Friday, December 01, 2006

The New Jesus for Mormons

Many years ago before my mission, as a teenager contemplating going, I read four "The Missionary Reference Library" books. Although they increased my understanding and spiritual maturity, only one of them had a concrete lasting impact as a text. That would be "Jesus The Christ" by James E. Talmage. I latched on to what he was doing as much as what he was saying. His work forever changed the way I studied Jesus Christ and his life and teachings.

One of the important things he did was research both the theological and historical narrative of Jesus' mission. The book is specifically a theological treatise exploring the traditional LDS Scriptures and religious implications. Beyond that he adds information about 1st Century history and culture. This helps bring Jesus into context instead of allowing for a completely de-centralized amorphous figure. Of course, there were two major problems with his integration. Much of the sources used were already outdated even during his time. Those that he did use were of a particular viewpoint that didn't engage in other studies (even ones that wouldn't be harmful to his own thesis). Still, no other major LDS work on Jesus before or after the book followed his example. Even the multi-volume Bruce R. McConkie tome was a wordy re-hash more than imitation.

What I did learn was to go beyond the mere text of the Bible (gospels in particular) and explore other avenues of research. This might sound counter-intuitive from the purpose of "Jesus The Christ," but I became interested in the Jesus of history. What I found was that, outside of the LDS Church, there were many people who were equally interested. The problem was that most of them didn't believe in the Jesus of Faith. It became frustrating for me to discover so many new ways of understanding the life of the Savior, only to have those same writers dismiss things I find most dear and important. A part of me wanted to glean what I could from them and then fill in my religious understandings where they departed. Strangly enough, I found that I could.

Another blog discusses Timothy Johnson's book The Real Jesus, and the line between faith and history. There is a quote that Dave presents as a question:

Christians direct their faith not to this historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity between that Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the reality of Christ's power in the present. Christian faith is not directed to a human construction about the past; that would be a form of idolatry. Authentic Christian faith is a response to the living God, whom Christians declare is powerfully at work among them through the resurrected Jesus. (p. 142-43)

Despite my agreement with Johnson's critique of "Historical Jesus" researchers, I have serious issues with his final opinion. To me this is equally problematic if taken to its logical conclusion. Even if it is true that our Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is ultimately beyond time and history, it still has much of its roots in history. As was paraphrased, "On this view, history becomes the written record we make (selective, based on available evidence rather than an omnipotent knowledge of all past events), not the underlying events themselves." Knowing this, all Scripture is related to history and you must understand that history in order to interpret the text as intended. Perhaps this is what Joseph Smith meant when he said he believed the Bible as written by the original authors. Not that the authentic autograph text was best, but that the intended meanings of the authors was closest to the truth. And that is tied to the cultural and historical backgrounds behind their words.

The first post I did, before getting completely involved writing on the blog, was a critique of a book criticism. It still represents my feelings on the issue:

Deep down I suppose that the biography of Jesus Christ I have been wanting to write -- or at least read about -- is a believer's version of the several anti-divinity histor-biographies. The only person of that kind I have been able to find is [N.T. Wright] who looks at the Divine Christ with an understanding of the historical periods. Instead I am stuck with having to read doubters who have studied Jewish/Christian connections, or believers who reject the whole idea of the connection between them.

With some surprise, I am finding small lists of people are taking this position seriously inside the LDS community. There are a select few authors now introducing years of worthwhile reading to Scripture study. Similar to myself, they aren't caught up in the so-called dichotomy of faith and history as inseperable. Rather, they find it more illuminating than scandalous. The work of Talmage is starting to come full circle once again; returning and even going beyond what his classic book started.

There is still, however, a concern that the history will take over the theology. At least one reviewer seemed happy that there was less quotes from General Authorities (can't remember where I found it). Going that direction would be a disaster and make what I consider a positive step rather pointless. Of all the Christian denominations, Mormonism is most able to accept the possibility that history and faith can work together. There are several reasons for this, but that would be separate discussions.


Anonymous said...

On the one hand, I do feel that the Atonement could have been made in any time, at any place. Yet, as we, as people in this world dating back for centuries, we have been blessed by prophecy. The history of Jesus has it's place in correlation with those prophecies. Even then, those feel like little but an intellectual proof of a spiritual truth. Apples and oranges. It is the living, the current oneness at which we can be even now with Christ that 'matters.'

"Who was Jesus? (as a human)" feels less significant, like a human-interest story footnote to a greater (the greatest) life.

If I'm missing something to it, by all means please do point it out to me. As I see it currently, though, in a way 'I don't see what all the fuss is about.' :)

Anonymous said...

I should clarify my statement about "any time, at any place." By that, I am saying that the act of the Atonement (the prayer that took place in Gethsemane, and the ensuing crucifixion and resurrection) is an act that transcends the human details of Jesus' life such as geography or human timelines. It is an act of divine power, not human, and therefore is independent of the human construct of history.

Jettboy said...

Naiah, I agree that at first glance all of it seems rather trivial. The Atonement is without space and time. That much is an important distinction.

It is a really difficult question to answer. My views on the subject grew as I read more information. If you haven't read "Jesus the Christ" yet, I would recommend starting there. Perhaps get a copy of "Jesus and the World of the New Testament" and skim through. Ultimately, I think, you realize that eternal truths don't happen in a vacume. There are even times when Mormon beliefs are substantiated and illuminated in the least likely of places. You just have to seperate the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps someone who is equally as interested can explain it better than me.

Dave said...

Thansk for the link, JB. I agree there hasn't really been much LDS scholarship on the subject since Jesus the Christ. I think Holzapfel's books on the New Testament might be what we're looking for. I haven't read them yet, but I've heard nice reports.

I agree the faith and history question is a fundamental one for LDS faith claims. Almost every LDS historian grapples with that issue in an essay or two at some point.

Anonymous said...

That is the first time I have heard such an interpretation of Joseph Smith's words. Your statement, Not that the authentic autograph text was best. . .

And what again do you mean by that second to last sentence in your article?

Jettboy said...

As the last sentence said, I don't have time to get into explaining the second to the last sentence. There are just too many variables to the equation.

Anonymous said...

Coicidentally, I *did* just buy a copy of Jesus the Christ after having read this yesterday. I simply never have picked it up. So, it's officially in my current book juggle.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I really like Jesus the Christ, though I have not read it recently. I am also interested where the next Talmage or even the next McConkie will come from. There does seem to be a few interesting upstarts that I am hoping to get good reports of. Have you read Hofzapfel's books? (I am certain I did not spell that right).

Jettboy said...

I have not read the books, although I have read some of the sources they use. That is why I am so excited right now. Setting aside rather non-theistic conclusions by a few studies, there is a bulk of really good information.

One of the LDS books I did read was "Jesus Christ: Son of God, Savior" edited by Paul H. Peterson, et.el. that incorporated some recent research. If that is any indication, the new interest in New Testament studies should be useful. Not that any of this has, as Niah has stated, changed the focus of religious faith claims.

Anonymous said...

I strongly feel that the best way to know who the Savior was and it today is to live His Gospel. But this is a personal journey I am on right now. After months of debate and research I am finding that living the Gospel increases my understanding of Jesus Christ more than any theological treatise could.

I have read "Jesus the Christ" several times and my knowledge of the Savior and His surroundings did increase. It is a wonderful book, and I would highly recommend it. But by no means would I consider it one of the most comprehensive books on Jesus Christ that some Latter-day Saints feel it is.

I would very much enjoy seeing more work produced on the Savior's life from a believer's perspective, and a Latter-day Saints perspective would be even better!

Anonymous said...

A book I really enjoyed was "Jesus, the Jewish Theologian." Interesting stuff, context.