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Alternatively, it may be digested and assimilated. But at least people know what has already been discovered, what has already been said twenty or fifty or seventy years ago. There is some species of genuine advance, whereby old discoveries and contentions provide a basis for new discoveries and contentions, and a corpus of knowledge comes into being. Revolutionary theories may be accepted or discarded, but least cognisance is at taken of them and of what preceded them.
A 16 context exists. Cumulative contributions by successive generations of researchers create an increased and increasing understanding. Thus do we acquire our knowledge of history in general, as well as of specific epochs and events. These images are constantly growing, constantly mutating, constantly being augmented by new material as it becomes available.
So far as the general public is concerned, New Testament history offers a striking contrast. It remains static, unaffected by new developments, new discoveries, new findings. Each controversial assertion is treated as if it were being made for the first time. Each contribution in the field of biblical research is like a footprint in sand.
Each is covered almost immediately and, so far as the general public is concerned, left virtually without trace. Each must constantly be made anew, only to be covered again. Why should this be? Why should biblical scholarship, which is pertinent to so many lives, be thus immune to evolution and development?
Why should the great mass of believing Christians in fact know less about the figure they worship than about historical figures of far less relevance? In the past, when such knowledge was inaccessible or dangerous to promulgate, there might have been some justification.
The knowledge today is both accessible and safely promulgated. Yet the practising Christian remains as ignorant as his predecessors of centuries ago; and he subscribes essentially to the same simplistic accounts he heard when he himself was a child. A fundamentalist might well assert that the situation bears witness to the resilience and tenacity of Christian faith. We do not find such an explanation satisfactory. The Christian faith may indeed be resilient and tenacious.
History has proved it to be so. But we are not talking about faith — which must necessarily be an intensely private, intensely subjective affair. We are talking about documented historical facts. In the wake of the television series mentioned above, a panel 17 In the wake of the television series mentioned above, a panel discussion on the subject was transmitted.
A number of distinguished commentators, most of them ecclesiastics, were assembled to evaluate the programmes and their implications. During the course of this panel discussion, several of the contributors agreed on one telling point. In the last year, the same point has been echoed not only by the Bishop of Durham, but also by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was also a focus of debate at a subsequent synod of the Church of England.
According to several participants, the prevailing ignorance of New Testament scholarship is in large part the fault of the churches themselves and of the ecclesiastical establishment. Anyone in the ministry, anyone training for the ministry, is, as a matter of course, confronted with the latest developments in biblical research. Any seminarian today will learn at least something of the Dead Sea Scrolls, of the Nag Hammadi Scrolls, of the history and evolution of New Testament studies, of the more controversial statements made by both theologians and historians.
Yet this knowledge has not been passed on to the laity. In consequence, a gulf has opened between ecclesiastics and their congregations.
Among themselves, ecclesiastics have become eminently sophisticated and erudite. They may find contentions such as those we have made questionable, but not surprising or scandalous. Yet nothing of this sophistication has been transmitted to their flock. The flock receives virtually no historical background from its shepherd — who is believed to be the definitive authority on such matters. When, in consequence, such background is presented by writers like ourselves, rather than by the official shepherd, it can often produce a reaction amounting to trauma, or a personal crisis of faith.
Either we become regarded as gratuitously destructive iconoclasts, or the shepherd himself becomes suspect for having withheld information.
The overall effect is precisely the same as if there were an organised conspiracy of silence among churchmen. This, then, is the situation at present. On the one hand, there is the ecclesiastical hierarchy, steeped in what has been written in the past, versed in all the latest aspects of biblical scholarship. On the other hand, there is the lay congregation, to whom biblical scholarship is totally unknown territory.
The modern, more or less well-read cleric is acutely aware, for example, of the distinction between what is in the New Testament itself and what is an 18 accretion of later tradition. He is aware of precisely how much — or, to be more accurate, how little — the scriptures actually say. He is aware of how much latitude, indeed, of how much necessity, there is for interpretation. For such a cleric, the contradictions between fact and faith, between history and theology, were personally confronted and resolved long ago.
Such a cleric has long recognised that his personal belief is not the same thing as historical evidence, and he has effected some kind of personal reconciliation between the two — a reconciliation which, to a greater or lesser degree, manages to accommodate both. He is unlikely to be startled by the kind of evidence or hypothesis presented by us and by other writers. It will already have been familiar to him, and he will have formed his own conclusions long ago.
In contrast to the learned shepherd, the flock has not had occasion either to familiarise itself with the evidence in question or to confront the inconsistencies between scriptural accounts and the actual historical backdrop. For the devout Christian, there has been no need to reconcile fact and faith, history and theology, simply because he has never had any reason to believe that a distinction between them might exist. On the contrary, the story in the Gospels is often utterly divorced from all historical context — a narrative of stark, timeless, mythic simplicity enacted in a sort of limbo, a never-never-land of long ago and far away.
Jesus, for example, appears now in Galilee, now in Judaea; now in Jerusalem, or on the banks of Jordan. For the modern Christian, however, there is often no awareness of the geographical and political relation between these places, how far they might be from each other, how long a journey from one to the other might take.
The titles of various official functionaries are often meaningless. Romans and Jews mill confusingly in the background, like extras on a film set, and if one has any concrete image of them at all, it generally derives from one or another Hollywood spectacular — Pilate complete with Brooklynese accent. For the lay congregation, scriptural accounts are regarded as literal history, a self-contained story no less true for being divorced from an historical context.
Never having been taught otherwise by 19 his spiritual mentors, many a devout believer has had no need to question the problems posed by such a context. When these problems are suddenly posed by a book such as ours, they will quite understandably assume the form of revelation, or of sacrilege. Our Conclusion in Perspective Needless to say, we harbour no such intention. We are not engaged in any sort of crusade. We had a story to tell, and the story seemed eminently worth the telling.
We had been involved in an historical adventure as gripping as any detective tale or spy thriller. It is a truism that a good story requires telling; it seems to have a life and momentum of its own, which demand expression.
Our conclusions about Jesus were an integral part of our adventure. Indeed, the adventure itself led us to them. We simply invited our readers to witness the process whereby it had done so.
We are not trying to foist them upon you. If they make sense to you, well and good. If not, feel free to discard them and draw your own. In the meantime, we hope you found your sojourn with us interesting, entertaining and informative. A 20 simple example should serve to illustrate the complexities and the paradoxes of this conflict.
Today, of course, it is understandable how such a misconception can have occured. Even to a Western European at the time, it would have been comprehensible. And yet it is equally clear that in the minds of those who believed in his divinity, he was indeed a god.
It might seem to us somewhat peculiar, but we could not presume to challenge his belief — especially if his background, his education, his upbringing, his culture had all conduced to foster it.
How could we possibly challenge such assertions? What a man experiences in the privacy of his psyche must of necessity remain inviolate and inviolable.
We know quite a bit about the historical context, the world in which both figures existed. This knowledge is not a matter of personal belief, but of a simple historical fact. And if a man permits his personal belief to distort, alter or transform historical fact, he cannot expect others, whether or not they share his belief, to condone the process. The same principle obtains if a man permits his personal belief to derange dramatically the laws of probability and what we know of human nature.
But such things fly so flagrantly in the face of known history, so flagrantly in the face of human experience, so flagrantly in the face of simple probability, that they impose an inordinate strain upon credulity. As personal belief, they may be unimpugnable.
But presented as historical fact, they rest on too improbable and too tenuous a basis. Jesus poses a problem essentially analogous.
We are not dealing with the Christ or Christos of theology, the figure who enjoys a very real and very puissant existence in the psyches and consciences of the faithful. We are dealing, in short, with the Jesus of history — and history, however vague and uncertain it may sometimes be, will still often brazenly defy our wishes, our myths, our mental images, our preconceptions. In order to do justice to the Jesus of history, one must effectively divest oneself of preconceptions — and especially of the preconceptions fostered by subsequent tradition.
And one must refrain from a priori acts of belief. Indeed, it can be argued that the wisdom of believing or dis- believing is itself questionable. People are prepared to kill all too readily in the name of belief. At the same time, to disbelieve is as much an act of faith, as much an unsubstantiated assumption, as belief.
Disbelief — as 22 exemplified by the militant atheist or rationalist, for instance — is in itself another form of belief. To say that one does not believe in telepathy, or in ghosts, or in God is as much an act of faith as believing in them. It is preferable to think in terms of knowledge. Ultimately, the issue is quite simple.
Either one knows something, immediately, directly and at first hand, or one does not. A man who touches a hot stove does not need to believe in pain. He knows pain; he experiences pain; pain is a reality that cannot be doubted. A man who receives an electric shock does not ask himself whether he believes in the form of energy known as electricity. He experiences something whose reality cannot be denied, whatever the term one attaches to it.
But if one is dealing with anything other than empirical knowledge of this kind — if, in short, one does not personally know in the sense just explained — the only honest thing one can say is that one does not know.
So far as the theological attributes accorded Jesus by Christian tradition are concerned, we simply do not know. If one is honest, one can only acknowledge this situation — that all things are possible, but that some are more possible than others. It amounts to a simple balance of probabilities and plausibilities. What is more or less likely to have happened? In the absence of truly definitive knowledge about Jesus, it seems to us more likely, more probable, more in accord with our experience of humanity, that a man should have been married and tried to regain his rightful throne than that he should have been born of a virgin, walked on water and risen from his grave.
And yet this conclusion, too, must, of necessity, remain tentative. It is a conclusion acknowledged as a more likely possibility, not embraced as a creed.
Interpretation in the Service of Belief As we have said, much is known today about the world in which 23 As we have said, much is known today about the world in which Jesus lived, the Palestine of two thousand years ago.
But as far as Jesus himself, and the events surrounding his life, are concerned, there is an absence of definitive knowledge. The Gospels, indeed the whole of the Bible, are sketchy documents, which no responsible scholar would for a moment consider absolutely reliable as historical testimony. Given this situation, one must perforce hypothesise, if one is not to remain mute. Within this framework, however, it is perfectly valid, and indeed necessary, to speculate — to interpret the meagre, opaque and often contradictory evidence that does exist.
Most biblical scholarship involves some degree of speculation.
So, for that matter, do theology and the teachings of the churches. But while historical research speculates on the basis of historical fact, theology and clerical teachings speculate almost entirely on the scriptures themselves — often without any relation to historical fact. People have argued and slaughtered each other, have waged wars throughout the course of the last two thousand years over the way in which particular passages should be understood.
In the coalescence of Christian tradition, this is one principle that has remained constant. In the past, when Church Fathers or other individuals were confronted with one of the various biblical ambiguities and contradictions, they speculated about its meaning. They attempted to interpret it. Once accepted, the conclusion of their speculation — that is, their interpretation — would become enshrined as dogma. Over the centuries, it then came to be regarded as established fact.
Such conclusions are not fact at all. On the contrary, they are speculation and interpretation congealed into a tradition, and it is this tradition which is constantly mistaken for fact. A single example should serve to illustrate the process.
Apart from this, the Gospels tell us virtually nothing.