Jesus the Messiah
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Jesus the Messiah

A Survey of the Life of Christ

Robert H. Stein

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eBook - ePub

Jesus the Messiah

A Survey of the Life of Christ

Robert H. Stein

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In this accessible introduction to Jesus Christ, Robert Stein draws together the results of a career of research and writing on Jesus and the Gospels. Now in paperback, this classic textbook treats every episode in the life of Jesus with historical care and attention to its significance for understanding the life and ministry of Jesus. Clearly written, ably argued, and geared to the needs of students, Jesus the Messiah will give probing minds a sure grounding in the life and ministry of Jesus.

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Part One

Key Issues in
Studying the Life of Christ


Where You Start
Determines Where
You Finish

The Role of Presuppositions in Studying the
Life of Jesus

DURING MY FIRST YEAR AT SEMINARY I REMEMBER HEARING ONE OF the leading scholars of the day say the following in an address: “We would all like to believe that regardless of where one starts or how one approaches the evidence, as long as we are honest and objective we will all arrive at the same results when investigating a historical text.” As a recent graduate in biology with a minor in chemistry, I readily nodded my head. After all, that was the essence of good science. No matter how one approached the evidence, if one were objective and honest the results would be identical with those of anyone else who approached the evidence honestly and objectively. I was shocked, therefore, when he went on to say, “We would all like to believe this, but it is simply not true. Where one starts one’s investigation determines the results one will obtain.” I will never forget my disappointment. At first I simply refused to believe my professor, but over the years the truth of what he said has been confirmed in my experience time and time again. Where a person starts powerfully shapes where he or she finishes.

Coming to Grips with the Miraculous

A basic issue involved in the study of the life of Jesus is the problem of miracles. No one can investigate his life without first coming to grips with the issue of the miraculous. The Gospels contain more than thirty miracles associated with the life and ministry of Jesus. In Mark alone 209 of the 661 verses deal with the miraculous. We read about various healings involving fever (Mk 1:29-31), leprosy (Mk 1:40-45), paralysis (Mk 2:1-12), a withered hand (Mk 3:1-6), hemorrhage (Mk 5:25-34), muteness (Mt 9:32-34), blindness (Mk 8:22-26), epilepsy (Mk 9:14-29), deformed limbs (Lk 13:10-17), dropsy (Lk 14:1-6), demon possession (Mk 1:21-28) and even a sword wound (Lk 22:49-51). There are raisings from the dead (Mk 5:35-43; Lk 7:11-15; Jn 11:1-44) and various nature miracles, such as the feeding of the five thousand (Mk 6:30-44) and the four thousand (Mk 8:1-10), the stilling of a storm (Mk 4:35-41), the cursing of a fig tree (Mk 11:12-14, 20-25), walking on water (Mk 6:45-52), the catching of a fish with a coin (Mt 17:24-27), a miraculous catch of fish (Lk 5:1-11; Jn 21:1-14), the turning of water into wine (Jn 2:1-11), a virginal conception (Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-38) and an ascension into heaven (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:9). It is evident that a person cannot come to terms with the life of Jesus without coming to terms with the issue of miracles.
Furthermore, at the very heart of the Christian faith and message lies a miracle—the resurrection of Jesus. Paul states in this regard, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17; compare also v. 14). To deny the miraculous is to deny historic Christianity.
It would be nice to say that no matter how we approach the life of Jesus and the many miracles associated with that life, we will all come to the same conclusions as long as we deal with the evidence honestly. It would be nice, but it would be wrong. The fact is that before anyone ever investigates the miraculous accounts associated with Jesus’ life, he or she has predetermined certain outcomes. Does one approach the Gospel accounts with an openness to the supernatural and thus the possibility of miracles? Or does one approach the accounts with the view that we live in a closed continuum of time and space in which there is no possibility of miracles occurring? Needless to say, the latter position has predetermined the possible results of any investigation into the life of Jesus. Each view is based on a faith commitment made prior to investigating the evidence. Openness to the supernatural allows certain conclusions that are impossible if one is closed to the possibility of the supernatural.

The Nonsupernatural Approach

In the study of the life of Jesus, many scholars have taken the nonsupernatural approach. The most famous liberal New Testament scholar, Adolf von Harnack, wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, “We are firmly convinced that what happens in space and time is subject to the general laws of motion, and that in this sense, as an interruption of the order of Nature, there can be no such things as ‘miracles’ “ (What Is Christianity? [New York: Putnam, 1901], pp. 28-29). We can also compare the view of Rudolf Bultmann, the leading German New Testament scholar of the twentieth century:
The historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect. . . . This closedness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers and that therefore there is no “miracle” in this sense of the word. Such a miracle would be an event whose cause did not lie within history. . . . It is in accordance with such a method as this that the science of history goes to work on all historical documents. And there cannot be any exceptions in the case of biblical texts if the latter are at all to be understood historically. (Existence and Faith [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1961], pp. 291-92)
Earlier the English philosopher David Hume had eliminated miracles by the following philosophical argument: “[1] A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; [2] and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, [3] the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imaged” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Of Miracles 10.1). In other words, according to Hume we have the following syllogism:
A miracle is a violation of the “laws of nature.”
The “laws of nature” are inviolable.
Therefore, a rational person is never justified in believing that a miracle actually happened.
Perhaps no one has better presented this approach to the study of history than the German theologian Ernst Troeltsch. According to Troeltsch, three principles should typify all historical investigation. The first is the principle of criticism: all historical judgments are and will always remain provisional. They are at best approximate and can deal only with probabilities. Thus any historical conclusion concerning Jesus can only be more or less probable and is always open to revision. If that is true, then it is impossible, or risky to say the least, to base one’s eternal hope on any event of the past. The second is the principle of analogy, which assumes the uniformity of nature (that past experiences are similar to our present experience). Since our present experience is nonmiraculous, our interpretation of the past must be nonmiraculous. With respect to the life of Jesus, this means that his life must be interpreted as having been nonmiraculous. This principle is an extremely important one. Those who accept it without qualification must conclude that miracles cannot happen and that all biblical miracles are either mythical or misrepresentations of what actually happened. The third principle is the principle of correlation, which argues that historical explanation must always take into consideration the preceding and subsequent events and be interpreted in light of them.
An example of how this historical-critical method works may be helpful. A person investigating the account of the resurrection of Jesus found in Matthew 28:1-10 would proceed as follows.
He or she would investigate the account to find out such things as the Matthean editorial and theological contribution to the account, how this fits in with Matthew’s emphases found elsewhere in the Gospel and so on. Frequently the term redaction criticism is used to describe such investigation. A historian would then seek to proceed further back toward the event described in the Gospel by looking at the presumed written sources used by Matthew, such as Mark’s account. (This assumes that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew used Mark. If the reverse were true, we would investigate Matthew’s account as the earliest, then proceed to the investigation of the oral materials.)
Next, the investigator would seek to understand how Mark interpreted the oral account of the resurrection he used and remove any of his literary or theological contributions from it. This again involves redaction criticism, but here the purpose is not to understand what Mark sought to teach by his contributions to the account but to eliminate the material he has added.
Having done this, he or she would be able to investigate this account as it circulated during the period in which the Gospel materials were passed on orally. That involves the period between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first Gospel. What was the “form” of this account? Why was it preserved in the life of the early church? What were the needs that it met? What was the earliest form of this account? This kind of study is called form criticism. The next question the historian can raise at this point involves how the oral tradition originated. The answer is that this oral account of the resurrection arose from the faith of the earliest disciples.
Up to this point the historical-critical method raises no theoretical difficulty. The issue of the supernatural has not yet come into play. In practice, there will be all sorts of problems (such as the role of the eyewitnesses in all this). In theory, however, the historical investigation sketched above encounters no philosophical roadblock. Much of the best investigation of the resurrection accounts has been done by those who hold to this methodology. Both those holding a presupposition of openness to the supernatural and those denying the possibility of the supernatural can investigate and debate with one another the areas described so far. At this point, however, the presuppositions one brings to the study predetermines the conclusion to the question “How did the resurrection faith of the disciples arise?”
If a person accepts an unqualified version of the principle of analogy as taught by Troeltsch and incorporated in the historical-critical method, he or she must conclude that whatever gave rise to the faith of the disciples, it cannot be the miracle of the resurrection. Although never stating it quite so bluntly, an investigator of Matthew’s resurrection account using the historical-critical method is essentially saying, “Let’s investigate what we can learn about the history of this account, but we must of course agree at the start that Jesus did not rise from the dead!”
In recognition of the historical-critical method’s inability to deal with the historical dimension of the miracles, a distinctive vocabulary has been coined. This vocabulary originated in Germany, where several different words were available to describe historical investigation. An account is called historisch when it involves historical events that can be investigated by the historical-critical method. These involve such accounts as the crucifixion, Jesus’ baptism and his association with the outcasts of Israel, which do not involve the supernatural. Sometimes the English word historical is used as an equivalent. An account is called geschichtlich, however, when the historical-critical method does not suffice—that is, when it involves the miraculous. Events such as the virginal conception, the resurrection and Jesus’ miracles are geschichtlich because they involve the supernatural. The English words kerygmatic and historic are sometimes used to translate this second German term.
Some confusion has arisen over the use of the terms geschichtlich, kerygmatic and historic, however. Sometimes these terms are used to refer to an event which cannot be dealt with by the historical-critical method. Since by the principle of analogy the historical-critical method cannot deal with miracles, they are geschichtlich. By this reasoning, calling something geschichtlich, or “historic,” is simply a matter of definition. The material, in other words, deals with the miraculous.
Some scholars, however, use these terms in a different sense. They do not admit that the historical-critical method is limited in scope and cannot deal with events that claim to be supernatural. They do not use this term as a description of the kind of events being discussed but rather as a historical judgment. In this sense, an event that is geschichtlich did not happen because it could not. Here, without any investigation of the evidence, a historical judgment has been made on the basis of a prior faith commitment that miracles cannot happen. In such instances, people’s use of the language and categories of historical investigation has resulted in the conclusion that the discipline’s inability to deal with events outside their own uniform experience of reality has now determined what could or could not have happened in real life.
Several attempts have been made to coin another name to describe a method of historical research which is equally concerned with interpreting events in their historical context but is open to the supernatural. One of the names suggested is grammatico-historical method. Other suggestions have been historical-theological method and biblical-historical method. These suggestions view the term critical as the villain that denies the supernatural. Yet the term critical is not so much concerned with a judgment concerning the possibility of the supernatural occurring in history as with the care, exactness and analytical nature of such investigation. It is the term historical and the baggage associa...