In a recent article in CT, I called into question historical Jesus studies — as an enterprise. In varying ways, each of the respondents in the CT format — Tom Wright, Darrell Bock and Craig Keener — reaffirmed their commitment to the value of historical work. In the most recent CT, under Viewpoints, two letter writers make the same reaffirmation: historical work on Jesus and Judaism is valuable. In other words, by affirming the value of historical work the responses were seen as a critique of my original proposal.
A number of friends who read my original article carefully wrote me to say they thought the critics failed to see the careful distinction I was making and ended up affirming something that I myself have affirmed, do affirm and will continue to affirm.
So one more time: I am calling into question the theological value of the historical Jesus enterprise. I am not calling into question the value of historical work. Let me define myself one more time because what I’m saying here is not one of those “distinctions without a difference” but one of those distinctions that makes a huge difference.
I affirm historical work: study Jesus in his Jewish context (my books have done this in a number of ways); study the Gospels in their historical contexts; do historical work and apply that to what we see in the New Testament; study Qumran texts and all the Jewish and Greco-Roman texts we can find and study them carefully; do all of this. I am 100% committed to this kind of work.
Sometimes this kind of work is powerful for apologetics; sometimes it is incredibly enlightening for what Jesus was doing and what the Gospel texts are saying or at least what was assumed and embedded in their social codes. Do all of this. I do this and I will continue to do this.
But the historical Jesus enterprise is a different kettle of fish, and it is all I was saying: the historical Jesus enterprise has one major goal: to separate the real Jesus from the Church’s beliefs about Jesus and to reconstruct what the real Jesus was really like, in spite of what the Church has always believed. To do this, it pronounces on what is historical or authentic and it then dismisses that which is determined inauthentic and then, with the evidence that survives the scrutiny, reconstructs what Jesus was really like. Here’s how I put it in the article:
The historical Jesus is the Jesus whom scholars have reconstructed on the basis of historical methods over against the canonical portraits of Jesus in the Gospels of our New Testament, and over against the orthodox Jesus of the church.
Marc Borg, for instance, is well-known for a major dismissal: he dismisses the “apocalyptic” Jesus and to do this he has concluded that the apocalyptic stuff in the Gospels was not said by Jesus and was later added. Once this apocalyptic stuff is cut from the texts, he constructs a “non-apocalyptic religious Jesus.”
My article was an attempt to argue against the historical Jesus enterprise, not an argument against doing history or the value of history when it comes to our knowledge about Jesus. The Church has a Jesus; it is found in the apostolic witness to Jesus in the Four Gospels. That is the Jesus upon whom we need to focus. The Jesus(es) of the historical Jesus enterprise are here today and gone tomorrow, and the next generation will find another Jesus and so on and on forever and ever. I’ve got shelves and shelves of such books … and most people don’t know the names nor care about the ideas of those scholarly proposals of what Jesus was really like (for them, in their time).
The question is this: Which Jesus will we choose? The Church’s Jesus or the historian’s Jesus?