At the recent weekend conference on John Robinson’s Honest to God one of the speakers was James Crossley, a New Testament scholar at Sheffield. Crossley’s talk raised two questions in my mind. One is about Jesus’ ministry to the destitute at a time when, some scholars think, the economy was growing. I discuss that elsewhere. The other was about how much we know about Jesus.
The reason for asking Crossley was that Honest to God has a chapter about Jesus, entitled ‘The Man for Others’. Personally I don’t like the title – I imagine Jesus as a spare pair of hands willing to repair anyone’s bicycle punctures – but Robinson’s point was that a Christianity based on Jesus must pay attention to his real human person, not just speculate about the Christ of faith.
If you take this view you have to recognise the limits to what we know about the historical Jesus. Crossley took a minimalist view. He argued that the tools of New Testament scholarship are good at working out whether a particular saying or story is likely to have come from Jesus’ time or from later, but even if it does come from his time it still may not come from Jesus himself.
Some participants responded that it doesn’t matter. If a saying is true, it is true whoever said it. I see the matter as more complex. When we ask whether something matters, we have to consider for what purpose it may or may not matter. When we explain what we intend to do with the information it may then become clearer when and how it matters.
We have a lot more information about Jesus than about most known figures of his day. Nobody disputes the existence of Herod or Pilate. Our information about Vircingetorix comes entirely from Julius Caesar who could have made it all up, or made some of it up, but we have no reason to doubt his account. Classicists get used to the limits to our knowledge.
In the case of Jesus there is more at stake. Christians need to relate our faith to Jesus somehow; what Jesus said and did must be authoritative. But how? How are the sayings attributed to Jesus authoritative? Here are some options:#
They are authoritative for us today because Jesus said them. This is the belief-system in which it matters whether they were said by Jesus or by someone else.
They are authoritative for us today because they are in the Bible. In this case knowing they are in the bible is enough authority, whether or not Jesus said them.
We decide for ourselves whether to count them as authoritative for us. Again, whether Jesus said them is not the important question. This was the view being expressed in the conference by those who were happy with Crossley’s claim.
Where would Jesus have stood on this question? In John’s Gospel Jesus pulls rank: people should believe what he says because he and the Father are one, or because he comes from the Father. New Testament scholars accept that these accounts are not accurate descriptions of what Jesus said; they make him sound less like a real human being than a nineteenth-century spiritualist apparition. In the other gospels we get a more human Jesus who argues against other humans.
What is distinctive about the Jesus of Mark, Matthew and Luke is the manner of his teaching. Compared with other Jews of his own time and place he had a distinctive approach: he taught inparables. He told stories and asked questions. This is the exact opposite of pulling rank. It asks listeners to think things through for themselves. Jesus, I suspect, would have agreed that what mattered about the things he said was not who said them but whether they were true. So if our agenda is to decide whether any one saying attributed to Jesus should be authoritative for us, we should judge the saying on its merits rather than depending on New Testament scholars to work out whether Jesus said them.
However a different, more holistic, agenda is possible, more focused on the person of Jesus than any specific set of words. Christians can claim to follow Jesus not because of specific words but because of what he stood for. Jesus left us no writings of his own but his followers offered descriptions of what he said and did, descriptions which many find attractive. The same is true of Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Aristotle and Epicurus. Any one statement about these people may, for all we know, be inaccurate. Nevertheless we have an overall picture of what they stood for and we can judge whether we want to buy into it.