I was thinking of calling this last article in my Lives of Jesus series the Conclusion, but that would seem to imply that I was about to give you the answer. Sorry. You'll have to work that one out for yourselves. But what I'd like to do is share some thoughts that have been developing over the last three months as I've read or re-read the various books one after another.
The single statement that impressed me the most was this one from Albert Nolan.
We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus.... To say now suddenly that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus, it changes our understanding of divinity....
If we claim to be Christians - followers of Jesus as the Christ - then he should be at the centre of our faith. Everything else should flow from him. Yet so often Christianity starts somewhere else. Most often, it starts with Paul and his theological formulations about the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, and his instructions for church life. In some cases (like the Dispensationsalists) Paul's teachings are even elevated above Jesus' on the grounds that they are addressed to our age, and Jesus' teachings were not. To an extent this is easy to understand. Paul's teachings are what the proponents of Bibilical inerrancy call "propositional truth". They are clear, logical and sequential. Jesus' teachings, while couched in simple language, are allusive, multifaceted and often obscure.
Yet Paul's teachings themselves should drive us back to Jesus. If we accept his Christology, and view Jesus as the Son of God, descended from heaven, surely we would put down Paul's letters and return again and again to the words of this messenger of God.
This is the impetus that drives the writers of the Lives of Jesus. They want to know - who is this man around whom the worldwide Christian faith has been built? Yet there is a great gulf between him and us. 2000 years have passed since his day. The culture he lived in was destroyed shortly after his time by a brutal Roman invasion. The very record of his words and deeds has come down to us translated from Aramaic into Greek. And they are overlaid for us by 2000 years of interpretation and by our own training and education whether inside our outside the church.
As James Robinson points out, Rudolph Bultmann and his followers thought the task was impossible. The gulf was too great, nothing about the historical Jesus could be revealed with any certainty. The Christian's only choice was to take the Christ of Faith on trust and live accordingly. Yet Robinson realised that this was never going to work. The thread of historical research, conducted over two centuries and so eloquently documented by Albert Schweitzer, could not be unravelled.
The diversity of conclusions reached by the authors I have reviewed shows just how difficult the task is. Does this mean Bultmann was right, and we should give up? In some ways he has a point and we should keep his suspicion in mind as we read the various authors. It is hard to get clear about a distant historical figure. And if we take Jesus seriously as God's Word to us, we should not expect to be able to understand him easily.
For me, this means I need to stay open to learning. Hence, this is not a "conclusion". It's unlikely we could learn a lot from the strange speculations of Thiering or Pullman, but even from the bitterly skeptical Robert Funk we can learn to see the gap in our creeds between Jesus' birth and his death, and wonder what belongs there. Mostly, though, my thoughts wander around between the views of Marcus Borg, Albert Nolan and NT Wright.
From Borg, we can learn how truly counter-cultural Jesus was, the extent to which he turned the norms of his own day on their heads, and what this might mean for us in our day.
From Nolan, we can learn to see this counter-cultural impetus in social and political terms, not just in individual spiritual ones. We can learn the depth of Jesus concern for the poor and oppressed, for social outcasts, and the depth of his challenge to the power structures of his day and our own. We can take our eyes off a distant heaven and go about Jesus' business of furthering God's Kingdom.
From Wright we can see that these insights do not destroy traditional Christianity, but renew it. If you assert the centrality of Jesus' death and resurrection, this does not mean that you automatically accept the practices of the orthodox church. Jesus, crucified and risen, challenges everything we do and think, including our very concept of God.
This is what happens when you study Jesus. Just as he challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees of his own day, so he challenges religious people like us. If we are feeling a little complacent in our religion, like maybe we have arrived at a settled faith and can rest in that, we should allow ourselves to be unsettled again by Jesus' own message.