The New Quest for the Historical Jesus

Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

In the last two hundred years of biblical research, scholars have outlined various “quests” for the historical Jesus.  Each quest accompanies new insights into historical records and artifacts that emphasize some never-before-understood facet about Jesus of Nazareth.

The first quest, around the turn of the eighteenth century, applied new approaches of historical inquiry to the Bible.  Many, like Thomas Jefferson, concluded that Jesus was a wise sage whose many miracles were an invention of the early church.

Other quests thereafter understood Jesus to be a prophet who proclaimed the world’s imminent end.

Now, with the start of a new century, we stand in the shadow of a contemporary, burgeoning quest for the historical Jesus.  Unlike years past, it combines historical research with literary criticism, specialized interpretation, and global, multicultural experiences of the Risen Christ.

For many, the freedom to marry objective inquiry with spiritual, global awakening is refreshing.

I am reminded of a book review I did some time ago on Jonathon Merritt’s Jesus is Better than You Imagined.  I noted that the book focused on Merritt’s experiences of Jesus more than the life of Christ or the many ways that historians understand his ministry, death, and resurrection.

Little did I know that this type of experiential writing tipped a hat to a new quest that makes the reading community–those of us deeply invested in the Bible and the life of Christ–a part of the interpretation of who Christ was and is.

edgarIn his book, Jesus Christ Today, New Testament scholar Edgar McKnight notes that this kind of interpretation marks one of three contemporary interpretative resources that define a new quest for the historical Jesus.

Whereas the first resource is that of experience and multicultural theology, a second resource originates in ongoing conversations with world religions.

Echoing an age-old question aptly summarized by Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, Christians are asking whether Jesus is the “name above names” or simply “the name among other names.”

Our understanding of other world religions — their dissimilarities as well as similarities to Christianity, including similarities related to a penchant towards religious fundamentalism and violence — is shaping how we read Christ’s teachings and the impact he has made on the church and history.

No matter how we answer Knitter’s question, however, we cannot deny that theological study and dialogue with other religions illuminates Jesus’ presence in our life.

A third interpretative resource consists of scholars and clergy who understand Jesus as a rabbi deeply embedded in the Judaism that shaped his teachings and understanding of God.

It was not until after the Holocaust–and the realization that much of Christian theology influenced anti-Semitic policies in the west–that scholars revisited and affirmed Jesus’ Jewish identity and relationship to the people of Israel.

Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright are but some contemporary scholars who have mined the Bible with this field of investigation in mind.  N. T. Wright, a popular author even in conservative, evangelical circles has argued persuasively that Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Jewish worldview of the First Century.

It is precisely this type of quest that has ignited a reexamination of the Bible and inspired Christians to practice a vibrant, fresh faith in which Jesus has become all the more “relevant” in the minds of believers around the world.

It is relevant because this examination has political ramifications.  The more Christians listen to different communities of faith–be it Jewish or otherwise–the more Christians are forced to reconcile Jesus’ message of peace with the ongoing religious conflicts that detrimentally affect global politics and the Middle East in particular.

This new quest–steeped in interpretative communities that emphasize religious experience, world religions, and Jesus’ Jewish roots–has the power to add a valuable and much-needed voice in a world that is becoming more divisive and violent due to the fracturing of historical, political, and religious ideologies.

No matter where we stand in this new quest, may we faithfully seek Christ and respond to His cause for peace wherever we trod.

Rohingya Muslims: Among the most persecuted groups

Source: NPR.  Click on the picture for original link and photo.

Source: NPR. Click on the picture for original link and photo.

By Joe LaGuardia

For all of its bad ratings, the movie Waterworld with Kevin Costner had a creative premise.

Costner plays the Mariner who fights for survival within a (literal) sea of villains and mercenaries.  The story takes place in the near future, when melting polar ice caps result in all of earth’s existing land being covered by water.

What might life be like at sea for that length of time?  Just ask one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world, the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

The Rohingya represents an ethnic minority group who migrated to Myanmar around the eighth century.  Through a history of infighting, war, and eventual persecution, this small group found itself without any place to settle within a nation made up of 90% Buddhists.

The Myanmar government denied them citizenship in the 1990s, and conflicts came to a head in 2012 when ethnic violence erupted between Muslim and Buddhist gangs in the Rakhine province.

Since then, Buddhist nationalists have incited further violence against the Rohingya, forcing the group to live in ghettos or refugee camps.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled the country on makeshift boats, while others sought refuge with human smugglers.

Nearly 25,000 people made it safely to other countries; an undocumented number of people have been kidnapped into human trafficking rings (139 graves containing refugees were found, believed to be the result of smugglers killing people that families could not afford to ransom).

Nearly 1,000 refugees have settled in the United States since 2006, according to NPR.

Recent voyages from Myanmar’s coast have not been so fortunate.  Many countries, including those that are majority Muslim in the region, want nothing to do with the refugees.  A reported 3000 – 6000 people are currently stranded at sea with no place to go.

Some reports claim that United Nations humanitarian aid is on its way; but, like a scene right out of Waterworld, many refugees are running out of food and water.   The U. S. State Department is encouraging Myanmar to grant citizenship and access to food, shelter, and water to remaining Rohingya people groups.

The migration to surrounding nations is only the beginning of a threat they fear will worsen:  Government officials in New Dehli surmise that the combination of persecution and poverty make the Rohingya people prime candidates for radical terrorist recruitment.

As Baptist minister without a political science degree, I do not have answers, but I do agree with this assessment.

Earlier this year, Trinity Baptist Church hosted an interfaith dialogue with a Muslim activist, Kemal Korucu, who stated that terrorists, no matter the religion, are not born but bred.  The poor, uneducated, and displaced are susceptible to aggressive recruitment strategies perpetuated by ISIS, Boko Haram, and other terrorist organizations.

The Rohingya fit this caricature.  As people without citizenship, Rohingya children have been denied formal education.

Poverty is an every-day reality that many U. S. citizens cannot comprehend.  And lack of “place”– no more pronounced than ever as some are abandoned at sea — will only lead to people trying to find belonging.

If countries cannot band together to save these people now, I fear that young Rohingya men in particular will find belonging with our nation’s fiercest enemies rather than with friends.

For a people so far removed from this conflict, we cannot do much in turning the political tides of this crisis, but we can pray that governments and agencies will aid these lost people.  Pray that humanitarian relief efforts will meet those in need.

We can also pray for our missionaries who are laying deep roots in changing hearts for Christ, that many will not become susceptible to terrorism but, rather, bear witness to the Gospel that has the power to change all our lives for the better.

Building Christian coalitions is at critical juncture in Middle East

Iraq Christians

Please click on the picture for news source and more information about Christians in Iraq.

By Joe LaGuardia

Every week, a group of us from Trinity Baptist Church gather for coffee in Old Town, Conyers, to discuss whatever is on our minds.  Sometimes we try to solve the world’s problems.

This past week, conflicts in the Middle East came up for discussion.

As expected, it focused on ISIS, war in Iraq, and America’s tenuous Arab allies.

Everyone broached the issues in the news, but there was an overwhelming silence regarding a community that may just hold the key to a greater avenue of peace in the Middle East: Christian communities, some as ancient as the land upon which they walk, throughout the Arab world.

These Christians get very little press.  Sometimes they make the news–perhaps to highlight ISIS’s barbarism–but, as a whole, the Christian community in the Middle East is a community without a voice.

This is a tragedy in itself because Christians make up the second largest religious group in these parts, about 5% of the population.  They have deep roots, and they are usually the first to be persecuted (along with other religious minorities, including minority Mulsim sects) from Islamic radicals.

When ISIS swept across northern Iraq, for instance, Christians in the ancient town of Nineveh (the same Nineveh in the book of Jonah), were executed or forced to leave.  Nearly 200,000 Christians and thousands of Muslim minorities were displaced.

One Catholic news source noted that this past season was the first in which Christians did not take communion in the city for nearly 2000 years.

The temptation for us Americans is to assume that these, and other Middle Eastern, Christian communities look and worship like we do.  That is not the case.  Often, these Christian communities have rituals that go back beyond the founding of America, and their ties to political parties and tribal loyalties are deeply embedded.

This came out in a symposium hosted by a new organization, “In Defense of Christians“, last month.

The symposium consisted of a coalition of Christian leaders throughout the world who intend to advocate for religious freedoms for all religious minorities.

They partner across inter-faith lines, including Jewish and Muslim leadership; as well as political parties and coalitions.

One keynote speaker at the symposium, Senator Ted Cruz, did not understand the complexity of this coalition and got heckled for undermining the diversity of the crowd when he pushed an agenda for the state of Israel.  The hecklers–a vocal minority not representative of the organization–were then silenced by the crowd.  It was too late, as Senator Cruz walked off the stage.

The Senator’s message was not inherently negative or controversial (and most of his speech received positive praise)–and the leaders of “In Defense of Christians” quickly apologized for the unruliness–but it did reveal a profound lack of understanding of the audience’s breadth of loyalties, theologies, and ideologies.  (For thorough coverage on this incident, also see http://www.theamericanconservative.com/coppage/ted-cruz-crashes-defense-of-christians-summit/)

Aside from the many differences that exist between the Western Church and her Middle Eastern  brothers and sisters in places both strange and foreign, Christian communities–and the growing number of leaders that are seeking peace initiatives and reconciliation–may just hold the key to sustainable peace in the Middle East.

As a nation, the United States does not naively put all its eggs in one basket, and our nation will always defend its secular interests.  But when it comes to the sacred, we must begin having conversations with a Church that has existed for as long as we’ve had the Bible.

It’s time to invest resources and time in understanding how we can advocate for those who are dying daily for their faith–be it our own faith or that of others–on the margins.

Joe LaGuardia was recently named the Interfaith Congregational Liaison of the Baptist-Muslim Committee of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  For more information regarding Joe’s interfaith work with the CBF-GA, please visit his website.