Love and Chairs: On Not Finding the Historical Jesus

In the case of the “Jesus-question,” there is no point at which the theological imagination does not shape the subject matter. Love comes before the chair, feelings and impressions before the “facts” have been put into place, and interpretation before detail.  No matter what element of the Jesus tradition comes first, that element—as scholars for the most part today are willing to acknowledge—comes to us as an act in a religious drama, not as a scene in an ordinary life.

Adapted from: The Sources of the Jesus Tradition, to be published in August 2010 (New York: Prometheus Books,ISBN-10: 1616141891)

By R. Joseph Hoffmann
Distinguished Scholar at Goddard College
Goddard Program in Human Values.
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER).
Co-chair of The Jesus Project (2007-2009).
R. Joseph Hoffmann, Hys Blogge
August 2011


See also:
A Discourse on Methods: The Jesus Project
Rocks, Hard Places, and Jesus Fatigue: Jesus Seminar and Jesus Project
The Freedom of the Christian Theologian: Reflections on a Historical Predicament

And he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8.28)

The following comments are designed to re-orient the question that has perplexed historians, theologians and philosophers for centuries, but for quite different reasons. It seems self-evident to many people that it is “important” for there to have been a historical Jesus, and yet the reasons for his importance are not altogether clear from the sources available to reconstruct his life and thought.

Among the early Christians, a majority took his historicity for granted, either on the basis of hearsay and preaching by people who had claimed to know others who had known him (a process that leads to the formulation of “apostolic succession” in the second century), or from the gospel accounts presumed to be written by eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses from the earliest days of the Christian church. A significant minority of Christians—labeled docetists and Gnostics by the majority—had less interest in the historical Jesus, or none at all, preferring instead to focus on his “revelation” as an expression of the True God’s nature and being. That there was no Jesus in the historical sense is implicit in gnostic teaching, but submerged in the Gnostics’ exaggerated claims of his supernality, while for the orthodox, Jesus’ significance is determined precisely in the core belief that he had lived, died, and was raised from the dead at a particular point in history, “under Pontius Pilate.” That there was neither a supernal, non-physical Jesus nor a historical Jesus was not a question broached even by the pagan critics of the Church, most of whom assumed that Jesus was a man of no significance to whom the unoriginal fables of Hellenistic mythology had been selectively attached. In what follows, I want to consider the way in which the theological discussion of Jesus’ importance, that is to say, the way in which his “reality” was apprehended, affects the consideration of his historical existence. It is my claim here that neither the sources we possess nor approaches to them developed over the last two centuries yield any resolution of the question of his actual existence and that the Church’s description of his reality has never depended primarily on the status of such a question.


To believe that something is real is to take a position towards its existence. To say that a chair is real is to say it occupies space, i.e., that it is physical, and is accessible to the senses. Almost everybody will be happy with some form of that definition, with its focus on sensory apprehension. On the other hand, to say that love is real may be merely the expression of a feeling towards an object or person raised to the level of a category: The lover is certain his feeling is precipitated by the existence of something unseen, but nonetheless real, without the reality of which his feeling is inexplicable. While he may never have read Plato, he will point to the effects of love on his behavior, on creating a sense of wellbeing—and confusion—and on other results, such as marriage, family, harmony, even that most important of Greek ideals, happiness. Given the overriding evidence of these results, it may be hard to maintain the position that love is not “real.” Plato’s “ideas” (goodness, truth, beauty, justice, etc.) are categories presumed to exist quite independently of their very imperfect expressions in language, art, government, philosophy, poetry, and human conduct. But to complete the circle, even these imperfect expressions would not exist without the reality of the ideas. They are shadows, Porphyry argued, for example, of the unseen supernal realm which our mind longs to reach but can only attain in moments of philosophical ecstasy.

Hardheaded opponents of Plato’s metaphysics, beginning with Aristotle—a long and distinguished train of experientialists—would limit the reality of things to those that cannot be doubted by the senses. Love is the reality of the heart in crisis. To the extent it has anything to do with sense, biology is its sufficient explanation.

What do we do with the reality of things that are not real in the sense a chair is real and not real in the sense some people believe love is real—things that possess a reality which is neither physical nor, in the strict sense metaphysical? To pose the question this way is slightly misleading because I am not asking about the existence of gnomes or paradise islands or lost plays of Shakespeare. Historical inquiry has its own ways of dealing with such questions, and each question will be answered using a slightly different technique. Archaeology and the context of reports concerning gnomes will come into play if anyone is interested in pursuing the habits of the denizen tinkers of Gnomeregan. Paradise islands may exist, but one, invented by Anselm’s friend Guanilo, seems to have surpassed all others in beauty and splendor, such that its reality was only to be imagined and never experienced.

The idea of a perfect island that can never be visited on a yacht is a rich man’s nightmare, of course, but it is also (merely) a semantic trick. No reality is at stake in postulating the imaginable. And in the case of a lost Shakespeare play—well, there is nothing mysterious about reports of lost works of literature, art, cities, animals, races, kingdoms. Some, like reports of the kingdom of Prester John, are probably unreliable. Some, like the existence of Troy are probably partly reliable, and some, like reports of the hanging gardens of Babylon are almost certainly reliable (to a point) though the most famous of Greek Historians, Herodotus, does not mention their existence. The fact that an object, event or person is “historical” does not mean its reality is untestable, but that its reality “behaves” differently and must be approached differently from the way we approach chairs and love. Like the chair, the historical reality once occupied space. But like love, or black holes (if not the same phenomenon) it can sometimes only be known from the objects and conditions that surround it.

Belief in God and belief in Jesus, thanks to the proclivities of Christian theology, seem to be the same sort of belief. A Christian who believes ardently in the Trinity might want to argue that the belief is a package deal: to believe in God is to believe in a particular orthodox formulation of God’s being and essence, and in “orthodox” Christianity (however unfashionable the term) that formulation is the Nicene Creed. In the Creed, Jesus Christ and God the Father (note the phrase) are “one in being” but different in person: not to believe in Jesus as the only begotten son of God is not to believe something vitally important about God himself. Indeed, you may as well be talking about Allah or Mazdayasna since you will not be talking about what Christians historically have believed to be the primary characteristic of God: fatherhood, and the eternal generation (“begetting,” a process rather than a birth) of his son Jesus Christ.

  But in fact, the two beliefs are different.  The existence of God can be argued theologically or philosophically.  If theologically (using traditional language) the proofs are usually called “demonstrations” and include some of the classical arguments of the theistic tradition—such as Anselm’s ontological argument or Thomas Aquinas’s five “ways.”  It is convenient for philosophers to have these arguments because they don’t have to go about inventing their own. They have normally simply taken aim at these rather good ones and subjected them to tests of their own devising, ranging from ethical tests to those that spring from schools of thought, such as philosophical naturalism. The existence of God is not a question for history, though the emergence and shape of particular beliefs about him are of considerable historical importance.

“Believing” in Jesus can be argued historically or theologically, but not philosophically.  Historically, the existence of Jesus to be indubitable would need to be demonstrated in the same way the existence of any other human being can be shown.  The standard of proof is fairly high, making allowance for the age in which the person lived or is thought to have lived. Normally we would expect records, reports, artifacts (bones are best), or the writings of people who mention Jesus in their reports of other events.  For example, a chronicle of the Roman administration of Pontius Pilate in Palestine with a mention of the crucifixion of an outlaw named Yeshu, a Galilean, would be very helpful.  But we do not possess such a record.  Instead, we possess reports written by members of a religious group that had very specific and self-interested reasons for retelling his story.  And the way in which it is told differs so markedly from the sorts of histories the Romans were writing in the second and third century CE that scholars have acknowledged for a long time the “problem” of deriving the historical Jesus from the Gospels—and even more the problem of deriving his existence from the letters of Paul or any other New Testament writings.

Having said this, I don’t mean to suggest that the gospels are “made up,” that they are like Greek myths (though bits are) or that they possess no historical value.  The Iliad is Greek myth, mainly made up, perhaps seven hundred years older than the earliest Gospel, and yet seems to point (however obscurely) to actual events that transpired six centuries before Homer immortalized them.  Herodotus, who lived more than five centuries before the Gospels, is known to us primarily as a purveyor of history, but freely uses mythology and the supernatural without totally discrediting the stories he has to tell. The line between history and myth is not always clearly drawn in ancient accounts, even those that purport to be historical.

Why then, it can plausibly be asked, can we not assume the Gospels point to events that transpired within (say) a generation of their tellers’ lifetimes as many perfectly reputable scholars continue to think?  And even given doubts about their historical particulars, a discussion that will occupy scholars for many years to come and probably without resolution, would it not be more unusual not to find the mythical and supernatural as part of their fabric than to find precisely the kind of documents we possess—especially coming from a class of writers who were not historians or literary craftsmen? What would a disinterested, journalistic appraisal—a “report”—of the life and teachings of Jesus look like given the literary genres available to such amateurs? Those who argue the case for the basic reliability of the Gospels usually make this minimalist case: that there is more reason to assume the Gospels reflect actual events transformed in the light of religious experience than to believe that they are the products of religious experience alone. From this minimal position, certain scholars—the indefatigable N.T. Wright is perhaps the most popular modern example—then go on to claim much more in terms of historical reliability.


The existence of Jesus can also be argued theologically.   Paul does it this way by quoting (we assume) a hymn in Philippians 2.5-11. It locates Jesus in a cosmic time-frame that might be Gnostic except for the emphasis on his death and exaltation. The Eucharistic narratives and the sequence, the passion story in the synoptic gospels, create Jesus’ historicity this way as well, by making him the centerpiece in an unfolding drama of betrayal and martyrdom.  The crucifixion story is as much a theological memoir as a historical one—or rather a peculiar blending of two interests, a kind of intersection between historical expectation and super-historical completion.  The earliest church writers, especially Ignatius of Antioch, saw Jesus not just as the fulfillment of prophecy but as the way in which prophecy acquires its meaning through the Church.  The increasingly elaborate theological framing of Jesus may distract from the fading image on the canvas, but it is the enthusiasm for ever-more detailed frames that kept the historical figure from disappearing entirely.

These theological arguments are better described as constructions of the “reality” or necessity of the human Jesus and lead to various controversies that historians have left it to the theologians to sort through.  In effect, this has created a kind of scholarly apartheid in which secular historians have treated the theological debates of the fourth and fifth century as the weird preoccupations of a bygone era, while (except among scholars who represent Anglican and Roman Catholic orthodoxy) many contemporary theologians regard the debates in just the same way. The most liberal theology since the nineteenth century has found its justification in translating the idioms of patristic Christianity into more modern categories of thought, while since the late twentieth century it has been typical to construct challenges to the patristic system--theologies that regard the categories of the church fathers provisional, “sexist,” outmoded, or irrelevant to contemporary discourse. The theologian Daphne Hampson is one of a dozen theologians who have used the term “post-Christian” to describe the radical break with the past that the newer theologies purvey. Their interest in the historical Jesus is (by far) secondary to the promotion of a critique of the Church—which in many ways replaces Jesus as the fundamental historical datum of their theology.

Yet these early debates that seem so distant from our concern and interest irreversibly colored the picture of the historical Jesus and created in his place the Byzantine cosmocrator who ruled the aeons, a king enthroned on high who would come again to judge the living and the dead.  The doctrines of the one-personed, two-natured Christ, the hypostatic union (the doctrine that Jesus is both God and Man without confusion or separation of natures) would probably count as myth if they told a better story.  But at all events the fully divine and human Jesus had become a theological necessity before the end of the second century and a confessional statement in the fourth. The historical presupposition, the man named Jesus, was buried in this controversy, if it had ever existed independently.

To accept the “reality” of Jesus after the fourth century is to accept the rather bizarre figure immortalized in the icons, the Jesus of the fertile Christian imagination. This Jesus is a myth cobbled together from other myths—imperial, soteriological, apocalyptic and messianic, priestly, gnostic, stoic with a healthy dash of byzantine splendor tossed into the mix. To the extent that every Jesus is a composite of culture and theology, the Jesus of Nicaeo-Chalcedonian orthodoxy would have been quite impossible in a first or second century context, and for the same reasons–though his image is emblazoned on cathedral walls from London to St Louis in tribute to the famous “original” in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—impossibly exotic to later generations. The rate of change in reframing the reality of Jesus between the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and since the Reformation is enough to suggest that theological definitions of reality relate more to love than to chairs; that is to say, they are impressions of interpretation rather than interpretations of fact.


Historically, then, the reality of Jesus cannot be indubitable because his existence does not meet the high standard of proof we set for other historical figures. That statement may seem naïve to New Testament scholars who have staked their scholarly careers on tomes promising to uncover what Jesus really said or who Jesus really was. But in fact, their work, to a book, suffers from confusing love and chairs, feelings and facts.

I have no particular case in view: whether Jesus was a peasant farmer or a Galilean bandit, a magician or a preacher of wisdom is unknown and can not be known. It cannot be known for the same reason that there can be no compromise between the Jesus of Byzantine orthodoxy and the Jesus of the Brethren of the Common Life, between the good shepherd and the King of Glory, a failed messiah and the son of man: images do not establish historicity but create scenarios of how a reality might have been, given certain conditions and ignoring or omitting others. Scholars who find it inconvenient for Jesus to have been an apocalyptic preacher, for example, will now argue that this is an insignificant part of his message. Scholars who find limited support for political agendas or social positions in the gospels will turn to the “possibility” that the radical sayings of Jesus were buried by a power-hungry church, using the concealment of gnostic sources as “proof” of such an enterprise. Defenders of older images will argue that theirs is the one provided in sources of irrefragable orthodoxy, without acknowledging that antiquity, far from establishing historicity, finds myth more compelling than fact. The most cynical approaches of all are those reductivist ones that purport to be recovering the historical Jesus from sayings, contexts or scenarios argued to be more (or less) historical than the others associated with the tradition, thus permitting scholars to shape their reality on demand, constrained only by publishing schedules. Theology thus facilitates the re-creation in every generation of a Jesus who never existed for the benefit of women and men who find the Jesus who might have existed an embarrassment. That Jesus, like the Inquisitor’s guest in The Brothers Karamazov “We will not allow… to come to us again.”


Jesus to Christ?

Many books on the subject of the historical Jesus employ what some have called the Jesus-to-Christ model of development. The assumption behind such approaches is that Christianity began with an event roughly equivalent to the birth and ministry of Jesus and that following his death (whether expected or unanticipated) the development of a community that believed him risen from the dead. The added details need not be elaborate, but the basic model requires us to accept that as the community developed its confession during Paul’s time—1 Corinthians 5.6 seems a good minimum--the things believed about Jesus also intensified, so that by the end of the first “generation” (a meaningless term invented by early twentieth century New Testament scholars) Jesus had become a magnet for a hodgepodge of beliefs, ranging from the idea that he was a prophet to the belief that he was the messiah and God incarnate. The model appears to be commonsensical, on the analogy of Descartes’ famous example of how a city develops pari passu from a village or how organic systems move from the simple to the complex.

But the model does not work well if the question in point is the reality of Jesus rather than how the church becomes more complex. The phenomena are not identical, and the use of a historically “minimal” Jesus as a point d’appui for the process through which Christian theology and structure evolves into a complex system would not bear comparison to developments in other religions, especially those—the majority—that do not depend on an historical “founder” or progenitor who is also its deity. Indeed, Christianity is almost unique and uniquely problematical in its assertion of a founder who is also its god.

In short, the “from Jesus to Christ” model is conceptually flawed because it sees ecclesiastical developments as representing a stratum in the aggregation of the Jesus tradition which is unavailable apart from the developments themselves—a recognition clear enough from the disregarded slogan of nineteenth century radicals who professed that the search for the historical Jesus “leads to the door of the church.”

In the case of the “Jesus-question,” there is no point at which the theological imagination does not shape the subject matter. Love comes before the chair, feelings and impressions before the “facts” have been put into place, and interpretation before detail.  No matter what element of the Jesus tradition comes first, that element—as scholars for the most part today are willing to acknowledge—comes to us as an act in a religious drama, not as a scene in an ordinary life. Indeed, nothing is more unsupported by the sources than the standard liberal critical perspective that Jesus’ death was unexpected, the Gospels an attempt to theologize away the embarrassment of the early church, and the residual parts of the tradition developed “backward” from the seminal moment—the catastrophe—of his mission. This “trauma theory” of Christian origins presumes a real death and the reactions of real persons who would have had religious and perhaps psychological or political reasons to conceal the failure of their leader or the disappointment of their hopes. But there is nothing in the tradition that requires a real death and very little apart from a few literary flourishes in Luke 24.21 that conveys disappointment. Is it not just as plausible that the passion narrative is a drama based on the binding of Isaac, whose death was equally “unexpected,” but not in any historical sense? The need—the love—for this historical Jesus as a cipher or a principle of explanation is seductive, but in fact it is a very poor way of doing history. It does not give us a chair.

Flatly put, the Jesus tradition was ab origine either the story of the death and resurrection of a historical individual called Jesus, or it was belief in the story of a dying and rising god that caused a story to emerge, fleshed out in historical detail in the sources we call Gospels. Either way, it was belief in his extraordinary triumph over death and not the facts of his life that saved Jesus from obscurity. Either way, the movement from the “ordinary” to the “extraordinary” upon which the Jesus-to-Christ model depends is implausible.

There is simply no evidence that the early Christians were concerned about “whether” Jesus had really lived and died.  They became Christians because of the Gospel, and the Gospel was a summary of “things believed” by the brethren.  If there is one cold, hard, unavoidable historical datum that virtually everyone who studies the New Testament can agree on, it is that the early Christian community came into existence because of the preaching of the Gospel. The pluralized form of that datum in the form of written gospels is the literary artifact of what they believed, not a factual record of events that transpired prior to the framing of the oral message. It may well be true that the beliefs of these communities were as varied as colored buttons for more than a century.  But the Jesus they “proclaimed” (a good first-century verb) was part of a story, not a doctrine—a story they believed to be true.  You can’t go very far into the second century without seeing the story becoming clouded with doctrine and definition, however.

The church fathers and the Gnostics were really two sides of the same obscurantist process:  the Gnostics needed a Jesus whose humanity was transparent or unreal, the church fathers needed a Jesus whose humanity was real but disposable.  It is not surprising that the disposable won out over the unreal.

The resurrection stories, as they lengthened, seemed to suggest that a kind of transformation took place in the hiatus between death and being raised from the dead.  In other words, the historical (human) Jesus who rose from the dead won out over the Gnostic Jesus who does not, not because the gnostic story is fabulous but because the familiar story was human—grounded in history. Paul seems to have caught on to the market value of this fact very early (I Corinthians 15.4-8).

At any rate, if the question is asked why the story of Jesus needed to be historicized at all, the answer lay in the appeal of Paul’s suggestion that Jesus Christ was crucified and died and was raised from the dead. That is enough to form the core of the tradition to which all other “historical” data are attached. It also to a large extent explains the democratic success of the Christian missionary preaching: Jesus and his followers were “ordinary”—the “yokels, slaves and fishermen” of society, as they continued to be known from the time of Celsus down to the time of Julian the “apostate.” They were not the elite (spiritual or moral) of gnostic concern. What would become the orthodox Jesus, for all the shortcomings Christian belief would eventually embed in the church they attributed to his actions, was real, imitatible, attractive. The gnostic Jesus was austere and obscure: he spoke sentences that did not parse to followers whose teachings were barely comprehensible about rewards that were completely uncertain. The reality of Jesus is the reality of a historicized, rather than a historical Jesus, but one whose attraction was fundamentally linked to his this-worldly interests and existence as it was preached by his followers in language many seem to have found appealing.

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