Deconstructing Jesus

By Rollin G. Grams, Ph.D.,.
Associate Professor of New Testament;
Director of the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity
at Gordon-Conwell—Charlotte

These are exciting days in Jesus studies. Much is being written on the historical Jesus, and intriguing studies in New Testament Christology have recently been published. Yet some of the works making it to print are intentionally trying to deconstruct the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. This article intends to address a few such challenges while recommending recent publications worth reading.

Deconstructing the Jesus of faith has been around in Modernist and now Postmodernist forms for some time. Herman Reimarus’s Apology or Defence of the Rational Worshippers of God (1778) argued that Jesus was a pious Jew who called people to repentance and got himself killed in Jerusalem. His disciples then decided to steal His body and claim that He had risen from the dead so that they would not have to go back to work. Secrecy, conspiracy and scandal are not new to studies on Jesus. For those denying Jesus’ resurrection, such theories are standard fare (cf. Mt. 28.11-15).

Deconstructive Postmodernist scholars, however, seem willing to float theories primarily for the results they produce. The game is to construct alternative scenarios and see what happens: move Gnosticism into the 1st century, argue for different dates of manuscripts, imagine that Jesus’ tomb has been discovered, and so forth. New theories— ones touting secrets, conspiracies, and scandals—also sell well, as authors, publishers and bookshops have discovered. A number of works, such as those by Bart Ehrman, are aimed at undergraduates to unsettle their faith. His titles promote hype around secrecy, conspiracy and scandal, using words like “lost,” “battles,” “betrayer,” “misquoting Jesus” and “Bible fails.”

Consider how one deconstructs Jesus in a Postmodern age. First, argue that orthodox Christianity is less credible and perhaps even later than certain heresies because there were contending views on Jesus from the start. It is, of course, quite true that from the very beginning there were any number of responses to Jesus. The idea that Christianity first had a solid, orthodox trunk and only afterwards developed branches reaching out in heretical directions is clearly false. But the correct picture is not of an upside- down tree, with branches in all directions at the beginning and then a particular branch emerging from the mix as orthodoxy. There was a “normative Christianity” from the beginning. Five lines of argument are worth considering.

  1. Orthodox churches in the 2nd century could trace their lineage back to their apostolic foundations (cf. Tertullian, Prescriptions Against Heresies; Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus (Eusebius, H.E. 5.24.2-7)).
  2. Our canonical Gospels present the testimony of eyewitnesses.
  3. Normative New Testament Christology is built out of its Jewish, especially Old Testament, roots.
  4. Orthodox Christian tradition was preserved with due care for accuracy.6 Consider the important role of teachers in the community, the likely memorization of sayings of Jesus, the role of eyewitnesses in the community and the community’s high value of accurate memories of Jesus. Also consider the importance placed on apostolic custodians of the Church’s tradition, the assumption by New Testament authors that the churches knew traditions about Jesus, the Gospels’ historical interests in their choice of the genre of biography, the tendency to check prophecy with tradition and the control that a community exercised on the right telling of a story.
  5. The early Church held a high Christology (e.g., Jesus seen as divine) from as early as we can tell. It did not develop from low (e.g., Jesus seen merely as a prophet) to high Christology over the rest of the 1st century. The evolutionary view is inherent in the title of Maurice Casey’s book, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God. Key 20th century works assumed it: Wilhelm Bousset’s Kurios Christos, John Hick’s Myth of God Incarnate and James Dunn’s Christology in the Making.

Recently, however, strong challenges to this evolutionary view have appeared. Larry Hurtado notes that the earliest Church’s devotion to and worship of Jesus testify to its high Christology.7 Richard Bauckham argues that the earliest Church held a high Christology through its interpretation of the Old Testament. Gordon Fee argues exegetically that the New Testament’s earliest author, Paul, consistently held to a high Christology that was already in the Church tradition. And Sean McDonough of Gordon- Conwell argues that the often neglected miracles of Jesus explain the early Church’s view that he was the agent of creation.

A second way to deconstruct Jesus is to rearrange the evidence from primary sources. What if one could argue that 2nd century Gnostic sources11 were either from the early 1st century or that they represent an early version of Christianity? What if the 200 or so verses that Matthew and Luke have in common, called ‘Q’, were taken as a complete perspective on Jesus held by a community, and then one focused on what was not in this imaginary document—Jesus’ death and resurrection! What if the Gospel of Thomas was actually written around AD 50—before the canonical Gospels? One essential feature of Postmodernist deconstruction is to see truth as communally (or locally) constructed. So, why not put forward 2nd century Gnostic works, even if one does not subscribe to such views oneself, as an equally true or even preferable representation of Jesus?

All this requires some discussion of the dating of documents. Consider, for example, the date of the Gospel of Thomas. Craig Evans has argued rather convincingly that the GT should be dated after AD 170, over against the view that it predates the canonical Gospels, as key scholars in the “Jesus Seminar” have maintained. Two of Evans’ arguments might be noted. First, to state the obvious, the GT quotes or alludes to various New Testament works, including the four Gospels! One must assume that there was an earlier version of the GT—but we have no such document. Second, the GT’s units of Jesus’ sayings are linked by Syrian catchwords, and it often depends on Tatian’s Syrian Diatessaron, which was compiled around AD 170. It is surely a late 2nd century, Syrian work that shows Gnostic influences—hardly an early, reliable source for the historical Jesus.

A third way to deconstruct Jesus comes through archaeology. We should expect that archaeology will continue to provide us with further helpful discoveries to assess events in the Scriptures, including those in Jesus’ time. There is a lot more digging still to do in Israel! Yet archaeology’s revelation of “secrets from the earth” can also play into the deconstructive agenda. Some speculation is relatively innocuous, such as the discovery of a cave supposedly used by John the Baptist in Suba in 1999. Other speculation intends to deconstruct Christian faith, such as the claim that Jesus’ ossuary (bone box) has been discovered, along with family members, in a tomb in Talpiot. Judaism practiced a two-stage burial of the dead: an initial burial over the first year until only the bones were left, and then a second burial of the bones in a stone box. If Jesus’ bone box were to be discovered, that would be the end of Easter for most of us. Numerous problems with such a view have ably been pointed out by Craig Evans and Ben Witherington.

In conclusion, the peculiar arguments in recent deconstructions of Jesus are not simply the rehashing of views met already in Reimarus in the 18th century as the Enlightenment was coming to a close. They come in new packaging for a consumerist, iconoclastic age, but also with new arguments. Yet more credible analyses of Jesus in the light of ancient texts and archaeology are providing us with exciting evidence about Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of all creation.

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