Jesus as a Figure in History by Mark Allan Powell 1998 Term Paper

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¶ … Jesus as a religious icon and the central figure of one of the largest religious movements in the world is secure, but the role, meaning, and even existence of the historical Jesus is more problematic. This figure is explored by Mark Allan Powell (1998) in his book "Jesus as a Figure in History," where the author considers how historians have treated the question of the historical Jesus, facts of his life that can be verified and similar issues separate from faith. Christians accept the reality of Christ on faith, while historians look for documentary evidence that Jesus lived and that some or all of the facts offered about his life are correct. The issue cannot be simply defined even by those relying on faith, given that the story of Christ differs from one gospel to the next in certain key details. Powell cites historian Martin Kahler on the separation between "the Jesus of history" and "the Christ of faith" (4). Powell admits that many Christians would find this distinction unsettling because they see Jesus as a spiritual figure and if that image is changed by historians, they fear that will lose their faith in the representation of Jesus. However, it is a real distinction and one that infuses much of the historical analysis of the question of the reality of Christ.

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Hierophanies of the sacred are found as things or persons in which the sacred is manifested. Hierophanies are, metaphorically speaking, windows through which the believer apprehend the holy. Hierophanies might also be called sacraments, points of contact between the divine and the human. There are innumerable hierophanies. They are themselves treated reverently and sometimes fearfully, for they are the loci through which the divine power is mediated. Sacred power is seen as dangerous in all religions, and so these loci of power are considered dangerous as well.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Jesus as a Figure in History by Mark Allan Powell 1998 Assignment

Different conceptions may be used as hierophanies. Time as hierophany shows that the holy is manifested in time or revealed in time. Sacred time is fulfilled time, or a moment in which the death that life might be simply one pointless, directionless series of events is transcended. There are different ways of conceiving of time, but many are cyclical and repetitive and rhythmic, suggesting a dimension to existence that is continuous and unbroken. In the Christian conception, time is linear and unique. Time in this view is a series of nonreversible events arranged along a straight line, and the fullness of time is experienced in events and personalities rather than in the rhythm of nature. The fullness of God's disclosure was thus embodied in the person of the historical Jesus. In today's modern society, most people take their beliefs to a higher level to understand their Jesus and themselves on a spiritual plane, which makes them open to new ideas of religion. From there, religion is not just about finding an understanding of Jesus, it is also about finding one's spirituality, which helps someone to accept and have knowledge of them. This is why most Christians do not want to hear what historians have to say about Jesus since they only see him as a spiritual being. From there, they do not want to understand Jesus was once a historical figure before he was a religious figure that they all believe in to strengthen their faith.

Historians generally are not attempting to support faith as much as they want to demonstrate how Jesus fits into the history of his time. Powell notes that many historians make the distinction between the two forms of Jesus, historical and religious, on the basis of chronology, for the historical Jesus would have been a real person living at a specific time, while the religious figure would have evolved from the stories told about him and from the acts and beliefs of his followers as they formed the Christian church in the centuries after his death. Powell himself, however, makes the distinction on a different basis, for he describes the Jesus of history as but one part of the larger Jesus of story, which means he was an every day man, a living human being before he was known as a religious figure in the Christian faith. At this point, it is apparent Jesus was a historical figure without being involved in the Christian faith and religion, which tears apart Christians believe about their spiritual figure, Jesus.

In all reality, people are spiritual beings that have religion as their foundation to become complete on a higher level.

The "quest for the historical Jesus" has returned and is currently generating more publications than at any time in the history of scholarship. The central issue is the question of what can be reliably asserted about the person of Jesus on the basis of historical evidence alone -- apart from the imposition of a faith perspective. I sometimes explain this to laity by asking the question, "What would it be appropriate for a teacher to say about Jesus in the public schools?" Most Christians in the United States recognize that it would not be appropriate for such a teacher to tell students that Jesus was born of a virgin; though we might believe this as Christians, it is a conclusion of faith rather than of historical research. That Jesus was crucified, however, or that he befriended outcasts and taught a radical ethic of love -- these are matters that virtually all scholars (Christian or not) accept as indisputable facts of history (Issues in Jesus Research and Scholarship).

The story of Jesus begins before anything that can reasonably be identified as historical and continues long after everything that can be identified as historical. The Jesus of story is the larger entity of which the Jesus of history is but a part (9).

Historical Jesus studies have brought new attention to the oft-ignored apocryphal gospels, such that many parishioners are now hearing of these works for the first time. A certain sensationalism attaches to the phenomenon when the volumes are touted as "secret gospels" that the church has tried to keep hidden from the public. In fact, they are readily available in theological libraries but are of less interest to the general public than conspiracy theorists would have us believe. For one thing, the only apocryphal gospel that any scholar regards as conveying authentic information about Jesus is the Gospel of Thomas. All of the other apocryphal gospels are studied for what they reveal about later Christianity, not what they say about the historical person of Jesus. This is a rare point on which virtually all scholars of all persuasions agree. The Gospel of Thomas, furthermore, is not thought to reveal anything authentic about Jesus that would counter traditional concepts -- at most, it enhances those concepts with similar, parallel material ((Issues in Jesus Research and Scholarship).

However, Powell tells the story of the historical treatment of Jesus in chronological order, beginning as historians "discover" Jesus, something that developed somewhat late in history because Jesus before that was treated solely as a religious figure, or his historicity was simply assumed and traced to the gospels. After the Enlightenment, historians took more interest in finding the historical Jesus, meaning finding evidence of Jesus outside the gospels, though often using the gospels as a starting point. As Powell notes, many historians sought to impose some greater concept on the idea of the historical Jesus, such as "Jesus as social reformer" or "Jesus as mystic." Many writers sought to fill in the gaps left by the gospels with projections of what Jesus thought and did, which is not a truly historical approach to the topic.

Another tendency noted by Powell, with reference to historians such as Paulus from the seventeenth century, was to impose a rationalist explanation on the story of miracles produced by Jesus. The different accounts cited by Powell throughout are described to the degree that they are novelistic narratives, scientific analyses, mythical depictions, and so on. One of the more interesting sections of Powell's book is his discussion of sources, the sources used by historians to verify the story of Jesus. Powell writes:

Historical scholars are ultimately interested not only in materials that teach us about Jesus himself but also in those that reveal the world in which he lived. Insights drawn from archaeology and the social sciences have become especially valuable for modern reconstructions of Jesus life and work (32).

Indeed, it is the ability to place Jesus in such a context that marks the historical treatment of the man, as of any other subject for the historian. The sources noted by Powell range from Roman literature to apocryphal religions writings and alternative gospels, and one thing that emerges from this discussion is the idea that there is a lack of contemporary accounts that do not have a religious overtone, one imposed more by the story of Jesus that developed after his death than to the reality of his life at the time. Many of the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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