The Faces of Jesus - Bart Ehrman

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The Various Portraits of Jesus in the Gospels. The search for the historical Jesus buried beneath metaphors of theological narratives and church dogma.

Every Christian sooner or later has to ask the question, "Who was Jesus really?" And we ask this in our age in a special way because we are very historically oriented. We are modern, or perhaps post-modern, people, but all of us have a sense that we want to know what things were really like. We know that the past is different from the present. We have experienced rapid change, all of us in our generation. And so we want to know what was Jesus really like. And that quest to understand what he was really like has turned out to be very disappointing. So how do we really get at that? We must, first of all, understand that in history facts always lie under interpretations and we never get to the facts. They're only interpretations. There is only an interpreted Jesus, there are many interpreted Jesuses. So where do we begin? We begin not with Jesus, we have no access to him. We begin with the responses to Jesus, by his followers, by outsiders who heard about him.... We begin with those reactions as they're enshrined in the text we have.

All we have from this period about Jesus is text, finally. And we try to work backwards and say, "How did we get these texts? Who wrote these texts? Where did they get the ideas?" Surely behind the written text there were oral traditions, we know that. There were oral traditions that went on after the written text, and we have evidence of those being written down later. So we try to dissect those. We say, "What kind of traditions? How were they shaped? What kinds of stories did people tell about Jesus?" Those stories have a shape to them. Do we find other stories in the culture of the Mediterranean world around Jesus? Other stories about other people that are shaped the same way? We have reports of what Jesus said. He told parables, he told stories, he told little epigrams. Those have a shape to them. Are they like any sayings that are attributed to other people at the same time? We're trying to put this whole story into a context of its own history, of its own time. And our ideal here is to be able to hear those stories, hear those sayings, as someone in the first century would have heard them, recognizing that there were conventions that if people heard a certain way of talking they would say, "Hmm, this person claims to be a prophet." Or this person about whom this story is told is a magician, someone with magical power, a healer, or this is a wise person, a person who delivers certain kinds of maxims or epigrams or tells proverbs or parables and the like. So there are socially conditioned ways of identifying people that one can see almost built into the shape of the tradition about Jesus. If we're smart enough, by comparing other sources from a similar time and place, we can retrace that history, working backwards from the text in the earliest time that we can get to.


Shared on: 23 Feb 2016

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