Written in the genre of Henry David Thoreaus travel-thinking essays, Rick Kennedy's Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion is the story of a three-day climb into the Evolution Range of the High Sierra mountains of California (click here to see a map of the mountains). Mount Darwin stands among other near-14,000-foot-high mountains that are named after promoters of religious versions of evolutionary thinking. Using the trek as its framing narrative, this series branches off to explore the complex and at times even murky spaces at the intersection of Christian faith, ancient and natural history, and observational science.
The Noisy Life of Jesus
Dave as a backpacking buddy is always an out-front kind-of-guy. Scrambling up, over, and around the large boulders at the base of Mount Darwin, he was out front. Dave once led me on a road-trip study of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Indians of the Southwest. Dave, at the time, was student president of our Phi Alpha Theta history honor society. Cliff dwellings came up in class, and Dave organized a road trip to see as many Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi ruins as can be done in an October four-day weekend.
Elbows in the breeze, my boys in the way back, a car-full of students following, we drove east from San Diego to Casa Grande and Montezuma’s Castle near Phoenix. Approaching Mesa Verde we hit snow. Our last night, we camped at Canyon de Chelly, east of Flagstaff. At every site, we were frustrated by the silence of the ruins. We could imagine life in these impressive buildings and speculate on why they were built and abandoned. However, we learned no specific names, nothing of political innovations, next to nothing about major events. Unrelenting mystery engulfed every site.
The cliff dwellings are, in many ways, as impressive as the ruins of Athens and Corinth, but we know so much more about genius of the latter’s citizens. The Greeks tell us about themselves, their leaders, the heroes, their gods, their acts. We listen and learn. In the Southwest we knew we were in the presence of genius, but there we could only listen to a frustrating silence.
The life of Jesus is noisy. A cacophony of information reaches through two thousand years to communicate with us. In the Bible alone we have four organized biographical sketches, Luke’s history of the first decades after Jesus, and a bunch of letters. Intersecting Jesus and the New Testament is an amazing amount of Roman literature dealing with Syria and Palestine, which were important and unruly parts of the empire. A Jewish/Greek historian, Josephus, wrote books about Israel that contribute to our knowledge of Jesus’ time. From the Bible and Josephus, historians have much more information about Jesus and the social and political issues of Jerusalem than any person or place in Europe at the same time. On top of all of the noise of good information in the Bible and Josephus, a large library of books, called the “Dead Sea Scrolls,” were discovered in the middle of the twentieth century. We have much more information about Jesus to fight about than we have for almost any other person you read about in ancient history. Our sources are strong and diverse. We have multiple testimonies from highly credible sources, sources willing to live and die by the truth of their testimony.
Ironically, we have so much information that is essentially consistent and reliable, that we historians nitpick fights about all sorts of little things. Historians are frustrated when they don’t have information, but they become hypercritical when they have lots of information. We harmonize, then criticize, then revise, then harmonize again. We chase our tails. Many are so overwhelmed by so much information that they turn their back on the information. They declare that we can’t expect to ever know the real “historical” Jesus.
There is some truth in what they say. The discipline of history is a blunt instrument—in the university pocketknife, we are the awkward can-opener tool. Historians don’t have the knife-blade precision of controlled, repeatable experiments or the screwdriver leverage of geometrical demonstrations. By high standards of scientific precision or by high standards of philosophy, we don’t “know” historical people—be they Jesus or Caesar Augustus—really. However, by the practical standards of history, we know about Jesus as much, probably more, than we know about most ancient people, even Caesar Augustus. Those who proclaim that we can’t know the “historical” Jesus are usually folks who don’t want to listen to the noise of so many good sources. Instead of listening to hear about Jesus, they want to create a Jesus. They want to create a more modern Jesus, a rational Jesus.
Giving up on the historical—traditional—Jesus is the first step to giving up on a Christianity strong enough to withstand any overblown Darwinian claims. Darwinism’s greatest threat to Christianity depends on the bait-and-switch of substituting a rationalized Jesus for the biblical Jesus. When we get to the top of Mount Darwin, we will be able to see Mount Fiske to the south. John Fiske can remind us of the danger in substituting a rational Jesus for the real one reported in history.
The Jesus People Wish For
John Fiske was a modern-minded young man from the start. He was born in Middletown, Connecticut in 1842 with the name Edmund Fisk Green. In college he changed his name to John Fisk, and then when he became an author he added an “e” to the end. Before leaving home for college, his concerned grandmother asked after his religious belief:
“In her sore perplexity, grandma asked whether I believed in the Bible, meaning whether I believed everything in it; of course I said no. I couldn’t lie even to save her feelings. She felt bad about it. She asked me if I didn’t believe Christ was God, and of course, again I had to say no. How can a man have two natures without having two medulla oblongatas? A double ego, a double center of innervation is something to which I cannot yet subscribe.”
Fiske was a smart kid wanting to be on the intellectual cutting edge. In his junior year at Harvard, he was caught reading Auguste Compte in chapel. Much like young Solomons, Fiske wanted to be a writer. When he got famous enough, he become a traveling intellectual, publishing his lectures and reviews as they accumulated.
Like many nineteenth-century historians, Fiske wrote history largely to prove that modern people are smarter than ancient people. Such historians don’t love history for a larger sense of community and experience; they find it self-justifying and gratifyingly isolating. History, for them, is the story of progress. The historian becomes magisterial and dispenses praise and blame, honor and pity at will. Listen to Fiske’s magisterial tone when talking about the past as childlike:
“No religious creed that man has ever devised can be made to harmonize in all its features with modern knowledge. All such creeds were constructed with reference to theories of the universe which are now utterly and hopelessly discarded. How, then, it is asked, amid the general wreck of old beliefs, can we hope that the religious attitude in which from time immemorial we have been wont to contemplate the universe can any longer be maintained? Is not the belief in God perhaps a dream of the childhood of our race, like the belief in elves and bogarts which once were no less universal? and is not modern science fast destroying the one as it has already destroyed the other?”
God, elves, and the bogeyman versus modern science. The reader is shamed into joining the writer’s triumphal modernity. Biblical accounts of Jesus, of course, must be rationalized so as to fit our adult/modern minds. Many biblical reports of events and statements have to be jettisoned so that the “real” Jesus can be found.
In a review article entitled “The Jesus of History” (1870), Fiske declared that we have “but few facts resting upon trustworthy evidence” for Jesus. The words of Jesus are “preserved by hearsay tradition through the generation immediately succeeding his death,” and that generation cannot be trusted to distinguish the “authentic utterances of the great teacher from the later interpolations suggested by the dogmatic necessities of the narrators.” The early church was duped into a history of Jesus by its own “uncritical spirit,” its own lack of a rational historical method that could have preserved a genuine history. Fiske then offered a quick survey of an appropriate “method of inquiry which, in the hands of the so-called Tubingen School, has led to such striking and valuable conclusions concerning the age and character of all the New Testament literature.” Fiske particularly praises David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835–36) and praises early nineteenth-century German biblical scholarship. This new German scholarship supported the French tradition evident in the book that Fiske was reviewing: an anonymous work published in 1869 derived from the internationally popular French Life of Jesus written by J. D. Renan in 1863.
Renan’s book was reprinted and translated many times. In it, Renan declared his desire to get at a genuine history of Jesus. He criticized his German predecessors for their overemphasis on philosophy and wrote in a simplified critical spirit that discarded impossibilities and discounted the given narratives while offering conjectures about what really happened and what really was said. Of course, there was no actual historical resurrection. Renan’s Jesus was the Son of God because he taught that true worship is not tied to earthly places and rituals. Given the popularity of his book, we can assume that Renan struck a deep chord in lots of people who wanted a vaguely rational Jesus who was anti-clerical and might even be a liberal Protestant. Renan’s Jesus was a guy who would fit well in a faculty meeting. It was the disciples who embarrass us with pseudo-historical stories of the transfiguration, walking on water, and the resurrection.
Fiske supported books that supported the search for the rational Jesus. The Bible obfuscates more than illuminates. To find the truth, the scholar must go behind what is reported in the Bible to find the bits and pieces of the “true” Jesus that poke from underneath. This “true” Jesus unearthed by modern scholarship is the Jesus of the bait and switch. Once a rational Jesus is established, then a rational guy like Fiske can knock him down. The abstraction of Jesus can’t win against the stronger abstractions of natural history. My GPS is bigger than your GPS.
This is the central problem with the common claim of scientists. Stephen Gould, in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999), insisted that science is about facts, experimental results, and natural reality, while Christianity is about values, ethics, and things taught in literature classes. Christianity can’t breathe in the realm of abstractions. If Christianity is about values, then I would rather be Confucian. Christianity has to be about facts, facts about a teacher who not only messed with the laws of nature, but rose from the dead, confirming his own claims, reported to us in ancient history.