XAVIER LEON-DUFOUR ON THE PERSON OF JESUS
Xavier Leon –Dufour, S.J. is a scholar of great reputation, and a renowned professor of sacred scripture. One of his books in my shelf is entitled “The Gospels and the Jesus of History”. Copyright in English translation, Williams Collins sons and Co ltd. London, 1963.
The first introductory sub-titles of the book is “The person of Jesus.”
The paradox of Christianity lies in that apart from a number of alleged miracles, there is at first sight nothing to distinguish the life of Jesus from the life of any other great religious teacher. Jesus was by birth a Jew, he lived in Palestine in the time of the first Roman emperor Augustus (B.C 27-A.D 14) and his successor Tiberius Caesar, (A.D. 14- 37). In the end, he was crucified, like many another Jew of the time. He was not a great nationalist leader. The religious doctrine which he taught is not uniquely inspiringly like Stoicism or Platonism. In the gospels, there is scarcely a single saying which cannot be paralleled in Jewish traditions or in the sayings of Eastern religions. Confucius, for example, counseled men to meet hostility with love.
The prevalent paradox gives historians the opportunity to underline the lack of proportion between the life of Jesus (which ended in failure) and the claims he made to be the son of God. The paradox therefore has constituted two camps of historians. Some think that Jesus never made any claim to be the son of God. Others think that everything happened by chance in that the disciples were misled by the question which Jesus put to them – “and you –who do you say I am?” This then is the crucial question: Did the disciples misinterpret the significance of Jesus’ life because they had misunderstood his words?
The answer to this question, “Who do you say I am?” has created two camps in the course of human history. Some men on the one camp assert that Jesus was merely a religious genius. It stands out to be that the answer that one gives to the question, “and you – who do you say I am?” determines one’s acceptance or rejection of Jesus as the son of God.
The Christian believes in a reality which is not easily acceptable to human reason. What is this biblical reality? It is the incarnation. The orthodox Christian affirms that God became man. This God-man underwent death, rose to life again and is now alive. This triad phenomena constitute the central theme of the Christian faith. This has been the constant teaching of the church, in all its catechetical instructions and its liturgy from the earliest times to the present day. Dufour argues that these assertions of faith are by nature incapable of empirical verification. The historian who relies on historical facts has problems of a unique kind with biblical pious legends. Dufour proceeds to strike a balance between the historian, who remains the unwarranted critic of the biblical pious legends and the firm stand taken by the church in defence of faith that has prevailed since the dawn of Christianity.
The church maintains that its own life and history is bound up with that of the risen Lord. More so, the risen Lord is ever present in the church today. The church identifies itself with the risen Lord, and this belief besides being the heart of the Christian faith raises the problem for the critical historians. Dufour poses the critical question that lingers persistently in the minds of the historian. “ How are we to distinguish in traditional Christian teaching between that which comes from Jesus and that which comes from the church ?” Is it not possible that the early church may (unconsciously) have projected on to the earthly life of its Savior on ideal of which it was trying to realize in its own life (without of course, not attaining that ideal in practice)?
Dufour asserts that faith may lead man to alter historical evidence and even idealize events. The unbeliever, on the other hand, faces one serious danger, that human reason is likely to stifle biblical facts that lead to faith and prevent them from maturing. Rationalism has the tendency to reduce the supernatural to natural phenomenon. In view of relying on human reason, Jesus of Nazareth, has been the subject of charges and counter-charges. Rationalists accuse Christians of falsifying history by idealizing the life of Jesus. The Orthodox Christian makes a counter reply to the rationalists with the following propositions. History is falsified if the life of Jesus is merely reduced to human proportions. The philosophical objections raised by the rationalist notwithstanding the data of biblical evidence cannot be explained as a natural phenomenon with a human reason.
Rationalism has been in existence since the first century of Christianity. In the history of the church, we discern two mental attitudes. The rationalist claiming to represent the authentic voice of reason. The other is the Christian rejecting the rationalist claim in the name of faith. Dufour enlists a few characters who belonged to the rationalist school of thought.
Celsus (AD .180) and Porphyry (AD 300) are best known for their criticism of the bible. They have ridiculed the contents of the bible and have denied any historical truth in the recorded facts. Reimarus (1694 -1768) argued that the apostles were frauds and claimed that Jesus was a political Messiah whose plans resulted in failure.
Paulus (1761 -1851) was a son of a protestant minister. He reacted strongly claiming that the biblical miracles wee but fakes. He gave a rationalistic explanation of the resurrection claiming that when Jesus was buried, he was only unconscious but not dead. The coldness of the tomb revived him.
The biblical evidence of the resurrection is the empty tomb, which was historically witnessed on Easter Sunday by Mary Magdalene in the company of other women, Peter and John, the apostles. However, the rationalist does not accept the historical biblical evidence because he has deliberately taken up his stand against the very possibility of the supernatural.
The sceptical attitude towards the supernatural revelation is a human reaction which is as instinctive as a positive receptiveness springing from faith. Comparative religion, a new science in the modern world, has fostered this sceptical attitude. The radical critics of Christianity dismissed religious beliefs as superstitious enslavement to a myth. One of the supporters of this theory, D.F Strauss used mythology and the Hegelian philosophy as a rational explanation of everything in the gospels. Tolstoy, a Russian, portrayed Jesus as the forerunner of socialism and the philosophy of non-violence.
The firm stand of the rationalist is that Christians are led by faith and piety. The Orthox Christians ought to be alert in a condemning wholeheartedly any rationalistic approach which a priori challenges the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
An impartial historian is disposed to think that Christians were deceived to accept an exaggerated version of a pious legend. In all fairness, the impartial historians ought to condemn all the cited rationalists for not respecting the data given as evidence in the gospels.
A man with a critical mind must not uncritically accept rationalism as an unquestionable dogma. When such people encounter religious facts with no neat rationalistic explanation, their thinking becomes paralyzed. Any one has the freedom to examine the evidence of the Christian faith in scientific and critical way; however, the examination should be conducted with an open mind.