Wednesday, February 13, 2008

How Do We Discover The Real Jesus? Four Foundational Ideas and One More

Here is the outline of my talk on the approach to the study of Jesus historically.

1. The evidence you use will determine the Jesus you find.
2. The four Gospels tell us four unique stories about the one Jesus and they are our fullest and most reliable source of information.
3. Jesus must be understood as a first-century Palestinian Israelite whose worldview is shaped by the story of ancient Israel.
4. The person of Jesus is best discovered by careful attention to both his words and works.
5. The appropriate view of knowledge (epistemology) is a critical realism that understands we can’t access historically “what actually happened”—our knowledge of Jesus is only ever a mediated one and, try as we may, we can't get behind the sources.
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If you were speaking to High School students about the Historical Jesus what things might you have talked about when providing a foundation for such a study?

8 comments:

James F. McGrath said...

The outline doesn't show where the tools of historical critical study are introduced - unless they are dismissed in your last point suggesting that "we cannot get behind the sources". We may not be able to reconstruct underlying written sources with certainty, but we can certainly assess the degree of certainty it is appropriate to have about whether information comes from the Evangelist's authorial process or from earlier tradition.

I use the analogy of a law court. The historical Jesus isn't the Jesus we could follow around and observe if we had a time machine. He is the Jesus we can make confident statements about beyond reasonable doubt based on the evidence we have available. As in the Jewish Law, when one doesn't have 2-3 witnesses, one cannot just accept testimony about what happened, whether one is a judge or a historian. This doesn't mean that the event in question didn't happen, but it absolutely prevents one from claiming certainty about it.

If the tools of historical critical study are not going to be presented, then there is a very real sense in which your talk won't be about the historical Jesus...

I hope the talk goes well, and look forward to hearing more about it!

Joel Willitts said...

James:

RE: historical criticism. I would encourage you to read my article I reference in an earlier post. The bottom line for me is I don't have much interest in the "so-called" historical Jesus. I like to call the "the least common denominator Jesus", which in my view is much farther from the real Jesus than the one present in the canonical gospels. Both approaches have their problems, I just think the former has more than the latter.

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Joel,
Thanks for the reflections, and I hope the retreat goes well!

I'm a little confused by your last foundational idea (#5). The first half of it seems to endorse a kind of epistemelogical skepticism ("we can't access historically 'what actually happened'); I take you to mean that we cannot "access" the historical EVENTS the Gospels purport to describe. (This also seems to be the point of your final words: 'we can't get behind the sources')

But then the second half of your statement says that "our knowledge of Jesus is only ever a mediated one." This seems to imply that the the Gospels DO "mediate" the words and works of Jesus: i.e., the EVENTS. If they don't mediate these events, what exactly are they "mediating"? Nothing?

It might help to clarify this before speaking to the retreat. It seems to me that if you suggest to the students that we can't "access" the historical events of Jesus words and works, the students will take you to mean that we cannot know what Jesus did and said. This seems to me to end up basically in the same position as Bultmann (which, by the way, is where I place LT Johnson's Real Jesus).

But this is problematic, since the Evangelists THEMSELVES make very explicit that their intention IS to mediate the historical EVENTS of Jesus' words and works: the Beloved Disciple does not "bear witness" to his TEXT (or "source," as you say) but to what he SAW--i.e., the event (John 19:35; cf. 21:24). Likewise, Luke's explicit goal is to tell Theophilus "the truth/facts" about "the things which have been accomplished" (Luke 1:1-4)--i.e., the historical events of Jesus' life. This is why it is so important for him to appeal to "eyewitnesses" (Luke 1:2; cf. Bauckham, of course)

It seems to me--and I could be dead wrong here, so feel free to correct me--that the epistemology you lay out in #5 is at odds with the historical intentions of at least two of the Evangelists, whose express aim was to "mediate" the events, not for us to stop at "the sources."

What do you think?

Oh, yeah--to answer your question: If I were speaking to high school students, I would emphasize the Evangelists historical intentions in authoring the Gospels and their aim of writing ancient biography (Tip of the hat to you for recommending Burridge to me on this point.)

Joel Willitts said...

Brant:

Perhaps explaining that what I mean by "what actually happened" is an uninterpreted Jesus. I don't beleive we can access a Jesus that was uninterpreted. So in this sense I don't see there to be a contradiction. I mean to say that to tell like it REALLY happened is not possible, if by that you mean--as "so-called" historical Jesus scholarship does--husking the Gospels for the kernel of history. I think the closest we will ever get to the historical Jesus is the Canonical Jesus, but the fact is that Jesus is still a meditated Jesus.

BTW: I hope you are well. I would love to spend some time with you.

Paul Cat said...

Hey Joel,

I currently work with high school and junior high kids in a church. You need to make sure that you are answering questions that they have and not giving them answers to questions that they do not have. If you try to do the later, many of the teens will just zone out (as I'm sure you know from your experience as a youth pastor).

Keep in mind that many teens get their religion in small bites from bumper stickers and the media, which can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. Even if they do go to religious education classes it does not ensure that they know more than others teens about Christ. So do not assume that they already know what you think they should already know.

It is often a temptation to be heady when you have undergone much education in a field. This is a temptation I often struggle with, while working with teens. I usually have to reexamine what I have planned then ask 'How does this help lead them to an experience of Christ?' If I cannot answer this question, I scrap it and start over.

The reason I do this is that few people have been converted by logical arguments on the existence of Christ. When was the last time you head someone say, "I became a Christian because I heard this great logical argument about the bible and the historical Jesus"? Granted the historical study can certainly deepen a person's faith, but without that initial belief it might be hard goings. However, I have heard from a number of people that they are Christians because they have experienced Christ.

I suggest this because in your next post it seems that the retreat is more of a workshop or seminar than a retreat. Keep your audience in mind.

With that being said, if I were teaching the historical Jesus to teens I would give then the information they need, namely that we can trust the bible, it is reliable, and it is a great means of getting to know Christ ("ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ"). I usually act under the assumption that they have received much misinformation, so I try to clear out that information and let them do the questioning. One example is the common assumption that Jesus didn't multiply loaves and fishes to feed people, instead it was just 5000 people sharing their food with one another. My grandmother can get people to share, but that's doesn't make her God. Sharing isn't a miracle. If all that occurred was sharing then why would it not be recored in scripture as the miracle of sharing? Then of course you need to tie in all the Old Testament references and prophecies to drive the point home.

I do know that the one question that teens often have that they don't like to express is "What does Jesus all mean to me?" To put it another way "Why should I take my time and become a Christian?"

wooh. This comment was much longer than I anticipated and certainly not exhaustive enough. Sorry about any typos.

Joel Willitts said...

Paul: Thank you so much for your comment; it is good to be reminded of what is really important when speaking to students as well as acknowledge the tendencies one has when one has experience a good deal of academic insitutionalization. Your sense that it seems more like a seminar than a retreat is quite right, but that is what the youth pastor wants. The topics have been hammered out with this help. I suppose that is why they asked me to do it, rather than a youth speaker type. But in the end I want to see them changed by an encounter with Christ.

Joel Willitts said...

Paul: Thank you so much for your comment; it is good to be reminded of what is really important when speaking to students as well as acknowledge the tendencies one has when one has experience a good deal of academic insitutionalization. Your sense that it seems more like a seminar than a retreat is quite right, but that is what the youth pastor wants. The topics have been hammered out with this help. I suppose that is why they asked me to do it, rather than a youth speaker type. But in the end I want to see them changed by an encounter with Christ.

Paul Cat said...

Excellent. I'll be praying for yall.