The Return To History

The history of beliefs about Jesus in as long a period as the last seven hundred years may be viewed, with a strong dose of hindsight, as a laborious and many-faceted reclamation of a sense of historical realism with regard to Jesus. The twelfth century saw the beginnings of natural portrayals of Jesus and Gospel episodes, which came to clearest fruition in Renaissance art. Crucifixes that depicted Christ suffering, as the Gospel story told, superseded stylized crucifixes where Jesus was robed and crowned with head erect, triumphing in his cross: then, doctrinal considerations had obliterated the realities of the story, and painting and sculpture had served symbolic at the expense of emotional purposes.

Similarly, devotion to Jesus came to involve the heart much more obviously, as imaginative meditation on Gospel events was encouraged. Popular devotion was directed to the crib placed in churches at Christmas; to the stations of the cross, showing the various agonized stages in Jesus' progress from his trial to his death and burial; to Mary in the meditations on the rosary and emotional hymns like the Stabat mater, where the worshipper could identify with the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross on which her son was dying. The depth of emotional response along these lines finds extended literary form in, for example, the fourteenth-century Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (Jantzen 1987; Houlden 1992).

But in all this, perhaps to the surprise of the modern observer, there is no question of historical research or a neutral attempt to discover what actually happened. Rather, the established doctrinal pattern, with its abstract concepts, remained in place; only now it found new channels of expression. Not until post-Reformation times did independent research come to be applied to the Bible and so to the career of Jesus as recorded in Scripture, a process fostered both by the break-up of the old single authoritative Western Christendom and by the development of independent rational criteria applied both to ideas and to historical evidence (Scholder 1990; Kümmel 1973). As that took place, so the analytical standpoint described in this chapter, and indeed represented in its very writing, took hold—and in Western culture every belief about Jesus and every line of his story has had (to put it dramatically) to fight for its life. As we have seen, much of it may well survive, though all of it will look and feel different in the light of kinds of investigation that are far removed from the outlook and conscious intentions of the New Testament writers. Some of it will be identified as typical religious legend, and some will be debated in the context of philosophical discussion of the miraculous rather than strictly historical weighing of evidence. Often indeed 'We do not know' is the honest modern alternative to the old confidence in the pure historical accuracy of the Gospels (which minimized contradictions and difficulties and failed to appreciate the theological character of the narratives).

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