Mythicism and the Christ of faith

I’ve blogged previously about my interpretational technique ( part of Idolatry and Eisegesis), but to refresh memory, I’ve preferred to form opinions about Biblical passages before reading much (or sometimes any) scholarship about them, using legal forensic technique and substantial prayer to illuminate them. After doing so, I’ll look at what others have said, and sometimes completely modify my thinking (back to the drawing board), sometimes tweak my thinking a bit, sometimes find confirmation from a different angle. I like confirmations from a different angle; it seems to me a form (albeit a weak form) of multiple attestation.

One area where I have been very dependent on scholarship which I can’t readily check for myself is in historical-critical scholarship which shows levels of redaction, extracts possible lost sources and, above all, sets things in a historical perspective. A lot of this has fallen in relatively recent years under the label “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”. In the post I linked to above, I did criticise rather gently one of the criteria for authenticity used by the Jesus Seminar, the poster children for “Historical Jesus” for some years until fairly recently. Nonetheless I read avidly, for instance, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and am inclined to agree with them far more readily than I do with more conservative scholars such as N.T. Wright, though N.T. Wright is himself no foreigner to historical-critical methods.

I’ve recently been reading more in the area of Historical Jesus, with some writers whose scholarship puts some of my thinking into question, namely writers who argue that nothing we can do in the field of scholarship can actually give confidence as to the words of Jesus. Such things as mnemonic studies indicate that even the very earliest testimonies (none of which we, of course, have) will have adjusted wordings, so accuracy at the remove of an entire generation seems almost impossible.

I have, of course, previously been at pains to separate the Historical Jesus from the Christ of Faith, with a dividing line at the Crucifixion. Insofar as I wish to follow Jesus, I feel I need to follow the Jesus who walked and talked among men 2000 years ago; the Christ of Faith is a creation of post-death (and post-resurrection) thinking (and experiencing) about what Jesus meant to his followers, and does not really give them practical instructions as to how to live as he did.

I have a clear conception of what he was (as an historical figure) in that he has to have been a God-mystic, as I am a God-mystic. I wish him to be the archetypal God-mystic on whom I can base myself; beyond that, other aspects of his meaning and importance to his followers are, to me, mythic elements. There is no real argument about myth, about story – it either works for you or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t work for you, you find another myth, another story which does (or amend the one you have slightly). As a result I argue minimally with my fellow-believers when it comes to looking at what we tend to refer to as the “spiritual interpretation” of a passage – I might suggest that there is more than one spiritual interpretation, and we can then talk about which we prefer and why, and which means most to us at this point. Call it eisegesis, call it application, I’m not unduly bothered.

But some of this recent scholarship (and I’m thinking here of, inter alia, “Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity”)  is making it impossible for me to perform this separation of historical Jesus and faith-created Christ; it would seem that even the earliest level of oral tradition or lost writing is already just “Christ of faith” as far as some of the writers in that book (and others) are concerned, and their arguments are beginning to look extremely convincing.

Having just spent some weeks arguing elsewhere with a Jewish mythicist, I have no time for the assertion that Jesus was nothing but a mythical figure. I agree with Bart Ehrmann that there is really no tenable argument that Jesus did not exist.  (My interlocutor there is a mythicist in relation to Jesus, but not in relation to anything within Judaism, in which he accepts the full orthodox position as a matter of faith – which he is prepared to concede is an act of faith, but not available for historical argument. It is history because he believes it to be so, and not for any other reason. If that seems to you a lopsided position, well, it seemed so to me as well.)

I am, however, a retired lawyer. I’m used to eyewitnesses, and to saying “there’s nothing quite so unreliable as an eyewitness”, which is only slightly exaggerating my experience. What is actually less reliable than one eyewitness is a group of eyewitnesses who have got together and agreed what actually happened, though that’s actually not what I meant by “only slightly”. At least with a set of somewhat conflicting accounts you have a reasonable change of putting them together and using forensic skills to reconstruct what probably did happen. I’ve never, therefore, been too wedded to the concept that any of the accounts we have, even if written down more or less contemporaneously, can actually be regarded as completely accurate. Yes, I know that it makes a significant difference if the policeman made a note as he was seeing or hearing something or if he went back to the police station to write it up (when it becomes far less reliable).

On the other hand, I have read plenty of accounts of people in oral cultures having far better memories for the actual words of sometimes quite extended speeches than anyone I’ve ever met could hope to achieve, and we are talking about an oral culture in 1st century Palestine. Add to that the fact that the group of disciples are very likely to have been “hanging on every word” and to have discussed that shortly afterwards. Perhaps in those circumstances the phenomenon of the colluding eyewitnesses getting things even more wrong than any single recollection might have been reversed, and they might have been self-correcting?

As a result of these scholars in mnemonic studies, however, I am now thinking that I may be in the position of having no discernible fact about Jesus left from which I can start to reconstruct him, aside that he was Jewish, lived in the first 30 years of the first millennium, was a teacher, preacher and reputed healer and wonder-worker, probably from Galilee, and that he was executed by the Romans under Pontius Pilate in about 30 CE, probably by crucifixion. This is really little better than Jesus having not existed at all, so far as extracting what he actually said is concerned (an argument made by some in the mythicist camp which is, effectively, mythicism lite – but which seems quite likely to become a future scholarly mainstream).

We thus have just the “Christ of faith”, whether it be a very early, partly-formed impression or a later and better formed faith. Except, we don’t just have that, and we can’t just have that. I can’t because it is important to me that there be a real person who once lived to be followed (as otherwise I have no indication that the path I seek to follow is in the slightest practicable), Christianity generally cannot because, like Judaism, it is a historical religion; it bases itself in events which have actually happened in history, as Ernst Kasemann argued. Those events are beginning to become indistinguishable from myth, and the cherished beliefs of 2000 years are thus undermined.

I suppose that, to me, it shouldn’t matter too much. At root, I regard all of what we talk about when we talk about God (thank you, Rob Bell!) as being ways of talking about something which inherently defies human description, so I consider it firstly as all being basically myth (by which I mean stories which illustrate truths in a non-literal manner) and secondly as all being at least in some measure wrong.

But it does matter. I gave one reason above, namely of my need for a real exemplar, not an imagined one. There is another, and that is that I try the best I can to function within a Christian church. I find that it is all very well being a contemplative mystic, but I also grow in understanding through interchange with others This argues that I need a community of fellow believers, so what this development in scholarship does to my fellow Christians it does to some extent to me. This is particularly true as I am highly likely to be the “go to” man to explain it and try to apologise it out of existence to a significant number, even if I do not find myself actually teaching about it (and the bit of my consciousnes which I call “GF” assures me that that’s a potential outcome as God seems to be moving me in that direction at the moment). That would lead me to the problem of not being able to teach what I can’t bring myself to believe other than as a “possibility of thinking”.

It is not likely to be much consolation to them to hear me say that I ultimately regard nothing in anyone’s statement of faith as saying anything accurately about objective reality (see my comment about myths earlier in this piece). Nor are they going to want to hear me say that this impacts very little at all on any statements in scripture when regarded as valid statements in the history of thought, so long as they can be placed reasonably on a timeline and in a milieu (i.e. Sitz im leben, for those who are into technical terms).

Perhaps, however, we might move down the road which it seems was travelled by my Jewish mythicist interlocutor. It seems that he can at the same time perfectly well accept that, for instance, the stories of Rabbi Eleazer are fiction (probably from the 2nd or 3rd century) and yet that they are absolutely true occurrences of the 1st century, that the Oral Torah was developed over many centuries and yet that it was given by Moses at Mt. Sinai. There is historical fact, and there is traditional belief, and you can (apparently) hold the two without tension and actually assert traditional belief as superior to history.

I doubt it, though. I think the degree of cognitive dissonance which that requires you to accept is just too great. In addition, it seems to me, and it’s going to seem to a lot of my listeners, far too close to asserting a six-day creation (happily for me, there are few six-day creationists in my church and a general feeling against them) and therefore far too close to rubbishing science. Granted, having started my further education as a physicist, I suppose I could explain again how you know what a particle is, you know what a wave is, yes, the two are very different, but light is both. At the same time… No, I haven’t had much joy with that one so far.

Maybe, though, there’s another way via tradition, and that’s just to teach that the Jesus we know is the creation of the memories and of the living experience of Christ in the lives of his followers and that this is sufficient fact for us. I could say that this way of thinking about the world has worked well for many years and, actually, continues to work very well as long as you don’t ask it to be historical or scientific. And that the only demonstration you need of that is in your experience and that of your friends here and now. How does what happened 2000 years ago really matter when you have current experience of the Holy Spirit and of the Living Christ? Granted, there was a historical Jesus and what he said and did was clearly extraordinary and has, in one or another way, led to the situation we are in now. However, that Jesus is now gone and we live in and we experience only the now, which includes experience of the living Christ.

Open your hearts, and give your brains a rest, I may say.

I may even get away with it…

One Response to “Mythicism and the Christ of faith”

  1. Chris Says:

    It seems I’m not alone in a certain feeling of disillusionment at this direction of research, as Dale Allison as quoted at by the redoubtable Anthony Le Donne seems to share it.
    The fact seems to be, however, that both Le Donne and his fellow (and equally redoubtable)blogger on that site Chris Keith both seem to inhabit areas of confessional faith which are significantly less liberal than those which are currently the best I can manage myself. This has to be food for thought, I think.

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