(Published in Grail World 2/1997)
For almost two millennia, no other topic has been dealt with more or more intensively in the West than with Christianity and its founder. Belief in the Son of God, Jesus, became the most influential and widespread religious teaching in the world. In recent times, however, one has come closer to this belief with the methods of scientific historical research and tries to discover the "historical Jesus". The gap to the Christ image of faith seems to grow deeper and deeper.
Since the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Christianity was recognized as a religion by Emperor Constantine's Edict of Tolerance. It became the state religion in 380 through Theodosius I; first in the Roman Empire, later in all of Europe, and finally the belief in the Son of God, Jesus, developed into the most authoritative and best-known religious teaching in the world. The basis of the Christian faith - today fragmented into hundreds of denominations - is the Bible, i.e. both the traditions of Judaism collected in the Old Testament and above all the reports of the work of Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament. For many centuries, theologians and laypeople alike relied on these ancient texts and viewed them as the “word of God” that could not be shaken.
Doubts about the church
There was often criticism. But this criticism was mostly directed against the church, by no means against biblical truths. Abuses in the church were repeatedly denounced - usually rightly - without those responsible doing much more than silencing the critics. Only in the time of the Reformation did the pressure become stronger and finally caused church divisions, which from today's perspective could have been avoided with a little flexibility of the clergy. Because the reformers also justified their rebellion against church failures with the Bible, which they too respected as a timelessly valid revelation inspired by the Holy Spirit.
It was left to the "modern sciences", which have become more and more established since the Renaissance, to gradually question everything and finally to even address themselves to the newly developed methods of textual criticism, source comparison or language analysis - no longer shrinking from any taboo to dare the most venerable traditions. In the Age of Enlightenment, a critical discussion began not only with the churches, but also with the foundations of the Christian faith, the sacred Scriptures, which are considered inviolable. Since then, critical books and writings that deal with the Bible, the life and work of Jesus have been published continuously, ultimately questioning all the foundations of Christianity.
This development has now reached a critical phase in our time. Those who take Christian ideas seriously cannot avoid taking note of the more recent scientific results and reviewing their personal position on the Son of God and his teaching and work.
But what does the latest research say?
The historical Jesus
Everything we can learn about Jesus and his work can be found in the New Testament of the Bible as well as in other writings called "apocryphal" that were not included in the New Testament at the time, either because they were either not believed to be reliable or because they did not correspond to the then valid doctrine. All of these sources come from followers of the teaching of Jesus.
Classical scholars are still looking in vain for a neutral report on the life and work of Jesus, even just a hint from an outsider that Jesus lived. The only exception (apart from a historically uncertain reference by Josephus Flavius) is Tacitus. In his annals around 115 he writes about a persecution of Christians by Nero in 64:
“In order to get rid of the bad rumor that the fire was started on his orders, Nero put the blame on others and imposed the most exquisite punishments on those who were hated by their shameful behavior and were popularly known as 'Christian'. This name is derived from Christ, who was executed under the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. "
Apart from the biblical sources, there is nothing more than this historical reference to the life of Jesus. This has led individual historians to even doubt the very existence of Jesus.
Now the Gospels, which tell us about the life and ministry of Jesus, are anything but historical writings that are committed to the facts. All of them are confessions that interpret and transfigure Jesus and his work. In addition, long after his death and, according to all (scientific) suspicions, they were written by authors who have never met him personally. This probably also applies to the Gospel of John: According to early Christian tradition, this writing, which was probably created towards the end of the 1st century, was written by the former favorite disciple of Jesus. However, modern scientists consider this tradition to be incorrect.
For the interested layperson, the situation is made even more difficult by the fact that there is almost no ideology-free translation of the Bible.
In order to arrive at a reasonably accurate picture of the historical Jesus, despite all the difficulties, scientists proceed as follows:
- They analyze the existing texts (biblical as well as apocryphal) using the methods of modern historical sciences.
- In the last few decades, our knowledge of the conditions in the ancient Orient has expanded considerably, not least thanks to the collaboration of Jewish scientists. This in-depth knowledge will help you better understand biblical accounts.
- Finally, as yet unknown writings have been discovered for the sources known for a long time. If the results of text-critical analyzes are now combined with modern knowledge of the living conditions and religious doctrines in Palestine in the first century, the following picture emerges of the "historical Jesus" - regardless of his importance as the Son of God - which is shown here in very abbreviated form:
- Jesus was an itinerant preacher like many before him, with him, after him.
- It is doubtful whether he spoke of himself as a messenger from God.
- Jesus was executed because he was believed to be a rebel who was instigating an uprising against Rome.
- The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was notorious for his brutalities (he was later removed from office because of his cruel conduct), and he can be trusted to have made short work of one suspected of the riot.
- That Jesus was condemned to death by the high council of the Jews for “blasphemy” (because he described himself as “God's Son”), however, is considered unlikely. The crucifixion was the Roman form of execution for rebels. Those convicted of blasphemy by the Jews were stoned to death.
- The description of the process of Jesus in the New Testament is believed by modern historians to be invented. When the Gospels were being written down, the teaching of Jesus was supposed to be spread in the Roman Empire, especially among non-Jews, and for this audience a "rebel" executed by Rome as a founder of the religion was not acceptable.
- Jesus never claimed that his death would redeem humanity from its sins. This teaching comes from Paul, by no means from Jesus himself.
- The miracles attributed to Jesus are now believed to have been invented (with the possible exception of some healings).
- The fact that Christianity spread throughout the world is mainly thanks to Paul, who transformed the teachings of Jesus into a contemporary religion that is acceptable to the broad masses, but which one should better call "Pauline" rather than "Christian".
- The early Christian community in Jerusalem - the Ebionites under the direction of James, a biological brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19) - was skeptical of Paul. The disputes of this group - who knew the teachings of Jesus best - with Paul are described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15, 1-29) in a way that is favorable to Paul and that is embellished. The Ebionites, presumably the guardians of the true teaching of Jesus, then immigrated to Jordan from Jerusalem before the conquest. They formed Jewish Christian groups independent of the church, which disappeared around the 5th century.
- Some researchers also believe that Jesus was married (to Mary Magdalene?).
This “historical Jesus” is the subject of scientific research and is also treated in theological seminars. It can be assumed that every Christian clergyman with modern training is informed of these research results.
The Christ of Faith
The title "Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah" and means "the anointed". In ancient times the kings were anointed, and those looking for them can also find reports of the anointing of Jesus in the New Testament (Matth. 26,7; Mark. 14,13; Luk. 7,37; Joh. 12,3) as well as those Designation “King of the Jews” as the reason for the execution (Matth. 27,37; Mark. 15,26; Luk. 23,38; Joh. 19,19).
The "Christ of Faith" proclaimed from the pulpits differs fundamentally from the "historical Jesus" of science, which naturally places people at the center of its research:
- For believers, Jesus is “God's Son”, that is, a living part from God, sent to save mankind.
- In the Christian understanding, Jesus' work of salvation consisted of his teaching, in which he combined the strictness of the laws of the Old Testament with the image of God as the loving Father, as portrayed in the New Testament. The “god of vengeance” of the Old Testament, whom we humans have to fear, became the all-forgiving, helping God, whom we humans should adore, but above all love.
- According to the church, the sacrificial death of Jesus is decisive for the redemption of people: With the blood that he shed on the cross, it is believed that the sins of people are forgiven. This “Son sacrifice” of God the Father is a key message of almost all Christian denominations, the most essential basis of Christian faith.
The gap between research and church teaching
The two images of the Messenger of God - the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of Faith" - can be combined less and less, the more facts (or what is believed to be) are discovered by scientists, mostly in painstaking detailed work. The gap between research and religious teaching is widening.
But the tensions within the churches as well as in the individual Christians themselves must inevitably grow; for it is becoming more and more difficult to preach a Christ from the pulpit who hardly has a name in common with the historical Jesus.
In our time, science is considered to be the most reliable source of truth. Even theologians not infrequently refer to scientific results, especially when these seem to support their views, and then displace the old dichotomy between science and religion.
When incontestable results of scientific research seem to prove that the so-called “basic Christian truths” (e.g. the redemption of mankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus) are not due to Jesus, but were introduced into theology by Paul, centuries-old Christian beliefs begin to falter.
The churches then have to decide whether to place more trust in the "traditional doctrines of the faith" than in the results of scientific research. At the moment you have already answered this question: by (temporarily?) Sticking to the theologies that have grown over centuries.
Undogmatic search for truth
Of course, this wastes opportunities. For example, if the doctrine of the sacrificial death of Jesus, which is highly questionable according to today's knowledge, is dropped, Christian ethics, for example, would be close to Buddhism. If Buddhists could adopt the Christian concept of God and Christians make friends with the doctrine of reincarnation, an understanding of fundamental beliefs between the two world religions would be possible.
A broad correspondence between the words spoken by Jesus himself and Buddhist teachings, for example, was demonstrated by Gruber and Kersten (see bibliography 5). However, one does not necessarily have to conclude from this - like these two authors - that Jesus drew from Buddhist sources or perhaps even - as some suspect - spent his apprenticeship years in India.
Jesus and Buddha were both bringers of truth who - each in his own way - proclaimed the same truths. They owe their insights by no means only to earthly sources or human ideas. According to ancient traditions, after a long struggle, Buddha received his insights in an enlightenment, i.e. an inspiration from higher levels, while Jesus drew from himself, i.e. from the knowledge anchored in him.
Many similarities between different religions would no longer be surprising if one were ready to accept that all religious founders proclaimed truth, albeit in different forms, in different languages, at other times, in unevenly developed cultures. For example, the “golden rule” (“What you don't want to be done to you, don't do it to anyone else”) is a common component of all world religions.
Like all bringers of the truth, Jesus also had to build on the existing foundations - in Palestine above all Judaism - and supplement and expand already existing knowledge. This does not rule out that he was a messenger from God, a “son of God” in the Christian sense, who was able to convey deeper insights than all the prophets before him. However, this question can never be finally clarified with purely scientific means, and it will always remain an expression of the personal religious experience of the individual when he recognizes Jesus as God's Messenger.
Each and every one of us also has a personal decision as to whether he sees predominantly spiritual books in the Bible and other valuable traditions, from which people have been able to draw deeper insights at all times, or whether he puts the earthly manifestations in the foreground and then founders of religions , Prophets, bringers of truth, in the end, only to meet people in flesh and blood who differ fundamentally from their contemporaries in terms of their elusive personality, but certainly not in terms of physique and physiology.
Recent literature on the topic:
(1) Jürgen Becker, "Jesus von Nazareth", Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1996.
(2) Klaus Berger, “Who was Jesus really?”, Quell Verlag, Stuttgart 1995. (3) John D. Crossan, “The historical Jesus”, CH Beck, Munich 1994.
(4) Weddig Fricke, “Standrechtlich Kreuzigt” Rowohlt, Hamburg 1991.
(5) Elmar R. Gruber; Holger Kersten, “The Ur-Jesus. The Buddhist Sources of Christianity ”, Langen-Müller, Munich 1994.
(6) J. Lehmann, "The Secret of Rabbi J.", Knaur, Munich 1990.
(7) Gerd Lüdemann, “Heretic. The other side of early Christianity ”, Radius Verlag, Stuttgart 1995.
(8) Ernest Schmitt, "Heilsplan oder Mord", publisher of the Grail Message Foundation, Stuttgart 1993.
(9) Ernest Schmitt, “The Language of Jesus”, “Grail World” 1/1996.
(10) Carsten Peter Thiede / Matthew d'Ancona, “The Jesus Papyrus. The discovery of a Gospel manuscript from the time of the eyewitnesses ”, Luchterhand-Literaturverlag, Munich 1996.