Friday, May 22, 2009

Historical Jesus Missing Pieces III: Putting Pieces in the Wrong Place

In a couple of recent posts, I have been reflecting on the question, The Historical Jesus: What if the key pieces are missing? with a follow-up post, The Historical Jesus: More on those missing pieces. I would now like to turn to a related problem that is again insufficiently considered by those engaging in the quest. What if we are putting the pieces we have in the wrong place?  The fact of absent data has a direct impact on our reconstructions of the historical Jesus.  It may be that we are taking pieces and placing them wrongly, and that our partial record does not allow us to see where we are doing this.  Let me explain what I mean with an analogy.

Gideon Mantell was a nineteenth century British paleontologist who discovered the fossilized bones of a huge dinosaur he named an "Iguanodon".  Mantell's wife apparently discovered the bone pictured on the left (Source: Paper Dinosaurs 1824-1969) and Mantell, in his reconstruction, imagined this bone to be the dinosaur's horn and promptly placed it on the animal's nose (sketched here; illustrated here).   However, further discoveries, later in the century, made it clear that Mantell's guess was wrong.  The bone was not a horn but was instead its pointed thumb!

What if we are taking pieces of data and misapplying them? How will we be able to know? In the case of the Iguanodon, further discoveries corrected earlier reconstructions.  Absent more discoveries ofst Historical Jesus data, how can we know where we are putting (good) data into the wrong place(s)?  Another way of looking at the problem is to think of Historical Jesus research as a game of join the dots (apparently called "connect the dots" in the America) in which only a few of the dots have been given to us.  What kind of distorted picture might we be painting with only some of the dots available?

I should clarify that I am not trying to say that we cannot know anything about the life and personality of Jesus.  I am with scholars like E. P. Sanders in thinking that there is a reasonable amount that we can know about the historical Jesus.  My point is that saying some things with reasonable confidence is not the same thing as being able to provide something approaching a complete picture. It is the unavoidable fact of studying ancient figures that our information will be partial and, worse, that the parts that we have will not always be the ones that would be most telling.


Anonymous said...

Great post! You make a good point, which should hopefully to temper over confidence some of the over confidence that is found in many portrayals of Jesus.

steph said...

What you have been saying is perfectly reasonable and sensible and I agree with absolutely every word of it.

However I hope that what you say isn't misused, in this recent bloggy anti Jesus Quest climate, and special note is paid to your last paragraph before dismissing Quest efforts entirely. We still have a duty to scholarship to pursue historical quests and review and revise. While the most extreme forms Jesus scholarship, from the super conservative to the super radical (including mythicists), can be arrogantly self assured, there is still some reflective, cautious scholarship in between. :-) and each one of us always has much to learn ... and relearn :-) said...

He just can't stand the thought that Jesus never existed. Jesus was a Flavian invention.