Friday, January 15, 2010

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Ordinarily I find these 'four views' or 'five views' kind of books a little contrived. Usually published by evangelical publishers and edited by evangelical editors, I think they are intended to show the superiority of the evangelical position. But this volume comprises a nice cross-section of current historical Jesus research.

The introduction to the volume is judicious and offers the basic background to historical Jesus research. The chapters that follow are essays by five scholars (Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D. G. Dunn and Darrell Bock) who represent points along the spectrum of scholarly positions on the historical Jesus and the enterprise of studying the historical figure of Jesus. The volume does not disappoint expectations since the arrangement of the essays suggests a graded progression from the most radically revisionist to the most traditional portrait of Jesus. In spite of the clearly chosen arrangement, the essays each provide a snapshot of major voices in historical Jesus scholarship.

The first essay, by Robert M. Price, is entitled "Jesus at the Vanishing Point." Price represents that small but influential segment of scholars who still cling to the hypothesis that there either never was an actual historical person named Jesus, or that whatever historical person might have existed has been absorbed into the "Jesus-myth". What we know as 'Jesus' was merely a literary construction fashioned from midrashic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Price's essay is entertaining but hardly convincing. I will spend much space arguing with each of the essays as one of the joys of this volume is the collection of responses from the other four scholars at the end of each essay. Price is taken to task fairly harshly by the other four scholars. The most delightful comment on Price's essay comes from Dunn: "Gosh! So there are still serious scholars who put forward the view that the whole account of Jesus' doings and teachings are a later myth foisted on an unknown, obscure historical figure" (94). The more indicative comment, however, comes from Crossan: "And, by the way, Price's comment, 'Let me leapfrog the tiresome debate over whether the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic' is not an acceptable scholarly comment as far as I am concerned" (86). Indeed, to the perceptive reader and to the four other scholars who comment Price's essay precisely fails because he has a knack for leapfrogging evidence, whether explicitly (as above) or implicitly (by finding methodological criteria for disqualifying just about every shred of literary evidence at our disposal).

Dom Crossan's essay, "Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology," is a nice snapshot into Crossan's latest interests in the historical Jesus. Jesus preached a nonviolent kingdom in opposition to the 'imperial theology' of violent conquest. Crossan's whole perspective stems from a very interesting question: why did Jesus spend so much time around the Lake of Galilee? His answer is that Herod Antipas chose moved his home base from Sepphoris to Tiberias to increase fish production--and therefore taxes--to impress the emperor and gain the title "King of the Jews". In opposition to this Herodian political pandering John and then Jesus preached a kingdom of nonviolent cooperation with God and each other. Although John's movement failed after his death, Jesus' boomed because "John had a monopoly but Jesus had a franchise" (126). Whereas others had to meet John where he was, Jesus spread his ministry to others, and charged them to heal the sick and preach the kingdom. Thus Jesus was inaugurating an eschatological kingdom of collaboration with God that was nonviolent, rather than either a violent (either on the part of God or humans) apocalyptic or imperial eschatology. The crucial remark with respect to Crossan's essay comes from Price: "These two tendencies, to feed Jesus through the grinders of the latest research trends at the SBL, coupled with an inconsistent skepticism toward very much of the Gospel tradition, leave Dr. Crossan with an odd and arbitrary approach" (134).

Luke Johnson's essay, "Learning the Human Jesus," comes third. As the subtitle indicates ("Historical Criticism and Literary Criticism"), Johnson's essay attempts to sharpen or correct the current practice of historical scholarship on Jesus using literary criticism. Johnson's first line captures the tenor of his essay nicely: "In the contemporary controversy over the historical Jesus--a controversy that, like a virus, tends to reoccur in Christianity under conditions of stress--there are some areas of agreement as well as areas of sharp disagreement" (153). Johnson agrees that it is important to study the historical Jesus for academic reasons both cultural and religious. The entire essay is a short distillation of his earlier works on the historical Jesus, which may make the essay a bit dry for those familiar with his work. Nevertheless, I think the real value of Johnson's study is his methodological clarification of the limits of historiography. In this portion of the essay, Johnson develops four points: 1. "History is not simply 'the past' or 'what happened in the past' or a place that exists to which the historian has access;" 2. History is limited in its knowledge of the past to 'human activity (or events) in time and space, but only as these are made available to observation and recording;" 3. Historiography is dependent on various sources and is therefore limited by the perspective and observations of those sources; 4. Historical description is not equal to normative prescription. From this clarification Johnson goes on to outline a literary model for understanding the "human Jesus." The key here is focusing on Jesus' character, on which the authors of the canonical Gospels converge, even among their disagreements on details and specific emphases. How much purchase Johsnon's literary perspective gains on the historical Jesus, per se, is unclear to me. The problem with literary approaches, as I see it, is that the leave themselves open to the kind of penetrating remarks made by Price: "The tendency of history, disappointing as it is to us at a certain stage, telling us it is time to put away childish things, is that the more a narrative resembles myth and epic, or fiction, the more likely it is. The more brimming with archetypes and artifice the story is, the more probable that it is 'just' as story. And as we grow more mature, we stop saying things like 'just a story'" (182). (Though, on a more prescriptive note, I cannot resist directing my readers to Tolkien's thoughts on that matter. And I would encourage them to revisit the dedication in Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)

James D. G. Dunn's essay, "Remembering Jesus," is a brief distillation of his recent Jesus Rembered, for those of us who do not currently have the time to read another nearly 1000-page tome on historical Jesus work. Dunn lodges three complaints and makes four contributions to the current state of Jesus work. The three complaints are these. First, Dunn thinks the supposition that the Christ of faith is a distortion of the historical Jesus is erroneous. Indeed, this is how modern historical Jesus work began, as Reimarus and Strauss attempted not simply to reinterpret the Christ of faith, but to break open that figure, strip him of his ecclesiastical accoutrements and present the bare historical Jesus to the modern world--to force the Christian world to awake from its dogmatic slumber, one might say. Second, Dunn bemoans the paucity of work on orality in the Gospel traditions that does not also treat oral material like literary material (e.g., Q). Third, Dunn criticizes what might be called the 'overuse' of the criterion of dissimilarity. Why should the Jesus scholars search for be a Jesus that is completely dissimilar from his context? Dunn's three proposals run in parallel: First, rather than a hindrance, scholars should view the faith of Jesus' early followers as "the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission" (202). Second, one should make use of the tools offered by the work of Albert Lord (and presumably Lord's mentor Millman Parry), inter alia, in excavating and examining the oral period of the Jesus tradition. (For specifics on how exactly one might do so, one must apparently consult the aforementioned tome.) Third, rather than a distinctive Jesus, Dunn suggests scholars should first seek the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus that makes sense in his historical environment. Dunn's remarks (and the tome) are a welcome and fresh perspective in the maze that his historical Jesus research. Even so, there are problems with his approach, which Johnson's review catches most readily. Example: "In his final protests, Dunn joins a long line of critics who, embarrassed by the long, crypto-Marionite history of pitting a liberating 'Christian' Jesus against a lawbound and stifling 'Judaism,' seek redress by emphasizing the 'Jewishness' of Jesus. While the elimination of theological tendentiousness from historical inquiry is always important, and in this case critical, I am not sure how much such a new emphasis actually accomplishes, beyond relieving inherited guilt. ...First, searching for a Jewish Jesus is not a historiographical principle or criterion but a predetermined goal. Second, the goal leaves unexamined the truly difficult question, namely, what constitutes 'Jewish' in first century Palestine" (242-3).

Finally, the essay of Darrell Bock, aptly titled "The Historical Jesus: An Evangelical View," rounds off the collection. Bock opens his essay with a few pedestrian remarks on the value of studying the historical Jesus and even reminds his readers that the Jesus sought in the Gospels is a remembered Jesus--remembered, however, by eyewitnesses (here one may no doubt sense his indebtedness to, or at least his congruence with, Richard Bauckham's work). Indeed, Bock admits that in many of the particulars of Jesus' life, the evidence may not be enough to conclusively demonstrate historical fact. Nevertheless, the bulk of Bock's essay is probably the most comprehensive attempt among the essays to sketch a life of Jesus. The value of the essay is Bock's clear use of criteria of authenticity--almost like a math or logic problem--to assert the probability of a few events among the words and deeds of the historical Jesus. (Be reminded that the whole is contained in a 33-page essay, and is therefore necessarily concise.) The reason for sketching a few major events is to get a sense of the "intentions" of Jesus. "Because Jesus did not leave any of his own writings, a question becomes how can we know his intentions? In sum, the answer is that his intentions may be best seen in his actions, many of whichwere symbolic and had a context within Jewish expectation" (254). In true evangelical style, Bock here highlights the criterion of multiple attestation as opposed to the criterion of dissimilarity. So as not to be accused of lack of thoroughness, Bock begins his sketch with the brief demonstration of the existence of Jesus, for which he relies on the external evidence of Josephus (which Price leapfrogged, incurring the proscription of Crossan on that point) with nods to Tacitus and Suetonius. Bock goes on to cite mostly Mark and Q (yes, Q!) in his findings: 1. That Jesus was associated with John the Baptist; 2. That Jesus reached out to the socially marginalized; 3. That Jesus' recruitment required total commitment; 4. That Jesus preached the coming reign (both kingdom and age) of God, suggesting the title "prophet"; 5. The coming age is focused on Jesus, who is to be a suffering Messiah; 6. The coming age offers a life that reflects divinity in the forgiveness of sins and the life of the Spirit; 7. Finally Bock spends a relatively large amount of space on the events of the Jesus' trial(s) and crucifixion, with a brief not on the resurrection. This last piece is the "vindication" of all the intentions of Jesus that Bock outlined. This is a classic evangelical position, and it the editors certainly chose their evangelical example well. Bock is a fine scholar who does not balk at the critical tools of biblical research (unafraid to use Q, for instance). The difficulty with Bock's case, I think, is his overreliance on a kind of criterion of coherence (similar to Dunn) with Jesus' milieu, and his near complete disregard for the criterion of dissimilarity. But just as problematic is the search for Jesus' intentions (here he follows Ben Meyer). Just as with ancient authors, it is easy enough to find what one has said, written, or done. It is quite another matter to then extrapolate from that what that person intended, and it is a matter which takes us beyond the cautionary boundaries of historiographical research. Johnson's note is on target: "As it is, Bock's 'evangelical' reading appears to be a matter of reading not only history but Jesus' personal psychology straight from the pages of the Gospels, no criticism necessary" (294). The essay is, unfortunately, a progressive devolution from historically reliable material (that Jesus existed and was an associate of John's) to conclusions that can hardly be called historical (the passion and resurrection vindicate Jesus' message about himself and the kingdom).

As this is a volume published by an evangelical publisher, edited by evangelicals, and probably largely meant to be read by evangelicals, it is fitting that the last words in the book should be Dunn's (almost pastoral) advice written in response to Bock, but indeed meant for evangelical biblical scholars:
In a day when evangelical, and even Christian, is often identified with a strongly right-wing, conservative and even fundamentalist attitude to the Bible, it is important that responsible evangelical scholars defend and advocate such critical historical inquiry and that their work display its positive outcome and benefits. These include believers growing in maturity
  • to recognize gray areas and questions to which no clear-cut answer can be given ("we see in a mirror dimly/a poor reflection"),
  • to discern what really matters and distinguish them from issues that matter little,
  • and be able to engage in genuine dialogue with those who share or respect a faith inquiring after truth and seeking deeper understanding.
In that way we may hope that evangelical (not to mention Christian) can again become a label that men and women of integrity and good will can respect and hope to learn from more than most seem to do today (300).
Dunn's words sum up the challenge historical Jesus research offers to evangelicals, just as the entire volume is a fine example of the challenge the historical Jesus offers to historical scholars today and the breadth of scholarly responses to that challenge.


Anders Branderud said...

"Historical Jesus"?!?

Just using this contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes your Christian-blinkered agenda--dependent upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.
Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

Andy said...

Dear Anders,
Good to meet you. I enjoy your spirit, but I'm afraid you've not made much of an argument.

Let me point out that the only real piece of evidence you have marshalled for your above argument is 4QMMT. Is that the only text you've read? If you had read more of the early Christian and Jewish writings, I think you would have found (if you are open to real scholarship) a different picture of early Judaism and Christianity. Let's not overlook the fact that Christians in the second century are already quoting these Gospels. Even if they were written late in the first century, that's not a bad historical source. The idea that they were redacted into the second century is possible, but unlikely, given the quotations of them from second-century authors. Their texts seem pretty stable by the end of the 1st century. That said, I never claimed there was not hellenistic influence in the Gospels, but considering Caesarea, Tiberius, and Sepphoris were all highly hellenized Galilean cities, one need not posit a late, redacted source for this influence. Indeed, it's altogether possible Jesus could at least recognize and speak bits of Greek if he was indeed the son of a tradesman.

You claim that 4th century Christianity was the anithesis of 1st century Judaism and the Pharisees. Two problems. First, if both groups were so antithetical, why was there so much confusion and collusion between them even up through the fourth century? (See John Chrysostom's constant complaints about his church members going to synagogues! An entire volume discusses this interaction--The Ways That Never Parted, ed. by Reed and Becker.) Second, you also seem to assume that Pharisaic Judaism was the only kind of Judaism available in the first century CE and beyond. This is patently false, as any reputable historian will explain to you. Take off your own blinkers, friend?

Let me explain--no, there is too much. Let me sum up. While I acknowledge early Christianity had their own method to interpreting Torah, and certainly seems to have abrogated what later(!) became codified as halakhah, Christianity retained the Torah in its canon and reads from it as a holy book. The argument, therefore, that early Christianity was anti-Torah is clearly groundless. As a matter of fact, those groups who wished to jettison the Jewish Scriptures from the canon or devalue them (Marcion, the so-called Gnostics) were considered heretics and not true Christians by the third century. Moreover, your supposition that Pharisaic Judaism was the only possible form of Judaism in the first century, and that it was a unified movement that looks very much like the Rabbinic movement betrays your own nonrational motivations. Interestingly, you keep quoting 4QMMT as though it is Pharisaic, whereas most scholars (though certainly not all) will argue the Qumran community were Essenes. I would wager that you have not read Philo, much Josephus, much of the Testamentary literature or the Enochic literature (for starters). If you had, I think you might have come away with a different picture of Judaism in the 1st century CE, and likewise a different picture of early Christianity. Stop relying on other people to do your research, investigate the texts as they really are, and then come back if you want to discuss further. DO NOT rely on only the scholars you like and that fit your agenda. That's not scholarship.

Well, the question for you is--will you inform yourself so that when you make these little tirades against people who are training to be professional historians, they can respond to real, educated opinions, and not hobby-historicist apologetics, or will you continue to hold your own prejudices regardless of whether your own picture of Jesus might just be your reflection in the well of history?

(For the sake of space, I have limited my references. If you are interested in informing yourself in a more reputable fashion, I can recommend a number of books and historical sources.)

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