Regular readers know for the past couple of months I have fallen headlong into the literature on the historical Jesus. Just why the interest dawned so late in my life is a mystery to me. It is more than a decision to revisit, in a public sort of way, the preoccupations of a much younger man. There is more to it than that. Whatever is true about Jesus, it is indisputable that he is one of the most influential men to ever have lived. The search for the truth about him resembles the truth for transcendence in a world beset by nagging particulars.
The stack of books beside my bed grows deeper, and I add every couple of days a book to one of the shelves in my office that I have dedicated to this topic. I sit sometimes late in the day and stare at the spines, wishing, somehow that they could transport me back, perhaps to a walk along the road to Emmaus, or to the Temple in Jerusalem decades before it was destroyed by the Romans. What is this hunger?
I generally try to stay away from confessional works, or works carrying too heavy a theological freight. I want facts, somehow. Even as I know that there shall be precious little of what a trial lawyer calls facts. The sources are replete with hearsay. There is little, if anything, that is reliable when judged by the unsparing requirements of the law of evidence. It is as if the historical Jesus is a piece of meat thrown onto the theologians' scales; each writer places his thumb just beneath the flesh measured to give it the weight he desires. Beware the salesman hawking his faith.
So I was suprised to be so taken by a small volume by N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? Wright has a confessional purpose. He is Bishop of Durham, England, the book's rear cover tells me. And a New Testament scholar of repute. But he is also a believer in things unseen, and he writes with the confidence of a man challenging settled orthodoxies with the conviction that all orthodoxy is suspect. Even the most mudane assessment of fact requires a trust in the unseen.
Wright asks in this brief book that one take seriously the possibility of virgin birth. This is so much more than I bargained for. He asks the reader to "hold open the possibility that this account of [Jesus'] conception might just be true." Rather than recoil, I reassess what it is that I know, and how confident I am of the verities to which I am tethered.
Ask me the date of my birth and without a moment's hesitation I recite it, confident in an event of which I can have no knowledge, and must rely, as do we all, on collective memories and documents. I suspect no evil genius torn from Descartes' imagination has deceived me about this date; I am a small, small fry in the world's pan. I take the date of my birth as a simple fact on trust even though I have no personal knowledge of its truth. I am happily caught in this simple web of belief, sharing it with others who accept the same common markers as true.
But what if it is not so reliable after all? Should I question all even to the point of denying the obvious utility of all I take for granted? Obviously not. We are required to navigate daily in a world not our choosing. We pick the things to ponder and cast doubts into wells from which we are afraid to drink. We trust what we can.
I do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, but I cannot deny that if there is a God capable of creating the world out of nothing, then there is the possibility that he can spawn humans at will. But I cannot accept this as a fact. I cannot even accept it as a satisfying belief. To use William James' concept, there is no cash value in such a faith.
Too pragmatic, you say? Perhaps. But I remain transfixed by a Jewish peasant crucified after preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. What did he see that draws me still? And, more to the point, can I see it, too? Perhaps not. But the quest remains, and so, in a funny unexpected way, does hope.