Can We Know What And How The Teacher Taught? (1)

By Daniel H. King

Not many years ago there would have been little need for the above question or the present article intended to discuss it. But the spirit of the times has changed the thinking of many people regarding this very important issue. Little good it would now do one to launch into a study of the teachings and person of Jesus of Nazareth when so many are asking, “Which Jesus?”, or else, “How do you know what Jesus really said?”

For those who accept the plain statements of Holy Scriptures as both authentic and authoritative – including those parts relating to the life and teachings of one Jesus of Nazareth – this whole aspect of our investigation may appear to issue forth in the direction of another world. In order to assure the naive among us that such is not the case, let us expend a few lines in demonstration and proof that the question of whether Jesus said what is attributed to Him in the Gospels is one which is being commonly asked and answered in the negative by men of both learning and piety. For instance, Norman Perrin in his book Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (1967) opened his critical study with the following lines:

The fundamental problem in connection with knowledge of the teaching of Jesus is the problem of reconstructing that teaching from the sources available to us, and the truth of the matter is that the more we learn about those sources the more difficult our task seems to become. The major source, the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), contains a great deal of teaching material ascribed to Jesus, and it turns out to be precisely that: teaching ascribed to Jesus and yet, in fact, stemming from the early Church.

The early Church made no attempt to distinguish between the words the earthly Jesus had spoken and those spoken by the risen Lord through a prophet in the community, nor between the original teaching of Jesus and the new understanding and reformulation of that teaching reached in the catechesis or parenesis of the Church under the guidance of the Lord of the Church. The early Church absolutely and completely identified the risen Lord of her experience with the earthly Jesus of Nazareth and created for her purposes, which she conceived to be his, the literary form of the gospel, in which words and deeds ascribed in her consciousness to both the earthly Jesus and the risen Lord were set down in terms of the former.

The same sort of assumptions with their far-reaching implications are made by the majority of academicians relating to the gospels and their main character on a regular basis. It has, in fact, become an orthodoxy all its own. One may reread these two paragraphs from the pen of Perrin in search of proof for his assertions and will find none. One would not find this all that surprising were it not for the fact that his book in toto is written with the assumption that there is a need to rediscover something that has been lost, namely the teaching of Jesus.

A comparable demonstration of this orthodoxy may be gleaned from a recent monograph from Richard H. Hiers, The Historical Jesus and the Kingdom of God (1973):

Virtually the only sources for a study of the historical Jesus are the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But none of these, with the possible exception of Mark, was written by anyone who had known or seen Jesus. They report earlier recollections of what Jesus did and said, but these recollections and reports of the tradition were unquestionably shaped at many points by the life situations, needs, and developing doctrines of the early churches, and also, probably, by the religious, literary, and other interests of their evangelist-editors. No single unit of tradition (“pericope”) can be proven to be an exact account of what Jesus said or did. The evidence may have some cumulative weight, but one cannot speak with absolute certainty (p. 8).

Several unproved and unprovable assumptions are made here, yet the author makes no attempt to support his claims. Why? Because it is also assumed that the reader will share his convictions and the orthodoxy which he represents. But this is the language of current scholarship, with the emphasis upon “current.” Any careful student of history can enlighten us as to the fickled nature of scholars and scholarly theory. What is orthodox opinion today will often register as only one aspect of the “history of scholarly investigation” tomorrow and may appear ludicrous to future students. Such has been the case with respect to this particular question in the past and there is no reason to expect a change for the future. However that may be, we think it wise to bespeak the utter futility and frustration of present liberal spokesmen for this orthodoxy by asking the question, “Which Jesus shall we believe in?” Modern critics, each with his own opinion in the matter of how much of the Gospel tradition to take for truth, have offered numerous portraits of what they considered the “historical Jesus,” the Jesus behind the Gospel accounts of him. So then, we consider it a valid point to ask as did John Wick Bowman in his recent book Which Jesus?, which of the scholarly pictures we should accept in the place of that presented by the Evangelists:

1. The Preacher of the Ethical Kingdom of God on Earth. Old Liberalism, as it is now called, pictured Jesus as a mere preacher of an ethical Kingdom of God on earth. To those of this school, He was a glorified but always human rabbi, an ancient spokesperson for the idealism of those scholars who reconstructed Him according to their own image. Albert Schweitzer is usually considered to be the one who laid this view to rest.

2. The Apocalyptic “Son of Man. ” To replace the Old Liberal view of Jesus, Schweitzer offered his own. To him the Jesus behind the Gospels conceived of Himself as the apocalyptic “Son of Man” after the fashion of Dan. 7:13, or at any rate as this figure coming “with the clouds of heaven” might be represented by an individual chosen to act as God’s mediator in his coming reign. For Schweitzer Jesus saw himself as about to return shortly and set up God’s Kingdom on earth. The last chapter of his epochal volume The Quest of the Historical Jesus offered this reconstruction.

3. The Existentialist Rabbi. Rudolf Bultmann followed the “old Liberal” skepticism in basically conceiving Jesus as a somewhat heretical rabbi. He pointed out that it was possible to uncover an existentialist rabbi hidden beneath the debris of myth and legend which the early church had unloaded on Him. The tool kit required to do this work involved several things: the assumption that it was the church and not the “Jesus of history” which believed in Jesus as the Messiah and so concocted the idea of the messianic secret and then read it back into Jesus’ mind, so to speak, to cover its own embarrassment in finding no actual evidence that the Lord so thought of Himself (see Heidegger’s existentialist philosophy, and the work of Comparative Religions on the various national mythologies).

4. The Essene-like “Teacher of Righteousness.” After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and the subsequent archaeological labors at Khirbet Qumran, scholars began to suggest that there might have been some relationship between Jesus and the (likely) Essene community which inhabited those ruins and produced the scrolls. Some even went so far as to say John the Baptizer was probably raised as an orphan by the Qumran Essenes and may have later taught there, and that Jesus Himself spent some time with them and was indoctrinated with the Essene views. A. Dupont-Sommer in his book The Jewish Sect of Qumran and the Essenes (1955) and John Allegro in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of Christianity (1957) have popularized the portrait of Jesus as Messiah after the fashion of the “Teacher of Righteousness” of Qumran fame.

5. The Nazorean Scheming Messiah. In 1966 Hugh J. Schonfield, a practicing member of the Jewish faith, produced a book which he called The Passover Plot. In his popular little treaties Schonfield suggested the following theories: first, that Jesus believed that He was the expected Messiah of Israel; secondly, that He was a “master of his destiny, expecting events to conform to the requirements of prophetic intimations, contriving those events when necessary, contending with friends and foes to ensure that the predictions would be fulfilled” (p. 15); thirdly, such mastery on Jesus’ part demanded of Him the most “careful scheming and plotting” with a view to achieving the prophecies of Scripture relative to the Messiah (p. 132), including His understanding that “he was to suffer on the cross, but not to perish on it” and, therefore, to “make what provision he could for his survival” (p. 162). Hence, Jesus “contrived to give the impression of death” by having administered to him a drug that had soporific effect (pp. 166ff). Thereafter He had arranged that Joseph of Arimathea should have Him quickly removed to His own tomb where He could be speedily revived. Unfortunately, however, the Roman soldier pierced His side, and it may have been this that completely spoiled the plan for Him to be revived and resulted in His hasty reburial elsewhere (pp. 168, 172). Most scholars have rightly labeled this book a Jewish diatribe written to undercut the influence and spread of Christianity. It certainly bears none of the marks of true scholarship but all of the signs of a hate-tract.

6. The “Para-Zealot” Revolutionary. Yigael Yadin’s remarkable finds at Masada, the final stronghold of Zealotic resistance in the war with Rome, excited interest in and sympathy for that particular movement. The way was thus opened for someone to explore the possibility of there having been some relation between Jesus and his movement with this resistance front. S.G.F. Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots (1967) pronounced that a relationship did exist. It was Brandon’s thesis that Jewish Christianity represented a sort of “para-Zealot movement.” This was true because Jesus had, in the first place, been executed by the Roman government for sedition. Now the Gospel records do not bear this out but, after all, the Gospel account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion when studied in the light of the needs of the later “Christian community” proves not to bean objective historical record but the product of “apologetical factors” relating to the community’s life situation (p. xiv). Such incidental details are cited for evidence as the fact that Jesus chose a disciple who was a Zealot; moreover that He was crucified between two “brigands” (probably Jewish resistance fighters); and He said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Mi. 10:34).

7. Resurrected Lord of the Church. Jesus of Nazareth, a study of Jesus translated into English in 1960, set forth Gunther Bornkamm’s image of the Master. And, although not nearly so much of the Gospel materials is “expendable” as was the case with earlier form-critics, still some is classed by him as fitting that category. Bornkamm argues for what he calls essential historicity. He disclaims any suggestion that we may glibly dismiss the church’s tradition relative to Jesus of Nazareth as being “mere fancy or invention” and as “the mere product of imagination.” But he secures a place for “legends” and “legendary embellishments” in the Gospels. He does, though, deny the presence of anything we might call “myth.” Regarding the resurrection, he argues that it was appearances of the resurrected Lord that gave rise to such faith, and not the faith that gave rise to traditions about appearances. Yet he concludes that the accounts contain much in the nature of “legend” and are not records or chronicles of what exactly happened.

8. Prophetic Suffering Servant-Messiah. In 1943 two different writers, William Manson (Jesus the Messiah) and J.W. Bowman (The Intention of Jesus) published studies with the same basic idea behind them. These men and others who have followed are one in their belief that the church has accurately portrayed the mind of Jesus Christ in its Gospels. Accordingly, they admit that He knew Himself to be the fulfillment of the inspired Hebrew prophecies and the Mediator of the salvation God has for mankind universally. As Bowman himself puts it in Which Jesus?: “It is the contention of these writers that the church’s view is by and large accurate and that it emanates from Jesus about himself” (p. 137).

It will be noted that these latter two views have much that commends them in the way of moving back in the direction of respect for the Gospels as historical documents portraying accurately the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Still, though, something is left to be desired in this maze of portraits. In each instance the author picks Lip on a single aspect of the man pictured in the Gospels and exalts that facet of his teaching to the detriment of elements seen by those first Evangels as important. Jesus is being remade in the image and to the satisfaction of modern scholarly opinion rather than allowing scholarly opinion to fit the mold which in some fashion or another the Divine Hand thought necessary for faith and trust and hope in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. “The church’s view is by and large accurate” starts with the assumption that what we have deposited in our Gospels is a body of tradition put in writing by churchmen of a later time than the first eye-witnesses and ends with the assumption that only the bulk of it is correct. Some is not trustworthy, is mere embellishment, and the rest must remain forever suspect on account of the difficulty in deciding which parts or pericopes belong to which phase of the development of the tradition.

Ernst Kasemann was indeed correct when he pointed out in his corrective lecture “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (1953) that the work of earlier Form Critics “was designed to show that the message of Jesus as given to us by the Synoptists is, for the most part, not authentic but was minted by the faith of the primitive Christian community in its various stages.” However, we must pause to ask whether any great change has taken place. Based upon pre-drawn conclusions scholars still proceed with their investigations, the only negligible difference being their own independent starting-points and, therefore, where they end up. No new information has been introduced to expedite a change in direction. No document containing the “Q” source has been discovered to demonstrate that such a tradition ever existed independently or otherwise. There is no body of material which has come to light that might in any genuine sense alter our picture of Jesus as presented by the Gospels. The Nag Hammadi gnostic texts are far too late to make any definite contribution. Here, though, as might be expected, some are already beginning to overstate their importance and make extravagant claims for them. Before long we will likely read from a scholar or scholars who believe(s) that the historical Jesus was actually a gnostic. Then we will have another portrait to add to our list. Nothing is too far-fetched for a writer looking to make for himself a reputation for independence of thought! Seriously though, the only actual change that has been made is an entirely subjective one – the mood and sentiment of the scholars themselves. It is completely fair to say, while some will loudly protest, that the only valid reason for rejecting the views of Bultmann, or Schweitzer, or Bornkamm or any other is that a majority of savants have come to feel that they were wrong and a more contemporary and popular intellectual has made a stronger, more sophisticated, and much more nearly correct portraiture of Jesus than those who have gone before. Moreover, “much more nearly correct” is defined in terms of current majority opinion, not actual historical verities, since it is certain that no new witnesses of the life of Jesus have turned up. The four Gospels remain our only witnesses to the life and teaching of the Master.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 6, pp. 205-207
April 7, 1983