Chapter 4

The Jesus of History
and the Jesus of Faith


Experiment 4

Have the findings of the historians about Jesus made it more difficult, or impossible, to believe in the Jesus that faith proposes to us?


Catholic Biblical Scholarship

In the last chapter we saw how a Catholic opening to dialogue with evolutionary biology was suppressed, setting up a dynamic of action and reaction which was to play itself out during the course of the 20th century. Now we are going to look briefly at the same story from a different perspective. What is at stake this time is history, or more exactly, the historical-critical method especially as applied to the Scriptures.

Catholic biblical scholars like Marie-Joseph Lagrange who we saw with John Augustine Zahm at the International Catholic Scientific Congress of 1897, and others like George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy began to use the kind of historical criticism of the Bible that had long been employed in certain Protestant circles. By 1905 the guarded yet positive view of scriptural studies expressed in Leo XIII in his 1893 encyclical Proventissimus Deus had given way to an ecclesiastical climate that had turned unfavorable to these kinds of initiatives. On July 27, 1906, for example, the Biblical Commission issued a decree on the authorship of the Pentateuch asserting that it was "substantially and integrally the work of Moses." On May 29, 1907 it stated that St. John’s Gospel was written by the evangelist and dealt with the actual deeds and words of Jesus.

Pius X’s 1907 decree Lamentabili against the Modernists included a series of statements attributed to them which dealt with scriptural studies. The modernists are said to hold, "John’s accounts are not really history but a mystical contemplation of the Gospel. The statements contained in his Gospel are theological meditations about the mystery of salvation devoid of historical truth." Also, "If he wishes to undertake useful biblical studies, an exegete must in the first place abandon every preconceived notion about the divine origin of Holy Scripture and interpret it in no way differently from other, merely human, documents."1 In 1912, Lagrange who had established the École Biblique in Jerusalem, and founded the Revue biblique, was censured and went into exile for a year.

I doubt there are many modern Catholic theologians who would want the task of defending everything a Loisy or Tyrrell had to say about the Scriptures, but the repression of the nascent Catholic movement in biblical studies was simply to put off the day of reckoning. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the reins were loosened for Catholic biblical scholars when Pius XII in his 1943 Divino Afflanto Spiritu recommended that scholars have recourse to the original languages of texts and take into account their literary forms. And on Jan. 16, 1948 the Secretary of the Biblical Commission wrote to Cardinal Suhard, the Archbishop of Paris, modifying the decree of 1906 on the mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and allowing the question to be freely studied. And the force of some of the earlier decrees of the Commission were modified in a rather backhanded way in 1955.

But while scriptural studies underwent a resurgence before the Second Vatican Council, the forces of repression were still active, and with the illness and death of Pius XII attacks were made on L. Alonso Schökel, J. Levie, S. Lyonnet, and M. Zerwick.2 The underlying issues were not dealt with until the Council and its aftermath, for example, when Pope John XXIII in his opening allocution told the Council fathers "the substance of the ancient doctrine of the Depositum fidei is one thing, the way it is formulated is another."3

This whole story played itself out against the background of the prevailing neo-scholasticism, the collapse of which Walter Kasper called the outstanding event in 20th century Catholicism.4 And so we need to look at what this background has to say about the question of the historical study of Jesus.

The Thomism recommended by Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris in 1879 had become institutionalized, and some of its proponents treated it like a conceptualism, that is, a network of concepts that they imagined more or less exhaustively captured the thing to be known. Jacques Maritain described this conceptualism under the headings of a "notionalism and a fixation upon abstract essences,"5 and "immobilism." The prevailing neo-Thomist philosophy and theology, typified by the manuals, was happy to ignore both the sciences of nature and the growing Catholic science of scriptural exegesis, and as serious as this problem was, it was compounded many times over by the alliance at times of this kind of philosophy and theology with integralism, that is, a certain species of reactionary conservatism that wielded this notionalism like a weapon.

Maritain characterizes this integralism which he, himself, suffered at the hands of, in a blazing passage as "an embezzlement, an abuse of trust committed in the name of truth – that is, the worst offense against divine Truth and human intelligence. It takes hold of true formulas which it empties of their living content and freezes in the refrigerators of a restless police of the minds. In these true formulas it is not truth that integralism actually sets its heart on and places above everything… In the formulas which it freezes, integralism sees and cherishes human means of security – whether for the convenience of intellects which immobility reassures by giving them, at cut-rate, a good bedrock of fidelity, inner coherence and firmness – or for the equally cheap protection these frozen formulas offer persons in authority, sparing them any risk when they brandish them, prudently as regards themselves, and rudely when it comes to others – or for the ease of government they provide as instruments of prohibition, more or less covert threat and intimidation. In sum, the primacy thus passes to human security and the need for self reassurance, whether it be psychological or social, thanks to the various protective devices called for by this primacy of security, the chief of which is a vigilant ardor in denouncing whatever threatens it: all that, and here comes the abuse of trust, in invoking God and the blessed Truth!"6

This conceptualism, and the oppressive way it was sometimes used could not help but infect Christology, as well. The formulas of the early Councils which were the fruit of long, complex historical processes, were eventually detached from the historical matrix that had given birth to them and took on an atemporal aura in which the divinity of Jesus came to the fore, his humanity was asserted in a kind of abstract way, but his actual life in the concrete in which he grew in age and wisdom and grace was left in shadow.

This kind of Christology ran the risk of hardening into a series of propositions, and because it no longer had an understanding of the history that had given birth to them, no longer understood the limitations of these propositions and could be tempted to hand them on in an inert manner and invoke them even against attempts to retrieve other rich Christologies to be found in the Scriptures and the Fathers.

A Christology wielded in this fashion could only give rise to a reactive Christology which would bring forth a very different Christological landscape. We need only compare the pre-conciliar theological manuals with Edward Schillebeeckx’s 1974 Jesus, An Experiment in Christology, to see how great the change was. This, of course, is a rather unfair comparison because the theological manuals can hardly be equated with the significant Christological works in the classical tradition that appeared before the Council and continued to appear afterwards, but were written in a less historical vein. John Meier will write about Schillebeeckx’s book: "Perhaps for the first time in Catholic theology, we have in Schillebeeckx’s Jesus a genuine integration of the quest for the historical Jesus into a systematic Christology. Whatever its failures, this is the book’s claim to lasting fame. In the future, no Catholic Christology can turn the clock back to the pre-Schillebeeckx era and still hope to be taken seriously."7 We could say that when this new sense of historical consciousness finally came forth at the time of the Council, it too was tinged with the kinds of repressed energies, which Maritain described under the heading of a biological reaction that surged through the "worm-eaten barriers," that we have seen in regard to original sin. It is rather remarkable, therefore, that Catholic biblical scholars emerged out of this long pre-conciliar period of trials, followed by this explosive release, as balanced as they did.


The Jesus of History


The first part of our story of Catholic scholars setting out to find the historical Jesus is rather straightforward. Meier, for example, imagines a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jewish scholar locked in the basement of the Harvard Divinity School library, and not allowed to come out until they have created a consensus document about what history says about Jesus with a reasonable degree of probability. This search for the historical Jesus is an international, ecumenical, and interdisciplinary one, so we could imagine not only scriptural scholars, but archaeologists, papyrologists, epigraphers, as well as psychologists, sociologists and philosophers camping out on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, cooking their own meals over an open fire and washing out of a bucket until they have created a document of what we can know about Jesus through the exercise of reason.

Meier makes it clear what he is doing and what he is not doing when he sets out on such a project in his massive multi-volume A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. "In what follows I will try my best to bracket what I hold by faith and examine only what can be shown to be certain or probable by historical research and logical argumentation."8 He goes on a little later to say about his book: "This entire work is, in a sense, a prolegomenon and an invitation to theologians to appropriate from this particular quest what might be useful to the larger task of a present-day Christology – something this book pointedly does not undertake. If this invitation is accepted, then this book will have done its work and achieved its ultimate purpose."9 This is certainly fair enough, and happily, we have no need to try to summarize all the ground he covers. Our goal is much simpler. It is to try to get a glimpse of the portrait of the historical Jesus that emerges from such a process.

The historians of Jesus work with the following palette: non-Christian writings, which include several passages in the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, as well as scattered remarks in various Roman writers, and Christian writings which can be divided into the Gospels and the other New Testament writings. Luke Timothy Johnson, for example, working just with the New Testament writings outside of the Gospels, sometimes confirmed by the non-Christian writings, comes up with the following list of characteristics that history allows us to attribute to Jesus:

  1. Jesus was a human person
  2. Jesus was a Jew
  3. Jesus was of the tribe of Judah
  4. Jesus was a descendant of David
  5. Jesus’ mission was to the Jews
  6. Jesus was a teacher
  7. Jesus was tested
  8. Jesus prayed using the word Abba
  9. Jesus prayed for deliverance from death
  10. Jesus suffered
  11. Jesus interpreted his last meal with reference to his death
  12. Jesus underwent a trial
  13. Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate
  14. Jesus’ end involved some Jews
  15. Jesus was crucified
  16. Jesus was buried
  17. Jesus appeared to witnesses after his death10


Johnson feels that historians can develop a similar portrait of Jesus from the Gospels. At the highest level of probability, he writes: "Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate, and continued to have followers after his death."11

From John Meier we get a similar picture of Jesus as an unmarried Jewish layman who grew up in Nazareth, and spoke principally Aramaic in his public ministry. He was born around 7 or 6 B.C., started his ministry in 27 or 28 A.D., and was put to death, perhaps on Friday, April 7, 30 A.D. He was associated with John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry. He preached about God’s kingly reign in a unique way, and did certain healing deeds that some of the people around him took to be miracles.12

And archaeology could help paint the background to this picture despite the fact that centuries of war, deliberate destruction, the reusing of materials, and earthquakes and fires have abraded away much of this early Palestine. It could tell us, for example, about the size of Nazareth where Jesus supposedly grew up (probably just a small village), and about the larger towns not far away like Bethsaida or Sepphoris. Was Sepphoris, for example, a Jewish town or a highly Hellenized one because the answer we give to this question affects how we understand the formation that Jesus underwent?13 Mendel Nun, a modern Israeli fisherman, tells us about the techniques that the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee used and where its harbors were located,14 while excavations in Capernaum have uncovered a house that may have belonged to Peter, and through whose roof the paralytic was lowered, a house that went on to become one of the first churches.

And what can archaeology say about the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time? St. John’s Gospel, for example, describes the pool of Bethesda as having five porticos, and this was a pool that was probably destroyed at the time of the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Modern archaeology has determined that it did, indeed, have five porticos.15 Bargil Pixner, the Benedictine archaeologist, located where the ancient Essene quarter was in the time of Jesus,16 and suggested that the building that marks the traditional site of the Last Supper on Mt. Zion had been a first-century Jewish-Christian synagogue and may, indeed, be the site where Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples and where they gathered after his resurrection.17

Is it possible that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was, indeed, the site of Jesus’ death and burial? At the least, its location was outside the walls of the city at the time of Jesus and first century tombs have been discovered in the area. Or more prosaically, could the Jericho of Jesus’ time have had fig trees so Zacharias could have climbed one in order to see Jesus walk by? And what evidence is there for people who appear in the New Testament? What of Pontius Pilate? (an inscription from Caesarea Maritima) or Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest? (an ossuary, or bone box18) The recent surfacing of an ossuary with an inscription of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" has set off a heated debate, but epigraphers of the stature of André Lemaire have defended the authenticity of the inscription.19

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has had a great impact on our understanding of New Testament times even though it doesn’t touch directly on the question of Jesus. Among the documents discovered in the caves was a small fragment (7Q5) that the Spanish papyrologist, José O’Callaghan suggested came from Mark’s Gospel and was written sometime before the year 50 A.D.20 While this suggestion has been embroiled in controversy for a long time, if it were accepted it would have a significant impact on our understanding of the formation of the Gospels and thus on their historical value.

Archaeology, then, both enriches our understanding of the background to the Gospels and allows us to judge whether the Gospels are in accord with this background. It even has the potential to change the way we think about the formation of the New Testament writings.21

We can imagine psychologists weighing in with their own insights and telling us whether the portrait of Jesus found in the Gospels made psychological sense. Scholars of a more practical bent could inform us about the distance between Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee (under 100 miles), the population of Jerusalem at Jesus’ time (closer to what we would call a small town than the kind of cities we are used to), the time it took for a letter to go from Palestine to Rome (days or weeks rather than months), the speed in which stories got passed around in the Galilean countryside (probably much like rural areas today without telephones, that is, with great rapidity), and use all this practical data to help us understand how likely are various scenarios that the Biblical scholars proposed. Could Paul, for example, not have known some of the outstanding facts about the life of Jesus, or been unacquainted with the Gospels? Could there have been Christian communities in Galilee and elsewhere that were somehow insulated by distance and difficulties in communication so that they didn’t have a knowledge of what the Church in Jerusalem was saying?

Even the philosophers could weigh in, and we might try to go even further than this by what could be called the exercise of critical reason, reflecting on the New Testament texts, to come to grips with fundamental questions that face Christians like the divinity of Jesus and his resurrection.22 Let’s call this the highest reaches of the quest for the historical Jesus. Jesus seems to have made implicit claims about who he was. He said, for example, that John the Baptist was the greatest of men born of woman, but the least in the kingdom of God was greater than him. But if Jesus is the one who brings about God’s reign by his words and deeds, and the least member of this kingdom is greater than John the Baptist, then who is Jesus, himself? 23

There are other examples, as well, of what could be called a dynamic virtual language that Jesus appears to have employed about himself. Jesus, for example, speaks and acts like he is in some fashion the Lord of the Sabbath. He forgives the sins of the paralyzed man, and judges consciences. He claims to be greater than Solomon, and compares himself favorably to the other great figures of the Bible, if biblical scholars will allow that these sayings go back to Jesus, himself. He calls God his Father in a special way. Couldn’t this have been Jesus’ way of speaking in a language that his hearers could understand, and yet lead them to reflect more deeply on just who he was?

When it comes to the resurrection, reason is at the frontier of faith, but it could still have an important role to play. Can the resurrection appearances, for example, be explained in terms of hallucinations or mystical experiences? And even if we say that they do not fall into these categories, we are still struck by the fact that these appearances seem not to have been observable by everyone as if it took certain moral dispositions on the part of the disciples in order to see the risen Jesus. If this is true, can these events be called historical? But on the other hand, we are faced with the empty tomb that anchors these events in history. Further, what kind of event would the resurrection have to be to so energize the dispirited disciples so they would go out and preach the risen Lord at the risk of their lives? Are the Gospel accounts of the resurrection what people who set out to deceive would have written, or do they read like the products of deluded minds? In this way we can begin to reason about the resurrection and its nature, and might picture, for example, the appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples as an event breaking into time and space from another dimension, a third dimension in a two-dimensional world, as Jean Guitton puts it, so that the resurrection is at once historical and metahistorical.

In short, even when we address the very heart of Jesus in terms of his divinity and resurrection, reason can still have important things to say. And when we gather the results of archaeology and history, and critical reflection, we could build a case for the existence of Jesus, a first-century Jew, who preached the coming of God’s reign, spoke of his own special relationship to the Father, and who did deeds that the people around him considered to be miraculous. He was put to death under Pontius Pilate, and his disciples claimed that they encountered him after he rose from the dead.

What is the value of the kind of portrait of Jesus that reason can paint? It has great value because Christian faith is directed not to a myth or archetype, or even a code of moral principles, but to the person of Jesus who was a real flesh and blood human being. And while history can’t tell us whether Jesus worked miracles or rose from the dead, it can nourish faith by showing that faith is not irrational. Jesus did exist and walked the dusty roads of Palestine, proclaiming the kingdom of God, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. So from this perspective we need only applaud the work of the historians and archaeologists and others whose work actually strengthens faith and inspires theology to reflect on Jesus in new ways.


The Methods of History

But unfortunately, there is more to the story of how the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history interact. We need to dig deeper. John Meier, taking exegetes to task for often not making explicit the criteria they used to arrive at their historical judgments, makes sure he spells out his own.24

  1. Embarrassment. If the Gospels record something embarrassing about Jesus, for example, he was baptized by John the Baptist, it is more likely that it actually happened rather than was created by the early Church.
  2. Discontinuity. If something Jesus says or does is not to be found either in contemporary Judaism or the early Church, then it is more likely to have derived from Him.
  3. Multiple attestation. More than one source for a saying or event puts it on surer historical ground.
  4. Coherence. Anything that fits into the picture derived from using the first three criteria is more likely to be true.
  5. The rejection and execution of Jesus. Jesus must have acted in such a way that the powers that be wanted to do away with him, and did so, so the sayings and actions of Jesus that could lead to such an effect gain a certain probability.


At first glance these criteria appear to be no more than refinements of common sense. We understand that two witnesses are better than one, and people are less likely to make up things that would embarrass them, and so forth. And Meier uses these criteria to good effect in analyzing the Gospels.

But if we take a closer look at them, we see that they have their limits. Just how far can we push the idea of discontinuity? If Jesus was discontinuous in what he said and did with the Jewish world into which he was born and to whom he preached, he quickly would have become incomprehensible to his audience. And how discontinuous can he be with the Church that grew up after him and tried to model itself upon him? Too much discontinuity in either direction would have made Jesus a historical enigma. Embarrassment has its limits, as well. How much do we really know about what would have embarrassed the early Christians, and naturally, embarrassment doesn’t help us when the subject matter is not embarrassing. In a similar fashion, while two sources are better than one, the fact there is only one source says nothing directly about its truth or falsity, only how well historians can get at that truth or falsity. Historians are well aware of all these issues, and the point here is not to imply that these tools can somehow be replaced by better ones, but simply to note that they have their inbuilt limits.25

But the problem goes deeper than the limits of the criteria. Let’s say that the criteria are employed to create pieces of a puzzle which, when assembled, is supposed to give us a picture of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan tries to put the process of creating these basic pieces on a more scientific basis. He creates an inventory of both canonical and extra-canonical texts, orders them into different strata according to their dates of origin, and evaluates them according to how good their attestation is, that is, the number of independent sources they can be found in. In this way each text can be given a numerical identification tag.

But what stimulated this attempt at a more objective method was a problem that Crossan felt was making historical Jesus research a "bad scholarly joke" because "competent and even eminent scholars" were producing "pictures of Jesus at wide variance with one another."26 Crossan gives us a list of these divergent Jesus portraits. There is Jesus as a political revolutionary (S. G. F. Brandon), Jesus as a magician (Morton Smith), as well as Jesus as a Galilean charismatic (Geza Vermes), or a Galilean rabbi (Bruce Chilton), or Jesus as an Essene (Harvey Falk), or Jesus as an eschatological prophet (E. P. Sanders). But this is not all. Marcus Borg weighs in with his own Jesus as a spirit person, and notes even more portraits of Jesus: Jesus as a hellenistic-type cynic sage (Burton Mack), or Jesus as an egalitarian anti-patriarchal wisdom sage (Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza), or Jesus as a social prophet and community organizer (Richard Horsley), or Jesus as a Jewish cynic peasant (John Dominic Crossan).27 And the list could go on. And we begin to wonder if there are as many Jesuses as there are Jesus scholars. Clearly, if these scholars are using the same sort of criteria, there are deeper methodological problems afoot than even Crossan’s quantifications are likely to rescue them from. These many portraits of Jesus suggest that they come not so much from Jesus, but from the historians, themselves.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels can help us sort out what is happening: "Historians of early Christianity begin to appear like jigsaw puzzle solvers who are presented with twenty-seven pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle and find that only six or seven of the pieces even fit together. The reasonable thing to do would be to put those pieces together, make some guess about what that part of the puzzle might be about, and then modestly decline over-speculation about the pieces that don’t fit. These solvers, in contrast, throw away the central piece, the Acts of the Apostles, that enables any connections to be made at all. Then they insist on bringing in pieces from other puzzles. Finally, they take this jumble of pieces, sketch an outline of what the history ought to look like (on the basis of some universal puzzle pattern), and proceed to reshape these pieces until they fit in that pattern."28

The New Testament documents are broken into discrete units that could then be regarded as "sources not only for the composition in which they ultimately came to rest, but for the description of the period before they were incorporated."29 His point is without the narrative in which they are now embedded we are at a loss to decide how to put these pieces together to form new pictures.30 He comments on this kind of historical process: "But is it genuine history? Of course not. There is no new evidence, and there are no controls. All that has happened is that, on the basis of subjective literary judgments, compositions have been disjointed, anointed as sources, and then appointed to their respective roles in a hypothetical community drama. It is a paper chase, pure and simple. It is, indeed, like a house of cards. Pull out one element and the whole construction crumbles."31

It is important to emphasize the serious consequences of this kind of analysis. Portraits of Jesus that have been assembled on the basis of faith have been deconstructed to try to evaluate the historicity of the resulting elements. Then when the historians go to put these pieces back together to create a historical portrait of Jesus, they face not only the problem of how accurate their historical evaluations of the individual pieces has been, but on what basis to assemble them. At this juncture the pictures of Jesus that the historians consciously or unconsciously have in their minds can come powerfully into play. The result is the many portraits of the historical Jesus that we have been seeing.

Klaus Berger attributes these different perceptions to "the hidden systematic theology of the exegete concerned." He goes on to say "Exegetes are called on to give an account of their implicit dogmatics. The aim of this process is the self-critical perception of the limits set to modern rational science by the nature of their questions and methods." 32

The tools of the historians slice into the documents of faith, and cut out certain intelligible cross-sections of the mystery of Jesus. These cross-sections consist of the historically probable words and deeds of Jesus which are then assembled, and as we saw, yielded widely divergent portraits of the historical Jesus. This divergence indicates both the difficulty in handling these tools, and the different guiding principles that are used to assemble these cross-sections. Even if these cross-sections are properly cut, and a correct principle is used to assemble them, the resultant portrait will of its nature have to be a partial and discontinuous one which only gives a very limited view of who Jesus was.

But the guiding principles, themselves, strongly reflect the historian’s underlying presupposition. If, for example, the historian embraces a naturalism that says no miracles in principle are possible, including the resurrection of Jesus, that will certainly change the kind of picture that is painted. Or if the historian adopts some sort of postmodernism that says, to effect, that I have my story and you have your story, but no metastory is possible, that is, there is no foundational reality that both of us are trying to actually know, then this philosophical option will also strongly color the portrait of Jesus that emerges. N.T. Wright therefore, will devote part of the first volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God to these kinds of philosophical issues, arguing in favor of a critical realism that would avoid the pitfalls of naďve realism on the one hand, and subjectivism on the other.33

Catholic scriptural scholars have to negotiate that same sort of philosophical mine field. The collapse of neo-scholasticism that we saw before ushered in a more pluralistic philosophical landscape within the Church, but it would be a serious mistake to imagine that this neo-scholasticism was identical with the genuine multi-faceted Thomism that saw a rich renewal in the 20th century, and which expended considerable energy to develop its own sophisticated form of critical realism that could well serve as the foundation for genuine historical work. The long history of Protestant exegesis stretching back some 200 years is littered with outdated philosophical baggage that was not compatible with Christian faith, and much the same could probably be said of some of the writings of the Catholic modernists who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, and if Catholic biblical scholars use bad philosophy, then their work will suffer accordingly.

We are drawing closer to our central question of the relationship between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. No matter how valuable the Jesus of history is, it can never be taken as the only way to know Jesus. We can argue against such an imperialistic view of the historical-critical method by a reductio ad absurdum. If history is actually the only way to know Jesus, then no one in all the generations from the time of Jesus’ disciples up until very recently even had the possibility of knowing him. Even today only a few historians have that privilege, and we have to have faith in them for whatever knowledge we have of Jesus. But unfortunately, they disagree among themselves, so knowing Jesus, for us, becomes a practical impossibility, and the Christian community is left guessing as to what Jesus to preach from year to year.

A more precise embodiment of this problem reveals itself in a complex way in regard to the nature of theology, itself. Does theology build on history, or does it have its own way of knowing? Without such a way of knowing, it would fall under the sentence pronounced by Karl Adam when he wrote: "A Christianity that had to live in continual fear of a sentence of death that criticism might pronounce any day would be useless."34

Johnson makes another important point when he indicates that in discussions between the theologians and the historians of Jesus, the historians have always set the terms: "the grounds of the debate were entirely dictated by the challenges. Attackers and defenders of orthodoxy alike appeal to the evidence of history in support of their positions. The "historical critical method" was assumed to provide the only legitimate rules for debate."35

If history dictates the methods of theology, we are going to be in no better shape than if the new cosmology does. What we need to do is to look at the nature of faith and its role in theology, especially in creating a more historically grounded Christology.


The Jesus of Faith


Two examples can help us see the ramifications of this problem. Let’s look at the analysis made by Raymond Martin of the portrait of Jesus drawn by John Dominic Crossan in which Crossan claims "to move behind the screen of creedal interpretation and, without in any way denying or negating the validity of faith," in order to give us the historical Christ rather than the confessional Christ. Martin questions whether Crossan can really do this when Crossan asserts the following points: "I understand the virginal conception of Jesus to be a confessional statement about Jesus’ status and not a biological statement about Mary’s body…" "The divine origins of Jesus are, to be sure, just as fictional or mythological as those of Octavius." "I presume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease or any other one, healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization." "I propose that other (miracle) stories in the gospels" are "not about Jesus’ physical power over the world but about the apostles’ spiritual power over the community."36

We might add to this list of Crossan’s ideas that would be difficult to assimilate in any picture of the Jesus of faith what he has to say about the resurrection: "Risen apparitions after the execution are not at all about the origins of Christian faith but about the origins of Christian authority."37 In other words, Peter and John running to the tomb of Jesus is not really about beginning to encounter the risen Jesus, but reflects the rivalries of the early Christian communities.

A theologian would have to think very hard before setting out to use this kind of history of Jesus as the basis of a Christology. Does Crossan believe there is a Jesus of history distinct from the Jesus of faith? He concludes in his The Historical Jesus: "This book, then, is a scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus. And if one were to accept its formal methods and even their material investments, one could surely offer divergent interpretative conclusions about the reconstructable historical Jesus. But one cannot dismiss it or the search for the historical Jesus as mere reconstruction, as if reconstruction invalidated somehow the entire project. Because there is only reconstruction. For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction, be it red, pink, gray, black or A, B, C, D. If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in."38

Our second example, Jacques Dupuis’ Who Do You Say That I Am?, anchors the other end of the spectrum of possibilities concerning the relationship between history and faith. It is not history determining what faith should believe, but a genuine theology making use of history. In this work Dupuis traces how Christology developed starting with Jesus’ special relationship with his Father. This relationship was the source of Jesus’ boldness when he would speak about God’s kingdom in an authoritative way and as one who was establishing it. What sense would it have made to his disciples if Jesus had tried to tell them about his innermost relationship with the Father and his own divine pre-existence in an explicit and ontological way? What could they have understood of it? Chances are they would have been dumbfounded and uncomprehending. He had to take the language and religious ideas that they were used to, and plant within them the seeds of their transformation. The result was that after his death and resurrection the implicit Christology contained in Jesus’ words and deeds would become an explicit Christology that appeared in the first preaching of the Apostles.

This Christology of the first proclamation of Jesus itself was dynamic and contained the seeds of further transformation. Explicitly it was a functional Christology that announced the great deeds that God had done in Jesus. But it was pregnant with questions that soon surfaced in the minds and hearts of his followers. Thus, hard on the heels of this functional Christology was a more ontological one that came face-to-face with the question of Jesus’ pre-existence which we find in the letters of St. Paul and in the Gospel of St. John. This more ontological Christology could emerge so rapidly because it didn’t depend on the recruitment of alien philosophical ideas, but rather, was an explication of what was already present in the first preaching.

These Christologies that were present in the first years of the Church did not exhaust their dynamism by being enshrined in the New Testament writings, but fueled a long process of reflection that was to find fruition in the great early Christological Councils. Dupuis takes pains to insist that these various stages, the implicit Christology found in Jesus’ words and actions, the post-Easter functional Christology of the first preaching, the more ontological Christology of Jesus’ pre-existence, and the formulas of the Christological councils, while very different in style and perspective, were in continuity with each other, and this continuity rested on the Church’s understanding of just who Jesus was.

But in such a more historically grounded Christology, while it makes use of the Jesus of history, must be firmly rooted in the Jesus of faith. While the Christology of someone like Dupuis hopefully rests on good historical foundations – foundations that could be augmented by the work of someone like Aloys Grillmeier in his Christ in Christian Tradition, where he explores in great historical detail the unfolding of the early Christologies that were to lead to the great Christological councils – the methodology employed is not purely historical. History is taken up into a properly theological context, and it becomes transformed in the process. What I mean is this. Thomas Aquinas, for example, used the philosophy of Aristotle in constructing his theology, but in the process transformed that philosophy. In a similar fashion there is the temptation to put aside as outmoded, or even irrelevant, the fruits of Nicea and Chalcedon by claiming that Christology there was high-jacked by Greek philosophy, and therefore we have to go back to the Scriptures, themselves. It is doubtful that such a thesis could be sustained historically. In fact, the opposite appears to have happened. The vocabulary of Greek philosophy was clarified and transformed in order to express the mystery of Christ already held by faith.

But not every philosophy can be so transformed. Some of them are too distant in their fundamental principles to be so assimilated without either shattering into pieces or trying to transform the theology they were meant to serve. In a similar manner, not every historical approach to Jesus can serve a theological Christology. Some of them have arrived at conclusions that are so at odds with the Jesus of faith that to try to use them would require a virtually complete make-over, or a subordination of theology to their historical conclusions that would destroy it.


The Nature of Faith

The issue is not just what historical Jesus to use in theology, it is that no historical Jesus can replace the Jesus of faith. Therefore, we must finally and firmly look at the heart of the question of the Jesus of faith. This is no longer the Jesus that history can tell us something about, but it is meeting Jesus as a living person, who is the Son of God, who died for our salvation, and rose from the dead. If reason is the only way to come to know Jesus, this living heart of Christianity must necessarily disappear. There must be another way to come into living contact with Jesus, and that is what Christians have always called faith.

Since faith is at the heart of Christian life, it is somewhat surprising that the nature of faith, itself, that is, as a way of knowing that brings us into contact with Jesus, has not been the subject of more explicit inquiries in modern post-Vatican II Catholic theology. Let me sketch an approach to the understanding of faith that I feel can be applied not only to the question of the Jesus of history at hand, but to an allied issue which is the nature and method of theology, itself. I have developed the ideas that follow more at length in The Inner Nature of Faith: A Mysterious Knowledge Coming Through the Heart.

Knowledge by way of concepts dominates modern Western academic life to such a degree that one might easily imagine that ideas are the only way by which we know things. But the Christian tradition is much richer than this. It knows another way of knowing that comes through the heart and which has been called a knowledge by connaturality. In this kind of knowledge the will plays a much more vital and interior role, for it does not simply affirm what the intellect has already discovered, and act upon it, but it actually becomes the medium by which the intellect knows. The deep love of a mother or father for their child can lead to a certain understanding of that child that is different from and more penetrating than the knowledge that would come, for example, from a battery of psychological tests. It is the spiritual analogate of this kind of knowledge by connaturality that frequently comes up in the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church when they talk of the moral dispositions that are necessary in order to know God, or to draw close to Jesus. We could say that this knowledge by connaturality is the kind of knowledge that must flourish if we wish to know another person and not just things about that person.

Whether we turn to the Wisdom literature, or the letters of St. Paul, or St. John’s Gospel, we will find that they make this kind of knowing central to the Christian life. Among the Fathers this knowledge receives special attention by Clement of Alexandria, and by Augustine who spoke movingly of how we are drawn to Christ by the cords of our heart. Iranaeus in the second century tells us that the false gnostics treat the sayings of Scripture like bits of mosaic, but when they assemble them, instead of coming up with a picture of Jesus there is a dog or a fox. Christians, however, guided by faith, put the pieces together correctly to see the true image of the King.

Thomas Aquinas, far from being exclusively wedded to the use of concepts, understood this kind of knowledge very well when he wrote: "Rectitude of judgment is able to come about in two ways: either according to the use of reason, or by a certain connaturality with the things to be judged."39 And John of St. Thomas, one of his great commentators in his treatise on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, leaves us a subtle analysis of how the gifts of knowledge and wisdom operate by love. In Catholic theology before the Second Vatican Council the discussions that were carried out about connaturality often centered on the nature of the act of faith, itself. Jacques Maritain, for his part, labored mightily to elaborate the philosophical foundations of this kind of knowledge, as well as exploring its role in art, poetry and mystical experience. But what happens when we apply this kind of knowledge to the question of knowing Jesus by faith?

The best way to understand this faith is after the model of human love. Let’s imagine that I meet a woman who I am attracted to. I first learn something about her from what she says and does, and from her facial expressions, and the gestures she makes. These things are like symbols, or messengers, from her mind and heart, from her inner personality. But they are partially objectified expressions about her. As I read these symbols, I gradually construct a certain picture of her. But the more I begin to love her, the more I want to know about her, and somehow go deeper and discover the source, as it were, from where all these symbols are emerging. I want to travel by means of them and arrive at her very heart, or subjectivity, where she lives for herself in knowledge and love. I want to touch her heart and have it open to me. And the only way I can do this is by truly loving her, and hoping she will love me in return. If we begin to love each other, we set up a deeper level of communication, one of heart to heart, which suffuses all our words and expressions and gives us a deeper understanding of what the other person is truly like. We could say that her very spirit illuminates her flesh, her smile, the expression in her eyes, and all her words, and what I am seeing there is not simply flesh and bones, but bodily realities elevated to a higher spiritual way of being. The person I have begun to love is continually sending messages about who she is, and I am being drawn into her depths to discover not just things about her, but her very self.

Let’s imagine next that we are living in first century Palestine and meet Jesus. Then we would certainly not have to go on the quest for the historical Jesus. But just because we saw him and heard him teach about God’s kingdom, and even saw some of the things he did that for all the world looked like miracles, would that have made us believers? No. For it is clear from the Gospels that not all of the people who encountered Jesus believed in him. What does it mean, then, to have faith in Jesus? It cannot be simply a question of knowing Jesus in a human way. We can presume that his disciples had a certain knowledge of him, and indeed, loved him at a time before they had faith in him. The question before us is how they, and us in our turn, can penetrate into the inner mystery of his personality and see just who Jesus is. It is a question of listening to Jesus in the Gospels and learning what we can about him, and here the historians of Jesus can be of service, but we have to go beyond this and enter into the depths of his personality in order to encounter his deepest center which is the very Word of God. In analogy with our model of human love, this divine center elevates and illuminates the whole humanity of Jesus, and so his words and expressions will be suffused with a higher light that will shape them and will invite us to go within his very personality to find its ultimate center.

But this center transcends the human level of things. It demands more than the native powers of our minds and hearts in order to discover who Jesus is. The only way we are going to be able to recognize him is by the way of our hearts, that is by the way of love, a love that must be elevated and transformed so we can see higher and deeper than we ordinarily would. The only way we come to know Jesus in faith is by actually encountering him in love. We meet him in the Gospels, and our hearts begin to be drawn. We exercise our reason to protect ourselves against irrationality, and to nourish our faith which ought to have a grounding in reason. But unless we consent to this drawing of our hearts we cannot go forward. This initial drawing of our hearts comes from Jesus, and the more we love, the more we are transformed, and the better we are able to recognize him until we can see the light of his divinity playing over and shining through his humanity.


Faith and Theology

Knowledge by connaturality plays an essential role in all the forms of Christian knowing, that is, the act of faith, itself, theology, mystical experience, inspiration, canonicity, and so forth. Let’s look at it in regard to theology. For St. Thomas, faith did not stop at ideas or propositions, but was directed to the reality to be known, who is Jesus, himself. Thus, the mystery of the person of Jesus is what we know, and this mystery gives rise to a whole spectrum of Christologies. These Christologies weave webs of concepts in order to try to capture something of this living mystery. But the critical issue is what grounds these conceptual webs, or constructs. It is not history. History cannot touch the inner mystery of Jesus. For that faith is necessary, and it is in the light of faith that theology elaborates its concepts and joins them together. A history of Jesus can never penetrate beyond the web of concepts it has created and come in contact with the Jesus of faith. Therefore, history must be transformed in order to become theology. And there can never be a radically new theological Christology, for all theological Christologies are in historical continuity with each other, at least in their roots in the earthly history of Jesus and the New Testament writings, and they have an ontological continuity, as well, as partial reflections of the same mystery of Jesus.

On the other hand, a theological Christology must be historically rooted because it is about a historical person, and so it should be open to enrich itself with the results of a history of Jesus. But in doing so, it cannot lose sight of its own distinctive way of proceeding. It must take up and transform in the light of faith the findings of this history and judge them by its own way of knowing which is rooted in the mystery of Christ. This way of knowing acts like a theological instinct or a certain connaturality so that the theologian can judge what is congruent to this mystery of Christ and what is not, an instinct which is unfortunately prey to the theologian’s own particular philosophical and religious biases which can cloud his or her own judgment, as it does in the case of the historian. This is why the theologian’s judgment must be submitted to that of the community of faith.

What is at the heart of the matter when we look at these different methodologies are what could be called differences in epistemological type. Theology is not history given a theological spin, just as it is not philosophy dressed in religious garments. It must start with faith and work within the atmosphere of faith, guided by faith at every step, and therefore it is far from being a program of religious studies. Without faith theology is blind and will be carried along by the latest philosophical or historical trends.

Insisting on the distinctive nature of theology in regard to history is only one side of the equation. Faith, and thus theology and the other kinds of knowing by faith, cannot be irrational, the result of some sort of sheer willing that asserts itself and persists even in the face of all rational evidence. The very fact that the will plays a central role in faith opens up the possibility that it can suffer from all sorts of counterfeits and parasites. Thus, we are faced with the phenomenon of cults which under the aegis of freedom of religion manipulate the psychological mechanisms that mimic religious faith, and so ensnare people to believe in things that defy reason and are harmful to their well-being. Even genuine faith can become infected with the viruses of cult-like behavior.40

While faith can rightly be called a way of knowing, it is important to understand this properly. It is not a way of conceptual knowledge, still less a kind of sight, or vision, nor is it a knowledge akin to that which comes to us through our senses. Therefore, if we consciously or unconsciously conceive it in any of those ways, we can surround it with an aura of doubt, for we expect it to have a kind of certainty which it does not. This doubt, in turn, can generate a compensatory quest for the certitude we wish for which tries to make faith over according to the patterns of knowledge we are familiar with. One example of this process is the sensational stories found in some of the non-canonical Gospels that supposedly tell us about the life of Jesus, and another could be a very literalist view of the Scriptures, for then the words of the Scriptures, themselves, supply for a lack of conceptual knowledge with the words given to the sacred writers by God. Then we end up, for example, with an insistence that Genesis somehow contains a scientific cosmology about creation.

We saw the seismic shift that took place in Catholic Christology in the second half of the 20th century, and we can recall Meier’s remark about Schillebeeckx’s Jesus: "In the future, no Catholic Christology can turn the clock back to the pre-Schillebeeckx era and still hope to be taken seriously." Such a comment was born out of the importance of this shift, and no doubt, out of the suffering that exegetes underwent to bring it about, but we need to look at it within the context we have been examining. What is at stake is a genuine theological Christology that is historically grounded, not a Christology which imitates a history of Jesus.41 Such a historically grounded theological Christology is just beginning to take shape, but as it grows, the need will grow for it to reflect on its relationship to the Christologies that went before it.

We saw how there were a variety of Christologies ranging from the implicit Christology of Jesus to a more functional Christology of the early preaching, and so forth, but these Christologies cannot be simply seen as the stages in one inevitable process leading to a more historically grounded Christology. Rather in the New Testament writings themselves we meet a whole variety of Christologies all pointing to the Jesus of faith. The historians will inquire about their authors, the dates of the composition of their various levels, the historical value to be given to this or that element, and so forth. Well, that is their job, and a difficult job it is, which tempts them to leave St. John’s Gospel, for example, to one side when trying to discover the historical Jesus. Even at the level of history this might be a mistake, as some exegetes have insisted, because there may be more history in John’s Gospel than first meets the eye. But that’s a matter for the historians to sort out. What interests us here is what something like John’s Gospel looks like from the point of view of a theological Christology. Do the theologians now have to shy away from it? The value of John’s Gospel, as well as the other New Testament Christologies for theologians cannot be reduced to the nuggets of historically verifiable data that can be mined from them. The authors, and editors, have crafted superb documents that have a fundamental unity because they bring us face-to-face with the Jesus of faith. This diversity in unity of the New Testament Christologies should be our model when it comes to the question of how the variety of Christologies that exist today should relate to each other.

The early Christian community that slowly discerned what writings were the most authentic expression of their faith in Jesus did not feel compelled to eliminate the human discrepancies that existed among these documents. We need not imagine that they did not notice them, but rather, their attention was directed to the Jesus of faith which they found in them. Christians today often share, I believe, the same attitude. Historical issues are not in the forefront when they read the Gospels, but rather, their encounter with the Jesus of faith.

C. Stephen Evans quotes Jon Levenson to the effect that historians "‘are claiming to have a definitive insight, not empirically derived into the meaning of things, even things that they have never directly experienced and that are interpreted very differently by those who have’. Such a claim ‘shifts the locus of truth from the practicing community to the nonpracticing and unaffiliated individual’, without questioning whether such detachment might ‘decrease one’s insight and obscure one’s vision’."42

Evans, himself, writes: "it does seem illegitimate for scholars to require members of religious communities to divest themselves of their religious assumptions in order to be recognized as involved in a quest for historical truth. If the motivation for the quest is religious in the first place, then it seems bizarre to say that the only interpretative assumptions that are legitimate are those which make it difficult, if not impossible, to recover the religious significance of the subject."43

Johnson puts it like this: "The most destructive effect of the Jesus Seminar and recent Historical Jesus books has been the perpetuation of the notion that history somehow determines faith, and that for faith to be correct, the historical accounts that gave rise to it have to be verifiable… Christian faith is directed to a living person. The "real Jesus" for Christian faith is the resurrected Jesus…"44

Historians put the New Testament documents under the x-rays of their analytical methods in order to make visible the various layers of authorship and editing so that they can peer through them and see the words and deeds of Jesus. But faith operates differently. It has created these documents and has its own distinctive way of reading them. These documents precipitated out, as it were, from the living faith of the founding Christian community. In this sense the documents were not essential, but were like loving meditation, or in some cases, responses to particular situations. They crystallized within the community of faith in order to express the already existing experience of faith in Jesus that it possessed, and in order to allow others to share in that experience. This faith in Jesus was primary, and the documents are an expression of it, privileged yet not exhaustive. Therefore, while it is legitimate to analyze them from a historical point of view, this is already to remove them from the living context which gave birth to them. The documents express faith and are meant to lead to faith, and thus, to read them without faith is to change the most fundamental principle of their interpretation. We could say they are written in the faith genre. Even though it is possible to separate these documents from the faith experience that gave birth to them, and therefore do history, this is not the deepest optic by which to fathom their meaning. The disciples who had the privilege to know Jesus during his life and to encounter him after his resurrection told others about him so they, too, could come to believe in him. This transmission of faith needed no documents, but it was only natural that their memories of Jesus and their reflections about the meaning of what he said and did would be written down, a process that may have started quite early and could have taken the form of collections of sayings, as the historians suppose, more elaborate meditations, and so forth But no matter how important these documents were, especially the Gospels, they were always an expression of the living faith of the Christian community. To take them out of this context of faith is already to do a certain violence to them because we then lack a certain interior loving sympathy with what they are saying that allows us to use them as privileged ways in which to contact for ourselves the risen Lord. For historians to imagine that they can dismantle these documents and then reassemble them according to a principle other than faith is to run the risk of having history dictate what Christians ought to believe. Historical analysis leads to a certain kind of depersonalization of these documents, and while we have seen the value of this kind of history, the New Testament writings are supremely personal, and so a great deal is necessarily lost once we are don’t personally engage them.


Christologies in Dialogue

The notionalism and ahistorical aura that infected parts of classical Christology were not intrinsic to it. Nor was the way in which it became institutionalized, and tended to lose contact with the intuitive fires that gave birth to it, and be transmitted in a routinized way. It also tended to repress anything it saw as its rival and even anything that threatened to disturb its peace. In this way it generated cycles of domination, repression, and reaction, but unfortunately, if a new discipline gains ascendancy, it begins to act in the same way as the old.

Therefore, the new historical Christology faces some serious temptations. It might imagine, as we considered before, that the methods of the historians of Jesus are the methods of a historically grounded theological Christology, and therefore this Christology has to be made over from head to foot. If it overcomes this challenge, it can still be convinced that it, alone, is the true theological Christology and all the others are passé. Then, even though it might lack institutional power, it tries to repress them with a certain sense of academic superiority that seems to say: we are the first Christians to have truly understood Christology by understanding its historical nature. The rest of you are still mired in your pre-critical childhood fantasies.

But there is not one theological Christology, but many, and it is not historical Christologies that judge their value, but they all must be judged by the rule of faith. Part of this rule of faith expresses itself in the guidance of the teaching Church, but every Christology will undergo another sort of scrutiny by the Christian community as it prays in public and in private. They will implicitly or explicitly ask whether the Christology being presented to them can be embraced and lived by. It is hard to imagine how a Christology, imitating a particular historical portrait of Jesus as a cynic philosopher, for example, would find a warm reception in the atmosphere of liturgy and contemplation. Among the new Christologies, or new theologies having Christological implications, we can find a Christology growing from the experience of the poor and marginalized, or from the rights of women, or growing out of the Buddhist-Christian or Hindu-Christian dialogue. In Christianity in The Crucible of East-West Dialogue I have looked at some of these interfaith theologies and the serious problems that some of them face, for example, when they succumb to the temptation to make over Christianity in Buddhist or Hindu categories.

But what I would like to examine here is the relationship of this historical Christology to the classical Christological tradition. I would like to think that instead of a protracted power struggle between them there could be a dialogue, instead.

One starting point for such a dialogue can be found in Jacques Maritain’s On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus which he initially gave as a pair of seminars in 1964 at the age of 82. There he imagined philosophy as a research worker who, inspired by theology, will use its own methods to create a hypothesis about Jesus’ human development in relationship to his divinity, a hypothesis which is then submitted to theology for its evaluation and possible use.

This hypothesis centered on what he called the spiritual unconscious which in this case could be called the depths of the personality of Jesus. In such a view the deepest center of Jesus is the divine Word. But this center is separated from his human nature by a translucent partition so the full force of his divinity does not yet overflow into his human nature. Jesus as a true human being, then, would enter into his divine depths in his prayer and arrive on the human plane at a sense of his divinity, but he would still genuinely grow and develop.

This hypothesis can be seen as an elaboration, or even a departure, from some of St. Thomas’ views. In this way, whether Maritain intended it or not, the classical Christology begins to turn towards a pressing contemporary issue in Christology, which is how genuine human development in Jesus could co-exist with his being the Word of God. A historical Christology has to tackle the same question from its own distinctive point of view, and there is no reason why Maritain’s research hypothesis could not serve to draw both a philosophical Christology and a historical Christology into collaboration.

The same sort of collaboration could take place on a wider scale, as well, in regard to Emile Mersch’s The Theology of the Mystical Body which represents one of the finest flowerings of the classical Christological tradition, and advances that tradition from within.45 His book, however, never got the attention it deserved. Mersch had worked on it his whole theological career, and had written a historical introduction to it that on the insistence of his superiors had become the book-length Le Corps Mystique du Christ published in 1933. The scope of this historical work no doubt delayed his properly theological one, and it was in its final stages when he was killed at the outbreak of World War II. The book was put into final form by his editors and appeared in 1944, and makes that tradition available in a particularly valuable way so it could enter into a dialogue with a historical Christology.

In The Theology of the Mystical Body Mersch shows in exquisite detail how the human nature of Jesus must be transformed by its union with the Word so that it receives a being of union, a new kind of existence in virtue of this union which intensifies its qualities without in any way fundamentally altering them. It is this kind of being of union that gives the humanity of Jesus as we see him in the Gospels its mysterious quality so that it draws us farther and farther into its depths until we are finally face-to-face with the Word of God.

In the chapter on original sin we had already entered into theological territory, or even, we could say, Christological territory, for the doctrine of original sin foreshadows the mystery of Christ, especially his redemptive death. In view of the kind of Christology that Mersch developed, and the nature of original sin, the death of Jesus takes on a certain inevitability. At the heart of original sin was a human solidarity and unity that was elevated and intensified by grace. Grace was meant to flow directly from God to us, and indirectly to and from each of us as members of the human community. It was this latter mode of transmission that was severely damaged by original sin and all subsequent sins. Thus, we live in a fallen world where grace is working in view of Christ.

But what will happen when Christ appears? His whole human nature is transparent to the Word by being the very humanity of the Word, and thus, there is no obstacle to grace in it. In the humanity of Jesus we find the unity of the human race and the source of all grace, the grace we were meant to transmit to each of us. This grace tries to go out from Jesus almost automatically, as it were, as we see in the story of the woman suffering from hemorrhages who touches Jesus. But this graced condition of humanity found in Jesus is deeply at odds with our distorted and twisted hearts and the societal structures we have created that embody these distortions. Therefore, it is inevitable that Jesus will come into conflict especially with those who identify themselves with these structures and profit from them. The Gospels ring true in regard to the passion and death of Jesus. We can easily imagine him suffering the same fate today.

Here we are, far from any juridical view of redemption in which Jesus is being punished so that satisfaction can be made to God the Father for the offenses committed against him. The grace of the humanity of Jesus is continually trying to flow out and enter our hearts and minds, but it can only do so if our hearts are realigned and purified from their twisted and distorted condition. The death of Jesus is the result of the grace of Jesus meeting our sinful condition.

Jesus’ human growth reached its fullness and culmination at the time of his death. The translucent partition between his human nature and its deepest center, which is the very Word of God, dissolved, and Jesus’ humanity was transformed by the resultant flood of light. His disciples find his tomb empty. He has risen, and they encounter him. But while he has a body, it is not an ordinary body subject to the normal laws of space and time. Jesus appears in their midst, and on other occasions they encounter him, but have difficulty in recognizing him.

The death and resurrection of Jesus brings about the restoration of the primordial sacramentality that had been disrupted by original sin and all subsequent sins. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost marks the beginning of the Church whose task is to make Jesus visible in the world so that people can encounter him and come to have faith in him.

Everything that God creates must necessarily mirror in some way God’s existence, and so classical theology insisted that all the works of God ad extra are common to God rather than to one of the divine persons, but there is an extremely important exception to this principle which we see in the humanity of Jesus. The humanity of Jesus is created by God, but since this humanity is assumed by the Word, it must in some way be proper to the Word. It takes on a being of union in virtue of its union with the Word which transforms it so that it is truly the humanity of the Word and must, because of that fact, have a Trinitarian character because the Word is always in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In and through the Word the humanity of Jesus becomes a work ad intra, and Jesus in his humanity participates in the life of the Trinity. Further, since the humanity of Jesus is the principle of our supernaturalized and intensified human unity, we, too, are transformed and begin to share in the life of the Trinity.

What Mersch is laying the foundation for could be called a Trinitarian Christology centered on the very nature of the humanity of Jesus as the humanity of the Word. This divinized and, indeed, trinitarianized humanity of Jesus is at the heart of who Jesus is. But we are left with trying to understand it in relationship to the evolution of Jesus’ human consciousness, and here Maritain can come to our aid.

Indeed, if Jesus’ humanity is the very humanity of the Word, and is thus transformed by its union with the Word, then his human consciousness must in some way be a divinized consciousness, and he must have been aware in his human consciousness that he was the Word of God. We can go further and try to bring Mersch and Maritain together, and in this way advance the classical Christology from within. I have sketched how this could be done elsewhere.46

But what if this renewed classical Christology actually entered into dialogue with the more historical one that is emerging? Then they could work together to examine the question of the inner evolution of Jesus’ human consciousness of his divinity.

The conclusion of Experiment 4. The findings of the historians of Jesus can enrich our understanding of Jesus and his times, but the historical-critical method cannot be taken as the only way to know Jesus.



  1. Rahner, The Teaching of the Catholic Church as contained in her documents, p. 71-72.
  2. Brown, S.S. "Church Pronouncements," p. 1168.
  3. Guarino, Revelation and Truth, p. 24. Guarino gives an excellent survey of Catholic turning to the historical-critical method and interacting with post-modern thought. See also his "Postmodernity and Five Fundamental Theological Issues"
  4. As cited in Guarino, Revelation and Truth, p. 11.
  5. Maritain, Peasant of the Garonne, p. 149.
  6. Ibid., p. 160-1.
  7. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, p. 45.
  8. Ibid., p. 6.
  9. Ibid., p. 13-14.
  10. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 121-2.
  11. Ibid., p. 123.
  12. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volumes 1 and 2.
  13. Chancey, "How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?"
  14. Nun, "Cast Your Net Upon the Waters" and "Ports of Galilee."
  15. Meier in A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p. 696 makes a similar argument for the pool of Siloam which reflects a knowledge on the part of John’s Gospel of Jerusalem before its destruction.
  16. Pixner, "Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway."
  17. Pixner, "Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion." See also Geva, "Searching for Roman Jerusalem" and "Were there no Christians on Mt. Zion after 70C.E.?
  18. Greenhut, "Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family" and Reich, "Caiaphas Name Inscribed on Bone Boxes."
  19. André Lemaire, "Ossuary Update: Israel Antiquities Authority’s Report Deeply Flawed."
  20. O’Callaghan, "Un papiro revolucionario: 7Q5." And see Thiede, The Earliest Gospel Manuscript?
  21. A passage in Jean Guitton’s The Problem of Jesus: A Free-Thinker’s Diary gives us the flavor in a more graphic way of how archaeology can serve as a negative criterion for judging the Gospels. Guitton is writing as someone who will allow his critical reason to truly come to grips with the questions that surround Jesus, and he says about Renan, notorious in Church circles for his rationalist life of Jesus: "As far as one can see he never pleads a posteriori impossibility in the public life of Jesus. I should have been interested to see some. It would have been pleasant to learn that Pilate never existed, that Nazareth and Cana were mythical places, that the pool of Bethesda never had the five porticoes mentioned by John, that Jews were never crucified, or that in the year 33 the government of Palestine was not in the hands of a procurator…" (p. 16)
  22. See good examples of this kind of reasoning in Jean Guitton’s The Problem of Jesus, and in his Jésus.
  23. Meier, A Marginal Jew. Volume 2, p. 142ff.
  24. Meier’s criteria are quite similar to the ones used by Schillebeeckx, in his Jesus, and Raymond Martin, reflecting upon them, claims for the first four of them, that "virtually all historians use them." p. 63, The Elusive Messiah.
  25. For a fuller discussion, see Schillebeeckx’s Jesus, "Criteria for a Critical Identification for the Historical Jesus," p. 81ff.
  26. Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p. xxvii.
  27. Borg, "Portraits of Jesus" in ed. Shanks, The Search for Jesus.
  28. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 95.
  29. Ibid., p. 98-9.
  30. Ibid., p. 124-5.
  31. Ibid., p. 99-100.
  32. Berger, "Why Theology?" p. 83-4.
  33. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 32ff.
  34. As cited by Kasper, Jesus the Christ, p. 32.
  35. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 70-1. See also p. 79.
  36. Martin, The Elusive Messiah, p. 100-101.
  37. Crossan, The Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection, p. 123.
  38. Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p. 426. See also Martin, The Elusive Messiah, p. 217, note 12.
  39. Arraj, The Inner Nature of Faith, p. 75.
  40. Arraj, "Diabolical Possession and Catholic Cults? The Lack of Psychological Awareness and the Materialization of Belief in the Catholic Church."
  41. Johnson, in The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship, makes it clear that he feels that Schillebeeckx’s Jesus has already excessively subjected theology to the historical critical method, and the results were ambiguous and unsatisfactory. p. 127, note 12.
  42. Evans, p. 347.
  43. Ibid., p. 349-50.
  44. Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 141-2.
  45. For more on Mersch and The Theology of the Mystical Body, see Arraj, Mind Aflame.
  46. Ibid., Chapter 5.



Arraj, James. 1988. The Inner Nature of Faith: A Mysterious Knowledge Coming Through the Heart. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books.

_____ 1994. Mind Aflame: The Theological Vision of One of the World’s Great Theologians: Emile Mersch. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books.

_____ 2001. Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue: A Critical Look at Catholic Participation. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books.

_____ 2003. "Diabolical Possession and Catholic Cults? The Lack of Psychological Awareness and the Materialization of Belief in the Catholic Church" at chtheomortext/lack.htm

Berger, Klaus. 1994/6. "Exegesis and Systematic Theology – The Exegete’s Perspective" in Concilium. Why Theology? Edited by Claude Geffré and Werner Jeanrond. London: SCM Press; Maryknoll: Orbis Books. p. 83-92.

Borg, Marcus J. 1994. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith. SF: HarperSanFrancisco.

_____ 1994. "The Portraits of Jesus" in Shanks, Hershel, ed. The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society.

Brown, Raymond E. 1973. The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. NY, Paramus, Toronto: Paulist Press.

Brown, Raymond E., S.S. and Thomas Aquinas Collins, O.P. 1990. "Church Pronouncements" in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Chancey, Mark and Eric M. Meyers. 2000. "How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?" in Biblical Archaeological Review, July/Aug 2000.

Comfort, Philip Wesley. 1992. The Quest for the Original Text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Crossan, John Dominic. 1991. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. SF: HarperSanFrancisco.

_____ 1994. "The Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection" in The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society.

Dupuis, Jacques. 1994. Who Do You Say I Am? Introduction to Christology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Evans, C. Stephen. 1996. The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Finegan, Jack. 1969. The Archeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1992. "Did Jesus Speak Greek?" in Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept/Oct 1992.

Geva, Hillel and Bargil Pixner. 1998. "Were There no Christians on Mt. Zion after 70 C.E.? Responses of Hillel Geva and Bargil Pixner" in Biblical Archaeological Review, March/April 1998, p. 14-16.

Geva, Hillel. 1997. "Searching for Roman Jerusalem" in Biblical Archaeological Review, Nov/Dec 1997.

Greenhut, Zui. 1992. "Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family" in Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept/Oct 1992.

Grillmeier, Aloys. 1975. Christ in Christian Tradition. Volume One: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451). Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Guarino, Thomas G. 1993. Revelation and Truth: Unity and Plurality in Contemporary Theology. Scranton: University of Scranton Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses.

_____ 1996. "Postmodernity and Five Fundamental Theological Issues" in Theological Studies 57 (1996). p. 664-689.

Guitton, Jean. 1955. The Problem of Jesus: A Free-Thinker’s Diary. 1955. NY: P.J. Kenedy & Sons.

_____ 1956. Jésus. Éditions Bernard Grasset.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1996. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. SF: HarperSanFrancisco.

Johnson, Luke Timothy and William S. Kurz, S.J. 2002. The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation. Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kasper, Walter. 1976. Jesus the Christ. London: Burns & Oates. NY: Paulist Press.

Kloner, Amos. 1999. "Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?" in Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept/Oct 1999.

Koester, Craig. 1989. "The Origin and Significance of the Flight to Pella Tradition" in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51, p. 90-106.

Laughlin, John C.H. 1993. "Capernaum From Jesus’ Time and After" in Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept/Oct 1993.

Lemaire, André. 2003. "Ossuary Update: Israel Antiquities Authority’s Report Deeply Flawed" in Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2003, p. 50.

Maritain, Jacques. 1959. The Degrees of Knowledge, or To Distinguish in Order to Unite. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

_____ 1968. The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time. NY, Chicago, SF: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

_____ 1969. On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus. Herder and Herder.

Martin, Raymond. 2000. The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Westview Press.

Meier, John P. 1990. The Mission of Christ and His Church: Studies in Christology and Ecclesiology. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc.

_____ 1991. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. 1994. Volume 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles. NY, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday.

Mersch, Emile. 1951. The Theology of the Mystical Body. St. Louis, MO and London: B. Herder Book Co.

Millard, Alan. 2003. "Literacy in the Time of Jesus" in Biblical Archaeological Review, July/Aug 2003.

Murphy-O’Connor. 1998. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press.

Nun, Mendel. 1993. "Cast Your Net Upon the Waters" in Biblical Archaeological Review, Nov/Dec 1993.

_____ 1999. "Ports of Galilee" in Biblical Archaeological Review, July/Aug 1999.

O’Callaghan, José. 1995. "Un papiro revolucionario: 7Q5. Entrevista al p. José O’Callaghan, S.J. por Germán McKenzie González." Online at

O’Collins, Gerald. 1987. Jesus Risen: An Historical, Fundamental and Systematic Examination of Christ’s Resurrection. NY/Mahwah: Paulist Press.

Pixner, Bargil. 1990. "Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion" in Biblical Archaeological Review, May/June 1990.

_____ 1997. "Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway – Where the Community Lived in Jesus’ Time" in Biblical Archaeological Review, May/June 1997.

Rahner, Karl, S.J., editor. The Teaching of the Catholic Church as contained in her documents. Originally prepared by Josef Neuner, S.J. and Heinrich Roos, S.J. Alba House, NY. 1967.

Reich, Ronny. 1992. "Caiaphas Name Inscribed on Bone Boxes" in Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept/Oct 1992.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. 1979. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. NY: Vintage Books.

Taylor, Joan E. 1995. "The Garden of Gethsemane: Not the Place of Jesus’ Arrest" in Biblical Archaeological Review, July/Aug 1995.

Thiede, Carsten Peter. 1992. The Earliest Gospel Manuscript? The Qumran Papyrus 7Q5 and its Significance for New Testament Studies. The Paternoster Press.

Wright, N.T. 1992. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Volume One: The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.





Faith and the Future of Catholic Theology


Our four experiments and their conclusions read:

Experiment 1 Christians believe in a personal and loving God who created the universe. Have the discoveries of modern scientific cosmology undercut or eliminated the rational foundations for this belief?

Conclusion: There is nothing in the genuine findings of modern cosmology that makes it more difficult, still less impossible, for Christians to believe in God as the Creator of the universe. Indeed, cosmology, itself, seems to point in the direction of the universe having a beginning.

Experiment 2 Christians believe that the universe has meaning and purpose, and God directly created the human soul. Have the discoveries of the evolutionary biologists and paleoanthropologists undermined these beliefs?

Conclusion: There is nothing in the actual findings of the sciences about evolution and human origins that is irreconcilable with the essentials of Christian belief but rather, science again seems to converge with faith.

Experiment 3 Can Christians still believe in the doctrine of original sin, or has the advance of the sciences and the application of the historical-critical method to its scriptural foundations consigned it to the dustbin of dogmas?

Conclusion: The demise of the doctrine of original sin has been greatly exaggerated. Neither the sciences of nature nor historical criticism have demonstrated fundamental flaws in it. What has happened is that the sciences have created an atmosphere in which theologians felt compelled to reevaluate the doctrine of original sin, and so they often put aside the traditional formulations, but failed to come up with new ones that would truly express what is at its heart.

Experiment 4 Have the findings of the historians about Jesus made it more difficult, or impossible, to believe in the Jesus that faith proposes to us?

Conclusion: The findings of the historians of Jesus can enrich our understanding of Jesus and his times, but the historical-critical method cannot be taken as the only way to know Jesus.

Can Christians still believe? Yes. There is nothing in the sciences that contradicts what faith proposes. In fact, at times science and faith, while distinct in nature and method, seem to converge in some of their conclusions. But to arrive at this affirming "yes" demands of us a certain measure of epistemological sophistication. The findings of science had to be unwrapped from the philosophical and religious presuppositions of the scientists and then translated from the particular language science had encoded them in into one accessible to theology.

This kind of unwrapping and translation calls for delicate philosophical tools, and the best ones I know were developed by Jacques Maritain on the basis of classical Thomism and set forth in his The Degrees of Knowledge, or To Distinguish in Order to Unite. There he explored the epistemological types of the sciences of nature, philosophy, theology and mysticism, and mapped their interrelationships.

The kind of faith that has been emerging is not a defensive faith that goes about in fear of what the sciences have or might discover. Rather, it welcomes their genuine discoveries. But neither is it a faith that rushes to make itself over at every scientific fad or fantasy. It is a faith that hopes to go beyond the old and tiresome struggle between science clothing itself in anti-religious language and a Christianity stuck in a narrow literalism.

But the problems we have been seeing with Catholic theology, itself, may be in the long run more difficult and damaging to the Christian community than the ones that come from the outside from science. We have seen the basic outline of its recent history that reads as follows. The openings to the sciences and the modern world that animated some Catholics at the turn of the 19th century were repressed under the heading of modernism. This repression led to a long period in which pressure built up within the Church, and was finally released rather explosively at the time of the Second Vatican Council. This release, in its turn, polarized the Church into two distinct camps of the progressives and the conservatives, a polarization that continues to the present.

But this is an unhealthy situation whose underlying causes are often insufficiently examined. The conservatives hold up the banner of orthodoxy, but it is a defensive orthodoxy sometimes tinged with the old integralism, and unwilling or unable to see the faults of the pre-Vatican institutional Church, or to admit that some of these same faults still exist today. And what is the point of an admirable loyalty to the truths of the faith if it takes the statements that express that faith and uses them to bludgeon its opponents?

The progressive movement was born out of a keen awareness of these faults of the institution, and the harm done by its narrow neo-scholasticism. But this reaction has, at times, become an overreaction in which essential aspects of Christian faith have been called into question, subordinating faith to science, history, or philosophy. And what is the point of a much needed program of Church reform and social justice if it becomes mixed with statements that go against faith, itself?

Then the conservatives can point to these unorthodox statements in order to condemn the whole progressive project, and the progressives look at these condemnations as a continuation of the old repressive attitudes, but they, in turn, ignore the question of what some theologians have been saying. Thus, the deadlock continues.

The best way to break it is for both sides to look at faith, itself. Faith cannot be protected by locking it away in old institutional structures, but neither is it served by overreacting against these old forms and by replacing them with ones that are not compatible with its substance. In fact, these two opposing attitudes can be seen as mirror images of each other. In each case a certain conceptualism reigns whether by way of the old formulas or shiny new ones. But at the heart of faith is not words, but our relationship with Jesus as the risen Lord, and all our expressions of faith must be subordinated to this living mystery and its demands of love.



Chapter 1: The Beginning of the Universe

Chapter 2: Evolution and Human Origins

Chapter 3: Original Sin