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The Search for Jesus (3 of 7)

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Uploaded on Jan 23, 2011

If you read the four gospels vertically and consecutively, from start to finish and one after another, you get a generally persuasive impression of unity, harmony, and agreement. But if you read them horizontally and comparatively, focusing on this or that unit and comparing it across two, three, or four versions, it is disagreement rather than agreement that strikes you most forcibly. And those divergences do not stem from the random vagaries of memory and recall but from the coherent and consistent theologies of the individual texts. The gospels are, in other words, interpretations. Hence, of course, despite there being only one Jesus there can be more than one gospel, more than one interpretation.

That core problem is compounded by another one. Those four gospels do not represent all the early gospels available nor even a random sample within them but are instead a calculated collection. This becomes clear in studying other gospels either discerned as sources inside the official four or else discovered as documents outside them.

An example of a source hidden inside the four canonical gospels is the reconstructed document known as Q, from the German word Quelle meaning Source, which is now imbedded within both Luke and Matthew. Those two authors also use Mark as a regular source so Q is discernible wherever they agree with one another but lack a Markan parallel. Since, like Mark, that document has its own generic integrity and theological consistency apart from its us as a Quelle or Source for others, I refer to it in this book as the Q Gospel.

An example of a document discovered outside the four canonical gospels is the Gospel of Thomas which was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in the winter of 1945 and is, in the view of many scholars, completely independent of the canonical gospels. It is also most strikingly different from them, especially in its format. It identifies itself, at the end, as a gospel, but it is a collection of the sayings of Jesus given without any compositional order and lacking deeds, miracles, crucifixion or resurrection stories, and especially any overall narratival or biographical framework. The existence of such other gospels means that the canonical foursome is a spectrum of approved interpretation forming a strong central vision which was later able to render apocryphal, hidden, or censored any other gospels too far off its right or left wing.

Suppose that in such a situation you wanted to know not just what early believers wrote about Jesus but what you would have seen and heard if you had been a more or less neutral observer in the early decades of the first century. Clearly, some people ignored him, some worshipped him, and others crucified him. But what if you wanted to move behind the screen of credal interpretation and, without in any way denying or negating the validity of faith, to give an accurate but impartial account of the historical Jesus as distinct from the confessional Christ? That is what the academic or scholarly study of the historical Jesus is about, at least when it is not a disguise to do theology and call it history, do autobiography and call it biography, do Christian apologetics and call it academic scholarship.
Dr. Crossan Trying to find the actual Jesus is like trying, in atomic physics, to locate a submicroscopic particle and determine its charge. The particle cannot be seen directly, but on a photographic plate we see the lines left by the trajectories of larger particles it put in motion. By tracing these trajectories back to their common origin, and by calculating the force necessary to make the particles move as they did, we can locate and describe the invisible cause. Admittedly, history is more complex than physics; the lines connecting the original figure to the developed legends cannot be traced with mathematical accuracy; the intervention of unknown factors has to be allowed for. Consequently, results can never claim more than probability; but "probability," as Bishop Butler said, "is the very guide of life."

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician.

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