The Jesus We’ll Never Know
Why scholarly attempts to discover the ‘real’ Jesus have failed. And why that’s a good thing.
In the opening day of my class on Jesus of Nazareth, I give a standardized psychological test divided into two parts. The results are nothing short of astounding.
The first part is about Jesus. It asks students to imagine Jesus’ personality, with questions such as, “Does he prefer to go his own way rather than act by the rules?” and “Is he a worrier?” The second part asks the same questions of the students, but instead of “Is he a worrier?” it asks, “Are you a worrier?” The test is not about right or wrong answers, nor is it designed to help students understand Jesus. Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that we all think Jesus is like us. Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and, on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.
Spiritual formation experts would love to hear that students in my Jesus class are becoming like Jesus, but the test actually reveals the reverse: Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves. If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.
Since we are pushing this point, let’s not forget historical Jesus scholars, whose academic goal is to study the records, set the evidence in historical context, render judgment about the value of the evidence, and compose a portrait of “what Jesus was really like.” They, too, have ended up making Jesus in their own image.
Heyday for the Historical Jesus
In the 1980s, the central academic organization for biblical studies, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), was energized in remarkable ways by a renewed interest in the historical Jesus, a project that had been abandoned for some decades. At that time, the Jesus Seminar, designed by former childhood preacher and fervent critic of all things orthodox Robert Funk, frequently made headlines. Noted scholars sat at tables and voted on what Jesus really said and did based on the historical evidence. Funk and others drew up their conclusions in books that supposedly revealed the real Jesus.
Some of these studies were outlandish, some much closer to orthodoxy and the canonical Gospels. The headline-grabbing names included Ben F. Meyer, E. P. Sanders, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, and N. T. (Tom) Wright. I have sat in packed lecture halls to watch Tom and Dom go at it, and I’ve listened in as two friends, Marc and Tom, bantered back and forth about who was getting it right. Paula, a Catholic convert to Judaism, continued to warn the entire discipline that too many errors were being made about Judaism. Those were heady days, and I remember giving a paper to over 500 scholars about how Jesus understood his own death. The neon-light days for the historical Jesus are now over.
So, what did the loaded expression “the historical Jesus” really refer to?
To begin with, “Jesus” refers to the Jesus who lived and breathed and ate and talked and called disciples. This Jesus is the Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and, according to the witness of many, was raised again. Through historical studies, this Jesus has been set in his Jewish context. We might call this Jesus the “Jewish Jesus.”
Then again, the four evangelists and the other New Testament authors, because they encountered Jesus in the context of how Scripture unfolded, interpreted Jesus by using terms like “Messiah,” “Son of God,” and “Son of Man,” understanding him as the agent of God’s redemption. We might call this Jesus the “canonical Jesus.”
One more level needs to be observed: the church has amplified its understanding of “Jesus,” because it has interpreted Jesus in light of theological concerns. Let us refer to this Jesus as the “orthodox Jesus,” the second person of the Trinity, God from God and Light from Light.
But the historical Jesus is someone or something else. The historical Jesus is the Jesus whom scholars have reconstructed on the basis of historical methods over against the canonical portraits of Jesus in the Gospels of our New Testament, and over against the orthodox Jesus of the church. The historical Jesus is more like the Jewish Jesus than the canonical Jesus or the orthodox Jesus. Drawing distinctions between these various Jesuses is important in order to understand what has happened in the contemporary academic scene.
First, the historical Jesus is the Jesus whom scholars reconstruct on the basis of historical methods. Scholars differ, so reconstructions differ. Furthermore, the methods that scholars use differ, so the reconstructions differ all the more. But this must be said: Most historical Jesus scholars assume that the Gospels are historically unreliable; thus, as a matter of discipline, they assess the Gospels to see if the evidence is sound. They do this by using methods common to all historical work but that are uniquely shaped by historical Jesus studies. The essential criterion used in most historical Jesus studies is called “double dissimilarity.” Even though it is riddled with holes, this method is still used by many historical Jesus scholars.
According to the criterion of double dissimilarity, the only sayings or actions of Jesus that can be trusted are those that are dissimilar to both Judaism at the time of Jesus and to the beliefs of the earliest Christians immediately after Jesus. One of the most noteworthy examples is Jesus’ characteristically calling God Abba, a title for God rarely found in Judaism or in earliest Christianity.
This example, though, is problematic from the get-go: Abba (an affectionate term for “Father,” something akin to “Daddy”) is in fact not genuinely doubly dissimilar, for it is found in Judaism, if rarely, as well as in Aramaic in the New Testament; moreover, the word Father is found everywhere. But, historical exceptions aside, that Jesus called God Abba won the day as a historically reliable attribute, and therefore won the hearts of all historical Jesus scholars.
Other criteria were developed, criticized, dropped, and modified, but all have this in common: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was like by using historical methods to determine what in the Gospels can be trusted.
Second, the word reconstruct needs more attention. Most historical Jesus scholars assume that the Gospels have overcooked their portrait of Jesus, and that the church’s Trinitarian theology wildly exceeds anything Jesus thought about himself and anything the evangelists believed. These scholars pursue a Jesus who is less than or different from or more primitive than what the Gospels teach and the church believes. There is no reason to do historical Jesus studies—to probe “what Jesus was really like”—if the Gospels are accurate and the church’s beliefs are justified. There are only two reasons to engage in historical Jesus studies: first, to see if the church got him right; and second, if the church did not, to find the Jesus who is more authentic than the church’s Jesus.
This leads to a fundamental observation about all genuine historical Jesus studies: Historical Jesus scholars construct what is in effect a fifth gospel. The reconstructed Jesus is not identical to the canonical Jesus or the orthodox Jesus. He is the reconstructed Jesus, which means he is a “new” Jesus.
Furthermore, these scholars by and large believe in the Jesus they reconstruct. During what’s called the “first quest” for the historical Jesus, in the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer understood Jesus as an apocalyptic Jesus. In the latest quest, Sanders’s Jesus is an eschatological prophet; Crossan’s Jesus is a Mediterranean peasant cynic full of wit and critical of the Establishment; Borg’s Jesus is a mystical genius; Wright’s Jesus is an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet who believed he was God returning to Zion. We could go on, but we have made our point: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was really like and orient their faith around that reconstruction.
This leads to a third point, one that needs renewed emphasis today: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct Jesus in conscious contrast with the categories of the evangelists and the beliefs of the church. Wright is the most orthodox of the well-known historical Jesus scholars; I can count on one hand the number of historical Jesus scholars who hold orthodox beliefs. The inspiration for historical Jesus scholarship is that the Gospels overdid it, and that the church more or less absorbed the Galilean prophet into Greek philosophical categories. The quest for the historical Jesus is an attempt to get behind the theology and the established faith to the Jesus who was—I must say it this way—much more like the Jesus we would like him to be.
One has to wonder if the driving force behind much historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian’s genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise.
The question that many of us in the discipline must ask is this: Can theology or Christology or, more importantly, faith itself be connected to the vicissitudes of historical research and results?
Whose Jesus will We Trust?
The last session on the historical Jesus that I attended at the SBL meetings met in a small room, and there were about 20 of us there. The session, during which I gave a short paper, tells the story of the discipline itself.
The scholarly hope that we would discover the original Jesus had crashed against the rugged rocks of reality, and on that day we witnessed the end of a disciplinary era. One by one, most of us had become convinced that no matter how hard we tried, reaching the uninterpreted Jesus was nearly impossible—however fun and rewarding it was and however many insights about the Gospels we discovered along the way. Furthermore, a reconstructed Jesus is just that—one scholar’s version of Jesus. It is unlikely to convince anyone other than the scholar, his or her students (who more or less feel obligated to agree), and perhaps a few others.
German theologian Martin Kähler convinced his generation that faith in Jesus could not and should not rest on historians’ conclusions about what did and did not happen and the consequent reconstructions that entailed. We must be willing to ask, Whose Jesus will we trust? Will it be that of the evangelists and the apostles? Will it be that of the church—the creedal, orthodox Jesus? Will it be the latest proposal from a brilliant historian? Or will it be our own consensus based on modern-day historical scholarship? There is an irreducible futility to the historical Jesus enterprise.
We have now seen the death of latest historical Jesus studies as we know them. Well, not for all, because some are busy trying to reconstruct Jesus for themselves and for any who will listen. Still, the enthusiasm is gone, and the critical proposals are more often met with a ho-hum “yet one more” than a hope that we may once and for all have found the one who was buried under the interpretation of the earliest Christians.
Sitting on my desk is volume four of J. P. Meier’s Rethinking the Historical Jesus. What began as a two-volume venture has doubled, and one or two more volumes are forthcoming. Volume one generated all kinds of conversation; volume four entered the market with barely a notice. Sitting next to Meier on my desk is Martin Hengel’s Jesus und das Judentum, over 700 pages and perhaps the last volume from the titan of scholarship. Someone will translate Hengel, doctoral students will read it, professors will use it, reviewers will say that it’s brilliant, an occasional pastor will find it useful, but in a decade it will all be forgotten. Why? Historical Jesus scholarship has come to the end of the road.
Two recent scholars have read the obituary for historical Jesus studies. James D. G. Dunn, in both the hefty Jesus Remembered and the slender A New Perspective on Jesus, argues that the furthest we can get behind the Gospels is to the underlying strata of Jesus as his earliest followers remembered him. That is as far as we can go. That is the Jesus who gave rise to the Christian faith, and that is the only Jesus worth pursuing. In Dunn’s view, the “remembered” Jesus contains the faith perspective of the earliest followers of Jesus, and behind that faith perspective we cannot go.
Dale Allison, whom I consider the most knowledgeable New Testament scholar in the United States, is less sanguine and more cynical than Dunn in his newest book, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, which in my judgment plays Taps for the quest for the historical Jesus. After three decades of work in and around the historical Jesus, Allison sketches the variety of views about the historical Jesus and the supposed modern theory that if we put our heads together we will arrive at firm conclusions. Allison offers this depressing conclusion: “Progress has not touched all subjects equally, and whatever consensus may exist, it remains mostly boring.”
Allison admits this about one of his own books on Jesus: “I opened my eyes to the obvious: I had created a Jesus in my own image, after my own likeness.” He’s not done: “Professional historians are not bloodless templates passively registering the facts: we actively and imaginatively project. Our rationality cannot be extricated from our sentiments and feelings, our hopes and fears, our hunches and ambitions.” So, he ponders, “Maybe we have unthinkingly reduced biography [of Jesus] to autobiography.”
On top of this genuine problem is the problem of method. Allison: “The fragmentary and imperfect nature of the evidence as well as the limitations of our historical-critical abilities should move us to confess, if we are conscientious, how hard it is to recover the past.” With one ringing line, Allison pronounces death: “We wield our criteria to get what we want.”
There is, in other words, no value-or theology-free method that will enable us to get back to Jesus. Allison is not a total skeptic; he thinks that we can get behind the Gospels to find some genuine impressions. But his book led me to conclude, “The era is over.”
Two scholars, both highly devoted to the discipline of historical Jesus studies, come from two angles to relatively similar conclusions: the historical Jesus game has run its course and it cannot deliver us the original Jesus.
What has been Shown
I now make a confession. For the better part of my academic career, I have participated in studies of the Gospels and the historical Jesus. I am an insider to the conversation, and have been part of the steering committee for the SBL’S Historical Jesus Section. In fact, I was once asked to be the chair. Had that invitation come five years earlier, I would have eagerly accepted the responsibility. But that invitation came at the end of a long project of mine that culminated in my book Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory. I declined the position because I could no longer commit myself to historical Jesus studies. The last thing I wrote in that book was the first chapter, which was an essay about method and what historical Jesus studies can accomplish.
Attentive readers will observe that the first chapter relativizes the theological significance of historical Jesus efforts. I had tried my best to see where the methods would lead if I sought to examine if and how the historical Jesus understood his own death. Some of my results disappointed, because I wanted to be able to prove some texts as authentic that I found stubbornly resistant to the methods available to us. Historiography, I concluded, can only do so much. One day, while editing the final draft, I came across these words from Romans 4:25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”
This is what I said to myself: As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can’t. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. The quest for the real Jesus, through long and painful paths, has proven that much.
Scot McKnight is professor of religion at North Park University in Chicago, and the author of many books, including The Jesus Creed.