An Inconvenient Jesus

An Inconvenient Jesus July 22, 2014

Frank Schaeffer has offered a blog post which seeks to highlight how unlike modern “Bible-believing Evangelicals” Jesus was. Here are some excerpts:

Jesus certainly was not a “Bible believer,” as we use that term in the post Billy Graham era of American fundamentalist religiosity that’s used as a trade-marked product to sell religion. Jesus didn’t take the Jewish scriptures at face value. In fundamentalist terms, Jesus was a rule-breaking relativist who wasn’t even “saved,” according to evangelical standards. Evangelicals insist that you have to believe very specific interpretations of the Bible to be saved. Jesus didn’t. He undercut the scriptures…

The stories about Jesus that survived the bigots, opportunists and delusional fanatics who wrote the New Testament contain powerful and enlightened truths that would someday prove the undoing of the Church built in his name. Like a futurist vindicated by events as yet undreamed, Jesus’ message of love was far more powerful than the magical thinking of the writers of the book he’s trapped in. In Jesus’ day the institutions of religion, state, misogyny and myth were so deeply ingrained that the ultimate dangerousness of his life example could not be imagined. For example his feminism, probably viewed as an eccentricity in his day, would prove transformational.

Jesus believed in God rather than in a book about God. The message of Jesus’ life is an intervention in and an acceleration of the evolution of empathy…

Click through to read the rest – be warned that Schaeffer drops an f-bomb in the post.

The post is not without its problems. Some of the incidents Schaeffer mentions are of questionable historicity, and if they are the invention of Gospel authors, then that undercuts his facile distinction between a Jesus supposedly misunderstood in his own time but understood today by Schaeffer, and the allegedly bigoted composers of the New Testament. It seems better to me to recognize that Jesus was a figure whose impact was both understood and at times rejected by his supporters as well as his opponents, and that the same continues to be true today, while the “full impact” of Jesus, as of any figure, may differ in later ages from what it seems to be in their own time.

But that said, as I have discussed here before on more than one occasion, it is certainly true that Jesus approached the Bible differently than modern Evangelicals tend to.

See also yesterday’s Salon article on the rise of the Christian left.

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  • I thought that was a great post by Frank Schaeffer.

    It does sometimes seem to me that American Evangelical Christianity has become the Anti-Christ.

    • Van Tillian

      Schaeffer plays both sides of the fence. I think it has reached the point where it is just about selling books.

      • I agree that Schaeffer’s blog seems to be mostly marketing himself.

  • Herro

    Yup. Many “progressive Christians” are still rather credulous when it comes to the Bible (I found out the other day that the “Former Fundie” believevs in the birth narratives) and also create Jesus in their own image (e.g. Frank calls him a feminist!).

  • redpill99

    Jesus believed as do many Jews that the OT and the Torah is the divinely inspired word. I don’t see any reason to think he wasn’t a Jewish fundamentalist, unless you regard the GThomas as being historically accurate.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Unless you want to ignore the general collective memory of Jesus found in the Gospels and instead focus on a couple of obscure, singularly attested sayings in Matthew, there’s not much evidence backing up your claim. Unless you are following the ridiculous James Tabor/Aslan conspiracy theory that Jesus was really a Jewish freedom fighter and history has been covering that up ever since . . .

      • redpill99

        those sayings in Matthew are a part of the general collective memory.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Given Matthew’s theological outlook and the fact those statements are not attested anywhere else, I see it more likely that they are from the evangelists and not from the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

          • redpill99

            one of the criteria of historical jesus studies is contextual credibility. a first century palestinian jew’s religious background is judaism, and all branches and sects of first century judaism teach Torah mi Sinai Kedushat HaTora. So Matthew’s statements have contextual credibility.

          • Of course, ‘redpill’ is absolutely correct. There is no indication that the statements in Matthew and the other gospels are somehow unreliable or out of accord with the contextual witness of the era. Saying Jesus did not have a high view of Scripture is simply waving off any historical context in the first place that would speak to the matter and simply arguing from silence. Failing to take the gospels as legitimate primary source historical accounts already demonstrates a point of view working far afield from early Jewish and Christian contexts in the first century.

            The problem here is not the statements of Jesus but rather a view of the Scriptures and history two thousand years removed from the actual context in question.

          • Contextual credibility or coherence is not, of course, a demonstration of historicity. Most invented material will reflect the context in which it is invented. That is why dissimilarity has often been used (and sometimes abused) as a strong indicator of probable historicity.

            The historical context, of course, shows the range of views of Scripture people had in that time, none of which described itself in the modern terminology of a “high view.” But Philo’s view of Scripture was certainly “high” and yet it was also allegorical, while the Gnostics took Genesis 1-3 as literally true and thus concluded that the creator depicted therein is an inferior demiurge.

            Unless you show that you are actually familiar with the contextual evidence, and discuss the details, then your appeals to the context are not likely to convince anyone of anything, except perhaps of your inadequate treatment of the relevant data.

          • Of course, trapping this whole issue with a certain sort of scientism is exactly part of the problem.

            We know the gospels to be from the era in question, we know via Hurtado and others that the early claims regarding Jesus are in line with the gospels and the claims made therein, and we know that there is no real textual reason to doubt the texts as they are written in line with what the church has believed for almost two thousand years. Only in the modern academy is dissimilarity lifted up somewhat arbitrarily above statements in the primary sources which demonstrate contextual continuity. Failure to examine the historiography behind such evaluations is a recipe for disaster as the Jesus Seminar and other efforts have shown quite ably. You are welcome to your skeptical view, but I don’t see any great merit to it.

            I also see no value in getting hung up on the term “high view” as if what we are doing is providing a one-to-one correspondence between Jesus and certain modern-day evangelicals. What Schaeffer rather anachronistically claimed was that Jesus wasn’t a Bible believer and that he didn’t take the Jewish Scriptures at face value. Schaeffer is simply off-base here and has no basis for his viewpoint once we excuse the gospels as evidence.

            If the gospels are admitted as appropriate historical evidence, then the view Jesus reflects is most certainly something other than what Schaeffer and others have presented above. To say otherwise simply means arguing from silence.

            If we disallow the gospels as evidence in this discussion, no amount of additional statements are available to us on this topic from Jesus. So to posit that Jesus had a different view is simply continuing to argue from silence. Furthermore, once we admit the gospels as legitimate evidence, Jesus directly quotes the Tanakh in referencing Scripture and people like a historical Adam. So, not only do the statements of Jesus need to be considered but also the relevant quotations from the Torah and elsewhere in addition to whatever context Second Temple Judaism might help provide. We have to remember that we’re talking about a man that inferred the reality of the resurrection from a point of grammar in the text and supported his view of marriage by referencing the creation account–all quite without any hint that he didn’t take the text at its word in terms of what it actually said.

          • You seem not to have understood the nuance of Hurtado’s scholarly conclusions, and you seem to think that the alternative is the Jesus Seminar rather than mainstream historical scholarship.

            You also seem to be reading the Biblical texts uncritically through the lens of your own concerns. For Paul, Adam is a symbolic countertype to Jesus so that he can write that “through one man sin entered the world” in order to make the contrast, even though the story he is alluding to in Genesis depicts a man and a woman as the protagonists. Then again, since you are ignoring details that are inconvenient to what you want to say, you could perhaps on that basis argue that you are being true to Paul’s own example. But I think that you will find that Paul in fact does not share your modern concerns as consistently as you assume he does. He may well have assumed that there was a historical Adam, just as he assumed that Aristotle was right to view the heart rather than the brain as the locus of human cognition. But that doesn’t justify our doing so when we have evidence to the contrary.

          • Whoa. I’m ignoring details while you are busy presenting your own gloss of how Paul viewed Adam? OK. Let’s just stipulate here that your viewpoint also faces issues in terms of the details or are you really going to argue that your view is the only sensible one? When did I even include Paul’s view of Adam in my comments above? It seems you are shadow-boxing with someone else.

            And, I mention the Jesus Seminar only as a matter of convenience because it provides a definite contrast. Hurtado’s nuances are not missed by me, but they remain quite irrelevant to what I’ve pointed out in the main. There simply remains no historical evidence that the gospels are somehow unreliable witnesses to what Jesus said and did.

          • If I seem to be shadow-boxing with a view different than your own, it is only because of your frustrating unwillingness to be specific about what your views are and what you think the evidence for them is.

            If the nuances of Hurtado’s position are irrelevant, then your claim that his conclusions support your view are obviously going to remain unpersuasive.

            If we consider the Gospel of John, the fact that it depicts Jesus speaking in words and a style that is at once different from the Synoptics, and the same as the author’s own style and the way other characters in that Gospel speak, then that most certainly does constitute historical evidence against the claim that the words attributed to Jesus in John can be treated as an accurate depiction of precisely what Jesus said on various occasions. Whether it gets the gist right is another matter, but perhaps not worth discussing here unless your view is that it is the gist of the Gospels that is inerrant.

          • We can agree with Hurtado in the main without needing to endorse everything he has written. I am unconcerned whether that makes my point unpersuasive from certain perspectives in the scholarly community today. But, you talk as if I’m ignorant of Hurtado’s nuances and unnecessarily so.

            The general point that the gospels agree with what Paul and post-resurrection Christians believed about him is what is at issue here. In fact, I don’t see how you can dispute that while maintaining that the gospels represent early opinion about Jesus rather than the actual words and deeds of Jesus. Further delineation on the part of Hurtado does not seem to me to be relevant–though you are welcome to be more specific in your claim.

            The existence of stylistic differences in conversation on the part of Jesus between John and the Synoptics are not proof that either of the accounts do not represent the so-called gist of Jesus or his words. To say so is to beg the question. The differences may provide a reason for your viewpoint, but that’s different than saying they substantiate your opinion without question.

            There are certainly other reasons why John could be different from the Synoptics and yet maintain a fidelity to what Jesus actually said. And, it’s interesting here that dissimilarity provides a reason to dismiss the historical accounts of the gospel while earlier you were arguing that dissimilarity ought to make clear that it’s a sign of historic authenticity. It seems to me we ought to ask why the principle is appropriate to apply in our historiography in one instance but not in the other. What would prevent us from seeing the value of dissimilarity in this instance?

          • And, I suppose we shouldn’t forget that though the notion of the “Synoptics” (and Markan priority) is a theory as to the nature of the gospels itself–not an unreasonable one, but we have to realize that when we build systems of understanding based off stacked theories we may approximate the truth of the matter but likely don’t always have room to say we absolutely know what these combined theories about the texts tell us. For all the certainty attached to the notion that Jesus was someone other than what the gospels point out according to many modern scholars, we have to realize the real picture provided by the academy is still conjecture if it is anything at all. This is compounded once we realize most scholars take a lot on faith in terms of the reigning paradigms offered and can really only substantiate the work they’ve actually specialized in over the life of their career.

          • Critically examining and then building on the work that others have done before is the only alternative to spending all one’s time discussing the same things that others have discussed before, never making any progress beyond that. But calling the results of painstaking examination of the evidence “conjecture” is dishonest in the extreme.

          • I’m not saying there’s no value to critical appraisals or building on the work of others. I’m simply emphasizing the limited nature of these results. The term “conjecture” is most certainly appropriate if the context of my remark is made regarding providing absolute or empirical proof for the claims of scholarly work. Besides, Karl Popper would likely disagree with you. He said all scientific theories remain conjecture.

          • When one author differs from earlier ones not only in style, but in having Jesus talk more about himself than about the kingdom of God, and having him speak as one conscious of having pre-existed in heaven while earlier Gospels did not, then this calls for an explanation. If you wish to suggest that there is a better explanation than the ahistoricity of these aspects of the Fourth Gospel, by all means do so. But pretending that they are mere dissimilarities which require no explanation does you no credit.

          • When did I say no explanation exists for these things? Rather, I said that explanations do exist. But, we have to be mindful that we’re operating within a certain paradigm by asking the questions we do or at least considering certain questions as more important than others. I’d like to ask why German idealism seems to retain some level of influence in considering these issues as well as urging us to continue to consider certain questions more important as a result. But, I’m guessing you won’t let that question on the floor.

          • redpill99

            Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews grow out of Pharisaic Judaism. Their belief is theTorah is the literal word for word dictation of Yahweh to Moses on Sinai.

            Personally i don’t any difference between Fundamentalist Jews belief in the inerrancy of the Torah, and the Christian fundamentalist belief in the inerrancy of the Bible that would validate Frank Schaeffer claims. Orthodox Jews are Torah believing, Evangelicals are bible believing.

            Jesus is not Philo, he was a first century peasant Jew from Galilee. The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as having come into conflict with the Pharisees, Sadducee, and the Teachers of the Law of Moses.

            Is there any documentary evidence that a first century Jew from Galilee would have any beliefs that differ from Torah mi Sinai Kedushat HaTora?

            Until such evidence is forthcoming, I see no evidential basis to Frank Schaeffer claim, since Jesus was a Torah-believing Jew in the same way Evangelicals are Bible believing Jews.

          • Scholars and historians have concluded that there was no dominant orthodoxy in Judaism in Jesus’ time. As you yourself indicated, that later view emerged out of one of many competing viewpoints in Jesus’ time.

            Jesus’ willingness to view a law as a concession by Moses, and his allowing of compassion to trump specific other laws, put him at odds with modern Evangelicalism, just as he was with many Pharisees in his own time, according to the Gospels.

          • redpill99

            a belief in common with evangelicals/fundamentalists is that the bible is the inerrant inspired word of god, a divinely inspired product. is there any evidence jesus did not see the torah as the inspired word of god to moses on Sinai?

          • Why not start with the specific evidence I mentioned?

          • “Scholars and historians have concluded” <– True, but that does not make an argument either nor does it make clear that there were certain commonalities between various groups in the Second Temple period especially when it comes to the received nature of the Torah and the other portions of Scripture.