[Copied here from my other blog Hemlandssånger June 13.]

Merle Haggard – [cover of Woody Guthrie’s] Jesus Christ

It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography. ― John Dominic Crossan,

Over the years — even when I wanted nothing to do with organized religion — I’ve been fascinated with historical Jesus research. It started with a used copy of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus I picked up 25 or 30 years ago at a municipal library used book sale. And when the Jesus Seminar went through the gospels deciding which quotes were authentic and which ones probably weren’t, I followed along avidly.

Partly that’s because I’m a historian by education and training, and I write spellbinders on church history like “A Religious Community’s Response to Wartime Nativism: Swedish- American Lutherans in Rock Island at the Onset of World War I” and “‘How Newness Enters the World’: Cultural Creolization in Swedish-American Hymnals Published at Augustana College, 1901-1925” (no one has inquired yet about movie rights). And partly it’s because the subject is intrinsically interesting.

It’s also because I’m still trying to work through my reaction to growing up down South where the prevailing attitude was that Jesus was a bible-thumping fundamentalist who couldn’t care less about social justice, but he most emphatically did not want anybody to: (a) buy beer; (b) go to the movies on Sunday; and/or (c) learn about evolution in the public schools.

So by the time I graduated high school at 18, I didn’t want to hear any more about Jesus. At least not the Jesus of popular culture.

Now, I want to be clear about this — the mainline Protestant church I grew up in had a more nuanced concept of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, who taught me things like, “Whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him’?” (Which seemed like a good question, although perhaps understandably somewhat out-of-date.) And I had Sunday School teachers who quietly applied the Golden Rule to controversies like school desegregation, which I thought reflected a measure of courage in those days. But the civil religion at that time and place was all about drinking and dancing, in a state where teaching evolution was a $100-$500 misdemeanor (TCA 49-1922). In sum, it left me with an abiding distaste for organized religion.

But strange things happen, and I guess you could say after I left home I found refuge in the Historical Jesus.


Pilgrims crowd entrance to Capernaum, archaeological site of village where Jesus probably had his headquarters in Galilee. Building at right is a Franciscan monastery; the Franciscans are official Custodians of the Holy Land.

Let’s be more specific. In later years I sought refuge in the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, a group of about 50 Biblical scholars and 100 lay members that in the 1980s and 90s sought to apply the standards and procedures of historical scholarship to the biblical stories of Jesus. Their composite picture, as summarized by Wikipedia (replete with links and citations, which I have omitted) goes like this:

The Seminar’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrayed him as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith-healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms. An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological dogmas and social conventions in both his teachings and his behavior, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience: he preached of “Heaven’s imperial rule” (traditionally translated as “Kingdom of God”) as being already present but unseen; he depicts God as a loving father; he fraternizes with outsiders and criticizes insiders. (194)

Up to a point, this is like the Jesus of the creeds I grew up with in the church. But without the part about, “… Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man.” Wikipedia continues:

According to the Seminar, Jesus was a mortal man born of two human parents, who did not perform nature miracles nor die as a substitute for sinners nor rise bodily from the dead. Sightings of a risen Jesus represented the visionary experiences of some of his disciples rather than physical encounters.

The work of the Jesus Seminar has been controversial, especially among conservative Christians, but I find most of it intellectually convincing. As for the rest of it, I’m willing to give Jesus’ disciples, their visionary experiences and the Jesus of the creeds the benefit of the doubt — or trust — a leap of faith in what Kierkegaard scholar Mark Tietjen of Stony Brook School in New York suggests is a holistic “restorative ‘way’ that Jesus offers to his interlocutors in scripture,” as he “seeks their physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, and emotional well-being.” By the same token, I’m more than happy to extend the same courtesy to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, who make a distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.”


Pilgrimage Church of St. Peter in Capernaum, Franciscan shrine built in 1990 over Byzantine house church associated with Jesus and St. Peter.

Setting aside the question of faith (I’ll come back to it later), it’s primarily the Jesus of history that engages me. At least in the present moment.

I especially like the consensus of the Jesus Seminar in a New Testament translation titled The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? In their introduction, they suggest Jesus’ sayings and parables “cut against the social and religious grain.” They “surprise and shock: they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations.” They’re “often characterized by exaggeration, humor, and paradox.” And, the Jesus Seminar concludes, “Jesus’ images are concrete and vivid, his sayings and parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit application” (pp. 30-32).

John Dominic Crossan, an emeritus professor at DePaul and a leading member of the Jesus Seminar, has another way of putting it: “If an audience kept complete silence during a challenge parable from Jesus and if an audience filed past him afterward saying, ‘Lovely parable, this morning, Rabbi,’ Jesus would have failed utterly.”

In other words, the Jesus of history leaves you thinking.

Crossan’s word picture, in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, of Jesus’ preaching in little fishing villages like Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee seems just about right to me:

He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his voice the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.

Echoing the consensus of the Jesus Seminar, Crossan accepts the stories of Jesus’ exorcisms and faith healings as true — as verifiable by scientific analysis — and with them, his commission to those who would follow him to heal the sick and cast out devils. He continues:

To those first followers from the peasant villages of Lower Galilee who asked him to repay his exorcisms and cures, he gave a simple answer — simple, that is, to understand, but hard as death itself to undertake. You are healed healers, he said, so take the Kingdom to others … It is, was, and always will be available to any who want it. (195-96)


3rd- or 4th-century synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is said to have preached in an earlier synagogue on the site, foundation stones of which can be seen under the Byzantine-era ruins.

We all tend to create a Jesus in our own image, or in the image of what or who we would like to be, and Crossan is aware of that tendency. “This is my working definition of history: History is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse,” he says in a passage picked up by BrainyQuote.com. He adds, “history as argued public reconstruction is necessary to reconstruct our past in order to project our future.”

In other words, Crossan’s Jesus sounds a bit like mine. Which in turn sounds a lot like Woody Guthrie’s (as sung by Merle Haggard), a “carpenter true and brave / He said to the rich give your goods to the poor / And they laid Jesus Christ in the grave.” But that’s getting a little ahead of the story.

When I contemplate Jesus, or any of the three members of the Holy Trinity, the closest I can come is more like George Burns — or his character — in Oh, God! In that movie, God appears to an assistant supermarket manager named Jerry (played by John Denver), and we get this bit of dialog as God fields Jerry’s questions:

God: [reading religious quiz] “Is Jesus Christ the Son of God?” [thinks]

God: Jesus was my son. Buddha was my son. Mohammed. Moses. You. The man who said there was no room in the inn, was my Son. And so is the one who charges eleven dollars for a steak [in 1977 dollars].

The shtick about the $11 steak — overpriced by 1977 standards — is a running gag in the movie. The rest is very familiar. As is this monologue, addressed to a crowded courtroom by an invisible God with Burns’ inimitable phrasing and delivery:

I know how hard it is in these times to have faith. But maybe if you could have the faith to start with, maybe the times would change. You could change them. Think about it. Try. And try not to hurt each other. There’s been enough of that. It really gets in the way. I’m a God of very few words and Jerry’s already given you mine. However hopeless, helpless, mixed up and scary it all gets, it can work. If you find it hard to believe in me, maybe it would help you to know that I believe in you.

All of this makes eminent good sense to me, and it’s very close to the way I feel about God, Jesus and the mysteries of faith. But there’s something more there. I sense it when I read Dominic Crossan’s reconstruction of a rabbi and healer — an exorcist — watched by “the cold, hard eyes of peasants” and fishermen in Galilee nearly 2,000 years ago, preaching the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, casting out devils and telling those he healed by word and deed, “You are healed healers, … so take the Kingdom to others.”

capernaum2a (1)

Resident cat, at right, welcomes visitor to archaeological site at Capernaum. In the background to the right can be seen remnants of a Byzantine-era house church dedicated to St. Peter.

And I sensed it, felt it strongly in ways I can’t define, when I visited Capernaum, where the historical Jesus preached and probably made the headquarters for his ministry in Galilee. I felt the presence of something there, just out of reach among the black basalt foundation stones of a 1st-century fishing village half buried beneath the gorgeous 4th-century synagogue and the ruins of an octagonal Byzantine church traditionally associated with the house of St. Peter’s mother-in-law.

I can’t say what it was that I felt. And it was only one of many fleeting impressions I had the day I visited Capernaum on a sunny fall afternoon in 2012. The dozens of pilgrim groups touring the ruins and a 1990s-vintage Franciscan shrine built over Byzantine ruins of St. Peter’s house church. Even a friendly cat. I can’t say exactly what it was, but it was almost palpable as we toured the shrines and archaeological digs, saw a restored 1st-century fishing boat and — perhaps most of all — kept seeing the fields sloping down to the Sea of Galilee where shrines commemorate traditional locations of the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 5,000 and the stretch of pebbled beach where Jesus called to St. Peter and St. Andrew and said, “Come, I will make you fishers of men.” Something awesome, truly awesome in the old-fashioned sense, happened here.

Intellectually I know that many of the stories of Jesus can’t be squared with the historical evidence available to us today. I was taught better methodology in the history department at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville than to deny that. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that day that among these stones, on these hillsides, beside this inland sea — more a lake than what I would call a sea — something happened that changed the world, that altered the course of history.


Byzantine house church at Capernaum, preserved beneath Pilgrimage Church of St. Peter (floor joists visible across top of picture). Inner structure was a 1st-century dwelling converted to a house church and later a Byzantine shrine.

Albert Schweitzer, who wrote the first influential 20th-century study of the historical Jesus, felt it. Crossan, who spent a great deal of time and energy refuting Schweitzer’s hypothesis, felt it. And in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (p. 53), he cited Schweitzer’s sense of ineffable mystery.

And whenever I read it myself, I can’t help but be inspired by Schweitzer’s sense of the historical Jesus.

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. ― Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus

[Revised Sept. 29, 2022]

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