“Who do you say I am?” Summary of five scholars’ views

Summary of The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy

Much as it would be convenient, history is not something that we can go back and neatly uncover, as if it were a very dusty shelf or a frog’s insides. Rather, history can perhaps be approximated using the best data we have available, and interpreted based on the various viewpoints presented from the data that we can gather. The same goes for “uncovering” Jesus. There has long been a so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” in which scholars use information from sources like the Gospels, the other letters of the New Testament, non-canonical gospels, and the rare non-Christian source available to make their best guess about who Jesus was and what he did. However, scholars ought not to be the only ones on this quest. It is vital that people of faith with a desire to be intellectually honest also engage in this pursuit. One’s notions about Jesus may necessarily change in this process, but if the end result is being more informed and hopefully closer to the truth, it is a good change. I also believe that Jesus will not disappear as a result of this study, but that the student may come to a deeper and more complex appreciation of the man and his works on earth.

In the book Historical Jesus: Five Views, five biblical scholars present their diverse viewpoints, ranging from the claim that Jesus never existed at all to an evangelical who reads the Gospels as though they had unique access into the inner workings of Jesus’ mind. While these five do not represent the full possibilities of theories about Jesus, and none of them, in my opinion, present a completely satisfactory option, they at least serve to expand our thinking about Jesus.

Robert Price writes the first essay (Jesus at the Vanishing Point), holding the view that Jesus is not a historical figure but that he was invented as a mythic hero, similar to Greek and Roman gods of the time. He claims that there is no real historical support outside of Christian sources for Jesus’ existence, and describes how Jesus’ characteristics (e.g., born of a virgin, reputed to be the son of a god, goes to a future kingdom) fit the mythic-hero archetype. Thankfully, for all of those who were worried that maybe Jesus was going to disappear as a result of this study, the other contributors dismiss Price’s ideas fairly easily, as this is quite a fringe idea even in scholar-land. The first-century writer of Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, is regarded by scholars to be a legitimate non-Christian source that mentions a Jesus who performed “unusual” (miraculous?) deeds. Also, one cannot ignore the enormous effects of Jesus’ legacy, quite a feat for someone who would have supposedly never existed. The strongest part of Price’s essay, I found, was how thoroughly he combed through the Gospel of Mark and demonstrated how much of the book is a midrash (that is, written interpretation of Hebrew scriptures) on the Old Testament, like Joshua and Psalms. It is fascinating to see how passages we might just skim over as being original Markan echo passages that we, as New Testament-focused Christians, may have never even read in the Old Testament.

John Dominic Crossan, a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, writes the second essay (Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology). The Jesus Seminar is essentially a group of scholars who gather together and vote on which sayings of Jesus are historically true. They often use the “criterion of dissimilarity” to determine this. This means that among other things, the Seminar is looking for sayings that do not just reflect the “post-Easter” Jesus or the “Christ of faith” (they believe that ideas about Jesus changed after the church experienced him after his resurrection. They would say the church essentially made up a bunch of events and sayings about Jesus before his death to suit their post-resurrection theology). Bear Crossan’s setting in mind is light of what he writes. In his essay, Crossan emphasizes that we must understand Jesus in his setting: a Jewish peasant living in Galilee under the rule of the Roman Empire, which profoundly impacted Jesus’ mission. He theorizes that Jesus started out as a follower of John the Baptist, who preached that the Kingdom of God was coming but not here yet (“imminent”), but that Jesus split off from John and began preaching that the Kingdom of God was actually here, right now. The kingdom simply requires us to bring it in (hence the term collaborative or participatory). Crossan summarizes Jesus’ main program points as: healing the sick, eating with those whom he healed, and announcing the presence of God’s kingdom through doing both of those things. However, Crossan seemed to say that Jesus’ healings were more of the spiritual or emotional variety (not miraculous or physical), which I have a hard time buying based on how well Jesus was known for his healings and exorcisms. Crossan believes Jesus was trying to demonstrate that this world was owned by God, not the Roman empire, and that much of Jesus’ actions were non-violently anti-imperial in this way. He cites Pilate’s killing of Jesus, but not Jesus’ followers, as proof that Jesus was rebellious enough to be considered a threat, but that his non-violence made it unnecessary to put his followers to death as well. I appreciated his inspiring take on a Jesus who was bold enough to challenge the ruling empire of his day all while remaining peaceful and even sacrificing himself for this cause. The weakest part of his arguments is what we can humorously think of as crafting a “Jesus in our own image,” that is, we modern-day folks love the idea of a liberal Jesus standing up to the powers that be, defending the poor, and attempting to subvert the oppressive systems of his day. Crossan acts as though he has privileged insights into Jesus’ motives, thinking, and how he perceived himself compared to other messiah-types of his day.

The third essay (Learning the Human Jesus), is by Luke Johnson. He holds that historiography (trying to understand events in the context of changing interpretations about them) leaves us limited in what we can know. He suggests that we try reading the Gospels literarily instead, with an eye to what the literary elements that have been included can tell us about how the writers interpreted Jesus. He acknowledges that Mark, Matthew, and Luke are dependent sources (general consensus is that Matthew and Luke used Mark when they set out to write their own gospels), but then he asks what, considering all the points at which these writings diverge, the points of convergence can tell us about Jesus. Based on this, he gives a modest list of what we can be pretty sure we know about Jesus: he proclaimed God’s rule as connected to his own words and deeds, he performed healings, he taught in parables and interpreted Torah, he associated with the marginalized in Jewish society, and he chose 12 followers. Johnson also says Jesus probably was baptized by John, performed some kind of prophetic act in the Temple, and perhaps interpreted a final meal with his followers in light of his coming death. Johnson was my favorite contributor, because of his moderate approach to the Jesus inquiry and the accessibility of his approach to the layperson: all you need to do is open a Bible and read and compare the gospels. I was inclined to do that before I ever read Johnson’s essay, and it has been a fruitful endeavor even with limited background information. The weakest part of his essay, I found, was that he did not acknowledge enough the literary dependence of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and so may have made more of the significance of the “convergences” than he really has liberty to do. Given the evolution of theology and emphases even within those three gospels, and especially between John (generally thought to be written later) and those three, how much may theology have been shaped in the period between Jesus’ life and when Mark was written?

James Dunn is the fourth contributor (Remembering Jesus), writing about how he thinks the current quest for the historical Jesus has lost its way. His three main points of contention about the quest are: they assume that faith clouds judgment and historical reliability; that they focus almost entirely on the literary dependence of the gospels, disregarding the oral tradition; and that the “criterion of dissimilarity” is greatly overused. I agree with him that Jesus somehow evoked faith from his followers and that this is a genuine point of evidence that we must take into account when trying to uncover the historical Jesus. Somehow, as well, a quester of faith will perceive different things about the Jesus tradition than one without, but having faith does not make you wrong about your findings. I also agree that the criterion of dissimilarity is given too much emphasis, in that scholars are trying to find a Jesus who is different from his contemporary messiah-type figures and the Christ of faith, as if the real Jesus couldn’t possibly be similar to either of those. However, I did not find his argument about the oral tradition to be particularly strong. Indeed, it was an oral culture and very few people were literate then, but if, as he pointed out, you can account for nearly every variation in the gospels through literary editing, then why spend so much time trying to defend why an oral tradition accounts for these variations? Even if there was a strong oral tradition, it seems more logical to me that the written tradition of the gospels was passed down in just that stream: literarily.

The final contributor is Darrell Bock, who presents an evangelical view on the historical Jesus. He argues that the historical Jesus study can only give us a “gist” of Jesus, but that this gist sketches the same person that the gospels outline. Most of his essay is spent outlining themes of Jesus’ ministry and the vindicating events showing that Jesus was who he (or the Gospels) claimed to be. However, although he carefully outlines a Jesus well-supported with details from the Gospels, it is not done in a historically critical way. He seems to have the assumption that the Gospel writers had privileged access into Jesus’ thoughts and intentions, instead of reading the books neutrally and carefully, with an eye to what might be historically accurate and what might be a literary modification. Thus, it is hard to read his essay with much academic respect. In the field of biblical scholarship, one must honestly engage the Gospels in a historically critical way and let the chips fall where they may, requiring faith on the part of the Christian that there is still a Jesus to believe in and follow once the dust settles.

Glossary:

Canonical/non-canonical gospels: Canonical gospels include Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The church was in agreement about which books were canonical, or belonged as Scripture in the New Testament, by/in about the 4th century. Non-canonical gospels include the Gospels of Peter, of Judas, and of Thomas, among others.

Midrash: commentary on the Scriptures. Often a Jewish method of interpreting and rewriting scriptures with modified or added theological meaning.

Eschatology: Having to do with the end times: regarding death, judgment, and what happens to the world/souls.

Historiography: The study of how history has been written (leaving room for changing interpretations of history).

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