CT and the Historical Jesus

Some of you may have seen our piece in Christianity Today called “The Jesus We’ll Never Know.” The essence of my article is that “historical Jesus” studies, the official Historical Jesus enterprise, has a major goal: finding what the real Jesus was really like. By that I mean the HJ enterprise wants to get behind the Creeds and behind the Gospels to discover what the human Jesus was like — and in doing this the HJ enterprise is about creating a new Jesus, a Jesus who differs from the Gospels and the Creeds because it will shear away any faith accretions and any legendary embellishments and any theological overlays.

The fundamental point I am making is that the HJ enterprise, by definition, creates a 5th Gospel. And there is no “consensus” 5th Gospel. Each HJ scholar comes to his or her (few women have entered into this discussion) own conclusions, no two scholars completely agree, and to a person tends to “believe in” the Jesus that is created.
The “Historical Jesus” (of the HJ enterprise) fashions a Jesus by examining the data (Gospels and ancient texts and archaeology etc), subjecting the data to rigorous historical methods, finding what genuinely survives, and the putting together what is left into a portrait of what the real Jesus was like. 

I consider this “putting together” very important. Historians don’t just “find” things; they both find and put together into a portrait in order to make sense of what they find. ‘
In the article I contend the HJ enterprise is all but over; at the least, interest has waned to a pittance of what it was. Very few scholars are attending HJ sessions; very few books are now being produced (in contrast to an avalanche of books in the 80s and 90s); one could say the HJ is at a dead-end. I also contend that historical methods, because of what they assume about what can be demonstrated, can’t get us to the orthodox faith about Jesus’ death or his person or the significance of what he did and who he was.
To this article, CT solicited responses from Tom Wright, Craig Keener and, only in the online edition, Darrell Bock. These three are my friends and I value what they have to say. So, I’ll enter into brief conversation here with what each says:
Tom Wright opens with a statement that I think misunderstands me: “I am,” he says of himself, “to give up the lifetime habit of studying Jesus historically.” Well, no, not exactly. Yes, we have to use our historical tools; yes, we are invited and we can choose, if we want, to examine Jesus in historical context (the Jewish Jesus). But there is a difference between historical study of Jesus and the Historical Jesus enterprise. The former seeks to understand Jesus in context; the latter seeks to reconstruct a Jesus that differs from the Gospels and the Creeds. Yes, I totally agree with Tom about the various kinds of historical Jesus studies; some, to be sure, are orthodox. And I drink deeply from his well and from that of BF Meyer. But, when he says “not all historical Jesus scholarship is skeptical” I shall take a humble “ahem” and say, well, very little is not. And I totally agree that we have to do historical work to understand the Four Gospels. I wish Tom would acknowledge the intent of the HJ enterprise. On my shelves are hundreds of books on the historical Jesus: I can count on less than two hands those who are not, in essence, creating a fifth gospel. It’s rare; Tom is one such person and so too is BF Meyer.
I disagree with Tom that the Bultmann pronouncement left a vacuum: Joachim Jeremias stepped in and gave us plenty of gold. (But, disappointingly, he fell well short of finding an orthodox or even Gospel-esque Jesus.) Yes, we’ve got to do history; but doing history is different than joining the HJ enterprise, which is the burden of my article. And I agree with Tom’s last three points in his “Clearing away the Smoke Screens” section, even if I’d phrase things slightly differently.
So, again: Yes to Historical Work. But Nein for the orthodox when it comes to the value of the HJ enterprise for our faith.
Craig Keener reiterates the value of history for study of Jesus. I think I should have emphasizes that I believe in historical work more; my own work proves that. But I want to say again that I’m distinguishing between the HJ enterprise (think Borg who drops the eschatological Son of Man, etc, and then has a de-eschatologized Jesus that is as popular as any HJ enterprise book one can find today) and doing historical work in an apologetic vein, which both Wright and Keener are emphasizing. 
There’s irony here: both Wright and Keener are saying, Yes, but not all do historical work as do the skeptics (HJ enterprise scholars). Which is precisely my point: I’m speaking about those scholars, and they confirm those scholars are doing just what I’m saying: reconstructing a new (non orthodox) Jesus.
Maybe Craig is right; maybe there’s more HJ study than I’m seeing. But since about the late 90s or early 00’s, I’m seeing precious few studies that really are proposing a “new” Jesus the way they were doing in the 80s and 90s. Dunn’s Jesus book is ultimately an affirmation of the Gospels and not at all a proposal of a new Jesus. I asked Jimmy to put it altogether in a final chp, which he did, and that Jesus is not a new Jesus. I don’t consider Jimmy’s book part of the HJ enterprise. JP Meier’s multi-volumes are both historically rigorous and absent of historical imagination of a new Jesus, which is one reason why his books (beside their length!) are not fashionable and plastered all over the media. 
Darrell Bock’s online piece latched on to my “uninterpreted” Jesus comment. Well, I’ve read what I said again and here’s what I think I meant, and I suspect Darrell would agree with me: I meant the canonical interpretation of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God and the Creedal Jesus who is the Second Person of the Trinity. They want to get behind “those” interpretations to the real Jesus. I can see why Darrell grabbed that word. Darrell is, of course, right in what he says that there is no uninterpreted Jesus. But, Geza Vermes, often credited with the origins of the Third Quest, said an objective historian ought to be able to find the real Jesus if he (or she) pursues such in a disinterested way using sound historical methods. That’s what I mean by “uninterpreted.” 
And, once again, I agree with Darrell: by all means historical work; yes, that work will enable apologetics. But what Darrell focuses on, apologetics, is not what the HJ enterprise is about at all; it’s about getting behind the Church’s Jesus. I will simply repeat myself in a different form: apologetic work is not HJ enterprise work. It’s apologetics.
But I’d like some admission by these three, or at least some more admission, that the vast majority — nearly all of it — of historical Jesus studies have had one major intent: to get behind the creeds and Gospels to see what Jesus was really like, before the Christians began rewriting history to present a christology, a Messiah Jesus, a Son of God Jesus, etc..
The question for me is this: Whose Story will we tell? This leads to a chase question: Will it be ours, the Story we fashion on our historical methods, or will it be the Church’s Story? I’ve chosen, after a decade of working in this field and being as rigorous with methods as I could have been, to opt for the Church’s Story. It’s the gospel.
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  • Josh Mueller

    It’s been a hundred years since the English version of Albert Schweitzer’s “Quest of the historical Jesus” was published with its declaration of the bankruptcy of all the efforts to eruate “the authentic Jesus” – pretty much for the same reasons you mentioned here.
    There truly is nothing new under the sun!

  • Austin

    Scot, this is a fascinating discussion as I have been thinking a lot about this very topic lately. Thanks for writing your article, and for your conversation with Wright, Keener, and Bock. In the last three months, I read through Allison’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Resurrecting Jesus”, and finally his newest “The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus”. A few comments. First (in agreement with you), after reading dozens of other books by historical Jesus scholars, it seems apparent to me that Allison really is one of the most knowledgeable NT scholars in the U.S. today. A truly balanced, brilliant scholar who helped me more than anyone “clear away the smoke screens” of some of the strained scholarship of the Jesus Seminar. Second, his latest book really should be required reading for anyone entering the field of biblical studies, and I was thrilled to see you bring it up in the article. It forces us to make some choices about how we approach scholarship that I am finding extremely helpful on my own “quest.”
    I am reminded of Philip Clayton’s discussion in his latest book “Transforming Christian Theology” about how every theologian must answer one question before they can truly be a theologian: “Who do you say that I am?” For those of us who hoped that the quest for the historical Jesus would ultimately provide our Christology (or at least clearly reinforce it), we have obviously been overreaching.
    I wonder what you think about how this whole discussion relates to the work of James KA Smith (particularly his book “Who’s Afraid of Postemodernism?”). The idea of presuppositional apologetics and Radical Orthodoxy that he discusses in that book seems relevant to the death of the “quest.” Now that modernity seems unable to provide us with the theological answers we hoped it would, is it reasonable to consider the RO movement’s insights especially relevant to Christian theology? Your conclusion at the end of this post seems pretty close to affirming Radical Orthodoxy.

  • GSY

    Thanks Scot for the article in CT, and the follow-up here. You addressed some questions that were floating around in my mind after reading the article. Very helpful.

  • Your Name

    Good advise on this subject matter!
    If we need an interpreted Jesus then it will be a historical Christ!
    Is this true?

  • Jason Myers

    I’m surprised no one mentioned the leader of the first quest, Reimarus, especially Wright. In Wright’s NTPG, he makes clear that Reimarus set out to destroy the church’s portrayal of Jesus, by showing that the church’s portrait of Jesus rested upon historical fantasy. From the beginning of the first quest, the goal was not to examine the gospels for the church, but to examine the gospels to malign the church.
    Good thoughts, I’m with you on the tools and agree that the enterprise is trying to construct a Jesus ‘other’ than the one the church has worshipped.

  • Randy G.

    Scot et. al.
    Based on my reading of Wright’s The Victory of God, I wonder whether his response is as it is because he wants to maintain room for dialog with some of the skeptical authors. TVG struck me when I read it as an attempt to do serious scholarship that would critically engage their concerns and yet be orthodox.
    Randy G.

  • Travis Greene

    Many HJ methods are so skeptical as to be useless.
    “Take out anything a contemporary Jew might have said. And anything a later Christian might have said.”
    Right, because people are never in continuity with the religious culture that birthed them, or with the movements they started.

  • T

    Scot, I think you are right that the vast bulk of scholarly historical work on Jesus is colored by a strong anti-Church POV at best and an anti-Church agenda at worst.
    I couldn’t help but think as I read your post that the very reality you identify fuels the anti-scientific sentiment that RJS deals with in origin of life issues. I realize there are important ways to distinguish the two, but to many folks in the pews, it all comes across as “scholars” presenting their own “constructions,” who seem to have no small ax to grind against Christianity and its narrative. Christians see the kind of “Jesus” that professors and researchers from history departments at reputable universities present to them, see the difference with the Jesus they know, and see disturbing similarities with what comes from the biology departments.
    It’s a trust issue that isn’t getting any easier to mend.

  • FWIW, that is what my “Yeshua in Context” podcast and upcoming book are all about. I am taking a storied approach to zeroing in on who Jesus was and what his aims and message are about.
    The epistemology (philosophy of how we know truth) of the Historical Jesus movement on the whole has been a modernist one (positivism, empiricism). This idea of how we know is a very poor one to live by.
    I think N.T. Wright has summed up well a better epistemology, critical realism, based on stories. What stories cohere and best explain history, reality, the big picture?
    By looking at the stories of Yeshua’s life and teaching, I think we can hone in on his context and at least get a better idea of who he was. We can start with the assumption that the stories in the gospels are potentially true and revealing. We don’t have to decide in advance of exploring them if we accept them wholesale or not. It is in examining them with a view to the context of Yeshua’s time, the set of ideas that were floating around, that we can decide whether or not to incorporate the stories as truth.
    Of course, as I work through the stories, I am convinced they are powerful in their coherence and authenticity. But each person has to consider the stories and look for coherence to be persuaded themselves.

  • Jason Myers

    I would disagree that “Many HJ methods are so skeptical as to be useless.” While it is true, that many of the methods can be used to ‘skeptically sort’ the gospels, those methods have been used in positive ways and have advanced our knowledge of the gospel writers and their intent in writing.
    Was there a specific method that you were thinking of?

  • Charles

    I am still not sure that you are trying to do anything different than all the Bible shows on History and/or Discovery that are trying to make all kinds of outlandish heretical claims about the bible and Jesus. I look at all these people what are professors at schools that were originally great Christian colleges and now they dispute the bible and its veracity. I guess I can only wait to preview your product. Bottom line is, by what has been said in this small article doesn’t clarify anything in my mind. You could still be the next Edgar Casey and we would not know it by your preview here.

  • There’s something backwards here. Bart Ehrman has been saying for years that “christian” scholars have been creating their own “5th” Gospel. Now, Scot wants to say this of secular (and christian) scholars?
    I think you’re making some good points here about the “enterprise” of historical Jesus studies, but I think its off to say that all (or most) scholars who have dove into the “enterprise” have created a 5th gospel.
    Let’s be honest here – Scot, are you willing to admit that you may have created a 5th gospel through your own understanding of what the Good News is (“the church’s story”). Combining the creeds of the church with the different gospels narratives to present a particular Jesus is also created a 5th gospel.
    I appreciate reading Ehrman’s writings on the HJ because he simply writes what scholars can know, and what they can’t know. He doesn’t create a hypothetical story line in between.

  • Andy #12:
    Aren’t you missing something about Ehrman and perhaps about epistemology?
    Ehrman follows a positivist/ empiricist understanding of how we know things. This will always lead a person to reject the supernatural, metaphysics, etc.
    Think about the statement you made: “he simply writes what scholars can know.” What can we know? That is the whole question.
    My thought: we decide what is true and what is not based on how well the story coheres. We can never know with certainty (not even that we exist). So, we choose to believe in some form of realism, but we view it critically and always with a knowledge of our limitations.
    If Ehrman followed a critical realist way of knowing, he would come out in a very different place.

  • Derek,
    I agree with you. But we are not talking about epistemology or philosophy, we are talking about history. Scholars of history obviously must work within particular assumptions about existence and reality.
    You’re comparing apples and oranges.
    Either way, my bigger point I am trying to make is – everyone creates a 5th gospel whether they intend to or not.

  • danny

    isn’t this a rehash of LTJ “real jesus” published back in 1997? help me understand how this is a new critique.

  • Karl

    C.S. Lewis was responding at least in part to earlier quests for the historical Jesus when he wrote “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.”
    Lewis observed that:
    All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences — the whole Sitz im Leben [8] of the text. This is done with immense erudition and great ingenuity. And at first sight it is very convincing. I think I should be convinced by it myself, but that I carry about with me a charm – the herb moly [9] — against it. You must excuse me if I now speak for a while of myself. The value of what I say depends on its being first-hand evidence.
    What forearms me against all these reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way.
    Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense: by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as ‘spontaneous’ and censure another as ‘laboured’; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currente calamo [10] and the other invita Minerva [11].
    What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don’t mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produced its dullness.
    Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why — and when — he did everything.
    Now I must first record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.
    And yet they would often sound — if you didn’t know the truth — extremely convincing. Many reviewers said that the Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was suggested by the atom bomb. What could be more plausible? Here is a book published when everyone was preoccupied by that sinister invention; here in the centre of the book is a weapon which it seems madness to throw away yet fatal to use. Yet in fact, the chronology of the book’s composition makes the theory impossible. Only the other week a reviewer said that a fairy tale by my friend roger Lancelyn Green was influenced by fairy tales of mine. Nothing could be more probable. I have an imaginary country with a beneficent lion in it: Green, one with a beneficent tiger. Green and I can be proved to read one another’s works; to be indeed in various ways closely associated. The case for an affiliation is far stronger than many which we accept as conclusive when dead authors are concerned. But it’s all untrue nevertheless. I know the genesis of that Tiger and that Lion and they are quite independent.[12]
    Now this surely ought to give us pause. The reconstruction of the history of a text, when the text is ancient, sounds very convincing. But one is after all sailing by dead reckoning; the results cannot be checked by fact. In order to decide how reliable the method is, what more could you ask than to be shown an instance where the same method is at work and we have the facts to check it by? Well, that is what I have done. And we find, that when this check is available, the results are either always, or else nearly always, wrong. The ‘assured results of modern scholarship’, as to the way in which an old book was written, are ‘assured’, we may conclude, only because the men who knew the facts are dead and can’t blow the gaff.

  • Judy Diehl

    Interesting discussion. As I teach and investigate the Gospels, I see scholarship moving away from historical criticism and a “letting go” of a pursuit of an historical person of Jesus. There is more emphasis on literary interpretation: the use of narrative/rhetorical/discourse criticism, whatever tag one wants to attach to the literary approach. That is to say, are we now attempting to discover the “literary Jesus?” I totally agree that historical background is not only necessary but interesting. Yet it does not (and cannot) give us all the answers about who Jesus is and how he is presented in the 4 Gospels. We need to use all the tools in the tool-belt, and, as Hengel suggests, find the one “gospel” of Jesus.

  • pkdd

    It seems to me a large part of the issue is how we define “history/historical/historic/etc.” This is a question for epistemology and philosophy in general.
    The view I have adopted is that what we know of history is necessarily an interpretation. What distinguishes our knowledge of history from pure fiction is that the events took place in our world. Of course, even naming the events is an interpretive activity. A consequence of this is that attempting to derive the uninterpreted events is itself anti-history because history and the events themselves disintegrate without interpretation.
    I’ve encountered some that have a hard time with this because they want to say with absolute certainty that history is “really real.” Some Christians want the Jesus we know from the Bible to be “the way he really was” and some atheistic types want to say that some aspect of the Gospel isn’t real, like perhaps the resurrection.
    But, in my view, the Gospel hinges entirely on whether or not I trust the Gospel writers’ interpretations. The Biblical drama is the interpretation of history that Christians choose.

  • In other words, the follow-up articles were a good exercise in talking past one another. At the same time, Scot, your point could have been missed without their clarifications (or caveats, whichever they may be). All of them wanted to affirm the necessity of continuing to be engaged in the study of extrabiblical sources that help contextualize Scripture, especially for the sake of showing Scripture to be a reliable witness on all accounts, contra (liberal) HJ scholars and the popular morons (e.g., Dan Brown) who continue to win an audience not just with university faculties and students, but with the reading public at large.

  • Travis Greene

    Jason @ 10,
    I’m thinking particularly of the Jesus Seminar and folks like John Dominic Crossan (who I like on other topics).
    I’m thinking especially of using similarity to the beliefs of the early Christian community, or prior Jewish communities, as evidence of inauthenticity.

  • Andy #14:
    Historians operate under varying epistemologies. History cannot be done apart from the philosophy or knowing.
    Ehrman’s historiogrpahy is in no way superior to that of other scholars and is, in my estimation, lacking compared to some of the better historians of Israel and early Christianity.
    I recommend A Biblical History of Israel by Provan, Long, and Longman as a very readable and interesting foray into what biblical history might really be about. Ehrman falls into the modernist camp on his historiographical assumptions, it would seem to me. And that is a problem for taking him seriously.
    Derek Leman

  • Matt Edwards

    Perhaps it’s a testament to the value of the HJ work done by guys like Wright, Dunn, Meyer, Meier that very few radical reconstructions of Jesus have been presented recently. These guys (and others) have thoroughly discredited the reconstructions.

  • When you say you choose the Church’s story, what do you include in ‘Church’? In his response to you, Wright writes: Jesus must have been recognizably (if crucifiably) Jewish, and recognizably (if uniquely) the starting point for what we now call “the church.”
    Is there no Church before the time of Jesus? When the gospel writers write of Jesus saying “on this rock will I build my Church” are they thinking, or was Jesus thinking, about a future assembly only?
    Even if I stop at the implication that ‘the Church’ exists before the time of Jesus, I can’t understand how your adjective ‘the Church’s’ can help identify which Jesus you speak of – Roman, Orthodox, Reformed, Protestant, etc, etc? Which ‘assembly’ will I trust? What parochialism will I submit to?
    Unfortunately, this is a question to which I see no answer. I am torn between a radical individual unsharable apprehension of the Anointing and what I know must be a ‘great assembly’ (Psalm 22) before which the name of the Lord will be proclaimed. And I don’t see that assembly as adequately represented by any identifiable body on earth alone. Maybe you might like to write about what you mean by ‘the Church’.

  • Scot McKnight

    The Jesus Christ affirmed by the Creeds — Son of God, 2d person of the Trinity, etc.

  • Thanks Scot – I think I understood that answer as given because I also can see the germ of the creeds in the Scripture. But my question is on the Church and by implication the interpretive authority that underlies the creeds. Even here, I feel I am missing the root. I have subscribed for the moment in hopes that the question proves a stimulus to a separate post.

  • Hi Scot,
    The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve wondered what the implications of such a move might be for how we approach Paul. Granted the guild hasn’t quite sliced-and-diced Paul to the degree of Jesus, but there’s certainly been a good deal of chopping, and I sometimes have to wrestle my mind off of an Acts-Prison-Pastoral-Gal/Rom/Cor type of sorting (usually not sifting, but as you and your readers know this is pretty common, even standard practice).

  • Scot McKnight

    JB, can you help me as I’m not entirely sure what you are asking.

  • Sorry Scot, not so much a question as an (opaque) observation about the nature of NT studies. “The fundamental point I am making is that the HJ enterprise, by definition, creates a 5th Gospel. And there is no “consensus” 5th Gospel. Each HJ scholar comes to his or her (few women have entered into this discussion) own conclusions, no two scholars completely agree, and to a person tends to “believe in” the Jesus that is created.”
    What I meant to say is that HJ is not the only area where this happens. Take Pauline studies: we shrink canonical Pauline material (including Acts) until we have something that is almost a second Paul. To cite but one example from studying pauline conceptions of the Temple this week and last, do I account for the disputed material, esp. in this case Ephesians and Acts? (If I do so my publishing options have been limited, even if the paper is solid.) Or do I stick with undisputed letters like 2 Cor? If the latter, then I’m truncating Paul in a manner not unlike what’s been done in HJ, which arguably puts the negatives you cite for HJ in play for my work on Paul.

  • ‘I read what I said, and this is what I think I meant’ this can only be said by someone who has ruffled some theological feathers. I agree with you Scot, I never read you saying ‘historical work is wrong’ i read your criticism as being against the actual faulty method of hj studies- faulty in the sense that it ‘strives’ to present an unorthodox jesus as its goal. Do we really want this jesus?

  • Jack Daniels

    Reading your article in CT was depressing. “End of the road”? Say it ain’t so!
    In any event, I disagree that every articulation of the HJ enterprise “wants to get behind the Creeds and behind the Gospels to discover what the human Jesus was like…a Jesus who differs from the Gospels and the Creeds.” I don’t see how that must necessarily be a presupposition of the enterprise, even if it is for some of us. Alternatively, it seems to me that some of it sees Jesus’ words and deeds as “generative event(s)” that catalyzed the traditioning processes. So, I wonder what else we can pay closer attention to in the gospels that might help us catch a glimpse of the historical personage that was the cause for the emergence of such traditions in the first place.
    Just wondering!
    I appreciate your article.