Jesus in History

The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” has emerged in various stages. With the emergence of critical historical tools in the Enlightenment, it wasn’t long before these were turned to the sacred history of the Bible. Very briefly, the First Quest argued about what kind of a figure Jesus was, culminating with Albert Schweitzer’s convincing argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic teacher who preached the end of the world and the end of the present order. Not long after this, Bultmann argued that in fact there was hardly any access to what Jesus might have said because it was all filtered through the memories of the church which altered Jesus’s sayings for its own purposes. Besides, he argued, the positivist history was the wrong kind of question to be asking of the Bible. Instead, we should be seeking to experience the message of the gospel. This remained virtually the dominant opinion for thirty years when finally someone broke the silence on Jesus in 1953. Bultmann’s student Ernst Kasemann argued that actually we can know a little about who Jesus really was, and that it is important to match history with our theological beliefs. Where they don’t match up, we should be willing to change our theology.

Is Kasemann’s theological demand a reasonable one? What effect should history have on our beliefs? If we know that Jesus didn’t actually teach something that is attributed to him, must we discard it, or does it have some other kind of validity? What kind of authority does history have over our construction of faith?

  • Jettboy

    This is a very difficult question to answer, hence so many years of historical Jesus studies.Personally, I think they are both correct. We can know a little about who Jesus really was. He was a Jew, a religious teacher, and lived at a particular time and place. Those are the starting points to evaluate his life and teaching in context. But, the key is the word “little” in reference to our understanding of history.There are so many theories of history, arguments about the very definition of Jesus, as you pointed out with the differences of defining him. To place faith in such scant information and historicial posturing is to build your faith on shifting sand. I go along with Bultmann only so far as our access to Jesus’ teachings are limited and beyond unquestionable recovery. Unlike him, I do not believe that has much to do with filtering. All history is filtered at the moment it is written down.We should be seeking to experience the message of the gospel, but not at the expense of understanding the history behind the words. My own usual position on this is where history illuminates the Word I will be greatful. Where history puts the Word in question I will question the history. History has its place, but for me it does not displace faith.

  • TrailerTrash

    jettboy,I suppose that to some extent you are right that history is a moving target, but isn’t faith as well? Isn’t our faith always a product of our times just as much as our historical accounts are?Also, what do you think about instances where there isn’t much of a historical moving target, where we have pretty good evidence for something, like that some scriptural texts are not written by the author to whom it is attributed, or that certain events didn’t happen exactly the way they are reported in the Bible? Does history “displace faith” in these instances?

  • Jettboy

    “. . . where we have pretty good evidence for something, like that some scriptural texts are not written by the author to whom it is attributed, or that certain events didn’t happen exactly the way they are reported in the Bible? Does history “displace faith” in these instances?”First off, I am not completely convinced by the arguments so far made about author attributions. They are guess work at best. It isn’t as if the authors have signed their name onto the manuscripts one way or another. As for events not happening exactly the way they are reported – the key word is “exactly.” I am willing to concede that, like Abraham, what mortals see and put down on paper is limited to the perspective they are naturally part of in time and space. What I will not do is sacrifice my faith in any rejection of basic beliefs – such as the Creation (even if that includes evolution) or Resurrection (even if we may never know exactly when that was because the Synoptics and John disagree).To put it simply; I am more than willing to revise my ideas about scripture and theology. I refuse to reject any of them. Such a position is extremely nuanced, boarderline innerant, and one that tries to avoid the logical path (atheism or agnosticism) of current Jesus History research. For an example of what I am talking about, try reading N.T. Wright and one of his books dealing with the subject.

  • TrailerTrash

    Wright is an interesting figure. He is too liberal for most conservatives and too conservative for most liberals. I respect him for that. At the same time, I think that he might go a bit farther than your characterization of his argument here. His reliance on narrative as expressing theology seems to allow for the lack of historicity behind the narrative. One of the things that he is accused of is using relativism as a support for his own presuppositions, failing to account for them since all presuppositions are simply assertions. He certainly does try to walk the line of the highest standards of historical inquiry with the presuppositions of faith, but one still wonders about the presuppositions. I do think that he is a good model for LDS scholars, but I am interested to know if we can really safely go as far as he has. Do you think that there are LDS scholars who are similar?

  • TrailerTrash

    As for the arguments concerning authorship, they are a lot more than “guess work.” They are hypotheses which explain serious problems of interpretation, problems which cannot be accounted for if we accept traditional accounts of attribution.

  • Jettboy

    Guess work, hypothesis. You say potate-o I, I say potauto. One person’s explanation is another person’s hogwash. We will have to agree to disagree with the authorship question.”He certainly does try to walk the line of the highest standards of historical inquiry with the presuppositions of faith, but one still wonders about the presuppositions.”As one should. But, any research is based on presuppositions that we must decide for ourselves to take on as first priorities. Like N.T. Wright, as I have tried to explain earlier, faith comes before scholarship when interpreting scriptures and history. For me history (and textualism) is a tool for better understanding, not a scalpal for reshaping. Non-faith based studies have their own assertions. They just refuse to acknowledge them as such, but call them methods.How we approach your original question depends on us answering an important question. Does our presupposition have history or faith as priority?I know this brings us full circle to what you started with. However, I am not saying I have answers beyond my own approach to the subject. Should LDS take Wright as an example to follow? Personally, I think we already do to a small degree – although more as apologists than researchers. For an example of some first steps beyond apologetics, I would say try reading the 3 part “The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ” by editors Holzapfel and Wayment.

  • TrailerTrash

    Thanks for the recommendations for the Holzapfel/Wayment volume! I will have to check it out.>”How we approach your original question depends on us answering an important question. Does our presupposition have history or faith as priority?”This is truly an excellent question, but I would ask a different one as well. What is the history of our faith? There is a necessary complexity here. Our articulation of our faith is not outside of history. It is as much a product of history as anything else. I am not sure that we can construct such a simple binary of faith vs. history since they are inseparable. I think that the second part of my question is how the history of our faith might change our faith presuppositions. Does its history destabalize it? On the authorship question, I am reluctant to agree to disagree at this point, though you may force me to! I think that a hypothesis is the exact opposite of guess work. There are certain problems with the text and a hypothesis is devised to best account for those problems. The reason that you can’t simply assert traditional authorship claims is because they don’t account for those problems. Even if the new hypothesis only accounts for 75% of the data, the old hypothesis doesn’t account for any of it! In fact, traditional authorship claims are precisely the problem that the new hypotheses are trying to account for. This is much more than an assertion or guess work, and it is certainly not arbitrary. If one wants to argue for traditional authorship, the burden is on them to show how it accounts for the data. Until someone can do that, it is just an arbitrary beleif.

  • Anonymous

    This is an interesting thread. The Problem is that the veracity of everythinghaving to do with Jesus is debateable on one level or another. whether or not Jesus even existed is debated heatedly by many all over the world.Personally, I am grateful for my testimony of the Book of Mormon, which creates my Testimony of the most important words and actions of Jesus. MW*

  • Jettboy

    “The reason that you can’t simply assert traditional authorship claims is because they don’t account for those problems.”And the reason I can simply assert traditional authorship is because those problems, to me, do not exist nearly as much as the non-traditionalists like to speculate. I will concede that the final form of the Scriptures are not actual pristine autographs of the original authors. What I don’t believe is that they are arbitrarily named. Most likely they are collected works of those authors synthesized into a coherent form. For an example, we can see that in our own collection of sermons by Joseph Smith. How exact are they? In form they are good enough. In style and voice they become hazy and questionable. With all available data we cannot deny they are the teachings of Joseph Smith. What we cannot be sure about is how much of the personality and speaking choices are his. All we can go by are the notes (some good and some scant) that are quickly written, with any final forms developed from a combination of corolation and memory.That is the same thing, I believe, as what happened with the Scriptures. Notes were taken, memories were used, desperate manuscripts were utilized. From those came Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc. Did they write them? Probably not in an organized fashion as we currently have. Should the names be on them? For the best of what history was able to do at that time – yes.


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