by John Stamps
You might ask yourself, what possibly could an 11th century Byzantine monk (949-1022) have to say that is the least bit relevant to the Quest of the Historical Jesus?
In a nutshell, the Quest of the Historical Jesus repeatedly tried to disentangle the 1st century Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith. Starting with the British Deists in the late 1600’s—John Toland, Matthew Tindal, William Wollaston, Anthony Collins, and Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, yes, George Herbert’s agnostic brother—the Questers up to the present day all wanted to remove the encrusted layers of dogma and tradition that the Church had “dishonestly” applied to the earthly Jesus and hopefully recover the “real” Jesus. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) famously documented this Quest as a great historical feat of German intellectual history that Herman Samuel Reimarus had inaugurated—Schweitzer conveniently ignored the British Deists because, well, they weren’t German. And according to Schweitzer, the great culmination of the Quest ended with William Wrede and himself (but mostly with himself).
Without sounding too snarky, each Quest attempt was a failure—100% of them. Of course some of the failures were more colossal than others. But none were successful. No, not one. Not the First Quest (epitomized by Albert Schweitzer), not the Second Quest (epitomized by Günther Bornkamm and Ernst Käsemann), and not the Third Quest (epitomized by John Dominic Crossan, among other notable failures).
And barring a new source of information—for example, Indiana Jones finds the long-lost, elusive “Q” source buried in Israel somewhere or better yet, The Life and Letters of Yeshua Bar-Yosef in three volumes with photographs per C.S. Lewis—the Questers still must content themselves with slicing-and-dicing the canonical Gospels for those precious and few nuggets of assured historical data they can squeeze through their plausibility filters and then publish for a gullible public.
Now let me introduce St Symeon the “New” Theologian. St Symeon is an Orthodox theologian in excellent standing. His prominence is exceeded only by St Gregory Palamas, Dionysius the Areopagite, or the Cappadocian trio of St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzus, and St Gregory of Nyssa. But his reputation wasn’t always so sterling. When you value following the traditional old paths as much as Eastern Orthodoxy does, to label someone a “new” theologian is a calculated Byzantine insult. But Orthodoxy, to her credit, flipped the cheap shot upside-down in the best Christian tradition of turning insults to her own advantage.
You can easily caricature Eastern Orthodoxy as an archaic theology that is “conservative” and “Byzantine” in the absolute worst sense of the words—content to parrot old theological formulas but utterly removed from the life and power of the Holy Spirit. Now nobody wants to do theology in a museum. But if you think that way about Eastern Orthodoxy, don’t blame St Symeon. St Symeon absolutely did not think Eastern Orthodoxy was barren traditionalism—what Jaroslav Pelikan quipped as “the dead faith of the living.” He argued repeatedly that the absolute dead-center goal of Orthodox theology was experiencing the living God in the power of the Holy Spirit. But for all his troubles, St Symeon was exiled by his many opponents and eventually died of dysentery on March 12, 1022. But since history is filled with irony, it’s the Abbot of the St Mammas monastery we remember as a “saint,” not any of his enemies (for example, Metropolitan Stephen of Nicomedia).
I’m going to focus mainly on his electrifying Discourse 29 where St Symeon deals with the basic issues that confront anyone who is haunted by the Quest of the Historical Jesus, as I am. The first time I read St Symeon, Discourse 29 jolted me. I felt a kindred spirit where I had least expected it. I was incredulous that hoary St Symeon responded to the strongest complaints people make today about why they aren’t faithful Christians.
He starts with the problem of historical distance—we aren’t eyewitnesses of Jesus or His apostles. You cannot really blame us for our lack of faith. We’re the victims of bad timing. If only I had seen Jesus of Nazareth walking down the dusty roads of Galilee just one time or if only I had heard Him speak just one sermon, I would believe! We intuitively feel like our faith suffers a major disadvantage because Jesus is no longer bodily present with us today. We’re stuck with faith, while 1st century believers had access to eyewitnesses. Here’s how St Symeon expresses the problem:
There are many who say every day, and we, too, hear them as they say it: “Were we living in the days of the apostles, and like them had been found worthy of seeing Him, we too would have become holy like them.” They do not know that He is the same who speaks to the whole world both then and now. For if He is not the same who was of old and is now, who is God in every respect and in every way and in the same way, whether in His operations or in the sacred rites, how was it that the Father appears in the Son, and the Son in the Father through the Spirit, as He tells us in these words: “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (Catechetical Discourse 29, in Symeon the New Theologian, p. 308)
This perennial temptation to feel sorry for yourself because you didn’t live in the 1st century is trans-generational, as pervasive in the 11th century as it is in the 18th or 21st century. Gotthold Lessing, the famous Enlightenment philosopher and literary critic (1729-1781), crisply articulated the problem as well as anyone in his “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power.” Lessing’s title riffs ironically on St Paul (1 Corinthians 2:4). First-century Christians experienced the power of the Holy Spirit at first-hand; we only hear second-hand testimonies of Spirit and power, many centuries after the fact, which are hardly the same thing.
Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another. … If I had lived at the time of Christ, then of course the prophecies fulfilled in his person would have made me pay great attention to him. If I had actually seen him perform miracles, if I had no cause to doubt that true miracles existed, then in a worker of miracles who had been marked out so long before, I would have gained so much confidence that I would willingly have submitted my intellect to his, and I would have believed him in all things in which equally indisputable experience did not tell against him.
Lessing goes on to argue that there’s no conceptual way to get from accidental and contingent historical claims, no matter how certain historians might claim they are, to metaphysical and moral truths. Forcing modern people to believe in miracles is intellectual tyranny.
That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap. If anyone can help me over it, let him do it, I beg him, I adjure him. He will deserve a divine reward from me.
Gotthold Lessing argued present-day believers cannot simply leap across the “ugly, broad ditch” that separates then from now. This ditch might not be infinitely vast, like the chasm separating Lazarus in Paradise and the rich man tormented in the flames of Hades (Luke 16:19ff). But the gap between past historical evidence and present-day theological claims remains immense indeed.
St Symeon seems to agree with Lessing, up to a point.
But perhaps someone will say, “It is not the same thing to have seen Him physically then, and now merely to hear His words and be taught concerning Him in His kingdom.” I too will tell you what is now and what was then are not exactly the same thing. Rather, what is here and now is greater, and leads us more readily to faith and assurance than if we had seen and heard Him then. At that time he appeared as an insignificant man to the ignorant Jews, but now He is proclaimed to us as true God. (Discourse 29, pp. 308-309)
St Symeon makes a startling concession here to anyone immersed in the quest for the historical Jesus. If you lived in the 1st century, you wouldn’t have found what you were looking for. Jesus of Nazareth was simply a Galilean Jew firmly embedded in the Second Temple Judaism of His day. If you could miraculously time travel 2000 years into the past and actually see Jesus of Nazareth, what would you witness? Symeon says you’d only see an “insignificant” 1st century Jew and nothing more. The Lord Jesus we worship and confess didn’t appear in majesty and splendor.
In fact, we probably wouldn’t even have recognized Jesus. He is not God striding across the face of the earth like Zeus or Hercules (pace Ernst Käsemann). Do you remember the famous scene in the movie Cocoon where Walter (wonderfully played by Brian Dennehy) pulls down his eyelid and freaks out Jack Bonner (adequately played by Steve Gutenberg)? A beam of light shoots out from Walter’s eye and reveals that he is a space alien. Certainly by that criterion, Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a space alien like Walter. With one notable exception (the Transfiguration on Mt Hermon), Jesus doesn’t step out of character and reveal Himself as anything other than as an insignificant 1st century Jewish rabbi. Like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, Jesus is solid through-and-through. There is no crack through which the infinite peeps out. St. Symeon uses the traditional formula from Chalcedon to emphasize the very real humanity of Jesus:
Then He was thought to be corruptible and mortal like any other man. It was a great thing that God the formless and invisible should, without suffering change or alteration, have taken form and be seen wholly visible altogether as a man, without differing from other men to our senses. For He ate and drank and slept, perspired and was weary, doing everything that pertains to man except sin. It would have been difficult to recognize and believe that he was God, who created the very Heaven and Earth and all things in them. (p. 309)
Jesus doesn’t stride across the earth like a god. Instead He plods steadily and decisively through Galilee to Jerusalem. He only goes wherever He is led by the Spirit. At one time, the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Devil. At another time, He plants His face like flint to journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), to confront the Cross where He will suffer a shameful death at the hands of evil men. But even in His Transfiguration, where “the appearance of His countenance was altered and His raiment became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29), Jesus is no “ethereal non-Jewish Christ who descends briefly from heaven into the world to reveal himself and then ascends again to a state of blessed detachment from the world.” No, only by screening out how deeply Jesus of Nazareth is enmeshed in Second Temple Judaism and not paying attention to the manifold echoes and allusions to Israel’s Scriptures would you ever imagine that He is anything other than a 1st century Jew.
Yet even more startling is how St Symeon flips Lessing’s argument on its head. Not only do contemporary believers not suffer a disadvantage; in fact, our spiritual position is superior: “What is here and now is greater, and leads us more readily to faith and assurance than if we had seen and heard Him then.” St Symeon here sounds eerily reminiscent of Soren Kierkegaard in his Philosophical Fragments, only eight centuries earlier. Later generations—those Christians Kierkegaard aptly calls “disciples at second hand”—do not suffer any spiritual disadvantage because we aren’t eyewitnesses. Two thousand years after the earthly Jesus, we neither experience an advantage or a disadvantage—the two basic responses possible to the Jesus event then are the exact same possible responses now—faith or scandal. “Blessed is He who takes no offense at Me” (Matt 11:6).
What faith affirms about Jesus is not directly perceptible, either then or now. Historical distance makes no difference at all. None of us can escape the scandal of the crucified Jesus. Mere passage of time neither mitigates nor increases the possibility of offense.
Thus, he who now hears Him daily calling and proclaiming the will of His blessed Father through the holy Gospels, but does not obey him with fear and trembling nor observe the things He commands, would not then, being present to see Him in person and hear His teaching, in any way have been willing to believe Him. There’s even the possibility that in his unbelief he would have thought Him an enemy of God rather than the true God, and would have blasphemed him! (p. 309)
Contemporary faith provides a startling 20/20 hindsight simply unavailable in 1st century Galilee or Jerusalem. If you do not believe now in Jesus as Lord, you would not have believed Him then.
But there lurks yet one more objection, more pernicious, more blasphemous than all the others. Hundreds of years before the Enlightenment, St Symeon puts his finger on this biggest problem to any person pondering the broad, ugly ditch between then and now.
But the man of whom I speak and whom I call heretics are those who say that there’s no one in our times and in our midst who is able to keep the Gospel commandments and become like the holy fathers. … Now those who say that this is impossible have not fallen into one particular heresy, but rather into all of them, if I may say so, so this one surpasses and covers them all in impiety and abundance of blasphemy. He who make this claim subverts all the divine Scriptures. … These opponents of God or, rather antichrists say, “It is impossible, impossible!” (p. 312)
If faith is impossible now, it was also impossible then. St Symeon repeats this theme again and again in Discourse 29. Has God changed in any way?
Tell me, why is it impossible? By what other means have the saints shone on the earth and become lights in the world? If it were impossible, not even they would have been able to succeed in this. … But if you refuse to suffer and be distressed, at least do not say that the thing is impossible. (p. 313)
Vast incredulity separated St Symeon and his 11th century critics. The amount of disbelief certainly hasn’t diminished since then. The retort St Symeon puts into the mouths of the skeptical and the incredulous, “It is impossible, impossible!” certainly rings true to me.
Again, Lessing crisply and decisively states the problem for us—“I live in the eighteenth century, in which miracles no longer happen.” He argued that reports of 1st century miracles have no evidential value in the 18th century. None whatsoever:
Origen was quite right in saying that in this proof of the spirit and of power the Christian religion was able to provide a proof of its own more divine than all Greek dialectic. For in his time there was still “the power to do miraculous things which still continued” among those who lived after Christ’s precept; and if he had undoubted examples of this, then if he was not to deny his own senses he had of necessity to recognize that proof of the spirit and of power.
But I am no longer in Origen’s position; I live in the eighteenth century, in which miracles no longer happen. If I even now hesitate to believe anything on the proof of the spirit and of power, which I can believe on other arguments more appropriate to my age: what is the problem?
The problem is that this proof of the spirit and of power no longer has any spirit or power, but has sunk to the level of human testimonies of spirit and power.
But his Enlightenment rhetoric is mere bombast and bluster. The claim that miracles no longer happened in the 18th century is curious, at best. Surely Lessing has read his Blaise Pascal or, better yet, his David Hume. Maybe no miracles occurred in Wolfenbüttel, Germany in the stacks of the Herzog August Library sponsored by the Duke of Brunswick. But 878 km (or 545 miles) to the southwest, Lessing surely could have visited Paris, France where not even the King of France could prevent the miracles of the Jansenists from roiling the French populace and authorities. God had stopped working miracles everywhere in Europe except in Paris of all places, the epicenter of the European Enlightenment.
At first, we miracle-mongers might be tempted to trot out a sociological argument—OK, maybe God does not work miracles in Palo Alto or Berkeley, but He could in East Palo Alto or Oakland. But here God is working miracles under the nose of the King of France, in Paris, “attested by a sufficient number of men and women of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning” (to flip David Hume’s argument on its head).
The St Médard miracles and its convulsionnaires associated with the Jansenist movement were not just famous throughout Europe, they were infamous. The miracles even transfixed the famous philosopher François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire), if only as a cudgel to whack and discredit the Roman Catholic Church.
If you don’t recall the Jansenist movement (or Jansenius, the bishop the movement was named for), Jansenius’ massive work Augustinus was condemned not once but at least three times by various popes (Urban VIII in 1642, Innocent X in 1653, and finally Alexander X in 1665). Jansenius was condemned for the best reasons of sheer political expedience. The 18th century French church wasn’t ready for a St Augustine who sounded more like John Calvin and his Huguenot followers than St Thomas Aquinas. The most famous Jansenist of all was Blaise Pascal. Contemporary readers of Pascal’s defense of the Christian faith, his Pensées, might be perplexed at his repeated and stunning insistence on how important miracles are to faith. (Here the Augustinian Jansenists were very different than the Augustinian Calvinists, who typically denied miracles took place in the 18th century.) They shouldn’t be. He became a full-fledged Jansenist when his 10-year old niece Marguerite was miraculously healed of her lacrimal fistula, a hideous stinking tumor that had afflicted her eye. In 1656, the abbess at the Port Royal monastery had pricked Marguerite’s eye with a sacred thorn from Jesus’ crown of thorns. Days later, the relic has completely healed her eye. All of Paris was astounded. But not Pascal. He became a believer.
But the second-most famous Jansenist is François de Pâris. He is, in many ways, even more fascinating than Pascal. François de Pâris was a Jansenist deacon and rigorist ascetic, who died in May 1, 1727 after a life of holy poverty. His tomb in the parish cemetery of Saint-Médard became a hot spot for pilgrims seeking healing for all manner of ailments physical (paralysis, cancer, and blindness, among others) and spiritual. In 1731, at least 70 documented miracles took place there. Due to massive social and political upheaval—the Jesuits hated the Jansenists and the Jansenists hated the Jesuits—King Louis XV finally shut down the cemetery in 1733 and locked the gates. One prankster with a wicked sense of humor placed the following sign on the cemetery gates:
De par le Roi, défense à Dieu de faire miracle en ce lieu.
By order of the King, it is forbidden to the Divinity to perform any more miracles in this vicinity.
Eventually the St Médard miracles and convulsionnaires burned themselves out, much like the Kentucky Cain Ridge revival in the 19th century and the Jesus Movement in the 20th century. But Lessing could hardly claim that no miracles occurred in Europe in the 18th century.
Now I readily concede that we Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, charismatics, Pentecostals, and other types of intellectually disreputable Christian believers have placed ourselves in a precarious position. None of us perform signs and wonders at will, except maybe at a Benny Hinn revival. Yet we are all Christian believers who affirm that God continues to work both wholesale (i.e. general providence) and retail (i.e. miracles) in the 21st century. We are not 19th century Princeton cessationists like B.B. Warfield who argued God stopped working retail at the end of the 1st century and He now works only wholesale, which ironically now sounds more Deistic than it was intended to be at the time. We might even reply, if grouchy St Augustine could change his mind about miracles, then so can we. Book XXII in The City of God is nothing short of astounding.
Even so, we’re all reminded of Jesus’ rebuke to His contemporaries, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign” (Matt 16:4) We’re adulterous if we claim we are married to Christ yet we diddle the Zeitgeist on the side. A faithful generation sticks with Jesus Christ in good times and bad, through thick and thin, as in any good marriage. Whether you’re scribes and Pharisees (Matt 12:39), Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1), a desperate father seeking healing (John 4:48), or multitudes seeking bread (John 6), Jesus offered no sign as a knock-down, indubitable proof to anyone. His signs pointed to God’s in-breaking Kingdom. They were never intended to offer assurances to prop up anyone’s belief system. Even so, St Symeon grasps this historical nettle with both hands and yanks it as hard as he can.
Has [St Gregory Nazianzus] then in this matter distinguished and separated some persons from others, and told us that it was possible for some, and impossible for others? … Let no one neglect such activity; but if anyone despairs of his own salvation and lies down on the bed of laxity, at least let him not say that this is impossible for those who are zealous. … But if these things follow on those who do not mourn in accordance with the Lord’s commandments, tell me, how is this heresy not the worst of all heresies? It was in vain, according to your view, that the condescension of God and His ascension took place!
What’s rather remarkable here, however, is St Symeon is not berating German rationalist theologians like David Friedrich Strauss. He is not haranguing liberal Episcopalian bishops who trot out their unbelief every Christmas and Easter. Nor is he attacking evangelical cessationists who think that miracles stopped the second that the ink dried on St John’s Gospel. No, he’s scolding his fellow Orthodox Christians, who should have known better but didn’t. St Symeon doesn’t argue that his fellow monks and clergy should start conjuring up miracles. He wants to start with something yet more basic—have a little faith. Or if not faith, at least weep tears of repentance over your lack of faith.
St Symeon counsels us not to let the Spirit of the Age (even at its most positivist) to determine how we view God’s power. If miracles are impossible now, then miracles were impossible then. He wanted them (and presumably us) to at least be open to the possibility that God can work in the 11th century—or the 21st century—in the same way that He worked in the 1st century. God sends us signs every so often as messy and awkward reminders that the Kingdom of God is still yet to come in all its fullness.
But there’s yet a more existential question at stake—“Why would I even want God to show me a miraculous sign? I’m perfectly happy and content if God works no miracles in my life!” None of us want our tidy worldviews breached with something as inconvenient as a sign from God. If God shows us a sign, then we’re held accountable for it. How do we live from then on? You might not want a sign from God, especially if your day-to-day view of reality is what G.K. Chesterton calls “what is experienced by a slightly drowsy businessman after a three-course lunch (JS: and two martinis), and that no other reality is conceivable” (Peter Berger’s paraphrase). Like the King of France, we erect our own placard outside the walls of our life: By my orders, God is strictly forbidden to work miracles in this place. But admit it—any talk about God working signs and wonders in the 21st century is uncomfortable if not absolutely preposterous. That’s why we need to heed St Symeon’s warnings all the more.
In short, St Symeon would not be impressed by the Quest of the Historical Jesus. Not for a second would he think you would find the “real” Jesus somewhere lurking in the past. You would not find what you were looking for then—we can only find the real Jesus now.
At that time He had visible converse with publicans and sinners and ate with them; now He is seated at the right hand of God the Father, from whom He was never separated in any way. We believe that He gives nourishment to all the world, and we say that nothing takes place apart from Him—if, at least, we believe. Then even the lowest spoke contemptuously of Him and said, “Is this not the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter?” But now He is worshipped by kings and rulers as the Son of the true God and as true God. He has glorified, and still glorifies, those who “worship Him in Spirit and in truth.” (p. 309)
St Symeon the New Theologian would counsel us to begin the hard work of repentance. We must not despair of our spiritual adultery with the Zeitgeist but participate in the mysteries of the church, where God grants joy, goodness, and hope. We must meet the real Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and eat His flesh and drink His blood. We must keep our eyes on the living Jesus, not an ossified historical fact sitting on a shelf in the Herzog August Library, but the crucified and risen Lord.
If we eschew the distractions of a theoretical pursuit of a historical Jesus, we’d see faith in the living Lord was never a matter of poring over learned tomes in a divinity school library. Whether in 1st century Corinth, 11th century Byzantium, 18th century Germany, or 21st century San Jose, we always encounter the living Jesus in very specific ways—catechesis, prayer, Eucharist, almsgiving, proclamation, obedience, Bible study, the experience of active love, just to name a few.
If Eastern Orthodoxy tells us anything worthwhile about Jesus of Nazareth, the living tradition didn’t evaporate into thin air when the last words of the last canonical Gospel were written down by St John. The living tradition wasn’t replaced but enriched by the written Gospels (and vice versa). The early church fathers—Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem—all show us that the written Gospels didn’t replace careful catechesis into the mystery of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The canonical Gospels become the gold standard for knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth handed down to future generations, but the living tradition continues to be the mechanism by which faith in Him is transmitted to future generations.
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John Stamps is currently Lead Information Developer at BMC Software in Santa Clara, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.