Why study the historical Jesus?
This is a legitimate question, although my initial reaction to the work of groups like the Jesus seminar is that they are doing nothing more than trying to tear apart the Christian faith. However, my general rule is moderation in all things; and I think that this can extend to the study of the historical Jesus. There are aspects of this work that are informative for my scholarship and for my faith. As a number of scholars point out, the biblical texts were written in a particular context. If I don't understand the context, then I lose something of the meaning... I read a completely different meaning for myself; and perhaps it was one that was never intended.
A perfect example of this comes from my reading of Luise Schottroff's book, Lydia's Impatient Sisters. I want to share a few quotes and my responses.
In 1978, I tried to show that the "itinerant radicalism" of the Jesus movement is to be explained in terms of the actual poverty of the majority of the Jewish population and not in terms of the "renunciation of possessions." For me, this poverty resulted from the economic exploitation of the Jewish people by Rome. The renunciation of possessions on the part of the women and men of Cynic philosophy is not at all an analogy to the Jesus movement, in my view.
Nor do I think it appropriate to speak of an "ethos" when it is the liberation struggles of oppressed women and men that are at issue. The word ethos is misleading in this context if no distinction is made between the voluntary renunciation of possessions as the ethos of affluent people and the poverty of the poor as an ethos of resistance. The praxis of the Jesus movement is oriented by the encompassing goal of God's reign seeking to reach the whole population; it precisely seeks not to remain the unique ethos of an outsider group. At issue is not the asceticism of individual persons but the conversion of the people. The people and the Jesus movement belong together.
These theses emerged from the critical recognition that the Jesus movement has been portrayed in Western Christian theology from the perspective of a white middle class that participates in the power of the state and which distances the awareness of this from the causal connection between the affluence of the Western world and the poverty of the two-thirds world. What became clear to me was that the New Testament was better understood by the peasants of Solentiname than by the women and men in the first world's biblical scholarship; the peasants of Solentiname lived in a political and economic situation comparable to that of the Jesus movement, and the Gospels would become for them the spiritual bread of life. For Christian women and men of the Western world, the Jesus tradition is the invitation to conversion: the conversion of the rich or the conversion of the poor in a rich land. That alone is how the gospel becomes spiritual bread of life for them. (pp. 7-8)
I at first did not understand this passage. What did she mean by "conversion of the poor in a rich land?" I knew that she must be getting at something important, but I really could not grasp it. That alone told me that it was important. I have never known what it is ot live well as an adult. I have often felt that my discussions of poverty are overlooked because my poverty is situational and thus people assume that I could get out of it easily, that it is different from generational poverty in which people lack opportunities to better themselves because they have never known another way. I have at least had access to education and opportunity for personal growth. But discussing my poverty is very difficult. I live in a very precarious space: a space where I have much but cannot use it to better my life because I am dependent on others to open doors of opportunity for me.
Kyriocentrism is found wherever the labor (paid or unpaid) of female and male slaves, of free women and men, is rendered invisible, wherever it serves the interests 124 of the overlords or is described as being done by the masters themselves: "A man [i.e., a landowner] planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it" ( Mark
12:1). The actual work on the land was done by female and male slaves or daily-wage earners and not by the owners (cf. below at II.2.B). 125 The invisible hands that, then and now, do the never-ending housework 126 must be made visible in a just language as that of the women and men who work the land. Household labor and the work of educating children, deemed as a
rule to be the worthless work of women and not remunerated, provides the infrastructure for the dominance by patriarchal overlords. Furthermore, it is kyriocentrism that is instrumental in keeping women and men unemployed and poor. It assists in making it appear as if people had brought unemployment and poverty on themselves. Such conditions are declared unavoidable; they are rendered invisible through one means or another, or at least minimized in terms of their seriousness. Kyriocentrism opens the door to racism in that it glosses over the brutality of the enslavement of women and men, for example, when doule and doulos are translated as "maidservant" and "servant"; 127 for such euphemistic translation conceals from all who hear it today the true identity of the kyrios, the overlord of women and men slaves, namely, a human being who treated other human beings as subhumans, as things.
When it assumes the theological form of Christocentrism, kyriocentrism is especially painful. A Christocentric interpretation of New Testament texts is, as a rule, anti-Judaistic and hostile to women. Christocentrism depicts Christ's relation to other human beings as one of dominance. 128 The corresponding androcentric anthropology makes for unjust relations among human beings, making them incapable of seeing themselves each as an "I" in community with others.
Androcentrism makes women and children invisible. Kyriocentrism makes the productivity of women, children, and men and their poverty invisible and glosses over the brutality of slavery. The language spoken in patriarchy legitimates violence and militarism; 129 it masks suffering and stigmatizes people as "undesirable." The historiography of androcentrism is that of the winners. Androcentric anthropology and theology shape relationships in the interest of patriarchal domination.
Every action in opposition to androcentrism, kyriocentrism, and others should be guided by this primary question: Who in this history are the "last"? Jesus acted in opposition by beginning with the last and making them visible. 130 Practically speaking, this means we need to take the side of women, children, the exploited, and the aged; it means gynocentrism and Women-Church (to which
I shall return). 131 Making visible the "last," eschatoi--the Greek word, unfortunately, is also androcentric--requires an analysis of patriarchy that makes the walls of androcentrism and kyriocentrism transparent; it requires a vision of what justice might look like, namely, that justice which no longer oppresses anyone, not even creation.
When I read the second passage, I began to evaluate my life as a person with disabilities who has lived in poverty in a rich country... I began to understand what she meant.
In a rich country, even the poor should have access to resources and opportunities--and here they do. But instead of using those resources and opportunities to better life, we often squander them when doors are open to us. That is where the conversion must take place. We must walk through every open door, rise above apathy and indifference; and the rich must rise above the blame game and open the doors that we need. That is what has kept me going throughout this year: the knowledge that if I give up at seminary because of poor health, I will be squandering an opportunity available to me and wasting the life and health that I do have. I can't do that. As a response to the call to follow Jesus, I can't. I don't have much health, but I give it as treasure.
I disagree with Schottroff and other feminist theologians on one point: the issue of willing suffering. My unusual perspective may shed a bit of light, although admittedly I may be reading my own theology into the past. Then again, I'm not entirely sure that this is always a bad thing to do...
There are certain situations that can be changed; and there are others that can't. It makes sense to try to change what can be changed. It doesn't make sense to fight against what cannot be changed. Some things must simply be borne; and it is better to bear them willingly than to fight against them as if they could be changed. Perhaps they will be changed at a later date; and perhaps they will never change at all. When the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they were instructed to take wives and do whatever they had to do to prosper in the land. It made no sense for them to try to fight to get back to Israel, even though in time the land would be restored to them. Sometimes life is like that for me. If I must live with poverty for a while, then I should do whatever I have to do in order to live as well as I can with it. I don't see the idea of God acalling me to offer my suffering for His purposes as demeaning or undignifying. On the contrary, I find it to be something comforting. At least my suffering has some kind of value and isn't just pointless. I don't think that God gets enjoyment out of it; but I do think that He uses it to redeem humanity as a community. I don't see it in any different light than I would see giving up something that I already had for someone who needed it. The difference is in me and how I look at need. It would be easy to wallow in the desperation of my need for employment and social opportunities. It is much less easy to see the need of people who deny me those opportunities because they think that I need to be cared for.