Jesus for the Perplexed

A recent book in the excellent “Guide for the Perplexed” series is by Helen K. Bond, a notable New Testament historian at the University of Edinburgh. Her book is called The Historical Jesus. Raising this topic means we need to get a few ideas straight again.

The historical Jesus is the reconstruction, by an individual scholar, of what Jesus was really like (a) on the basis of historical methods and (2) over against what the church has said about Jesus in the Gospels, the New Testament and the earliest creeds. I’ve said this before: the historical Jesus is not a fancy term for the real person at work in the Gospels. The historical Jesus is the product of an enterprise: the historians at work on the Gospels, sifting through the records to determine what is good solid history and what is impossible to prove or what is obviously added and then, on the basis of that critical examination of the Gospels, a reconstruction of what Jesus was more likely like.

I’ll put it directly: if you think everything in the Gospels is authentic, and then you seek to pull together the various strands of the Gospels into a coherent life of Jesus, you are not doing historical Jesus studies. No one can do historical Jesus studies unless he or she thinks the Gospels need to be sifted. Again, this is an enterprise: the enterprise of finding the Jesus behind the Gospels that were shaped by the faith of the earliest Christians and not always authentic.

How do you understand the “historical” Jesus? What value does the historical Jesus have for the church?

I know of no better basic introduction to the historical Jesus than this slender, accessible, comprehensive study by Helen Bond. Instead of talking about HJS (historical Jesus studies) this volume sketches events, actions, and words of Jesus and offers quick, standard, and consensus-type judgments on what we can know. She relies on her consensus taking and on her own judgments. It’s a remarkable volume, if one is looking for a standard sketch of how historical Jesus scholars do their work. Her understanding of what history is — the man, reconstruction, interpretation, limited results, not the same as the church’s Jesus — approaches mine though she doesn’t posit the HJ over against the church quite as directly as I do. I sense she’d agree.

She sketches some major quests for Jesus (Reimarus to Schweitzer, Bultmann,third quest, and then settles into brief sketches of Vermes, Sanders, Horsley, Jesus Seminar, Crossan, Flusser, J.P. Meier, Wright, Dunn and Allison). Then sources and concludes there’s not much help outside the Gospels, and this chp shows off her method of cautious reasoning.

A couple snapshots of her snapshots: on virginal conception: texts in the NT show Jesus is son of Joseph, born of a virgin, and illegitimate. “The simplest way through the evidence is to go along with the assumption of the majority of the New Testament writers and to take it that Jesus was born quite naturally to his father Joseph. The story of the virginal conception… seems to have been an early attempt to show both that Jesus’ miraculous birth signalled from the start that he would be a great man, and also an attempt symbolically to underline his divine paternity” (70).

“The Kingdom of God, then, is a shorthand way to describe what the world would be like if God were in control, to symbolize his reign of justice, mercy and peace” (90). [And, love, I might add.]

On miracles, she gives a good sketch of sociological explanations but then concludes “… how much of the miracle tradition we are willing to accept as historical is probably determined by our own worldview and where we draw the line on the spectrum of plausibility” (108). Ever cautious, Bond doesn’t put her cards on the table for all to see.

Who did Jesus think he was? The titles for Jesus are Christian terms from later times; he had a strong sense of vocation; he’s linked to a number of Scriptural figures but how many go back to Jesus is not clear; saw himself as God’s last envoy. Messiah? “Certainly it is not a title that Jesus seems to have welcomed. He never refers to himself in this way and appears to distance himself from the term… [his] preaching concerned God and God’s kingly reign rather than himself… He may have had a general sense of being anointed… What others thought about Jesus, then, is just as important in working out Jesus’ role as his own self-perception” (110-111).

On the resurrection, she spells it with upper case always: “Resurrection.” She sketches the Jewish context; it’s about the general resurrection at the end of time. There are reports of an empty tomb and appearances. The apocalyptic themes of Jesus combined with the empty tomb and appearances to generate belief in the Resurrection. I do not know how Bond explains the empty tomb. She doesn’t say.

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  • Rick


    Is determing the overall authenticity of the Gospels part of the “enterprise”, or is that determination (assumption) made prior to the enterprise (at which time determing if any portions are authentic is started)?

  • phil_style

    @Rick Is determing the overall authenticity of the Gospels part of the “enterprise”, or is that determination (assumption) made prior to the enterprise (at which time determing if any portions are authentic is started)

    This is an interesting question.
    Let’s take one of the assumptions that the enterprise has to assume, if it is to maintain academic credibility; this is the assumption that all natural events are natural. Therefore, the enterprise cannot accept a supernatural explanation – that is, a miracle. So, in that respect, one could argue that from the outset, the enterprise is biased against the authenticity of the Gospels.

    However, there is an escape clause. The enterprise can refuse to deal with that question (did a miracle occur) and rather move on to the more neutral (and possibly more important) question : Did the writers and/ or the people of that time believe that a miracle had occurred?

  • Helen Bond

    Thanks, Scot, for your kind assessment of my book. I agree with you entirely about how we should go about doing Historical Jesus studies! Just a couple of things I may be able to shed some light on –

    You say I’m a bit cagey about the miracles and the Resurrection (yes, there it is again, that capital ‘R’), so I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain why I was so unforthcoming (and I think it may have some points of contact with Phil’s earlier comment).
    On the miracles: it seems to me that we can put up a pretty good case that the historical Jesus was believed, both by friends and enemies, to be a miracle worker. And in this he wasn’t unique in the ancient world (as examples from both the Jewish and Graeco-Roman context show). But, as a fairly practical 21st century person, I don’t experience a world in which miracles happen in such a blatant manner (and I tend to be skeptical of people who claim that they do). What I meant by the sentence that you quote is that we all have different thresholds when it comes to what we are prepared to believe, particularly when it comes to the ‘supernatural’. So, as a historian, I’m very happy to say that Jesus was believed to be a miracle worker, and that practical and intelligent people in his world regarded him as such, but I don’t feel able to pass a judgement on whether it was actually God breaking into human life or not (that seems to me no longer to be a purely historical question). And I’d remain equally agnostic regarding other first century miracle workers too.

    The Resurrection is in the same type of area. To be perfectly honest, I do swither between thinking that the empty tomb tradition is a late one – ‘picture language’ to illustrate the truth of the Christian claim – and thinking that there is something to it. Both positions, it seems to me, have much to be said for them. When I wrote the book, though, I was more impressed by the idea that there had been something strange about the tomb. I came to realise that the whole idea of respectable burial in a rock-cut tomb seems unlikely, and that Jesus was more probably buried in a shallow grave in a plot reserved for criminals (I think it was likely Joseph of Arimathaea’s job, as a pious Jew, to see to the burial of the corpses of those who had been crucified). Mark seems to me to protest too much about the women being absolutely sure of where the body was buried, and that suggests that there may have been some confusion. My best historical guess (at least at the moment!) is that no one was quite sure of where the body lay; in an attempt to track down the tomb, the women found only empty ones, and general confusion reigned. Two really important points need to be made here, though:
    First, an empty tomb in the first century wouldn’t by any means have suggested to anyone that the person had been ‘raised from the dead’ (more likely grave robbers or animals had been at work). To talk of ‘resurrection’ you need to believe that you are living in the last days, and that Jesus’ exaltation was the first harbinger of the end times. The lack of a body might have stoked the flames of this belief, but it couldn’t have ignited them in and of itself.
    Second, as with the miracles, I think this is again an area where historical enquiry falls short. The earliest Christians clearly believed that something had happened to Jesus, and this quite clearly changes their lives. They interpreted it as resurrection, but for the same reasons as before I don’t think that’s an issue on which a historian should offer an opinion. I know that a lot of people want to prove the empty tomb, and think that by so doing they are proving the Resurrection, but to me this is a sidelining of faith. Historians can only say so much, after that its up to Christians to believe in the extra steps. I am a church-goer myself (hence the capital ‘R’), but I wouldn’t ever want to pretend to myself that historical enquiry could take the place of faith.

    Sorry this has ended up being such a long email! Thanks again for your comments.

  • phil_style

    @Helen, this is an interesting section of your comment Mark seems to me to protest too much about the women being absolutely sure of where the body was buried, and that suggests that there may have been some confusion. My best historical guess (at least at the moment!) is that no one was quite sure of where the body lay; in an attempt to track down the tomb, the women found only empty ones, and general confusion reigned.

    I think this ties quite nicely in with Rick’s questions about historical Jesus studies.

    I would suggest that when this (the above) kind of rationale is proposed, we are looking at a high resolution example of what Scot describes as “The historical Jesus is the reconstruction, by an individual scholar, of what Jesus was really like”. How do scholars (i.e. by what methodology) arrive at the position that “it seems Mark protests too much” [a reference to the author’s note in Mark 15 v47] ? Can we, with confidence, write this opinion off as simply a literary impression? Are we dealing with reasoning here that is no more robust than the impression one takes away from a painting?

  • scotmcknight

    I don’t want you to feel obligated to watch this thread and respond to each and every inquiry — I don’t do that on my own blog!

    On the resurrection, a species of miracles, we can as historians establish two facts: that the tomb was empty and that the early Christians experienced appearances of Jesus after his death. For some, the only explanation for those two facts is resurrection. I would contend that “resurrection” or that “God raised him from among the dead” are explanations of these two facts. I would contend the same for “miracle”: that is the term we put on an event for which we have no natural explanation.

    In general I agree with you on the limits of the historian’s knowledge. We can establish with a high degree of credibility that Jesus was crucified; we cannot prove as historians that he died “for my sins.” We can establish an empty tomb and appearances, explain that with “he was raised” but that he was raised “for my justification” is not open to the historian’s gaze.

    But I think we can get closer than the above two facts (empty tomb, appearances), and you will know this from reading Charlie Moule’s famous stuff.

    Witnesses made claims that Jesus was raised from the dead, and witnesses said they touched that body and saw that body eat. So, we’ve got empty tomb, appearances, and claims — and I think you’d agree such claims were made.

    Leading to this: There are three options…

    1. They lied about the body and about the resurrection. Faith in the resurrected Lord is therefore a fabrication and deception, and once we learn they were lying we are led to distrust their witness.

    2. They were confused about the empty tomb, experienced appearances (or lied), and the only explanation they could give was some kind of “he came back to life and that’s an act of God.” In this option, resurrection faith is murky and dependent upon some early confusions and possible totally mistaken interpretations.

    3. We can say they were right and their testimony is worthy of believing. As you know, both Moule and Tom Wright think #3 is the best explanation.

    Would you agree that their claims are worthy not only as historical evidence we need to consider (empty tomb, appearances, and claims) but also worthy of serious consideration in deciding if the body was raised? Are they trustworthy witnesses?

  • Helen Bond

    A comment to Phil: I think I want to agree with you, but to go even further. Obviously my comment about Mark protesting too much is based on as much detailed study of the closing verses of Mark as I was able to do – I think the end of Mk’s gospel wants to show (a) that Jesus truly was dead and buried, and (b) that the women (with the repititious names) followed along at every stage and provide a connecting link between the cross, burial and resurrection. In my experience, people only go out of their way to make points if they think there are some out there who will disagree, so that’s why I think there were at least some who doubted the whole empty tomb story (and simply assumed that the women were confused). You’re right – I’m operating on hunches, intuition, life experiences, and impressions gained from a literary reading of our key texts, but isn’t that what historical reconstruction is all about? I’d go even further and say that imagination is important too. Historical ‘methodology’ can’t be scientific – otherwise we end up with the pseudo-scientific ‘authenticity criteria’ of past phases of the quest. I’m a firm believer that study of Jesus should be no different to study of any other historical character. I’ve just been reading Tacitus’ Agricola, and he makes several inaccurate comments about both his father in law and Britain (though he’s right about the abysmal weather!); the point is that what we would see as ‘inaccuracies’ are all in the service of his eulogistic biography of his father in law. I think the same is true of the gospels – they contain a great deal of historical material, but they weren’t penned primarily to give us the historical portrait that we’d like, but to proclaim Jesus as the son of God. If things are tweaked and altered along the way, we should hardly be surprised. But that again means we have to treat the gospels with caution. So no ‘methodology,’ just unrepentant intuition . . .
    best wishes, H

  • AG Reichert

    Thomas Jefferson would have loved this sketch of a historical Jesus. He literally took a knife to his bible to cut out all mention of the supernatural and miracles. In the end, he created a moral teacher he admired that he thought looked a lot like him. A lower case “g” god that wouldn’t ultimately hold him accountable for being a slave owner or cheating on his wife.

  • Helen Bond

    Hi Scot, I’m not responding to your comment out of a sense of duty, but simply because I want to . . .
    Two points:
    First, your three alternatives display an apparent logic, but if the study of pure maths (my academic first-love) taught me anything, it was that there are infinitely more possibilities in any situation than we ever imagine (I think Hamlet said something similar . . .)
    Second, I have a little list of terms that I think should be banned from Jesus Studies: liars, fabrication, and deception are my top three!

    I think things get very murky, from the historian’s perspective, when we get to reports of the resurrection, simply because we are talking about things that are outside the ken of most people’s experience. I do think that there were resurrection experiences, but I also think that they are highly susceptible to distortion due to apologetic concerns (especially when it comes to reports that Jesus ate with or touched people, for example; like the empty tomb these are trying to ground the resurrection in a physical way). I think we underestimate just how uncertain these first few days after the resurrection would have been – reports, rumours, speculation, and all relating to the most amazing thing anyone had ever experienced. I’m pretty sure conflicting stories were doing the rounds, and some would have exaggerated their own experiences, but that doesn’t make them liars, deceivers or fabricators – it just makes them normal human beings. As I’ve said, I tend to think that there was something strange about the tomb – either the women couldn’t find it or they went back to the one they thought was it and it was empty. Both things would have fuelled the resurrection ‘explanation’ (as you rightly say), but I think both groups of evidence are much less clear cut than your three options suppose.

    In answer to your last paragraph: yes, for Christians these stories are all we have, so they have got to be ‘worthy of serious consideration.’ And they are probably as trustworthy as most witnesses (which is to say, reasonably so). But I stick to my original point, that no amount of historical enquiry is going to prove that the Resurrection happened – you either believe it or you don’t!
    All best wishes,

  • Mike M

    I’m with Helen: both miracles and the Resurrection are issues of faith, not historical study. As the recipient of miracles beyond explanation (is that redundant?), I am of the generation that required miracles first. However if Helen is such a miracle skeptic, there’s nothing more to add here other than that the miracles pointed to the Resurrection: for the early Christians and for me.