Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Once and Future Jesus: Betrayed by the Bible


The quest of the historical Jesus - who he was, what he said, what he did - has been one of he most exciting and controversial developments in contemporary religion. Thanks to decades of renewed interest and research, the way we think and talk about Jesus will never be the same. The Once and Future Jesus Conference took that quest to a new level. At this unprecedented gathering, leading thinkers turned their attention from the past to the future and asked: What do new understandings of Jesus mean for the church, the faith, and the world of tomorrow? Their answers can be found in the pages of this book.

Marcus Borg is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. John Dominic Crossan is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. Robert W. Funk is Director of the Westar Institute and founder of the Jesus Seminar. Lloyd Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Karen L. King is Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. Gerd Lüdemann is Professor of New Testament at the University of Göttingen, Germany. Thomas Sheehan is Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. John Shelby Spong retired as Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, in January 2000. Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminar in New York City.

Robert W. Funk et. al.
The Once and Future Jesus
The End of the Old: the Advent of the New
Polebridge Press (August, 2000)

Turbulence and turmoil

We have come to the end of an era. The advent of a new millennium is merely an outward sign of the metamorphosis taking place. During the half century that separates us from World War II, momentous changes have taken place in our world - social, political, economic, cultural, religious, and especially mythic. It is possible here only to name them. Yet they are foundational to everything we have done and will do at sessions of the Jesus Seminar.

First of all, the mythic universe that furnished the frame of reference for out Western myths and creeds for more than two millennia is crumbling, in spite of popular reaffirmations to the contrary. The checkout stand of the local supermarket is not a reliable guide to what has happened to the mythical worldview that has supported Christian orthodoxy for the last two millennia. The world was not created six thousand years ago, along with individual species, as many once believed. The world will not end in a fiery holocaust at the hands of an angry God, as the book of Revelation suggests. And God does not dabble from time to time in the history of special peoples, as the Bible claims. These former mythic certainties are all gone.

When John Paul II announces that heaven and hell are metaphors, we know that the decay of the old cosmological myths is well advanced. After all, it took him and the Roman church nearly three and a half centuries to recognize and admit the injustice done to Galileo.

Secondly, we have come to the end of the Christian era - the end of the hegemony of the christianized, industrial West. That hegemony has given way to the global era, in which a world-wide economy, a universal technology, mass consumption, and instant communication between all parts of the globe have altered perceptions forever. And that is only part of the information revolution now in progress. For better or worse, we now inhabit a multi-cultural world in which Christianity and Judaism must compete with other religious traditions as old or older than themselves. We cannot put these developments back in the tribal bag, try as many ethnic groups will. This transition has enormous consequences for the future of Jesus, the church, and the faith.

The end of the Christian era is marked further by the decline of religious literacy. Religious literacy in American society has degenerated steadily in this century until knowledge of the basic components of the Christian tradition has reached an appalling low. The churches have all but abandoned their traditional role in education. The mainline churches have by and large adopted a defensive posture: they have raised the drawbridge and manned the battlements against women and gays, and against critical knowledge of Christian origins. The enemy turns out to be their own insecurities.

Retreat in one area breeds retreat in another. Scholars of religion are exiting Christian precincts at an alarming rate in order to gain the right to think unorthodox thoughts. Biblical scholarship and theology are moving into a wholly profane, secular setting. Many scholars have elected the safe route, which is to abandon the theological ship and seek refuge in a humanistic harbor.

The departure of scholars is matched, or perhaps exceeded, by the loss of clergy. The clergy have been caught in the tension between the chrches they have taken oaths to serve and the scholars who were their mentors in seminaries. Like other rational human beings, some have opted for the safe course, which is not to offend patrons of the parish in order to protect their pensions. The intellectual sacrifice has made them theological eunuchs in the temple of the Lord. Others have given up and quit the service of the church altogether. Still others - a few - have dared to broach the fundamental issues and behave like prophets, at great expense to themselves. A handful told the truth as they knew it from the start.

The mainline denominations, which are in fact oldline denominations, are in danger of becoming sideline denominations, as John Cobb warns. They have lost members at an alarming rate. Denominational loyalties have eroded. Their bureaucracies, however, remain mired down in parochialism, intransigent fiefdoms, and a medieval mentality.


Robert W. Funk

To top it off, there is the sense among many liberal-minded people that we have been betrayed by the Bible. In the half century just ending, there is belated recognition that biblically based Christianity has espoused causes that no thinking or caring person is any longer willing to endorse. We have had enough of the persecution of Jews and witches; of the justification of black slavery; of the surpression of women, sex, and sexuality; and of the stubborn defense of a male-dominated, self-serving clergy. The Bible is not to be blamed for all this misplaced self-righteousness; how we have employed it is at fault. We have created a mindless authoritarian bibliolatry. For Protestants, the office of holy inquisition has been the Bible. Religious and cultural wars are again being fought across the pages of the Bible over sexuality, the place of women in society, and special creation. We cannot, we must not, shrink from engagement with the ignorance and misunderstanding that fuels such egregious misuse of scripture.

The final transition we are making is the reconciliation of religion with the sciences. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on 17 February, 1600, for insisting, in opposition to the church, that the earth revolved around the sun. He was a champion of Copernican cosmology and Galileo's telescope. The church pretended it knew better. That pretension would have been bad enough, but the church would not tolerate dissent. Accordingly, the church rejected the sciences and prostituted history in defense of its own dogmas. It is now paying the price: Today, according to Roger Jones, "it is science that dictates to the church and not vice versa...It is science and not religion that gives today's world its rationale, morality, sustenance, and story of creation, such as it is." (Physics for the Rest of Us, 1992) At the very least, theology must be rejoined to the sciences. We cannot afford another extended divorce.

Meanwhile, we can do something about the rape of history for apologetic purposes conducted by Bible scholars and theologians as well-meaning friends of the churches. The end of the violation of history is what the renewed quest is all about. We have, I trust, advanced the cause of respect for the integrity of the past as the basic ethic guiding our work.

Renewal of the quest

The renewal of the quest of the historical Jesus in the 1970's signaled the desire to return to origins, to the beginning, to learn again what it meant and means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. This quest was not born of idle curiosity, pursued by academics who had nothing better to do; it is a quest for the holy grail, for the innocence of a meal taken with toll collectors and sinners, when the Jesus movement was young, amorphous, and in a life and death stuggle to find its way in the world. The renewed quest is the herald of a radical reformation - the recovery of the once and the projection of the future Jesus.

These are high sounding words, to be sure. Yet consider what the eight platform lecturers have contributed to the renewal of the quest and the search for a credible faith.

Tom Sheehan anticipated the Seminar in 1986 with his book, The First Coming. How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity. In that book, Tom wrote "Jesus had freed himself from religion and apocalypse by transforming hope into charity and by recasting future eschatology as present liberation." The clarity of Tom's picture gave heart to the rest of us who were only beginning to find our way. Tom was the harbinger of the quest even then aborning.

Marc Borg launched his own quest in 1984 with Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus. He followed in 1987 with Jesus: A New Vision and then with Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994). The Jesus one meets in these pages has been imbibed by thousands who act as though they were dying of thirst on a spiritual desert. In Meeting Jesus Again, Marc wrote that the notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world is simply incredible. The interpretation of Jesus as both high priest and final sacrificial victim was meant to displace the religion of the second temple, but instead it became the vehicle for retaining and maintaining temple religion under new auspices.

Dominic Crossan joined the parables parade early on its modern history. His little book, Dark Interval, published originally in 1975, sketches a theory of parable that underlies his In Parables (1973). He pioneered the study of Jesus' aphorisms in In Fragments (1983). His ground-breaking study of the passion narrative, Who Killed Jesus? (1995), challenged Christian anti-Semitism at its narrative roots. And of course his revolutionary biographies of Jesus have mesmerized hordes of readers. I hear people speaking glibly about "open commensality" and "radical egalitarianism" as though they were phrases heard on the evening news.

The irony of the German theological tradition is that Gerd Ludemann is battling for his academic life when he should be honored as a legitimate successor to D. F. Strauss. He has written books on the resurrection, on the virgin birth, on the heretics in early Christianity, and on the unholy in scripture, along with important studies of Paul. He has finally been driven to renounce Christianity as a result of what ...


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