Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Historical Jesus

Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong has held a 4-days seminar on the historical Jesus. He named the seminar as "The Eternal Christ & Historical Jesus". Due to work, I was not able to attend the seminar. And since then I had been looking forward to get hold of the recording of the seminar.

The seminar was held on 24th-27th April 2008. Contacts have been repeatedly made with Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong's production team on the availability of the recording. Almost every month I called them to inquire about it. And after waited for 9 months I finally got hold of the MP3 CD on the 2nd of April 2009. It was selling at SGD $45 then.

With great anticipation, I listened to the series of lectures for the next few days. Some of them I listened twice or more.

I have to say that after finishing the series, I was rather disappointed. It seemed to me that Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong did not know about the historical Jesus.

On one hand, I am sure that Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong knows that the historical Jesus is not merely referring to an influential person who existed in 1st century Palestine.

The term 'historical Jesus' is a technical term describing the enterprise for the critical studies being done by New Testament scholars on Jesus Christ in the past two hundred years. Therefore this enterprise is also famously known as the quest for the historical Jesus (since the publication of the English edition of Albert Schweitzer's famous work 'The Quest of the Historical Jesus')

How can I be so certain that Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong knows about this? It was through his naming of his seminar as "The Eternal Christ & Historical Jesus". The title bear an 'either/or' contrast. And such contrast is a well-known one in the theological community. Sometimes it is known as the "theological Christ and the historical Jesus", sometimes the "kerymatic Christ and the historical Jesus". A recent example is Dale Allison's newly published book that twisted the contrast at its title 'The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus'.

That is on the one hand. On the other hand, Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong, despite knowing the enterprise of the historical Jesus, he surprisingly and most disappointingly did not show any familiarity with it. As he titled the seminar to be centered on the enterprise, I was anticipating him dealing with the issues raised from the historical Jesus' studies. But he did not.

Throughout the recording, the names and 'ism' that were mentioned: Adolf von Harnack, Tubingen school, Christian Ferdinand Baur, Immanuel Kant, atheism, communism, existentialism, theory of evolution, Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis, Continental philosophical rationalism, British philosophical empiricism, Rene Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, French Revolution, Voltaire, Rosseau, Logical Positivism, Ludwig Witgenstein, Michaelangelo, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Stoicism, Heraclitus, Seneca, Epitatus, Marcus Aurelius, and others.

Please do not take my word. Do not believe me. Spend SGD $45, get a copy to listen for yourself. He was more like lecturing on the history of philosophy rather than the historical Jesus' quest. Not to mention how does the historical quest relates, influences, and affects the conception of the eternal Christ, as the seminar's title misleadingly described.

Perhaps among the list of names he uttered, the one that really had contributed to the historical Jesus' study was F.C. Baur. And yet Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong got Baur's name in the wrong arrangement. It should be 'Ferdinand Christian Baur', instead of C.F. Baur.

Through the serminar, I found that the only way Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong engaged the historical question raised by the quest was by quoting and doing theological exposition on John's gospel, particularly chapter 1. But that was missing the whole point of the quest. It seems that he does not have a clue on what he was lecturing on.

I am not an expert on the quest, but I do know that Wikipedia provides a good summary of the main happenings and people within the historical Jesus' enterprise (accessed on 9th July 2009). For an extremely brief summary of the quest since the 19th century up until 1993, N.T. Wright's small booklet 'Who Was Jesus?' is fit enough. Then one can moves on to Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz introductory text. And finally to all the fat books on historical Jesus, like the celebrated 4-volumes by John Meier, and the 3-volumes by N.T. Wright.


Benjamin Ho said...

Josh, Rev Tong's generation is one that does not have the privilege and convenience of using google, wikipedia and facebook. I would say that the mettle of a servant of God is tested by the generation in which he is called upon to minister. Its like saying Eisenhower is an inferior general to Petraus because he does not have modern weaponry. In fact, i would argue that more information does not always lead to greater clarity, sometimes even confusion.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Ben, thank you for your comment.

Please don't misunderstand that I think Rev. Tong is technologically outdated. I am just pointing out that he didn't really engage with the topic ("The Historical Jesus") which he set out to deal with.

He taught at Southeast Asian Bible Seminary (Seminari Alkitab Asia Tenggara) from 1964-1988. Those are the times when the so-call '3rd quest for the historical Jesus' research launched. He must have aware of that. And most of the great researchers on this topic wrote during that time (for eg. in the 70s Geza Vermes, Joachim Jeremias, G. Caird, etc). So his years as a professor during that time would have access to these materials.

If the reason for his unfamiliarity with this topic was because he was a professor in philosophy and systematic theology, then he shouldn't have wear such a big hat which doesn't fit his head. There are examples of philosophy & systematic theology professors who engage this topic well (for eg. Colin Brown), so shouldn't be a reason that Rev. Tong can't, unless he really doesn't know about what he was dealing with (which I'm convinced of).

So it is not comparing Eisenhower and Petraus but rather Rev. Tong is like a infantry soldier who wants to fight an operating aircraft carrier.

Two problems: (1) Different landscape - one is on land, the other on the sea; (2) the infantry soldier even in his best gears is incapable to take down, not to mention to swim near it.