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“Historical Jesus” Debate: An Unexamined Premise?

November 9, 2011

The latest issue of Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus arrived earlier this week, a special issue devoted to the topic of what contribution “Evangelical” scholars might be able to make to the on-going discussion.  It will be interesting to see what the various authors (who include prominent “Evangelical” scholars and also a couple of critics) have to say for themselves.  But it prompts me to make here two observations I’ve made in some other settings.

First, the whole enterprise of “historical Jesus” discussion (in these terms) was prompted by theological interests, and those engaged in it have typically done so from their own theological interests (often acknowledged, but quite often unacknowledged, sometimes even denied).  It began with 18th-century critics of established/institutional Christianity seeking to break its hold in European societies.  Their move was a clever one. 

Just as early Protestant reformers had played off the NT against the accretions of doctrines and structures that had come to form the institutional church of their time, so these Deist thinkers determined to play off Jesus against the NT.  That is, they pushed the view that the NT itself already partook of the human, fallible developments that continued on into the developing church (which I think is unquestionably so).   So, whereas Protestant figures had insisted that only the NT was authoritative, over against authority-claims of the institutional (Roman Catholic) church, the Deist move was to insist that Jesus trumped the NT.

This meant, then, that one had to draw out a distinguishable picture of a “historical” Jesus from the NT sources (the Gospels) on some valid basis.  The early Enlightenment move often involved drawing upon “natural reason” as a basis for judging what Jesus could or could not have done/taught.  That was a view that didn’t survive that period, and so subsequent scholars have devoted enormous energies to devising criteria by which to establish convincingly a body of material that could be used to develop a “historical” picture of Jesus, especially his teachings.  As any reviewer of this effort can testify, however, it has proven very difficult to come up with a set of criteria that are accepted by all, and more difficult still to produce results from criteria that are accepted by those not already inclined to do so.

But my first point is double-barrelled.  Number one, this whole enterprise was initiated with clear theological and political intent:  To subvert the authority of establishment Christianity in European societies in favor of a “natural theology”, or at least a seriously revisionist definition of Christianity.  Number two, it seems to me that pretty much everyone subsequently also has had this or that theological stand and purpose, right on down through the “Jesus Seminar”, the “third Quest”, and others. 

Some (in the footsteps of the originating Enlightenment figures) have sought to produce a Jesus who could support their aims of critique and/or subversion of establishment versions of Christianity.  Others have sought to produce a Jesus who could support, or be congruent with, this or that version of traditional Christianity.  It’s pretty hard to find anyone with no interest in the results (including some who, amusingly, profess to have no such interest).

My second point is that both sides have subscribed to a common premise, which goes something like this:  If a serious difference can be shown between what Jesus himself taught (especially what he taught about himself) and what early Christians believed (especially what they believed about him), then this would comprise a major theological problem for the validity of traditional Christian faith.  The one side seeks (with intent!) to establish such a major difference, and the other side seeks energetically to minimize it, both sides working on the same premise. 

My own response is:  Says who?  What is the justification for the premise I’ve described?  Why should a difference between what Jesus taught about himself and what believers subsequently came to assert about him be a problem?  NT texts don’t say that the reason people should accept the christological claims that they advance is that Jesus taught them.  Instead, NT texts typically assert that their christological claims are based in the actions of God, and the greater realization/revelation of Jesus’ significance that came thereby. 

Indeed, NT texts quite candidly say that Jesus now bears a status and significance that was conferred by God (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11, et alia), and that it was only after Jesus’ resurrection that his full significance was apprehended (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:44-49).  Even the Gospel of John, in which we have the most direct christological claims on the lips of Jesus, tells us that these claims were revealed by the Spirit of God (“Paraclete”) after Jesus was “glorified” (e.g., John 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15).  Indeed, the Gospel of John should probably be read as an account of Jesus programmatically written in light of what the author regarded as the revelation of Jesus’ significance by the Spirit in the “post-Easter” setting.

In sum, the basis for the christological claims of NT texts was never that Jesus taught and commanded them, but, instead, rested in what God had done, in raising Jesus from death and exalting him to unique heavenly glory.  That is, NT christological claims always had a profoundly theo- logical basis.  Whether one accepts what the NT asserts about God’s actions is another issue.  My point here is that God’s actions are posited in the NT as the major basis for the religious claims that they reflect.

To be sure, it is in principle a thoroughly interesting and worthy historical task to try to establish what we can about Jesus of Nazareth, his own words, actions, experiences, beliefs.  There are real difficulties involved, of course, but it’s entirely worthwhile to make the attempt.  But the emotional investment of either side in the debate I’ve sketched here is prompted by the dubious premise I’ve identified.

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  1. David Beebee permalink

    I am not sure you have identified a ‘dubious premise’ at all, however  I do see where you are coming from regarding the acknowledgement of bias on all sides.

    The premise is sound because there is no other basis on which to ask historical questions. We have to pull ourselves by our bootstraps somehow, and whilst not everyone will agree on what constitues valid historical criteria, the method is at least rooted in reality, that we can to some extent test.

    It may or may not be true that it is Gods actions that confer jesus’ significance etc but we have no way of establishing this. 

    We do not have access to God and we cannot establish what God has or has not done historically. Whether the NT sources say so or not is irrelevant.

    The only meaningful type of question we can ask is what is the probability of Jesus having said or done x y z in the real world back when he existed. ‘What it means’ may well be a valid theological question, but it has no relevance or bearing on the validity of Christianty because it can not be tested.

    So the premise is sound because whether you are trying to destroy the validly of christianity or reinforce it, asking historical questions and using historical criteria of some description at least gets the debate to begin on common ground.

    If we start using theology as a lens for what the NT says god does or doesnt do we quickly start descending into logical absurdities. Referring to your above comment for example; to what level of probability can you argue that Jesus expected the vindication of God and thus resurrection? If arguing (as I believe you do) for a very early christology, of which leads to support the idea that Jesus did in fact claim to be God, he should not have just expected vindication and resurrection, he would in his omniscience known of it.

    • I think you misunderstand my point. Of course, we have no other basis on which to proceed on historical questions than by using historical criteria and evidence, etc. And we can’t use theological criteria for historical questions. These aren’t the point. My point about a “dubious premise” is the theological/logical assertion that Christian faith (NB: not historical knowledge) must rest on what Jesus himself taught and authorized alone, and that any major difference between the christological claims of the NT and what Jesus actually taught is a big problem. I simply disagree, and see no reason that the putative premise is necessary.

    • David,

      I think that before we can begin to decide what “the historical jesus” might have said, we have to determine if we can demonstrate that such a character ever existed. I have not seen that done to date.

      Cheers! RichGriese.NET

      • Rich, I’ve engaged your repeatedly stated views before. No one. No one in scholarly circles dealing with ancient Judaism and early Christianity, of any religious or non-religious persuasion holds the view that Jesus never existed. You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own truth.
        Let’s move on.

  2. Tyler Dunstan permalink

    This is very interesting. I have been thinking about similar issues in the past couple of days after reading Luke Timothy Johnson’s chapter in Jesus & The Restoration of Israel in which he responds (quite negatively) to NT Wright’s JVG. Johnson finds fault with Wright’s attempt to find continuity between the pre and post resurrection Jesus. I guess the premise still seems valid to me. Are we to believe that Jesus was surprised after the resurrection to find what God had done to him? Was he amazed that God had made him both Lord and Christ? Was he really just a wandering cynic who was for some strange reason chosen by God to be resurrected and subsequently exalted as His eschatological agent? If this premise is not valid, what in your opinion should be the driving premise for further historical Jesus research, if indeed it is a worthwhile effort? Thanks for your thoughts.

    • My main points are these, one historical and one methodological/theological: (1) The questions about Jesus, including what he thought of himself, how he understood God’s will/plan and his role in it, etc., are all in principle valid, and I think can be addressed, albeit with appropriate modesty in what we can claim on historical grounds, and (2) logically and theologically, it is a fallacy to presume that the basis for traditional Christian reverence of, and claims about, Jesus lies in what Jesus said about himself and/or demanded. It is easily shown that the NT writings, rather consistently, make the decisive basis of the high christological claims lie in God’s actions and in post-Easter revelations of Jesus’ significance.
      I have argued (in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64) that it is rather clear that Jesus generated a strong polarization about himself, and that his crucifixion by the Roman authority as royal claimant suggests rather strongly that he engendered strong claims about his role right during his own ministry. A wandering wordsmith likely wouldn’t have generated the events that ended Jesus’ life.
      I rather suspect (though I can argue it only at a level of proposed probability) that at some point Jesus came to expect his own execution (influenced, among other things, by the pattern set by John the Baptist, to whom Jesus tied his own ministry). And, as a devout Jew, he likely expected God’s vindication, which likely included resurrection. But whether he expected all that earliest believers were convinced had been conferred on him, I don’t know. And, although it’s an interesting question, it’s not actually logically or theologically vital to answer.

  3. Dr. Hurtado,

    Brilliantly executed response here. Your suggestion that the “historical Jesus” movement is inherently theological cannot be stressed enough. Furthermore, your connection of the Enlightenment fathers doing to the NT to that of what the Protestant fathers did to the NT is striking and must be mulled over for some time.

    Again, thanks for your reflections here.


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