Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Historical Jesus: What if key pieces are missing?

When preparing to teach the Historical Jesus last year, I asked the question Why is the Historical Jesus Quest so difficult? The first difficulty, I suggested, is that so much evidence is missing.  Having just come to the end of another enjoyable Historical Jesus course here at Duke, I find that this is something that continues to haunt me, in spite of the fact that it seems not to trouble others engaging in the quest so much. So I would like to develop my concerns here by asking: What if key pieces are missing?

There is an assumption at work in a lot of historical Jesus research that all the relevant and necessary materials for a reasonably complete picture of Jesus are available. They are available somewhere and we can get at them somehow. We just have to work hard to get to them. We spend many painful hours sifting and honing criteria because we feel that the literary deposit is somewhere bound to contain all the material of real importance. We speak of what we can say about the historical Jesus "with confidence" because we are sure that the really key data has to be present. Only matters peripheral to the task of reconstructing the key elements in his life has disappeared.

The assumption develops out of an unrealistic perspective on the task. We proceed as if we are doing the work of restoration, clearing the dirt, the damage, the rust in order to unveil the real Jesus. But the quest is not about restoration.  It is about ancient history and when understood as ancient history, discussion about the historical Jesus should constantly involve the reminder that massive amounts of key data must be missing.

It may be that we seldom reflect on this fact because the ideological stakes in so major a figure inevitably interact with historical research on him. Those ideological interests are, of course, many and varied, but the same kind of optimistic assumptions about the data set are shared by those from different ends of the spectrum, from those whose faith commitment compels them to regard the scriptural deposit as definitive, to those who look to a range of materials and methods in a bid to reconstruct a Jesus who is uncongenial to later Christian orthodoxy.

Let me illustrate the kind of thing I am talking about. According to almost everyone, one of the most certain things that we can know about the historical Jesus is that he was a disciple of John the Baptist. This is bedrock stuff and anyone familiar with Jesus research will know all about why.  As it happens, I am inclined to agree with this;  I suspect that Jesus did indeed have an association with John the Baptist and that it was important, in some way, in his development.  But how important was John the Baptist, as an influence on Jesus, in comparison to other people?  We know about the link between the two men because John the Baptist was himself famous -- Josephus devotes more time to him than he does to Jesus.  So the tradition remembers and underlines the association between the two men.  But our influences are seldom solely other famous people.  Perhaps the major influence on Jesus was his grandfather, whose fascination with Daniel 7 informed Jesus' apocalyptic mindset.  Or perhaps it was Rabbi Matia in Capernaum who used to enjoy telling parables drawn from local agriculture.  Or perhaps it was that crazy wandering Galilean exorcist Lebbaeus who used to talk about casting out demons by the Spirit of God.  The fact is that we just don't know.  We can't know.  Our knowledge about the historical Jesus is always and inevitably partial.  If we take the quest of the historical Jesus seriously as an aspect of ancient history, we have to admit that many of the key pieces must be missing, don't we?


Brent said...

Thanks for this post, Mark. I wrestle with these issues in my own teaching. Historical Jesus studies often seem to be locked into a 19th century notion of history. When we talk about "a complete picture" of Jesus or "missing data," we might obscure more than we clarify. In a great little book (Re-thinking History), Keith Jenkins sums up the problem as a confusion between "the past" and "history": "The past has occurred. It has gone and can only be brought back again by historians in very different media, for example in books, articles, documentaries, etc., not as actual events...What this means is that history is quite literally on library and other shelves" (8). His point about the difference between historians' media (writing) and "actual events" is apt: What do we mean by a "complete picture" of Jesus? How would we know what constitutes "complete" or what "data" is "missing"? (Apologies for all the scare quotes.) Jenkins begins a long-ish definition of history as follows: "History is a shifting, problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the past, that is produced by a group of present-minded workers (overwhelmingly in our culture salaried historians)..." (31). If we came to terms with this shift in thinking about history (that is, if we moved away from notions of REconstructing the past and toward ideas of constructing historical narratives that were more honest about our interests in the present), I wonder what Jesus research would look like. Stephen Moore's God's Gym, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Mark. You bring up a very important point that should urge more humility on all sides of the Historical Jesus debate.

Steve Walton said...

Thanks Mark; a little more scholarly humility would do us all good! I remember the historian David Bebbington remarking in one of his books (Patterns in History, if my memory serves) that we lack information for months at a time on what many Victorian British cabinet ministers were doing - so this isn't an issue peculiar to ancient figures.

Christopher Shell said...

I think 'God's Gym' is the most depressing book I have ever come across, though far from the most scholarly. A good historian, qua good historian, can think her/himself into the period and people that are being dealt with. Never mind being honest about our present interests: anyone can do that. It is precisely the unlearned who cannot think themselves outside their own time, location and culture.

Joshua Mann said...

A few thoughts: (1) From a conservative perspective, (obviously) the assumption of significant relevant materials is a given in the view of inspiration. This is presuppositional in a sense unlike that of the other end of the spectrum, so the two will answer the final question quite differently.

(2) In response to Brent's comment, I think we can do better than 'postmodern' (archaic, I know) historians suggest. History is not just on our shelves in books, etc., right? What about archeology, papyrology, epigraphy, etc.? At least we can make present observations about these things and minimize the number of 'filters' through which the data must run.

Bill Heroman said...

Indeed, we may or may not have enough pieces, depending on how completely we expect the picture to develop. In other ways, it may also depend on which pieces we determine should/may be treated as key.

In that last sense, I find your post title partly ironic. Idealogues on both sides feel the key pieces are indeed missing -- to their opponents!

Mike Koke said...

Hey Mark, I absolutely agree. I like John P. Meier's distinction between the real Jesus and the historical Jesus: we cannot know the real Jesus (unless one day we can hop into a time machine), but we can try to reconstruct some aspect about the historical Jesus based on probability. Also, Bill Arnal's Symbolic Jesus does a good job exposing motives on all sides of the debate, though I disagree with his conclusion that the historical Jesus research does not matter for history or for faith.

Mark Goodacre said...

A quick reminder that I don't allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments here.

James said...

Do we know that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. with the same certainty that we know Eisenhower invaded France in 1944? I suppose one might say no, but I also suppose we can be pretty damn sure Caesar did cross the Rubicon—sure enough that skeptical attempts to prove he didn’t are arid, pointless, futile, misguided.

Do we know that Jesus preached in Galilee and was crucified outside Jerusalem with the same degree of certainty we know that Caesar crossed the Rubicon? I suppose one might—maybe would—say no, but I’d also say that again were sure enough that attempt to prove he didn’t and wasn’t are arid, etc. I wouldn’t say the mythicists aren’t correct to note that Caesarian facts are more certain than Christian facts, but I would say for all practical purposes they’re chasing the wind.

Despite the fact that Jesus-seminar liberals and Witherington-style sophisticated evangelicals might dispute some of them, I’d venture to say that Sander’s five “certain or virtually certain” things [the first of which contains three separable and important facts] is correct or virtually correct. And it’s not without bite: Jesus “did not explicitly oppose the law,” Jesus shared the world-view Sanders calls “Jewish restoration eschatology.”

I know lots of rational, informed, conscientious folks would dispute Sanders (and don’t dispute comparable contentions about Caesar). But it’s my belief, and, significantly, Sander’s belief, and Fredriksen’s, and Vermes’, (and Goodacre’s?) that we know a lot of important things about Jesus.

Nevertheless, there is a lot we don’t know. But what we don’t know falls under two headings—the ministry and the events that ended it, and the life the preceded the ministry. Take away Luke 2:40-52—which may be a mere charming legend, or may hint at something of importance—about the latter we know nothing. We don’t even know whether Jesus was literate. But we do know, from the powerful effect he had on his followers, and from the high standard reached in the parables and sayings, and from the essential role that practice plays in extraordinary accomplishment (see Brooks in todays New York Times), that his life in the twenty-nine years or so preceding the ministry must have been stuffed full of the “key pieces” to which Goodacre calls our attention.

It’s no accident, then, that the possible pieces Goodacre conjures to illustrate his point precede the ministry.

It’s often said that gospels aren’t biographies. Would that they were—a fabulous wealth of key pieces would then not be denied us. I suppose we’re supposed to be grown up about this, and accept with equanimity what we don’t and can’t know. I admit to a considerable sense of frustration, however childish it may be. said...

James said, "I admit to a considerable sense of frustration, however childish it may be."

Mark Goodacre said, "When preparing to teach the Historical Jesus last year, I asked the question Why is the Historical Jesus Quest so difficult?"

It wouldn't occur to either to think that in the writings attributed to Josephus and the New Testament are similar in that they show the Flavian historians in their true light. And that is not just in the actual parallels, but in the blatant cover-ups. James you are wrong. The writings attributed to Josephus are so full of makebelieve, with even complete chapters fabricated. It is easier to accept and quote from the writings as though they are true, that to try to sort out the mess. Your books James are full of literalistic quotations in which you take the writings attributed to Josephus as true. There were undoubtedly professional people paid to write this stuff. The New Testament, as it is, and the writings attributed to Josephus are the same genre. They are largely historical makebelieve built on a genuine much smaller core. You should open up this topic on your own site. Mark Goodacre will delete this.

James said...

Should have written "Eisenhower crossed the Channel."

Steve Cornell said...

We know so much and yet so little.

Steve Cornell

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting stuff. As a non-regular reader of this blog (heretofore!), can you point me towards references concerning:

"[Jesus'] grandfather, whose fascination with Daniel 7 informed Jesus' apocalyptic mindset. Or ... Rabbi Matia in Capernaum who used to enjoy telling parables drawn from local agriculture. Or ... that crazy wandering Galilean exorcist Lebbaeus who used to talk about casting out demons by the Spirit of God."

I have never heard about any of these folks before.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, BU2K. I made them up. Perhaps I should write a novel about them?