Revisionist Jesus

The place to begin a discussion of heresy in America is with historical Jesus studies, so argues Ross Douthat in Bad Religion. He’s a detective for nonsense, though I’m not sure he comprehends either the essence of the discipline in historical Jesus studies or the work of the vast majority — instead he focuses more on the sensational claims and blots a big mark over the whole. But he does get to the heart of some of the major issues at work.

He thinks at the bottom of (much of) the historical Jesus enterprise is a denial of Christian orthodoxy. It presents a revisionist Jesus.

Like the National Geographic sensational story about the Gospel of Judas, which within a year was revealed to be a misguided and misleading if not misinformation translation in order to make the big claim.

Douthat himself makes a big claim — what do you think of it? “Every argument about Christianity is at bottom an argument about the character of Christ himself, and every interpretation of Christian faith begins with an answer to the question Jesus posed to his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’”

He sketches the “paradoxes” of Jesus: both humble and divine, both a celibate ascetic and changed water into wine at a wedding, consorts with prostitutes and denounces lust… etc. And this means that the Christian faith has embraced the whole Jesus and not part of him, and the problem with historical Jesus stuff is the embrace of only one dimension. Think Thomas Jefferson who got rid of the stuff he didn’t like, like the miracles.

He makes brief remarks on the history of the quest: the first quest to the new quest. He sees two characteristics:

1. The orthodox story is largely mythical and self-serving; there was pluralism at the start; force and fraud established the orthodox story.
2. The goal is to find a Jesus more palatable for postmoderns and at the same time more historical.

He has in mind Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, Dom Crossan, Bob Funk, and Marcus Borg.

The aim of this field is to reconstruct Jesus, what he was really like, over against the Gospels themselves, the NT itself, Nicene orthodoxy, and more or less the church’s tradition. His contention: their Jesuses are a lot like the “accommodationist Christianity of the Protestant Mainline” (161). And “they almost always represent a rebuke to Evangelical Christianity, conservative politics, and the combination thereof” (161).

Why, he asks, do these scholars ignore the earliest sources about Jesus? The apostle Paul. His Christianity looks more like Nicea than the diverse Christianities of Ehrman and Pagels.

They are “masters of detection and geniuses at code breaking” (171) — that is, they seen hidden agendas everywhere, reconstruct their suppositions and then show that the earliest Christianity was not orthodox but just like accommodationist Christianity today. After a brief on Crossan, he says this: “Note the brave certainty of the paranoid style” (172). Then he jumps into Dan Brown’s novel that took this stuff and made it very readable, and dipped it into a conspiracy narrative.

This has not given us a Jesus that can be believed; it has not helped the accommodationist churches — “the rush is exciting, but the hangover is a killer” (176). That is, the Jesus that is left is a pale reflection of accommodationist Christianity.

Briefly: Yes, much of what he says here is fair to what’s going on with these scholars, but to speak of the whole field as represented by them is grossly inaccurate, and we’d be better off if he had sketched the majority moderate historical Jesus scholars as well. But I agree: the historical Jesus enterprise has taken shape in order to replace the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy and the Jesus of the Gospels and the apostles.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tom F.

    Lots of questions…

    I felt a bit defensive at first blush, being a fan of N.T. Wright. It seems that its possible to do good historical work that is orthodox. Does Douthat address Wright?

    Further, if having an agenda while doing work on the identity and purpose of Christ is a mark against your work (as apparently it is for Borg, Pagels, ect.), than I’m not sure why this isn’t Douthat cutting of the branch he is standing on. Isn’t he clearly advocating for a certain (conservative) political interpretation of the gospels? Why is this off limits for Borg, Pagels, ect., if it is an option for him?

    Also, the move to “every question about Christianity is a question about Christ” sounds really spiritual, but why is such a move needed? Someone like C.S. Lewis could suggest that there was a “Mere” Christianity, as well as elements that could be worked out by Christians in different cultures, and other peripheral issues over which they might disagree. Is Douthat saying something different than this? If so, why?

    Does the paradox of Jesus mean that Douthat calls out conservatives as well as liberals? Apparently, Jesus can be paradoxical, but once we get to political engagement, everything is pretty straightforward, huh?

    I don’t fault Douthat for arguing what he believes to be true: that conservative politics reflect the best engagement of Christians within the public square. But the questioning of motives is tricky, tricky stuff. So historical Jesus is to replace orthodox Jesus? This move is essentially the same move the historical folks make when they say that the church made up “orthodox” Jesus because the historical Jesus was too threatening to some status quo, that he was too revolutionary. So why is it that the two moves don’t just cancel each other out?

    At the end of the day, we all have to go back to the text, and all this accusation about motives just serves to reinforce boundaries between groups, and to create an “evil” group who are not looking for the truth but just looking to serve their own interests. We need an armistice, not new recriminations about motives.

  • phil_style

    “He thinks at the bottom of (much of) the historical Jesus enterprise is a denial of Christian orthodoxy. It presents a revisionist Jesus

    Many Jesus scholars would simply reply that the “orthodox project” (i.e. the first complied written documents – the gospels) were themselves a revisionist creation against the historical Jesus… So, it’s a stalemate..

  • Joe Canner

    I’m sure Douthat makes some good points about revisionist motives, but it’s too bad he didn’t go beyond the motives and look at how the fundamentalist/evangelical over-reaction to the revisionists resulted in some untenable notions about the Bible and about Jesus, as well as depriving Christians of valuable historical, archaeological, and textual information that is relevant to our faith.

  • Scot McKnight

    Joe, he did … very, very briefly.

    Tom F, he does not mention Wright in this chp; he likes Wright from what I can tell. Wright is orthodox; Ehrman and crowd are anti-orthodox; that’s his issue.

    Phil, hardly a stalemate; the issue is if the revisionism of early orthodoxy imposed on the apostolic stuff or not; Douthat says No. His contention, as above in my sketch, is that Paul was much closer to orthodoxy.

  • Steve Clem

    The motives of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels seem pretty transparent me. Perhaps the reason Douthat addresses the revisionists is that their views get the lion’s share of publicity and are overt attacks on orthodox Christian faith. And regarding the notion that “every interpretation of Christian faith begins with an answer to the question Jesus posed to his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’” While there are certainly other relevant questions, this would be #1. If Jesus isn’t “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” all other questions become irrelevant.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Douthat says the Christian faith is to embrace the whole of Jesus and not a part of him. Part of me wants to say then we are all heretics (who really embraces all of Jesus as if being orthodox, catholic, or part of a Bible believing church means you’ve got it all?). And I understand his focus on the HJ people in some of their radical revisions of Jesus but what about our own revisionist interpretations of Jesus? What about taking one part of what Jesus said and ignoring another part? What about most of us following a safe, predicatable and comfortable Jesus rather than the Jesus that even scared his disciples to death at times? So I believe we need analysis like Douthat is suggesting but shouldn’t we also put the magnifying glass onto ourselves? Did not Jesus say we need to be plank inspectors and introspective first about ourselves before we look at the deficiencies of others? I have not read Douthat’s book yet but I hope there is some self-critique as well?

  • http://www.dry-bones-valley.blogspot.com Rob Dunbar

    “Why, he asks, do these scholars ignore the earliest sources about Jesus? The apostle Paul.”

    I’ve often wondered that myself. How fair it to look for a historical figure and simply write off the earliest histories of that figure? All the major Christological points of orthodox Christianity are embedded in the letters most (if not all) theologians count as “genuinely Pauline”: Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians. These are 1st-century documents from within a few decades of Christ’s life. Their statements (at a very early stage of the church’s history) have to be taken into account, even if one contends that the final form was subject to editing.

  • John W Frye

    Saul of Tarsus was a revisionist Jesus scholar until he met the resurrected Jesus-the-Christ on the road to Damascus. Saul’s views changed dramatically and he, as has been noted, became a very source writing about the historical Jesus. As the old saw goes: historical Jesus scholars reach water in the deep well of their digs and see their own reflections and *sitz im leben* reflected back. However, I would not put N. T. Wright, James Dunn, E. P Sanders, Scot McKnight, Gerd Theissen, etc. in that group, notwithstanding their own shortcomings. My main point: it takes an encounter with the historical, yet still living Jesus to change a paradigm.

  • John W Frye

    Oops. Comment #8 should read: “…a very *early* source…”

  • CGC

    Thanks for this John,
    The Holy Spirit sure helps :-)

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    …Elaine Pagels has forgotten more about the events surrounding the founding of Christianity, including the spectacular multiplicity of sects that exploded in the deserts of the Middle East at the same time, than Ross Douthat will ever know, and to lump her work in with the popular fiction of The Da Vinci Code is to attempt to blame Galileo for Lost in Space.

  • CGC

    Hi Naum,
    What I read is he lumped Pagels with Crossan, Borg, Erhrman, and Funk. So no, I don’t think he is saying the Historical Jesus folks are doing the same thing like the popular fiction of the Da Vinci Code. I think the minor point I got from Scot’s quick summary is certain scholarly trends can lead to more sensationalistic accounts as if there is some kind of great conspiracy and cover up in Christianity (ie—scholars help give creedence to sensationalistic fiction writers who take it a lot further).

    By the way, Pagels gnostic Christianity does neither justice to the details of early church history much less her progressive interpretation of modern gnosticism which would be anathema to the very ancient sectarian and schismatic non-catholic gnosticism.
    Pagels is doing exactly what Sweitzer said about looking at the bottom of a well and seeing a reflection of oneself! Of course, she is not the only one guilty of doing this!

  • Tom F.

    Steve Clem: and I’m sure your motives are transparent to them. You only want to hold onto orthodoxy because it allows you to keep your homophobic/colonialist/capitalist bias. Sound ridiculous? It is. We shouldn’t be making the same ridiculous move ourselves. For example, the Paul criticism is a much more valid criticism (but see the revisionist response, i.e., Paul as the “founder” of Christianity).

    And yes, I agree, the question of whether Jesus is God is one that is central to Christianity. But these “other questions” would seem to be related to the political ones that Douthat is making, and I just want to make sure that Douthat isn’t trying to drag the political issues towards the question of whether Jesus is God. My “spidey sense” (admittedly not always right) felt like perhaps we were headed in that direction.

  • Jon T.

    Hi all: Tom F., yes we must return to the discussion of who Jesus is. Steve’s (#5) comment that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), the son of the living God is a confession and is clear to the nature of Jesus, wholly a man, the Second Adam, like unto the First Adam, yet w/o sin because of his obedience, not due to some inborn perfection or deity. Nowhere does Scripture teach that Jesus is wholly or partially God, that he had two natures, much less that he was the second member of a triune godhead family. However, when I use words like, God sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins: that he was virgin conceived (had a beginnig, Lk 1:35), that he preached the gospel of the kingdom (now spiritually & later literally), that he died, rose again and ascended to the right hand of his Father, we can agree and be orthodox. However, when we use the philosophy of the Greeks w/ unbiblical words to explain things that can’t be explained clearly or understood exegetically (Jesus is God the son, the hypostatic union, the trinity, etc.), then we invite criticism and our message gets very confusing to outsiders and monotheists like myself. The Oneness view of God predates trinitarianism by hundreds if not thousands of years. What is now orthodox was once heresy, my inquiring friends…read your church history. In fact, Jesus’ creed can be found in Mark 12:29, “hear O Israel the LORD our God is one LORD…” Amazingly simple. Jesus claimed to have a God and it was his Father, the only maker of heaven and earth and all that is in them, Isa. 44:24.
    Also, in response to many who assume the Nicene Creed, the current orthodoxy and traditions of today’s church is inspired, may it never be. And no, the Nicene Creed does not accurately and completly: biblically, historically, culturally or exegetically explain the person and nature of Jesus and his relationship to his Father. This council was the first of many in the evolution of doctrine during the confusion of that time prior to the fall of the Roman Empire. If we’re honest, the councils were Roman Catholic in origin and influence, reflecting an anti-Semitic attitude, w/ absolutely no Jewish scribe, scholar or priest invited to attend and assist in any of the councils and yet the Scriptures are exclusively Hebraic and Jewish in authorship (w/ the possible exception of Dr. Luke), and should be understood w/ a Jewish intent!
    Yes, I subscribe to the understanding of the gospel message of the kingdom that Jesus preahced and that S. McKnight reveals, but have we got the understanding of who Jeus is, right? Will the real Jesus please stand up!

  • TJJ

    I agree the “Two Charactristics” outlines above of that Pagels/Crossan crowd is very accurate. As it the statement that what they have left after their methodology is a Jesus of little interest or significance. Which by the way, I have met that same Jesus in many mainline churches, and it is because their “demythologized Jesus” is so limp and meaningless that those congregations turn to other thngs, social activisim, etc.

    One can imagine that a banal and insignificant man named Jesus inspired a massive reconstructed and reimagined pan-mediterranean sea religious movement/mythology, but it has always struck me as more likely that a very inspiring and compelling original/historical man and message is what propelled thevery popular and fast growing orthodox Jesus movement forward, as well as inspiring many copycat albeit unorthodox wannabe movements.

  • Tim

    I agree with much of what the author says regarding some of the scholarship coming from the likes of Borg, Crossan, Erman, etc. However, I also agree with Scot that to then impugn the entire field of Historical Jesus studies is unwarranted. Some underlying bias to reshape Jesus into one’s ideal of him (or form him into a weapon against groups one happens to disagree with) does seem rather ubiquitous. However, scholarly communities have to deal with personal biases like this routinely, whether biases involving Jesus, Christianity, or any other issue. This does not then mean that scholarship can’t progress or that provisional confidence can’t be assigned to any finding. It just means that we have to proceed cautiously and ensure a rigorous evaluation of arguments, particularly among one’s peers in the relevant expert communities.

    If you look at the historical Jesus studies, a few conclusions seem to enjoy broad support. Others not so much. The endless debate among the more contested areas of historical Jesus scholarship should not therefore take from the areas where there is stronger support and consensus.

  • Tanya

    I can’t help but think the worst thing to happen to the Christian Church this year is Douthat’s decision to turn his attention to religion. The man is the politically conservative columnist for the New York Times. Politics is his usual beat, and in that arena that he is relentlessly conservative.

    So yet another voice for conservative politics and traditional Christianity. (He’s a conservative Catholic.) Just what we need. Not. But no wonder the world thinks these things are inextricably linked.

  • CGC

    Hi Jon T #14,
    I think there are two sides of a coin historically that sometimes need to be examined and you certainly have a point but it seems to me (maybe you wrote to fast) that some of what you suggest is not totally historically accurate (or at least not nuanced enough and over-generalized).

    You are right that there was evolution and development by the later church in unpacking and explaining these things to their context but that is what we all have to do whether we like it or not. We have to contextualize the message. One does not have to use their language but I would hope you are not suggesting that we can just skip all this history (as if the Holy Spirit skipped two thousand years of dealing with people or treat Christianity as an ahistorical religion)

    Nor does what you say unpack at all what the earliest Christians were doing (including the first two centuries) of worshipping Jesus or as John Gospel says of Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God.” Certainly there were trinitarian hints and links than just the later church made this stuff up?

    If the councils were simply Roman Catholic, then why does Eastern Orthodoxy follow these councils to the letter? I no more believe these early councils were Roman Catholic than I believe they were Eastern Orthodox as the Orthodox suggest. There was substantially one united church at that time called “Catholic.”

    And yes, you are correct that no Jewish leaders were invited to these great ecumenical councils (something that has always troubled me for years and something others either want to sweep under the rug or simply denounce it and suggest it isn’t true which you are right, is what happened).

  • Mike M

    We went to a Special Needs service at a Lutheran Church (Wisconsin Synod no less) during which the pastor led us in the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed then went on to promote the “Jesus is God” nonsense to the most vulnerable part of our population.
    As far as Paul is concerned, nowhere does he proclaim Christ is God. His Cosmological Christ and John’s “I and the Father are one” are in no way trinitarian which is heresy. John T and CGC have truly hit the nail on the head, no pun intended.

  • Mike M

    Oops, Cosmic Christ. And Douthat’s use of selected “celebrities” is no worse than quoting George Clooney to support socialized medicine. Just bad journalism.

  • Tom F.

    Mike M.- Wait. You went to a Lutheran service, and you were surprised that they proclaimed that Jesus is God? I don’t understand…seems like most Lutherans are pretty clear about what they think of that.

    Debating the Trinity would likely be off topic in this thread, but how are you defining heretical? Do you consider yourself a unitarian?

  • Mike M

    Tom F: no, obviously I know they are pretty clear on it. What surprised me was the ability to hold 2 differing ideas in his head. Since I haven’t been to a Lutheran service in years, it took me aback.


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