The historical Jesus in the here and now

My wife Karen and I are just back from a trip to the “other Holy Land,” Turkey, which is home to many important biblical sites. We were on a tour of the seven churches of The Revelation with Taylor University. These were churches that received special messages from the apostle John at the end of the first century, contained in the last book of the New Testament.

Turkey was the first center of non-Jewish Christianity. It was in Turkey that the apostle Paul was born and did much of his work. It was from Turkey that the news of what God had done through Jesus Christ first entered Europe and then reached across the Roman Empire.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a tour of ancient biblical sites. People told me that I would see the Bible with different eyes after walking along the paths that St. Paul walked. Friends who had toured biblical sites in Israel had often spoken of it as an intense and life-changing spiritual experience, and I wondered if something similar might happen to me.

To visit the home where Jesus’s mother Mary may once have lived, to walk the same streets that Paul walked and sit in the Great Theater of biblical Ephesus was impressive. It was possible to imagine avenues lined with first century shops and crowded with pedestrians, vendors and beggars, all going about their lives as usual – as we do today. And among them went the man whose message was about to “turn the world upside down.”

It was impressive – deeply so. It was educational. And, to be honest, it was tiring. But it was not life-changing. Perhaps I’m just not wired that way. Or perhaps such life-changing encounters arise out of a person’s present experiences, not his or her historical investigations.

Recently the New York Times ran a piece by Maud Newton, chronicling her own Holy Land experience. She went to Jerusalem on business and, while there, toured some of Israel’s famous biblical sites with her husband. A friend had jokingly warned her about “Messiah Syndrome,” and Newton was, it seems, on her guard against it.

She was nevertheless strangely moved by what she saw. Everything reminded her of the religious upbringing she had left behind: the color of the skies, the almond and olive trees, the ancient rubble – it all seemed richly significant. “At times,” she wrote, “the past seemed so immediate, I could hardly breathe.”

Ms. Newton had been warned that visiting the Holy Land can intensify one’s deepest religious beliefs and she, an agnostic, testifies that it was so. But she did not come away with the kind of “feverish conversion” her mother once had. Rather, the experience reinforced her “own stubbornly uncertain self.”

But that is just what one might expect from a trip like the one Maud Newton took or, for that matter, the one from which my wife and I just returned. The experience acts as an amplifier, increasing the “signal” that is already there. An amplifier will make a guitar louder but it will not make it a piano. For Ms. Newton, the Holy Land amplified what was already there: her doubts.

Ms. Newton needn’t have feared that her trip to the Holy Land would turn her into a religious enthusiast like her mother. For that she would need something else: a conversion, not merely an amplification. And history – rich and powerful as it is – does not convert.

It is possible to place Christ in his historical setting and is, in fact, important to do so, both for the sake of an accurate understanding of Scripture and its application to theology. We can place Christ in history but we can only find him in the present, in our daily lives. The successful search for the historical Jesus always concludes in the present moment.

Those who want to find Christ will find him where they live. Those who do not will not find him, even in the holiest sites of the ancient faith. Some women looked in such a place once and were told, “He is not here.” He didn’t stay in the past. They would find him in the present.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/12/2014

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