While they may have genuinely thought they were being skeptical and critical, from our later vantage point, it seems that those who felt that we cannot say anything about Jesus’ own statements and views, but only those of the later church, were rather giving expression to their reverence for Jesus as a figure who still had at least some overtones of divinity for them. Having all one’s conclusions be about the fallible humans who came after Jesus, and who may have misunderstood him drastically, leaves Jesus unscathed by historical inquiry.
We need to cross the moat that some have sought to dig, out of a desire to protect Jesus, and to ask historical questions about Jesus using the same terms which we use of other human beings. What did Jesus think about this subject or that? What was his theology?
When you carry the baggage of Jesus having been viewed as himself divine, it becomes difficult – and perhaps even nonsensical – to speak of his “theology.” But if we are to investigate him as a figure in history, then we need to ask precisely those sorts of questions, in precisely those sorts of terms.
I am not suggesting that this has never been attempted – it has, and quite often. But I’ve seen a waning of this kind of approach, and recent approaches which focus on memory seem to me to have the same faith-driven interest – to limit investigation to those who came after Jesus, leaving Jesus himself implicitly shielded from historical inquiry – and perhaps more importantly, leaving modern believers free to view Jesus as they always have.