Robert E. Lee, the Historical Jesus, and the Lost Cause

Reading reactions to my post on this past weekend’s Lee conference reminded me of a couple of entries from last spring.  Given the number of new readers I thought it might be worthwhile to post them again.

April 15, 2006

I’ve been reading with interest about the recent “discovery” of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which some scholars believe sheds new light on the story of Jesus and his death. I should say upfront that I am not a Christian; that said, I am very interested in the debates surrounding the interpretation and understanding of the historical Jesus. In other words, I am interested in better understanding the life of an incredibly important man. Of course, there is a deep-rooted tension here between what we can know historically about this individual and what many claim to “understand” through faith. If we are interested in the historical Jesus than the rules of historical inquiry seem to apply, but this is controversial as anyone who examines the historical data knows that it is problematic. Much of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the gospels contained in the New Testament; however, the earliest gospels are estimated to have been written anywhere between 70 and 120 years after the death of Jesus. This gap raises a number of difficult problems for the historian, including the question of authorship and motivation. A number of scholars have raised the possibilities that later gospels were either copied directly or paraphrased from the earlier texts. What this means, of course, is that the New Testament gospels do not necessarily provide independent confirmation of the subject in question. This gap also suggests that the earliest gospel was not written by someone who knew Jesus personally. Finally, even if we could confirm that the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were his own, we would still have the challenge of interpreting what he meant by what he said. And as any historian knows this can be extremely difficult if the questions of when, where, and why the words were spoken are unknown.

Getting back to the gap between the life of Jesus and the estimates of when the first accounts were written, imagine that the earliest documents we have of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were dated to the late 19th century and penned by people born after the event. How much of the motivation of the Founders could we uncover? Given the difficulties of interpreting the Constitution today even with a rich history of what they said and why, how far could we go in my imaginative scenario? I have to admit that I don’t know much about this new Judas document, but I welcome any new piece of information that may help peel back the layers of this intriguing individual and the life of Jesus. From what I’ve read the document is dated to the 4th century, which places it at a point later than the gospels. The dating of the document, however, does not seems to render it otiose. It’s been interesting reading reactions from individuals who relish the additional information as opposed to those who almost instinctively resist any challenge to their preferred interpretation. I suspect that part of the reason involves the faith that people exercise in reference to the life and resurrection of Jesus. But this raises the interesting question of the role – if at all – historical sources should play in one’s overall view. Should a believer be concerned about the history and/or historical inquiry that many scholars are presently engaged in surrounding the life of Jesus? If one’s belief in a certain interpretation of the life and death of Jesus is based entirely on faith are there any constraints on such a view; in other words, can I believe anything about Jesus on faith. If there are interpretve constrainsts, what exactly are they and who gets to exercise the authority? And if some historical content that is based on a close reading of a wide range of texts is necessary, how much and who gets to decide and why?

The tension between faith and a need to understand the past resonates in Civil War circles. There are those who have little patience with traditional views of the Confederacy and the Civil War which are rooted in the Lost Cause. Debate is difficult as both camps have divergent agendas. Lost Cause advocates seem more concerned with protecting a specific set of assumptions while historians with a more professional bent tend to find it easier to question deeply-rooted interpretations. I am fascinated by people who stick to their guns when it comes to defending a traditional interpretation of Lee, Jackson or even the “benevolent institution of slavery.” Notice that challenges are dealt with by utilizing the language of betrayal or sacrilege. Those who question “the faith” are called “northern liberals,” “communists,” “revisionists,” and yes, “academics.” For these people no amount of discussion, debate or even the introduction of new sources matters. (I should say that I’ve met some pretty stubborn/close-minded academics in my day. These are not mutually exclusive categories.) Their view is a matter of personal faith and not a function of serious historical inquiry. I am not necessarily judging such an approach, but it is clearly not an approach that I find productive in my own quest to better understand 19th century America. Of course there is a broad area in the middle where both camps merge in creative and at times confusing ways. It can be said that both sides are looking for some kind of meaning in the past, but the routes taken have little in common.

The Da Vinci Code and the Lost Cause

1 comment… add one

  • Bruce Miller May 2, 2007

    Kevin, that’s a very apt comparison to illustrate how contemporary faith-based versions of history work.

    A couple of comments on the Gospels. As you say, the canonical Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, though they were undoubtedly using source material from an earlier time. In addition, our modern notion of history as some kind of factual narrative of events just wasn’t in people’s heads back then. When Herodotus wrote history, his point was to describe the glory of Rome; recounting facts accurately in our sense was a distinctly lesser consideration.

    On the other hand, anthropologists researching “oral cultures” that rely on recited material rather than writing have found that with the specialized groups such societies have for recitations, a literary work can survive in a substantially stable form over a long period of time. So it’s not unthinkable that a long poem like the “Iliad” could have been transmitted orally over a couple of centuries with a high degree of accuracy to the original. A similar consideration also applies to the sayings of Jesus and stories about him. Judea in his time was hardly an exclusively “oral culture”. But it’s very possible that some of his sayings were transmitted in stable form for decades, especially since his followers quickly came to regard him as the Son of God and thus a person of very exceptional importance.

    Still, the point of the Gospels was not to reproduce transcripts of his sayings or “just the facts, ma’am” accounts of Jesus’ life. Their purpose was to present the message of Jesus in the form they understood it. Or, as the Biblical scholars say, the Gospels reflect the faith understanding of the communities which produced and used them. In the case of the Gospel of Judas, a group of Gnostic Christians. This doesn’t mean they made stuff up or deliberately falsified things in the sense we would understand that. It’s just that what they were writing was not meant to be primarily a factual account of the life of Jesus, but rather a message about the *faith* of Jesus.

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