I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Friday, November 19, 2004

Rabbi Jesus

It is remarkable the number of times people ask me about who Jesus "really" is. I am often asked and then immediately presented with a theory derived from the personal religous experience of my inquisitor. This is fine. After all, if we do not discuss these things, then we will never truly stretch our own beliefs. However, something else often happens that is less than helpful.

As liberal Christians, we are often easy prey for a good hoax. I once read a book describing "Jesus Hoaxes" from the late 18oo's and early 1900's. These often included the discovery of previously unknown books of the Bible, supposed records of secret religious societies from the middle ages, letters written from Sts. Peter or Paul "clarifying" a previously misunderstood doctrine and other sorts of "early church" documents and relics. As you probably gathered, these were all forgeries. Sometimes they were even originally presented as fictition but then took on a life of their own.

Now, of course, it isn't just liberals who succumb to these sorts of things, but since entering seminary I have heard almost all of these hoaxes preached as the "gospel truth" from the pulpits of UU churches. In each case, the preacher was a reasonable, thoughtful human being who had gotten a bit confused. I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was taken in by the "St. James Ossuary" (the reputed bone-box of Jesus' brother) a few years ago and in no way believe myself to be immune to getting fooled.

I have not read the Da Vinci Code, I really should because folks ask me about it from time to time, along with these older creative theories about God, Mary, the Apostles, and of course, Jesus. I am not qualified to comment on the book except to say that its popularity seems to get at the same need we all feel from time to time. The fact is, we would like to have more information than we do. We would like to know more about Jesus. Not only would we like to know more, but we would like the story to be told with as much drama and action as possible (Mel Gibson, for example?).

We are, in this rationalized world, rather out of touch when it comes to mystery. Contemporary scholarship doesn't help us to maintain that sense of wonder at the stories of the Bible.
Interpretation has changed the way we think of our faith and of God. We have been forced to reinterpret our traditional beliefs and add new dimensions to our understanding. However, we have also had to discard some old, comfortable, awe-inspiring assumptions about what, or who God is. It is natural for us to seek out excitement, not just through bungee-jumping, mountain biking, and highway-driving, but in our faith lives as well.

These stories--the tales of secret societies and archeological discovery-- help to add drama to our religious lives and, therefore, are hard to refuse out of hand. The St. James Ossuary was found in a spare bathroom in an apartment in Israel. Many other hoaxes are "found" in ancient caves or in the back of old libraries. It is exciting! It is significant! We are there to witness (we hope) the great moment. Yet, more often than not our hope isn't quite as grounded as it could be in reality.

However, we can, through the use of our minds and immagination, figure out quite a bit about Jesus and what his life must have been like. One book I recommend to people looking for more information is "Rabbi Jesus" by Bruce Chilton, an Episcopal Priest and Proffessor at Bard College. In it he uses contemporary Biblical scholarship to recostruct Jesus' life. In it he makes many arguments, some of them, no doubt off the mark. However, his basic principle seems to be sound. He lifts up Jesus' Jewishness as the definitive element of what made him who he became.

Now, am I saying that Chilton and others who attempt similar books are 100% correct (Chilton Now has a book about Paul)? Of course not, neither do they, and that is the important part. All I am saying is that for those of us who are looking for a little more wonder in our faith and who might be tempted to succumb to a well laid hoax, it is a good idea to try to stick to those writers who understand their own fallability. The mystery of Jesus Christ doesn't need much embellishing.