Tuesday, September 13, 2005

What is 'historical' about the 'historical Jesus'?

Rafael Rodriguez, a graduate student at Sheffield University, (I imagine he and James would have some good conversations) has written a good essay on the SBL forum entitled: "What is 'Historical' about the 'Historical Jesus'?". (I don’t know if Rafael knows it, but Gerd Theissen beat him to the punch in the catchy title: Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, ‘Der umstrittene historische Jesus. Oder: Wie historisch ist der historische Jesus?’ in Jesus als historische Gestalt: Beiträge zur Jesusforschung. Zum 60. Geburtstag von Gerd Theissen, ed. Annette Merz [FRLANT 202; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003], 3-7)

Rodriguez has written a penetrating article which a good read for anyone concerned with the problems and pains of trying to do historical Jesus studies.

His view of history as a synthesis of past and present also reminds me of Anthony Thiselton’s idea of hermeneutics as the fusion of horizons (i.e. between author, text, reader).

All in all, it is a good article as to how history is not a ‘thing-in-self’ that can be discovered, but neither is history purely a socially constructed entity. If I read Rodriguez correctly, we do have access to a historical Jesus, but only through the socially (and theologically) constructed reality that re-presents him, or as Dunn and Dahl would say, through the remembered Jesus. Rodriguez is worth quoting here:

Certainly the Evangelists — and the communities that nurtured the traditions they adapted and wrote down — understood the past of Jesus' ministry in terms of their present, but this is not to say that they (re)constituted their past completely. We also see in the gospels aspects of the past that are not especially conducive to the present of the later Jesus movements; this is usually what is meant when some logion or other is classified as "dissimilar" or "embarrassing." But Jesus's followers, including the Evangelists, constituted their present in light of the past. There was no perfect fit between Jesus and the circumstances of his later followers, but neither was the "historical Jesus" an unrecognizable figure, in need of updating, to those who endeavored to write his story.

Given that so many books on orality, memory, tradition and history are being written at the moment (e.g. Hengel, Stanton, Bockmuehl, Thatcher), this is a good little article to read as an introduction to the complexities and problems involved. I would like to have seen Rodriguez also delve a little more into epistemology (e.g. critical realism) since I think that epistemological questions must been engaged along side the sociology and historiographical issues as well.


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Anyway, I responded to s similar paper Rafael gave at BNTC. I think he's got lots of good things to say and I by and large agree with him. My only very minor criticisms of him (this is a bit unfair as he won't be able to respond to this comment but hey) is that it seems to me that everything is historically valid in some degree or other but there are plenty of historical examples where memories are deliberately or accidentally false (historically speaking) so couldn't the same thing being going on somewhere in earliest Christianity. I think Rafael really wanted to give me an answer to this and tellme how wrong I am but he didn't really have time at BNTC unfortunately.