Friday, August 17, 2007

Jesus Creed Historical Jesus Series: Third Quest and Summing Up

Over on Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight's fine Historical Jesus series continues with the Third Quest and Summing Up (see my previous comments on Jesus Creed Historical Jesus Series: Jesus Seminar and Jesus Creed Historical Jesus Series: Bultmann). As usual, there are a several comments I would like to add. On the Third Quest, I think Scot is quite right that "its driving force seems to be showing the Jewishness of Jesus and how Jesus fit into the socio-political currents of his day"; I am less sure, though, whether "it is concerned with a more positive appropriation of the Gospels and a less skeptical approach to them". Certainly that is the case with Tom Wright, who coined the term "third quest", but I am less sure whether it fits other so-called third questers like Geza Vermes and Ed Sanders. I suppose the question here is less sceptical than what? Ed Sanders is in fact far more sceptical of our ability to reconstruct Jesus' sayings than were new questers like Käsemann but at the same time he does think that there is a lot that can be said with confidence about Jesus, and he begins Jesus and Judaism with a list of those almost indisputable facts.

In the Summing Up post, I want to quibble with a couple of things. First, Scot says:
Above all and over everything in historical Jesus studies is an echo of something Schweitzer said long ago: When historical Jesus scholars look down into the deep well of the evidence for Jesus they tend to see a Jesus that looks alot like themselves.
Although this image is often attributed to Schweitzer, it in fact comes from George Tyrrell, who wrote:
The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.
(George Tyrrell, Christianity at the Crossroads (London and New York: Longmans, Green and Co, 1909), 44 [world cat link]). I am grateful to Ken Olson for digging this out during an interesting thread on the topic on the Xtalk mailing list several years ago. Before then, I had myself often attributed the "well" image to Schweitzer.

Scot continues:
Liberals find a liberal Jesus; conservatives find a conservative Jesus. No one doesn’t care — don’t let them fool you. Which means what? We need serious deconstruction every time we read a book about Jesus. Every time; every book; mine too. Everyone wants Jesus on their side.
There is unquestionably a lot of truth in this, but I think we need to be careful. There are some historians who appear to have a better claim than others of not reconstructing Jesus sympathetic to their own views. I think E. P. Sanders is, again, the outstanding example here. But I would add that Dale Allison often confesses himself troubled by the historical Jesus, especially with respect to his imminent eschatology. I share that anxiety. I've noticed a danger in teaching related to this too. If one stresses too strongly the extent to which people construct Jesus in their own image, students can take it as an subtle invitation to do the same. It's one of the reasons I like to spend a good deal of time on Schweitzer in my opening class when I teach the Historical Jesus, to introduce students to the notion of struggling with what historical investigation can reveal.

One or two other queries:
Second, the driving force of the historical Jesus quest is the desire to wedge apart the Church’s beliefs about Jesus (the Gospels, the Creeds) and what “disinterested” scholarship can recover about Jesus on the basis of historical methods.
Wouldn't Tom Wright go in this category? He resists the "wedge".
Fourth, I don’t think historical Jesus has any place in theological studies for the Church. To bracket off one’s theological views in order to study the historical Jesus and then to do theological studies on top of that bracketed-off-study-of-Jesus is a vicious circular argument. You won’t find the Church’s Jesus this way because you’ve decided the Church’s Jesus isn’t allowed at the table! Historical Jesus studies is for historians.
Although I understand the point being made here, I would want to add that the doctrine of the incarnation itself gives sufficient reason for Christians to be interested in historical Jesus studies.
Fifth, still, nearly every historical Jesus scholar I know — and I know most of them — believes in the portrait of Jesus they construct on the basis of the historical methods. John Dominic Crossan and Marc Borg and Tom Wright and Dick Horsley et al believe, so it seems to me, in the Jesus they have constructed. (We all do this, don’t we?)
I don't think so; cf. the example of Ed Sanders, for example. (Am I beginning to sound like a Johnny-one-note?). And if this is true, then it should be resisted and criticized, or we have not learnt Schweitzer's lesson, right?

One last point of interest (to me):
Sixth, historical Jesus studies have waned significantly in the last ten years. The hey day was the 80s and 90s but the creative work has been done, climaxing perhaps in Tom Wright’s big book, and mostly the conversation has grown stale. What used to attract hundreds to academic sessions now attracts 30 or 40.
I hadn't thought of things like this, but it's a very interesting point. I wonder if there is a danger that we have rather domesticated and normalized historical Jesus studies too far. There is so much of it; it is so much in the mainstream that it has become somewhat less exciting. I am tempted to add that I have not seen anything in twenty years that begins to approach Sanders's Jesus and Judaism for stimulation and interest, but then I really would sound like a Johnny-one-note.


Justin J. Meggitt said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly Mark (and glad that you corrected the common error about the well analogy and gave Tyrrell his due).

I do think it does historical Jesus scholars a disservice to say that they always come up with a Jesus in their own image. Eschatology is a case in point, but there are other issues too that are far from comfortable (particularly as one gets older, more comfortable and complacent). What someone 'discovers' about the historical Jesus might also act to change what they think about their beliefs rather than the other way around.


Anonymous said...

Mark, in what sense does " the doctrine of the incarnation itself gives sufficient reason for Christians to be interested in historical Jesus studies"? At the risk of sandbagging you – since I've put some work into exactly this topic – I'd be interested to see what sort of argument you present for this claim.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for linking on my site. I've had a terrible time posting on blogger -- they seem to have lost my name -- so I'll post anonymously.

Good series. I'm simply sketching things in broad strokes. Overall, I think Wright is both "not" historical Jesus and "is" historical JEsus. He does have a different-from-the-Church Jesus but his Jesus is one that neatly conforms to the Church's Jesus with only minor variations. In short, anyone who finds everything authentic is not, in my judgment, a historical Jesus person. That person is sketching a Jesus of the Gospels in a Jewish context.

Good point on the 3d Quest about Vermes. I tend to miss him in my thinking though he played a formative role for me in the 80s.

I'm not so sanguine about some finding a Jesus they don't believe in ... you've said this from a number of angles.

In particular, I sense the disinterestedness of Ed Sanders is not that disinterested. In other words, it didn't matter to him that he found a misguided enthusiast since he doesn't accept the Church's Jesus. That is, he didn't -- perhaps couldn't? -- find a Church's Jesus there. Is that disinterested? Probably not. Are any of us? Only in part.

So, while I do think our methods force us to think more methodologically, I don't think our capacity to use just methods is ever successful.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Mark, that last comment was from Scot McKnight.

Anonymous said...

That last comment was by Scot McKnight

Anonymous said...

Regarding your anxiety about imminent eschatology, you may relax. It was the writer of Matthew who penned Mt 10:23 and other "imminent" passages, on his own. (If I may say so.)

Jim Deardorff said...

Sorry, that last was from me, Jim Deardorff, not anonymous.

James said...

Every since I first read him, it's seemed to me that E.P. Sanders is indeed, like the struggling Schweitzer, an honest, disinterested historical scholar, prepared to be led by the evidence wherever it may come out.

I've always been curious as to his theological beliefs. Can they be revealed? Is Sanders a sort of liberal Christian, a Tillichian of some sort, a reluctant nonbeliever, a disbeliever as Ehrman became?

Whether this can be told by some insider or not, and my curiosity assuaged, it stands as a tribute to the integrity of his scholarship that his theology (if any) can't be discerned (at least by me) in his historical work.

Anonymous said...

I would guess Sanders (whose work I greatly admire) was a former liberal Protestant. I recall making this guess when reading his essay on Jesus and repentance.

Anonymous said...

Apropos who was the first using the well illustration, G.K. Chesterton observed even earlier ("The Paradoxes of Christianity" in "Orthodoxy", 1908) how rationalists could attack Christianity in quite opposite ways, based on their different personalities - looking at what one might call an inverse mirror or well:

"Here is another case of the same kind. I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian," especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting. The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile. Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way, were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels. The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant."

He concludes with typical wit and wisdom:

"The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell. Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist."

Anonymous said...

Dr. Goodacre,

I'm curious as to what you mean by the 'domestication' of Jesus scholarship. To be sure, there is a lot of it and it's become more academically respectable (even fashionable), but there still seem to be as many different portraits of the historical Jesus as there are scholars. Do you perhaps mean that scholars aren't producing very radical views of Jesus anymore, or that there's a sense that there's not much more new that can be said on the subject?

I'm not sure that that's a bad thing. The wide variety of views on Jesus can safely be attributed (at least in part) to the paucity and contentiousness of our evidence, but the evidence must provide at least SOME constraint on what can be said historically about Jesus.

That said, I very much doubt that interest in the historical Jesus will completely die out, or that we won't see some fascinating new scholarship forthcoming. Scot McKnight says that the Jesus heyday was the 80s and 90s...what about Dunn's "Jesus Remembered"? I think that, with the new emphasis on orality studies and the socio-cultural dynamics of memory we will see new, methodologically innovative studies of the Jesus tradition in the near future.


To Buridan

G.K. Chesterton built his essay on the "paradox" of Christianity as a preaching of peace and submission, and at the same time as a fomentor of wars thanks to an basic assumption that the word "Christianity" delivers at once a complete idea containing all the connotations that can be associated with the word from various sources, if given enough time and writing space to unfold them all.

Chesterton uses "Christianity" as an abstract word for which the idea is supposed existing somewhere as made by assembling disparate things and events.

One such set of things is a collection of selected sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospel manuscripts.
Another set of things is a series of historical events when secular powers (including the papacy in Italy) excited the nobility of Western Europe into starting Crusades against the Middle East.

The whole essay is based on this assemblage of different events into one hypothetical idea expressed by the abstract word of "Christianity". Christianity as an abstract word does not refer to any real thing existing of and in itself, but to a constructed assemblage of different events by different writers.

If you want to include additional historical events in the assemblage, say the Spanish Inquisition, the witch hunt, the extermination of natives in South America and Mexico because they are supposed to be beings not having a soul,'ll end up with an abundance of paradoxes where contradictory elements are juxtaposed together as theoretically explaining the contents of the "Christianity" idea as referred to by the word "Christianity".

It boils down to the fact that the word "Christianity" does not refer to a definite idea, but to a constructed collection of facts and events. As of itself "Christianity" is an empty word until you fill it up by unfolding all the connotations you decide to ascribe to the word and call this unfolding the idea of "Christianity".

Then it becomes clear that, depending on what set of events and facts you are interested in presenting as the content of your "Christianity" idea, you'll end up with a wildly different mental content for the idea. Which explains the huge variety of results concerning not just the idea of "Christianity" but related researches as "historical Jesus" and "Jesus of faith".