Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why is the Historical Jesus Quest so difficult?

I begin a course on the Historical Jesus at Duke tomorrow and I am putting together the teaching materials at the moment. As I introduce the topic, my mind turned to why it is that we have to spend such a lot of time trying to get our heads round this topic. Here are my summary reasons as to why the Historical Jesus Quest is such a massive task:

(1) So much data is missing, e.g. there is so little on Jesus’ life before 30.

(2) The data we do have is highly prejudiced, mainly pro-Christian propaganda.

(3) The sources we have are disputed -- different scholars value the sources differently

(4) The sources are sometimes contradictory and difficult to interpret.

(5) Our distance from the data is so great – we read our own prejudices into the texts.

(6) And now there is so much secondary literature available that it is difficult to navigate our way through it all.

(7) Jesus is a figure in whom so many have a stake, and the quest is often controversial.

I will go on to tell the students, though, that the news is not all bad. We are actually surprisingly well informed about Jesus compared to many other figures from the ancient world.


Eric Rowe said...

I think the point you make in #7 is the most important, and the factor of religious commitment will always lie underneath studies related to Christian origins. But this factor is also the biggest factor contributing to the related question of what makes study of the historical Jesus such a popular area of historical inquiry. A factor related to this one that also makes historical Jesus more complicated than most other historical studies is that the religious dimension requires us to ask meta-questions about historiography that most historians don't have to think about when they study the historical Homer. For example, Meier won't make any positive or negative claim about the historicity of the resurrection in his Marginal Jew books on the grounds that it is outside the scope of history. There aren't many historical figures who left legacies where the most important thing they were ever claimed to have done and which left so much historical data to investigate turns out to be something where we have to ask if studying it is within the field of history.

Michael F. Bird said...

Mark, I think another problem is the propensity (by liberals and conservatives) to modernize Jesus. Theissen makes a good point that commentators should ask to what degree does their portrait of Jesus "modernize" him. Henry Cadbury's study in this regard is still insightful and I wish more scholars would read it [BTW my recent EQ article has much on this very topic].

Doug said...

Mark, I want to quibble over your use of the word data. Technically (and perhaps pedantically), we don't have any pure data: we largely have information bearing narratives designed to elicit or confirm faith. One of the reasons the Historical Jesus Quest is so difficult is that there is no fully agreed methodology for extracting data from these sources, so that there is fundamental disagreement on what the data actually is, before it gets recombined into another information bearing narrative designed to tell a cause-and-effect modern history.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Is the problem one of definition? What really is the Historical Jesus Quest? Is that why everyone is all over the map?

Anonymous said...

A "quest" for the historical Jesus sounds not unlike a "quest" for the holy grail -- the obverse of the quest for the Jesus of faith. Does the question distract from a more in-depth study of accounting for the emergence and growth of Christianity?

Leon said...

The sources are not that difficult to interpret. It is the prejudices of scholars and their unwillingness to examine their own prejudices that make it so difficult. Every verse in the Gospels is a piece of data. The question is whether there is one simple theory that can explain most of this evidence. There certainly is. When scholars say that the Gospel story has numerous contradictions, what they never consider is that their own anti-Jewish outlook is responsible for these supposed contradictions. They never look carefully at all the data.

I'll give one example. Scholars believe that the sources tell us that Jewish leaders pronounced a death penalty on Jesus. Actually, that is, or appears to be, in only one account — the so-called Jewish trial scene in Mark and Matt (which are so close to each other, it really amounts to one account). What scholarly prejudice refuses to acknowledge or discuss is that there is no Jewish death penalty in Luke, none in John either, and at Acts 13:28, Paul is quoted as saying there was no Jewish death penalty. That is just the tip of the iceberg. The majority of details in the NT (even in Mark and Matt) tells us that Jewish persecution of Jesus did not happen. They tell us what actually did happen. But scholarly hubris created a field of historical Jesus studies in which only an anti-Jewish approach is allowed.

Leon Zitzer