Jesus, Historical Inquiry, and Futility

Buddy ChristMany thanks to James McGrath for taking up two of my recent posts on his blog. It’s nice to jump back into things and get into discussions right away. Otherwise, why blog? In the two posts, I provided a little glimpse into my frustration with historical Jesus research. James doesn’t think that I do justice to the situation in those posts. I agree. Admittedly, I wasn’t really trying to do justice to the situation. I should clarify what I feel is futile and what I feel is productive. In brief, I find discussions of the “historical Jesus” to be pedagogically useful. I agree with James that a good, solid, evidence-based consensus on at least the bare essentials is important to counter the crazies on the fringes. But on those points upon which reasonable (not fringe!) scholars disagree, many end up proclaiming a kind of Jesus that is perhaps plausible, but ultimately driven by (often unnamed) ideological perspectives.

Mark Goodacre has pointed out the pedagogical usefulness of the criteria for authenticity in historical Jesus research. For example, in his NT Pod episode on the criterion of multiple attestation, Mark underscores the obvious point: of course historians like multiple early and independent sources. That’s a given. Again, one might say: duh. But for training students in how to be good critical historians, teaching this criterion as a criterion highlights the point for those students who might otherwise feel a bit lost at sea when trying to figure things out about Jesus.

Also, clearly, there are some things we can say with relative certainty about Jesus, one of which is the fact that he existed. Of course, E.P. Sanders’ list of “almost indisputable” facts about Jesus comes to mind, as well as various adaptations of it (should we add that Jesus was breastfed to the list now?). There will always be people throwing around crazy theories about Jesus and we will need reasonable scholars to be able to counter the craziness. I completely agree with James. When I speak of the “futility” of historical Jesus research, I’m not disparaging solid arguments based on the evidence of what Jesus did and what happened to him.

But there is a point where tangible facts elude us in the search for the historical Jesus. There is only so much that can possibly be “almost indisputable” and the rest is speculation. Sometimes speculation is fun. It’s interesting to offer and debate about speculative possibilities and that’s sort of what we’re in the business of doing anyway, right? But, with Jesus, we get into an area in which we are not simply speculating. We are proclaiming. We are preaching a kind of Jesus as we see him and, typically, as he fits our theological paradigms. I’m a Mennonite. In Mennonite circles, we’ll generally take any Jesus who looks nonviolent. But these can be problematic.

For example, one way of depicting Jesus is as a true radical standing up against injustice. As many scholars have noted, one’s depicted Jesus is actually a package deal: it comes with underlying assumptions about who his enemies are and what they represent. Even if scholars try to be careful about underscoring Jesus’ Jewishness in this social justice paradigm, A.-J. Levine highlights one of its risks:

Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the “poor and the marginalized” (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; whatever Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category. (Misunderstood Jew, 19)

James Crossley has also highlighted a plethora of ideological problems evidenced by the study of the historical Jesus (in addition to his books, see also his recent three part interview on the topic).

Besides the clear ideological underpinnings of where we decide to go with our Jesuses (beyond a kind of core, reasonable evaluation of the facts of Jesus as a historical figure), we also have problems with the criteria themselves. What truly counts for multiple in “multiple attestation”? Does the drive to find multiple sources affect one’s view of how the sources are related? How Jewish is a “doubly dissimilar” Jesus? How “embarrassed” are the authors if, after all, they decided to include the data? What sort of controls can we put on “coherence” so it’s not just slapped around willy-nilly? Etc. The published volume and subsequent conference on “the demise of authenticity” coordinated by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne highlight the problems here (see also Mark Goodacre’s live blogging of the conference).

James also mentions that the (finite) multiplicity of Jesus portrayals goes back all the way to the multiplicity in early Christian texts themselves. This is exactly my point. I am simply saying that I would prefer we discuss the portrayals of Jesus (ancient, contemporary, and in between) as portrayals, discussing what these portrayals discursively represent, and not merely as repositories for facts about Jesus. And, absolutely, let’s also do it for Socrates and any other ancient figure for whom we have some reception data. James also mentions the problem of scholars looking for new things to say. I agree; and this is also my point. How much more is there to say about the facts of Jesus? I think investigating social memory (a la Le Donne) is a helpful avenue, because this is not just about coming up with and rehearsing facts, but understanding the process and the development of Christ-confessing communities. If this is what historical Jesus research will be moving forward, then that sounds pretty cool to me. In the words of Jared Calaway, after reading the Keith/Le Donne volume, “the historical Jesus is dead; long live the historical Jesus.”

DeMille's The King of Kings

One further point is relevant to my other posts. If we are to study the reception of Jesus and not just try to get a generally accurate sense of Jesus on the basic facts, then the field is wide open. Thus, Bush’s claiming of Christ as his favorite philosopher, Cecil B. DeMille’s ethereal Jesus in The King of Kings, Bruce Malina’s social-scientifically constructed Jesus, Kanye West’s walking Jesus, Billy Graham’s evangelical Jesus, Dan Brown’s fanciful Jesus, Hitler’s Jesus, etc., all deserve their own evaluations as cultural expressions—not simply as varying degrees of “right” or “wrong” depictions of Jesus.

So, what do I personally think is futile? An approach on just the “facts” about Jesus that pretends it is not driven by the interpreter’s ideological perspective; though, this is not to say that reasonable “facts” aren’t important for public discussion or not pedagogically useful. What do I personally think is more productive? Well, among other things, an approach that navigates the reception and interpretation of Jesus as cultural production—and one that clearly articulates its methodological and theoretical lens for doing so.

What say you all? Do you find anything about the historical Jesus endeavor futile? What avenues do you think are more productive and promising?

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Posted in Historical Jesus