David Crump is professor of religion at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of the new book Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith.
In this excerpt from the introduction to his book, he describes the dilemma — and the “hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks” solution to that dilemma — that came to form the heart of Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture.
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Try as I might, stewing over my questions in the seminary library while reading the Gospel of Luke was not producing any ready answers, which only caused my stewing to become more fervent. In the course of my studies, I had slowly become convinced that my teachers were right — in composing their books the four Evangelists (the Gospel-writers) had shaped and edited their sources. They were not only preservers but also interpreters of the traditions about Jesus.
Though this reads like old news to me these days, it was a new and disconcerting thought at that point in my life. It certainly was very different from what I had been taught to believe (at least implicitly) while growing up in the church — that the four Gospels offered fairly straightforward transcriptions of Jesus’ words and deeds. If I allowed myself to accept this new idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had painted portraits of Jesus — the first-century man I believed was crucified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven — with no intention of rendering him precisely as he was, then where could I go to meet the real Jesus, as he truly is without a third party’s interpretation getting in the way?
The various historical reconstructions offered by form-critics and other scholars, including those who had launched what is sometimes called the second quest for the historical Jesus, had not convinced me that they offered any viable alternatives. Albert Schweitzer’s verdict on the first quest seemed as apt for all later critics as it was for the first: each new investigator repeated his predecessors’ mistakes. Projecting his own preconceived ideas back into history, each of these writers constructed a new “historical Jesus” shaped by his own prejudices while boasting “of the skill with which [he found his] own thoughts again in the past!”
I was already convinced that the critics who thought themselves better equipped than the ancients to recover the Jesus of history were fooling themselves. I was not willing to follow one pied piper after another with their alluring “assured results” of modern critical methods. But now I was left to wonder: were the Gospel authors any different? When I read the Gospel of Mark, how certain could I be that the Jesus depicted there was indeed the man crucified at Calvary? Put another way, how much does the face of Jesus in Mark reflect the face of Mark the Evangelist? If that were not worrisome enough, many critics argued that the Gospel writers tailored their portraits of Jesus to fit the needs of the early church communities. What if the Jesus of Mark was nothing more than a ghost of Jesus meant to serve that rather anonymous and amorphous collective labeled the Markan community? Am I looking at Jesus of Nazareth, or am I seeing Mark wearing a Jesus carnival mask?
This was my dilemma.
I can’t remember how long I actually sat at the table thinking and praying, waiting for some solution to appear. Eventually a light went on, and I will never forget that particular moment of crystalline clarity. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. If my Christian faith had led me to a true relationship with Jesus Christ, then the Christ I now know by faith is the true Jesus of history.
Someone else may have found this solution totally unsatisfactory, but it stopped me dead in my meditative tracks. Whether it sounds provocative and dangerous or strikes one as a superficial tautology, that moment has never left me. I believed then, and still believe today, that either the Jesus I know through my experience of faith is the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of history, or my Christian faith is an illusion. That epiphany left me with the firm belief that there are no other viable alternatives.
If my Christian faith was an illusion, then the real challenge I faced was not in learning to demythologize the New Testament, making it more rationally accessible, but in finding the courage to demythologize my entire lived experience of Christian faith and religion. Though undoubtedly some readers will accuse me of taking the coward’s way out, I had seen and experienced far too much in my Christian faith that impressed me as genuine spiritual encounter. The option to jettison my 20-plus years of Christian life was a non-starter. Accepting the insights of redaction criticism might prompt me to readjust particular articulations of my faith, or certain tenets, but it was not nearly convincing enough to deconstruct it altogether. From that moment on I have remained convinced that the centerpiece, the integrating point of my life with Christ, both devotional and intellectual, must be found in this experience of personal encounter forged in faith. Throughout seminary, doctoral studies, pastoral ministry, and college teaching, the conviction that my personal faith commitment leads me to experience the real Jesus has become the meeting ground for theological inquiry as well as for a deeper personal intimacy with the living Christ.
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