Jesus: An Historical Approximation by Jose Antonio Pagola (2007)
Sunday 24th February 2013
An Historical Critique
by Richard Tetlow, 19 February 2013
Pagola presents a wonderful historical picture of the times of Jesus and of Jesus in that context. However, from his account of the Resurrection onwards Pagola (erroneously to my mind) confuses Faith with History. This new Faith is indeed Faith but it is not HIstory and he should not say it is, even an 'historical approximation'. The term is ambiguous! Pagola's confusion of the two is a divergence from the truths of both Faith and History and to my mind is all too common a problem within the Church.
The root context of Truth and God
In my understanding, there is one Truth, Reality, Energy, Absolute, Existence and Creator. I call all this ‘the transcendent Godhead’ or more simply, ‘God’. Within God there are the different co-existing facets of truth knowledge, reason and imagination. These are the product in the human brain primarily of energy, known to one Genesis writer as the Spirit resting on the waters of the deep. Energy is explored, revealed, demonstrated and recreated, by energy itself, science, poetic, musical and artistic imagination, history, religion and faith, and at the least through beauty, majesty, curiosity, goodness and love. These are all, metaphorically, human experiences of the transcendence of the God beyond and, at the same time, of the God within.
History and Faith within God
History – ‘a systematic account of the origin and progress of the world’ (Chambers) is about one kind of truth. Faith – ‘belief in the truth of revealed religion’ (Chambers) is about another. History and faith cross over each other with different degrees of knowledge, reason and imagination. They are complementary but not the same. The confusion of the two, the mistaken and unacknowledged usage of one for the other, does no good service to history or faith and therefore not to God.
Pagola’s confusion of History and Faith
To my mind Pagola makes this confusion: he confuses history with faith, and faith with history. In his Preface he outlines traditionally acceptable ‘criteria for historicity’, such as the recognised merit of having three gospel accounts of the same story for credibility. He then pursues a graphic and convincing historical approach with learning, imagination, wisdom and great literary artistry. He then, in the last third, declares his faith with passion, more artistry and commitment. To my mind history – that aspect of history that requires questions as to why and who says – goes out of the window! At the same time, he relates this faith as if it were not only the only faith but indeed history. To me this is characteristic of many in the church, whether writing, speaking or listening, and indeed of much church faith. I believe it to be a serious error and I shall explain later my reasons for saying so.
Pagola’s portrait of Jesus
I found Pagola’s portrait of Jesus extremely attractive. Accepting how little is known about Jesus himself, Pagola describes Jesus’ context, historical setting and society; where Jesus grew up, worked, experienced and challenged. Once become a man for Mark to record, Jesus shines out as an immensely appealing, lovable and loving, strong character with a heart for the oppressed and poor of body, mind and spirit, especially for women and children. He was both a great ‘healer of life’ and a great teacher, particularly through parables. He comes across as fallible and inevitably limited to a degree in the scope of his actions and behaviour. He contests any injustice people suffer from their own community, the Roman occupying powers and complicit Jewish authorities. Jesus is their advocate and friend. He has inevitable human difficulties with his priorities. He is not ‘perfect’ for he is harshly dismissive of his own family. Like all people, he could not and did not heal everyone, least of all his own enemies, his Jewish and Roman antagonists. His criteria for selecting his ‘healing subjects’ are not known. Pagola’s central theme about Jesus is that he is the passionate examplar and prophet of ‘God’s reign’ which is the life of the love of God both on earth and in the life to come. With his own people, their neighbours and their outsiders Jesus is increasingly seen as possessed by God. He was the ‘poet of compassion’ and lover of peace. He dies a martyr for that reign of God in the teeth of the opposition of Roman and Jewish authorities. He is too much for them, so they kill him. Jesus must have know it was coming: he had plenty of hard evidence!
Three issues that arise
For me three issues arise about Pagola’s account. The first is about ‘the reign of God’ that Jesus is so urgent about. It is not clear what Pagola means in terms of its time, whether he is referring to the reign of God now, then, in the future or all three at once? This I do find confusing, but it is not a new issue.
The second is about Jesus the man. In addition to what Pagola relates in the above account, we know Jesus was far less of a public person and less effective in his time than say Gandhi or Mother Teresa, the most heralded godly leaders of our era. The implication of the nativity stories including Jesus’ birth is that Jesus would be known as ‘divine’ from birth. Pagola makes no mention of them and therefore makes no implication or assumption about Jesus’ divinity at this stage. Understandably, he must assume the stories are not history: not that kind of truth.
Nor does Pagola make anything of Jesus’ childhood appearances such as at the temple in Jerusalem. Nor does he claim anything about Jesus’ three epoch-making years as any worse a time to live than many periods of history and Jewish history despite assumptions often made to the contrary that a ‘divine’ messiah was required and expected. The obvious sociological response is that, supported by his team of disciples, he did what he could by his own lights as a man of his times, limited by his own family background, place and situation. Besides, his power was personal and spiritual, not political. In all, Jesus comes across as truly a man – what else? – the man for others and fundamentally for God. Any implication or idea of Jesus being divine – the meaning of which is unclear – seems, at least to me, incomprehensible, superfluous and irrelevant. Jesus clearly has God in him to a remarkable human and godly degree. To me that is history and comes across as Jesus epitomizing real incarnation. That is quite enough!
Thirdly, such a straightforward observation also makes me wonder what the point would be of Jesus ‘coming again’, a common liturgical doctrine of questionable reality. Presumably, he would again be a wonderful godly man in a mortal situation with all the limits humanity imposes. Here Pagola makes no reference to divine possibilities. This makes me ask, how would he then return to earth? Such language about Jesus’ divinity does come later when he writes about Jesus’ death and resurrection.
‘What is History?’
Pagola claims only that his book is ‘an approximate history’ but to my mind what Pagola says about Jesus’ death and resurrection introduces a serious debate about history, and therefore whether Pagola’s ‘history’ is ‘history’ at all. I trace my argument back to a famous book about history itself: ‘What is History?’ by E.H. Carr, (1961). Pagola states at the outset that he is combining a critical historical analysis of Jesus with a strong Roman Catholic faith, likely as he would, being an associate of Pope Benedict XVI. As one ‘trained’ as an historian, I raise my eyebrows about the difficulties, the wisdom and legitimate historicity of this task.
In the early days of modern historical writing Carr states that history was, according to von Ranke, ‘simply to show how it really was’. Ranke (1795–1886) was a German positivist historian and a founder of modern source-based history. Ranke set the standards for much of later historical writing, introducing such ideas as reliance on primary sources (empiricism) and an emphasis on narrative history. First ascertain the facts, then draw conclusions from them. From Locke to Bertrand Russell history was ‘a corpus of ascertained facts’: the object (the facts) separated from it’s interpretation (the subject). Establishing these basic facts rests not on the quality of the facts themselves but on an a priori decision of the historian.
In the later 19th century however, historians like Carlyle, Hegel, Lord Acton and Nietszche took a different and more romantic view. For example, Nietzsche believed that ‘falseness of an opinion is not an objection to it but whether it is life-creating’. Now Ranke, wearing a second hat, believed God would take care of the implicit and self-evident meaning of history. God’s hidden hand would take care of universal harmony. Ranke, the Darwinian, believed in infinite progress towards higher things.
For Carr neither of these two positions is acceptable history. He rejects the first, epitomized by Ranke and, for example, Lord Acton, an editor of the Cambridge Modern History, for its apparently crude understanding of history: ‘Belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation is a preposterous fallacy’. It patently ignores or denies the inevitable and crucial part played by the historian vis-à-vis so-called facts, their determination and selection.
Carr rejects the second, ‘romantic’ view because it tends not be earthed and may ignore ‘the facts’. It may be imaginative and creative and powerful in its story-telling but that is inadequate. Carr does not specifically take theology head-on as being within this category. Under the heading of religious history he does so indirectly. Karl Barth, he says, separated divine and secular history. Carr finds it hard to reconcile the integrity of history with belief in some super-historical force on which its meaning and significance depend.
The integrity of History
Carr’s positive position is that at the outset ‘integrity of history’ demands the facts of the matter. He differentiates facts from historical facts. The historian is obligated to the facts which only speak when called upon. The task of the historian is to discover and choose the evidence from the few or many significant facts which he or she turns into historical facts. The historian then interprets, presents a context, considers the question ‘why?’ – and I add ‘who says?’ – and tries to make it all coherent and meaningful in the light of both past and present viewpoints. Carr claims that the historian has to recognise the historically conditioned character of all values, assertions and ‘facts’, and not to claim for his own interpretation and values an objectivity beyond history. So the historian has to balance between ‘facts’ and ‘interpretation’. If there is no objectivity there is no history, and if there is no story weaving the evidence together there is no history either. Without both, history is either rootless and futile or dead and meaningless. Crucially for Carr, the historian has to be aware of and indeed state his own starting point; that is, where he or she is coming from; otherwise historical credibility is lost.
Pagola’s historical integrity
Now we return to Pagola. I conclude that the first two thirds of his book, about Jesus the man with a mission, very much real and alive in real-life situations, is fascinating, absorbing and convincing history. Gospel history inevitably involves for its writers the hindsight which Melvyn Bragg calls ‘the bane of history’. Pagola adheres to generally accepted historical method in using the synoptic gospels with all their hindsight, using Carr’s classical analysis as explained above. His neglect of the nativity stories is strong evidence for his historical integrity. In the context that Pagola almost claims to be writing for the Pope, this is a refreshing surprise. I have mentioned at length his historical account of Jesus and his context. In this first section of his book Pagola assures us that his evidence is ‘based totally on analysis of gospel sources’, although we know that does not necessarily make it historical regarding who exactly said what to whom. At the start of the second part of his book, I find a fascinating mixture of history and faith. The two chapter headings in Pagola’s account leading to the crucifixion are entitled ‘Combative and Dangerous’ and ‘Martyr of the Reign of God’. Pagola makes a very convincing historical case for Jesus being both. Also Pagola is remarkably open when he doubts the historicity of the trial scene.
Pagola’s loss of historical integrity for the sake of Faith
However, his next chapter is entitled ‘Raised by God’. From Jesus’ death to the end is, to me, not an history or even an approximate history of Jesus. It is rather a mixture of Pagola’s own faith and Roman Catholic mainstream doctrine. Pagola now writes as a man of faith, apparently no longer attempting to be a historian. Jesus’ resurrection, he writes (p393), ‘is not properly speaking an “historical event” which can happen in the world and be observed and verified but it is a “real event” that really happened’ (sic) … Jesus comes to the disciples ‘full of life’, not recognisable right away but ‘someone real and concrete’ … his followers are ‘not thinking of a physical, flesh and blood body [but] a “glorious body” that expresses and gives fullness to his whole earthly life.’ (p392) ‘Jesus’ resurrection is an act of God whose creative power rescues him from death and brings him fully into God’s own life … at the very moment when Jesus feels his whole being is being lost for ever, God intervenes to give him God’s own life … but we have no way of describing it … no one can be a witness to that transcendent act of God’.
Although this is not everyone’s theology of God, including mine, I recognise it to be strong faith. Pagola says (p393) ‘for believers it is the most real important and decisive event that has ever occurred in human history because it is the foundation and the true hope of history and the beginning of a new creation’. Pagola claims that Jesus makes a transmutation from being ‘a man’ to being both ‘man and god’. He amplifies Paul, convinced that this condition arises from what happened in Jesus’ death and resurrection, not from his bodily existence on earth.
Pagola’s confusion of History and Faith
We have here an old problem that I believe has to be addressed when Pagola calls his book ‘an approximate history’. Maybe Pagola is using his version of ‘meta-history’: history, the big-picture, accurate or not. Besides, it is no secret that every faith to some degree writes its own history to foster its own faith, intentionally or otherwise. On the above understanding of history, the second section of his book is to be severely questioned as history at all for the faith he professes quite openly has an inappropriate and unacceptable influence on his historical scholarship. By Carr’s criteria and mine, this ‘faith account’ is not history at all for there is neither ascertainable fact nor historical fact but a man-made confusion of fact and ‘non-fact’, interpretation and faith. By contrast, I accept it to be the faith of Pagola, of most Roman Catholics and many Christians. While noting that evidence about the resurrection differs, it is history that the disciples said they experienced the resurrection of Jesus whatever that meant to them. It is also historical fact that something happened.
The combination of History and Faith
There will also be those who are not interested in history at all, just as I quoted Nietzsche earlier. I question though whether faith makes history other than the history of faith. It is even historical that some people had faith and still have it. However to call faith history, even just ‘approximate history’ without the necessary facts of history seems to me a seeking of false credibility which does neither history or faith good service.
This raises the serious theological question about the combination of faith and history. Is there then a faith that is compatible with history and vice versa? I believe that there is and therefore I answer personally. I like the dictum ‘true history makes faith’ as, for me, Pagola demonstrated in the first part of his book. His work nurtures the reality of my faith because it is based on another reality which is history. My faith is that Jesus, the man whom Pagola describes, the man whom I aim to follow, was and indeed is a supreme demonstration of the Truth that is God. ‘His life and message are the legacy of all humanity’ (p. 27). Beyond Jesus is God who is my prime faith and the mysteries of God for all, everything and everybody, as glimpsed and experienced throughout creation epitomised by love, beauty, goodness, joy, truth, generosity and resurrection. I do not feel I need more. Dominant Tradition disagrees.
Significance of confusion between history and faith
Does it matter? I believe it does because this is an issue about claims to Truth. The church through the ages has made claims to the truth of its account and its interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Individuals have claimed the truth of their experience of God and of Jesus Christ. Such claims seem to me completely legitimate for both faith and history. Religious truths as in scripture come both as literal and metaphorical. It is reality that some people of faith seem to take all such truth literally while some, like me, are more likely to take it metaphorically. For some faith is often not rational and outside history. That is a legitimate position. The church and individuals too have built up their own profound and inestimable reality based on history, tradition and faith by which they have been sustained down the centuries and still live today. Faith and fact and/or historical fact often go well together, each enhancing the other. I believe faith to be the better when they do.
However, they do not necessarily. Trouble comes with faith whether based on literal truth, human imagination or tradition, when it is assumed to be based on fact and/or historical fact. When faith assumes the facts and/or historical facts on which it is built without historical evidence, giving this faith an inappropriate credibility by calling it ‘approximate history’, is to me serious confusion and indeed error. It may even be or seem to be deception, intentional or otherwise.
This is a situation within our past and present Christian history to which many devoted Christians rightly object and from which many Christians are still trying to find ways to recover and escape. The Church, still loved by many such objectors, can ill afford this in an era where, not just in the West, it is searching for means of survival and ‘fresh expressions’. This can hopefully be achieved in and through our theological and historical thinking about the Truth of God.
Postscript: A comparison of History’s claims with those of ‘Religious Studies’.
Finally, I make reference to two writers spanning the last two generations from very different, comparable and instructive contexts from whom I have drawn my own connections with the essence of my review. For my purposes, I have chosen to see the term ‘Religious Studies’ in this context, in the same light as the term ‘History’. Both are comparable academic studies when seeking the truth of methods concerning Faith.
Eric Sharpe in his ‘Comparative Religion A history’ (1970), in evaluating comparative studies of different religions writes, ‘It is simply impossible to attempt … to isolate scholarship from national and traditional factors … and it is … necessary to understand the present situation and then bring our presuppositions and the presuppositions of others into the full light of day’ (p. 292). So Religious Studies (R.S.) to Sharpe, the pragmatist, must serve with honesty as ‘the meeting ground … of complementary methods and approaches’. So I assume he would take Pagola’s faith on board as one approach to R.S. For Sharpe, history, like R.S., metaphorically may choose to open its doors to the study of faith if a different aim is mutually agreed upon. I would only take that line for history in exceptional circumstances, notably the adaptation of meaning I referred to earlier.
However, R Pratap Kumar in an essay in ‘Discipleship and Dialogue, New Frontiers in Interfaith Engagement’ (2012), takes a more hard-line view. He writes about Theology (for our purposes, meaning ‘Faith’) at the heart of R.S., ‘critique of (such) truth-claims is unavoidable in a pluralist society’. Pagola has written in an inevitably pluralist society so Kumar’s comments are very relevant. Kumar argues that religious commitment has no value in R.S. (for R.S. again compare ‘history’). Faith to him is dynamic, particular and both personal and subjective. It lacks constancy and inhibits careful and detailed documentation and comparison of the data not least by those of other faiths using different religious language within what is now our universal academic culture. It cannot fulfil any aim that attempts mutuality and interdependence because explanation of the data is ‘unobjectifiable’ and inaccessible to other academic disciplines, eras, backgrounds and current situations.
I am interested in Pagola’s motive for writing ‘an approximate history’. Is he aiming to put history to the service of faith, his faith, in this case the Roman Catholic Christian faith? His faith, faith as a whole and faith in principle may be verifiable but it may not. Although history cannot avoid interpretation and indeed seeks it, we now see that, as too with R.S., the potential and appropriate highly subjective element of faith is well-nigh bound to interfere with the essential truth intentions of history itself. I believe faith and ‘the beyond’, the ‘Truth’, with which I began this review, may be studied. There can be a history of that study as Karen Armstrong demonstrates so brilliantly in her ‘History of God’. However, history cannot by definition be called upon by Faith as described by Pagola to support and verify Faith’s own truth claims, intentionally or otherwise. Faith cannot have a privileged unverifiable position in history without being likely to be read as ideological and political and so belie the very truth that is its business.