Historical Jesus 5: Summing Up
This has been a good week of conversation about historical Jesus studies, but it is worth our time just to put together some of the leading ideas that need to be kept in mind.
Above all and over everything in historical Jesus studies is an echo of something Schweitzer said long ago: When historical Jesus scholars look down into the deep well of the evidence for Jesus they tend to see a Jesus that looks alot like themselves. Liberals find a liberal Jesus; conservatives find a conservative Jesus. No one doesn’t care — don’t let them fool you. Which means what? We need serious deconstruction every time we read a book about Jesus. Every time; every book; mine too. Everyone wants Jesus on their side.
And standing next to this observation is this: there was Jesus — the real one, the one who lived and died. There is the real Jesus and there are the Gospels; the Gospels interpret Jesus and present Jesus. And there are reconstructions of Jesus based on the Gospels, based on ancient evidence, based on methods. Both the Gospels and scholars today “construe” Jesus into an image. Which do we trust?
First, let us remember that the “historical” Jesus is the “Jesus” that is constructed by scholars on the basis of historical Jesus methods. The historical Jesus might be the “real” Jesus of flesh and blood, but what we must say is that the historical Jesus is the one that scholars arrive at when they use scholarly methods.
Second, the driving force of the historical Jesus quest is the desire to wedge apart the Church’s beliefs about Jesus (the Gospels, the Creeds) and what “disinterested” scholarship can recover about Jesus on the basis of historical methods.
Third, the historical Jesus is not the same as learning about the Jewish world and situating something we see in our Gospels into that Jewish world. There is lots of this today in conservative books and pulpits, but this is not the same as historical Jesus studies. It is a historical understanding or contextualizing of the Jesus of the Gospels.
Fourth, I don’t think historical Jesus has any place in theological studies for the Church. To bracket off one’s theological views in order to study the historical Jesus and then to do theological studies on top of that bracketed-off-study-of-Jesus is a vicious circular argument. You won’t find the Church’s Jesus this way because you’ve decided the Church’s Jesus isn’t allowed at the table! Historical Jesus studies is for historians.
Fifth, still, nearly every historical Jesus scholar I know — and I know most of them — believes in the portrait of Jesus they construct on the basis of the historical methods. John Dominic Crossan and Marc Borg and Tom Wright and Dick Horsley et al believe, so it seems to me, in the Jesus they have constructed. (We all do this, don’t we?)
Sixth, historical Jesus studies have waned significantly in the last ten years. The hey day was the 80s and 90s but the creative work has been done, climaxing perhaps in Tom Wright’s big book, and mostly the conversation has grown stale. What used to attract hundreds to academic sessions now attracts 30 or 40.
Seventh, very few women scholars have found their interest in the historical Jesus debates to such a degree that they write new books on the historical Jesus. I don’t know why, for many have engaged the debate. Two major American scholars, both of them Jewish, who have written books on Jesus are Paula Fredriksen and Amy-Jill Levine.
Eighth, when it comes to the Jesus Seminar speaking of a “consensus”: balderdash! How could one possibly have a consensus about Jesus? Ask every scholar in the world? The vast majority of those who were polled in the Jesus Seminar format are New Questers and theologically unorthodox; the results can be easily deconstructed as representing the group that knew in advance where they might end up. This is said by one who has fully engaged that scholarship, has learned from that scholarship, and who knows that there was great give-and-take within that Seminar.
Final point: postmodernity has emphasized, though not discovered, that all history writing is the work of a writer to take facts etc and string them into a meaningful narrative so that the meaning of a life is brought to the fore. This means that even the Gospels are “presentations” by authors. The question is this: What role does another “Jesus presentation” play in the life of the Church? Do we need any presentations outside those the Church has given us in the Gospels? Are these the “way the Church understands Jesus”?
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