Thursday, January 5, 2012

In two previous posts, No Good Evidence Outside the Bible? and How Do We Judge Historical Evidence?, I have started a series examining how the historical evidence regarding Jesus and his life is detailed in the Gospels. This is still the beginning phase of the series, in which I look at what counts for evidence and how evidence should be weighed. This post deals with a retrospective evaluation of evidence and how our views regarding a person can change in light of new evidence or a new understanding of old evidence.

In many historical sources the way in which a person is presented remains the same from beginning to end, but in some sources one can see development in understanding of a person contained within those very sources. Does this development in understanding reflect new knowledge and information regarding the person? Or does the change in presentation reflect development in the person who is writing? Or is the development stemming from needs in the community or society which preserves the memory? Does Julius Caesar become deified because he is now truly understood to be a god or because it suits the propaganda of imperial Rome?

It is clear from all of the Gospels - it is more apparent in the Synoptic Gospels, but careful reading allows us to see it in the Gospel of John as well - that the Apostles and the other disciples did not have the same understanding of who Jesus was when they began to follow him as that which ultimately emerged at the end of his life and thereafter. We know this because Jesus asks them who he is in the Gospels and they often wonder aloud amongst themselves who he might be. We are often witness to a variation of this question: “who is this guy?” Or, a variation of this response: "they did not understand."

Clearly, from the beginning Jesus was considered a substantial and serious person by his followers or people would not have left their homes and livelihoods to follow him, but people who followed teachers and philosophers in the ancient world did not follow because they considered that their teachers were necessarily divine figures. That Jesus was God incarnate does not seem to have been a consideration for the Apostles, at least not initially, and if they considered Jesus the Messiah initially, their understanding of what the Messiah was would have been much different at first than it came to be. 

My understanding of this issue, though, is much different than that of Marcus Borg. Borg states in the final chapter of his 1994 book on Jesus, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, Chapter 9, Does the Historical Jesus Matter?, that the Nicene Creed speaks of Jesus in “the most exalted language” and then cites the Nicene Creed as found in The Book of Common Prayer (1979):[1]

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

About the claims made concerning Jesus in this prayer, Borg is clear: “perhaps the only line from the Creed that would be seen as historical is the reference to his death.”[2] For Borg the only historical verity in the Creed is that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” He says about the rest of the claims made in the Creed that “historical scholarship about the pre-Easter Jesus affirms essentially none of this. We are quite certain that Jesus did not think of himself as divine or as “Son of God” in any unique sense, if at all. If one of the disciples had responded to the question reportedly asked by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel {8:27}, “Who do people say that I am?,” with words like those used in the Nicene Creed, we can well imagine that Jesus would have said, “What???” Moreover, most Jesus scholars do not think Jesus was born of a virgin, or that he ascended into heaven in a visible way, or that there will be a literal second coming.”[3]

One might say that, at least according to Borg, Jesus scholars do not know much about Jesus, but they know what they do not know, which seems to amount to basically everything the Gospels claim regarding Jesus. Borg says that Jesus  himself would have rejected an answer that called him Messiah or God, but it is Jesus who asks the question in the Gospels and it is the apostles who fumble to answer it. Jesus accepts the designation of himself as Messiah when Peter seemingly stumbles onto this answer without understanding the implications of it (Mark 8:27-33; cf. Matthew 16:13-23; Luke 9:18-22). Even Peter’s correct answer does not lead the apostles necessarily to accept Jesus as Messiah because they still do not grasp his teaching or his person throughout much of the rest of the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark reflects an accurate historical presentation and understanding of this event: the apostles are presented as saying they are not certain if Jesus is Messiah, even though they have come to this understanding at some later point.  In the Gospel of John, later understanding is sometimes presented quite clearly, as in John 2:22, where it states that “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered he had said this.” Does this developed understanding of who Jesus was give us greater access to the truth of the person or does it represent self-serving exaggeration or an attempt by the Apostles to create for themselves and Jesus retroactive significance and importance?

Marcus Borg, for instance, clearly sees the development in understanding of Jesus as Messiah and God incarnate amongst the apostles and later disciples as an imposition on the historical reality. Note, however, that the notion that Jesus did not exist historically is a moot question. Whether we accept everything his friends said about him, we must acknowledge that by this point we are discussing the reality of the man, not whether he existed. This is important, as Borg does not doubt Jesus’ existence, simply the nature of that existence. And that is a topic for comment and study.

There are numerous reasons why the apostles would not proclaim that Jesus was Messiah and Lord after his death unless they actually believed it, including his horrific and humbling death, the immediate persecution of his followers, and the loss of material comforts, all of which indicate that no measurable benefits on a human scale accrued to those who saw him, followed him, and then later spoke of his story. This does not mean their claims are true, but it does mean that they believed them to be true.

There are some good reasons, too, why the apostles would not retroject their later understanding of Jesus back in time, and pretend that they had always considered him Messiah and Lord.  The most significant reason would be that they wanted to give an accurate portrait. But the best historical reason why they would not retroject their later understanding of Jesus back to his ministry is a different one: they came to more fully understand who Jesus was in light of his entire life and death and their reflection upon that only came after his death. We all come to a fullness of understanding about ourselves and about others through the passage of time.

Why we acted, spoke and behaved in certain ways, what we have witnessed and experienced, is not always explicable except over time and with retrospection. Let’s say we share a friend who drinks too much and becomes belligerent when he does so. When he is drunk, his behavior is erratic, violent and often sexually promiscuous. He hates how he behaves when he reflects on it in his sobriety, but states that he does not understand his behavior and cannot make sense of why he acts the way he does. At some point, we decide that we cannot make sense of it either and end the friendship. It is too destructive and painful and confusing.

Later on our friend checks into rehab and while in recovery from alcoholism comes to an awareness of a history of childhood sexual abuse. As he comes to understand the impact of sexual abuse on his life and his behavior, he also unlocks the key to his abuse of alcohol. He has been trying to forget the shame and the pain of past experiences. After a few weeks, he leaves rehab after sexual abuse counseling and joins a 12 step program. He phones us to apologize for his past behavior and ask our forgiveness. Years after the abuse, and some months after his drunken exploits, we finally have a key to understand some of what motivated his behavior, what was driving him internally to act the way he did. It does not change our experiences or his past behaviors, but we now have a new way to understand our friend more fully and to put these behaviors in proper perspective, both historically and at a personal level. This example, though negative, illustrates that full understanding sometimes comes long after historical events and that when we act, we act from interiority, even when it is not always completely understood, by the actor or those around the actor. It is a process whereby our understanding and our judgment of this person and past behavior has changed in light of new information.

The apostles present new information in their portrayals of Jesus after his death. They claim that he was resurrected from the dead, that after the Romans killed him, he was raised up. It is in light of this new data and understanding that they form new judgments of him and previous sayings and deeds which had taken place in their lifetimes. They had considered him their teacher, they might even have considered him Messiah in the course of their discipleship, though what sort of Messiah is up in the air. There is no question, it seems to me, that in Jesus’ life the apostles would not have called Jesus true God of true God, but in light of new information and new experiences they understood him in a new and powerful way. The question we need to pursue is whether this development in understanding reflected who Jesus truly was or whether it reflected a misunderstanding and a misjudgment on the part of the apostles. This is the historical process, the means by which we gain knowledge of the past. It is time for some more questions.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

[1] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994) 182.
[2] Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 183.
[3] Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 182-83.