Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Question of Jesus and Christ: Part 2

My posting in this section a couple of weeks ago (I’m Down with Jesus, it’s Christ that Gives Me a Problem) drew immediate responses and a larger number of responses than anything I’ve written on HP to date – like twice as many. The nature of the responses varied greatly, from serious engagement with the questions I raised to doctrinaire chiding that I was attempting, through “over-intellectualizing” to deny the deity of Christ. Some were appreciative of the inquiry, others snarky to downright nasty. A number attempted to deny that Jesus was a “mere Jew,” which is somewhat astonishing to me.

A predominant strain in the critical responses was to quote Scripture to disprove what I was saying, even though I made it clear that my inquiry began with a commitment to distinguishing what we (and scholars and theologians) can reasonably agree are likely to represent Jesus’ actual words (what Jesus said) versus what others such as John, Luke, and the early Church Fathers wrote and attributed to Jesus (what others said Jesus said and what others said about Jesus). I think it is the failure to make this distinction that is at the heart of the difference between those who would describe themselves or be described as “fundamentalists,” those who are more or less in the mainstream of Christianity and those who are making a serious study of Christianity.

Fundamentalism in America is generally considered to have begun with the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897) and is based in what are called the "five fundamentals"
• The Inerrancy of Scripture
• The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus
• The doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God's grace and through human faith
• The bodily resurrection of Jesus
• The authenticity of Christ's miracles (or, alternatively, his pre-millennial second coming)

My post addressed the second, third and fourth of these (though not the virgin birth), and by distinguishing what Jesus said from what others said he said or said about him, the first by implication or assumption, and this is what seemed to strike a nerve amongst my critics. Somehow fundamentalists seem to be able to reconcile the “inerrancy” of Scripture with the massive contradictions that there are between different accounts of the supposedly same events.

Also, the notion of inerrant scripture is, to me, untenable based on transcription and translation. In his book Misquoting Jesus Bart Ehrman makes the point that Scripture began as oral transmission that was then written down. In the absence of printing or other means of consistent reproduction, it was copied by hand, with inevitable errors in transcription. Translation of the writing into languages other than those in which it originated also led to errors of translation and differences of interpretation, raising the question of “which scripture?”

Finally, there were clear political agendas in some of the translations – for example, the King James Version translates Matthew 26:28 as “For this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Leave aside for the moment that the statement (at the Last Supper), if made by Jesus at all, would have been made in Aramaic but is rendered by Matthew in Greek. The Greek is “Touto gar estin to aima mou tēs diathēkēs to peri pollōn ekchunnomenon eis aphesin amartiōn” (This is my blood of the covenant which is shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins). There are two glaring differences here between the KJV “translation” and the Greek “original.” First is the substitution of “testament” for “covenant” διαθήκης (diathēkēs) can mean either and also “will” (in the sense of “last will and testament”) in Greek, but in English the two words have different meanings. A testament is a witnessing (cf “testimony”) or a statement of how one’s possessions are to be distributed after death. A covenant is a binding pact. The terminology “blood of the covenant” echoes Exodus 24:8 "So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people and said 'Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words.'”

More troublesome, though is not the questionable translation but the insertion of a word that is not there in the original – “new testament (or covenant)” for “testament.” By adding the word new and obscuring the reference to Exodus, the KJV translators drove a wedge into the already wide gap between Jesus and his Jewish roots.

I will say again that, in the teachings we can reasonably attribute to Jesus himself, there is nothing – not one thing – that contradicts or breaks with the Judaism of what came to be (thanks to the KJV) the “old” testament. In this most moving of statements of his legacy, Jesus tied the events of his life and imminent crucifixion to the seminal event of Judaism, the making of the covenant with God at Mount Sinai.

So as I said in my earlier post, I have no problem with Jesus. I’m just trying to understand the Christ event – the crucifixion and resurrection in the context of Jesus’ life and teachings as a Jew who never claimed to be anything but “the son of man,” a term which is not understandable except in the context of the time when that term (in Aramaic bein enosh) simply meant “a human being,” and was in common usage. It was not unusual for people in those times and that language to refer to themselves in the third person, and “son of man” was a common way to do this. The prophets use that term as did other people, and it manifestly does not mean “son of God.” Jesus may have been using the term to emphasize that, even as a prophet and teacher he was a human being among human beings.

I believe that Jesus’ message was what he said it was – asked what was most essential in God’s teachings, Jesus replied “to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your power,” which is the verse in Deuteronomy at the heart of the Shema(“Listen Israel, the Lord, your God, is unity”) and to love your neighbor as yourself. As to the Christ event, whatever happened there, the message seems clear to me – never lose hope.

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