Some of you may have seen our piece in Christianity Today called “The Jesus We’ll Never Know.” The essence of my article is that “historical Jesus” studies, the official Historical Jesus enterprise, has a major goal: finding what the real Jesus was really like. By that I mean the HJ enterprise wants to get behind the Creeds and behind the Gospels to discover what the human Jesus was like — and in doing this the HJ enterprise is about creating a new Jesus, a Jesus who differs from the Gospels and the Creeds because it will shear away any faith accretions and any legendary embellishments and any theological overlays.
The fundamental point I am making is that the HJ enterprise, by definition, creates a 5th Gospel. And there is no “consensus” 5th Gospel. Each HJ scholar comes to his or her (few women have entered into this discussion) own conclusions, no two scholars completely agree, and to a person tends to “believe in” the Jesus that is created.
The “Historical Jesus” (of the HJ enterprise) fashions a Jesus by examining the data (Gospels and ancient texts and archaeology etc), subjecting the data to rigorous historical methods, finding what genuinely survives, and the putting together what is left into a portrait of what the real Jesus was like.
I consider this “putting together” very important. Historians don’t just “find” things; they both find and put together into a portrait in order to make sense of what they find. ‘
In the article I contend the HJ enterprise is all but over; at the least, interest has waned to a pittance of what it was. Very few scholars are attending HJ sessions; very few books are now being produced (in contrast to an avalanche of books in the 80s and 90s); one could say the HJ is at a dead-end. I also contend that historical methods, because of what they assume about what can be demonstrated, can’t get us to the orthodox faith about Jesus’ death or his person or the significance of what he did and who he was.
To this article, CT solicited responses from Tom Wright, Craig Keener and, only in the online edition, Darrell Bock. These three are my friends and I value what they have to say. So, I’ll enter into brief conversation here with what each says:
Tom Wright opens with a statement that I think misunderstands me: “I am,” he says of himself, “to give up the lifetime habit of studying Jesus historically.” Well, no, not exactly. Yes, we have to use our historical tools; yes, we are invited and we can choose, if we want, to examine Jesus in historical context (the Jewish Jesus). But there is a difference between historical study of Jesus and the Historical Jesus enterprise. The former seeks to understand Jesus in context; the latter seeks to reconstruct a Jesus that differs from the Gospels and the Creeds. Yes, I totally agree with Tom about the various kinds of historical Jesus studies; some, to be sure, are orthodox. And I drink deeply from his well and from that of BF Meyer. But, when he says “not all historical Jesus scholarship is skeptical” I shall take a humble “ahem” and say, well, very little is not. And I totally agree that we have to do historical work to understand the Four Gospels. I wish Tom would acknowledge the intent of the HJ enterprise. On my shelves are hundreds of books on the historical Jesus: I can count on less than two hands those who are not, in essence, creating a fifth gospel. It’s rare; Tom is one such person and so too is BF Meyer.
I disagree with Tom that the Bultmann pronouncement left a vacuum: Joachim Jeremias stepped in and gave us plenty of gold. (But, disappointingly, he fell well short of finding an orthodox or even Gospel-esque Jesus.) Yes, we’ve got to do history; but doing history is different than joining the HJ enterprise, which is the burden of my article. And I agree with Tom’s last three points in his “Clearing away the Smoke Screens” section, even if I’d phrase things slightly differently.
So, again: Yes to Historical Work. But Nein for the orthodox when it comes to the value of the HJ enterprise for our faith.
Craig Keener reiterates the value of history for study of Jesus. I think I should have emphasizes that I believe in historical work more; my own work proves that. But I want to say again that I’m distinguishing between the HJ enterprise (think Borg who drops the eschatological Son of Man, etc, and then has a de-eschatologized Jesus that is as popular as any HJ enterprise book one can find today) and doing historical work in an apologetic vein, which both Wright and Keener are emphasizing.
There’s irony here: both Wright and Keener are saying, Yes, but not all do historical work as do the skeptics (HJ enterprise scholars). Which is precisely my point: I’m speaking about those scholars, and they confirm those scholars are doing just what I’m saying: reconstructing a new (non orthodox) Jesus.
Maybe Craig is right; maybe there’s more HJ study than I’m seeing. But since about the late 90s or early 00’s, I’m seeing precious few studies that really are proposing a “new” Jesus the way they were doing in the 80s and 90s. Dunn’s Jesus book is ultimately an affirmation of the Gospels and not at all a proposal of a new Jesus. I asked Jimmy to put it altogether in a final chp, which he did, and that Jesus is not a new Jesus. I don’t consider Jimmy’s book part of the HJ enterprise. JP Meier’s multi-volumes are both historically rigorous and absent of historical imagination of a new Jesus, which is one reason why his books (beside their length!) are not fashionable and plastered all over the media.
Darrell Bock’s online piece latched on to my “uninterpreted” Jesus comment. Well, I’ve read what I said again and here’s what I think I meant, and I suspect Darrell would agree with me: I meant the canonical interpretation of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God and the Creedal Jesus who is the Second Person of the Trinity. They want to get behind “those” interpretations to the real Jesus. I can see why Darrell grabbed that word. Darrell is, of course, right in what he says that there is no uninterpreted Jesus. But, Geza Vermes, often credited with the origins of the Third Quest, said an objective historian ought to be able to find the real Jesus if he (or she) pursues such in a disinterested way using sound historical methods. That’s what I mean by “uninterpreted.”
And, once again, I agree with Darrell: by all means historical work; yes, that work will enable apologetics. But what Darrell focuses on, apologetics, is not what the HJ enterprise is about at all; it’s about getting behind the Church’s Jesus. I will simply repeat myself in a different form: apologetic work is not HJ enterprise work. It’s apologetics.
But I’d like some admission by these three, or at least some more admission, that the vast majority — nearly all of it — of historical Jesus studies have had one major intent: to get behind the creeds and Gospels to see what Jesus was really like, before the Christians began rewriting history to present a christology, a Messiah Jesus, a Son of God Jesus, etc..
The question for me is this: Whose Story will we tell? This leads to a chase question: Will it be ours, the Story we fashion on our historical methods, or will it be the Church’s Story? I’ve chosen, after a decade of working in this field and being as rigorous with methods as I could have been, to opt for the Church’s Story. It’s the gospel.