Cover image for The elusive Messiah : a philosophical overview of the quest for the historical Jesus
The elusive Messiah : a philosophical overview of the quest for the historical Jesus
Martin, Raymond, 1941-
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Publication Information:
Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, 1999.
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xvi, 236 pages ; 24 cm
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1510 Lexile.
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BT303.2 .M384 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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What might the findings of researchers engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus mean to Christians? In posing this question and others, The Elusive Messiah opens a window for looking anew at the age old problem of faith vs. reason.To fully understand the implications of the historical search, Raymond Martin suggests we must first examine the inquiries of the individual scholars. In the book's first section, he provides an insightful overview into the major players who have written on the subject, among them E. P. Sanders, John Meier, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, J. D. Crossan, and Luke Timothy Johnson.In his second section, Martin discusses various Christian responses to the challenges presented by the historians' work. Martin goes on to argue philosophically that faith and reason are able to coexist alongside each other, and then suggests how this may be the key to Christianity's future.Through readily understandable language and examples, Martin poses basic questions, looks for the answers, and explains how these answers correspond to the overall problem. His accessible writing synthesizes complex academic arguments in ways that bring them down to earth, enabling Christians and other readers to understand what is being claimed and to test these claims for meaningfulness.

Author Notes

Raymond Martin is professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland. Among his many publishing credits are Self-Concern, The Past Within Us, and Self and Identity. He has won numerous teaching and scholarly awards.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Martin reads the quest for the historical Jesus in terms of the relationship between "the methods people use in investigating the world and what they take to be the results of their inquiry." He offers a great deal of quest history, more about historical method and how to marry scholarship and popular controversy, and close readings of the major contemporary quest writers. Acknowledging John Dominic Crossan's characterization of historical Jesus research as a "scholarly bad joke" in which competent researchers generate wildly varied interpretations, Martin yet points to substantial areas of agreement. "Only two divisions among secular historians of Jesus . . . really matter": that between traditionalists who depict Jesus as an eschatological prophet and liberals who do not, and that between those who presuppose methodological naturalism and those who do not. Martin distinctively locates tension between faith and reason at the heart of even the most dispassionate scholarly inquiry. He insists the faith-reason relationship is not either-or but both-and, which gives hope for civil discourse and understanding on this most controversial subject. --Steven Schroeder

Publisher's Weekly Review

The quest for the historical Jesus has come and gone in New Testament scholarship since the 18th century, when Reimarus challenged the historical veracity of the Gospels. In the late 20th century, this quest is dominated by two groups that Martin calls "conservatives" (E.P. Sanders and John Meier) and "liberals" (Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and John Dominic Crossan). He contends that scholars Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright "cross the lines" of these distinctions and use the methods of the "liberals" to emphasize the Jesus of faith of the "conservatives." After a historical overview of the quest for the historical Jesus, Martin (The Past Within Us) provides a brief sketch of the work of contemporary Jesus questers like Crossan and Wright. Martin contends that Christians respond to such arguments in one of three philosophical ways: "Only Faith"; "Faith Seeking Understanding"; "Only Reason." The first option, he says, denies that secular historical scholarship can make any contributions to understanding Jesus because it contradicts traditional religious claims. "Faith Seeking Understanding" attempts to "integrate the diverse claims of secular scholarship and religious faith into a single coherent account." The final position, he notes, asks Christians to allow their faith to be subsumed into the "expert" opinions of secular scholarship. Martin asserts that what he calls "multiperspectivalism," simply looking at various interpretationsÄreligious and secularÄof the evidence for the historical Jesus, offers the most consistent philosophical response for Christians confronting the challenge of the quest for the historical Jesus. However, Martin is on ground already well trod by Ben Witherington III (The Jesus Quest) and adds little that's new to the contemporary quest for the historical Jesus. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Martin (philosophy, Univ. of Maryland) uses scholarly writings to examine the relationship between faith and historical research. In Part 1, he explores the challenges to Christian faith presented by modern science, history, and the quest for the historical Jesus. He also looks at the intellectual roots of this quest in the work of Spinoza and Hume. In Part 2, he offers a review of Jesus studies as expressed in the work of four modern academic thinkers. Part 3, "Faith and Reason," and Part 4, "Response," are Martin's most original contributions. Part 3 relates history and theology by analyzing the work of Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, two important Jesus-quest historians. In Part 4, Martin uses Jesus scholars such as Luke Johnson to investigate three responses to the results of historical research: faith only, faith seeking understanding, and reason only. An original and significant contribution; most libraries should consider.ÄDavid Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One SCIENCE God said, `Let there be light.' --An author ofGenesis (circa 700 B.C.E.) God said , Let Newton be! and all was light. --Alexander Pope (1688-1744) From the fourth to the sixteenth century C.E. in Europe, philosophy and science were in the service of Christianity. The view of the world to which most thinkers subscribed was a theological version of the views of the pagan philosophers Plato and Aristotle. In the sixteenth century, modern physical science made its first appearances. Then in the seventeenth century, in the monumental achievement of Isaac Newton, modern science fully arrived.     For the first time, educated Europeans began to believe--not all of them, but many--that by exercising their reason alone, without appeal to religious revelation, they could penetrate to the ultimate nature of things. Previously, in matters of belief, faith, informed by divine revelation and interpreted by philosopher-theologians, had stood almost alone as a source of authority. Henceforth, in the minds of educated people, faith would have to compete with science.     The arrival of modern physical science, and with it the transition from faith alone as a source of authority to faith together with secular reason as dual sources of authority, was the most momentous intellectual change in the history of Western civilization. But the change was not just intellectual. As the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) perceptively observed, knowledge is power. Although the full significance of Bacon's observation would not become apparent for hundreds of years, he was right. Ultimately science spawned an awesome technology. And importantly because it did, it became a technique for both understanding and controlling the world, and even ourselves. This technique then threatened, and still does threaten, to marginalize if not eliminate every other avenue of understanding.     With science and religion each proposing their own versions of the truth, sooner or later they were bound to contradict each other. The first major conflict came in the sixteenth century and was centered on astronomy. Previously Europeans had thought that Earth was the center of the universe. This seemed to be true observationally, and almost everyone accepted it as the way things should be. After all, God had created the universe as a home for human beings. That was its purpose, and so human beings belonged at the center. Any other location made no sense. Yet the Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) theorized that our local region of the universe is actually a solar system, that is, that the planets, one of which is Earth, orbit around the Sun. But if that were true, it cast doubt on whether human beings were at the center of the universe. Copernicus's own view was that our sun was at rest close to the center of the universe. Although today it is difficult to appreciate, at that time this suggestion was extremely troubling to many people. However, shortly after the publication of Copernicus's theory, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548?-1600) made an even more troubling suggestion.     According to Bruno, the new astronomy showed not only that Earth is not the center of the universe but also that it is meaningless even to speak of a center. Bruno claimed that the universe, which is centerless, projects from every point to infinity, a thought that filled him with awe and wonder. The Church had a different reaction. In 1592 the Inquisition tried Bruno for heresy. Then, supposedly so that he could be further questioned, he was imprisoned in Rome for eight years. He refused to recant his theories, and Church authorities had him burned at the stake. That took care of Bruno, but questions lingered. The Church then vigorously intimidated into silence anyone, including Galileo, who was bold enough to claim that Earth moved. Naturally, some continued silently to entertain subversive thoughts. In particular, some wondered, assuming that Earth is not the center of the universe, what then could be the universe's purpose? To that question, and to all similar questions about purpose, the new science, unlike the philosophical/theological theories that it had begun to replace, gave no answer.     Toward the end of the seventeenth century, science--this time, physics--again challenged Christianity. This time the challenge was both more subtle and more profound. Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who was himself deeply religious, had shown that the movements of all inanimate objects in the universe could be understood in terms of three laws of motion and a law of universal gravitation. The last thing Newton wanted was for his theory to challenge Christianity. But, in the minds of many, it did just that. Previously, among many educated people, it had been considered common knowledge that God's constant intervention was needed to keep the natural world going. Without intending to do so, Newton had shown that Nature, without God's intervention, could work quite well on its own. His theories had the effect of marginalizing God in His role as director of the universe. God was still needed, almost everyone assumed, to get the universe going in the first place, and perhaps also to create human beings and each of the separate species of animals; but once the universe was up and running and each of these elements was in place, God was unnecessary.     This minimalization of God's role as director of the universe was reinforced by a closely related philosophical development. John Locke (1632-1704) who, like Newton, was a devout Christian, proposed a new theory about how knowledge is acquired. (Such theories are called epistemologies , from the Greek words episteme , which means knowledge , and logos , which means theory .) According to Locke's epistemology, which he proposed in response to the emergence of modern physical science, knowledge about the world is acquired only on the basis of empirical (sensory) evidence, especially from vision and touch. Although Locke himself did not draw the conclusion that faith and creeds are therefore not sources of knowledge (in fact, he seems to have believed that they were), others soon did. By the mid-eighteenth century, this more consistent version of Locke's empiricist epistemology had become widely accepted. Eventually it became a centerpiece of the Enlightenment.     Once again, the moral was clear. Henceforth, in the minds of many educated people, any believable view about how things are would have to be supported by empirical evidence. And since new evidence could always overturn old theories, all views could at best merely be probable and, hence, provisional. No longer could one ever be sure that one had arrived at the final truth. One always had to be prepared, in the light of new evidence, to change one's views. But what, then, of insights from religious revelation into the nature of things? What of the total commitment required by faith? In the eighteenth century, leading European intellectuals, almost all of whom remained Christians, pondered these questions, often with uneasy minds. To many, it was as if they had been dragged to the edge of a cliff and forced to peer over into an abyss. What they saw frightened them.     In Europe, prior to these scientific challenges to religious belief, the only intellectual competition that Christianity had faced had come from other religions. But unless one or another of these had been imposed militarily--which, in the fifteenth century, Islam almost was--they were no real threat. With the appearance of modern physical science, suddenly there was a new competitor for the minds of educated people. Christianity now had a worthy opponent, one that, unlike Islam, had been homegrown. Like a dangerous virus, the new ideal of secular rationality--essentially Locke's empiricist epistemology--quickly penetrated to the core of the Western psyche. But for Christianity the worst was yet to come. It came in the mid-nineteenth century, when science unveiled its next major challenge.     Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) theory of evolution rocked the minds of educated Christians. Not only did it blur the line between human beings and "brutes," but also, more insidiously, it gave powerful support to the view that human beings appeared on Earth as a consequence not of intelligent planning, but rather of unthinking material causes, operating blindly, with no prevision of their results. If this new idea were accepted, God would be deprived of yet another of His traditional chores, that of creating intelligent life on Earth and each of the separate species of animals, and hence would be marginalized even further in His role as director of the universe. As it turned out, this is exactly what happened.     By the dawn of the twentieth century, scientific challenges to Christianity had provided the basic framework for a secular alternative not only to Christianity but also to religious belief altogether. To many educated people it seemed that science had shown that, for all we know, the physical universe may have existed forever and that without God's help it can run perfectly well on its own. It also seemed that science had shown that human beings are not nearly as special as most people--and all Christians--had previously supposed. These were heavy lessons for Western society. It seemed to many that religion was on the way out--that it was only a matter of time.     In 1902 Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) published an essay entitled "A Free Man's Worship." For many educated people Russell's essay captured the spirit of the times. It was--and still is--widely read. In it, Russell wrote: Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built. In short, it seemed to Russell, and subsequently also to a host of antireligious intellectuals, that religion could not long withstand the assaults of science.     Ironically, in the twentieth century, even many Christian intellectuals added their voices to this chorus. The influential Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) is a case in point. Strongly influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Bultmann argued that the Bible, and especially the New Testament Gospels, need to be "demythologized." That is, he argued that to be believable, the Bible has to be purged of those mythological elements in it that, as relics of prescientific worldviews, have no relevance to contemporary concerns except as a window that opens onto primitive beliefs. In an influential paper published in the 1940s, Bultmann wrote, "It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world [of] miracles." This idea maintains a strong currency among educated Christians. For instance, John Spong, currently Episcopal bishop of Newark and the author of several best-selling books, has written recently that "unless theological truth can be separated from prescientific understandings and rethought in ways consistent with our [current, scientific] understanding of reality, the Christian faith will be reduced to one more ancient mythology that will take its place alongside the religions of Mount Olympus."     In sum, to many intellectuals, including many Christian intellectuals, the long, lingering war of attrition between science and traditional Christianity had drawn to a close, with science emerging decisively as the victor. To Russell and many others, it seemed that religion was destined to fade away. Yet it has not worked out that way. And things do not even seem to be moving in that direction.     Christian religious belief has not only survived, it has flourished. In a Gallup survey published in 1989, Americans were asked whether they thought that "even today, miracles are performed by the power of God." Eighty-two percent replied yes, and only 6 percent said they completely disagreed. Even among intellectuals religious belief seems to be gathering steam. Twenty years ago in the United States it was hard to find more than a few well-known, highly respected secular academic philosophers who would admit to being religious, let alone Christian. Today it is easy. They have gone public, and they are everywhere. In the West, for the last several hundred years, academic philosophy often has been ahead of the cultural wave, a kind of harbinger of things to come. If in this case it is, then in secular universities and also in the larger culture of university-educated people, religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are on the way back.     To some this is a puzzling development. Why has the challenge to Christianity from science been so ineffective? Part of the reason, it seems, is that until recently science had challenged only the periphery of traditional Christian religious beliefs. Whatever initial discomfort these challenges may have caused, Christians thinkers have been able to accommodate. In fact, in our own times, so comfortably have they been able to accommodate that many scientific discoveries that formerly were viewed as serious challenges to Christianity now seem merely quaint. Galileo, for instance, upset religious authorities by claiming to have seen through a telescope that there are mountains on the moon. Theologians of the time had reasoned that if there were mountains on the moon, the moon would be imperfect, and God would not have created an imperfect moon. Instead God would have created--and, hence, did create--a flawless moon: a perfect crystalline sphere. From our perspective, the theologians may as well have said that the moon is made of green cheese.     Other scientific challenges, such as the displacement of human beings from the center of the universe, were more severe. Yet, early in Christianity's struggle with science, Christian thinkers hit upon a two-stage response to scientific challenges to their religious dogmas. First, deny the truth of what the scientists have asserted; then, when that ceases to be convincing, reinterpret Christian belief so as to make room for the new scientific truth. For instance, whereas initially Christian theologians resisted Darwinian evolutionary theory, today most accept it with the proviso that God created the mechanisms of evolution. Such strategies of accommodation have been remarkably successful. In retrospect, however, it would seem that part of the reason they have been so successful is that traditionally science has left Christianity with plenty of room for accommodation.     What if science, in its search for truth, arrived at results that conflict not only with peripheral but also with central Christian beliefs? Among these are two fundamental beliefs about what happened historically: that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, intervened directly in human history in order to atone for human sin (the doctrine of the Incarnation); and that the account of Jesus' words and actions in the New Testament more or less accurately tells the story both of God's main intervention in human history and of His message to human beings. If scientific findings were to conflict with either of these two central beliefs, there would, it seems, be little room for accommodation.     Christians could always respond, as Bultmann had, by withdrawing their belief in the literal truth of their core beliefs and espousing a "demythologized" version of their faith. That is, they could respond by giving up their conviction that the account of Jesus in the New Testament is reliable and simply admitting that it is myth. After all, New Testament stories, even if not literally true, might still be "spiritually true." Many sophisticated adherents of other religions--Hindus and Buddhists, for instance--have successfully adopted this attitude toward the stories in their own religious scriptures, so why not also Christians?     The short answer is that Christians cannot easily take this path because Christianity is different. The core religious beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists, for instance, are claims not about history but about the ultimate nature of things. The core religious beliefs of Taoists and Confucianists are claims not about history but about how to live. In short, historical beliefs are not central to major Asian religious traditions. They are central to Christianity, however. Traditionally Christians have believed that God so loved human beings that He assumed a human form and entered into human history and, in His human form, suffered and died on a cross to atone for human sin. If the historical stories that sustain these beliefs are not true, then it would seem that Christianity is, at best, merely a generator of pious myths and, at worst, a fraud. Of course, historical beliefs have also been central to Judaism, but Jews have ethnic ties and a poignant, shared, this-worldly history to undergird their identity as Jews. Historical criticism of Islamic religious beliefs, which is just beginning in earnest, has until recently been muted, since it can be so personally dangerous to be a critic of Islam. Historical criticism of traditional Christian beliefs, on the other hand, is not only permitted, but strongly encouraged by entrenched Western institutions, such as the university system.     The only way most Christians claim to know that God suffered and died on a cross in order to atone for human sin is through the stories in the New Testament. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Christians were to admit that the New Testament accounts of Jesus that relate these events are just pious stories written by superstitious men. Then, except for their feeling more comfortable with their own religious imagery, Christians would have no particular reason to remain Christians, rather than to join some other religion or to become irreligious. As a consequence, Bultmann's response, which was popular initially among Christian intellectuals, has not worn well. A "demythologized" version of Christianity has always been too thin for the vast majority of ordinary Christians. Increasingly, there are signs that it is too thin even for many Christian intellectuals. And, as we shall see, Bultmann's account of Christ's message does not sit well with recent developments in historical Jesus studies.     It would seem, then, that if scientific findings were to conflict directly with Christianity's core historical beliefs, there may be little room for accommodation. In that case, the fate of Christianity, at least among educated Christians, might hinge solely on its ability to resist the challenge. Yet, in the past, Christian resistance to scientific challenges has worked only temporarily, giving theologians time to figure out how best to accommodate. Educated Christians have never been able to resist science in the long run. Could they successfully resist science now, not just as a temporary strategy, but as their final response?     We may find out. Today there is a new scientific challenge to Christianity. This time the challenge comes from historical studies, and as we enter a new millennium, it appears to be gathering momentum. Unlike previous scientific challenges, it takes direct aim at Christianity's core historical beliefs and denies their truth. In this respect, this one is more menacing to Christians than previous scientific challenges. And unlike previous challenges to Christianity from historical studies, this new challenge is supported by much better scholarship and is being attractively disseminated to the general public.     Yet, in two important respects, even this new challenge from historical studies is less menacing than the old challenges from science. First, the scientific credentials of historians are more debatable than those of physical scientists. And second, historians have not been able to agree among themselves on a story about Jesus to replace the one presented in the New Testament. Hence, unlike in the case of previous scientific challenges, in which scientists who are acknowledged to be highly competent have agreed on something that Christianity has denied, the challenge from historical studies is more ambiguous. Even so, as we shall see, the academic credentials of those historians whose work is fueling the current challenge to Christianity are impressive. And they agree well enough on important aspects of their collective challenge to Christianity to make many educated Christians uncomfortable. Copyright © 1999 Raymond Martin. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Introductionp. xiii
Part 1 Challengesp. xvii
1 Sciencep. 3
2 Historyp. 13
3 The Questp. 29
Part 2 Historical Jesus Studies Todayp. 47
4 Two Conservatives E. P. Sanders And John Meierp. 49
5 Two Liberals Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza And J. D. Crossanp. 71
Part 3 Faith And Reasonp. 97
6 History And Theologyp. 99
7 Crossing Linesp. 121
Part 4 Responsesp. 143
8 Only Faithp. 145
9 Faith Seeking Understandingp. 167
10 Only Reasonp. 191
Notesp. 203
Indexp. 231