This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 1st, 2006. Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and also now Washington, DC. In addition to 11 cities around the world, every week on the show we look at some of the central beliefs of our culture, and we focused mostly on three research areas first. We look at pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, on the intersection of religion and science in our society, secularism and nonbelief. We look at these three research areas by drawing on SIFIs relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. I’m pleased that on today’s point of inquiry, I’ll be joined by Professor Amy Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University. We’ll be talking about the question, who was Jesus of Nazareth? But first, I’m joined in the studio by Tom Flynn who will ask us, did you know? But before we get to that, I want to talk briefly. Hi, Tom. Hello, D.J.. Great to be here. Before we get to if we know or not, I want to talk a little about Mount Solidary. This some recent developments of the past couple of weeks in San Diego.
Yes, mazzella dad is a big hill overlooking San Diego. And for many years now, it’s been the site of a large about 30 foot metal cross that’s visible from all parts of the city. A humanist by the name of Phillip Paulson has been conducting a one man campaign of litigation for going on 30 years. He keeps winning and winning and winning repeatedly. Judges have issued opinions stating that they cross is a plain violation of separation of church and state. It stands in a city owned park on the hilltop. And about a month ago, Mr. Paulson got a decision from Billy. Was the California state Supreme Court telling the city of San Diego that they were going to be fined 5000 dollars a day if they didn’t finally take the cross down. So a win for secularists and church state separation activists? One might think so. What happened instead is that the House of Representatives voted by a lopsided margin to acquire the park land from the city of San Diego. Now, President Bush signed that bill into law. And so Phil Paulson and his secular supporters are now going to have to challenge the federal government. Now, presumably, if it’s illegal for the city of San Diego to sponsor a 30 foot tall metal cross overlooking the city, it’s equally unconstitutional for the federal government. But it’s going to be a lot of time, trouble and legal fees to prove it. Yet one more time.
I bet a lot of our listeners did not know all that about Mt. Solidarity. And now you’ll ask us more of. Did you know?
Did you know that two point one billion, that’s billion with a B.. People worldwide are Christians putative followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Did you know that there are over fifteen hundred distinct Christian denominations or faith groups just in the United States? Did you know that the United States is a Christian nation? If by that you mean that the majority of its citizens are followers of Jesus? According to the American Religious Identification Survey, in 2001, almost 76 percent of the U.S. population self-identified as Christian. Did you know that around the time of Jesus? Many people believed in a man who had been born of a virgin, conceived by a God who raised men from the dead, but that his name was not Jesus. He was escalope is the son of Apollo whom Zus eventually made the God of medicine, and he wasn’t alone. Other ancient candidate God men for whom exactly the same claims were made included Mithras and Cyrus. As for being born of a virgin, that was also claimed for the mathematician Pythagoras and also for several of the Caesar’s.
The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg.
I’m happy to now be joined by Professor Amy Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, Amy, Jill Levine is E Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter, professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she also holds the position of director of the Carpenter program and religion, gender and sexuality. Her many books, articles and essays address topics like Christian origins, Jewish Christian relations and women in the Bible. She served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and she’s held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association and the Association for Jewish Studies. She’s a widely sought after speaker. She appears frequently at the Chautauqua Institute here in upstate New York, and she’s given hundreds of talks on biblical topics to both academic and nonacademic audiences around the world. She’s a fellow of Caesar, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, one of the organizations here at the Center for Inquiry. She has a new book out in the next few months called The Misunderstood Jew The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, which I’d like to let our listeners know may be preordered through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. We’re going to be talking today about Jesus, over two billion people worldwide live their lives to one extent or another, focused around this man who was central to Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, even as a skeptic of religion. I’ll submit that Jesus was one of the most important figures in history, if not the most important figure affecting so much of the world we see today. The Christian church is very involved in politics and fundamental to the Christian church. Is Jesus. Millions of Americans live their lives regularly asking what would Jesus do? If you’re interested in the world today, if you’re an Inquirer, you almost have to be interested in this man who lived 2000 years ago in Palestine. So who was this man who is said to have died for the sins of humanity, whom presidents invoke often, whom wars are fought for, peace is also fought for? It seems almost like there are many Jesus’s or at least many interpretations of him. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Specifically, who was Jesus of Nazareth? Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Professor Levine.
I’m glad to have the opportunity to talk with you today, Professor.
Scholars, the Bible and of Christianity in general, talk about the historical Jesus. I want to ask you, is this as opposed to the the Jesus figure of devotional faith? I guess what I’m asking is, what does a scholar mean by the phrase the historical Jesus?
In all cases, when you ask the scholar, what does a scholar mean by. I think we begin by saying each scholar will address the question differently so that some scholars will bracket out the question of Jesus, resurrection, Jesus, salvific death, Jesus claims of Jesus virgin birth, and say that the historical Jesus is that Jesus who makes sense in terms of history, stripping out all the miraculous concerns that other scholars do not pass their Christian faith at the door of the classroom. And they say the historical Jesus is the same figure as the Jesus whom his father was proclaimed. The answer really depends upon scholar, you asked.
Is there a consensus definition or consensus notion about the historical Jesus?
John Meyer is a biblical scholar who teaches at Notre Dame, talked about walking away in the basement of the Harvard Divinity School Library. A variety of people having different beliefs a Christian, a Jew, an atheist, a Martian, and the historical Jesus would be the one they could all agree on in terms of where scholarship is. Now, if if you Google historical Jesus, you would find innumerable books and articles written about him. There is no consensus. Jesus, I think, and appropriately so speaks to every individual, including scholars. The way each individual who hears him.
It sounds like you’re saying that whatever else scholars believe, they at least believe there is historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth.
For the most part, yes. And here you have a clear majority. Every once in a while, someone floats an idea that Jesus never existed, that he was invented by a Roman historian, that he was invented by a Jewish historian, that early Christians and made him up as a marketing tool. But it seems to me we do have compelling evidence that he existed and that the evidence that he existed is stronger than any argument to suggest that he’s some figment of imagination. What are some of those lines of historical evidence that he exists in the New Testament itself as our primary source for early material on Jesus? But with letters from Paul written around the late 40s or early 50s were already within two decades of the time that Jesus would have lived the gospel material. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that describe Jesus generally quite accurately. Give us a picture of what Irving early first century was life in the Galilee and in Judea. So I see no reason to doubt those sources any more than I would doubt most of the material, although not all that I receive from Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian worth way Tonys or Tacitus or other Roman historians.
Are there other sources of information about the historical Jesus, not just these general historical sources, but is someone in class asked me even this morning, he said, well, it would be so much more convenient if we had a body.
And I responded, yes, but the story went in quite the same way. Archeologically We are somewhat at a loss. We do have external sources from the first century that talk about Jesus.
Joseph is the historian I mentioned, mentions Jesus and also mentions John the Baptist and James, whose Jesus brother Tacitus, the historian, knows something about early Christians. The problem here is that these are secondary sources. They’re not eyewitnesses to Jesus. They are already informed by the Christian story itself.
Professor Levine, I hear the. Phrase noncanonical gospel bandied about quite often, what? What do the non canonical gospels tell us about the real the historical Jesus? Some of them seem to directly contradict the accounts in the Christian Bible.
They do indeed beyond the canonical gospels, which would be those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We have the gospel, according to Thomas, the gospel, according to Mary. More recently, the gospel according to Judas, which isn’t really according to him. But it does have him as a major character and a host of other documents that Christians were writing in the early years of the common era, first century, second century, third century and so on. Scholars debate the extent to which those gospels provide us any information about the historical Jesus. But for the most part, it’s not entirely whatever those non canonical sources tell us. We already have the historical information that they present in the Gospels themselves and the rest of the material. The vast majority of the material in the noncanonical gospels seems to me not to be related to the historical Jesus, but seems rather to be indicative of concerns of the early church people who would have considered themselves to be Jesus followers. And what they do, as what many people did in antiquity, is to put words in the mouth of their hero.
In your scholarly work, you bring the Jewish perspective to the study of the historical Jesus, you call him the misunderstood Jew. Why should we be aware of the Jewish context when we’re talking about and studying the historical Jesus?
Fair enough question. As you can probably tell by my last name, might my interest in this is to some extent parochial. As a Jew, I’m interested in Jesus and his Jewish context, but I also think that anyone who cares about Jesus would necessarily care about the culture into which he was born, the religion into which he was born and which he practiced, the Jewish values that he would have been nurtured in by his clearly Jewish mother. And that basically allowed him to speak in a Jewish idiom to other people with the time Jesus does not engage in admission to the Gentiles. That’s a post resurrection claim.
So you’re saying Jesus wasn’t speaking to anyone but Jews in his day?
We have one or two examples from the Gospels where Jesus has a conversation with someone who was not Jewish, but they are clearly anomalous. In fact, the gospel of Matthew has Jesus telling his disciples, don’t go to the Gentiles, don’t go to the Samaritans, just go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The mission to the Gentiles is something that happens after the proclamation of the resurrection.
As an expert of New Testament Christianity, of historical Christianity, you know, the lay of the land back then. Let me ask you, do you think Jesus was very original Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure? Was he new in history or was he similar to so many others? And something about the middle you in which he found himself led to the creation of Christianity?
I think everyone has something unique to contribute. But every once in a while, an individual emerges who manages to take what he’s already learned and the culture in which he’s been nurtured and put it in such a way that people go, Aha! Yes. Now I see something I might not have seen before. And we’ve always had people like that. I think Jesus was extraordinary. Much of what he says can already be found in Jewish sources of the period. But he has a certain way of putting it. That brings to crystal clarity what might otherwise seem less clear, more muddled. I also think what makes him extraordinary is the combination of gifts that he brings, not just teaching, but also feeling not just concerns about how to behave, but actually taking action on it, not just statements that say here’s what we must do to promote justice, but absolutely going out and trying to do it. So I do think he’s one of those figures in history. By no means the only one, certainly among the most important, who bring his entire tradition into crystal clear focus and then allows other people to see through his eyes what he’s saying.
I’d like to let our listeners know that Professor Levine’s books, such as The Misunderstood Jew and the Princeton title, the historical Jesus in Context, is available for our website Point of Inquiry DOT Work. Professor Levine, you just said that Jesus was original. Do you think that he thought he was himself the messiah, the savior of mankind? Some scholars see him as a social reformer, kind of a feminist or a Proteau feminist. Some skeptics see him just as a magician or a charlatan. Other people see him as an apocalyptic prophet who didn’t really see himself as a savior, but believed the end of the world was near. And you hear preachers on TV now kind of make Jesus out to be an American capitalist rather than a socialist Jew. I’m asking, do you think he thought he was the Messiah?
The problem with scholars is that very often when we start doing historical Jesus work, we wind up staring into a mirror rather than through the window into history. And it’s something that we all worry about. I worry about it myself in terms of Jesus thinking he was the Messiah. Much depends upon how one would define the term. The word messiah simply means that comes from the Hebrew term machine. Can it mean somebody who is anointed literally with, well, more metaphorically, somebody who receives recognition from God to do something? The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, the Tanakh, whatever you want to call that earlier collection refers to King Cyrus of Persia as a messiah, as a machine. That’s the prophet Isaiah. Is Jesus a messiah? Did he think he was? Well, if a messiah means somebody who was directly commissioned by God to bring a particular message to the people, then I see no reason why Jesus would not have thought himself to be messianic. I do believe that he felt that he had a particular message specifically regarding the kingdom of God and that God had directly commissioned him, empowered him to go out and deliver this message through his teaching, through his feelings, through his gathering of disciples.
Do you think he thought of himself as the savior of mankind, the son of God who needed to die for the sins of humanity?
That’s a much more difficult question. Could he have thought himself the son of God? Sure. But you absolutely you know, within a Jewish context, we’re all children of God. The Gospel of Luke puts it quite nicely by taking Jesus genealogy and starting with Jesus and backtracking all the way, as Luke puts it, the son of Adam, the son of God. We all have that that spark of divinity in us. I think Jesus might have seen himself as as a possessor of special revelation.
It wouldn’t surprise me that when he says and Luke quotes the missing, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. He may well have had a vision like that.
What you just said seems to strike at the heart of belief in Jesus as savior of mankind. Maybe Jesus believed that he was special or had visions, but maybe he didn’t actually himself believe that he was savior. You know, like many Christians look to the figure of Jesus today in their devotion, you call into question some of the most closely held beliefs of our culture. I think in your scholarship, in the historical Jesus project itself, calls into question some of the fundamental and fundamentalist beliefs about Jesus. What kind of reaction do you generally get in the talks that you give all over the world on the subject?
I am not interested in debunking Christian claims. If the Christian wants to make the theological claims that Jesus is the savior of humanity, I think that’s perfectly fine. I don’t believe it myself, but I’ve seen clearly help people who have accepted Jesus as Lord and savior have been able to transform their lives because of that. And I would not sell their Christianity short for anything. I want to affirm their own beliefs in terms of what I do historically. What I hope to have happen is when studying the text with me, individuals, Christian, Unitarian, Jewish, atheist, Muslim, whoever will be able to see inside the different portraits of Jesus that are available and locate not only the concern about, you know, he died in order that my sins could be washed away, but go back prior to the cross and see what sort of life he lives as well as death. He died because it seems to me that unless we take this historical Jesus here defined as the entire Jesus story seriously and only concentrate on the cross and only concentrate on the resurrection. We’ve done a disservice to Jesus. We’ve certainly done a disservice to the New Testament, which gives us sport full stories. And I think we’ve done a disservice to God as well in terms of how faith helps to have some sort of option to it.
Professor Levine, do you think Christianity or something like it could ever happen? Again, I mean, is such a viral religion and by viral, I mean popular, persuasive, contagious in that way, not necessarily negative, is such a religion that’s viral a new one. Is it possible in today’s world?
We do have new religions cropping up all the time in the United States. They wind up as tax deductible organizations. It could something that had happened regarding Jesus in terms of the universal scale that he produced. Occur again in terms of some of the new religious movements. We’re not seeing them in quite the same numbers, but they are certainly powerful. The Unification Church is a new religious movement which has hundreds of thousands, I believe, at this point, members. I think what we’re more likely to see these days is not a new religion, but rather an offshoot of one that’s already there. The rise of certain forms of fundamentalism in Islam and Judaism and Christianity, I think is a lot more likely and a lot more dangerous than a brand new religion.
I’m curious, what were the elements that made Christianity work in the first place? What do you think were the ingredients that made Christianity so gosh darn successful?
So gosh darn successful. Yeah. The Jesus mission did not do terribly well in Jewish territory. The Galilean mission was basically a failure. And although a number of Jews did follow Jesus initial disciples following Easter time in Jerusalem, the numbers were never terribly large given the majority of the population. But the tradition about Jesus, the stories about Jesus, were much better received in the broader gentile world. And I think that was for a number of reasons. First, what Christianity, the proclamation of Jesus gave people in the Gentile world was hope for life after death, hope for eternal life, hope from being saved from sin. Eternal life is, to put it in marketing terms, the hottest commodity in the marketplace of religious ideas in antiquity.
Are you saying that that was a new idea at the time, though?
By no means. There were various ways by which one could obtain eternal life. The unfortunate thing is, in most cases, you had to pay for it. The church said, oh, you don’t have to pay for it. This is a free gift. We are offering you. And at the same time, not only did the church provide this hope for life after death, for the salvation of the soul, the church, also based in the Jewish values of care for the stranger and hospitality, said not only will we take care of your soul, we’ll take care of your body. Rogers here.
So what the church did is provide the sort of charitable concerns, the concerns for social justice. And as they waited, as that first group of Christians did, the folks say, following Paul soon return of Jesus, that Paul expected. They they formed new communities. And more than that, they formed new families. When Jesus talked about whom my mother and brothers and sisters and then in effect, looked around the room at the people who were paying attention to him and said, here they are. And Paul talked about his brothers and sisters in Christ. They wanted. I believe they seriously said you should look at your neighbor. You should look at the person across the street. You should look at your enemy and be able to see not only the face of God there, but also be able to see a sister or brother or a mother. And therefore, it becomes the duty of the Christian to take care of other people as they would take care of members of their own family. So the church had the perfect mission for the broader gentile world stability family, the God of Judaism, without the particular entry requirements to Judaism like circumcision or dietary regulations, hospitality, social justice, cleansing from sin and life after death.
You just talked about what I think are some really positive aspects to Christianity, not just New Testament Christianity, but when it’s at its best Christianity Today. But we hear a lot of talk about monotheistic religions, especially messianic ones. We hear about the negative aspects of religion, violence and fundamentalism, religious extremism. Do you think that there’s a relationship between messianic religion, the religion that Christianity is, and violence is their necessary relationship?
I don’t believe there’s a necessary relationship between monotheistic religion or messianic religion and violence.
First of all, religion and violence is not unique to monotheistic culture. It’s not as if polytheists had not gone to war against each other. I think the problem is not the religion itself. The problem is what happens when the religion becomes either fundamentalist or when certain people who have various forms of authority. Used religion as the excuse to impose their will on others and often those that imposition of will include things like bombs and guns. Why do I think this? Because I’ve got good examples of monotheistic religions and monotheistic people who were anything but bellicose, who anything but were like, you know, the Amish are really good Christians, but they don’t strike fear into my heart. Right. In Judaism, for the most part, does not have a strong history of war. And primarily, I suspect, not only because it promotes something like show them, even though the Old Testament that tonight has a fair amount of warfare in it. But it came to the conclusion that for the most part, it doesn’t do you any good. I think most Christians would think the same way. The various wars are fought by Christians, are really fought by governments that have simply co-opted the language. What I see happening in the Middle East today is an unfortunate cooptation of religious language. I don’t think that is real. Particular position on the Palestinians is a where Palestinians have to go through these various checkpoints and whatnot, which are humiliating. I don’t see that as a form of Judaism. I see that as as a form of realpolitik. And for me, the Jewish value is to look for something like a two state solution.
So you’re suggesting that there’s not something inherent in the doctrines of Christianity or Judaism or Islam or take, you know, any other religion. We’re talking, I guess, right now about the monotheisms. You’re saying there’s that you don’t think there’s something inherent in those religions that leads to a kind of a fundamentalist interpretation of those doctrines?
I think. No. No more so. No. No. No less so than there would be in a polytheistic religion. The problem is what happens when that particular belief system becomes so strong that individual will feel compelled to impose that belief system on everybody else. And that then becomes a political thing. Is it a religious issue? It may be part of human nature. We all want other people to agree with us. And if we happen to be very rich or in a position of great political control, we are in the position of imposing our will on others. Religion can be deformed into violence. But religion at the same time can be the response to violence and be the best peacemaking force that we’ve got.
I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. I want to conclude with one question. We’ll continue this discussion some other day. I hope. I hope. Were can you look around the world today were confronted with this kind of global fundamentalism that you were saying isn’t necessarily part and parcel to the religions out of which the fundamentalism springs? We see a mixing of religion and politics. You were talking about the Middle East in America of definite mixing of religion and politics. Do you think that a knowledge of Christian origins, a knowledge of the history of religions in general, but especially Christianity, we’re looking at the American political scene. Can that knowledge give us tools to respond? In a humanistic way, in a in an enlightened way to the religious extremism we see around us, I think biblical literacy is helpful in any situation.
I often Lanco, when I hear politicians talking about the Bible says something or Jesus says something because they fear that they actually haven’t read the whole thing closely. And when they finally wind up saying something to the effect of I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles and I’m thinking to myself, Jesus said, let your yes, yes. And your no be No. One, don’t take oath. Clearly that there is a gap there. We continually raise today the question of, you know, what would Jesus do or what would Jesus say? I think before we go and blithely simply say Jesus would say we should bomb Iraq or Jesus would say we should try for peaceful negotiation first. I think what we do is we look at the biblical text. We look at our own history. We talked to other individuals. And before we claim the mantle of God to go out and kill somebody else, we have to be extremely sure that what we’re doing is exactly what God would have wanted.
I don’t think those are decisions that can be made lightly.
Thank you for joining me on Point of Inquiry.
Professor Levy, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks.
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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for another discussion. Maybe a skeptical discussion about the central beliefs of our society to get involved with an online conversation about the topic of today’s episode. Who was Jesus of Nazareth? The conversation I had with Professor Amy Jill Levine at Vanderbilt go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org.
Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music, as written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quale.
Contributors to today’s show include Thomas Donnelly, Debbie Goddard and Tom Flynn. I’m your host DJ Grothe.