Why the historical study of Jesus is a waste of time

Saturday, September 25, 2010

First let me say that understanding the original history and context—that is, the background material—in which the New Testament takes place is without a doubt a very valuable task. We want to understand the original context of the writers of the NT so that we do not simply impose our doctrinal and cultural biases on to the text but actually hear what the NT authors are telling us. So I am not saying we shouldn't study. I've spent a lot of time deeply studying such things and maintain that such education is very important.

My gripe is with the very specific way that the quest for the historical Jesus, rooted in the assumptions of the historical-critical method, presents a view of Jesus that is deliberately opposed to the message of the New Testament. Rather than helping us to get closer to the original church and to the Bible, it denies this and pulls us away from it. Let me explain:

One of the main tasks of historical scholarship consists in determining the so called "authentic saying of Jesus." To do this scholars will distinguish sayings of Jesus that they believe come the Q source as opposed to for example a saying that is unique to Luke's gospel. One major element here is the distinction between Jesus understood in the light of his crucifixion and resurrection on the one hand (which they reject as "inauthentic"), and a pre-resurrection understanding.

Now the gospels are all about a message preached to us that the disciples finally got after its fulfillment—after Jesus was crucified, raised from the dead, and the Spirit was imparted to the church. It was in that light that the disciples finally understood what Jesus was about all along and this is what we read in the four Gospels. All the stuff that Jesus did and said leads up the cross and resurrection. It gives us the context for understanding the cross and what it means, and at the same time it was only after Jesus rose that they could look back and say "ohhhhh, now I get it!" The gospel's stories (Jesus healing and redeeming people, and his radical teaching) go hand in hand with the climax of that story at Easter and Pentecost.

Now the historical search instead ignores the resurrection and wants to reconstruct a hypothetical version of Jesus as if there was no resurrection. In doing this they need to reject the entire point of the gospel writers, and toss out their message, calling it "inauthentic". They thus present a version of Jesus that Peter, Paul and John never believed in. Indeed most of the time in their so-called historical reconstruction Jesus either ends up coincidentally looking like a reflection of these scholars, or a version of Jesus emerges that these scholars themselves can't do anything with and thus reject as "not compatible with the modern worldview." As a result this "historical" study does not help us understand the NT better, it begins by rejecting the very assumptions of the NT: the resurrection.

So why would we want to listen to anything that these "experts" say to us? Why would I want to listen to someone who is pulling be away from the message of the NT? I find life when I read the gospels and the NT because it brings me into the same encounter of God in Christ that the New Testament authors had. That encounter with the God of grace transforms me, fills me with new life, and as a result I want to listen to them. I trust them because it is through them that I found life, and found the risen cruciform Jesus. The message of the gospel brings life. In contrast to this the message of these historians brings doubt, cynicism, and darkness. It causes me to doubt the words of Christ as "inauthentic" and urges me to just toss out big portions the the NT as a result.

So when I read the gospels I am not interested in figuring out what came from the Markan tradition or what came from Q. I am interested in simply reading what the gospels actually say and understanding that as well as I can. Now there are many scholars who I think can help us in doing this. Ernst Käseman, Joachim Jeremias, James Dunn, and NT Wright all spring to mind. But when I hear people speak of determining the "authentic sayings of Jesus" all sorts of alarm bells go off in my head because this signals for me "let's try and go in the wrong direction away from the NT proclamation." Sorry that's not where I'm headed.

EDIT: I've been thinking a bit more about this and wanted add an important point. I don't so much disagree with the historical conclusions of these scholars. I think they get their facts right much of the time. What I disagree with is the prescriptive conclusions they draw. That is, I think it is probably true that Jesus and Paul have a perspective that comes out of Jewish apocalyptic background while Mark, Luke, and John all approach faith more from a Hellenistic gnostic perspective. What I disagree with is that the Jewish perspective is the "right" one, and the Greek is "wrong" because this is obviously not what the early church thought when it included all of these books in the canon of the NT. What we see in the NT are two things:

1) There is a multitude of perspectives. We have some books that come from a Jewish worldview, and others that have a Greek worldview, and of course we can find even more nuance if we look closer. That means that the NT promotes diversity. It embraces the good insights of different cultures. It is not ethnocentric, but open, diverse, and broadminded. What the historical Jesus scholars get wrong is when they think they need to toss out all the Greek influence as "inauthentic" and replace it with the "authentic" or "original" Jewish perspective. This is just as close-minded as it was when an earlier church did the opposite and replaced all Jewish influence with Greek thought.

2) The NT while embracing the good it finds in multiple cultures and worldviews does not blindly accept them. It engages in a culturally critical evaluation of them, taking some parts and rejecting others. In the NT for example the exclusivity of gnosticism was rejected while the idea of immediate experience of the presence of God was embraced. Similarly, while Jesus was Jewish his Judaism (and Paul's) was one that rejected the ethos of violence running through the OT. So along with an embrace of diverse perspectives we also find their critical transformation by the NT authors.

So we find a picture of diversity, that is at the same time culturally critical in the NT. That's pretty cool, and honestly if it were not for historical criticism we wouldn't have noticed that. So I take back what I said in my blog post title here. I don't think that the historical Jesus is "a waste of time". It is valuable because it allows us to appreciate the broad range of perspectives that make up the NT witness. What I maintain however is that when these historians say that one particular cultural perspective is the authentic, real, good one, then at that point they are not only being narrow-minded, they are also going against the New Testament which embraces all cultures in order to lovingly transform them. Their historical analysis is right, but their interpretive prescription is wrong, and the NT has in contrast a hermeneutical prescription that is a lot more insightful and complex in how it engages culture.

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At 3:19 PM, Blogger webulite.com said...

But you will find that it is a speculative assumption that there WAS a Jesus. There is a very good possibility that Jesus was a made up character by a later group of people that were starting a new religion.

The problem is that we just don't have any data that shows us that Jesus was an actual person. You can find some basic information about this here;


My interest is the study of early Christianity, and welcome email conversations with people. Especially people like yourself that also have blogs that I can 9and have) put into my Google Reader subscription list.

If you are interested in talking about the early Church, feel free to contact me.

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com

At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Webulite,
This is a different issue. The historical study of Jesus of course assumes that Jesus is a real historical person. The folks who doubt this are part of a completely different group.

My own background is in film and storytelling, so I think I know a thing or two about characters. Based on that I can say that I find the idea that Jesus is a fictional character to be completely implausible. There is nothing in the literature of that time that even comes remotely close to a character of that complexity. He is far too complex, too enigmatic, too surprising to be the mythical creation of a group made for the purpose of promoting a religion. So this assertion simply does not hold up.

Furthermore Jesus in fact has a deeply subversive quality to him that makes him nearly impossible to pin down. As a result he does not serve as a fictional character to promote a religious agenda, because he dismantles all religious agendas. So if Jesus is made up (which I find completely implausible) then this completely backfired. The more you read Jesus, the more you you realize how radical his message is.

So there is, from the perspective of someone who knows about stories, just no way that Jesus is a fictional character.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger webulite.com said...

Hey Derek,

Could be, but the more I learn about the hsitory of Christianity, and the characters, and events in the early church, the more it is making sense to me that he was a created character.

He serves a number of purposes, both in internal battles within the church, and with battles between the neo-platonists of the time.

Plus that fact, that no contemporaries of Jesus ever wrote about him is pretty amazing. Especially when you read he stories that he is involved in with the sun standing still, and earthquakes, and hundreds of people rising from the dead. these are just not things that go unnoticed by all the contemporaries.

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com

At 9:26 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Well, it just isn't true that "no contemporaries of Jesus ever wrote about him". Paul, Peter, and James were all contemporaries who wrote about him. They just did not write histories. These histories (what we all the gospels) were created a bit later. Luke for example was a contemporary of Paul who joined him on missionary journeys.

Before that, the Jesus tradition was passed on orally. This was extremely common practice at the time. For example the Jewish oral Law (The Mishna) was similarly not put into written form until after 200AD. That means that for centuries it was passed down only in oral form.

The bottom line really is the message of Jesus. That message has shown itself to be very subversive throughout history. Take for example his charge to love our enemies. What benefit do you have in rejecting that message? Let's just imagine for a moment that Jesus was a fictional character. Why would that mean that one should not listen to his teaching on love of enemies? Would the world be a better place if Gandhi or Martin Luther King didn't listen to Jesus' teaching on love of enemies? I don't see the benefit of ignoring what Jesus says. It's good stuff.

The problem most of the time is that people never actually read Jesus. they just take a characterization they have from Sunday school and assume that is all there is to Jesus. No big conspiracy there other than people not taking the time to read what is readily available in the NT which at least in the West is easy to get access to.

We may need to agree to disagree on this one, but I'd like to ask you to consider what benefit you really have from not listing to the words of Jesus? We all have motivations and agendas. I have one in seeking Jesus, you have one in denying him. Mine is that I find life there. What is your motivation?

At 6:27 PM, Blogger JD Walters said...

Hi Derek,

JD here. I have some comments on this post:


Thanks for your comment on my previous post.

At 4:55 PM, Anonymous Bundesbedenkenträger said...

I'm with you when you say it's crap to say the Jewish perspective is right and the Greek perspective is wrong. But then again I think, finding out what it what can help us to spot the core of it, like which parts can be transformed into different traditions, and which can't. This might be very helpful when bringing the gospel to new societies and cultures, where we could maybe strip it of on or the other cultural influence it got throu the times in order to make people there properly understand. Like today people in the west seem to need to strip Greek parts, back then they stripped Jewish parts, maybe for all the wrong reasons, but I think as long as the core was intact, the gospel wasn't harmed.


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