Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why Historical Jesus Studies Are Useful for the Church


In the recently published volume Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, Scot McKnight writes a chapter arguing that historical Jesus (HJ) studies are useless for the church. I gave a lengthy review of his argument here. I find McKnight’s argument problematic for at least four reasons.

First, McKnight’s argument that HJ studies are useless for the Church largely ignores the central focus of the book, the misuse/problematic nature of the criteria of authenticity. He only mentions the criteria approach in his second point and then argues that a memory approach is not without its problems in failing to produce a “genuine” Jesus. The focus of the book is how to do better HJ work by moving past the “criteria approach,” which failed to yield what it promised. Ignoring the project of the book is, in my opinion, tantamount to arguing that history does not matter. In the end, all believers have is the “Church’s Jesus.” This seems to me a failure to “take the incarnation seriously” as Dagmar Winter put it in her presentation at the conference.

Second, McKnight is emphatic that the Church’s Jesus is the only valid Jesus for believers. My problem here is that the Church does not have one Jesus. In the canonical gospels alone there are four Jesuses. The preface of Luke’s gospel might well indicate that he found the other reconstructions less than satisfactory and sought to produce a better, more “accurate [κριβς]” reconstruction (Lk 1.1-4). Even if Luke is not implicitly critiquing the other gospels he is at least suggesting that more than one is necessary (cf. Jn 20.30-31). The canonical gospels present us with four Jesuses and we have the Jesuses of the apocryphal gospels indicating that some strands of early Christianity saw value in adding to the existing reconstructions. Therefore, the argument that the Church has one Jesus is simply not true. The church has always had many reconstructions of Jesus.

Third, McKnight appeals to “the Creeds” to argue for the singular “Church’s Jesus,” but I wonder which Creeds and whose church? The Jesus of the Episcopalian Church is radically different from the Evangelical Jesus. The Jesus of Roman Catholicism is different from the Eastern Orthodox Jesus. Taking this point even further, the Jesus of my church is different than the Jesus of McKnight’s for the simple reason that we hear different sermons, practice different liturgies, confess (or don’t confess) different creeds. There is no question that there are various Jesuses and that each church is involved in the “meaning making” of its Jesus. The question is whether or not good historiography can help churches have a more historically accurate Jesus, a Jesus not determined by cultural convention or local preference. I am of the opinion that it can, even that it must.

Fourth, McKnight’s lamentation of the fact that portraits of Jesus shift in each generation is not, in my opinion, a bad thing. History and theology must be culturally relevant; otherwise they are simply chasing the wind. Thus, it’s not a surprise that portraits of Jesus change in different cultures. I contend that using good historical methods can help believers see outside of their culture and get a more accurate picture of Jesus. That historical Jesus reconstructions change is a neutral fact, neither positive nor negative. The question, again, is whether or not historical methods can help provide a more accurate Jesus for churches. I believe they can.

I think McKnight’s argument for the “Church’s Jesus” results in a static figure, a theological statement more than a historical person. [McKnight's own work shows that he is very interested in history, in seeking the historical person, and thus seems to me to refute in practice what he articulates in theory.] The Jesus seen in the four gospels, the apocryphal gospels, the creeds, sermons, liturgies, and the history of Christianity remind us that the Church is always re-interpreting the narratives, constructing new narratives, asking new questions and developing new methods of historical investigation. Among other things, historical method can help prevent the Church from making the historical person of Jesus in our theological image. [McKnight, himself works to keep the Church from making Jesus in its theological image through his historical studies.] As Jens Schröter reminds us in his fine essay, historical sources have a certain “veto power” to prevent us from reconstructing narratives out of thin air (64, citing Reinhart Koselleck). The HJ “enterprise,” as discussed throughout Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity helps the Church by creating more disciplined critical reconstructions, by keeping theology from riding rough-shod over history and thus over Jesus, the historical person.

Please note additions placed in [brackets] in response to Scot McKnight's comments on this critique. 

10 comments:

Scot McKnight said...

1. The editors asked me to write exactly this chp.
2. The “church’s Jesus” is the Jesus of the Gospels and creeds, which implies diversity and manifold witness.
3. By Creeds I mean Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan. No one argues our pereceptions of them totally agree.
4. The point I am making is that we are not going to go back and re-do Jesus; the church “interpreted” him in the Gospels. Are you suggesting that we get rid of the Gospels and Creeds, and begin all over again? If so, that’s what I dispute and it is what HJ studies do; if not, then we may not have a beef. I agree that historical work helps us; I disagree that HJ studies, as the enterprise of reconstructing Jesus all over again, is not a churchly activity.
5. Your last point is simply wrong and uncharitable; I think I’ve worked pretty hard to make Jesus a real person and I’m surprised you would say that of me.

Tyler Stewart said...

Scot,

1. Fair enough. I am, of course, not privy to those sorts of things. I do appreciate your critique of the memory approach.

2. I think that the diversity of witnesses provides us with a precedent for continuing reconstruction. Do you disagree?

3. Do you think historical Jesus studies can provide a means of interpreting the gospels for the church?

4. I am not suggesting that we get rid of the gospels, indeed I think that the "interpreted" Jesus is all we have. I'm not saying that we "begin all over," but I do think that in a sense every generation rethinks the narratives. The question I want to ask is how historical Jesus studies can help in reconstructing narratives appreciating the interpretive frameworks of the gospels and creeds. I think memory studies help in providing just such an avenue.

5. I apologize for coming off uncharitable. I have re-worded some things in the post. I don't think that you have made Jesus a theological statement rather than a person. However, I do think the danger of the position stated in your essay ends there. If historical Jesus studies do not exist how does the church remain faithful to the historical person of Jesus? It would seem to me that your own work in historical Jesus studies refutes the very thesis of your chapter. Otherwise, why do you do historical Jesus studies?

Thanks for stopping by, your work is appreciated.

Scot McKnight said...



2. I think that the diversity of witnesses provides us with a precedent for continuing reconstruction. Do you disagree?

Yes, I disagree. How does a fourfold apostolic witness, the Gospels, suggest we get to re-do their approach? The church did not, in fact, accept more Gospels.

3. Do you think historical Jesus studies can provide a means of interpreting the gospels for the church?

Big point I am making, and nothing works unless you accept it: HJ studies seek to reconstruct what Jesus was really like over against the church's Gospels. If that is the case, then no. Historical work can shed light on the canonical Jesus.

4. I am not suggesting that we get rid of the gospels, indeed I think that the "interpreted" Jesus is all we have. I'm not saying that we "begin all over," but I do think that in a sense every generation rethinks the narratives. The question I want to ask is how historical Jesus studies can help in reconstructing narratives appreciating the interpretive frameworks of the gospels and creeds. I think memory studies help in providing just such an avenue.

Again, big point: "rethinks the narrative" is not historical Jesus studies. They re-narrate Jesus. Again, historical work can shed light on the canonical Jesus in his Jewish, Greek, Roman contexts.

5. I apologize for coming off uncharitable. I have re-worded some things in the post. I don't think that you have made Jesus a theological statement rather than a person. However, I do think the danger of the position stated in your essay ends there. If historical Jesus studies do not exist how does the church remain faithful to the historical person of Jesus? It would seem to me that your own work in historical Jesus studies refutes the very thesis of your chapter. Otherwise, why do you do historical Jesus studies?

Again, it depends what you mean by HJ studies. Historical study is one thing; HJ studies another.

Hope my code works and doesn't mess things up.

David Russell Mosley said...

Scot and Tyler,

Being someone who doesn't do biblical studies professionally, I feel somewhat under qualified to add to this conversation. Nevertheless, I will try.

In general, I believe I agree with Scot. HJ research seems to function under the presupposition that their work is done objectively and without bias. They seem to think their is a secular rational autonomy from which they can do their work. With this I fundamentally disagree. It seems to me that the only way we can approach Jesus is either from an intentionally non-faith-based perspective or an intentionally faith-based perspective. As Scot says, the Church's Jesus is the only Jesus (or at least the only one worth studying) for he is both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (to use a distinction I rather disdain).

Also, Tyler, your distinction between the Jesus of the four gospels, creeds, ancient and modern churches, seems to me to ignore the very fact that HJ studies attempts to discover, that there is only one Jesus. There can be many presentations of him, but this does not change who he is.

I don't know if what I've said is worth anything, but I hope it is.

Yours,
David

Scot McKnight said...

David, thanks for chiming in.

1. I'm not so sure HJ scholars still assume no bias; they are more aware of this but push on.

2. I don't think the canonical Jesus is the only Jesus worth studying; in fact, historical work is worth itself. But the HJ enterprise is seeking to create a new/different Jesus than the Gospels. I contend that quest is of no use to the church. I would say the canonical Jesus is what the church studies for the church.

Jordan Daniel Wood said...

I think Dr. McKnight got to the bottom of it when he distinguished between "Historical Jesus" studies and "historical study." The point is fundamental, and I think that believing Christians should at least be honest about what they're actually doing when they do "historical Jesus" studies. I've now heard of two professional historians - both of whom work in the "historical Jesus" field - criticize N.T. Wright, for instance, for claiming to do "historical Jesus studies" when, according to them, he just does historically-oriented Christology. For them this is obvious since he has no desire - and indeed has faith commitments that positively prohibit - from reconstructing Jesus over and against the interpreted Jesus of the Gospels. This is not the goal of historical Jesus studies as many practice it. Now the point is not that N.T. Wright's Jesus is bad or unhelpful to the Church. The point is that - according to many historians - this is just something different, perhaps even Christological. Wright may not want to admit this for fear of loosing some kind of credibility, it's the truth.

Also, multiple Jesuses in the NT are scarcely an argument for historical Jesus studies, since they are of course not historical Jesus projects. They are only an argument for more reinterpretations of Jesus, interpretations, however, that are always also theological, canonically-restrained, and in harmony with the Creeds of the Church. Again, with McKnight, there is no problem with a historically informed Jesus. There is a problem with a purely "historical" Jesus. When the Church says "Jesus," after all, "half" of what it means is the utterly unique, divine, 2nd Person of the Trinity. This Person, if truly also divine, is therefore undetectable BY DEFINITION with normal socio-historical assumptions.

David Russell Mosley said...

Scot,

First, thanks.

Now then:

"1. I'm not so sure HJ scholars still assume no bias; they are more aware of this but push on."

Would it, perhaps, be more fair to say, rather than that they believe they lack bias, they believe their work to be more objective than what you (or what I tried to) suggest?


"2. I don't think the canonical Jesus is the only Jesus worth studying; in fact, historical work is worth itself. But the HJ enterprise is seeking to create a new/different Jesus than the Gospels. I contend that quest is of no use to the church. I would say the canonical Jesus is what the church studies for the church."

Let me attempt to make my thought here clearer. When I said 'the only one worth studying' I meant: (1) for the Church; (2) that the canonical Jesus (that is to say the Jesus of the Church) is both historical and the theological (again I consider this to be a false divide). That is to study Jesus historically, culturally, etc. is to study the canonical Jesus. I may be wrong, but it is how I understand it. I recently heard Fr John Behr discourse on how we ought to be doing patristics, which is from a faith-based, theological point of view. He wasn't saying manuscript studies and history ought not to be done but that the direction ought to be from a theological point of view. I agree with him and think his points applicable to biblical studies.

Scot McKnight said...

David, the whole criteria approach was to find a scientific, objective method; that approach has been called into question, of course, which was the point of the conference. It was hoped the criteria would minimize, even eliminate, bias and bring more consensus. It didn't.

David Russell Mosley said...

Scot,

I think I would have to say, of course it didn't. The idea that there is some autonomous reason from which we can all draw and come to objective, "scientific", bias-less conclusions is false.

Luke Geraty said...

Scot, you hit the nail on the head, IMO.