Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Scot McKnight on the Historians' Jesuses and the Church's Jesus

In a recent follow-up to his Christianity Today article announcing the end of an era of historical Jesus scholarship, Scot McKnight clarifies his point:
So one more time: I am calling into question the theological value of the historical Jesus enterprise. I am not calling into question the value of historical work. . . . But the historical Jesus enterprise is a different kettle of fish, and it is all I was saying: the historical Jesus enterprise has one major goal: to separate the real Jesus from the Church's beliefs about Jesus and to reconstruct what the real Jesus was really like, in spite of what the Church has always believed. To do this, it pronounces on what is historical or authentic and it then dismisses that which is determined inauthentic and then, with the evidence that survives the scrutiny, reconstructs what Jesus was really like. . . . My article was an attempt to argue against the historical Jesus enterprise, not an argument against doing history or the value of history when it comes to our knowledge about Jesus. The Church has a Jesus; it is found in the apostolic witness to Jesus in the Four Gospels. That is the Jesus upon whom we need to focus. The Jesus(es) of the historical Jesus enterprise are here today and gone tomorrow, and the next generation will find another Jesus and so on and on forever and ever. I've got shelves and shelves of such books ... and most people don't know the names nor care about the ideas of those scholarly proposals of what Jesus was really like (for them, in their time). The question is this: Which Jesus will we choose? The Church's Jesus or the historian's Jesus?

I'm on board with McKnight's main concern (clarified still further in comment 20). He is right to criticize the anti-church bias of the historical Jesus enterprise. I fully agree that the Gospels have theological priority over any historical reconstruction that accepts part of the Jesus tradition and rejects others. But the way McKnight concluded his post made me wonder about the opposition he draws between the constructions of historians and the singular Church's Jesus, so I asked (comment 16):
. . . Can't part of your argument against historical Jesus study be applied to any text that requires interpretation? Let's take the book of James, for example. Scholars argue that the text does not mean what it seems, the next generation advances new and quite different interpretations, commentaries replace commentaries, and the laity throw up their hands in despair: If even the experts disagree, how can we hope to interpret it for ourselves? I think this plurality is an unfortunate, but necessary implication of serious study (and it doesn't necessarily lead to despair). Every interpretation of the book of James is a construction; any attempt to say what James really meant will presumably find itself up against established tradition. As a good Protestant, I'm not offended when a convincing interpretation of the book of James overturns what the church has always believed about James. Just as the inevitable plurality of interpretations of James don't mean that we should call a halt to scholarly study of James, the inevitable plurality of interpretations of Jesus doesn't count against the Quest.

As a good Protestant, I'm not about to let a reconstruction of the historical Jesus replace the authority of the four canonical Gospels, but I think the incarnation requires historical study of Jesus, and that means facing the uncomfortable possibility that the results of one's historical investigation may not coincide with the Evangelists' portraits. Since it is required by the incarnation, historical study of Jesus is a priori theologically significant, but that doesn't make it a safe enterprise. To be sure, the canonical Gospels (the "church's Jesus") have theological priority, but I guess I'm not sure we are permitted to choose either the church's Jesus or the historians' reconstructions; each requires and is informed by the other.

Scot replied: "intense historical work on James that doesn't aim to find the "real" James behind the current letter is not analogous." (comment 18)

I think I agree, but my point--or, at least, the point that in retrospect I want to emphasize--is a little bit different. So let me try again: Interpretations of texts are as much constructions as are interpretations of historical figures. Without construction, there is no such thing as the Church's Jesus, there is only the individual portraits of the four Evangelists which must themselves be interpreted. This is because--although I agree with Richard Burridge that the Gospels present for us one recognizable Jesus--they don't all agree in all respects. Two examples:
  • According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus cleanses the Temple at the end of his ministry; in John the Temple cleansing occurs at the beginning.
  • According to Mark 11:7 Jesus sat on a colt; according to Matthew 21:7 Jesus apparently sat on both a donkey and its colt. (The TNIV and NASB conclude that the pronoun 'them' refers back to the garments, but the repetition of the pronoun and the connection with Zech 9:9 suggests that the animals are in view.)

There are ways to reconcile the differences, but any reconciliation is, by necessity, as much a construction as the approach that says one is authentic and one is not. McKnight's "Church's Jesus" is not, as he claims, the Jesus of the New Testament, but a Jesus that is constructed by harmonizing the four portraits of the four Evangelists. It is self-consciousness of reconstruction that points toward and partly legitimizes a form of the historical Jesus enterprise.

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