Historical Jesus Primer

91Yadw-FeZLIt seems that every year, right around Easter, a host of arguments find traction in some bastion of so-called objective journalism where Jesus is suggested to be misrepresented, or sometimes even non-existent. As the usual attacks are lobbed, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by what (on the surface) appear to be legitimate concerns. Enter 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus from C. Marvin Pate.

The book is a part of Kregel Academic’s line of apologetic survey works that take the form of 40 questions. I’ve previously reviewed their entry regarding creation, and commented on the benefits of this approach to such discussions. While these books cannot be exhaustive, they serve as excellent introductions to difficult material that is often weighed down with emotional appeals and mistrust on both sides. Pate’s foray into the quest for the historical Jesus is a welcome addition to the larger discussion and would serve as a great starting point for any Christian interested in the topic.

That being said, there are two particular points of, what I hope will be, constructive criticism. The first is a comparative element. In Kregel’s book regarding creation, there was a marked effort to be generous to differing viewpoints because it was a mostly “in house” debate. This book, however, is primarily a discussion between the orthodox and the heterodox, the believing and the non. As such, the tone should be different in some areas, at times calling for sharp rebuke and other times gentle correction. But it would appear to me that Benjamin Merkle, the series editor, would like the tone of each work to be the same. I think this is noble, but an ultimately ill-fated attempt to keep the conversation civil. If I hadn’t read a companion work to make the correlation, then I might not have even noticed, so take that for what it is.

The second issue is minor, but I think important still. The book has a wonderful set of indexes, which give guidance when something like The Gospel of Thomas specially comes up. But what happens when Bart Ehrman gets mentioned? Since so much of this topic is generated from 19th, 20th, and even 21st century scholars, an index dealing with such men and women would be not only appropriate, but perhaps essential for someone who is really trying to dig in to the subject.

These are small quibbles, and should not dissuade anyone from purchasing the book. It is a great resource for Christians of all stripes, regardless of age or denomination. I hope Kregel continues to put out great works like this.


Half-hearted Creatures

I talk a good deal about the importance of the resurrection to the Christian faith. Typically, this comes off as some hare-brained attempt to advocate social justice or inadvertently support global warming, which is so unfortunate. I struggle to enunciate exactly why I think this is so important, even though the thought of it on certain days sink down into my soul so thoroughly that I fight tears. So, for a brief moment, allow me to use someone else’s words:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. – C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

This was my first real encounter with resurrection theology, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this notion has become one of the most foundational concepts in my faith. I do not want to be a half-hearted creature! And I genuinely believe that only way to live a full and rich kind of faith is to see the resurrection of Christ as the focal point to, well, everything.

As someone who struggles with traditional church, and mindless institutions (collegiate or otherwise), the resurrection screams to me that we cannot, we must not, go quietly along simply because “this is the way it’s done.” My response to that? “Dead men don’t rise from the grave!

We’re working through a series on Saints right now over at the College House, and in some ways this is simply revisiting what I’ve already taught to my juniors and seniors during the school year, but it never ceases to amaze me how God’s Truth runs right smack dab through the middle of everything, and the resurrection of Christ is no exception. So many of the Saints who stand out in the twenty centuries of Church History do so because their faith, anchored in the same sentiment that Lewis enunciates so clearly, causes them to live a life totally different from everyone around them. I think of Watchman Nee and Dietrich Bonheoffer, men who reflected Christ even as they died in such unjust circumstances, and I pause: “how will the resurrection change me? will people see that truth in my life?

It’s a powerful question. Father, help me to live it well.

Who keeps a dead horse?

I know we shouldn’t beat a dead horse, but what do we do when something is still very much alive and bears repeating? Is that the equivalent of beating a living horse? I hope not. That would make me feel awful.

Regardless, I want to bring up something I’ve mentioned before: God’s kingdom. Working at a inter-denominational Christian school, I hear all kinds of ideas. And being in my position, as a Church History and American Literature teacher, I try not to force my own ideas on the students. Sometimes, its unavoidable (and I realize a million other teachers just went, “shame on you!”). But it’s true. No one is a blank slate, but some people are definitely like silly putty. They take a shallow impression of whatever someone gives them (thoughts, words, talents, etc.) and it only sticks until the next thing.

With all that being said, I avoid talking about God’s kingdom, as I understand it. Which is hard when studying the first four centuries of Christianity since they were so resurrection minded. But still, somehow I made it through without trying to create mini-Hadleys. I imagine that was by the grace of God, since I’ve never been known to hold my tongue on something I feel strongly about.

I bring it up because, in some ways, I feel like my students are the less for it. If only they could see God’s kingdom the way I have come to see it. After all, I had to have someone show me another way of looking at it. Don’t they need the same thing?

N.T. Wright explains it like this:

The widespread assumption today that ‘the kingdom of God’ denotes another realm altogether, for instance that of the ‘heaven’ to which God’s people might hope to go after their death, was not on the first-century agenda. When Jesus spoke about God’s kingdom, and taught his followers to pray that it would arrive ‘on earth as in heaven’, he was right in the middle of first-century Jewish theocratic aspirations.

I’ll write some other time on why I think we need to get back to a true theocracy. But for now, I want to think about the heart of this idea: what Jesus taught.

If Jesus taught His people to be something different, shouldn’t we do the same? If God called His people to be the kind of folk who care about justice, mercy and humility, shouldn’t we be that way?

I know lots of people who do in fact sound like this. Some of them are Democrats, and some are Republicans. Some are Federalists, and some are Socialists. But somehow, they all serve Jesus. My students miss this often. They can’t see how someone who doesn’t value their politics can still be a Christian. And not too long ago, I thought the same way.

More and more I am convinced that it is not so much our ideologies that stand in the way, but rather our refusal to consider what God’s purposes might be. What if you don’t go to heaven? Would that cause you to abandon Jesus? What if you die, and then you just “sleep” until Jesus comes back? Are you going to stop living for Him if you don’t get your pie in the sky?

This is what I want my students to think about: do I live a certain way because I think a certain thing? And I think it’s a question we should all ask ourselves.

So I might be repetitive. But I never beat a dead horse. In reality, I’m always trying to point people to a risen Jesus.


Once again Easter has come and gone. It was the first Easter I ever celebrated with a “big” church. It was also the first Easter for my budding family. It came and went like most days, without too much fuss. It makes me sad that I’m in a place in my life where something like that might happen. It should have been a day of celebration, of rejoicing in the triumph of Christ. But it’s just so easy to become worn down and tired from the day to day of work, school, blah, blah, blah.

As I was reading this morning, I came across someone who had a similar sentiment, yet they handled it in a very different way:

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work.  And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways.  And I admit that my plate has been full as well. The inbox keeps on accumulating.

But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.

And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

In the words of the book Isaiah: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of his Son and our Savior.

I don’t have a high regard for President Obama (yes, he said that and you can read the remarks in their entirety here), but I’m chastised by his wisdom this morning. God’s grace is truly magnificent, and it certainly calls us to prayer.

I’m hoping, and praying, that as I have time over Spring Break to return to a habit I used to revel in every day (and feel remiss about if I skipped it), namely my coffee with God. It’s not enough to merely “study” His Word, I know I need to enveloped in it like a man walking through a dense fog. There may be times when I feel lost like that same man, but there is not doubt as to Who my guide is.

Here’s to a new season: may His resurrection be visible in each of us today!