Friday, March 02, 2007

Jesus as History and Myth

I caught this take on the tomb of Jesus controversy in Newsweek:
Some conservative fundamentalists refuse to even consider the possibility of a Jesus tomb that contains his remains. Doing so would be to “travel down a dangerous road,” says Stephen J. Hankins, seminary dean at Bob Jones University. Hankins argues that Christianity is strongly rooted in historical fact, both in context and in the events that unfold in the Bible, and it is that historicity, he says, which separates the faith from what he calls, “other world religions that are based in myth.” Speaking about the existence of Jesus’s physical remains amounts to heresy, Hankins suggests. “If you divorce the faith from the historical events, you have embraced something other than New Testament Christianity, which is not apostolic Christianity,” says Hankins.
I doubt very much if conservative Jews and Muslims think their religions are based in myth. On the other hand, most who study comparative religion see myth as central to all religious faiths. In a recent article in The Fourth R, the journal of the Westar Institute, William Arnal, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, commented on why he thinks it is difficult if not impossible to do research into the historical Jesus:
For many people, including most of those who study him, Jesus is not an important leader or even a moral example--he is the Son of God, himself divine, and the royal road to salvation. This does not offer good prospects for good history. While such beliefs (or the inability to overcome them) may not apply to everyone who studies Jesus, they will always be true for enough of them to drown out the voices of the more impartial scholarship. Perhaps even more importantly, our sources for Jesus--unlike those for Augustus or Lincoln--were themselves written by people with the same perspective: that Jesus was infinitely, divinely, important. The sources therefore provide mythic facts, not historical ones. Unlike Augustus or Nixon, Jesus is not fundamentally a historical figure at all, and never has been. Thus one wonders how successful historical inquiry can be.
It is worth noting that Arnal's piece was part of a discussion among Jesus Seminar scholars about the usefulness of Jesus research and those responding to Arnal were not willing to concede that history inquiry into Jesus was quite as impossible as he suggested. There was a real man Jesus, afterall. But Arnal's point is well taken. We are not primarily reading history when we read the gospels. We are reading myth. And particularly when we move into the death and resurrection narratives we are eyeball-deep in myth.

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