Saturday, May 01, 2010

The So-called Historical Jesus

In light of the discussion that has arisen from Scot McKnight's CT article as well as the paper Richard Hays gave at the recent Wheaton Conference engaging N.T. Wright, I want to include here part of the conclusion of an essay I wrote in 2004 entitled "Presupposition and Procedures in the Study of the 'Historical Jesus': Why I Decided Not to Be a 'Historical Jesus' Scholar". The abstract reads:
This article provides a detailed description of the presuppositions and procedures of a representative group of six scholars who are currently contributing to the study of the Historical Jesus. The intention of the study was to draft a 'handbook', a 'recipe', of the best methods and the surest presuppositions for achieving the result of a solid historical conclusion about Jesus. What resulted from the project was not what had been hoped. In fact, what resulted was a deep scepticism about the quest, at least as it is currently being conducted. Though, admittedly, not offering solutions, this article seeks to raise questions about the real potential and usefulness of any quest for the 'so-called' historical Jesus. 

While it is certainly neither as well written as Scot's piece nor as theologically well-rounded as Hays' lecture, I do think that I had my finger on just the kind criticisms both men are raising of the so-called historical Jesus project. As you'll see, one of the main thrusts I make is on the definition. I would even push that question onto my esteemed blogmate in his recent post on Scot's article. 

Here it is:

In spite of the foregoing conclusions I have, nevertheless, a fundamental scepticism about the entire endeavour—at least as it has been practised[1]—especially from the standpoint of an evangelical presupposition. Moreover, I have read conservative and moderate evangelical works on the historical Jesus and, though they have greatly contributed to the Third Quest by rooting Jesus in his 1st century Jewish context, I find them equally unsatisfying in that they have adopted, similar procedures, though the presuppositions are vastly different. In the rest of the conclusion I wish to highlight, in quite a random order, the primary points of scepticism with the pursuit of the historical Jesus. It is my hope that these comments, while not novel, will spur dialogue about the purpose and process of the historical study of Jesus.

The first point is one of definition. Many scholars have not defined who or what it is they are attempting to study when they use the phrase ‘the historical Jesus’. Though I think there is a basic and ‘shared’ understanding of the term (i.e., the uninterpreted, human Jesus of Nazareth), often scholars have different objects in view. I noticed this problem most recently in the work of a prominent evangelical scholar. Darrell Bock, a mentor of mine from my seminary days, has written a two volume work on Jesus, the first of which is titled, Studying the Historical Jesus.[2] Yet in reality this is not an appropriate title for the book, at least if one defines the ‘historical Jesus’ as most scholars today do. On the second page of the introduction Bock describes more appropriately what he is doing; he is ‘studying the Jesus as presented in the four Gospels’.[3] And then later he admits ‘my subsequent work [Jesus According to the Scriptures] belongs to the third quest, although in focusing so heavily on Scripture, it is not a historical work in the technical, critical sense’.[4] The title of the second volume is much more descriptive of his project, Jesus According to the Scriptures and, thus, the first would be better titled Studying the Canonical Jesus.[5] My point here is not at all to call into question Bock’s work, but I reference his recent book on Jesus to show that we must be more careful in our use of the term the ‘historical Jesus’. The phrase quite possibly is no longer useful as a descriptive term, since it carries the baggage of earlier critical scholarship. Many, it seems, take the meaning for granted or take the terminology up uncritically. I myself was guilty of this very thing before my supervisor asked me this very question.

For most scholars who study the historical Jesus their object is a person disconnected from any interpretation. The ‘historical perspective’ to them means removing the husk of interpretation to find the seed of history: getting to ‘what really happened’, uncovering ‘who he really claimed to be and what he actually did’.[6] They are attempting to get to the uninterpreted Jesus. I question whether this objective is an appropriate historical pursuit. What does it mean to study Jesus from a historical perspective? Does it mean that we ‘tell it like it was?’ It seems to me that honesty whispers that this quest is not possible and we, perhaps, should be more attentive to its voice. Moreover, maybe scholars, even evangelical scholars, are misguided when they write something like: ‘We must distinguish historical data contained in this text from what the fourth Evangelist is doing with this material and the narrative framework in which it is now found’.[7] Honestly, do we really think this is possible? Do we really believe that we possess the tools, let alone the capability, to achieve the result? From where I stand, I think the answer is no. I think the last century of Jesus research, of which we remain heirs, quite possibly, has been misguided presuppositionally and procedurally. Thus, I find Green’s contribution to the discussion refreshing and his assessment of Jesus-research accurate: ‘critical inquiry in Jesus-research has not been critical enough—that is self-critical enough’.[8] Additionally, I wonder if it is not only inappropriate for evangelical scholarship to maintain this inadequate definition of ‘historical Jesus’—since we affirm the truthfulness and authority of the Gospel presentation of Jesus, but also for scholarship in general to pursue the ‘what really happened’ behind the Gospel narratives as the task is currently construed.[9] As scholars, we are certainly entitled to imagine, to create and to invent, but to what end? What do we really accomplish?

A second issue with over which I am quite sceptical in the quest for the ‘historical Jesus’ is the value of tradition criticism. Scholars argue that the Gospels can be divided into roughly three layers: what comes from Jesus, what was created by the oral tradition of the early church and what was produced by the editorial work of the evangelist. According to them, the Jesus scholar’s task is to work back through the tradition history to the first layer of tradition to find the historical Jesus. As I pointed out in an earlier discussion, however, scholars are not able to distinguished legitimately one layer from another any more than one can divide a river into its constituent sources. The problem is that though scholars acknowledge the weaknesses of tradition criticism—as they have been well documented in recent years, they still assume, in their very confident application of them, we can be bias-free in our use of them. This is simply not the case. The tools alone do not get us back to the sayings and deeds of Jesus.[10] Over-confidence in what the tools of the historical critical method can satisfactorily produce pervades Jesus research.

A question that I continue to mull over in my mind is what value does tradition criticism with its criteria of authenticity really have? Even those who consider themselves evangelical scholars affirm the use of tradition criticism and say it is important in order to show that a particular saying or deed goes back to Jesus and was not simply made up by say Matthew or Mark.[11] Meanwhile others encourage one to look at places where the event or teaching goes ‘against the grain’ of the authors’ general purposes and it is in these areas that one can be ‘more confident’ that these traditions go back to Jesus.[12] In response to the latter point the determination of what constitutes ‘against the grain’ is extremely difficult, and not obvious. This is especially true in light of the recent acknowledgement by Gospels’s scholars that the absence of an evangelist’s finger prints on a tradition does not, in itself, necessarily imply anything since the inclusion of a tradition implies approval.[13] This truthful observation makes redaction criticism all the harder. The delineation of the sources an evangelist used and the manner in which he used them are nearly impenetrable.[14]

With respect to the first appeal of the usefulness of tradition criticism, in spite of the assertion to the contrary, I am still left wondering what one has really gained by the application of the criteria of authenticity. If I apply these criteria to a given saying or deed what assurance will it provide for me? Does it really anchor the idea in the historical person of Jesus? Can we really separate the authors from their traditions? Can we really distinguish the authors’ from the story they narrate? The fact is these criteria cannot be applied neutrally and will be affected by the one using them. Moreover, it is unrealistic to think that these criteria can act as a neutral arbiter between two competing views. For instance, as an American-protestant-Baptist-evangelical scholar, I come to the study of Jesus with certain preconceived notions, of which one is a high view of the veracity of the Four-fold gospel account of Jesus of Nazareth. This being so, I come to a Jesus tradition with a preconceived confidence in the authenticity of that tradition and I use the criteria to justify my belief. If I am honest with myself there is no tradition that I would be willing to label as ‘inauthentic’ because of the application of a criterion. Equally there is not a tradition that I will doubt simply because someone else applied a certain criterion. This circumstance, however, is not simply the problem of a naïve, pre-critical evangelical, but, in truth, it is the common experience of all interpreters. So what real purpose does tradition criticism serve? It is true that criteria when used positively can verify a given traditions authenticity. But, that conceded, what still is the usefulness of this kind of argument? When we have come to believe its authenticity and then applied the criterion. One might argue ‘apologetic’, but who are we kidding?

Related to this discussion is the third issue over which I am sceptical, namely, the so-called problem of subjectivity. As I argued earlier, subjectivity has not been sufficiently accounted for in the historical process. I do think that scholars like Wright, Theissen and Winter, and especially Allison have moved significantly forward by not simply acknowledging the presence of presuppositions, but even embracing their subjectivity in the process of doing an investigation. I would like to suggest that rather than our subjectivity being considered a virus that needs to be eradicated, we look on it as an attribute; something that should be valued as an important part of our method. Some will certainly object to this suggestion on the grounds that if our subjectivity is not kept in check we will fall under Schweitzer’s criticism of constructing a Jesus that is nothing more than the reflection of ourselves. The position I would advocate, however, is one that first and foremost must be humble. Because subjectivity is endemic we as scholars must always be humble about our positions, even the ones dogmatically held.  Second, our subjectivity is always in relationship with the ‘effective history’ of Jesus—the Four-fold Gospels. Thus, our subjectivity is fenced in, so to speak, by the concrete reality of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. It must always takeinto account the historical reality of the emergence of the canonical Gospels and the witness of the church.

Finally, I am completely sceptical of the assumption that has provided the motivation for the pursuit of the historical Jesus, namely, the Gospels are unreliable and, therefore, another historical narrative needs to be created that is more historical. This assumption is faulty because it is based on ‘positivist pretensions’ of 19th century historicism which ignores the realities of selectivity and narration in every historical account.[15] Because of this faulty assumption, it should not be the reason for studying Jesus. I am not suggesting that more historical narratives should not be manufactured about the person of Jesus. He is arguable one of the most important figures in history and scholars and lay persons alike will always be interested in this person. What I am suggesting, however, is that these ‘new’ historical narratives not be given pride of place over the four narratives that have been passed down to us through the church, which survive from a period of time very near the events they narrate. What is more, perhaps we should spend less of our time as scholars reconstructing new historical narratives and more time wrestling with the meaning of the Four-fold gospel which we possess in all its diversity of historical contexts and complementary portraits of Jesus. In this regard, I find that Bock’s book, Jesus According to the Scriptures, is a welcomed contribution to the endeavour even though most would not consider it a contribution to the our understanding of the ‘historical Jesus’.[16] Yet, I am inclined to think that, perhaps, it is more of a contribution to our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth than the works of the scholars this paper has considered.

[1] This qualifying statement is very important, as will become clear below. I am in no way suggesting that history should be abandoned; or is of the utmost importance to the study of the Gospels and early Christianity.
[2] Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).
[3] Bock, Historical Jesus, p. 14.
[4] Bock, Historical Jesus, p.  152.
[5] Darrell L. Bock, Jesus According to the Scriptures: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).
[6] Bock, Jesus, p. 17.
[7] Robert L. Webb, ‘Jesus’ Baptism: Its Historicity and Implications’, BBR 10.2 (2000): 261-309 (303).
[8] Green, ‘Quest’, p. 553.
[9] Green (Green, ‘Quest’, p. 553.) writes, ‘‘History’, in the sense of ‘historical knowledge’, is not and cannot be ‘what actually happened.’ Instead, ‘history’ and the ‘past’ exist in a kind of bartering relationship—the past providing environmental situations, personages, and events; history providing significance through selectivity and narration. Hence history is both less and more than the past.’
[10] Cf. Allison (Jesus, pp. 7-10.): the problem of Faustina.
[11] Grant Osborne, ‘Redaction Criticism’, in New Testament Criticism and Interpretation (ed. David Alan Black; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 199-224 (207).; cf. also more recently Bock, Historical Jesus, pp. 199-203.
[12] Sanders and Davies, Synoptic Gospels, p. 301; cf. also Bockmuehl, Jesus, p. 20.
[13] Cf. Graham Stanton, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 52. What needs to be emphasized here is the fact that the evidence of redaction (or scarcity of evidence) is not nearly as significant in interpreting the Gospels as once thought. Recently it has been rightly recognized that even when an evangelist takes over a tradition without any evidence of redaction, in taking it over he is putting his stamp of approval on that tradition. In other words, the traditions an evangelist uses and the alterations he makes both provide a picture of his theological perspective. This observation provides a welcomed realism to the study of Gospels and provides the balance needed in assessing the theology of the evangelists.
[14] The identification of an evangelist’s sources in a given pericope is, firstly, difficult since all we possess are the literary compositions in their final form. Moreover, the ability to distinguish between the sources an author used and his redaction is equally tenuous. Since we do not know the sources explicitly, it is difficult to determine when the author is adding to or subtracting from his source. Cf. Stanton (Stanton, A Gospel, p. 41.) who writes, with respect to Matthew: ‘the formation of Matthew’s gospel may have been the result of a much longer and a much more complex process than the ‘one-stage’ redaction commonly envisaged. Even though it is very difficult indeed to isolate with confidence changes made to Mark, Q, or ‘M’ traditions by redactors other than Matthew, there are good grounds for urging caution: not every difference between Matthew and the sources which he drew represents a modification introduced by the evangelist Matthew himself’.
[15] Green, ‘Quest’, p. 553.
[16] Cf. Blomberg’s (cf. Bock, Jesus.) endorsement on the dustcover of Jesus According to the Gospels: ‘Neither a contribution to historical-Jesus research nor a conventional textbook on the Gospels . . .’


Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

I really appreciate the article Joel! I believe you have nailed the major problems of the "historical" quests for Jesus. I for one find this to be the problem in all of the attempts at historical reconstruction of the accounts of Scripture (though find fewer who think so in regard to many passages of the Hebrew Bible). I appreciated your suggestions for integrating our subjectivity through recognition and humility. Indeed, I believe subjectivity must play a recognized role in all our studies.

JohnO said...

This is less a problem for the historical quest, and more (as you stated Joel) with the Enlightenment idea of real knowledge. A good scholar of the history of Theology can give you the same breakdown only by changing a few key terms. The narrative is identical.

Analysis does not give meaning. It cannot because of its construction. Our presuppositions, the reason we are analyzing, gives the meaning. We have pre-chosen - before the process of analysis - what we want. This "subjectivity" should not be pejorative. There are two ways of knowing, from the outside in, and the inside out. The world has forgotten that.

Darrell Bock said...


You are right to question and point out how much skepticism there is in HJ study. But let's not throw out the baby with the bath water (Sorry for the cliche, but each blog post needs at least one!) As I have argued in my response to Scot's article on the CT web site as well as on my own blog in a response to his response to us, there is much of value to be gained in such study, especially for those who question if Scripture gets us to him. Playing by these rules (and challenging them in spots) while showing how one can still get to much about Jesus can be a way into a fresh discussion and a way back in for considering Scripture for many (Read Craig Keener's own testimony on this point in his CT response). If one appreciates the limits of such study and the way it screens out potentially relevant data, one can still show (1) how inconsistent the more skeptical takes are in relationship to the rules they claim to play by (Son of Man discussions are an example) and (2) how a case can be made for Jesus from such a study. Both of these are of great value (especially on college campuses where appealing directly to Scripture is often met with skepticism. I have seen how this helps in such contexts in a significant way). So point out the problems, as you do here, but please let some of us do the hard work of working in this area without being too dismissive of the effort (or claiming what we do is not what they do- contending for proper method IS a part of this discussion). Let's throw out the bad water, but keep an eye on keeping the kid.