FAITH AND SCIENCE
Chapters 1-3 from “Jesus for Ever. Fact and Faith” by John Wijngaards, Catholic Truth Society, London 1987.
the search for a believable faith
I am one of those odd people who believe in Jesus Christ. Believing in a Creator is not that difficult. Faced with the mystery and wonder of existence it is easy enough to believe we are dependent on an Ultimate Reality. Accepting a moral code, seeking some form of meaningful meditation, calling oneself an ‘intelligent agnostic’, is commonplace. It ranks you among sensible people. But believing that God revealed himself in Jesus is quite a different story. It makes you less than entirely respectable, somehow.
Take my friend Lydia who was baptised I don’t dare to guess how long ago, but who has not been near a church for at least thirty years. Curled up on her sofa with a glass of sherry in her hand she taunts my credulity. ‘If you’d been born on the Ivory Coast, you’d have made an excellent voodoo priest!’ For her, Jesus Christ was just another religious preacher like so many others. ‘If there is a God then, whoever he is,’ (she shrugs her shoulders), ‘he would never do such a silly thing as “becoming flesh”. The idea is naive and ludicrous!”
Then there is my good friend Paddy, who is even more of a problem. Paddy takes every word of scripture literally. Having had a singular conversion experience in recent years he sees miracles in everything that happens. When I impatiently look at my watch on an Underground platform, he closes his eyes, mumbles some words and then reassures me: ‘We will catch that train from Euston. The Lord who could still the storm and walk on the water can also control British Rail.’ It is good to know at any time that at least someone can control British Rail; but to make Jesus Christ no more than a super-manager responsible for smoothing out every-day life for his followers seems to be more than far fetched!
Philip is different again. He is a minister, chaplain to a polytechnic. As we drive home from an ecumenical gathering, he offers me his own view on Christ. ‘I’m not interested in the historical Jesus. I know he wasn’t God. He never rose from the tomb. He never expected to be made a saviour, poor chap! What matters for me is what God is telling me through the inspired Scriptures here and now. ‘ Speeding up to catch the tail end of the orange light he continues: ‘What difference does it make what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago? God saves me now, in Christ. ‘ In my mind’s eye I see his faith as a film reeling off continuously in the present, with no memory of what went before, no clear expectation of what is to come. It does not satisfy me.
Where do I stand, I wonder? Lydia laughs at me because she thinks I believe incredible things. Paddy shakes his head at my lack of faith. Philip prays that I may receive enlightenment one day. Is it so odd, I ask myself, for me to combine Lydia’s critical attitude, Paddy’s readiness to believe and Philip’s determination to live in the ‘here and now’? Was this what Paul meant when he wrote: ‘Jews demand miraculous evidence and Greeks want to be intelligent. As for me, I proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that upsets the Jews and is considered nonsense by the others. Yet Christ is both God’s power and God’s wisdom. What seems to be God’s nonsense is wiser than human intelligence, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Cor 1:22-25).
When I reflect on my own Christian conviction I see how true Paul’s words are. Given my own scepticism about miracles and divine interventions I would never have accepted the incredible story of God becoming human in Jesus had I not, at the same time, felt the healing and liberating experience of his power. Love is not communicated by words. As small children we learn to believe our mother’s love because she fondles us, plays with us, feeds us and cares for us. Unless the salvation which Jesus brings touches the core of our being, it will mean nothing to us.
This does not mean that believing is no more than an emotional surrender. Quite the contrary. Belief rests on an insight, on a profound intellectual grasp of a dimension of truth that had earlier escaped us. If we believe that Jesus is God’s revelation in history, then such an insight cannot come about without historical evidence.
I am going to try a very difficult undertaking. I will attempt to explain to people like Lydia, Paddy and Philip why my belief in Jesus makes sense to me. This, I know, will pose a challenge. It is not the scientific or academic aspects that frighten me. What I am concerned about is how I can also share my living faith. I want to show that a modern, scientific approach and personal commitment to Christ can happily complement each other. It will make this book both an objective report and a subjective witness. I hope it will succeed in explaining what makes me tick as a twentieth-century believer: a Christian who is both critical and convinced.
My first step will be to reflect on story and history; and on truth which transcends both. Is Jesus Christ a historical person in the ordinary sense of the word? Read about this in the next chapter
the face of the MASTER
The story of Jesus Christ is surely the most influential narrative mankind has ever known. Translated into virtually all languages, fragments of this story are read out and preached upon in millions of Christian services every Sunday. Think of the beatitudes; the miracle of Jesus’ changing water into wine at Cana; his parables of the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the unforgiving servant; Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. How many people have been inspired by such texts throughout the centuries! And they inspire us still. The staying power of Jesus’ story is truly remarkable.
But what about the historical value of these texts? Can they be relied upon? Do they report events that actually happened? Were they not written down nineteen hundred years ago when the science of history had not yet been invented? How do we know whether what they narrate about Jesus Christ is true? Could they perhaps be beautiful legends, moving no doubt, useful as material for reflection, but legends nonetheless, without a solid historical foundation? These are important questions. For our belief in Jesus as the Son of God is based on the reliability of that story.
The answer to these questions is that the story of Jesus is not just history but salvation history. By this I mean that while the story is firmly rooted in history, its scope goes beyond ordinary history. It transcends history. Its meaning surpasses the specific events narrated. It is a kind of history that contains values and truths greater than itself.
We cannot understand the gospels or accept their credibility without an appreciation of this. The best way to show what I mean by the ‘transcendent quality’ of the gospels is by way of one clear example. I suggest that for this we turn to a reflection on Jesus’ face. What did Jesus look like? What do we know about his face?
A face no one could forget
It is common belief that we can tell much about a person’s character from his or her face. ‘Honest labour bears a lovely face.’ ‘A good face is a letter of recommendation.’ ‘After a certain age every man is responsible for his face.” Love or anger, sincerity or habitual deceit, cowardice or courage leave their marks on a person’s face. Being the exceptional person he was, Jesus must have had an exceptional face. Many must have looked at his face attentively, his disciples with admiration, the sick with hope, sinners with trust, the scribes perhaps with contempt and suspicion. We may well imagine that no one who had met Jesus could forget his face.
The incredible fact, however, is that we do not know what Jesus looked like. No drawing or painting of his face has been preserved. No one of the generation that knew him has left us a description of it. Did Jesus wear a beard or not? Was he dark skinned or light? Did his mouth, his nose, his eyes have distinctive features? We will never know. ‘We do not know his appearance,’ St Augustine lamented in the fourth century. An incredible omission, it would seem, on the part of those entrusted with the task of handing down knowledge about the Master.
The earliest image of Christ we possess is a wall painting in Dura-Europos dating from about ad 232. It represents Christ in the stylised form of a teacher, dressed in classical robes, sandals on his feet, a scroll in his hand. At about the same time figures of Christ as the good shepherd appear in the catacombs. After that the number of images rapidly increases and soon proliferates beyond counting. Christ’s face is painted and sculptured. It finds expression in mosaics and frescoes. It is immortalised on the reliefs of tomb stones and in stained glass windows. It is the focal point on crucifixes and passion scenes. It reappears in a thousand forms on illustrated manuscripts. In fact, Christians were so anxious to know Christ’s facial expression that a host of legends arose, such as the story of Veronica’s cloth on which Christ was said to have impressed his features during the way of the cross. Sometimes fake relics were fabricated. When the Crusaders found a holy shroud at Antioch its bearded image, like that of the Turin Shroud, influenced representations of Christ throughout Christendom.2 Later generations of Christians, it would seem, had to imagine and visualise the face of Christ. Why the reticence in the first century?
Perhaps people at the time did not know how to preserve copies of faces or were not interested in them? Archaeology, however, teaches us differently. It is true that the Jews were reluctant to make images of living people since it appeared to go counter to the first of the Ten Commandments. But among the hellenised nations of the Roman Empire the art of making portraits was both well known and widely practised. After all, already in the first few decades, the bulk of the first generation of Christians had become hellenistic. To them the making of portraits was commonplace.
Statues and paintings were made of kings, magistrates, members of senatorial families and even wealthy businessmen. It has come to light that the Emperor Augustus, who ruled from about 30 bc to ad 14, deliberately promoted an ‘image’ of himself that portrayed him as a youthful, vigorous and virtuous leader. From a description left of him by the historian Suetonius we know that the Emperor actually possessed some ugly features. ‘He had clear bright eyes, but only a few teeth which were small and dirty. His hair was yellowish and slightly curly. His eyebrows met and his nose jutted out and then turned inwards. He was neither dark nor fair.’ Augustus, however, saw to it that an idealised image of himself was designed, modelled on the classical spear-carrier of Polykleitos. Copies of the model were despatched to all corners of the Roman Empire so that statues of him could be set up everywhere. To date at least 250 of such statues have been found throughout present-day Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, West Germany and Spain. From Roman coins that have been found in the same countries we know that the official, idealised image of the Emperor was engraved on coins struck in at least 136 cities.
In other words: at the time of Christ both the art of preserving accurate representations of people’s faces and of ‘image building’ through visual representations was well established.’ Could the same skill not have been used to preserve for us the likeness of Christ’s face?
But, you might object, to the early Christians Christ’s face was not important. This was not the case. The face of Christ was recognised as one of the places where revelation broke through. Christ was the exact image of God (2 Cor 4:4). He reflected the brightness of God’s glory. He was the exact likeness of God’s own being (Heb 1:3). God’s glory shone in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). In John’s Gospel Christ can say: ‘Who sees me sees the Father’ Qn 14:9). The early Christians were well aware that the humanity of Christ, and this applied particularly to his face, mediated God’s revelation. What would have been more natural than to record once and for all the exact features of his face?
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice –
And carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs
The ever-beating sea,
Is crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
Joseph Mary Plunkett 1887-1916
How then to explain the omission? Indifference? Incompetence? Hardly. The only explanation that does justice to the facts is the transcendent interest of the early evangelists and preachers. They were interested in the face of Christ but they considered the salvific role of his face more important than the distinctive features themselves, such as the shape of his mouth, the size of his nose, the colour of his skin, and so on. This may seem paradoxical to us, even strange. Yet we have to come to terms with it if we want to understand the nature of the gospel witness. Yes, as a carpenter from a particular family in Nazareth, Jesus’ face had its distinctive traits. The apostles may have described these to their early converts. Yet these distinctive traits were not considered important enough to be recorded as part of the official teaching, since it was the shining through of the Father, not the human characteristics, that counted. It reveals a mentality different from that of journalists. It may horrify photographers and historians. The fact is that the early Christians were so convinced of the transcendent meaning of Jesus’ face that the external details of a description no longer mattered.
What a pity! we might think. Wrong. For it is precisely by its lack of narrow specification that Christ’s face has been able to exercise its central role in Christian spirituality. We only need to study the enormous variety of treatment given to portraits of Christ through the centuries to recognise this. The shepherd boy of Roman times, the majestic Byzantine Christ, the Man of Sorrows of the Middle Ages, the triumphant perfect man of the Renaissance, and the searching Christ of modern times all illustrate how the fact of the Incarnation can be an endless source of new inspiration. We realise then that every generation can create its own image of Christ; not thereby denying the features of the man of Nazareth, but doing justice to yet another aspect of his transcendent significance.(4)
That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows, or decomposes but to recompose, becomes my universe that feels and knows.
If the story of Jesus focusses our attention on realities that go beyond secular events, what then is the role of the science of history in its regard? This is, indeed, a question we need to discuss.
The Science of History and Truth that Transcends
I remember once having a discussion about all these things with a friend of mine. ‘The decisive factor for me,’ he told me, ‘is what professional historians say about it. Do they accept the gospels as trustworthy evidence? Would they use them as valid sources for Jesus’ life?’
He voiced a common demand. Many people, both inside and outside the Church, would be inclined to agree. They believe that the truth of the Jesus story should be determined by the objective scrutiny of scientific history. They would give historians the final word.
It is an assumption that needs to be challenged. The modern sciences can help us in the study of the gospels, as I will show in this book, but they can never establish the truth of the story of Jesus. The reason is that history and faith operate on different planes, although sometimes they overlap. We know this from everyday life. Suppose I am impressed by one of John Constable’s paintings. It makes me discover the charm of a picturesque village scene. What can scientists do? An analyst may determine the age of the canvas. An art historian may authenticate it as a piece by the master. An antique dealer will fix its price. But the message of what the artist is saying can be verified only by a viewer like myself. For the artist addresses me as a viewer,not as an analyst, historian or antique dealer. In the same way, the truth of the gospels can be verified only by the believers whom they address, not by historians.
Let us take the episode narrated in John 5:1-18. Jesus, we are told, visited the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. It was a place reputed to effect miraculous cures. Many sick people used to lie around there waiting for such a cure, which they believed took place ‘whenever the water stirred’. They thought it was an angel touching the water. Jesus passed by, took pity on a man who had been paralysed for thirty-eight years and healed him. This led to a confrontation with the scribes, for that day happened to be a sabbath. According to them, practising medicine broke the sabbath rest. They accused Jesus of not bothering about God’s law.
Jesus replied, ‘My Father is always working and I too must work. ‘ The meaning of this reply is clear. ‘God doesn’t stop being a Creator on the sabbath. For instance, wounds continue to heal whether it is sabbath or not. I too continue doing my work of healing.’
This angered the scribes even more, for they rightly understood the implication. ‘He calls God his own father,’ they said to each other. ‘He makes himself equal to God.’
The scribes miss the point. By curing the paralytic Jesus has just proved that he can heal as his Father does. Instead of accusing Jesus, the scribes should turn to him to be cured of their own spiritual paralysis!
Suppose we are asking the question: Is what the writer of this gospel tells us true or not? To answer this we first have to establish clearly what he is telling us. For clarity’s sake we might distinguish three statements:
1. Jesus cured a paralytic at the pool of Bethesda.
2. Jesus claimed equality with God.
3. If we believe in Jesus he can cure us too.
The third statement is the most important one. For the whole purpose of the gospel is to make us accept Jesus as our saviour. John tells us that he wrote his gospel ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that through your faith in him you may live’ (Jn 20:31). Put in a nutshell, the story teaches us that Jesus can heal us spiritually as much as he cured the paralytic physically. But this is a religious statement. It appeals to our faith. It asks for commitment. Obviously, the truth or falsehood of the statement will depend on the validity or invalidity of the religious claims made. The statement demands a religious answer. So although considerations of historical truth are not irrelevant (if, for example, it could be shown that Jesus had never existed at all, never cured anyone, never made any messianic claims, the beliefs of his followers would be shown to be groundless), ultimately the truth of the statement has to be assessed by religious norms and falls outside the scope of the secular historian.
It may be worth going into this matter even more deeply. Strange as it may seem, ‘truth’ varies in nature according to the kind of knowledge we are dealing with, as many modern studies have shown. That ‘two and two make four’ is true in mathematics in the sense that the two sides of the equation are equal. That ‘Hitler lost World War II’ is true in history as an event that actually took place. In literature, a work of fiction can still be said to be ‘true’ in the sense that it reflects real life. Scientific ‘truth’ is sometimes defined as the body of observations and theories which have received the assent of the community of scientific workers at a given time.
Such a shift in the meaning of truth is not a quibble about words; it makes a real difference. This also applies to religious truth.
Religion is neither mathematics, nor history, nor literature, nor science. It does not concern things, but people. It concerns people’s relationship to God, a Reality not covered by secular disciplines. Religious truth is therefore conveyed by ‘convictional language’ and relates to questions of existential meaning, of commitment to the ultimate.(5) The truth of the proclamation ‘Jesus can heal us as he healed the paralytic’ falls outside the scope of doctors, newspaper reporters and historians. It is transcendental truth, the truth conveyed in the story of salvation.
You may think that I am overstating my case. Surely doctors, reporters and historians can make some valid observations that have a bearing on the statement? Indeed they can. But such observations will always fall short of assessing the religious claim itself.
Observable facts and recorded events
A historian’s services are useful all the same. We could ask him or her, for instance, ‘Are there within this religious story facts that can be historically verified?’ It is a limited task we seek, like requesting a dentist to give advice on a scene in a film script or a vet to examine a horse’s leg before a race; yet it is helpful.
Turning to our story the historian may fasten his attention on a specific detail. ‘Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool with five porches. In Aramaic it is called Bethesda’ (Jn 5:2). Can we prove the existence of such a pool at the time of Christ?
Some critics have denied that the reference is accurate. ‘John’s Gospel was written three-quarters of a century after Christ’s death,’ they contend. ‘It was composed in Asia Minor far away from Jerusalem, fifty years after Jerusalem had been destroyed. How can we credit it with any historical precision?’ One confidently asserted that the evangelist invented the details of the location for the sake of symbolism. The ‘Sheep Gate’ reminds us that Christ is the Good Shepherd, he said. The name Bethesda means ‘house of mercy’. The five porticoes refer to the five books of Moses on which the Jews rely for salvation.(6) Others maintained that John had transferred to Jerusalem the story of a healing which from the synoptic tradition (Mk 2:1-12) we know to have taken place in Capernaum.(7)
In fact, historical research has vindicated John. In 1914 excavations in the area north-west of the Temple uncovered a huge reservoir trapezoidal in form, about seventy yards wide and a hundred yards long, divided into two pools by a partition in the middle. The reservoir had been hewn from the rock in Maccabean times, and during the reign of Herod the Great colonnades had been built on the four sides and on the dam in the middle. This explains the ‘five porticoes’ mentioned by John.
Another archaeological find forty years later brought confirmation regarding the name Bethesda. In one of the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, the so-called ‘Copper Scroll’, discovered in the third cave at Qumran, we read: ‘Look at Bethesdathayin, near the partition, there where you enter its smaller pool.’ Bethesdathayin means ‘the house of the two springs’.(8) The pilgrim from Bordeaux who left us the earliest written record of a European Christian visiting the Holy Land (ad 333) tells us the pool could still be seen in his time. ‘Inside the town there is a double pool surrounded by five porticoes which is called Betsaida’ (like many ancient writers he confused the name with that of the town in Galilee).(9) St Cyril, who was to become Bishop of Jerusalem, mentions at about the same time (ad 348) that the five porticoes mentioned by John are arranged in this way: ‘Four surround the pool on all sides while the fifth one, in which the sick were waiting, went right through the middle’.(10)
Incidentally, the presence of these sick people also mentioned by John —’a large multitude of sick people were lying in the porches, blind, lame and paralysed people’ (Jn 5:3)— has been explained by the finding of a small shrine to Aesculapius adjoining the pool. Aesculapius was the pagan God of Health.(11) This throws light on Jesus’ warning to the paralysed man: ‘Do not sin any more’ (Jn 5:14). As a Jew the man was not supposed to seek for a miraculous cure in a pagan shrine! (12)
All this confirms that John’s description of the pool at Bethesda is remarkably accurate. If we take into account that the Fourth Gospel has been shown in all its fifteen main geographical references to have been precise and trustworthy,(13) it follows that its traditions have to be treated with greater respect than they often have been by the critics. Even though the final edition of this gospel may have been composed towards the end of the first century, its contents reflect very ancient traditions that originated in Jerusalem.
The historian has supplied us with evidence from archaeology and ancient documents. Later we shall see that historical research also helps us to understand what happened on Easter day and how the gospel traditions were handed on. Historical research renders useful services. But this does not mean that the historian as historian can be the final judge or the truth of the Gospel’s religious claims.
In fact, his observations, though helpful on one level, are somewhat irrelevant as far as the message of the gospel is concerned. ‘The understanding of John’s story does not in any way depend on an identification of the pool in question’.(14) Responding to the message the believer will rather reflect on his own sins, on God and healing.
Bethesda’s pool has lost its power!
No angel, by his glad descent
dispenses that divine endower
which, with its healing waters, went;
but He, whose word surpassed its wave,
is still omnipotent to save.
This then is the conclusion we may draw. The story of Jesus speaks about God; about what he has done for us in Jesus. Part of the story can be checked by historical research—the part that is rooted in human events. But to grasp the real message of the story and to accept its life- giving truth we have to be believers. Are we, perhaps, in need of historians who believe? This is not as absurd as you might think. Thoughtful historians admit that no history can be written as ‘an objective study of neutral facts’. In selecting and assessing facts we are continuously applying our own interpretation. We look at history through the eyes of our culture and philosophy. We study the problems of the past as a key to those we face ourselves. Facts and interpretation are both essential. ‘As any working historian knows, if he stops to reflect on what he is doing as he thinks and writes, the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts’.15 When studying the story of Jesus Christ we need to be open to the religious interpretation of what is being narrated.
What we have discussed so far applies in a special way to Jesus’ resurrection. Is it an event that can be studied by historians? Has it left discernible traces in secular history? It is a question we need urgently to explore.
Online sections of Jesus for Ever:
1. Thomas Dekker (1570-1641); Joseph Addison (1672-1719); Albert Camus (1913-1960).
2. IAN WILSON, The Shroud of Turin, Doubleday, New York 1979.
3. S. WALKER and S. BURNETT, The Image of Augustus, British Museum Publication, London 1981.
4. D. THOMAS, The Face of Christ, Hamlyn, London 1979.
5. W. A. BEARDSLEY, ‘Truth in the Study of Religion’, in Truth, Myth and Symbol, ed. T. J. J. ALTIZER, PrenticeHall, Englewood Cliffs 1962, pp.61-75.
6. A. LOISY, cf. X. LEON-DUFOUR, Les e’vangiles et l’histoire de Je’sus, Du Seuil, Paris 1963, p.81.
7. H. C. KEE and F. W. YOUNG, Understanding the New Testament, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, Dutch Bosch & Keuning, Baarn 1965, vol 3, p.86.
8. M. BAILLET, J. T. MILIK and R. de VAUX Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan, vol III, Oxford 1962, p.271. See also: J. JEREMIAS, The Rediscovery of Bethesda, Louisville 1966.
9. P. J.-GEYER, Itinera Hierosolymita, Vienna 1898, p.21.
10. Homily on the Paralysed Man II. PC XXXIII 1133.
11. J. KLINGER, ‘Bethesda and the universality of the Logos’, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 27 (1983) 169-185.
12. The explanation that an angel touched the water from time to time (Jn 5:3b-4) is a gloss added by a copyist. It is not found in the most ancient manuscripts.
13. B. SCHWANK, ‘Ortskenntnisse im Vierten Evangelium’, Erbe und Auftrag 57 (1981) 427-442.
14. J. MARSH, St John, Penguin 1968, p.249
15. E. H. CARR. What is History? Reflections on the theory of history and the role of the historian, Penguin 1985, p.29.