Monday, 22 April 2013


‘And you,’ [Jesus] asked, ‘who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are … the Son of the Living God.’ Matthew 16 v15-16

There are people who think that Sir Francis Bacon must have written the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. They don’t know what the boy from Stratford was supposed to have been doing before he suddenly started writing these wonderful plays; they can’t imagine how a man from a merchant background in the provinces, barely one remove from a mere craftsman, could have the knowledge, insight and skill to write them; they want to be able to attribute them to someone whose known background explains his remarkable ability. What in the end they stumble against is the evidence: the people who knew and worked with Shakespeare thought it was the man from Stratford who wrote the plays. But even those who accept that Shakespeare was indeed Shakespeare can still go on wondering about those hidden years of preparation, speculating about them on the basis of what’s in the plays: Was Shakespeare a soldier fighting overseas? Was he a schoolmaster? Was he a Catholic recusant? And what they in their turn stumble against is the lack of evidence: though we can be sure that it was his experiences that gave Shakespeare what it took to write the plays, we simply don’t know exactly what experiences he had. We just have the plays, and must marvel at them, and understand them, and the mind that wrote them, as best we can. In the end, we have to be satisfied with that even as we yearn to know more.
                The parallel with Jesus of Nazareth is striking: the years that are hidden from us, the provincial background, the desire to know more. In the case of Jesus the equivalent of the Bacon-is-Shakespeare theory is that his father was God, and like the Bacon-is-Shakespeare theory that smacks of a desperation to explain where explanation is more than is strictly required. And if he didn’t get his script from divine male genes, we have to say that it was Jesus’s experiences that informed his sayings; we can’t be sure exactly what they were but, as with Shakespeare, we can’t help speculating. Was his parable about a wayward son informed by what he got up to in the hidden years? Was the story of the dishonest manager the result of his experiences in business, and if so in what capacity? Did he visit the Qumran sect? Were his images, drawn from fishing and agriculture and city life, prompted by what he’d seen as a jobbing labourer travelling the country? We may not know what he was doing in the hidden years, but that doesn’t allow us to think he was doing nothing very interesting. In fact, we can be pretty sure he must have been leading an interesting and varied life in order to be able to offer the insights expressed in his sayings.
                I say this because it is all too easy for us to turn this vibrant teacher into a plaster saint, lacking all life except what we know of, never putting a foot wrong, saying words scripted for him by God, and finally being sacrificed through the agency of others. If we are not careful we will find that we allow him no life of his own; he can become for us what he is close to becoming in St Paul’s letters: a screen onto which we can project ideas he himself never had. But the person whose words and life inspired his little band of followers and provoked his own judicial murder could not have been either a plaster saint or a projection screen, which is why historically-inclined thinkers have undertaken what has been called the quest for the historical Jesus.
                It would of course be wonderful to have a detailed modern independent biography of Jesus of Nazareth, but the materials for such a work do not exist. If the brief mention of him in Josephus’s history of the Jews is original, it would do little more than confirm that Jesus was a genuine historical figure. For the rest we have to use the very un-independent New Testament writers. The gospels themselves were written decades after the events they record: the earliest, Mark’s, wasn’t written till about thirty years after the crucifixion, though like Luke and Matthew it draws on an earlier written collection of sayings of Jesus, and possibly a passion narrative, which can be speculatively reconstructed. Being written later, the gospels were written in a community whose thinking had already been shaped by Paul’s letters, and each gospel writer inevitably allows his own interests and assumptions to influence his account of Jesus. They are all very much of their period: they naturally include the sorts of stories that first century people liked to tell about remarkable people.
                So in the end we each have to read the accounts of Jesus’s life and sayings and allow that experience to create in our minds a picture of him that we can believe in as an historical character. I hope that even if you have already done so, this sermon will prompt you to simply read through the synoptic gospels, each one at a sitting. They are not long, and until we have done it we cannot really claim to have begun to take the historical Jesus seriously.  The exercise will naturally produce in each reader a slightly different picture of the Jesus who is being written up. This is what happens with any historical character we read about, because we bring to the exercise our own individual judgements about what is significant, about what is likely, about how human nature works, about how reliable the evidence is.  This ought to make for enriching discussion with, rather than, as in the past, persecution of, those who see Jesus differently.
                It was astonishing – we might almost say miraculous – that the son of Stratford merchant who took to acting should have written Shakespeare’s plays and in doing so have so enriched our understanding of what it is to be human. That he did so reassures us that truly astonishing things really do happen; sometimes all we have to do is to accept and learn from what astonishes us without insisting too much on trying to explain it.

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