Contemporary Christs

Who is the Historical Jesus?

“Godspell” is back, the 1970s rock-and-roll musical. The new version is called “Godspell . . . Now!” It portrays Jesus as an Afro-American, who shows up in the middle of last year’s riots in Los Angeles.

It’s part of a growing trend to recast Jesus from a modern perspective.

Theologians are leading the pack. Just listen to some of the titles that have hit the bookshelves recently. Anglican Bishop John Spong wrote a book called Born of a Woman, with the preposterous suggestion that Mary was raped-and that the virgin birth was concocted by the church as a cover-up.

Divinity professor Barbara Thiering wrote a book called Jesus: The Man, in which she says Jesus didn’t die on the cross, He was just poisoned. His followers revived Him, and He went on to marry and raise three children.

Catholic theologian John Crossan has a book out called The Historical Jesus, which argues that Jesus was just a “Mediterranean Jewish peasant.” He didn’t rise from the dead, Crossan says. His body was merely buried in shallow grave, where it was dug up and devoured by dogs.

Of course, you and I are not taken in by books like these. Yet they can influence even firm evangelicals in subtle ways. When skeptical books are decked out in bookstore displays . . . when the “Today Show” features Bishop Spong as a great Christian leader . . . when reporters flock to theologians like Father Crossan for a quotation . . . taken together, this can create a widespread climate of opinion that the Bible is simply a collection of myths and errors.

And since we rarely hear any counter-arguments, even evangelical Christians may gradually absorb an attitude of skepticism. We may never end up as radical as a Bishop Spong, yet many evangelicals actually accept the same principle: They separate faith from facts.

The Bible is true in its spiritual message, they say, but its history is full of errors.

When we hear our friends talk this way, we need to be ready to give them the counter-arguments they’re not hearing anywhere else. Scripture never separates faith from facts. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul explicitly argues that if Christ was not physically raised from the dead, our faith is worthless.

Besides, once you accept in principle that Scripture can be wrong, you start performing surgery on the text. You sort out certain historical details and stack them in a pile marked “believable,” label the rest “unbelievable” and dump them out.

But surely this is illogical. It’s all the same text. If the Bible is reliable on some facts, why does it suddenly become unreliable on others?

When you think about it, often the only reason we doubt biblical history is that we’ve soaked up a general skepticism from the culture around us-from liberal theologians whose books always seem to capture the headlines with shocking new theories about who Jesus “really” was.

These theologians may be highly educated, but what they’re doing is no different from what “Godspell” does when it plunks Jesus down in the middle of a shopping mall during the LA riots.

They’re simply remaking Jesus in the image of their own modern ideas.


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