Monday, November 7, 2011

U Think Wednesday on the Invention of Jesus

Who would want to be limited to a single beer, brewed to the specifications of 3000 BCE, 1300 CE, or whatever model you might choose for the Ur-Beer?+

Nope, we celebrate the fecund excess of styles and variations today! There's never been a better time for beer.

In religion it's often the opposite: We mourn the loss of unity, worry about all the denominational variation, and long for a return to a moment of pristine origins when everybody was presumably on the same page.* The Truth is supposed to be one.

On Wednesday at Brown's Towne Lounge U Think features "the Sage of Galilee" and the latest scholarship on His foundational role in Christian origins.

It's timely since the presidential campaign of 2012 has put the origins of religion in the spotlight. How to explain this movement called Christianity and some of its descendents? And how should these movements inform contemporary politics?

Digging for the Truth

In a fabulous bit of cross-linguistic word play, the discovery of a Christian relic was called in Latin the invention of a relic. In-venio means to come upon, to find or discover. For us moderns the word "invention" points up the anxious matter of authenticity. Debates over golden plates and spectacles are far from new.

Here's the way one of the illuminators** of the Milan-Turin Hours envisions the discovery of the True Cross by Helena, Constantine's mother. She really found that cross. It may not be modern archaeology but the idea of digging was understood to lead to truth.

Nowadays digging also operates as a metaphor for textual interpretation. In post-Reformation Christianity, the text of the Bible, and not a relic or ritual, is the guarantor of authenticity. Scholars dig through layers of textual tradition in the Bible, in hopes of finding the foundation layer of Christian origins. The origin is assumed to be normative, the most authentic layer and commanding our assent. This leads from the Christ of Dogma to the Jesus of History.

About this, Albert Schweitzer wrote in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:
There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus. No vital force comes into the figure unless a man breathes into it all the hate or all the love of which he is capable. The stronger the love, or the stronger the hate, the more life-like is the figure which is produced. For hate as well as love can write a Life of Jesus, and the greatest of them are written with hate : that of Reimarus, the Wolfenbuttel Fragmentist, and that of David Friedrich Strauss. It was not so much hate of the Person of Jesus as of the supernatural nimbus with which it was so easy to surround Him, and with which He had in fact been surrounded. They were eager to picture Him as truly and purely human, to strip from Him the robes of splendour with which He had been apparelled, and clothe Him once more with the coarse garments in which He had walked in Galilee.
Though it's a totally different kind of passion than Jesus', the feelings behind Jesus research have been passionate indeed.

The torch-bearer of the modern quest is the Jesus Seminar.*** The Westar Institute runs the seminar's meetings, and just a few years ago they relocated to Salem, on the edge of the Willamette campus.

U Think catches up with the latest Jesus research on Wednesday!
Willamette University’s U Think series will feature Stephen Patterson, professor and historian who specializes in the origins of Christianity. He will present “The Historian’s Jesus: What scholars say about the sage from Galilee" on Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in Brown’s Towne Lounge.

“Long before Jesus became the Christian savior he was a Jewish sage who provoked the masses and drew a crowd,” says Patterson. “Beggars loved him, and Romans feared him. In the end, he was executed for sedition. Historians now think they know why.”

Patterson is the George H. Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies at Willamette University. He is the director of the Westar Institute, where he chairs the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins. Patterson’s many books and essays address various aspects of the historical Jesus and Gospel of Thomas, among other biblical scholarship.
+ Or maybe like Pilsner Urquell. Biblical scholarship also has its Quelle, the Q-source.

* It's the old chestnut of the One and Many. The difference between hedgehogs, who know one thing, and foxes, who know many things. Or the difference between Athenian and Mancunian science, the difference between the physicist's search for a unified field theory and the biologist's search for new species.

** If you're into art history, many scholars have conjectured that this image is by Jan van Eyck.

*** Here's the Jesus Seminar Drinking Game™:

In the past, the Jesus Seminar voted on the sayings of Jesus, trying to determine whether they were authentic, similar to something Jesus said, inauthentic but related to something He really said, or totally inauthentic and from a later tradition. They used red, pink, grey, and black beads.

U Think can turn this into the best parlor game ever! If U Think the saying is real, you must finish your beer! If U Think it's similar, you have to drink half your beer. If U Think it's inauthentic but related, you have to take a sip. And if it's fake, you don't have to sip.

You will know the skeptics by their sobriety! And the enthusiasts will be rolling wholly on the floor.

1 comment:

  1. That would be an awesome game. The funny thing about it is that Jesus is normally attributed to having said a good bit of things...that he didn't say.