THE MYTH OF THE SUPPRESSING CHURCH:

A Comment on Walter Wink’s The Human Being

by Jack Miles

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Rather than mere Bible criticism, Walter Wink’s new book—in this, like his previous books—is Bible critique in the service of ecclesiastical and ultimately of social reform. He writes:  
 

The present meaning of the historical Jesus has been the unconscious agenda of the Jesus-quest these past two centuries. Driving that enormous undertaking was an inchoate desire among Christian scholars to recover something numinous and lost within themselves, and within contemporary religion. (8)  
Wink sets out to make this unconscious agenda conscious and to embrace it as a fully religious agenda—the agenda, namely, of creating a myth of the Human Jesus to replace the myth of God Incarnate. While repudiating the quest for the historical Jesus as historiography, he applauds it as mythopoesis:  
 
I in no way deplore these efforts to construct a new, liberating Jesus- myth. I believe it is the most important theological enterprise since the Protestant Reformation, urgently to be pursued. The problem is that many scholars believed they were producing objective historiography rather than creating a necessary new myth. (10)

Candor about the religious agenda empowers Wink, as he re-reads the Gospels, to pick and choose, approve and disapprove unapologetically. It was a brilliant inspiration on his part to use the iridescent epithet “Son of Man,” which Jesus applies to himself at maximally numinous moments in the Gospel, as his vehicle for this venture in the recovery of the numinous.

I scarcely need remind this audience that the word pastoral is generally a term of disparagement in Bible scholarship. This being the case, I am happy to report that the grounding of this book within New Testament scholarship is impressively wide. Indeed, my most personal regret about it is that it has no index, for again and again Wink offers, entirely en passant, trenchant capsule commentaries to which I would happily recur if I could find them easily. But as he does this, he makes the “Son of Man” verses or, to use his pointed translation, the “Human Being” verses into an archetype that becomes a strand on which all these pearls can be strung. Endlessly energetic on the page, Wink rises on occasion to lapidary formulations worthy of Martial. Though I cannot imagine any scholar, much less any layman, reading this book with complete agreement, I cannot either imagine any reading it with boredom.

That said, let me ask: Is Wink right about Christian New Testament scholars? Have they in fact been motivated by the desire to recover something “numinous and lost within themselves ”? When he says of them that because “traditional Christianity suppressed [Jesus’] humanness in favor of his divinity, the recovery of Jesus’ full humanity is felt as a remedial and even, for some, as a sacred task” (13 ), do they recognize themselves in the description? Is this remedial task in fact a sacred calling for them? I was trained as an Old Testament rather than a New Testament scholar, and I have long been struck by how different the respective academic subcultures are in their mood. The normal operating temperature of Old Testament scholarship is a noticeable few degrees cooler than that of New Testament scholarship. I must confess, moreover, as a man who, though now a practicing Episcopalian, was raised a Roman Catholic that Wink’s emotional urgency about the construction of a new Jesus-myth strikes me as quintessentially Protestant. When he characterizes the construction of a new, liberating Jesus-myth as “the most important theological enterprise since the Protestant Reformation, urgently to be pursued,” I find myself thinking that it is in fact the same theological enterprise, urgent in much the same way. The Protestant Reformation was surely an enterprise in Jesus-myth construction, but it had built into it an essential piece of historiography. Essential to the sixteenth-century Jesus-myth was the supposition that in simple, historical fact Rome had suppressed the truth about Jesus and his message. In Wink’s new theological enterprise, though the quest for a historically objective Jesus is renounced, the need for a historically objective suppression remains. In his structurally Protestant vision, the role of Rome is played by the pre-Roman, Greek-speaking church of the eastern Mediterranean. I hasten to add that when speaking of this church, he is unfailingly irenic rather than polemic. Nonetheless, a first-order critique of his critique must ask whether suppressed is the right word to use of the conduct of the early church toward the humanness of Jesus.

How else might the historical record be rationalized? Well, there were millions of Jews in the Roman Empire. Why should the humanness of any one of them have been celebrated? Was Jesus of Nazareth inherently so much more humane than his Jewish contemporaries—than Hillel, for example—that he deserved this privilege? Could it not be that his divinization, occurring as early as it did, in fact preceded and is responsible for the subsequent celebration of his human performance? In his thirteenth chapter, “The Future of the Human Being,” whose two subdivisions are “The Eclipse of the Human Being” and “The Recovery of the Human Being,” Wink comes close to entertaining if not quite conceding this very point. He writes:  
 

The human Jesus was an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head. He suffered and was treated with contempt, but nevertheless had authority on earth to forgive sins and to decide what is right. On his death, however, he became the exalted Lord of all, who reigns with God in heaven, and who will come again to judge the quick and the dead. It appears that the public was not ready for the Human Being that Jesus knew and to which he called others to relate. . . .But the apocalypticization of the gospel nevertheless served an important purpose. It held the urgency of the Human Being’s “coming,” as it were, in suspension, preserving the potential of the Human Being for future generations. (188)  
In this quotation, the first sentence, “The human Jesus was an itinerant preacher. . . ,” is a part of Wink’s new Jesus-myth. The second sentence, “On his death, however, he became the exalted Lord of all. . . ,” is not a part of the new Jesus-myth but, as Wink would see it, part of the historical record of suppression and, as I would see it, part of the structurally indispensable myth of the suppressing church. As for Wink’s conclusion, “But the apocalypticization of the gospel nevertheless served an important purpose. . . ,” it goes some distance toward turning the church myth back into church history. Yet the sentence in this typically pregnant quotation to which I would most like to direct attention is the aside: “It appears that the public was not ready for the Human Being that Jesus knew and to which he called others to relate.” As an explanatory hypothesis for the alleged suppression, this claim that “the public was not ready” seems a bit ad hoc and unargued. Why, I ask, would the Jews who founded Christianity have suppressed the humanness of Jesus? This suppression, if suppression it was, occurred too early for it to be blamed on the influence of Gentile converts to this Jewish movement. The suppression can only have been a Jewish suppression for Jewish reasons.

I answer my own question with the suggestion that the focus be shifted from Jesus to God. Rather than thinking urgently about Jesus, the Jews who mythologized him began by thinking urgently about their God. They did not begin with a Jesus-problem, in other words. As God abandoned them to cruel oppression and then catastrophic defeat, they began with a God-problem to which, in the hands of creative writers as well as of courageous and equally creative leaders, Jesus, divinized, became a kind of solution. Substitute the phrase Jewish writers for the phrase Christian church when discussing deletions and insertions in the Jesus myth, and observe how the emotional climate shifts. If Jesus had not been a solution to these writers’ God-problem, nothing about him—least of all the details of his generally Jewish preaching—would have been of much interest to them. Rather than the suppression of Jesus’ humanness, then, I submit that we may speak of an initial and unsurprising neglect of his humanness, in favor of a more pressing topic—the sovereignty and, if you will, the viability of God—and then, later, of an equally natural interest in the biographical details that had been neglected. This way of engaging the question breaks with the quasi-Orwellian principle: Jesus good, church bad. Using an historical template like this, we may find Jesus Christ no more and no less than a key contributor to the ideal of the Human Being around which Wink would form a new, more humane Jesus-myth, thus escaping the alienation of humanity from itself that Feuerbach thought inevitable in religion.

Using such a template, whether or not there is evidence for a Q-community, there is no longer a pressing motive to postulate one. Mark Goodacre and the scholars for whom he speaks in his cogently argued The Case Against Q may well be right. There may well have existed neither Q nor any body of “Q-people,” and yet the project of creating a new, humane, liberating Jesus-myth need suffer thereby no grievous wound. Everything that such a project would require is, so to speak, available under other Christian auspices.

In saying all this, I scarcely see myself as in any radical disagreement with Walter Wink. For in his discussion of competing atonement theories, Wink makes my favorite of all the digressions that I so wish were indexed in his book. He writes:  

The real issue behind atonement is whether our anthropology is commensurate with our Christology. If we have a high Christology in which Jesus is divine, but a low anthropology in which we see ourselves as weak, sinful, and incorrigible, we will deny ourselves the powers that we see in Jesus. But if we have a high Christology and a high anthropology, as in Orthodox tradition, we will be inspired, by our image of Jesus, to develop our God-given powers. Similarly, if we have a low Christology in which Jesus is fully human, and a matching anthropology that acknowledges the possibility of our becoming more fully human as well, then that low Christology is also valid. But a low Christology and a high anthropology will lead to arrogance and inflation and the unreflective assertion that we are gods. The inescapable relativity of Christologies, their number and variety, are eloquent witness to the high degree of subjectivity involved. You get the Jesus you need. Our needs change over our life span. Our development stage will predispose us to the appropriate Christological type. The Holy Spirit will be our guide. (111)  

This wonderfully wise and broad-minded statement, clearly the fruit of wide experience no less than of wide reading, reflects Wink’s keen interest in how psychological and social health are connected and how different religious visions can serve health in their different ways.

Reading Wink is an experience likely to drive any Bible scholar to question himself and his motives for studying and writing about this of all subjects. In my own case, what this book brought back to me—or brought me back to—was the powerful impulse that I felt immediately after concluding my doctorate at Harvard and immediately after leaving the Society of Jesus to educate myself in the other religious visions of the world. For the first two of my four years as a college professor, I read nothing but comparative religion. Graduate study at Harvard had been comparative Semitic religion. I felt compelled to broaden the comparison—an exercise that led me to conclude that it was by thinking about science as the received, assumed truth of modern society that organized religion would find its clearest path forward.

Yet I no longer felt any sense of responsibility for organized religion. When I left the Jesuits, I rather consciously got out of the business of salvation and into the business of salvage, personal and professional. My two books on the Bible reflect my belief that what can most surely be salvaged for the Bible is a place in the modern Western literary canon. There, however, what is expected of the Bible is of the same order as what is expected of the Odyssey or the Iliad, and readers are encouraged to regard its central character—the Lord Yahweh and the Lord Christ—with the same equanimity with which they regard Zeus.

To put it mildly, this is not Walter Wink’s agenda. But that this was the memory that his book awakened in me leads to the comment with which I will close. As Wink’s vision of linked anthropologies and Christologies may easily suggest, his adventure in mythopoesis is one not easily confined to Christianity at all. Late in the book, in a chapter on Jewish mysticism, he writes:  
 

In our Father/Mother’s house, there are many mansions, with rooms for Moses, Elijah, Enoch, Metatron, Melchizedek, and—why not blurt it out—everyone who has served to reveal the Humanchild since history began. Any number of traditions can nurture this archetype of human transformation. (229)  

What Wink understands to be the “most important theological enterprise since the Reformation” is, yes, on one level the old Reformational enterprise merely reprised. And yet, at another level, and why not blurt this out, it is not merely post-Reformational but post-Christian. Wink’s readers will wait with interest to see how his enterprise, thus largely and daringly conceived, will finally unfold.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2003, Vol. 53,  No 2.