on the historical Jesus

Nick has reviewed Craig Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, and while the review is fine, there is a section that annoys me.  It’s not Nick fault, he may not even realize it but it is something many a shcolar does and I’ll try to explain why it bothers me.  Here is the section:

The Jesus that we can know from our earliest and best sources (the Gospels) was an itinerant preacher/charismatic healer/exorcist/miracle worker who believed himself to have been commissioned by God to bring about Israel’s restoration.  He was an eschatological prophet who taught of a coming kingdom that he believed he would play a significant role in ushering in.  He envisioned his mission at least partly in messianic terms and called for radical discipleship, placing allegiance to him along the lines that were reserved for God alone, hence there is good reason to see continuity between the extremely early emphasis on Jesus’ exalted status and Jesus’ own exalted self-awareness (see esp. chap. 19).  In short, the historical Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus that the Church has traditionally proclaimed.

I guess what bothers me is how the passive past tense is used as though Jesus didn’t really know who he was or what he was doing.  Did not Jesus know who he was and what he was doing from the time he was twelve years old, if not from before time began?   If so, why all the talk about “he believed himself to be…” “He thought he was…” so on and so forth? 

Thought?  Explainations?  Thanks.

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4 responses to “on the historical Jesus

  1. I suspect that here the issue is what historical inquiry in and of itself can actually prove. Based on the sayings attributed to Jesus we can say that he at least believed these things to be true. The last bit about exalted self-awareness is heading in the direction you’re proposing though. It’s saying that Jesus said and did things based on who he knew himself to be (God’s Son, etc.).

  2. I think Nick said a bunch of good things there, Brian. Yes, we can take it farther, and we do. And we will. (What amazes me is how much I’ve gotten used to the qualify-qualify type of thinking. But you’re right.) But…

    On the other hand, Nick (and presumably therefore also Keener) was actually bolder here than many a historian would allow. Four times, Nick declared what Jesus “believed”, “envisioned” or was “aware” of. How many minds can you or I read, usually? We have to do a lot of analysis to conclude reasonably that Jesus did in fact think this way. And again, that’s a good conclusion to begin from. (After that, imho, it’s liar/lunatic/Lord. And I know where _I_ stand on that one.)

    But on the other other hand, we don’t always have to be reasonable… which is why I love the last line of the Norelli excerpt the most. The line that begins “In short…” Beautiful. (Didn’t you think?)

    It’s a pretty big reach for a Historian to conclude that He thought of Himself in such a way. It is then we, the people of Faith, who must take that further leap to believe that He was, in fact, that way.

  3. The passive tense if appropriate if one is, say, James D. G. Dunn, who does not view all the Gospel stories as equally historical.

    As one reviewer of Dunn’s book, JESUS REMEMBERED, put it (one of the TOP 500 AMAZON REVIEWER)from Edmonton, Alberta Canada, James Dunn’s massively documented “Jesus Remembered” is the first of a planned trilogy on the first 120 years of Christianity. He starts off with of his discussion of the Jesus tradition, and what we can know about the historical Jesus. After his discussion of the past two centuries of Jesus research Dunn gets down to his new approach to the question. Much of the study of the historical Jesus has dealt with texts; Mark, Q, Matthew and Luke and their own unique sources. Dunn argues that the differences between these sources cannot simply be viewed as theological redactions. Instead they often relied on oral tradition. Dunn has looked at how oral traditions develop and notices that while stories passed orally often change in details (“performance variations”) the essential core of the story often remains unchanged for a long time. Although Dunn says several times that the best we can hope for is what Jesus’ followers remembered about him, he often believes that if a tradition fits his oral history paradigm given above it is most likely to have originated with Jesus himself.

    So what does Dunn conclude from his approach? First off, Dunn himself is a Christian and on page 879 affirms the resurrection. So it is important to point out how much of Christian belief Dunn has to leave by the wayside. The Gospel of John’s narrative is not reliable, nor the claims it makes for his quasi-divine status. There is little to support the infancy narratives. There is little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles. Contrary to the gospels, there is no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah. (The term does not even appear in Q.) Nor is there much left of the “Son of Man,” except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions. Indeed, Dunn argues, Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. “If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead.” There is astonishingly little support for what Jesus’ last words were.

    At the same time, Dunn is sceptical of the historical value of the Gospel of Thomas and his frequent comparisons with the synoptic materials strongly suggest that it followed, not preceded them. Dunn is also properly sceptical of the Kloppenborgs’ belief that one can separate Q into convenient layers. There is an especially good section that shows that the Hellenistic background of first century Galilee has been much exaggerated. There is little evidence that Sepphoris had many gentiles and plenty of evidence of the four indication of Jewish religious identity (stone vessels, absence of pork remains, Jewish burial customs and Jewish bathing customs).

    There are problems with Dunn’s oral tradition model. As one proceeds one wonders whether such incidents as contradictory traditions about Capernaum, the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus’ quarrels with Pharisees over eating grain on the Sabbath, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem or the claim that Jesus spoke of destroying the temple really do go back to Jesus. The possibility of a parti pris, on both the gospel authors and of Dunn himself, has to be considered. Looking back at Dunn’s model of an oral tradition one notes a flawed analogy. Dunn gave an example of an Arabian peasant village, where once the community agreed on a story they stick to it. But the early Christian community were not (simply) isolated peasants. They were actively trying to convert their fellow countrymen, and ultimately with little success. In other words, unlike the Arab villagers, their story faced constant challenge from non-believers and this had to affect its development.

    There are other weaknesses. There is a certain squirming as Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events.” Then he goes on for four pages trying to argue that we shouldn’t be too concerned about his. This is not so much a “consistent eschatology” or a “realized eschatology” as a neutered eschatology.

    Dunn’s account of the resurrection is better in discussing the weaknesses of Christian tradition than in defending them. He argues that Jewish traditions agree on an empty tomb, without pointing out that such traditions were composed centuries afterwards, were clearly a response to the gospels, and have no independent value in themselves. Dunn also argues that the fact that Jesus’ tomb was not venerated is proof that the Christians knew it was empty. But this is not convincing. Aside from the fact that there is some evidence of veneration, if Christians could honor the cross Jesus died on, they could venerate the place he was resurrected. Unless, of course, they didn’t know where he was buried. Trying to argue that Jesus received a proper burial, Dunn notes that there is an example of a crucified body receiving proper burial, but forgets to add that it is the only such body found in all of Palestine. On the other hand Dunn notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: the link of Jesus’ resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet “some doubted,” not just Thomas), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (in Jerusalem and Galilee? On earth or in heaven?) But on the whole the research is thorough, the bibliography voluminous and there is much in this book that will provoke and stimulate the reader. This is a book one should take the trouble to read.

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