There’s been some interesting discussion over on Chris Tilling’s blog under the entry, Was Jesus Wrong? (Thanks to Antonio Jerez for the heads-up.) Chris defends his orthodoxy (a Chalcedonian Jesus who was “fully God and fully man”) while acknowledging that Jesus was factually wrong about some things (like his belief in a literal Adam and Eve) but insisting that it’s unfair to judge his savior too harshly from the perspective of evolutionary hindsight.
In comments Antonio Jerez says that Chris is trying “to make a circle into a triangle”, and that because people like Jesus and Paul were wrong about important things — like the way they took the creation myths of Genesis 1-3 literally — “the whole edifice of Christianity collapses”. Christianity, in Antonio’s view, “depends on the historicity of Genesis”.
Antonio’s position is similar to Gerd Ludemann’s in The Resurrection of Christ. Ludemann says that because Jesus was never resurrected, “people can no longer justify calling themselves Christians unless we totally redefine the word” (p 190). He dismisses “vain” attempts to remain Christian while rejecting the idea that Jesus was literally resurrected: (1) the “vain” kerygma approach of Bultmann (the proper object of Christian faith is the proclamation of Christ, regardless of the historicity of said proclamation) (pp 193-195); (2) the “vain” objective vision approach of Grass (pp 195-197); (3) the “vain” metaphorical approach of Kessler (the resurrection was real but non-literal and metaphorical) (pp 197-198); (4) the “vain” replacement of the risen Christ with the historical Jesus (many liberal scholars today) (pp 198-199); (5) the “vain” theological approach of Wright (pp 199-202). All of these, according to Ludemann, are as bad as (6) the “vain” literal approach of fundamentalists and academics like Hartlich and Broer (pp 202-203) which is self-evidently wrong.
I don’t agree with Antonio and Ludemann that Christianity is invalidated by our recognition that early Christians were literally wrong about important things. But let me first emphasize my agreement with Antonio. At one point under Chris’ post he writes:
“Modern christian apologets like NT Wright have tried to trip around the problem… by arguing that no Jew at the time of Jesus would possibly have taken the stories in Genesis and Exodus literally. They were a quite sophisticated bunch, according to Wright. As so often Wright is talking pure hogwash. Why should we expect first-century Jewish peasants to be more sophisticated than modern litteralists like the Pentecostals or the Witnesses of Jehovah. As Dale Allison already showed in his book about Jesus years ago there is absolutely no reason to believe that a majority of Jews 2000 years ago read Genesis with more sophistication than Pentecostals. On the contrary a careful sifting of the evidence shows that Wright is talking nonsense. To see how and why I recommend anybody really interested in the subject reading Edward Adams recent book with the title The Stars Will Fall from Heaven – Cosmic Catastrophe and the World’s End in the New Testament and its World. Adams shows with impeccable clarity and evidence that many second Temple Jews certainly took the language in Genesis quite literally. They also took the apocalyptic imagery about the End time with the heavens and stars falling, the angels coming and the new heaven and earth created by the jewish god in a very straight manner. The worldview of Jesus, Mark, Matthew, Luke and Paul neatly fit with what doesn’t appear to have been an uncommon view among first-century Jews. They were in all imaginable ways children of their time. Of course modern Christians expect the message of Jesus and Paul to be relevant to us moderns in some mysterious way, but I believe that this can only be done by twisting and turning their original apocalyptic message into something totally different (Crossan, Funk et. al ) or by explaining away a thoughtworld that doesn’t fit that easily 2008 (Wright et. al).”
I agree with Antonio here 100%. Conservative apologists (like Wright) who metaphorize away literal meanings are as bad as liberal apologists (like Crossan) who erase those meanings altogether. That’s confessionalism and revisionism — bad history either way. We can metaphorize or ignore whatever we want from a theological point of view, of course, but we can’t project our wishes onto the past. Antonio is right: Jesus and Paul believed in a literal Adam and Eve. They believed the world was literally coming to an end by apocalypse. They were wrong on these accounts, and we need to acknowledge this head-on.
But I don’t think Christianity is thereby made null and void. Why should it depend on the literal truth of this stuff — creation, apocalypse, and/or resurrection? There are many Christians who don’t think so. Dale Allison, for instance:
“From one point of view, Jesus was wrong, because he took apocalyptic language literally and expected a near end. But he wasn’t, from my Christian point of view, wrong in hoping for God to defeat evil, redeem the world, and hold us responsible. I continue to be amazed that we can’t do with the end what we do with the beginning. We have become very sophisticated in our understanding of Genesis as mythology. It still serves us homiletically and theologically even after we’ve given up the literal sense. Why can’t we do the same with eschatology? We can say that the writer of Genesis was mistaken about the beginning of the world — it didn’t take place a few thousand years ago, there was no Garden of Eden, etc — but he wasn’t wrong — God made the world, the world is good, but responsible human beings wreck things. I just want to do this with eschatology. I emphasize Jesus was wrong so that I can get to what he was right about.”
Religions evolve constantly, and people find new (and hopefully better, like the above) ways of coming to terms with their myths. To say that a religion collapses when a primitive understanding of it is given up, or that later followers are unable to improve upon their religious ancestors without betraying them, seems misguided to me. That’s why we need to pay attention to someone like Philip Esler, who asks Christians to honor the biblical authors and their original intent, even when in disagreement, even when we know they were clearly wrong about something. And Esler is a robust Christian — rather traditional in many ways.
So while my sympathies lie with Antonio (and like him, I’m not Christian), I would never push modern Christians to the unreasonable conclusion that because evolution is factual, and an apocalypse will never come, Christianity is without foundation.