I heard John Webster at St Andrews last year at Hebrews 2006. It is not very often, it seems, that the theologians and the Biblical Studies folks conference together. Michael Bird at Euangelion reports this provocative comment by John about the Historical Jesus:
"The only historical Jesus there is is the one who has his being in union with the Son of God who is eternally begotten of the Father. Those who pore over the gospels searching for another Jesus (whether their motives be apologetic or critical) pierce their hearts with many pangs, for they study a matter which does not exist."And the new school terms are beginning in the North so all the devotional and confessional young students are meeting their first exposure to the critical historical methods - and as Mark Goodacre points out, it is important to have your assumptions questioned.
After years of dialogue with Jesus Seminar folks, I think I incline to Webster's statement. It fits too with a question a friend of mine asked me about comfort recently: what does the word paracletos have as roots in the Hebrew tradition?
It's a somewhat roundabout question, but the intent is to find the continuity between the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew tradition. When I was young, like those unsuspecting students starting classes, someone told me that no one really knew what paracletos meant. But really they meant that we can't translate the word very well because it has too many overtones. So some translations don't translate the word - but it has a perfectly good set of ancient roots.
On a tip from my son-in-law, I began to look at the Hebrew word, nacham, that is used in the name Nehemiah, an administrator at the time of the rebuilding of the temple. It is also the word that begins the book of consolation -Isaiah 40. Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, (remember Handel.) It is also the word that is used when God repents. And sometimes, it means that God sighs. The word, like paracletos, has legal overtones - advocacy.
As with so many words, one word won't do in the English. The same is true of hesed which Suzanne wrote about recently (July Archive at Better Bibles Blog). These words have a wide range because they express both sides of a relationship. You could almost say the word gets in between us as mediator. So hesed represents God's covenant love but is also used to represent the objects of God's love - the hasidim. It can 'mean' many things in a relationship - mercy, steadfastness, loyalty, even rebuke.
The same is true for naham. It is translated comfort and consolation and it has the strength of advocacy also and is greatly to be desired. For another NT example, remember that Simeon was looking for the consolation of Israel - related word paraklesis, same hope, same substance.
The image continues further when we recognize what a crescendo there is on the role of the Spirit in the New Testament. I began an exploration of this here years ago but have not had time to continue it. The Spirit is the builder of the new temple. I don't want to express this in too few words, for a pithy statement is no substitute for the reality of the Spirit's work in us. Our liturgies and traditions try to do justice to it and sometimes do.
So let us pore over the gospels, as John Webster invites us to - but not to be so distracted by tradition, or method, that we miss entering into the love of the life-giving Spirit which is in this matter.