History, come to Jesus

Modern scholarship and archaeology tell us a lot more about the life and times of Jesus than we once knew. Sometimes scholarship and faith mesh, and believers, non believers and in-betweeners can agree on much . But, oh, when they disagree.

Published December 24, 2006

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11.

That's the Jesus of the New Testament, whose birth will be celebrated by millions of Christians a few hours from now.

Amid the academic sparring there is some consensus. Jesus, of course, did exist. He was Jewish, with Jewish parents and was born around 4 B.C. He likely had olive skin and dark hair and eyes, in keeping with his Middle Eastern origins. He lived in a wide spot on the donkey path called Nazareth, which was truly only a few blocks long. He wore white, as did all men. He taught, and he had followers. He challenged authority. He died on the cross.

But on obvious points of contention the argument takes surprising turns, and it's not just a matter of religious belief or disbelief.

Of the virgin birth, skeptics say, prove it. But scholars who hold traditional Christian views stand their ground and turn that argument on its head: Anyone can say the stories about Jesus' virgin birth are based on myth, one said, but can they prove it?

Further, who in their right mind would make up such a farfetched story, if they were trying to entice people to join their new religious movement?

To traditionalists, Marcus J. Borg is an iconoclast. Borg is famous worldwide for his membership in the Jesus Seminar, a group of Bible scholars whose search for the historical Jesus and assertions about him have proved provocative.

The earliest gospel, written some 40 years after the life of Jesus, said Borg, combines memory and testimony. In his view, much of what is written in the Gospels is metaphorical, not literal.

"The quest for the historical Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus, means separating the memory from the testimony. Both are important. It's not that we throw the testimony away. Rather, it witnesses to the significance of Jesus," Borg said.

"Mainstream scholars do not think Jesus said, 'I am the light of the world.' Rather, we would say that is testimony to the significance that Jesus had come to have by the end of the first century. So it is early Christians saying we have found in him the light of the world."

Borg, who is married to an Episcopal priest, summed up the historical Jesus as a Jewish mystic who was a healer and teacher of wisdom and prophet of the kingdom of God.

"I see classic Christian language about him, namely Messiah, Lord, son of God, as post-Easter testimony," he said. "I think that language does not go back to him. ... Biblical literalists are going to disagree with everything I'm saying."


Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, says Borg's opinions are held by a tiny fraction of academics and even fewer people in the pews.

The Rev. David Toups, a Roman Catholic priest and dean of students at Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, is more blunt. "One ceases to be Christian when one no longer believes that Jesus is the son of God," he said. "We do not see a disconnect between the Jesus of history and the Christ of majesty."

Of the historical Jesus, "We know that he was a Jew," said Witherington. "We know that he had a Jewish mother and her name was Maria or Miryam. We know that she was very young when she was bethrothed, probably 11, 12. Third, we know that something very unusual happened to her."

The last 20 years of archaeology have made it possible to reconstruct the world in which Jesus lived, said James Strange, distinguished professor in the department of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

"We know where Nazareth was, that it was about three blocks long and one block wide," he said. "We know that it was completely agricultural. People farmed by actually building terraces. Olive production was a mainstay, grapes and olives. People ate sheep and goats and ate wheat and dried fruits."

Women wore color, said Strange, who also is executive director of the interdisciplinary center for Hellenic studies at USF. Men wore white or off-white, he said, adding that would explain why Judas had to kiss Jesus to identify him in a crowd of disciples to betray him.

Strange, a member of Bayshore Baptist Church, an independent congregation in Tampa, agrees that Jesus was born around 4 B.C. He thinks he was actually born in the winter, not in the spring as some scholars assert.

And in a side note, he points out that the Gospels don't actually say how many wise men there were. "But nobody wants to hear that nine wise men came out of the East."

Witherington, the professor in Kentucky and author of the new book What Have They Done With Jesus?, said that "both Matthew and Luke speak of a virginal conception. It was not something that was expected in early Judaism. ... Both authors believe we need to know about this, even though it is shocking.

"What I say is that you wouldn't make up a story like this, because the skeptical person is going to say, 'Well obviously, this is an illegitimate birth.' If you're starting an evangelistic religion, you don't start by making up a story about a teenage girl that she is having a child by virginal conception, because it is too hard to defend. It's a story too improbable not to be true. If Christianity was just some secret, esoteric religion that was not looking for converts, that would be one thing."

He and other scholars say the Gospels cannot be judged for accuracy according to modern-day standards.

"I think certainly the Gospels, they are portraits. They're not snapshots," Witherington said. "They are works of art, rather than photographs. I think the historical Jesus is the Christ of faith. I think in terms of the stories of the Nativity what we are being told about the shepherds and the wise men is that Jesus was for everybody, from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high. Luke is very explicit. Today is born for you a savior. "

Toups, the Catholic priest, holds the same view. "What actually happened 2,000 years ago, there wasn't somebody with a dictograph sitting there," he said. "There was a period of oral teaching and the apostles and the disciples handed on to their hearers what Jesus had said and done."

Under this reasoning, Luke and Matthew's different Nativity stories are not at odds, they are simply represent different perspectives of the same event.

Strange, the USF professor, had more to say about the historical Jesus. "He came from nowhere important, namely Nazareth. He was single, which was kind of surprising for a nice Jewish boy. He had followers. He taught. Everywhere he went, he taught, even in the temple. He finally got crossways with the religious authorities," Strange said. "Finally the Romans killed him as a rebel."

"The birth stories are usually regarded as legendary, like the birth stories of Augustus Caesar, made up after the fact. In fact, some would say they are deliberately patterned on Augustus Caesar's birth story," he said.

Augustus, for example, was honored as "son of god Zeus" and "lord," Strange said.

But "just because the birth narrative reads like that of Augustus Caesar, it doesn't mean that's where they came from," Strange said. "And by the very nature of the case, religious claims can't be verified. It's one thing to insist that the birth stories were legends, but it's another thing to prove that they are. It is easy to assert because the culture is so secular that it will allow us to do that."

Toups, the Roman Catholic priest, who has a doctorate in theology and studied at the Gregorian and Angelicum universities in Rome, said he doesn't want to give the impression that the Catholic Church shuns the historical, critical method of interpreting scripture. But, he said, "She always reads the sacred word in the light of faith, and divine revelation. We do serious scientific research and exploration into the scriptures," he said."

Still, the Catholic Church "holds firmly that to the historicity of the Gospels," he said. "The Second Vatican Council clearly teaches that the Gospels are historical books that teach us the truths of salvation."

"We can't read first century history the way we understand 20th century history. We're used to CNN and NPR. We're used to instantaneous history.

"The historical fact that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and was a little Jewish boy in Palestine with dark skin and dark eyes, that he was raised by his foster father, Joseph and his mother, Mary, we do not doubt those facts, because we have eyewitness accounts of those facts. To say we can't know those facts is really to ignore history."

Borg disagrees, pointing to differences in the two Nativity accounts. "Because of their difference, most mainline scholars do not think the birth stories are historical reports, but see them as symbolic stories, including the virgin birth itself," he said.

"We think that Mary and Joseph were real, of course" and those were the names of Jesus' parents. There are historical elements in the story, but the main plot line is symbolic. ... It is precisely because Jesus as an adult was so extraordinary that stories of a special birth were told."

He thinks people can benefit from the Scriptures regardless of what they believe.

"I want to say that the spirit can work through a literal reading of the Bible," he said, "and the spirit of God can work through a parabolic reading."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.