Thursday, December 04, 2003


In her tough-minded book Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation, feminist scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza astutely critiques various mainstream methodological approaches to 'the historical Jesus', and the intellectual hubris of much reconstruction per se. She scores some palpable points, but remains hopeful that the Spirit of the living Christ can break through our appropriations and conceits -- not least through the historical argument that is always part of faith: a reminder that God's in-breaking of human discourse is continually beyond our manipulation.

Fiorenza rightly says that it is those on the margins, those who do not have vested interests in the institutions that manage the narrative, who can best help us to re-discover it. For that reason -- and in spite of a title that will make her baulk yet again -- I am very much looking forward to reading the new book by Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford. The Authentic Gospel Of Jesus (Allen Lane) was published a few weeks ago. In a 'Face to Faith' article in The Guardian last Saturday ('What's sex got to do with it?'), Vermes says:

"The gospel of Jesus is still largely unperceived among church people: the message which the master from Nazareth -- not Paul, John or two millennia of Christianity -- formulated in his own language and teaching for his mostly uneducated Galilean Jewish audience."

Also worth a look: Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet, Jack Nelson-Pellmayer's controversial Jesus Against Christianity and South African Albert Nolan's Jesus Before Christianity.

A useful non-technical introduction to the import of 'Jesus studies' debates is Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright's The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. I enjoy a good deal of Borg's work (though his panentheism is now strained -- see the recent pole of post-metaphysics ranging from Jean Luc Marion to David Tracy). Wright is conservative, but in a thoughtful and creative way.

Bart Ehrman offers a different kind of salutary warning about current modern and post-modern renderings of Jesus in his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, which I have just finished. He's right to point out how the apocalyptic dimension of the Gospels is underplayed (for obvious reasons) by modern interpreters. However, there are different theological possibilities arising from the text than those he deploys -- which tend towards 'unrecoverability'.

So the jury remains out. But the calling of the Christian community is to go on telling and retelling the Jesus story, in the conviction that the God who defies our categories and expectations continues will be met in and through it. Usually when we least expect or deserve it. Strangely enough, this is -- as Vermes the Jew points out -- something that the churches are notably bad at. often because they wish to control the text for their own ends. There is real fear in this. Too much of what now is in institutional Christianity is threatened by its founding figure (thankfully).

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