In contemporary studies about the historical Jesus, much attention is given to historical methodology. In other words, what is the proper manner to investigate questions about the life of Jesus?
Within these questions of methodology arise the various “criteria of authenticity” that some of you might be familiar with. Examples include the criterion of “multiple attestation,” which states that multiple, early, and independent sources attesting to the same event makes such an event more likely authentic. Another example is the criterion of “embarrassment,” which states that if a particular passage in scripture is embarrassing to the early church, it is unlikely to be imaginary and thus authentic.
Of course, many other methodologies are used, such as find the authentic sayings of Jesus or invoking help from ancient cultural anthropology.
Some, however, maintain that our methodologies are feeble attempts at a hopeless endeavor. Many skeptics throughout history have maintained that an authentic picture of the historical Jesus is impossible to grasp. We simply cannot bridge the gap between his world and ours.
I, on the other hand, am not a skeptic. I believe there are many facts we can know about Jesus (a topic for another time). However, I am sympathetic to the observation that Jesus’ world is totally different from our own. Bridging this chasm is quite the daunting task. In fact, I believe one of the important tasks facing the church today is the question of how to introduce the person of Jesus to members of our contemporary, technological society. One possible way to do this is by appealing to our religious nature.
It seems that an intimate relationship with the religious nature of existence — specifically that of a monotheistic experience and belief — is one affective tool for entering into the world of Jesus. Humanity has experienced a singularity since Jesus’ time. Our technological society is unthinkable to a first century peasant. And yet, the core nature of man as a religious animal remains. The vast majority of humans today place emphasis upon the religious life. An understanding and experience of what it means to be religious seems a kind of existential gateway by which we might encounter a glimpse of the historical Jesus. Undoubtably, he possessed this religious nature as well.
When we see the poor as precious in God’s sight, rather than as the trash of society, we find the glimpse of Jewish peasant. When our hearts break in the sight of terrorist atrocities and the chemical weapons of oppressive regimes killing innocent children, we find a glimpse of a revolutionary who cries out for God’s justice in the face of unthinkable horrors.
The historical Jesus, at times, might feel so distant from our world. And yet, we can feel his spirit break when men and women are executed in the name of hatred and decadence. When we can have enough empathy to see that God cares about every fallen sparrow, then we stand at the existential threshold of one who calls for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven.