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.