The Historical Jesus: Four Theses

In light of the Anthony Le Donne saga , I thought I’d repost, “The Historical Jesus: Four Theses.”

1The Historical Jesus is not …

a. The untheological Jesus. Our only access to Jesus is through the faith and theology of the early church. The Gospels contains a mixture of fact and faith, history and hermeneutic, authenticity and artistry. Jesus himself was theologically grounded and his message was about God (i.e., his message about God addressed the socio-political circumstances of Palestine and the position of Israel vis-a-vis God) . So we can expect to find theological matter (not abstract theology) in the historical Jesus and in the memory that Jesus himself generated.

b. A fifth Gospel. The historical Jesus will always be a reconstructed Jesus by historians and makes no attempt to become the authorizing narrative of the orthodox churches. It is a tool for reading the Gospels, not a replacement for them (note, liberal churches may disagree).

c. A harmony of the Gospels. There simply are historical incongruities in the Gospels (e.g., the cleansing of the temple in John and Mark) and attempts to sanitize the Gospels from certain alleged inconsistencies maligns the Evangelists as incompetent custodians or poor storytellers of the Jesus story. 

d. A conflation of the Gospels. To stock pile the narratives one after the other with a mix of harmony and addition is to render the Tetraevangelium superfluous. The distinctive of each Gospel is flattened and its unique contribution jettisoned in want of a single narrative. 

2. The Historical Jesus is Faith Seeking Historical Understanding 

a. The Gospel’s may be the authorized witnesses to Jesus, but they are not the only witnesses to Jesus. The church fathers were more than aware of other legitimate traditions (oral traditions, agrapha, sayings in non-canonical Gospels) that relayed reliable or relevant information about Jesus and they utilized it accordingly. 

b. The church fathers had to wrestle with the historical character of the Gospels and were aware of claims of fiction and alleged inconsistencies, and endeavoured to read the Gospels theologically and historically. Origen wrestling with Gergesa or Gadara is a prime example (Mk. 5.1 and par.). 

c. The Gospels themselves claim to have a historical character and invite critical scrutiny (e.g., Luke 1.1-4). 

d. The “historical Jesus” is the narratives that emerges when the Evangelists invite sociologists, archaeologists, Talmudic scholars, and Graeco-Roman historians to work on seminar project about Jesus. 

e. Study of the historical Jesus is a necessary question since sooner or later Christians are bound to ask, who is the kyrios how did he become ho stauromenos? 

f. Study of the historical Jesus is a canonical question, as the Gospels ask it themselves, and invite historically informed answers (e.g., Mk. 4.41). 

g. The danger of theological readings is not docetism or traditionalism, but that we end up with a study of the Gospels that tells us more about what people believed about Jesus rather than about Jesus himself. The danger is that we will end up back in the old form critical trap where the Gospels are little more than narrative expressions of the church’s faith in Jesus, but not actually about Jesus himself. 

3. The Canonical Jesus is Faith seeking Narratival Understanding 

a. The Gospels are written from the vantage point of faith and to commend the faith. Seen not the least by the cameo appearances of post-Easter christology at certain points (e.g., the use of “Lord” in Lk. 11.39, etc.) and the references to faith and believing (e.g., Lk. 18.8). 

b. The Gospels are not simply dialogues with the risen saviour or narrative representations of the church’s faith. The Gospels recognize the back then-ness of Jesus and that his time as a human being is different from their time between the ages (Leander Keck is very good on this in his Jesus in Perfect Tense). 

c. The task of the Gospels is to narrate the gospel of Jesus as part of Israel’s history and religious literature and in light of the church’s witness to Jesus and worship of Jesus. 

d. Most of all, the Gospels place the story of Jesus within the story of Israel’s God. 

4. Jesus: Historical and Canonical

Therefore, I propose that the historical Jesus has a place within a New Testament Theology in the following way: 

a. The historical Jesus is not the presupposition to a New Testament Theology, rather, it is the prolegomena to a theology of the Tetraevangelium. 

b. The historical Jesus is the opening precis about who Jesus is by setting forth the mission and ministry of Jesus as part of Roman Palestinian history which was invaded by the story of God. 

c. The historical Jesus is the attempt to explain why there was a church with four Gospels in the first place. 

d. The “Jesus” part of a New Testament Theology should have the following tasks: (1) To answer the question of “Who is Jesus?” in light of historic testimony; (2) to postulate how the historical Jesus impacted the formation of the Four Gospels; (3) To define the literary, rhetorical, social, and theological fabric of the Four Gospels in their own right; and (4) To summarize what the Four Gospels and their reception in the church have to say about Jesus as a whole.


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