Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker (May 24, 2010), critically surveys recent books about the life of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament. The search for the true historical Jesus is a secular attempt to strip away supernatural claims of the writers such as for the divinity of Jesus – “to edit out all the weird stuff.”
He writes, “Ever since serious scholarly study of the Gospels began, in the nineteenth century [the arrogance of believing that before that time there was no serious scholarly study is evidence of ignorance, and the presumption of superiority that is frankly mind-boggling in a publication that has intellectual pretensions], its moods have ranged from the frankly skeptical – including a ‘mythicist’ position that the story is entirely made up – to the credulous, with some archeologists still holding that it is all pretty reliable, and tombs and traces can be found if you study the texts hard enough. The current scholarly tone is, judging from the new books, realist but pessimistic. While accepting a historical Jesus, the scholarship also tends to suggest that the search for him is a little like the search for the historical Sherlock Holmes.”
It would seem that Gopnik has not read widely. Scholarly books by Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright are realist but optimistic. The conclusions of authors tend to follow from their presuppositions. He quotes Bart Ehrman, the poster boy of modern skepticism, that the Gospels “were written as testaments of faith, not chronicles of biography, shaped to fit a prophecy rather than report a profile.” So what? Did he expect that they were written by a secular reporter without interpretations and conclusions. The Gospel were designed to help people to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Does this mean that they are fabrications? No, of course not. Jesus, as seen through the eyes of faith, is different from Jesus as seen through the eyes of Pilate.
He claims that Luke invented the Nativity stories, and that “it seems a simple historical truth” that all the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Yet John A. T. Robinson, in Redating the New Testament (1976), makes the case that the absence of the mention in the New Testament of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple argues for an earlier date for writing the New Testament.
The assertion by Jesus that the kingdom of God would be coming soon, that the end was very, very near is cited as an example of doublespeak. “It wasn’t, and the whole of what follows is built on an apology for what went wrong. The seemingly modern waiver, ‘Well I know he said that, but he didn’t really mean it quite the way it sounded’ is built right into the foundation of the cult. The sublime symbolic turn – or the retreat to metaphor, if you prefer – begins with the first words of the faith. If the Kingdom of God proved elusive, he must have meant that the Kingdom of God was inside, or outside, or above, or yet to come, anything other than what the words seem to plainly to have meant. The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty.”
Gopnik wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants historical certainty and yet defines what that certainty consists of. It must be factually and literally true and not be subject to interpretation or allusion. He is like the contemporary skeptics of Jesus who interpreted his prophecy about his death and resurrection as referring to the Temple because they did not know what he meant. Gopnik does not know what Jesus means when he speaks of the future coming of the Kingdom so presumes that it didn’t come.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) anticipated all this skepticism when he wrote in his Philosophical Fragments that historical scholarship may investigate the historical life of Jesus but it cannot pass judgment on whether or not he is divine. It is beyond the scope of historical enquiry to deal with categories of faith. Even a contemporary of Jesus could not see who he was without being given the grace of faith. Recalling the words of Isaiah, Jesus reminded the disciples that there would be those ‘who indeed listen, but never understand’ and there would be those who ‘will indeed look and not perceive’ (Matthew 13:14). Sin affects the ability to perceive the things of the spirit.
“The apprehension of revelation remains a matter of faith and is, as such, fundamentally incommensurable with the detached and impersonal character of objective historical research. The necessity of personal engagement with God and the decision either to accept or take offence at his presence in Jesus Christ lies at the heart of Kierkegaard’s quest for a genuine Christianity. Such engagement and choice is precisely what the objective historical enquiry into the person of Jesus manages to avoid, for it places an onus in respect of his identity, not on the individual, but on the competency of historical scholarship, and marks a retreat from the existential demand of the question Jesus himself asks, ‘Who do you say I am?’ (Matthew 16:15) Avoidance of such questions will not preclude whole generations from admiring Christ, from being impressed by his commitment to his cause, by the wisdom of his teaching, or by his compassionate dealings with others but, according to Kierkegaard, it will not produce Christians. The difficulty with historical scholarship is that, although it may encourage admiration of Jesus, it will, by its very nature, leave unanswered the invitation to take up one’s cross and follow him (Luke 14:27).” (Murray Rae, Kierkegaard’s Vision of the Incarnation, 87)
Mr Gopnik has yet to realize that the New Testament is a love letter from God that can only be appreciated by the one who is loved when his heart is open to such an advance. When your heart is touched by God’s love in Christ the questions fall away, the mystery is revealed, and your only desire is to believe and follow.