History And The Image Of Jesus

Once this historical attitude spread it was inevitable that it should be applied to the biblical documents and to the life of Jesus. Writing the history of the Jewish and Christian religions became, not simply a study of the background of Revelation, but the description of a social process. Hume was already writing The Natural History of Religion between 1749 and 1751. What happened took two forms. There was the more polemical writing about the Bible produced by writers in the Deist tradition, among them John Toland, Anthony Collins, Thomas Chubb and William Woolston, by French radicals such as Jean Meslier (1664-1729), Voltaire and d'Holbach, and in Germany especially by Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768). These writers may be distinguished from an academic school of biblical criticism, which built up slowly through the work of men like Ernesti, Semler, Michaelis and Lessing. Bernard Cottret makes an important point here:

France, more than any other country, witnessed a confrontation between religion and philosophy. This division ['cette fracture'] has still not disappeared from our culture: whether one likes or deplores it, it has had a lasting effect on our attitudes. This confrontation over the image of Christ lasted throughout the eighteenth century: Newton and Locke, each in their own way, produced a new image of Jesus: they made him either a wise teacher ['sage'] or a visionary; they removed him from the dogmatic framework in order to take him over. French anticlericalism, on the other hand, was always more jarring ['grinçant']: Meslier and Voltaire were hysterically fascinated by blasphemy.

(Cottret 1990:170)

For Jean Meslier, a local village priest in the Ardennes who concealed his materialism and atheism from his parish during his lifetime, there was no question of portraying Jesus in a favourable light. Meslier was not a Parisian intellectual but a man who experienced at first hand the misery to which a militaristic monarchy allied to a complacent Church had reduced the French countryside. He left the Testament of his real opinions to be found after his death, which happened in 1729. Voltaire knew of the manuscript's existence by the mid-1730s, but when he published part of it in 1762 as a weapon in his campaign against the French Catholic Church he implied that Meslier was a Deist, ignored his philosophical materialism and egalitarian politics and concentrated on his fierce attacks on the Scriptures and the Church.

Meslier, however, was responding to a deeper current of emotional and political change. At heart he rejected the religious option altogether. He denied the alleged spiritual value of suffering; he dismissed the late seventeenth-century Catholic cult of ascetic practices, and the morality which went with them, as unnatural. He said that Christianity had not 'redeemed' the world, that there was no evidence that more people were saved or damned (if one believed in such categories) than had been the case before the time of Jesus. On the contrary, evil seemed to increase and multiply every day, which meant that the so-called miracles of the New Testament had failed in their object, and this in turn reflected on the wisdom of the 'God' who was supposed to have performed them (Meslier 1970:192). But what else would you have expected, Meslier asked his former parishioners? Jesus was a poor man, the son of a carpenter; most people thought he was mad and he was finally hanged. Yet Jesus himself imagined that he was the great and powerful liberator who had so often been promised to the Jews. 'Are these not obviously the thoughts and imaginings of a fanatic? Did Don Quixote, the notorious fanatic and knight errant, ever have anything like them?' (Meslier 1970:397). Quixote claimed to be interpreting ancient texts, and if one interpreted Cervantes in the same way as the Christians interpreted the Bible (Meslier said) one could produce an equally marvellous theological system.

The polemical writers desperately wanted to shake the position of the Christian Churches in European society. Marie-Hélène Cotoni has written: 'For Voltaire as for d'Holbach, biblical criticism, not out of technical incompetence but as a matter of practical effect, was centred on a defence of experimental science against magic, and of happiness, sometimes confused with bourgeois comfort, against illusion' (Cotoni 84:217). The German eighteenth-century academics, on the other hand, were often at least as interested in the use of historical method as in theological polemic. Johann David Michaelis (1717-91), for example, ceased to treat the New Testament as a 'unity' but worked instead in terms of separate 'books' and 'parties' for the purposes of historical criticism. Johann Salomon Semler (1725-91) historicized the formation of the biblical canon in his Abhandlung von freier Untersuchung des Kanon (1771-5) by showing that the received canon was the product of a centuries-long process involving rival traditions and ecclesiastical compromises. Hermann Samuel Reimarus of Wolffenbuttel (1694-1768), whose bitterly anti-Christian New Testament work was published posthumously by Lessing between 1774 and 1778, deeply affected later New Testament scholarship because he demonstrated that in the New Testament there might be not only different literary levels superimposed one upon the other, but also levels which were aimed at quite different audiences. He suggested that the text could be read as having a double meaning: that, first, Jesus' own target was immediate political power based on a revival of the Jewish faith, but that, second, after his death his followers substituted the idea that he would return triumphantly from Heaven to bring about universal redemption. They failed, however, to remove from the biblical texts which survive all traces of the original intentions of Jesus.

Exegesis was beginning to free itself from the specifically dogmatic restrictions set by Christian theology: the division between 'New Testament scholars' and 'systematic theologians' has remained to the present day. The Pietist world (including the Wesleyans and Anglican Evangelicals) simply rejected the academic historical-critical approach to the Bible altogether; so did Rome, which had the temporary advantage of having always appealed to tradition as well as Scripture as an authority for Christian truth. For a romantic conservative like Coleridge in the early nineteenth century, what mattered was the possession of a living tradition of faith, collective and individual, which could, if necessary, cope even with the disappearance of the written record of the Scriptures.

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