I taught a module on the historical Jesus recently for church leaders. My starting point was the suggestion that there are two basic ways of telling the story about Jesus. Traditionally the church has told a vertical story: Jesus comes into the world from heaven to die for our sins and then returns to the Father, and that’s about it. There is a beginning (creation and fall) and an end (Jesus returns, final judgment), but what happens in history before and after the “Christ event” is a matter of only secondary theological interest. The traditional model, however, is coming under increasing pressure from what is essentially a historical reading of the New Testament. According to this paradigm, which is horizontal rather than vertical, diachronic rather than synchronic, Jesus plays a decisive part in the history of Israel, and his meaning for the world cannot be dissociated from that narrative.
The chart develops the contrasts between these two narratives. Click on it to see a larger version.
The theological story gives us a christology from above: God sends the Son into the middle of human history as God-incarnate to redeem humanity from its original sinfulness. The historical story gives us a christology from below: Jesus is sent to the vineyard of Israel. He is the obedient servant, empowered by the Spirit; he is the beloved Son who will inherit the future reign over the people. The historical story is bookended by creation and final judgment, but the whole thing needs to be foregrounded if we are to understood the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The theological story is heavily reliant on John’s Gospel, with John 3:16 being a key verse: the practical core of the story for the church is the universal offer of personal salvation. The historical reading depends on the Synoptics, with perhaps Mark 14:62 capturing its essence: the practical point for the historical people of God was not personal salvation but the assurance that Jesus would judge and rule over Israel and, subsequently, the nations—and that his followers would be vindicated. I made the point in relation to Samuel V. Adams’ critique of N.T. Wright that he makes disproportionate use of John.
The key affirmation for theologically minded readers is that “the Word became flesh”. The key affirmation for historically minded readers is that “Jesus is Lord”.
The theological reading came to prominence in the patristic period. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word is a salient text for the paradigm. In my view, Albert Schweitzer should be given the credit for refocusing the mind of the church, albeit in a rather misleading fashion, on the Jewish apocalyptic narrative that accounts not only for Jesus but also for Paul. See his The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion.
Finally, the key equation for the theological narrative is that the New Testament phrase “Son of God” is equivalent to the trinitarian phrase “God the Son”, with the corresponding assumption that “Son of Man” denotes Jesus’ humanity. On the historical side of the great divide, “Son of God” refers supremely to Israel’s king. The “Son of Man” narrative adds to this the thought that the one—or the community—that inherits the kingdom will suffer first. So in Mark 14:62 Jesus tells Caiaphas that it will be the Son of Man, who will be rejected by Israel and killed, who will inherit rule over Israel at the right hand of YHWH.
Both stories are biblical, both are valid. The question is whether we should continue to subordinate the historical story to the theological story.