In My View: from “The Historical Jesus” to understanding Jesus, historically

By Bruce Chilton,
Author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000). His most recent book, The Way of Jesus: To Repair and Renew the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), has just been published.
April 2010

Spring has brought me a crop of “historical Jesus” books to review. I will not go into my analysis of them here. Instead, I would like to stand back from arguments and counterarguments, and reflect on what can be achieved by continuing the centuries-old debate concerning Jesus.

Academic volumes about Jesus typically begin with a survey of the types of inquiry that have been involved. Reference generally appears to the period between H. S. Reimarus in the eighteenth century and Albert Schweitzer, when investigators from Thomas Jefferson to Ernest Renan attempted – in good, Enlightenment fashion -- to deduce reliable facts from the Gospels, and portray a purely historical, as distinct from dogmatic, Jesus. But Schweitzer’s complaint that the results looked more like the authors’ projections than objective evidence brought about a period of reserve during much of the twentieth century.

Dogma made a big comeback during the last century, whether in the theological form of Neo-Orthodoxy, or the popular form of Fundamentalism. Either way, the safest way for many scholars to deal with Jesus was to say he was unknowable except by faith, and supply a footnote to Rudolf Bultmann. Yet in the period after the Second World War, a self-described “New Quest of the Historical Jesus,” championed by Günther Bornkam and Ernst Käsemann, crafted portrayals of Jesus out of the Gospels based, not on a positivist historiography of supposed real facts, but on the language Jesus used, and the language used about Jesus, as foundational to the growth of Christian faith. This highly concentrated focus on the growth of the New Testament and of Christianity was challenged by Ben F. Meyer in 1979, whose Aims of Jesus insisted that Jesus could only be understood within the context of Judaism. That challenge has brought about what is today called a “Third Quest of the Historical Jesus.”

Although influential as well as useful, this periodization -- positivist historiography, theological reserve, the “Second Quest’s” linguistic emphasis, and the “Third Quest’s” sensitivity to Jesus’ Judaic environment – should not be taken literally. Exploration of and comparison with Judaism was a feature of Christian theology for centuries prior to Reimarus, while positivist historiography has never been uniquely regnant, any more than Neo-orthodoxy or linguistics approaches have been. There have always been many exceptions to the model; it works only as a map of emphases, and conceals a more important consideration.

What is routinely called “the Quest of the Historical Jesus” is in fact part of a longer-term and deeper intellectual movement: historical engagement with Jesus. That engagement has been an aspect of Christian theology virtually from its beginning. All of the emphases of the various Quests – verifiable data, the impact of faith on the sources, concern with Jesus’ meaning and with his Judaic environment – are by no means uniquely modern issues. Which emphasis is most appropriate varies with the nature of the evidence in a given case, as well as the concerns of the investigator.

I have been involved in discussing Jesus and his impact for most of my life; the entire range of issues still fascinates me. Scholars assess the available evidence, reflect on how they can come to conclusions, debate how to weigh one claim over another, and sometimes disagree with the cut and thrust of words honed to sharp edges. Amidst all that exciting intellectual activity, I have grown increasingly aware of what the study of Jesus too often misses.

Captivating though Jesus remains as a person, his basic message was not about himself. One reason there continues to be debate about Jesus’ identity is that for the most part he didn’t insist on a single definition of who he was; he did not teach a creed or spell out doctrines. Other concerns occupied him more.

Those of us who are interested in Jesus have sometimes become too involved in our arguments about how we think about him. This becomes painfully obvious, when you consider the substantial number of books devoted, not to Jesus, but the history of the scholarship that talks about Jesus.

We should give more attention to a fundamental issue: what did Jesus want to accomplish during his life? How did his purposes arise from and interact with the environment in which he lived, as that environment can be understood on the basis of historical, archaeological, and anthropological study? Understanding Jesus’ goal and purpose will naturally shed light on how he thought of himself, a question that perennially intrigues investigators. But Jesus’ intentions are crucial historically in their own terms. They will illuminate him in his first-century setting, of course. But beyond that, Jesus’ teaching has shaped the actions, the attitudes, and the sources of energy and inspiration that have motivated generations of men, women, and children to change the world around them for the better part of two millennia. Whatever their particular beliefs about Jesus, and whether or not they belonged to Christian groups that readers today would approve or disapprove, those people have been moving forces of transformation. Through them, Jesus’ teaching has made history happen, and it shows no sign of losing that capacity.

Jesus wanted to unleash forces in people in order to make change happen. He took on that task because he stood in the lineage of prophets who came before him, just as he inspired many prophetic figures who came after him. Whoever else Jesus was, he was – as he said and many people in his time recognized – a prophet. Attention to his prophetic purpose will bring home to us truths about Jesus that are deeper than our disagreements over how to identify him. We will better understand him, and ourselves – even with our disagreements.

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