Scot McKnight on the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the church

Read time: 6 minutes

Scot McKnight argues that historical Jesus studies must start from the premise that the “church either got Jesus wrong or said too much”, that the “real” Jesus of the historians and the theologized Jesus of the church cannot be reconciled, and that historical Jesus studies are of no use to the church because the church already knows what it believes about Jesus. His conclusion is:

If the church opts for the historical Jesus, it must choose to disregard the canonical Jesus for a reconstruction of Jesus on the basis of historical methods.

The situation is actually a little more complicated than this. Scot makes a secondary distinction between the canonical Jesus and the creedal Jesus: the Jesus of the earliest communities was defined principally by the Gospels that they wrote about him; the Jesus of the later church was defined by the creeds. We have, therefore, three different frames within which the person of Jesus may be determined for belief or disbelief.

The historical-critical Jesus

Historical Jesus study aims at reconstructing the life of the “real” Jesus, using in principle the same methods that modern historians would use to reconstruct the life of Alexander the Great or Pontius Pilate. To proceed historians must, on the one hand, describe a plausible setting in which to place the “real” Jesus, and on the other, critically evaluate the credibility of the limited number of ancient documents that purport to give an account of who he was and what he did. The process is inevitably reductive: it confines Jesus to a particular historical context and it only ever takes away from the canonical texts.

Because the source material is so limited and the various biases—ancient and modern—that have been brought to bear on the task of telling the story of Jesus are so strong, the results have been chaotic. I get the impression that some consensus is emerging that the “real” Jesus was a very Jewish, apocalyptically minded prophet, who believed, probably mistakenly, that God was about to establish his kingdom, to the cost of Israel’s misguided leadership. But that may only reflect my own bias or the fact that I am currently reading Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth: An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching

The historical-canonical Jesus

I have pointed out before that there are two historical dimensions to the New Testament texts. Historical Jesus study is concerned primarily with the relationship between the texts and the people and events to which they refer. But the texts also relate historically to the communities which produced and read the texts. This is the dimension that mostly interests me—the historical meaning of the Gospels rather than the historical reference of the Gospels; and I assume it is what Scot is getting when he writes:

Canonical Jesus study sets an interpreted Jesus [canonical Jesus] in his Jewish context while historical Jesus study gets behind the canonical Jesus to the (less interpreted) real Jesus and sets that reconstructed figure in his historical context. I’m all for historical study of the canonical Jesus.

What I am trying to ask, under the rubric of a narrative-historical hermeneutic, is: How do the texts read from the limited historical perspective of the communities for which they were produced. The past, present and future of those communities—to keep the narrative dynamic in view—was very different to our own, and such an approach is bound to generate a quite different understanding of the Jesus story.

The creedal or theological Jesus

The creedal or theological Jesus is the Jesus of the church’s massive and massively diverse endeavour to make sense of the canonical data within subsequent, cumulative intellectual and cultural contexts, beginning with the creeds. Scot argues for continuity between the canonical Jesus and the creedal Jesus:

The creedal Jesus develops the canonical Jesus, and even if many think the creedal Jesus said too much, that does not change that the creedal Jesus is also the church’s Jesus.

I am inclined to say that the theological Jesus of the church—and for me, in particular, of the modern evangelical church—needs to be pushed to one side and the historical-canonical Jesus allowed to take his place. But the reality is that this would only constitute a further development of the church’s Jesus. No matter how well we come to understand the historical-canonical Jesus, we remain stuck with our own point of view. The current tendency to view the New Testament more as a set of historically contextualised documents and less as part of a transcendent divine book is not a mark of lesser or greater faithfulness: it is simply the product of Western intellectual development.

Never the twain shall meet?

In view of Scot’s strongly expressed contrarian view that the “real” Jesus and the church’s Jesus cannot be reconciled, it’s worth asking whether these three different accounts are diverging or converging?

On the whole, it seems to me that there is an account of the “real” Jesus emerging from historical Jesus studies that is not so far from the historical-canonical Jesus, if we read the canonical texts without the later creedal and theological overlay. I think that the Jewish apocalyptic Jesus who proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God in the near future is the historical-canonical Jesus. Critical scholars and historical-canonical interpreters may not see eye to eye over the question of whether the miracles and the resurrection actually happened, but there is no reason in principle why we should not agree about their significance within the narrative.

It has to be acknowledged, however, that it is historical Jesus study that has, in its haphazard and often contrary fashion, enabled people like Tom Wright and Scot McKnight to recover a more coherent historical-canonical Jesus. There may be other ways in which historical-criticism may contribute to a more stable historical-canonical understanding of Jesus.

It might help, for example, if we could accept the conclusion of critical scholarship that John’s Gospel is a late, theologically motivated reflection on the significance of Jesus in a largely post-Jewish context. Casey regards it as a “classic example of social memory, with which the community’s traditions have been rewritten in accordance with their needs at the time of writing”.1 Of course, all the Gospels are interpretations, as Scot also notes; they are all examples of “social memory”. John’s Gospel seems much further removed from what-actually-happened, but it still belongs to the historical-canonical account of who Jesus was, and we can still ask: Why did part of the early church give account of its origins and identity in Jesus this way?

The problem for the church, however, is that the convergence between the historical-critical Jesus and the historical-canonical Jesus has caused a corresponding divergence between the historical-canonical Jesus and the creedal or theological, exacerbated by conservative, Reformed reactions against history. This is where I see the more fundamental incompatibility. It will take some time for the church to wean itself off its dependency on abstracted theology and learn to trust the story again.

It’s difficult to see how this division between the historical-critical Jesus, the historical-canonical Jesus, and the theological Jesus is helpful either for the intellectual integrity of the church or for its witness. The more we can do to reduce the distance between them, the better.

  • 1M. Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 525.
donsands | Thu, 10/11/2012 - 21:05 | Permalink

“real” Jesus and the church’s Jesus cannot be reconciled”-Scot

Why does Scot think he is so right all the time, and the Church is wrong? I love the Church, and the history of the Church, which is the beloved of Christ.

The Holy Spirit, and the truth of the Word, His Word is truth, is what a believer needs to understand who His Lord and God are.

The Father draws all kinds of sinners to Himself and to His Son, who died for each and evry one of His beloved children.

There’s value in discussing these things, of course. And I like how you throw complicated thoughts out here on your blog Andrew, for others to read and consider.

I’m nowhere in your league, nor Scot’s. (I was going to say more about Scot, but I won’t.)

I would love to know the actuall Christ which we can, can’t we. We will never know Him exhaustively, but to “know whom I have believed, and that he is able is the bottom line, isn’t it.

Have a terrific weekend and enjoy the simpleness of God’s love and truth, as you dig for the deeper truths.


Thanks, as always, for your comments, Don. My understanding of Scot’s post is not that he thinks that he is right and the church wrong but that he thinks it important to highlight the gulf between the Jesus presented by historical research and the Jesus believed in by the church. He thinks that historical research has value within proper boundaries, but it seems to me that he ends up with the canonical Jesus historically interpreted, and I would agree with him there. Of course, that sets up a different set of conflicts with orthodoxy, but the “real” Jesus remark had to do with the historical Jesus rather than the canonical Jesus—if you follow me. 

@Andrew Perriman:

‘the historical Jesus rather than the canonical Jesus”-Andrew

I would think the Church throughout history would say “this is the same Jesus; there is no difference. We preach The historic Christ, and we preach The Christ of canon, One and the same Jesus.

We preach and teach, and love the One acturate Jesus that lived and died, and rose.

Does that make any sense to what you and Scot are saying?

@don sands:

Well, first, the historic church has not always taught the same Jesus.

Secondly, Scot McKnight is solidly part of the historic church.

And thirdly, I think that the historic church has in various ways, but mainly by reductionism, misrepresented the canonical Jesus. The historic church has been interested in the vertical dimension of the Jesus story—the third person of the Trinity comes from heaven to redeem humanity. The New Testament, however, is interested much more in the horizontal or narrative or historical dimension of the story. This is where the historic church has got things wrong.

Wright says this:

I am simply noting that these great statements of faith, which the church has treated as foundational for its life ever since, manage not to talk about what the gospels primarily talk about and to talk about something else instead.

What I see, in other words, is a great gulf opening up between the canon and the creeds.

@Andrew Perriman:

I suppose this is quite a massive topic Andrew. Way to broad for me to wrap my mind about. The Catholis Church throughout history has done much damage to the truth of Christ. And so we have the Martin Luthers, and the Reformation, and so much more really.

Could we bring this discussion to one central point? Is there one that you can think of? If that all makes sense?


Could we bring this discussion to one central point? Is there one that you can think of? If that all makes sense?

I think I would say that it comes down to how we read the New Testament. Do we read it from the outside, at a great distance, historically speaking? Or do we imaginatively read it from the inside? Do we read from the perspective of the much later church or from the perspective of the communities for whom the texts were initially written?

It is only fairly recently that we have arrived at the point, culturally or intellectually, where we can safely read the New Testament historically without losing all meaningful connection with it.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 10/11/2012 - 21:25 | Permalink

I get the impression that some consensus is emerging that the “real” Jesus was a very Jewish, apocalyptically minded prophet, who believed, probably mistakenly, that God was about to establish his kingdom, to the cost of Israel’s misguided leadership.

Isn’t this what Albert Schweitzer was saying in “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” in 1906? It doesn’t sound like a new idea at all. (Neither are scholarly consensuses necessarily to be trusted as trail-blazers to the future!).

@peter wilkinson:

The broad argument is not new, as you rightly point out. But the consensus, if it exists, would be rather new. Whether it is to be trusted is another matter.

Chris C. | Thu, 10/11/2012 - 21:41 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

I have been reading Scot’s words and maybe I misunderstand but when appear to say that Scot says its either the historical Jesus “real Jesus” and the early church’s Jesus can not be reconciled, is that really Scot’s viewpoint or is that the problem he is setting up in his understanding of how Historical Jesus Studies operate?  I could be wrong but it seems like you may be saying the opposite of what Scot Mcknight is trying to say?

@Chris C.:

Chris, I must say I’m also not sure what Scot is trying to say, but I think it boils down to three points:

1. The Jesus of historical research cannot be reconciled with the Jesus of Christian theology.

2. Historical research has at least some limited value; it cannot be dismissed simply because it clashes with orthodoxy.

3. There is a third position: ‘examining the Jesus of the Gospels [canonical Jesus] in his Jewish context” is not the same as “historical Jesus studies’. I assume Scot believes that the historical-canonical Jesus is closer to the church’s Jesus but not the same as the church’s Jesus.

Canonicity is, practically speaking, a proxy for apostolicity.  Apostolicity is all that counts, and puts the NT documents on a par with the OT documents of the prophets.  That is, it means we have in both testaments the word of God.  This leads to a scriptural Jesus — which is the one view we truly need.

God chose that the narrative of Christ would be written by those specially chosen for that task (Acts 10:40-41) — thus did God discredit the “historical” view even before it was written.  This does not mean that the story of God is not historical.  It only means the story is not intended to be proclaimed by the world’s historians.  Rather, it is to be proclaimed by those who love God’s approval more than than they do the approval of men.

@Mike Gantt:

Which, if I am understanding correctly, puts your view solidly in place within the Church Jesus. I’m afraid I find “thus did God discredit the ‘historical’ view even before it was written” a bit more theological hubris than is comfortable.

Thanatos | Sat, 10/13/2012 - 05:40 | Permalink

For me, all of this uncertainty begs the question, at least from proponents of an eternal conscious hell and annihilationist viewpoints…

God creates a world with an agenda which includes insisting everyone submit themselves to Him, because of His jealous nature in order to spare them from either annihilation at death or eternal conscious torment. This plan centers around the pre-planned “Fall” and eventual torture of Jesus who is both son and God simultaneously, Who is Perfection incarnate — Perfection being the only thing which will please the wrathful, jealous YHVH and enable Him to countenance fallen humanity, whom he otherwise regards as refuse for the Eterno-Furnace or the Void.

Meanwhile, all we’ve got to hang our hats on to figure out our gameplan to avoid being decimated or perpetually raped by demons is this book which only the likes of Ted Haggard thinks is clear.

And the scholars? They only assure us that there’s no clarity to be found within the bible. One after the other, more and more as the decades go by.

I truly am frightened at the prospect of burning in hell for all eternity. It has haunted me for years. Nonetheless, one has to ask: With such great odds at stake for all of humanity, why should so much ride on something which is so contentious as the modern bible?



There is a biblical case for everyone going to heaven.  The contention of which you speak is not in the Bible — it is in our minds.  And genuine repentance before God (not before some self-declared people of God) is the first step toward replacing that contention with peace.  He loves you…and He loves us all.


A good friend of Jesus, Matthew wrote that Jesus said: “Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Jesus truly did die on a Cross, and he truly did rise from the dead 3 days later. We have the testimony of many of His friends, and disciples. peter wrote two letters that you may like to read and hear. Peter actually saw Jesus the risen Friend and Lord of his life.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 10/19/2012 - 07:34 | Permalink

Just returning to this discussion — there is, of course, another Jesus, a fourth Jesus in the terms of this discussion, who perhaps is the most important Jesus of all. This is the Jesus who, according to the biblical texts, continues to live in his church as “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” — Epheisans 1:22-23.

This is the Jesus who is described at the beginning of Acts as only beginning, in Luke’s gospel, to “to do and teach until the day when he was taken up”. The continuing teaching over a 40 day period is sketched out in Acts 1, and though not explicit, seems to have much to do with Isaianic themes of kingdom and Spirit. The extent to which the transcendent life of Jesus is embodied in the church is then the extent to which he continues to “do and teach” throughout history — the ‘doing’ being as important as the ‘teaching’, a dialectic application of text and Spirit, which is, of course, exactly what he promised.

The history of Jesus did not terminate at any historical moment, like all other figures in history. His continuing history, if it can be described as such, needs to be taken into account. The continuing life of Jesus is reflected in church history — or more accurately the history of his people.

The problem for most historical scholars is that they tend to take the tools of historical criticism as if this Jesus, the one who lives and reigns now, does not exist, or has no bearing on the discussion. Once they have come to their, usually reductive, conclusions (putting Jesus into the past as a historical figure like any other), the other Jesus (who lives now), tends to reappear despite their conclusions, usually in enirely different, and for them, often disturbingly inappropriate contexts.

Bruce Dayman | Sat, 10/20/2012 - 18:19 | Permalink

Thanks for breaking this discussion down into the 3 Cs: critical, creedal, canonical. I find this helpful for communicating some of my issues regarding hermeneutics. It is a step forward in the discussion regarding modern interpretation of scripture and a move toward convergence. It also frees one up to decide what should go to the rummage sale. Thanks again.