Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Historical Jesus: More on those missing pieces

In my post The Historical Jesus: What if key pieces are missing?, I suggested that we need to proceed with a greater degree of caution than is usual in the quest. It is in the nature of ancient history that the data we have is partial as well as prejudiced. We should be wary of proceeding as if we could retrieve everything we need to retrieve if only we hone our methods carefully enough.

I am grateful for some interesting comments on that post as well as a helpful post by Loren Rosson on The Busybody, Thoroughgoing Eschatology and Thoroughgoing Humility, including an apposite quotation from John Meier,
And yet the vast majority of these deeds and words, the "reasonably complete" record of the "real" Jesus, is irrevocably lost to us today. This is no new insight of modern agnostic scholars. Traditionally Christianity has spoken of "the hidden years" of Jesus' life -- which amounted to all but three or four of them! (A Marginal Jew, Vol I, p. 22).
In spite of the salutary reminder, though, Meier sometimes talks as if we can make conclusions with confidence about the "total" pattern of Jesus' activity as, for example, in this excerpt:
I would suggest that, if we are to continue to use the problematic category of "unique" in describing the historical Jesus, perhaps it is best to use it not so much of individual sayings or deeds of Jesus as of the total Gestalt, the total configuration or pattern of this Jew who proclaimed the present yet future kingdom, who was also an itinerant prophet and miracle worker in the guise of Elijah, who was also a teacher and interpreter of the Mosaic Law, who was also a charismatic leader who called disciples to follow him at great price, who was also a religious personage whose perceived messianic claims wound up getting him crucified by the Roman prefect, in the end, a crucified religious figure who was soon proclaimed by his followers as risen from the dead and Lord of all. It is this total and astounding configuration of traits and claims that makes for the uniqueness of Jesus as a historical figure within 1st-century Judaism. (The Present State of the "Third Quest" for the Historical Jesus, 476-7).
In context, Meier is making a broader point about Jesus' uniqueness and how to configure that uniqueness, but in the course of making that point, he works with a presumption that it is possible to generate a "total" configuration or pattern for Jesus. He is assuming that all the really important elements about Jesus were retained somewhere in the tradition and that these enable us to make claims with a degree of confidence about some kind of complete picture.  

The desire to draw a complete picture is in fact necessary to the claims about Jesus' uniqueness.  If key pieces of data are missing, we are not able to speak confidently about his "uniqueness", especially when it comes to theological claims.   Dennis Nineham sounded a warning about this over thirty years ago in his "Epilogue" at the end of The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), 186-204, a piece that effectively undermined many of the claims made in the earlier part of that famous collection of essays.   Where the essayists often spoke about Jesus' unique relationship with God, and so on, Nineham questioned whether such claims can be made with any kind of confidence in responsible historical research.

One of the scholars mentioned by Nineham is Joachim Jeremias, who is also famous for his claim that Jesus' address to God as "Abba", in private prayer, was utterly unique.  The claim is of course a problematic one  because of the paucity of evidence of Jews' private prayer in antiquity.  Perhaps Jesus' address was unique but we could never know.  It is the nature of ancient history that our source material, especially on matters like this, is seriously limited.  There is an extent to which contemporary Jesus researchers have pulled back from bold claims like those made by Jeremias, but that same assumption, that all the really important data is present somewhere, and is sufficiently robust for us to be able to make large claims, still underlies a lot of our thinking about the historical Jesus.


Ian said...

> The desire to draw a complete
> picture is in fact necessary to the
> claims about Jesus' uniqueness.

I don't see this.

If we can say (a, b, c, d) about Jesus, and those four qualities are unique. Does it matter that the full picture is (a, x, b, j, r, c, q, w, v, d, p)?

We can say, for example, that a badly preserved animal fossil is unique from the tiniest portion that remains. We definitely don't need the whole thing.

Key pieces may be missing, and we would be hard pressed to describe the full significance of the find. Additional information does not, usually, reduce the amount we do know, but may cause us to re-evaluate the signficiance of it.

Jesus might be even more unique, but is unlikely to be less unique.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the comments, Ian. I think the difficulty lies in the statement, "If we can say (a, b, c, d) about Jesus, and those four qualities are unique . . ." Given the patchiness of the records, we don't / can't know about their uniqueness. The Jeremias prayer example is a case in point. It sounds impressive to say that Jesus' address to God in prayer as "Abba" is unique among first century Jews, but then when you ask the question, "How many first century Jews' private prayers do we have?", the answer is "None". We just don't know if it was unique or everyday. I think similar examples could be multiplied. I suppose that what I am focusing on here is not so much missing data in the record about Jesus as in the record about his context, but both elements are key in the Historical Jesus quest.

Ian said...

Good point, thanks.

On reflection that is similar to the fossil analogy. We could say that a specimen is unique among those that we know about, but not for all creatures that have ever lived. They could just be the only slightly preserved example of a vast group.

Of course I suspect them that in both cases one has to way up the probabilities. For quality 'a' what is the likelihood that, if it were common, it would have been observed elsewhere than Jesus.

'Abba' is an example that strikes me intuitively as being quite unlikely to have been recorded even if relatively common.

GoogleBookReferences said...

Your reference to Jeremias invoked memories of when David Dungan assigned Jeremias to us (in my undergrad days at the Univ of TN) in reference to the Kingdom of God and the parables -- presumably getting us as close to the historical Jesus as possible. Later I read Royce Gruenler's _New Approaches to Jesus and the Gospels_ wherein he takes Norman Perrin's minimalist core of "authentic" sayings in the parables and asks the question along the lines of, "What kind of person would have said that?" One self-conscious of the authority to forgive sins and invite outsiders to the messianic feast it seems -- implicit claims not inconsistent with less "authentic" claims in other gospel accounts. Missing pieces? Yes, of course. But what is the alternative? Hypothesizing about the pieces we *do not have* may be a fun mind game and perhaps lead to something fruitful, but it is also subject to wild speculation.