In Search of the Historical Jesus
The study of the historical Jesus was the subject of a day-long workshop delivered by three leading biblical scholars.
The workshop was presented at Holy Redeemer parish in Bergvliet, Cape Town, by Oblate Father Paul Decock with two Protestant scholars, Professors Marius Nel and Jeremy Punt, both of Stellenbosch University’s theology faculty.
The well-attended seminar, organised by Dr Brian Robertson, took the title “Rediscovering the Jesus of the Gospels”.
Fr Decock, who teaches at St Joseph’s Theological Institute in Cedara, of which he is a former president, set the scene by discussing how the Gospels and other New Testament books came to be written. He also examined Jesus’ understanding of his own mission.
Fr Decock outlined the study of the texts’ historical background, and how to identify which parts can be accepted as historically authentic from an academic viewpoint.
He stressed that the Gospels were not intended to be historical biographies but rather proclamations that would move and transform people.
While the study of the historical Jesus is important and fruitful, Fr Decock said, “we never gain a complete grasp of the living Jesus. We are meant to be always on the way: Emmaus”.
Thus the Gospel texts grow with readers’ practice of mercy and engagement, he said.
Prof Nel focused on the social identity of Jesus and his mission, noting that Christ lived in a context of 1000 years of Judaism, 400 years of Greek cultural influence and many decades of Roman rule.
He stressed that Jesus “radically challenged” the economic and social systems of the time which depended on patronage, brokerage, class, ethnicity and gender.
In a highly unequal society, Jesus established “a community of equals” in which “the king came to serve, not be served”, Prof Nel said, asking: “For whom would that be good news? The poor.”
Prof Punt discussed Jesus’ death and its impact on his followers.
He observed that had the executed Christ remained dead in the tomb, there would have been no Christianity. Jesus would have joined a long list of failed messiahs.
“Christianity did not begin with what Jesus said and did before his death but with the experiences of Jesus after his death by his followers,” Prof Punt told the seminar.
The Resurrection introduced a “new mode of existence”, he said. “Resurrected from the dead and exalted to God’s presence, Jesus ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’.”
Both Stellenbosch professors noted this was the first time they had spoken to a specifically Catholic group, and they were delighted to do so, especially since Fr Decock was a regular speaker at similar seminars aimed at Protestant audiences.