Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Historical Jesus - Lost in Translation?

The central problem of Christianity, from the point of view of non-Christians, is who Jesus was. CS Lewis famously summed it up in Mere Christianity by saying that either Jesus was a lunatic who thought that he was God when he wasn't, or he was a liar, who knew he wasn't God but claimed to be, or that he was Lord - he claimed to be God and he really was God. Lewis then goes on to show that the evidence is strongly against Jesus being either a liar or a lunatic, and therefore it is highly likely that he is Lord.

Various attempts have been made to get out of this. Some people try saying that those aren't the only three possibilities, and try to concoct a fourth, usually by mixing the ideas of liar and lunatic, which they don't notice still falls foul of the same evidence. An altogether cleverer way out is to question whether Jesus actually claimed to be God at all. The Bible clearly portrays him as doing so, but what if there is a difference between the Jesus of faith, as presented in the Bible, and the Historical Jesus - Jesus as he actually was?

(And yes, before people get penickety, I know that the Historical Jesus movement started a long time before CS Lewis, and that some of them (e.g. Borg) are coming from somewhere different to my description above. Borg, for instance, is trying to present a Christianity that fits in with his worldview where God can't act at all in history. I discuss that issue here.)

The evidence that they focus on tends to be things like the difference between different accounts in the gospels. If the accounts are too similar, they say they are copied from each other, and if the accounts are too different, they suggest it is because the writers are making things up. This is especially true with John, because John is very different to Matthew, Mark and Luke in lots of ways, so some people think it is mostly an invention, and that Jesus didn't say most of the things in John. (Incidentally, some good has come out of this too, as it has made people look more carefully at why the gospel writers structured things the way they did, and so helped us to see their emphases, main points, etc.)

I want to suggest that a lot of the questions that are being asked are actually irrelevant, that Jesus only said two things he is recorded as saying in the gospels, and that we can tell that the gospels provide true accounts of Jesus.

A lot of this is because of the simple problems of translation. The Bible we read today is in English. The gospels - the bits directly about Jesus - were originally written in Greek (well, some people argue that Matthew wasn't, but the earliest copies we have are in Greek). But Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic and Hebrew most of the time. So we know that what we have in the gospels is at best a translation of what Jesus said. There are two exceptions, where Jesus' words in Aramaic are recorded - "talitha koum" (Little girl, get up) and "eloi, eloi lama sabacthani" (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?).

But it gets more complicated than that. Greek doesn't have a neat distinction between direct speech and indirect speech - you can't tell the difference between "He told me to get up" and "He told me: 'Get Up!'" So we can't tell whether what we have are the words of Jesus neatly translated into Greek, or whether it is the apostles reporting what Jesus said indirectly.

And it gets even more complicated. Greek and Aramaic aren't very similar as languages. It isn't possible just to translate straight from one into the other and keep the sense the same. It's like the problem of translating the Bible into English. Some people translate literally word for word and lose the flow of what is said and sometimes leave it incomprehensible. Other people translate so that it is the same meaning, but it's said quite differently. We don't know exactly how the people who wrote the gospels went about translating Jesus' words into Greek. I've suggested that Matthew, Mark and Luke may have gone for a more literal translation, John may have gone for a translation that aimed to convey the same sense, but not necessarily translating literally. (Of course, John might have been literally translating what Jesus said - I don't think we can know this side of heaven.)

Which rather leaves us with a problem. What we have in the Bible is a translation of either what Jesus said, or what he meant, quite possibly put into the authors' own words. How can we know they are reporting it accurately?

I think the answer to that is fairly simple, and often missed by the Historical Jesus scholars. The people who wrote it clearly believed that it was true. The people they wrote it for clearly believed it was true. They quoted what the apostles described Jesus as saying as being what Jesus said. And the people they wrote for included people who had known Jesus. The early church, while some of the apostles were still around, regarded the gospels as faithful records of what Jesus had said and meant. And they were in a position to know.

But that doesn't mean they were gullible. The gospels were all written before AD100. After then, other accounts of what Jesus said and did were written (and the Gospel of Thomas might have been earlier). A few people were taken in by them, but the church as a whole rejected them because they weren't saying what Jesus said - they were saying what the authors wanted Jesus to have said. They could tell the difference, and they did.

We can tell that the gospels provide a reliable account of the historical Jesus, even if it is in translation, because the people who were in a position to know what Jesus did say and do agreed with the gospels. And these were not academics or people just along for the ride. These were people who staked their lives on what Jesus had said and done, repeatedly, and in most cases were killed for it. Whether the gospels record something very close to what Jesus actually said and did, or whether they provide an interpretation of what Jesus said and did, they're still true.

And so the problem for non-Christians remains. The people who were following Jesus were willing to stake their lives not only on Jesus claiming to be God, but on Jesus actually being God. Who was he? Was he mad, bad or God?


Anonymous said...

Would you say that Mohammed was lunatic, liar, or prophet ?

The fact that I can't say that he was necessarily a lunatic or a liar has always made me unconvinced of the merits of CS Lewis's argument.

John said...

Nice try, but I don't think it works.

For one thing, it doesn't answer the question.

For another, it is possible to be sincerely deluded about hearing things from God without being insane. It is significantly more difficult to be sincerely deluded about being the creator of the universe without being insane.

Ditto with the liar issue - if someone tries to increase the credibility of a source for the sake of politics or tactics (and Mohammed was certainly a very gifted politician, general and military tactician), that is one thing. To claim that everyone in the world should worship you as God is quite another level.

John said...

Oh, yes - motivation.

Mohammed said what he did and gained one of the major world empires.

Jesus said what he did in the full knowledge it would get him killed. And it did.

Anonymous said...

Well to answer the question, Jesus is Lord, but since I as a Christian am not impressed by Lewis's argument, I'd be surprised if many non Christians are. So much the better if it does help anyone come to faith though.

By way of parenthesis, your blog and what you've written on Ship of Fools has given me a more sympathetic understanding of conservative evangelicalism than I had before.

But if I were asked say about the miraj in which Mohammed is supposed to have been taken by the Angel Gabriel on a tour of heaven and conversed with Moses, Abraham, and Jesus : did Mohammed make up that story, imagine it, did it really happen, was it a story deliberately made up later by his followers, was it a rumour with no clearly identifiable source ?

I would have to say that if I chose between those explanations, it would be a pure guess, since it was a long time ago, the sources are generally written by his followers and I don't know whether to believe them, etc.

That's about what my non Christian friends would say to me about the gospels.

John said...

I don't think anyone is converted by rational arguments. People are converted by meeting Jesus through his Holy Spirit. All we can do is encourage that encounter.

Leon said...

There is a lot of genuine history throughout the Gospels. The problem is that religion and then scholars created a fear of finding history in the Gospels. The fear is that Jesus will turn out to be too Jewish and therefore inferior and uninspiring. I'll give three quick examples of history in the Gospels.

1) The RSV translates Matt 28:1 as saying the women came to Jesus' tomb at dawn, implying it was Sunday morning. But the Greek is literally "at the shining of day" which itself is a literal translation from Hebrew. But in Hebrew, the shining of day means when the stars, not the sun, come out to shine. So they came on Saturday night, which makes sense as they would want to anoint his body as soon as Shabbat was over and not wait for Sunday morning. My experience is that many Christians find this discomforting because theology has always been considered superior to the Gospels. But the history in the Gospels should be inspiring.

2) Mark 8:28 reports that some people thought that Jesus was Elijah or one of the prophets come back from the dead, or even the recently deceased John the Baptist. Mark 6:16 reports that Herod Antipas thought Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. What this means is that there was a popular Jewish belief at the time that some dead people could be resurrected. So Jesus' later resurrection fit in with the beliefs of the tine. Mark (and Matt) was not afraid to report this because this belief was not an obstacle to their cause, it was a help. If Jesus' resurrection had been totally unique, nobody would have believed them. Reporting other such beliefs helped Jesus' followers convince others that it happened to Jesus too. But theology says that Jesus' death and resurrection must be absolutely unique ideas and thus theology erases the Gospels. The history in the Gospels can be inspiring but no one wants to see it.

3) Mark does not use the Greek word for betray to describe Judas' act. He uses a neutral word. Even most conservative scholars admit this. In fact, Mark does not give any definite reasons to believe that Judas betrayed Jesus. We have always read betrayal into the texts instead of paying attention to what they really say. There is real history here too, but religion shuts down all attempts to see it.

Leon Zitzer

John said...

Actually there's more real history than that, because the theology was itself based on the history.

And yes, Jesus does fit into a first century Jewish situation, of course he does. And yes, the gospel writers sometimes play up the differences between Jesus and that situation - for example, there being other people vaguely comparable to John the Baptist, the New Perspective Jesus as both anti-Rome and anti-violent rebellion against Rome, etc, etc.

But the fact remains that Jesus must also have surpassed first century Judaism by quite a long way. After all, no other first century Jew even came close to being worshipped as God continuously for 2000 years after their death.

Leon said...

When you say that Jesus surpassed Judaism, that is a theological statement. That's your belief. But it does not have anything to do with history. Using theology to erase history is never good scholarship. Real historical study, which has yet to happen in the case of the NT, would be based on a thorough knowledge of Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism and then seeing where Jesus' remarks fit in. But scholars avoid learning anything about Judaism. They just make up their own facts and then compare Jesus to these invented facts.

I bring this up for one reason: I honestly do not believe that Jesus would appreciate anyone telling lies about the culture he was raised in. He loved his home culture and if you have feelings for Jesus, you ought to at least try to love what he loved. By his home culture, I do not mean merely that Jesus loved Torah, the Hebrew Bible. I mean he loved the oral culture he was raised in, all the stories, parables, sayings, word games, and much more. He loved Torah as Constitution and constantly finding God's living voice in it. All this was part of Pharisiac/rabbinic culture. It was his home. And if people find it difficult to feel love for a foreign culture (though it wasn't foreign to him), they should at least feel some curiosity about it. But "knowledge" which is based on just making things up is not knowledge at all. And to say Jesus surpassed Judaism is wrong because it is based on made up ideas about the culture he supposedly surpassed.

Leon Zitzer

John said...

Simple historical facts no-one argues with.

How many first century Jews had people worshipping them 500 years later?

One. (John the Baptist had a kind of cult thing that lasted a while but had died out by then).

How many first century Jews had people worshipping them 2000 years later?


There must therefore have been something very very different about that particualr first century Jew.

Anonymous said...


Did Jesus claim to be the Creator of the universe?

The short and incontrovertible answer is No! The fact that later generations of Christians came to believe that Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’ (as stated in the Nicean Creed) is therefore in need of some explanation:

the traditional Christian belief is that to confess Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ is to confess his deity, and to say that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ means and always meant that Jesus is the pre-existent, second person of the Trinity, who ‘for us men and our salvation became incarnate’.

The New Testament (NT) calls Jesus ‘the Son of God’. But what does this mean? It is important, if we wish to adopt an historical approach (and most Christians do not), to discover the significance of words and ideas in their original language, as the original speakers meant the original listeners to understand them. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, and spoken by most Palestinian Jews. Jesus’ Aramaic teaching (except for a dozen words that are still found in the gospels) has not been preserved.

In the years after Jesus was taken up to God, the early church spread quickly in the Greek-speaking (i.e. non-Jewish) world, and the gospels and letters that came to comprise the NT were all written down in Greek. It is important to grasp that this Greek NT is a ‘translation’ of the original thoughts and ideas of the Aramaic thinking and speaking Jesus, a translation not just into a totally different language but also a transplantation of the thought of the gospels into an utterly alien cultural and religious environment of the pagan Graeco-Roman world.

To discover the authentic teaching of Jesus, and what others believed about him, it is therefore necessary to be alert to any changes or developments in meaning arising from the transmission of ideas through the channel of Hellenistic culture.

Therefore, when we examine the term ’son of God’ in its original ‘context of meaning’ we make an interesting discovery. In Hebrew or Aramaic ’son of God’ is always used figuratively as a metaphor for a child of God, whereas in Greek addressed to Gentile Christians, brought up in a religious culture filled with gods, sons of gods and demigods, the NT expression tended to be understood literally as ‘Son of God’ (with a capital letter): in other words as someone possessing the same nature as God.

In the fourth century the Catholic Church officially endorsed this new pagan idea at the Council of Nicea: Jesus was declared to be of the same ’substance’ or ‘nature’ (the Greek word used was ‘ousia’) as the Deity. Pagan philosophy triumphed over the Jewish understanding of God.

The same transformation, or rather deformation of meaning occurred to another key term: ‘Lord‘. According to the gospels the title ‘lord’ was regularly used as an address to Jesus during his ministry. In its Aramaic context it was synonymous with ‘teacher’.

Later generations of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians would completely alter this meaning: the Aramaic definition of ‘Lord’ = teacher became synonymous with the title of God himself: the Lord Jesus = the Lord your God. As NT scholar James Dunn comments, expressing the consensus view of New Testament scholars (including NT Wright who is much beloved of evangelicals),

The history of this confession of Jesus as Lord in earliest Christianity largely revolves round the question, How significant is the application of this title to Jesus? What role or status does this confession attribute to Jesus or recognise as belonging to Jesus?…The problem is that ‘lord’ can denote a whole range of dignity - from a respectful form of address as to a teacher or judge to a full title for God. Where do the early Christian references to the lordship of Jesus come within this spectrum? The answer seems to be that over the first few decades of Christianity the confession of Jesus as ‘Lord’ moved in overt significance from the lower end of the ’spectrum of dignity’ towards the upper end steadily gathering to itself increasing overtones of deity.

So CS Lewis' trilema is irrelevant


John said...

Well done for a comment which appeared to demonstrate not having read beyond the first few lines of my post.

Speaker for the Dead said...

By the way, Paul, Thomas calls Jesus "My Lord and my God!" when he sees him resurrect. Not just "Son of God."

Also, Philippians 2, "who being in very nature God"...