Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
When Witnesses Disagree

There are many ways of approaching the Jesus of history. One can treat the evidence loosely, allowing it as much leeway as possible. Conclusions drawn about Jesus from loose evidence will not take divergent versions of events too seriously as long as they are reasonably compatible.

"Bare bones" history attempts to provide an account of the life of Jesus which stands a good chance of satisfying a reasonably critical historian that this is what "really happened" and that Jesus "actually said" this or that.

A simple and trite example may be useful. Examining two brief accounts of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, I found them agreeing that:

  • the date of the event was August 6, 1945;
  • the name of the United States bomber was the Enola Gay.

Neither source gives the name of the person in command of the bomber, though one mentions a Captain Lewis. Lewis is supposed by the first source to have exclaimed, "My God, what have we done?" as he saw the massive explosion. The other source says the the crew heard their Commander remark, "My God, look at that son of a bitch go!"

It doesn't much matter exactly what the commander of the bomber did say. But in the case of Jesus, millions over the ages have looked and today still look to his words for guidance in their lives. In some cases they claim that his words have definitive authority over the lives of Christians. In such cases it matters very much exactly what he "really did say".

Bare bones history recognises that our primary sources for "what really happened" in the life of Jesus are at least second-hand. They are most likely sometimes third- or fourth-hand. The society in which Jesus and the Gospel authors lived had little concern with history as we know it today. We can't easily get back to the original sources. More often than not later additions overlay them so thoroughly that they can't be known.

What the Commander of the Enola Gay said - if he said anything at all - is different. Bare bones history is easier to do in this case than in the case of the Gospels. We take greater care today to preserve important information. So I stand a good chance of finding first-hand accounts of "what the Commander really said" if I decide to do that.

There are obvious cases in which it's important to try to get at "what Jesus really said." One such is what has been taken to be his ruling on the ethics of marriage.

Multitudes of Christians, especially in recent times, have been condemned because their marriages have collapsed and ended in civil divorce. They have been excluded by Church authorities from participating in the Eucharist on the basis that their divorce has placed them in a state of mortal sin. The authorities point to biblical passages which apparently report a firm ruling by Jesus on divorce and remarriage. Are they right?

The earliest reference to the matter occurs in Paul first letter to the Corinthians (7.11). Paul says bluntly, "A husband must not divorce his wife" unless - and there follows a caveat which makes it clear that this is not an absolute prohibition.

Some assume that Paul's view is more likely to reflect Jesus' position because he was writing some 10 years before Mark's Gospel was put together. On the other hand, Paul doesn't claim that what Jesus said is his authority. He gives his own advice elsewhere on other matters, and he here appears to be doing the same.

So we have to turn to the Gospels, which do claim to contain "what Jesus really said." If we're to give credence to Paul, then they should agree in detail with him. The insistence in this case upon detailed agreement is necessary because what Jesus "really said" has been and is used to exclude persons who would otherwise claim full membership of the Christian Church.

Three witnesses present evidence for what Jesus said about divorce. Right from the start, we the jury have to accept that what we're using as evidence wasn't intended as such by the witnesses. They intended to testify to Jesus as the Christ (or, in Hebrew, the "Messiah"), not to "what really happened" as would a modern historian. Theirs was more a theological statement than an attempt to record history as "what really happened". They did not perceive the difference between truth and untruth as we do.

Nevertheless, their written material is all we have so we must delve into it to sift out "what really happened" from the theological teaching which was their main emphasis. Several things have to be noticed when comparing the accounts of the three witnesses (Mark 10.2-12; Matthew 19.3-9; Luke 16.18):

  • The words they report as "what Jesus really said" differ.
  • The order of "what Jesus really said" isn't the same.
  • Matthew allows an exception (for "infidelity") which the others don't.
  • Luke's version is very short. He mentions only that anyone who remarries after divorce is committing adultery. None of the material of the other witnesses is mentioned.

The rough drift of the material is reasonably clear. Jesus, if we believe two witnesses, said that there's a link between God's creation of humans as male and female and their unity in marriage. The link is assumed, not explained - so I for one am uncertain about what it means. This is not, in terms of bare bones history, very convincing stuff.

Even though what Jesus said appears in differing sequences in Mark and Matthew, the content is roughly similar. I say "roughly" because the similarity resides more in the English translation than in the original Greek, in which the verbal differences are somewhat greater. As a result, we can't be sure about the words Jesus actually spoke. The witnesses seem to be reporting the sense of what Jesus said, rather than his actual words.

Finally, we would expect Luke's Gospel to report much the same thing as the others on so important a matter. He doesn't, leaving out everything except the blanket condemnation of divorce with which the other accounts end. We don't know why he did that.

The upshot is that the witnesses don't agree sufficiently for us to be to any degree certain about what Jesus really said. In the absence of close agreement, we are forced to guess. Guesses are not good enough for bare bones history, especially when important matters of discipline hang upon them.

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