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."