The importance and benefits of historical criticism in understanding Jesus.
By Peter Maynier
Part of the human experience is to try to make sense of things. Cats don’t have this problem. From what I can tell, they are content to eat, sleep, and have their heads rubbed. My friends occasionally hunt for birds and mice and bugs. But humans are always trying to understand, to tie things together, to get the big picture.
We use grand words, often taken for granted, that give meaning to our lives. Religions the world over tell such stories. Their truth seems self-evident to those who live by them. Things just are a certain way, and that is how we experience the world only through our own tinted tunnel vision, how we define ourselves, and how we look at others.
There are times, however, when these foundational stories are thrown into question when people are forced to revaluate long-held convictions. The story of Israel contains many such critical periods – the incursions of the Philistines, for example, leading to the Davidic monarchy, or the Babylonian Exile, ultimately leading to the writing of the Bible or the confrontation with Hellenism in the wake of the conquests of Alexander. In each case, Israel adapted by retelling its sacred stories.
Let me recite Christianity’s grand narrative as I learned it. Jesus came to fulfil God’s promises to Israel; he was the Messiah for whom all Israel longed; Israel missed the boat. So they lost their land and temple. Jesus came to found a new religion. He condemned a Judaism that had run its course and had degenerated into an empty, legalistic shell, deaf to the words of its prophets, blind to the Son of God in its midst. Jews eliminated this Jesus, this challenge to how they saw the world, and had him crucified. The church is now the true people of God.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Jews don’t see things the same way. After the loss of the temple and Jerusalem, rabbinic Judaism came into being. Deprived of the sacrificial system, it reinterpreted its traditions and way of life on a scale seen before only in the Babylonian exile. Torah, a pillar of Judaism before the destruction, became still more central after it. So here we have two grand narratives in conflict – the Jewish and the Christian. But they overlap to some degree, and therein lies the problem.
Imagine yourself an early Christian, preaching in an ancient town. You speak of a Jesus whom ancient Jewish prophecies foretold. Your hearers say, “Great, there is a synagogue down the street. Let’s go hear more about this.” You say, “Well, they actually don’t believe all this.” You’d have a lot to explain. Part of the explanation might be that Jews don’t really understand their own tradition. You’d also have to explain how Jesus was executed and what role Jewish leaders played in that. The New Testament is deeply involved in such explanation.
You can imagine, then, that the New Testament is not going to offer a “fair and balanced” presentation of Judaism, the kind of thing we would expect from Fox News. I often tell my students that if they know about ancient Judaism only through the New Testament, then they know nothing about it. There is historical information in its pages, but it is so bound up with polemic and theology that we can’t easily tell what is historically accurate. It is best, at the outset, to assume we know nothing.
The Gospels are interested primarily in how people react to Jesus and tend to lump diverse Jewish groups together. The gospel of John is a prime example. It frequently says things like, “Jesus said this, and the Jews answered…” That’s a strange way to speak since Jesus was a Jew speaking to other Jews. So we have to ask why John would conceive of such scenes as Jesus having a debate with “the Jews.” And when Jesus calls “the Jews” liars and children of Satan, we see the problem.
The Holocaust woke us up. And, fortuitously, beginning in 1947, there was the astonishing discovery of a large library of Jewish texts, hidden away in caves in the first century. We call them the Dead Sea Scrolls. Just previous to that, another trove of texts, many Gnostic, came to light near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. The Holocaust made painfully obvious the need for Christians to change their attitude toward ancient and modern Judaism. The texts gave us some help in doing that. So we now find ourselves critically examining the Christian grand narrative and attempting to retell it.
I listened to an interview with Rabbi Irving Greenberg. He told a joke that I repeat here. Somewhere in Eastern Europe some time ago, Easter and Passover coincided. Jews returning from synagogue met Christians coming from Easter Mass. The Christians began to beat the Jews. The Jews cried out, “Why are you doing this to us?” The Christians replied, “Because you killed Jesus.” The Jews objected, “But you are talking about something that happened two thousand years ago!” The Christians explained, “Yes, but we were just hearing about it.” Our sacred story.
Rabbi Greenberg said that he joined in Jewish-Christian dialogue mainly to confront Christians with what their religion had done. But although he came to blame, he ended up praising. He found many Christians revaluating their traditions, admitting their stereotypes of Jews and Judaism, and even revising their understanding of their own religion – in some sense retelling their sacred stories. He called this one of the greatest religious turn-around the world has ever seen. The study of ancient Judaism, the study of the historical Jesus, and Catholic theology are all part of this turn-around.
I move on to first-century Judaism in the Land of Israel. As I do this, I pay special attention to how Christian concerns have distorted Judaism. Concentrating on these issues and not others itself distorts Judaism somewhat, so I warn that a full appreciation would require a broader scope.
Today, the single most common adjective in descriptions of first-century Judaism is “diverse.” We already knew, even before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, about different parties. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus speaks of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, and he also mentions a fourth group close to the Pharisees but more revolutionary. So right away we have diversity. When we first hear of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, they are rivals, vying for political power in the second century BCE, advocating different interpretations of the Law. The Essenes, usually thought to be behind the Dead Sea Scrolls, disagreed with both groups. At least some of them thought of other Jews as the apostate.
There were other groups. During the war against the Romans in 66-70 or 74, the Zealots emerged. We know of prophetic movements in the 40s, 50s, and 60s of the first century. Some believe there were Baptist groups in addition to the followers of John the Baptist. The Sicarii arose in the 50s. The Samaritans are a whole subject in themselves.
The Dead Sea Scrolls manifest such complexity that we are now reluctant to reconstruct a single community. We should at least talk of a movement that was different from place to place, that changed over time, that had room for diversity, and that preserved writings that originated in other groups. Some texts witness to inner conflicts and crises within the group.
Add to this the fact that most Jews in the Land of Israel did not belong to any of these groups, and you have even more complexity. This shows that putting all “Jews” on one side and Jesus on the other is absurd. Jesus was a Jew among Jews. He debated with fellow-Jews, disagreed with some, agreed with others, was supported by some, was opposed by others. Just like every other public Jew of his day. He was not unique among Jews in his criticism of the Temple, in his fights with the Pharisees, or in his critique of some ways of interpreting Torah. Of course, this leaves open the question of why a new religion would develop out of his movement. I won’t solve that problem tonight. But it is significant that many of the earliest Christians did not think of themselves as belonging to a new religion.
Let me address an issue central to how Christians have thought about Jews and Jesus. People sometimes ask, “Why don’t the Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah? Don’t they see that the Old Testament points to him?” I sometimes give a flippant answer: “Jews don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah because he wasn’t.” I let that percolate a few seconds before explaining.
I say that Jesus was not the Messiah because there was no single definition of the Messiah in late Second Temple Judaism. There were many. And Jesus didn’t really fit any of them. The word “messiah” is from the Hebrew and Aramaic of “anointed one.” To anoint someone is to pour oil on them or to touch their head with oil or some such ritual. The Greek for Messiah is Christos, from which we get “Christ.” In the Hebrew Bible, kings are anointed, as are high priests. Occasionally prophets and patriarchs are spoken of as anointed. So there are lots of “messiahs” in the Bible. After the Babylonian exile, when Israel lost its monarchy, and perhaps also when some were dissatisfied with the priesthood, particularly the Hasmoneans, there occasionally arose the hope that an agent of God would change the world. Biblical scholars call a future that is radically different from the present “eschatological.” When we speak of a messiah, we usually mean an eschatological figure.
Here again, we find variety. Some expected a Davidic messiah, some a priestly messiah, some possibly looked for a prophetic messiah, some expected all three. Some expected a figure who combined elements of these categories. Some looked for a heavenly figure. None expected the messiah of heavenly origin to become a human being. Conversely, none of the human messiahs – kings, priests, prophets – were thought to be divine. Finally, there is no firm evidence at this time of a suffering messiah.
We don’t really know just how widespread messianic expectation was. It is less common in Jewish texts than we might expect. It is not present in the earliest apocalypses, including Daniel. It is not even present in the War Scroll from Qumran as we have it from cave 1. In fact, we must ask whether the place of messiahship in studies of ancient Judaism is due to Christian concerns, not Jewish ones.
So where does the Christian idea of messiahship come from? It uses Jewish elements, such as Davidic descent and the very term messiah. But there are elements just not found in Jewish texts. The gospel of Mark makes suffering and death central to messiahship. John speaks of messiahship in terms of incarnation. Ultimately, Christians defined “messiah” in the light of what had happened in Jesus, both historically and, in their belief, theologically, and that trumped Jewish conceptions.
I have spent so much time on messiahship reaches for this article because it has played a role in how Christians have misconceived Judaism. Ironically, given all I have said here, one could question just how useful the term is for Christology at all. But let’s now quickly look at more examples of distortions of ancient Judaism.
The Pharisees have gotten bad press. Who among us would want to be called a Pharisee? Check the dictionary, and see that hypocrisy is part of the definition. When we realize that in some sense the Pharisees are the ancestors of the rabbis, we again see the problem.
Such scholars as Jacob Neusner, now at Bard College, and Tony Saldarini, taught have examined the historical Pharisees. As with Jesus, there are disagreements. At the least, we can say that it is highly problematic to categorize as hypocrites a group with thousands of members who were known for their special devotion to God’s Torah. We can also say that the impression that they controlled ancient Jewish society is untrue. Jesus probably clashed with them on some issues, but, for that matter, they clashed with each other routinely it is a Jewish thing, so there is diversity within Pharisaism. The New Testament pictures them as occasionally friendly to Jesus, warning him against Herod in Luke 13, for example. Acts 15 says that there was an influential group of Christian Pharisees in Jerusalem. The apostle Paul claims to be a Pharisee. The Pharisees apparently had nothing to do with Jesus’ death, as a close reading of the Gospels makes clear. Are all these things given sufficient weight in Christian theology, preaching, and piety? How does the person in the pew think about them?
Treatment of Jewish leaders often conceptualizes a power structure that did not really exist in ancient Judaism. The high priest is thought of as the pope might be, for example. In fact, there was no “orthodoxy” in ancient Judaism, nor was there a central authority comparable to the later papacy. So, again, ancient Judaism is distorted.
This brings up another issue. Who was responsible for Jesus’ death? The Gospels tend to exonerate the Romans and make Jews responsible. But Jesus died on a cross, a typically Roman punishment, by order of Pontius Pilate, Roman prefect of Judea. The charge on the cross, “King of the Jews,” reveals that Pilate considered Jesus to be a political offender, one who challenged imperial authority.
When Jesus tipped over the tables in the temple, he was attacking the temple establishment. And to attack the local elite was to attack Roman order. Jesus had to be eliminated. So the Romans killed him, not the Jews. So we have wasted all these years being prejudiced against the Jews when we should have been prejudiced against the Italians! No, it is absurd to blame anyone except the Roman prefect and some members of the Jerusalem establishment for Jesus’ death. Yet we have not yet learned to retell the passion narrative to make sure this comes across.
The movie “The Passion of the Christ” presents the horrible image of Jesus being raised on the cross. As we see that, we all contextualize it in some way. As the literary theorist Wolfgang Iser says, texts (including movies) have gaps in them. Readers or viewers fill in the gaps. They supply information to complete the picture, usually without reflecting on it. Given the traditional place of the atonement in Christian theology, we probably think of Jesus’ crucifixion as unique and focus on his suffering and death as salvific. I’m not arguing against that here, but it is incomplete, to say the least.
After studying late Second Temple Judaism, I fill in the gaps differently, in a way that highlights the historical context of the crucifixion. First, of course, there is the unfortunate tendency, present in the Gospels and increased in the movie, to blame the Jews and exonerate the Romans. Second, Romans were not particularly sensitive to Jewish concerns. Not only did they demand tribute and taxes, they trampled on Jewish religion. When Jews protested, they often called down Roman repression on their heads.
At about the time Jesus was born, the Roman-sponsored, repressive rule of Herod the Great was ending. When he died, there were uprisings. The Roman governor of Syria crushed them and crucified huge numbers of Jews. Josephus places the number at two thousand. A generation later, when Jesus is crucified, he dies with two others. The Gospels call them “bandits,” but that’s a word applied to revolutionaries, or perhaps we should say “freedom fighters.” The punishment for rebels was the crucifixion, a warning to others. Remember also Barabbas, allegedly released by Pilate. He had killed someone in the “insurrection.” In the decade after Jesus died, we know of two others who were crucified. A generation after Jesus’ death, the Jews finally exploded in a rebellion against Rome.
Juxtapose this situation with “the Jews” of John’s gospel telling Pilate to crucify Jesus because he claims to be king, while the Jews proclaim that they have no king but Caesar. If you see a problem here, good. There is one. And it is not just that “the Jews” are being slandered. It is also that we are missing the historical context that makes comprehensible the attitudes and actions of all involved. A more adequate historical picture can feed into theological reflection. For example, liberation theologians have associated the crucifixion with political and economic repression suffered by people around the world today. Elizabeth Johnson finds that it makes it impossible for the crucifixion to be used as a sign of passivity in the face of the suffering that comes from political repression (39). Quite the opposite. It signifies resistance to that oppression and the price that must be paid for such resistance. This does not separate Jesus from his fellow Jews. It puts him in solidarity with them.
Meaning of “Historical Jesus”
Let’s now look more closely at the question of the historical Jesus.
John Meier at Notre Dame discusses the “real Jesus,” the “earthly Jesus,” and the “historical Jesus.” Let’s begin with the “real Jesus.” In addition to there being a problem with understanding the “real” anyone, this language can be polemical. It pits those who underplay history against those who overplay it. Historians might say that historical reconstruction reveals the “real Jesus,” so the Jesus of faith is imaginary. Believers might say that the real Jesus is the risen Jesus, so that study of the historical Jesus is unnecessary and even harmful. It seems clear that the concept “the real Jesus” is not going to get us very far.
The “earthly Jesus” means Jesus as he was on earth, from the time of his birth to the time of his death. This can be problematic, too. First, we know about just a small portion of Jesus’ life, which took up three years at most. Further, if Jesus was, as Christian doctrine asserts, truly God and truly human, then that was true of the earthly Jesus. But historians cannot judge whether Jesus was divine. That is not accessible to historical research.
So the term “earthly Jesus” is also of limited use. Of course, it is the earthly Jesus that historians investigate. The term is useful if it means how Jesus was seen by his contemporaries – believers and unbelievers alike. If we were Jewish peasants and Jesus came to our town, how would we see him? If we were Jewish scholars, what categories would help us to decipher him? If we were Roman authorities, how would he appear to us, and what would we do about him?
Finally, Meier defines “historical Jesus” to mean Jesus as reconstructed by historians. This is the Jesus of whom we speak. Historians judge evidence critically and read it in an interpretive framework that they argue for. This does not mean that all historians agree on everything in terms of philosophy and method. It means that one does not answer historical questions by church decree or by the conviction of personal faith. Rather, one searches for evidence, one reason, one argues.
Our definitions clarify both the potential and the limits of historical research. It can tell us a lot, but there is a lot it cannot tell us. It has often been said that in order to do good historical research, you have to bracket out your faith. Doctrine should not determine results. Generally, I agree. But taken to an extreme, I wonder whether this is completely possible. The very conviction that one should bracket out one’s faith implies a certain theology. Personally, I subscribe to such a theology, and I try to come clean about that in the classroom so that my students know what I am doing and why I am doing it. But ultimately, believers should look at Jesus using the many tools at their disposal – historical research, church tradition, early theologies, conciliar statements, personal experience, community reflection, liturgy, prayer, analysis of modern social and economic realities, and so on. But historical criticism of New Testament texts has to be there somewhere. The Catholic Church agrees. The consensus on historical Jesus research is less clear. But I claim that it should be one of the tasks of the church and that the church must depend on scholars, both within and outside of its borders, to carry it out. But, then, why have so many distrusted historical Jesus research?
History of the quest for the historical Jesus
Before the enlightenment, little distinction was made between the Jesus of history and the way he is portrayed in the Gospels. The two were purely and simply the same. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Reimarus began the modern quest for the historical Jesus. He did not dare publish his research in his lifetime. Fragments of his work were published posthumously. He claimed that Jesus pursued an earthly kingdom, entered Jerusalem to take possession of it, and was killed. As he died, he cried out that God had forsaken him. Jesus’ followers then spiritualized his teaching to cover up the failure.
This distinction between the Jesus of the Gospels and the historical Jesus is basic to the study of Jesus to the present day, though it means different things to different people. It can range from the judgment that Christianity is invalid, to the belief that over time the church came to ever deeper understandings of who Jesus was. Those who take the latter view find that retracing the steps in this growth of understanding yields theological insight and helps to root faith in the earthly Jesus.
The nineteenth century saw the production of many biographies of Jesus. Common to them was a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and the conviction that it was possible and necessary to get back to Jesus. Some did this to discredit Christianity, but some did it to ground modern faith in the faith of Jesus himself. In all cases, these works were products of their age, an age characterized by rationalism and a rejection of miracles and the supernatural. James Dunn calls this a period of flight from dogma. Church dogma had smothered the real Jesus. The scholarship would rescue him.
By the way, the James Dunn whom I just mentioned was the Joseph McCarthy Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1990.
Liberal lives of Jesus were influenced by Schleiermacher’s interpretation of religion as feeling and Kant’s emphasis on morality. In one of the most popular lives, Ernest Renan says that Jesus stood for “a pure worship, a religion without priests and external observances,” and that Jesus was “boldly raising himself above the prejudices of his nation,” thereby establishing “the universal fatherhood of God.”
This highlights the problematic tendency of many nineteenth and even twentieth century presentations of Jesus – that of removing Jesus from his Jewish context. Jewish elements supposedly detracted from his real message.
The end of this “first quest” is marked by the publication in 1906 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer. He demonstrated that nineteenth-century lives said more about their authors than about Jesus. Schweitzer presented Jesus as one who thought in apocalyptic terms and expected God’s intervention in history. When that did not happen, Jesus went to Jerusalem to force God’s hand. He failed. Many aspects of Schweitzer’s hypothesis are now rejected, but he did at least try to set Jesus in his own Jewish context. But even Schweitzer felt that the price of this was to make Jesus a stranger.
Schweitzer’s work led to a period in which many scholars judged that getting back to the historical Jesus was both impossible and theologically unnecessary. Dunn characterizes this period as a flight from history.
Nineteenth-century lives revealed a tendency of all scholarship on Jesus. We tend to see him in our own image. What I judge good, he must think is good. How could it be otherwise? I am sure, for example, that I know how Jesus would have voted in the last election. I was recently driving and saw a bumper sticker saying, “Jesus was a liberal.” I bet the bumper stickers say something different in Texas.
In 1953, Ernst Käsemann declared that neglecting the study of Jesus was tantamount to docetism, the belief that Jesus was not really human. This kicked off a second quest whose agenda was to understand the continuity between Jesus and the church’s preaching. The new questers thought that new methods, such as source, form, and redaction criticism, made getting back to Jesus possible. They also believed that Christian faith must be rooted in the Jesus of history.
Many detect in the 1980s the beginning of a third quest, marked by variety in method, use of sources, and results. I begin with what is the most controversial part of it, the work of the Jesus Seminar.
In 1985, Robert Funk and colleagues founded an organization for the historical study of Jesus. In 1993, they published a new translation of the four gospels along with the Gospel of Thomas.
The book’s dedication reads:
This report is dedicated to
Who altered our view of the heavens forever
Who took scissors and paste to the gospels
DAVID FRIEDRICH STRAUSS
Who pioneered the quest of the historical Jesus
The Introduction explains that Galileo’s discoveries made “the Christ of creed and dogma” untenable (2). Jefferson wrote of “the Christian philosophy – the most sublime and most benevolent, but the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” He thought that the pure teachings of Jesus were corrupted by “priests,” who ruined his simple teaching with absurd doctrines, such as the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity, as well as with miracles and supernatural legends.
Strauss, in 1835, characterized the Gospels as mythological creations. Taking myth as an expression of universal ideas, Strauss thought that he was salvaging a Christianity found untenable in the light of reason. His fellow Christians disagreed. He lost his job.
The Jesus Seminar has attracted a lot of attention. It uses non-canonical texts to challenge traditional pictures of Jesus. Its critics, among whom is James Dunn, say they are repeating the mistakes of nineteenth-century lives of Jesus, creating a Jesus that fits their views, even removing Jesus from his first-century Jewish context. The debate rages on.
In the very same year as Funk founded the Jesus Seminar, E. P. Sanders published what I still consider to be one of the best books on the historical Jesus, Jesus and Judaism. It is a sustained and carefully argued attempt to see Jesus within the context of Jewish restoration eschatology. In essential ways, other writers have taken at least broadly the same tack, including Allison, Meier, Ehrman, and Wright. In the attempt to situate Jesus firmly in his own context, sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and methods such as social-scientific study are used widely. Criteria of authenticity have been developed and refined. Claims of “objectivity” have been widely and effectively criticized. Nonetheless, when one compares what is being done now with what has gone before, many contemporary studies are more adequate historically. So they provide firmer ground for theological reflection. This touches on the third aspect of my article– Catholic biblical scholarship.
Historical Criticism and the Catholic Church
Does the Catholic Church really support this sort of research? It sounds a little dangerous. The Church came slowly to accept some of the fruits of the enlightenment. In 1893, Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus cracked open the door to critical Bible studies. It acknowledged the value of modern methods if only to oppose those using them, Protestants, of course, to undermine church authority. But Leo also noted that the scriptural authors did not write science and that they used concepts and understandings characteristic of their own age, based on how things appeared to people at that time. Shortly afterwards, the church became defensive because of the Modernist crisis. The enemy had now become the enemy within in the person of the scripture scholar Loisy and others. At that time biblical scholars were well advised to keep their heads low.
Things changed dramatically with Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. He taught that the scriptural authors, like all humans, were people of their own age. To know their meanings, we need to know their character, circumstances, historical period, sources, and forms of expression. This lays out a robust historical-critical agenda. Most important was Pius’s recognition of a variety of literary forms in the Bible. In particular, we don’t read everything written in the past tense as if it is accurate history. Do we have to believe that Jonah really spent three days in the belly of the fish? Can’t God inspire poetry and metaphor just as well as history?
Divino Afflante Spiritu opened the doors to critical scholarship. Then came Vatican II. In 1964, the Pontifical Biblical Commission distinguished three stages in Jesus traditions: first, what Jesus said and did; second, the church’s passing down information about Jesus, selecting and adapting it for its own purposes; finally, the evangelists writing the gospels, drawing on traditional material but adapting, rearranging, and synthesizing it. Vatican II accepted this in Dei Verbum. A statement by the Commission in 1993 rejects biblical fundamentalism, which it defines as uncritical literalism in reading the Bible. Notable is the following:
In what concerns the Gospels, fundamentalism does not take into account the development of the Gospel tradition, but naively confuses the final stage of this tradition (what the evangelists have written) with the initial (the words and deeds of the historical Jesus).
John Galvin speaks of a paradigm shift in Catholic Christology’s since Vatican II. During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, some theologians began to call for more adequate treatment of the humanity of Christ. However, they still remained within the parameters of the classic statements of doctrine. They tended to frame topics such as the consciousness of Jesus in the light of the hypostatic union. They did not treat the historical Jesus in the sense now used. The humanity of Jesus remained abstract. Monica Hellwig has spoken about more recent approaches as “a new wave of interest in grounding Christology more intensively, extensively, and attentively in the full human and historical reality of Jesus” (316; Hellwig 1989, 466).
In the 70s, theologians began to focus less on the divine/human distinction of Chalcedon in favour of a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The two pairings are not equivalent. Catholic theology maintains that Jesus is fully human and divine both as the historical Jesus and as the risen Christ (256-57). Renewed interest in Jesus’ humanity made more urgent a better treatment of the historical Jesus.
But how central can historical criticism be if it does not issue in a single, reliable historical portrait of Jesus? If the unanimous agreement were used as the criterion for other endeavours, we would never do anything. Do we all agree on theology, even within a single denomination? Sure, no one is really going to propose that we dump the Nicene Creed. But you only have to look around the world, or the country, or community, to see that there is variety even within Catholicism. And how about non-Catholic Christians? I’m not sure that diversity in historical Jesus research is greater than diversity among theologians.
- At this point, let me digress a bit by reflecting on dogma and theology. A dogma is a belief, presented as a proposition, that has been clearly defined by the church as binding on believers. Dogmas are usually stated tersely, and they are often produced in response to a particular crisis. But dogmas express mysteries have no simple explanations, and dogma does not supply them. Theologians must probe them and reflect on them anew in the light of current thought and culture. That’s their job. Such reflection is what I mean by theology. There will always be different theologies. Karl Rahner one of my favourite theologians noted that a Christology from below (starting from Jesus’ humanity) and one from above (starting from his divinity) are different types of Christology. In understanding this , I quote Karl Rhaner again:
- “When man is with God in awe and love, then he is praying.” …
- “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” …
- “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. …
“Only in love can I find you, my God.
Both are true to the tradition. In a sense, of course, all Christology start from above since they have their origin in the church’s witness about Christ. But in Christology, whether one begins in heaven or on earth, so to speak, makes a big difference in how one talks about Jesus’ divinity and humanity. But this brings us back to the problem of the multiplicity of historical portraits.
Diverse Reconstructions of Jesus
It is true that we will never attain a single picture of the historical Jesus on which all agree. For some, this is a reason not to try. For others, it means that study of the historical Jesus is irrelevant to faith. For still others, it is a caution that scholarship cannot be the ground of faith.
Historical reconstruction is a matter of probabilities, as Troeltsch’s principle of probability says, and of the weighing of more than one possible construal of the evidence. We are more aware than ever that historical research is never fully “objective.” In passing, we can say that Troeltsch’s other two principles, of analogy and correlation, are more problematic. Ricoeur and Gadamer, in particular, are often invoked to help us to understand the roles of interpretation and of our own historicity as we read texts from the past. But this does not mean that we should simply give up on history or that it is no more than a disguise for the expression of our own ideologies. Along these lines, the theologian Francis Schüssler Fiorenza’s reflections are helpful. Fiorenza notes that when we do history, we engage in a hermeneutical circle. Are we more aware of early Christianity’s anti-Jewishness because we are doing better research, or because the experience of the Holocaust has changed our consciousness? Both. Our experience influences how we read history. Our historical research influences how we see our experience. Critical self-awareness, as well as openness to contrary evidence and the critiques of others, act as controls in this process.
I wonder whether the desire for certainty in the case of Jesus is due to the stake believers have in the answers. If the historical Jesus is the ground of belief, then everything rides on attaining certainty. But that is not where historical research should enter the process. Faith depends on personal encounter with Christ as mediated through the believing community which preserves the apostolic witness to Jesus’ significance. But that very apostolic witness itself appeals to the earthly Jesus. So just as believers cannot halt their interest in Jesus at his death but must move on to the resurrection and Jesus’ presence in the world even today, so they should not erect a barrier between the risen Jesus and Jesus in his earthly career, barring serious historical study of the latter. Elizabeth Johnson says, “Because the event of salvation is intrinsically related to the irreducible concreteness of Jesus, for Christian faith ‘at this point what is most historical is what is most essential’” (35). The last words are a quote from Karl Rahner (1978, 176).
Furthermore, I would say that our inability to arrive at a single, uncontested view of the earthly Jesus is a reflex of the Incarnation itself. In Christian terms, when God makes God’s ultimate self-communication to humanity, it is by becoming human. Humans are inherently ambiguous. It is hardly surprising that the human being Jesus can be seen in a variety of ways. To avoid this inherent ambiguity is to evade some of the implications of the Incarnation itself. One of the most intriguing lines in the Gospels occurs in Matthew, when the eleven disciples meet the risen Jesus on the mountain. Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted” (28:17).
Those opposed to studying the historical Jesus sometimes do not acknowledge that critically studying the Gospels themselves is also a matter of going behind as well as contextualizing the great dogmatic statements of the church. After all, they were written centuries before Nicea and Chalcedon. And the New Testament manifests a diversity of christologies. The Synoptic Gospels, examined closely, present Jesus’ significance in a way somewhat different than we might think when we read them through later dogmas, or even through the gospel of John. The apostolic witness preserved in these gospels is really about God working through Christ. In this sense, theology is the ground of christology. This is in line with D’Angelo’s suggestion that we speak not of the Jesus movement but of the “reign-of-God movement” (141). This is not to undermine dogma. It is to give it flesh and bones, so to speak, by reasserting Jesus’ full and particular humanity.
Results of Biblical Criticism in the Church
What good has come of historical study within the Catholic Church? For one thing, it has helped the church rethink its relationship with Judaism. This bore fruit in the document Nostra Aetate from Vatican II, which not only rejects Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death, but also speaks of a common spiritual heritage between Christians and Jews, and appeals to Paul in saying that “God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made.” The church has also made helpful statements about the Jews and the death of Christ, now conveniently collected in a publication entitled The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus. Phil Cunningham demonstrates how the movie “The Passion of the Christ” violates just about every one of the church’s guidelines. I urge you to read his review on the web site of the Centre for Christian-Jewish Learning.
Finally, Jesus scholarship has encouraged Christians to rethink Jesus. In the words of Elizabeth Johnson, “The historical Jesus has become the new factor in Roman Catholic Christology, one of the clearest results of the interfacing of systematic thought with biblical exegesis” (10). She asserts that studies of the historical Jesus have now become an important source for what she calls the “memory image of Jesus in the tradition,” and this image is necessary for Christology.
Francis Schüssler Fiorenza proposes that we see the historical Jesus as part of a larger historical whole, that includes the effect of his life on those around him as well as on later generations. The earthly Jesus is the “root, catalyst, and impulse of a tradition.” The entirety of the Christian experience, from the historical Jesus to present church crises, should be subject to theological reflection. But in investigating Jesus as the root and catalyst of the tradition, it is important that we work on understanding him historically.
In The Revelatory Text, Sandra Schneiders says,
Properly historical methods … can yield properly historical results that have enormous theological, religious, and spiritual implications. … However, because it cannot prove or disprove, validate or invalidate that faith, historical criticism is not the final arbiter of whether or what we believe. (116)
So, finally, why bother? Why engage in historical study of Jesus? Meier gives four reasons. First, it makes clear that “Christian faith is the affirmation and adherence to a particular person who did and suffered particular things in a particular time and place in human history” (22). I would add that we must take seriously that Jesus was a Jew, and that his Jewish identity was central to who he was and is not a “particularistic” detail that can be underplayed in the interests of universality. Nor does his divinity override his Jewishness. Jesus related to God as Jew. The way he thought, prayed, behaved were deeply affected by his Judaism.
Meier’s second reason is related to the first. A healthy interest in the historical Jesus helps us to avoid any sort of docetic thinking. Elizabeth Johnson suggests that “a plausible case can in fact be made that the controversy over the historical Jesus is but the modern form of the old Christological dispute of docetism” (36).
Meier’s third and fourth reasons address conservatives on one side and liberals on the other. He reminds conservatives that Jesus was a sharp critic of the powerful in his world. It reminds liberals that Jesus did not encourage political revolution. Meier claims that “the historical Jesus subverts not just some ideologies but all ideologies, including liberation theology” (23).
I admire Meier’s concern for balance. But it is telling that he speaks on the one hand of Jesus challenging an entrenched and powerful Christianity and on the other of Jesus not fomenting political revolution. That surely does not put Jesus in the middle. Jesus was prophetic. He vigorously criticized the religious and political authorities of his day. He condemned self-righteousness and the attitude taken toward sinners by those who “obeyed God.” He spoke about social and economic injustice. His demands were radical. The kingdom belongs to the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized. Jesus is here not for the “righteous,” but for sinners. These elements have survived historical scepticism. And this relates to how we see his death. Any reconstruction that does not allow for the powerful to say “We have to get rid of this guy” is inadequate. Any presentation where Jesus does not put societal structures under radical scrutiny misses the point.
The category “prophet” is the one most likely adopted by Jesus himself. Ancient Jewish prophets did not recognize distinctions between religion, politics, economics, and social policy that we fight over today. But Monica Hellwig insists that the political Jesus is not the Pantocrator, that is, the Almighty, but rather “the struggling, suffering pretender to the throne who would and will bring justice and protection to the poor and powerless of the world” (479).
Let me summarize and conclude. New recognition of ancient Judaism’s complexity has made it difficult to generalize about it. That is all to the good, given problematic and even harmful generalizations of the past. We do know enough to perceive that Christians for many centuries distorted Judaism and denigrated it so as to legitimate itself. That tendency is now much less common in mainstream Christianity’s theology, preaching, and piety.
Increase in knowledge of Judaism contributes directly to the quest for the historical Jesus. Some expect more from this study than it can deliver, and some fear that it has already delivered too much. But it has both helped us to appreciate Jesus’ Jewishness and enhanced our appreciation of his humanity. More than that, it has shown Jesus to be a challenge to a comfortable and complacent Christianity.
The Catholic Church’s acceptance of historical criticism allows it to benefit from new insights about early Judaism, Christian origins, and the historical Jesus. Tension between historical research and church authority is always potentially there, but that tension can be fruitful. Theology is not simply a passing-on of tradition but should bring to life that earthly Jesus who turned the world on its head. Studying Jesus historically helps make that happen.
This concludes my thoughts. .
Works Mentioned in this article/talk
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