An excellent, albeit dense, piece. Take your time and wrestle with it all.
The attempt to reconstruct a “Jesus” other than the one given by classic Christianity goes back, in the modern period, to H.S. Reimarus (1694-1768). He was writing at the height of the Enlightenment’s rebellion against the classic Christianity it knew and despised. He is the equivalent, within the study of the gospels, of the great eighteenth-century French writer Voltaire, with his battle-cry of ecraser l’infame, “wipe out the scandal” – meaning the “scandal” of official Christianity and the posturing and hypocrisy of the church. Whereas some theologians have spoken of “faith seeking understanding,” Reimarus and his later followers and imitators (up to the present day) have been more in the mode of unfaith seeking historical validation. That spirit is alive and well, both in the scholarly and popular markets. But the catch is this.
Just like the would-be “orthodox” readings, though for almost the opposite reasons, this reductionistic reading of the gospels has simply ignored the story which the gospels themselves were keen to tell. All that these movements have done is to stand the “orthodox” reading on its head, to highlight the middle at the cost of the edges rather than vice versa. Instead of privileging the creeds and screening out the middle of the gospels, they have privileged the middle material of the gospels and screened out all that odd “supernatural” stuff at either end, the material that found its way into the creeds. But this hasn’t, in fact, really advanced the understanding of the middle material itself. Nor has it begun to address the question of why the gospels told the story the way they did, with their careful and subtle integration of the edges and the middle – indeed, without any indication that they were aware of two different types of material in the first place.
When we examine the wider movements of thought and culture in the eighteenth century, we find something of enormous significance for understanding why the gospels were being read in the way they were. At the heart of what called itself “the Enlightenment” was a resolute determination that “God” – whoever “God” might be – should no longer be allowed to interfere, either directly or through those who claimed to be his spokesmen, in the affairs of this world. Once “man had come of age,” there was no room for theocracy. It was as simple as that. God was pushed upstairs, like the doddery old boss who used to run the company but has now been superseded.
But the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven. They were written to stake the very specific claim to which the eighteenth-century movements of philosophy and culture, and particularly politics, were reacting with such hostility. Behind the attempts of Reimarus and others to suggest that “the kingdom of God” in the teaching of Jesus referred either to a violent military revolution or to “the end of the world” there lay the determination to make sure that God was kept out of real life. This was not a “result” of fresh research. It was the philosophical and theopolitical assumption which drove the research in the first place.