The different meanings of scripture and changes in Theological meanings: Example – the views of scholars about the ‘historical Jesus' and the ‘post Easter Jesus'.
The dicusssion on fundamentalism points towards the larger, pivotal importance of different interpretations of scripture in Christianity and Judaism (also pertinent in other religions.) Scripture scholarship, and associated historical and philological studies, have not only affected the hermeneutics (interpretation) of scripture, but they have influenced theological meanings, as will be considered below.
New understandings of biblical authorship within their original religious and socio-political contexts have brought to light views about the historical Jesus that contrast with understandings of the ‘Christ of faith'. The Christian gospels were more about the latter than the former; the gospels presented narratives through the theological lens of belief in the post-resurrection Jesus.
Changing theological meanings
Change in personal meaning can involve different theological interpretations. This has long been an area of controversy, particularly as it relates to religious authority and what is regarded as orthodox belief.
For previous generations in Western countries, theological and scriptural meanings tended to be perceived by believers as historical, relatively fixed and unchangeable. Increasingly, for those who are better educated theologically, these religious meanings are now being understood more in hermeneutic terms – they need to be interpreted with respect to the context in which they were originally developed. Take for example the evolution of ideas in Christology. Scripture scholarship and the historical Jesus studies have uncovered more of the complexity in understandings of the Christ of Christian faith. In turn this has affected what it means to be ‘saved by Christ'. Formerly, many lay Christians would not have probed the theological meaning of these doctrines, even though they had great emotional significance and were cornerstones of their religious faith. Debating their meaning was the province of theologians and clerics, and latterly by educated lay people. Now the wider culture raises many questions about interpretation that ordinary believers find it difficult not to think more critically about the meaning of their religious beliefs. They are affected by the modern tendency to appraise meaning in terms of personal experience – in other words, what does a belief mean for them personally, and what bearing does it have on their lives. There appears to be widespread concern to find satisfying psychological insights into theological beliefs. But for those who draw little meaning from their religion, these questions will not attract much attention.
One controversial example of change in theological meaning in Christianity will be considered here. The traditional, ‘popular' interpretation of Jesus for many centuries is now questioned by scriptural and theological scholarship[i]. It is not questioning the importance of Christian belief in Jesus, but it draws attention to the complexity and problems in understanding the three central questions about Jesus – his identity, his mission and his message. The traditional interpretation had clear answers to these questions: He was the Divinely Begotten Son of God. His mission or his purpose was to die for the sins of the world. And his message was primarily about himself and about the importance of believing in him. This image of Jesus as Divine Saviour was crystallised in the well known phrase from John's Gospel “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John, 3:16).
In relation to these three questions, scripture scholarship suggested that the historical Jesus (or the pre-Easter Jesus) in all likelihood did not think of himself as the Messiah or with any of the other exalted terms ascribed to him in John's Gospel. Also, this scholarship proposed that the historical Jesus did not see his own purpose as dying for the sins of the world. In addition, it considered that Jesus' principal message was not about himself or the importance of believing in him. This interpretation comes as a shock to many believers because it seems contrary to their cherished beliefs and to traditional images of Jesus. But its proponents argue that it is not undermining Christian faith, but moving towards a better understanding of the complexity both in the historical life of Jesus and in the way early Christians came to believe in Jesus as the Christ.[ii] It considers that today's believers have access to insights from scholarship that were not available throughout most of the history of Christianity. With a better account of what the historical Jesus was actually like, it suggests that a better interpretation of Jesus' identity, mission and message is possible; and in turn this can enhance Christian faith. Also, this scholarship tends to highlight scripture as the theological documents of the early Christian communities; Christians today ‘stand on the shoulders' of their forbears in faith.
Scripture scholarship has led to significant change in Christian theological meanings. But there is a considerable range of views. At one extreme is a strictly literal interpretation of the gospels. Then there is a spectrum of theological opinions that should not be represented simplistically as a polarisation between fundamentalist and liberal positions. Some scholars accept the need for good contextualised biblical analysis, but are wary of interpretations that seem to move in the direction of questioning the uniquely revelatory nature of the gospel record and the particularism of Christian truth claims.
One of the consequences of scholarship is an increasing significance for the relationship between the biblical texts and their originating communities. The plausibility of the religious message in scripture is linked with the fidelity and credibility of its religious community. The same might also be said about the teachings of contemporary communities of faith.
Because of the diversity ranging across the areas of normative church doctrines, scholarly theological opinions and personal interpretation/beliefs, conflicting views are inevitable; meanings perceived by some as not orthodox will inspire new faith insights for others. Different churches define what they regard as orthodoxy as a guide for their adherents. This sort of diversity has always characterised religions. In school religious education, there is the problem of deciding how extensive a range of interpretations should be studied – about which particular meanings from a religious tradition should be included, about what level of theological controversy is to be introduced for different age groups, and about what how much attention should students give to the appraisal of religious truth claims.[iii]
[i]. This example is paraphrased from a public lecture on the historical Jesus by Dr Marcus Borg at the Smithsonian Institute in
[ii]. The following is a sample of references on the academic debate about the historical Jesus. Crossan and Funk would represent a more ‘radical' interpretation; both are members of the ‘Jesus Seminar' group of scholars.
Bockmuehl, M. 2001, The
Borg, M.J. 2003, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of faith, HarperSanFrancisco,
Borg, M.J. 2001, Reading the Bible again for the first time: Taking the Bible seriously but not literally, HarperSanFrancisco,
Crossan, J.D. & Reed, J.L. 2002, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the stones, behind the texts, HarperSanFrancisco,
Crossan, J.D., Johnson, L.T. & Kelber, W.H. 1999, The Jesus controversy: Perspectives in conflict, Trinity Press International,
Crossan, J.D. 1994, Jesus: A revolutionary biography, HarperSanFrancisco,
Crossan, J.D. 1991, The historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, HarperSanFrancisco,
Crotty, R. 1996, The Jesus Question: The historical search, Harper Collins,
Funk, R.W. 1996, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a new millennium, HarperSanFrancisco (A Polebridge Press book),
Herzog, W. 2005, Prophet and Teacher: An introduction to the historical Jesus, Westminster John Knox,
Witherington, B. 1997, The Jesus quest: The third search for the Jew of
[iii]. In studying theological diversity in religious education, other pertinent issues include:-
· Finding a wise balance in covering orthodox religious teachings while identifying areas of difference and controversy.