When Scholarship Reveals Jesus

fall of jerusalemPopular Christianity taught me to be dubious and careful in regard to scholarship. Liberals and atheists are crouching everywhere, I was told, waiting to undermine my faith with science and reason. Some evangelicals welcome a modicum of safe, authorized scholarship to provide “background” for Bible reading, but as a rule modern scientific criticism is to be avoided and even combatted when necessary. And by far the greatest scholarly boogeymen are the “Jesus scholars,” those professors and researchers who have made their careers exploring the historical imprint left by Jesus of Nazareth. They present the greatest danger, we are told, because they want to deny Jesus’ miracles and divinity, and convince us that he was “just a man,” a guru not a savior.

For my part I’ve learned that scholarship – balanced, diverse, and collaborative – can actually help to correct and deepen faith. When we push past the false dichotomy of “faith vs. scholarship,” we enter into an ongoing and fruitful conversation between smart and helpful people across all kinds of disciplines and perspectives. If we filter out the voices of scholars because we’re afraid of what they might say, it says more about us than it does about the scholars. And when it comes to Jesus scholarship, I think Christians put themselves at a serious disadvantage by shutting it out. In the context of their discipline, most Jesus scholars are not on a mission to deny or debunk anything about Jesus, they are simply committed to exploring the historically explorable aspects of Jesus and his life. I want to briefly demonstrate how their work can add startling dimension to our understanding of who Jesus was and is.

What Scholarship Says About Jesus

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on one aspect of Jesus scholarship, namely what it has to say about Jesus’ teaching. Even more precisely, what it says about the “Olivet Discourse,” the apocalyptic prophecy delivered by Jesus to his followers shortly before his death (recorded with variations in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). Dense and cryptic compared with his ethical sayings, Jesus’ words in the Olivet have been a source of debate, distraction, and confusion for Christians of many stripes. Given its intensity and the eschatological fervor it has inspired, conservative believers might expect scholars to downplay Jesus’ “little apocalypse” in favor of his more palatable teachings about peace and brotherly love.

However, this is not the case. In fact, scholarly consensus identifies the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus as the authentic kernel of his public ministry. And while Christians may not need scholars to tell them what Jesus did or didn’t really say, consider what this tells us about the scholars and their willingness to draw conclusions apart from bias or agenda. Far from reducing Jesus to a mere teacher of moral self-help, they affirm that Jesus really did declare himself to be the Son of Man, and his self-identity and message were truly and primarily prophetic.

Going Deeper

But scholarship goes further than simply affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings. It also places them in a corrective setting that illuminates them, challenges traditional assumptions, and (I believe) reveals something glorious about Jesus. Traditional churchly readings of the Olivet Discourse have interpreted Jesus’ words as a grim and cryptic warning about the end of the world in our own near-future. A careful reading, however, in dialogue with scholarship, takes Jesus’ words and their Jewish apocalyptic context seriously and sees instead an historically located prophecy which has already been fulfilled, thus punctuating his teaching and vindicating him as a true and prescient prophet, an unexpected and peaceable messiah. Scholarship cannot make these types of religious judgments, but it can equip us to interact with our ancient sources with intelligence and clarity.

Here is a quick overview of the Olivet Discourse from this perspective:

Jesus promised his followers that the Temple and Jerusalem itself would be destroyed, an inevitable judgment for the city’s addiction to violence and her political and spiritual rebellion. They asked him, “When will these things happen?,” and the Olivet was his answer. It is filled with specific predictions (“false messiahs will appear,“ “wars and rumors of war,” “one will be taken, the other left behind”) and bold apocalyptic images borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (“the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky,” “you will see the son of man coming on the clouds”). Each one of Jesus’ sayings, according to a scholarly reading, pertains to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. False messiahs and failed revolutions? Check. Wars and rumors of war? Check. The Temple reduced to rubble? Check. Random murder and kidnapping by Roman forces? Check. The end of the Jewish world as they knew it? Check. Even the saying about the “son of man” in its original context in Daniel 7 is about the public vindication of God’s servant, not about rapture or second coming (the “coming” is upward, not downward, a possible analog to Jesus’ ascension?).

That is an all-too-brief breakdown of a very complex group of passages (explore more here  or here or here). There is much left to debate, to be sure. But there is one more crucial piece of evidence to consider. When Jesus finally gives an explicit answer to the disciples’ initial question (“When will these things happen?”) it is this: “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” The scholarly view, in addition to taking the Jewish and first century contexts of Jesus’ words seriously, has the distinction of making sense of this promise. I can’t tell you how many awkward explanations I’ve heard over the years of what Jesus really means here. “This generation” refers to the church. He’s talking about apostolic lineage. It’s a metaphor for the twentieth century. On and on. But when the full picture of Jesus’ vision comes together, with invaluable assistance from scholarship, it seems downright obvious. Modern Christians may not consider the fall of Jerusalem to be an epic catastrophe with cosmic significance, but Jesus the Jewish prophet clearly did.

Why Scholarship Matters

Where traditional readings of the Olivet have led to endless speculation, politicizing, gloom, doom, and fear/warmongering, a reading informed by scholarship reveals Jesus as a true prophet whose message of repentance and judgment was vindicated by historical events. This in no way means that Jesus remains a mere artifact of history, his words bereft of meaning for the present or future. Nor does it mute the salient biblical hope for parousia, for the long-awaited ultimate fruition of God’s kingdom on earth. But how does a refreshed and vibrant new understanding of this troublesome passage inform how we read the rest of the New Testament? How does our posture toward world and neighbor change when Jesus’ lordship is not bound up with a promise of inevitable war that must be fulfilled before God’s kingdom can be realized? What does the fate of Second Temple Jerusalem say about the chance for repentance and peace in our own day?

Scholarship is a partner and companion that helps to illuminate questions like these. It cannot have the final word on matters of faith, but what human voice can? Where scholarship can offer correction and illumination, we would do well to give it a voice. If we think that we have nothing to learn from history, or that God would not allow us to err because we have a special religious arrangement with Him, then we need to hear Jesus’ call to repentance more than ever.