Books: birth of belief

20th December 1996 at 00:00
Lives of Jesus By Mark Tully,BBC #163;17.99

A New History of Christianity By Vivian Green,Sutton Publishing, #163;20

Jesus and the Victory of God By N T Wright, SPCK, #163;30

Jesus: The Evidence By Ian Wilson, Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson, #163;18. 99

It is probably more historically accurate to celebrate the two thousandth anniversary of Jesus's birth this year than in four years' time, but it is inevitable perhaps that the symbolism of the figure 2000 will exercise a sway over people's minds. And that, of course, is the nub of the matter when it comes to Jesus. How much of what Christians believe about him is symbol - and how much historical fact? And does it matter for the "truth" (however that is defined) of Christianity where the balance is struck between the two?

Christmas is in fact not the best time to consider such questions since, as most scholars would agree, the Nativity story is one of the historically dodgier areas of the New Testament. Mentioned only in Matthew and Luke, the tale of Jesus's supposed birth in Bethlehem looks like one of those later accretions designed to make Jesus's life accord with Old Testament prophecy.

Much more reliable is the simple statement that he was "of Nazareth" - that he spent at least his childhood in Nazareth, and was perhaps born there. As the biblical scholar Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor points out in Mark Tully's television series, and in the accompanying book, Nazareth is remarkable for its unremarkabl eness. It represents one of those instances where we should trust the Gospel accounts because what they say goes against the idea that everything about Jesus destined him for a divine role in human history.

The emotional power of the Christmas festival, by contrast, owes a lot to influences that are nothing to do with the life of Jesus. As Vivian Green recounts, the first mention of Christmas as the natal day of Christ comes in a Church calendar of 336, and seems to have been an attempt to assimilate pagan festivities celebrating the birth of the "Sun King" in the dark depths of winter - just as, later, the festival of the Resurrection was to be known by the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre (Easter).

The mythic elements in the traditional Christian accounts of Jesus's life - and the anomalies and contradictions between the Gospels - have been pointed out since Reimarus inaugurated Enlightenment biblical scholarship in the 1770s. (N T Wright's book has a particularly full and absorbing section on the historiography of New Testament criticism.) But few reputable historians would now deny that a religious leader or teacher called Jesus did live in Galilee at that time, and that he was executed in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.

Furthermore, it is undeniable that within a short time after his death, the life, death and supposed reappearance after death of this man had become the basis for a dynamic new religious sect, destined to become the official religion of the Western world as well as a personal inspiration to millions.

The big question for the historian concerns the relationship between these two sets of facts, the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ. Since the Second World War, New Testament scholarship, archaeological discovery and historical research have told us more about Jesus and the times that he lived in. But do these insights take us back to the Christian "Jesus", or do they lead us on to a different kind of Jesus?

Perhaps the most important trend in recent Christology has been the full recognition of the fact that Jesus was himself a Jew - a reaction to centuries of Christian anti-semitism, beginning in the Gospels themselves, that has sought to portray Jesus as from the start wholly alienated from, and opposed to, the Judaism of his time.

That Jesus can only be understood within the context of the complex and fractured world of 1st century Judaism is the main thrust of N T Wright's highly readable and absorbing Jesus and the Victory of God, and also of his contributio ns to Mark Tully's televison series. Wright, who is Dean of Lichfield and a leading New Testament scholar, sees himself as in the tradition of Albert Schweitzer from the early part of this century in viewing Jesus not primarily as the purveyor of timeless truths, a teacher of ethical wisdom, but as a historical actor in a particular time, place and culture - and above all someone who spoke and acted in the tradition of Jewish eschatology, prophesying imminent and catastrophic change in the world order.

But there is an important difference between Schweitzer and Wright. Schweitzer, interpreting Jesus's eschatological prophesies literally as foretelling an end of the physical world, saw his life as ultimately a failure - but a failure whose tragic dimension gave it a transcendent meaning and victory. He articulated this in a powerful but opaque passage that is quoted by both Wright and Tully:

"There is silence all around. The Baptist appears and cries, 'Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.' Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man, lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn and he throws himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, he has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great man, who was strong enough to think of himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is his victory and his reign."

Wright, by contrast, links Jesus's eschatologi cal prophesy and his Messiahship more firmly to specific hopes and fears for the Jewish nation then labouring under Roman rule, but sees his specific historical role as reaching out to a greater significance through the (for him) fact of the Resurrection:

"If he was an eschatological prophetMessiah, announcing the kingdom and dying in order to bring it about, the resurrection would declare that he had in principle succeeded in his task, and that his earlier redefinitions of the coming kingdom had pointed to a further task awaiting his followers,that of implementing what he had achieved. Jesus, after all, as a good 1st-century Jew, believed that Israel functioned to the rest of the world as the hinge to the door; what he had done for Israel, he had done in principle for the whole world."

Wright's project is the reuniting of theology and history, but it is by no means just Christian apologetics in the simple-minded sense of trying to show that modern historical research "proves" the Bible to be true. His fascinating critical readings of Jesus' parables, for example, drawing out their Jewish content, is unlikely to convert sceptics, but will undoubtedly give Christians an important new perspective.

Much more along the lines of simple Christian apologetics, unfortunately,is Ian Wilson's Jesus: The Evidence. While it contains some good historical background, and is well-illustrated, it sometimes confuses proof (things did happen as the Gospels say) with plausibility (things could have happened as the Gospels say).

Also, in grabbing at all available straws of plausibility, it sometimes ends up with "proofs" that undermine rather than advance his cause. In writing about the important issue of Jesus's miracle healings, for example - which many scholars see as central to what Jesus was doing - Wilson turns to 20th-century evidence concerning hypnosis. This, one can't help feeling, is hardly the point.

Wilson's book is a new edition of a television tie-in from the early 1980s. A much more thoughtful example of the genre, drawing on contributions from leading scholars, is Mark Tully's Lives of Jesus - better because it is both broader in approach and more personal. His starting point is India, both because that is the place that he knows best and because modern India can perhaps give us the most vivid insight into the power that religion can have in a society.

Thus his example of Sai Baba, one of India's most popular holy men, gives a striking example of what it means for people to believe that they have among them a god incarnate. Ironically, rather than making the Jesus story less plausible by introducing a note of relativity, it makes it more plausible.

Tully goes on to examine the different portraits that have been painted of Jesus (Jewish Messiah, founder of the Church, anti-Roman rebel, peasant revolutionary) but ends with the "Hidden Jesus", a figure - secreted in the disputed "Thomas" gospel and the hypothesized "Q" source of Matthew and Luke - whose essence lies in paradoxical sayings, fragments of wisdom and intimations that each individual must find their own way to spiritual truth.

This may sound more like Buddha than the conventional Jesus of the Christian Church - but perhaps for that very reason it will be, as Tully hopes, the Jesus that is discovered in the next millennium.

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