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.

Understanding world religions encourages dialogue, peace

interfaith tree

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week I wrote about violence against Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.  It wasn’t the only time I wrote about conflict on the global stage, nor will it be my last.

I feel that, as an author on the religion page, it is one of my jobs to educate you, dear reader, in what is going on beyond our community to remind all of us of the work of God and the cause of peace that remains before us, even if it is not at our doorstep.

I am not ignorant to the fact that conflict has always been an issue for us humans; and I fear that it will be around far longer than I will walk this earth.  Yet, I also believe that we assess conflict in our world differently than we have in years past, sometimes to our detriment.

Yesteryear, people learned about conflicts by reading newspapers and watching a couple of broadcasts.  When the Vietnam war was underway, people got news from a media that largely agreed on the facts that made for headline news.

These days, our news comes to us in snippets through a variety of sources ranging from traditional media to the internet.  This does make us a more-informed people, but it can also be confusing.

Our large planet grows ever smaller with 24-hour news cycles and real-time reporting.

In order to make sense of this fragmented source data, however, cable news networks now provide “commentary” on the news.  But it is commentary that is biased, often to the extreme poles of our unique ideologies.

This makes for exciting news, but not for news that promotes peace and reconciliation in local and international communities.  Often, this kind of news-reporting does the opposite: It creates “sides” in debates and adds fuel to (in)tense conflicts that can sometimes get blown out of proportion.

One “victim” of this type of sensational media is our understanding of the world’s largest religions.  I bet if you were to poll a bunch of people, you would get various opinions about, say, Christianity — opinions formed not by the truths that exist in the belief system itself but based on caricatures of Christians from the news.

In fact, some of these surveys already exist.  Surveys of people ages 18-34, for instance, consistently show that a majority of people in this age group have a negative perception of Christianity.  This negativity stems not from the reality of what Christians believe, but on what those who are surveyed perceive to be true about Christians based on what they’ve heard in the news or the movies.

Same can be said of Islam.  Although a majority of people have a favorable view towards American Muslims, only 44% of evangelicals have a positive view of Muslims, according to a report in the Christian Post.  A majority of people who are religious also fear living near a Muslim mosque.

One of the ways to combat the misunderstanding of any religion is to be educated on what religions are really about.  Although every religion has a radical minority longing to convert others by means of violence, intimidation, or coercion, a majority of the world’s religions are positive, peaceful contributors to society.

Yet, if our only information of the world’s religions come by way of a sensational media or neighbors who believe in stereotypes rather than the reality of what religions are all about, then our misinformation can foster greater conflict rather than dialogue and healthy community formation.

A well-rounded education is essential, and understanding provides a path to greater conversations grounded in reality.

And with a world torn asunder by conflict, religious or otherwise, it becomes ever more important to learn about the religions of people who are our neighbors, allied nations, and–perhaps someday–our very friends.  May the Prince of Peace guide our path.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia serves as Interfaith Congregational Liaison for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  

He is also pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which is hosting a 10-week seminar “Tour of World Religions” free and open to the public beginning Wednesday, January 7th, at 6:45 PM.