This is a new topic for this blog, prompted by my recent re-reading of the three volumes of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.
[UPDATE 16 March 2009: Please note that volume 4 will be published in May 2009 (amazon link). It focuses primarily on the relationship between Jesus and Mosaic Law.]
Sometime in the late 80’s I was browsing in my local library and a book caught my eye: The Quest of the Historical Jesus, by Albert Schweitzer. Both the subject and the author sparked interest. I knew of Schweitzer through his reputation as a great humanitarian doctor in Africa, it turns out he was also a philosopher, theologian and New Testament scholar. And what more fascinating subject could one imagine than the study of what we might discover about the “historical Jesus” (as opposed to the Jesus of religious faith)?
A quick digression: I remembered once as a teenager reading the gospels on my own (possibly for the first time) and being absolutely blown away by noticing the passages in Matthew and Mark referring to Jesus’ brothers. Four are named in Mark 6:3: James, Joses, Judas and Simon; I happen to have four brothers, so did Jesus! How was it that in all those years of (catholic) church and CCD classes, I never heard anything about this?! The status of James as a leader of the early church in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19) makes it yet more surprising that it took so long for me to learn about this. (I later learned that there is a long history in the catholic church of construing the Greek word translated as brother as meaning cousin, but there is little basis for this. Also, I should mention that the passages also refer to Jesus’ sisters – but they are not enumerated or named).
Anyway, while the historical Jesus was a topic I had thought about, I had never before read anything about it. In his book, Schweitzer summarized and critiqued what is now called the “First Quest” (or the “Old Quest’) for the historical Jesus which took place among mainly German scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book, published in 1906, serves as a reference point for the state of scholarship on the subject at the beginning of the 20th century.
Some key themes in modern scholarship already appear in Schweitzer. Foremost is the challenge posed by the paucity of evidence. There are very few useful references outside the canonical gospels. The gospels themselves were written several decades after Jesus’ time. They are formed from composite sources with extensive creative redaction by the final authors – authors who were driven not by a desire to record history but by the priorities of their struggling early church communities. As Schweitzer showed when presenting the work of a great diversity of scholars in his review, the greatest danger is that of merely finding the Jesus of one’s desires or imagination within the skeleton of clues embedded in the gospels. A theme of the book was the conflict between the “rationalists”, who tended to discover a Jesus congenial to the standards of the enlightenment, and theologians who fought a rearguard action to find a Jesus consistent with their faith. Still, there was progress made in some of this early work. For example, a conclusion still regarded as well-founded by most (never all!) scholars is the two-source theory of the Synoptics. This refers to the priority of Mark as the earliest gospel, which was used in turn as a source for Matthew and Luke, and also to Matthew and Luke’s shared use of a written collection of sayings, called the ‘Q’ document. (A brief history of historical Jesus scholarship is here).
The late 80’s and 90’s turned out to be a very active period in the field (the “Third Quest”). The work has benefited from much greater sophistication in source and form criticism and from concurrent advances in the study of the social, political and religious environment of the time and place. But the spectrum of conclusions drawn by scholars is (unfortunately) still very wide.
A great amount of media attention was generated by the Jesus Seminar in this period. The Seminar, founded by Robert Funk in 1985, was composed of a group of 30 or more scholars who met to consider the historicity of the gospels. This effort stirred up much controversy, for 3 reasons that I could see. First, the group approached the task with revisionism in mind. One of the seven pillars guiding the effort mentioned in the introduction to their first work, The Five Gospels, was that the texts were deemed ahistorical until enough evidence showed otherwise; another stated that supernatural material was inherently not historical. Second, they adopted a voting method (using colored beads) which when implemented tended to give greater weight to skepticism (only 18% of the words of Jesus received the highest “red” treatment for historicity). Finally, Funk made public relations a fundamental part of the seminar’s agenda, and this naturally stirred up critics much more than if the debate remained contained in academia. I sometimes thought when reading The Five Gospels that the actual description of the proceedings on the various passages implied a more nuanced and reasonable study than the headlines (and final color coding) implied. The premium placed on generating headlines extended to the title of the book itself: the Seminar elevated the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (found at Nag Hammadi) to a place alongside the canonical gospels. Yet when you looked at the Seminar’s conclusions with regard to Thomas, there was very little in it that they deemed historical which didn’t already have a canonical parallel. Still, the seminar’s overall approach gave critics ammunition for the charge that their methods led to biased outcomes.
This highly publicized conclusion that only a small part of the gospels was historical and the resulting consignment of so many of Jesus’ memorable words and acts to theological and mythological invention by the early church met with vehement opposition. The unfortunate consequence is that it seemed an extreme dichotomy was set before the public: a rational historical look at Jesus leads to radical rejection of most of what was distinctive about the Jesus of the Christian faith; therefore the response of Christians should be to reject the legitimacy of the concept of such a historical project. One prominent critic whose book I read was this one by Luke Timothy Johnson. The book offers some criticism of the research and methodologies of the Seminar and other writers, but it ultimately came down to an argument that the historical project is misguided and the only “real” Jesus is the Christ of faith. Other conservative Christian scholars have engaged in more rigorous defense of the historicity of the gospels with the goal of providing apologetic material to their Christian readers (One example would be William Lane Craig).
But apologetics are of little use to an open-minded reader who wants the best and most objective study of the subject possible. While the Jesus Seminar’s approach may have been biased, apologetics by definition prejudge the matter.
Of the books I’ve read so far, I believe John Meier’s work comes closest to this admittedly impossible goal of objectivity. I will follow up with a another post where I’ll discuss some of the reasons for my opinion and give brief examples of his method and results. For now, here is a link to an article he wrote in 1999 about the third quest which gives a flavor for his approach.