The Marginalizing Of History

It has already been suggested that the history surrounding Jesus, which it now seems so important to get as clear as possible, even if as ground-clearing en route to belief, was not seen in that way by Christians of the first century. Where we might feel it to be honest and clear-sighted to establish 'the facts', and then move on to the task of deciding what interpretations they might justify, and where we might write first of the one and then of the other, they drew no such distinction. Even in their narrative writings (the Gospels and Acts), events and a particular theological view of the events are thoroughly intertwined—and in such a way that not only are 'events' seen in the light of belief about them but stories are surely created, in whole or part, out of belief, often with the aid of the Old Testament texts now seen as fulfilled. The most striking instance of this procedure is in the stories of Jesus' birth (Matt. 1-2), but a detail like the sharing out of Jesus' clothing at the crucifixion may be owed to the effect of Psa. 22:18, a psalm read in the early Church as a prophecy of (and commentary on) the death of Jesus, rather than to straight historical reminiscence.

We have already seen that from the second century a philosophical mentality gradually came to dominate the formulation of Christian belief and its concepts owed more to Platonism than to any other source. There could scarcely have been an idiom of thought more inimical to a religion built on historical foundations and imbued with the interpretation of events. To non-Christian Platonists of the period, Christians, even sophisticated ones like Origen, could seem absurdly attached to sordid factuality and wretched happenings like the suffering and death of Jesus. Yet from a modern point of view, they often seem to view Jesus through a haze of abstraction and speculation that renders their grasp on historical realities tenuous. Flesh and blood seem to have dissolved into aspects of mental and spiritual perception, and where the historical or physical nature of Jesus is insisted on (often in opposition to dissident Christians who virtually denied it) it is done in such a way that it finds few echoes of sympathy in modern ways of imagining events and people of the past. For them, Jesus certainly did what the Gospels said he did and died the death recorded of him, but he walked the earth as the divine one from heaven whose ways were not as our ways.

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