Friday, December 10, 2010

Historical Jesus: As Long as You're Looking . . .

Anyone seen a carpenter?

As the Christmas season rolls in, I think it’s fitting to re-visit a favorite theme of this blog, the historical Jesus.

This year, I see more scholars focusing attention on the question of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, it’s precisely the question aspect that is being considered seriously. This has not always been the case. Indeed, scholars and amateur theologians alike have by and large simply assumed that there was a historical Jesus, even if, as R. Joseph Hoffmann has said, “[T]he sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus.”

In this post, I’ll provide four quotes from the introduction (a draft, I presume) of a book coming out next year from Equinox Press, Is This Not the Carpenter: A Question of Historicity?, a collection of essays on the subject edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna.

“The Quest for the Historical Jesus” is a section within the introduction. The editors remark there that scholarly aversion to the question of the historicity of Jesus has ultimately been bad for the discipline:
For some time, New Testament scholarship has avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus. Their assumption of an historical Jesus has been secured within a debate about the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life, as referenced in the New Testament, reflect either Jesus’ own life and teaching or a construction of early Christianity. The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts.
In this quote, several important themes in New Testament scholarship emerge: avoidance of the question, assumption of the historicity of Jesus, bifurcated scholarly debate emerging from this assumption, and problems related to the functions of the texts of early Christianity.

The editors continue:
The question of historicity, itself, however, remains unaddressed and there is, accordingly, little discussion of the central questions regarding the significance and function of our texts. One has begun with the unwarranted assertion of a “probability” of an historical Jesus existing in ancient Palestine and freely presented one or other of such a possible figure as a viable alternative to the only known Jesus--the mythic one of our texts. Jesus has become a "concrete entity with recognizable parameters."
If I read this passage correctly, the editors are stating that the Jesus of the early Christian library is definitely mythical. Although scholars might generally agree that there was some Jesus sometime in history, the very same scholars also generally agree that the “real” Jesus was not the one portrayed in the early Christian texts. From this agreement numerous “real” Jesuses have sprung, from itinerant preacher to prophet and exorcist.

Unfortunately, none of the “real” Jesuses are any more historical than the textual Jesus. The quest for the real Jesus was based from the start on flawed assumptions:
Historical Jesus research did not come about through the discovery of an actual historical Jesus as focus for such research. Despite what many have suggested, the data we have is no more useful for an understanding of an historical Jesus today than it had been a century ago. Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century--such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah--has been found wanting. The ancient world’s many mythic and theological representations of a figure comparable to the Jesus of New Testament texts are not alone decisive arguments against historicity, but they are part of the picture, which needs to be considered more comprehensively. Literarily viable figures have been represented—historically--in many clarifying ways.
The editors close this section by stressing the legitimacy of the skeptical approach to the question of the historical Jesus.
An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David. To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. The best histories of Jesus today reflect an awareness of the limits and uncertainties in reconstructing the story of his life. Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations. The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers. (emphasis added)
So, where is Jesus this year? Well, we’re not sure. He’s not in the New Testament and he’s so far not been in scholarship. I’ll look under the tree. . . .

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