Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Can the Canonical Jesus be Historical? 4 Theses

Amidst the swelter of interest in debate about the historical Jesus vs. the canonical Jesus, I wish to add my own four cents.

1. The Historical Jesus is not ...

a. The untheological Jesus. Our only access to Jesus is through the faith and theology of the early church. The Gospels contains a mixture of fact and faith, history and hermeneutic, authenticity and artistry. Jesus himself was theologically grounded and his message was about God (i.e., his message about God addressed the socio-political circumstances of Palestine and the position of Israel vis-a-vis God) . So we can expect to find theological matter (not abstract theology) in the historical Jesus and in the memory that Jesus himself generated.
b. A fifth Gospel. The historical Jesus will always be a reconstructed Jesus by historians and makes no attempt to become the authorizing narrative of the orthodox churches. It is a tool for reading the Gospels, not a replacement for them (note, liberal churches may disagree).
c. A harmony of the Gospels. There simply are historical incongruities in the Gospels (e.g., the cleansing of the temple in John and Mark) and attempts to sanitize the Gospels from certain alleged inconsistencies maligns the Evangelists as incompetent custodians or poor storytellers of the Jesus story.
d. A conflation of the Gospels. To stock pile the narratives one after the other with a mix of harmony and addition is to render the Tetraevangelium superfluous. The distinctive of each Gospel is flattened and its unique contribution jettisoned in want of a single narrative.

2. The Historical Jesus is Faith Seeking Historical Understanding

a. The Gospel's may be the authorized witnesses to Jesus, but they are not the only witnesses to Jesus. The church fathers were more than aware of other legitimate traditions (oral traditions, agrapha, sayings in non-canonical Gospels) that relayed reliable or relevant information about Jesus and they utilized it accordingly.
b. The church fathers had to wrestle with the historical character of the Gospels and were aware of claims of fiction and alleged inconsistencies, and endeavoured to read the Gospels theologically and historically. Origen wrestling with Gergesa or Gadara is a prime example (Mk. 5.1 and par.).
c. The Gospels themselves claim to have a historical character and invite critical scrutiny (e.g., Luke 1.1-4).
d. The "historical Jesus" is the narratives that emerges when the Evangelists invite sociologists, archaeologists, Talmudic scholars, and Graeco-Roman historians to work on seminar project about Jesus.
e. Study of the historical Jesus is a necessary question since sooner or later Christians are bound to ask, who is the kyrios how did he become ho stauromenos?
f. Study of the historical Jesus is a canonical question, as the Gospels ask it themselves, and invite historically informed answers (e.g., Mk. 4.41).
g. The danger of theological readings is not docetism or traditionalism, but that we end up with a study of the Gospels that tells us more about what people believed about Jesus rather than about Jesus himself. The danger is that we will end up back in the old form critical trap where the Gospels are little more than narrative expressions of the church's faith in Jesus, but not actually about Jesus himself.

3. The Canonical Jesus is Faith seeking Narratival Understanding

a. The Gospels are written from the vantage point of faith and to commend the faith. Seen not the least by the cameo appearances of post-Easter christology at certain points (e.g., the use of "Lord" in Lk. 11.39, etc.) and the references to faith and believing (e.g., Lk. 18.8).
b. The Gospels are not simply dialogues with the risen saviour or narrative representations of the church's faith. The Gospels recognize the back then-ness of Jesus and that his time as a human being is different from their time between the ages (Leander Keck is very good on this in his Jesus in Perfect Tense).
c. The task of the Gospels is to narrate the gospel of Jesus as part of Israel's history and religious literature and in light of the church's witness to Jesus and worship of Jesus.
d. Most of all, the Gospels place the story of Jesus within the story of Israel's God.

4. Jesus: Historical and Canonical.

Therefore, I propose that the historical Jesus has a place within a New Testament Theology in the following way:

a. The historical Jesus is not the presupposition to a New Testament Theology, rather, it is the prolegomena to a theology of the Tetraevangelium.
b. The historical Jesus is the opening precis about who Jesus is by setting forth the mission and ministry of Jesus as part of Roman Palestinian history which was invaded by the story of God.
c. The historical Jesus is the attempt to explain why there was a church with four Gospels in the first place.
d. The "Jesus" part of a New Testament Theology should have the following tasks: (1) To answer the question of "Who is Jesus?" in light of historic testimony; (2) to postulate how the historical Jesus led to the formation of the Four Gospels; (3) To define the literary, rhetorical, social, and theological fabric of the Four Gospels in their own right; and (4) To summarize what the Four Gospels and their reception in the church have to say about Jesus as a whole.


JohnO said...

Well Done, Sir. Of course the first objection will be that this method is not "objective". Neither is any other method.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike.

My response to 1.
This is your unique understanding of the historical Jesus and is not reflective of the scholarly pursuit of Jesus within the academy that goes by the name “historical Jesus”. I am on board with you here, but this is not then properly historical Jesus research. The project has been conducted to get at what really happened as the truth over against the four Gospels.

My response to 2.
I like the way you put this: “HJ is faith seeking historical understanding”. I struggle to see the relevance of your point about the various non-canonical traditions about Jesus as very little of this type of material proves significant. That is of course unless you privilege G.Thom as some do. In addition, I think there is a point that is work thinking about here: the polarity between the church’s faithful interpretation of Jesus and Jesus. What is the relationship between the two of these?

My response to 3.
I don’t know that I fully understand the title here “Faith seeking narratival understanding”. What is “narratival understanding”? I think what you mean is that the Evangelists began with their faith in Jesus and sought to encode that in a narrative of his life and work. They told the story of Jesus within the unfolding story of Israel. I would agree with this. They are properly part of the history of Jesus however. The Gospels are the history of the effects of Jesus and as such should properly be incorporated into the question of who is Jesus. As for the “back then-ness”, I would also refer to Lemcio’s excellent work The Past of Jesus.

Response to 4.
If what you mean by the “prolegomena” is that something really took place historically, something really happened that the four Gospels serve as its outcome and proper result, I am in agreement. However, I am not all that confident that we can uncover the “what really happened” behind the text which is what your point implies. The Gospels provide four distinct narratives that together present a sufficient, although not total, the history and significance of Jesus of Nazareth. These historical narratives are themselves historically situated and the story they tell of Jesus is further embedded in the historical setting of Jesus. These two settings cannot be adequately differentiated.

JohnO said...


If I might reply to your #1. First, the label has been, and continues to be, re-defined. Hence the "third" quest.

I only have a problem with: "The project has been conducted to get at what really happened as *the truth* over against the four Gospels. "

The facts on the ground are never "the truth". Truth is a value statement which requires an interpretation. Science (in this case, historical research) doesn't make value statements. Only factual statements.

That is to say, just because we might be able to say "X was likely a product of the church, rather than something Jesus himself said or did" is not a truth claim. It is a probable fact that requires a value statement to be made on it.

What Michael Bird (and NT Wright) here are saying is, the historical facts can easily be interpreted within the meaning generated by tradition and orthodoxy.

Anonymous said...

Push back: The term "third-quest" is not a definition it merely describes a period of inquiry in historical Jesus studies.

I agree with you on your point about truth. But this is precisely what the historical Jesus project is attempting to do: to present a better or more accurate interpretation of Jesus.

JohnO said...

Sure, the historical quest gives its own value statements based on its own presuppositions. But, each quest (first, second, third) has its own presuppositions by which it will make value statements based on the facts it uncovers. Thus, the battle of the term is entirely appropriate.

Rachel said...


What might be missing from all this is:

1. the voice of the resurrected and ascended Christ in the church speaking into different missional sitautions--four probably. This is still the real Christ, alive and in continuity with the crucified and resurrected one.

And 2. the realization that historical work on Jesus can never be prolegomena or preparatory in any meaningful way to further Christian interpretative work because it is not grounded in the ultimate truth about God and Jesus, and can never through its own methods attain that. So it must inevitably always be ancillary and supplementary.

I also worry a bit that you treat theological interpretation as if it's automatically dualist or docetic in some way. This seems odd to me when much good recent theology is so concrete, narrative, grounded, and particular. Are you pushing back against a bit of a straw man with such statements?

(Feel free to answer some of the other questions I put to Joel as well under the previous post!)

Enjoying your blog. When do you sleep?


Michael F. Bird said...


1. I'm talking about the HJ as part of a NTT theology. Not HJ studies on their own.

2. The Church Father's had a fairly open minded approach to extra-canonical sayings of Jesus and even "other" Gospels, esp. in the case of Clement of Alexandria, who takes them seriously, thought not uncritically, as potential witnesses to Jesus.

3. When I said, "back then-ness" I had Lemcio in mind! By narratival understanding, I mean, seeking to place the memory of Jesus in the context of the church's telling of the significance of Jesus.

4. I still think we have to ask what happened at a given point when we read the Gospels synoptically? Did Jesus heal two blind men in Jericho or one? Church Father's new these problems, they are not post-enlightenment objections imposed. Gotta do business with the history and that is a good starting point.