22 April 2000
Jesus of history,
Christ of faith
The Changing Faces of Jesus, by Geza Vermes. London: Penguin, 304 pp, £18.99 in UK
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredrisksen. London: Macmillan, 348 pp £20.00 in UK
The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong. London: HarperCollins, 458 pp, £19.99 in UK
Tomorrow morning, churches throughout Ireland will be full for Easter morning. Many will believe in the Risen Christ; others will have doubts but still cling to the hope of keeping or recovering some meaningful expression of faith; and some will be complete doubters, but will be there because Easter is yet another key date in the calendar of Western civilisation. The Yale theologian and historian, Prof Jaroslav Pelikan, says: “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries.”
The first Easter at the beginning of a new millennium is an appropriate opportunity to look at what is being said about Jesus by theologians, Biblical scholars and the historians of religion. It is over a century since Martin Kahler made a distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith”. More recently, scholars have tried to distinguish between the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus” (Marcus Borg), the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of piety” (Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza), and the “historical Jesus” and the “real Jesus” (John Meier).
Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann immobilised work on the historical Jesus for decades. But in recent years, the trail-blazing work of Ernst Kasemann has seen a new quest for the historical Jesus. The most noteworthy and controversial recent research on Jesus has been published by a group of scholars who call themselves “the Jesus Seminar”. The most brilliant members must be the Irish-born John Dominic Crossan of De Paul University, Chicago, and Marcus Borg of Oregon State University. The seminar and its methods have been subjected to strong criticism and its members have appeared on top-rating TV chat shows, featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and influenced Hollywood producers.
The controversy and publicity they have generated has stimulated publishers’ interest in Jesus, and contributed to the growth in the number of books about him. But the Jesus Seminar is not the only club for scholars working in this field. Others, perhaps, are making even more important, if less publicity-conscious contributions, including E.P. Sanders of Duke University, John Meier of Notre Dame, and N.T. Wright, lately Dean of Lichfield.
Prof Geza Vermes of Oxford was raised a Roman Catholic in Eastern Europe but as an adult returned to the Judaism of his ancestors. Highly respected for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he ploughed a unique furrow in the field of Jesus studies in 1973 with his Jesus the Jew. This was followed by The Gospel of Jesus the Jew (1981), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993), setting Jesus within the context of first century charismatic holy men and miracle workers in Galilee.
In their new books, both Paula Fredriksen of Boston University and Geza Vermes ask the question: Why was Jesus crucified? Despite the efforts of historical scholars to place Jesus in the context of his times, and the efforts of theologians to explain Jesus in the context of the faith of his followers, both believe the execution of Jesus remains a puzzle. If he was a pious Jew who really posed no threat to the established order, why was he executed in such a barbaric and public fashion? And if he was a real threat to the political establishment, why then, with the exception of Stephen and James, were his followers not pursued and executed also, instead of being left free to preach and spread the message of Christianity?
Both Vermes and Fredriksen link the decision to execute Jesus with the fracas in the temple at the Passover, when Jewish tradition expected the messiah to reveal himself. But neither author explains why the Christ of faith has remained such an enduring figure over the centuries and into a third millennium.
Some years ago, the broadcaster and former nun, Karen Armstrong, looked at the endurance of faith in one God in the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in her A History of God. Now, in her latest book, she looks at the emergence of militant fundamentalism in those three traditions, and the way fear and horror have often been the responses to progress and rationalism.
The violent impact of religious fundamentalists on the world of secular politics is a sharp contrast to the persistent endurance of quiet and questioning faith. Fredriksen and Vermes have tried to ask why that faith so often continues to focus on the figure - often the lonely figure - of one enigmatic Jew executed violently on the first Easter. But perhaps the answer to why that faith has endured with such persistence is to be found less in these books than among the ordinary, often questioning, people who will fill the pews in churches throughout the world tomorrow morning.
Patrick Comerford is a writer on theology and church history and an Irish Times journalist.
This book review was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday, 22 April 2000