Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jesus without theology?

I went to a fascinating history seminar this week. Ian Heskith spoke about "The Historical Jesus in Victorian Britain: J.R. Seeley and controversy of Ecce Homo". It is quite the story.

This is part of a seminar series, "Narratives of secularisation" organised by the Centre for the History of European Discourses at UQ.

In the 1800's German "higher criticism" of the Bible was beginning to influence Anglican clergy leading some to lose faith in the uniqueness and authority of the Bible. This came to a fore with the publication in 1860 of "Essays and Reviews", an innocuous title for a controversial book. But its sales were dwarfed by Ecce Homo, published anonymously in 1865.
"Ecce Homo" is the Latin translation of "Behold the man", the words with which Pontius Pilate introduced Jesus to the crowd during his trial.
[Aside: it is also the title of Nietzsche's auto-biography].

The author strove to present a "non-theological" Jesus, focusing on his humanity. This was meant to be more "historical", "objective", and would make the church and Christianity attractive to a broader audience.

Interest in the book was amplified by the anonymity of the author. As much energy was spent on speculating who the author might be as debating the merits of the book. The mystery and controversy associated with the content of the book seems to have been particularly promoted and fuelled by the publisher MacMillan as a means to boost sales. This seems similar to what commercial publishers still do today.

The book received a multitude of reviews, both positive and negative. Some reviewers questioned the author's methodology. Is it really possible to consider Jesus without theology?

The author was eventually "outed" as John Robert Seeley, Professor of Latin at University College London (UCL).  It seems he chose to be anonymous for several reasons. He did not wish to embarrass his family as his father was head of an evangelical church publisher. He was also concerned his UCL affiliation may immediately lead some readers to dismiss his views because of its secular reputation.

It is interesting that once the authors identity was revealed sales of the book declined rapidly. Furthermore, it appears that largely based on this one publication Seeley was appointed to a Chair at Oxford. This may have been a largely "political" appointment  due to his broad church identification. Seeley went on to write several influential books which strove to make the case for a truly national church [uniting the Church of England with dissenters] and an ideological basis for British colonialism.

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