Author: Klassen, Mary E
Date published: July 11, 2011
Asking questions-45 in all-James Charlesworth demonstrated the important link between knowledge and faith in the Theological Lectureship at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) earlier this year.
Charlesworth, professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, N.J., is also director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton. His questions circled around Jesus and his place in the Jewish world in which he lived. The Dead Sea Scrolls, Charlesworth said, "have caused us to correct virtually 2,000 years of misconceptions and misperceptions," and are helping scholars to get a better picture of Jesus and how his teachings corresponded to-and contrasted with-teachings of others at the time.
Each of Charlesworth's three lectures included 15 questions, some of which he admitted are difficult to answer. "No mature faith evolves out of coward fear, which hides from the hardest questions," he said. "Mature Christianity . . . is grounded in earthiness; it is scandalously honest."
Through these questions, Charlesworth explored issues such as the importance of archeology in appreciating Jesus' world; how Jews at the time of Jesus viewed their own sacred scriptures and the canon that defined their faith; the importance of some scriptures not included in the Bible Christians use; and how Jesus related to, or might have been influenced by, the Essenes, a community of Jews in Israel with rigid, conservative practices.
Charlesworth has excavated at several sites in Israel, and with other colleagues has worked to make the Qumran Scrolls available in an English translation. With this background, he pointed out the importance of discovering details of life in Jesus' time. "Focusing on Jesus' time, his type of Judaism, and the Holy Land, with its rich topographical features, helps us comprehend Jesus' parables that are filled with the daily life of a Jew who lived in Israel/Palestine," Charlesworth pointed out.
More than 950 manuscripts from the time and place of Jesus' life have been recovered from 11 caves near Qumran. "How important are they?" Charlesworth asked, and then explained: "An unknown Jewish library was found in the Holy Land and the documents date from the beginnings of Christianity. . . . All of them are over 2,000 years old and were held and frequently considered sacred by many of Jesus' contemporaries. Some are manuscripts of books in our Bible, and the contents challenge present editions of Scripture. . . . Most importantly, the scrolls provide the landscape of Jesus' Judaism. All previous reconstructions of his culture are now proved to be inaccurate."
Charlesworth repeatedly emphasized the role of faith even as difficult questions are asked and assumptions are overturned. "Archeology cannot form faith," he said, stressing, though, "It can, however, inform faith. While studying will never provide sufficient answers or remove all doubt, it deepens faith and the remaining honest doubt is more faithful to God's call than all the creeds combined."
Charlesworth has taught at Duke University; Hebrew University and the Albright Institute, both in Jerusalem; and the University of Tübingen in Germany. An ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, he serves as advisor to the denomination's World Missionary Council and preaches and lectures globally.
STORY AND PHOTO BY MARY E. KLASSEN
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary