Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Historical Jesus and the Jesus within History

I asked the question -- How much history is there in the Bible?   I did so in response to questions about the historical natures (or lack thereof) of the accounts of the healing ministry of Jesus.  The modern view of such things is rooted in David Hume's demands for empirical evidence.  Hume was a bit like Thomas, he wasn't going to believe until he saw evidence in his own life experience of something similar occurring.  Hume's skepticism isn't all bad -- after all there are lots of things that people claim to see or experience, that are foreign to my experience, and so I'm just a bit skeptical.  You see, I'm skeptical about UFO's and Big Foot.  I'm also a bit skeptical about a lot of what passes as faith healing.  There are, after all, a lot of legs being lengthened out there.  But, let's leave that off for a moment and return to the question of Jesus and history.

Ultimately, without video recordings we have to take somebody's word that events happened in the life of Jesus.  We have to take the word of the authors of the four gospels, for instance, works that were written anonymously some forty to sixty years after the fact (or not fact).  As we think about this question, maybe it would be worth while to change language for a moment.

We speak of the "historical Jesus," by which  we understand the Jesus who lived in history.  To use the criteria of the Jesus Seminar, it's the Jesus that we can agree existed in time and space, after the "post-Easter" interpretations get removed.  Different scholars, from Borg to Wright have their own sense of what this entails.  And all is good, unless we decide that there is one and only one absolute historical reconstruction.  As William Brosend writes in his book The Preaching of Jesus: "It is when one moves from, say, the "real" Jesus to the "only" Jesus, when reconstructions of Jesus within history are presented as historical and/or biblical absolutes, that a line has been crossed" (p. 3).

I appreciate Brosend's attempt at offering an alternate way of looking at the question of Jesus and history.

It is better, I have come to believe, to speak of our reconstructions as presenting Jesus "within history" rather than "the historical Jesus."  The former formulation admits to distinction between the biblical and the historical, without claims to whole and simple truths.  All believers have, to varying degrees, some idea or set of ideas about who Jesus was and is for them.  This is especially true for preachers.  To speak and write of Jesus "within history" is to make explicit that understanding, without making claims for Jesus "as he actually was," which is an unrecoverable reality from a historical perspective, and a not necessarily helpful one from a homiletical perspective.  (p. 3)
Brosend offers this statement as a way of focusing on the matter of Jesus' preaching, understanding that since we don't have recordings or full transcripts, we must rely on the way in which the authors of the gospels told the story.  Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright have different understandings of the way in which Jesus existed within history.  Neither can "prove" their version to be true, but both make there best attempt at understanding how Jesus existed within history.  You and I will have to make our own decisions.  Some among us will lean toward the mythical while others toward the historical.  We'll make our decisions on the basis of what we believe is possible.  We might call that the "Hume scale."   

4 comments:

Austin said...

Great thoughts. I've been thinking a lot about the value of the "historical Jesus" myself after reading Dale Allison's "The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus". How much history is required for faith? Can historical criticism really "extract" a strikingly different Jesus from the one presented in the text, or are faith and history too intertwined for this kind of heavy-handed sifting? Theses are the kinds of questions he is asking - I really can't recommend that book enough. Allison is one of our best New Testament scholars alive today, and he makes some bold claims about the the so-called "quest" that should make anyone rethink how far we can or should go in our reconstructions of Jesus. I should also be clear that he writes primarily from a historians perspective, not as an apologist in the slightest. His conclusions have a way of making both Jesus Seminar types and Wright'ians quite uncomfortable.

I'm also slowly working my way through James Dunn's massive "Jesus Remembered, Vol.1". He challenges the faith we put in historical reconstructions of Jesus as well by rigorously explaining the history of Jesus scholarship, the cultural/scientific/philosophical assumptions behind the many conclusions, the problems with the various criteria of authenticity, etc. While recognizing that there are undoubtedly a blend of history and myth, memory and imagination in the text, he proposes a more cautious methodology that avoids the dramatic cutting and pasting of the Seminar, as well as the Barthian rejection of history's place for the Christian faith.

tripp fuller said...

Just saw Michael Bird post this quote from the new John Meier book, volume IV in the series...

"We return, then [after a study of the love commandment], to our theme song of the historical Jesus being the halakic Jesus. A 'historical' Jesus who is not involved in the lively halakic debates of his fellow Jews in first-century Palestine, who does not reason about the Law in typically Jewish fashion, and who does not display his charismatic authority as the eschatological prophet by issuing some startling legal pronouncements, is not the historical Jesus. He is instead a modern and largely American construct, favored by some Christians because he is appealing to the marketplace of popular religion in the United Stated today - a religion that is highly emotional, mostly self-centred, predictably uninterested in stringent commandments, and woefully ignorant of history. This American 'historical' Jesus could never have interacted with first-century Palestinian Jews, a community centred on the Law and a community that, unlike many present-day Americans, understood perfectly what its God meant when he commanded love." (p. 528).

Austin said...

Dang Tripp - I really love that quote. Thanks for sharing. It really resonates with everything Dale Allison is getting at in his most recent book as well. John Meier is undoubtedly another one of our best living scholars of the New Testament.

Eliyahu said...

I think you are moving in the right direction but what really has merit is the question of the historical Jewish man that tripp fuller (sic) begins to allude to. One needs to know the historical 1st century Israel (not Palestine until 135CE) and the Jewish Torah and practice. By far the majority of scholars today still do not want to touch the Judaism of that day which is revealed very clearly in the Qumran documents especially 4QMMT. What is happening though is the fading of the Jz-us myth to reveal a pristine Torah Jewish teacher who never left Judaism but rather called his people back to Torah. So will end the nearly 2000 year old sullying of his name, "But Yehoshua was dressed in filthy garments as he stood before the angel, the angel spoke up and spoke to those standing before him, saying, "Remove the filthy garments from upon him," Zecaria 3:4 (Zechariah) So will also fall the myth of Judaizing, more accurately bringing the nations to Torah. The Torah of HaShem is perfect.... Tehillim 19 (Psalms). I would encourage you to rethink when you were told the OT, Original Testament was done away with and ask, "Who said so?"