Friday, September 16, 2005

Jim West and Interest in the Historical Jesus

Over at Biblical Theology, Jim West has an entry on Jesus, History, and Methodological Questions . He suggests that the Gospels are entirely kerygmatic with no interest in the naked history of Jesus as such. To give his due, the Gospels are theological and kerygmatic documents in their own right. Also, they are primarily concerned with the significance of Jesus for readers in the Greco-Roman world and not matting out minute historical detail. Even so, I cannot follow the Bultmannian notion that the Gospels are entirely divorced of historical interest in Jesus (even if their ‘historical’ interest was not historical in our modern sense of historical).

First, even if ‘Jesus died and rose’ was the most basic creedal formulation, it still requires or calls for explication of the identity one who is proclaimed as risen. Byrskog writes, “the kerygma, the story of the present Lord, remains, after all, intrinsically linked with the Jesus of the past” (Story as History – History as Story, 6) and Dieter Lührmann (“Jesus: History and Remembrance,” in Jesus Christ and Human Freedom, 46): “if the kerygma was in fact an historical given of this kind, and its substance was Jesus of Nazareth, an historical individual, surely one then must ask what support that kerygma had in that individual and his activity.” This surely indicates that Ernst Käsemann was right to insist that the historical Jesus was properly basic to faith.

Second, it is surely significant (as Leander Keck Who is Jesus? 3, observes) that the preferred term of address in the Gospels (with a few exceptions) for the Nazarene is ‘Jesus’ and not lavish Christological titles. The Gospels clearly differentiate between their post-Easter period and pre-Easter. Becker writes: “When the gospels define the time of Jesus as Christianity’s normative primeval time, they demonstrate their interest in the historical Jesus and show that they are not simply wanting to write a commentary on the post-Easter confession of faith” (Jürgen Becker, Jesus of Nazareth, 6).

Third, Jim’s understanding of 2 Cor. 5.16 (following Schweitzer, Bultmann and Schoeps no less) does not express Paul’s historical disinterest in Jesus. On the contrary, Paul states that he formerly viewed Christ from a worldly perspective but now comprehends Christ from the vantage of one who is “in Christ”. Paul may be referring to his former knowledge of Christ which operated with a false notion of messiahship or else acknowledging his prior hostility towards the Jesus movement. There is no depreciation of historical knowledge. Also, why project stories and sayings onto Jesus in a pre-Easter setting, if the pre-Easter Jesus carried no authority or significance? Surely it would be the risen kyrios who the congregations expected to hear from? A better reason is that persons were interested in the contours of Jesus’ life. I concur with Charlesworth: “The sheer existence of the Gospels – which include the celebration of the life and teachings of the pre-Easter Jesus – proves that from the earliest decades of the movement associated with Jesus there must have been some historical interest in Jesus of Nazareth” (Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism, 13).

Fourth, Jim presents an unnecessary and unhelpful antithesis between history and theology. To be sure, there is no such as uninterpreted history (secular or religious), so there is no justification for stating that because the Gospels interweave history and theology that there is no history at all!

But I'll leave it there, and graciously let Jim have the last word!

1 comment:

TheBlueRaja said...

It would be intresting to know what qualifies as "historical information" and if only a reporting genre could carry such information. Beyond demonstrating that the disciples were actually interested in a historical Jesus (which you're terse sketch does well), there seems to be some epistemological assumptions that need defending on Jim's view -- namely that there is some sort of God's eye view value neutral platform from which to describe the life and times of Jesus, divorced from credalism or a storied understanding of some kind (whether that be Enlightenment deism, naturalistic science or Jewish apocalypticism). The idea that there can be a cleave between "credal" and "kerygmatic" understanding Jesus seems predicated on a pretty thin view of the credalism which fueled public proclamation of the Christ - as if it were a series of dogmatic assertions affirmed after an event rather than a complex fabric of worldview, praxis and story. Refusing the sharp distinction betwen faith and history is the strength of Wright's methodology, in my (pathetic and uninformed) estimation.