possibilities. Which fate is worse, I’m sure I don’t know.