Jesus: Crypto-Buddhist, Proto-Marxist, Radical Feminist, or What?

The relevance of Jesus in the modern world continues increasingly to include popular consciousness in an unprecedented variety across vast cultural horizons. From New Age Religion to, from the cover of Newsweek and Time magazines to the blossoming and poly-inseminating developments of contemporary Jesus Research, images of Jesus of Nazareth abound and multiply. A recent movie, Jesus of Montreal, the academy award winner for best foreign film of a few years back, portrays the charismatic contagion of a Jesus who is able to reach out from the dead texts of the first century to infect and engage an avant-garde artist and his acting troop. The actors encounter and incarnate him once again when they attempt to unpack and unleash the vitality of the Jesus movement in a church-sponsored passion play. The film thus unveils the dynamics of a Jesus who inspires and incarnates and must once again face the fate of inspiration versus institutionalism. Incarnation and the prophetic dynamic are thus seen to possess ongoing relevance down the ages. Jesus manifests again and again as the greatest folk hero of all time, or at least within the Western tradition. Despite his power as an overwhelming cultural icon a burning question still arises: Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

The Quest
The search for the Jesus of history, though not without precedent in antiquity, is really a problem posed by the Enlightenment, and thus is a problem for modernity. The concern to establish rational authority as the criterion of reality, the aspiration to place judgments on all matters historical within the same empirical canons as the natural sciences, and a paradigm shift away from ecclesiastical authority and supernatural interventionists theologies all combined with and to produce new modes of historical and philosophical methodologies aimed at demythologizing and de-layering the legendary strata that supposedly glossed over the historical core. A summary and treatment of the major quests of the nineteenth century can be found in Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus: From Reimarus to Wrede.

The substance of Schweitzer's book was a scathing analysis and critique of the previous major attempts to describe the Jesus of History and their contradictory conclusions. Jesus research was for Schweitzer like looking into a deep dark well from whence gradually came into focus a dim image which subsequently turned out to be the researcher's own image reflected back from the depths by the water's murky surface. Thus, Schweitzer concluded, the Jesus of History is irrevocably lost to us. All we have is the Christ of Faith, who comes to us as of old down by the water's edge and bids us, "Come follow." This inaugurates a period of New Testament scholarship now known as the No Quest. Ironically, however, after having demolished the attempts of the former researchers to say something historically valid about Jesus, Schweitzer does slip in his own indelible spin on the Jesus of History, namely that the only thing we could say of him is that he was irredeemably and mistakenly apocalyptic. It does seem a bit funny that Schweitzer should spend so much energy dissolving the assessments of everyone else, only in the end to slip in his own historical spin, one that managed to convince whole generations of scholarship.

During and characteristic of the post-schweitzer theology is a period known as the no quest. This period can be characterized by the scholarly abandonment of the Jesus of History. All that was left was the subjectively realized Christ of Faith. The period of the no quest was perhaps epitomized by Rudolf Bultmann whose task he felt it was to demythologize the world-view of the first century in order to make it existentially available within ours. Things like the three-tiered universe and demonic possession had to be unpacked or discarded to make sense within the modern mentality. Bultmann was a pastor/preacher who needed a message to proclaim. His quest for an authentic proclamation (greek: kerygma ) in the absence of any reliable information about the Jesus of History had the tendency to reduce the gospel message to an existential injunction not to despair, to have courage amidst the uncertainties of life, to strive for the faith of Jesus, and the resurrection mode of existence most clearly exhibited by the post-Easter faith and mission of the earliest disciples. An alternative suggestion for dealing with the no-quest period was in the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, whose suggestion was that the written word was only ever intended to be an invitation to the experience of the living word. This means that we are not meant to experience the Bible as history, but as mystery; knowing that the object of all Bible study is as a springboard into the divine. The only point that we need to notice here is the subordination of the Jesus of History to the Christ of Faith who is experienced as living in a sacred dialectic between humanity and God. History may be the occasion of a Divine/human encounter, but, during the no-quest, history and historicality are not the issue. That, however, was soon to change.

In the 1960's some of Bultmann's own students, ironically enough, began to re-engage in a quest for the Historical Jesus. The publication of Gònther Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth can be considered a landmark event in what is now known as the New Quest for the Historical Jesus. New archeological discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and the excavations at Sepphoris have been combined with new modes of textual analysis, the development of sophisticated methodologies, sociological and anthropological investigation, comparative linguistics, comparative religion, and cross-cultural studies to produce an impressive foray of attempts to recover something of the historical Jesus. Today the new quest for the Historical Jesus is in full-swing. Not least among the popularizers of this endeavor is the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute, a group of some seventy scholars who meet to discuss, debate, vote on, and publish their consensus on what were the actual words and deeds of the Jesus of History.

Currently there is an impressive and vastly published range of scholarship attempting to refine, focus, and assess the actuality, reality, reliability, accuracy, and methodologies pertaining to serious Jesus studies. I now turn to a sampling of some of those attempts to put the Jesus of History into academic perspective. I will start from left to right, left tending to represent the more "liberal" views, and right, the more conservative.

I begin with G.A. Wells because he is somewhat of a dinosaur in the way he harks back to a tone and assessment that was more characteristic of the Enlightenment approach to Jesus biography. Namely, he proposes in a recent book, The Jesus Legend, that the Jesus of the New Testament is all legend and no history. In other words, he never existed. The last person to seriously make that claim was John Allegro, who came up with the idea in the psychedelic sixties that Jesus was really a cipher or a symbol representing a psychedelic consciousness engendered by initiating disciples into the cult of the sacred mushroom. Although this idea was a big hit in Berkeley and among Grateful Dead fans, he has since stopped eating acid and had to eat his words out of the sheer historiographical implausibility of such a theory. For Jesus to be merely a legend leaves too many embarrassing facts to account for. Namely, legendary material generally surrounds figures who in their core being are actually "the stuff of which legends are made." Powerful legends can collect around powerful figures like halos on a saint. But if we have the luxury of merely spinning legends in the creation of heroes, we tend not to include the things we are otherwise forced to own up to. The death of Jesus, for example is extremely problematic. Why make your savior a Roman criminal and the recipient of the most scandalous form of ridicule and execution ever devised? Why present him as submitting to baptism under another master such as John the Baptist? Why display his family as inimical to his mission to such an extent that they try to straight-jacket him? These are just a few of the historiographical problems besetting G.A. Wells hypothesis. In addition, one is hard pressed to set aside the clearly early references to Jesus by the writings of Paul and a quite ample supply of both canonical and non-canonical sources. The writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the traditional source material discerned to underlie the gospels also require some heavy-duty hypothesis, speculation, and theorizing to make evaporate.

To the right of G.A. Wells, and only slightly so, I would place Burton Mack. Although, Mack is certain of Jesus' historical existence he insists that Jesus was not very Jewish. For Mack, Jesus is a particular type of Hellenistic Sage, namely, a Cynic Philosopher. Likened to the Cynics, Mack sees Jesus as an itinerant wanderer/sage (see also Gerd Theissen) dispensing pithy one-liners and making fun of established authority and social status-quo.

To me a far more intriguing and articulate analysis is the type of cross-cultural and comparative peasant anthropology done by John Dominic Crossan. Crossan's Jesus is a radical egalitarian and advocate of a brokerless kingdom. The kingdom of God is thus seen as an all-ye-all-ye-oxen-free call to open commensality (open table fellowship) and celebration of freedom from the power brokerage of a patriarchical and power stratified culture. The kingdom of God empowers all in the power of the Spirit that is a non-mediated access to God regardless of neither social position, gender, temple relation, nor degree of racial, social, ritual, economic, or physical contamination (cf. Elizabeth Schòssler Fiorenza, especially on gender issues).

Marcus Borg unfolds his assessments of the historical Jesus within four basic types or characteristics found in a variety of comparative and cross-cultural contexts. Jesus is seen by Borg to be 1.) a spirit person--a charismatic figure who fully experiences, mediates, transmits, conveys, heals, and teaches with the authority of the Spirit. Thus he exhibits the qualities of widely known phenomena associated with Sacred Personality, from Prophets to Shamans to Gurus such as Sai Baba of India. 2.) a wisdom teacher who taught a subversive, alternative, and counter-cultural wisdom. 3.) a social prophet, someone deeply committed to political and social reform against the prevailing power structures. 4.) a movement founder who consciously attempted to organize a revitalization movement to embody his vision. Borg rejects the idea that Jesus espoused an imminent end-of-the-world eschatology (though he may have used some forms of apocalyptic language to evoke a sense of realized eschatology and its ethical demands).

Moving slightly further to the right are the Roman Catholic scholars John Meier and Raymond Brown. Both these men's work is characterized by careful and meticulous scholarship and a great command of virtually all the relevant literature, combined with an apparent willingness to question and rethink anew all traditional doctrines from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection. For the most part they come to fairly conservative conclusions, but not always.

Among the most conservative yet competent Historical Jesus researchers are N.T. Wright, Marcus Bockmeuhl and Craig Blomberg who, somewhat in the tradition of F.F. Bruce, more often than not come to very traditional conclusions although it be through highly informed and rather non-conventional philosophical and methodological reasoning. Anything further to the right of them tends to cease to be historical/academic scholarship and tends to be apologetics, dogmatics, and/or fundamentalist polemics…