The quest for Jesus

One of my interests is the history of Christianity, particularly the first few centuries, when there were some interesting varieties of the religion—my religion—quite unlike anything we see today, or will probably ever see again. Figuring out what exactly happened back then is no easy task: scholars often make much of the tiniest shreds of verbal evidence and there is, unsurprisingly, a lot of guess work involved.

It is partly as a result of this that Christianity’s earliest period has become something of a Rorschach test, the evidence being sufficiently limited and ambiguous that scholarly “reconstructions” have often been three parts agenda-of-the-historian to one part evidence. Nowhere has this situation been worse than in the quest for the historical Jesus, the attempt to discern, behind Christian lore, what the historical Jesus of Nazareth actually said and did. So great is the rhetorical power of appeals to Jesus that all manner of philosophical and theological agendas have attempted to co-opt him for their causes, sometimes quite baldly. Sometimes this has involved reinterpreting Jesus as a kind of ideal, as in Rudolf Bultmann’s model of Jesus as an existential philosopher, but more often it has taken the form of dismissing Jesus as nothing more than whatever the “historian” thought would be most scandalous for Christian orthodoxy: Morton Smith thought that making Jesus a gay magician would do the trick best.

In recent years some sanity has returned to these discussions, most notably, in my opinion, in John Meier’s closely argued A marginal Jew (Yale Anchor Bible Reference Library). One of the things that Meier understands properly, and that sets his work apart from so much earlier work, is that much of what the historical Jesus said and did, while presumably relevant in his time, is irrelevant to the modern Christian believer (and similarly to the modern critic of Christianity). Meier summarizes it well in his discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Meier, IV:75):

Here we run up against the uncomfortable truth that must be faced again and again by any honest quester for the historical Jesus: relevance is the enemy of history. By this I mean that facile relevance, a rush to “What does this mean for us today?”—as though that were the only standard of truth—often hampers or distorts sober attempts to understand the past as past. To respect the past as past, as something different from our present, means to refuse to twist its arm until it yields up a desired lesson or norm for the present.

Meier (along with most other scholars at present) interprets the historical Jesus as a Jew engaged in the religious arguments of his day, and is able to shed light on some of the otherwise enigmatic statements found in the canonical Christian accounts of Jesus’ life.

 

 

In pursuing the historical Jesus, Meier and other scholars have to sift through Christian traditions about Jesus, sorting out the parts that go back to Jesus speech and actions from the parts that grew out of early Christians’ struggles to work through theological and practical issues. In doing so, the historian questing for Jesus of Nazareth develops an account of how lore about Jesus’s life developed and spread. There is an epidemiological account to be given not only of what was invented, but also of what was preserved.

 

 

The criteria for sorting these out would be worth a separate discussion in their own right, but at the moment I would like just to make two observations about early Christians’ treatment of Jesus’ life.

First, while nearly all scholars acknowledge that the early Christians invented some stories about Jesus (at least in the biographical form we find them today) it is clear that they did not invent stories for every issue they encountered. We know from their correspondence that early Christians encountered a wide range of controversial issues (remarriage, sexual behavior, eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, disease and death), and that they had to deal with these problems without any specific teaching from Jesus on the subject. Obviously, they were not just making up a saying of Jesus every time they needed one.

Second, the early traditions about Jesus, including those preserved in the gospels, tell us almost nothing about what Jesus said and did. This is seldom appreciated. We do not know precisely when Jesus began his public teaching career or when it ended. We do not know how long it lasted. We do not know whether Jesus went out on periodic trips from a home base (presumably in Capernaum, if he had one) or whether he was mostly itinerant. We do not know how strict Jesus’ observation of the Mosaic law (as it was understood at the time) was. We do not know how many people traveled with him, or how often they traveled with him if they did. We know nothing at all about Jesus’ appearance, habits, or personality. Almost all of the stories we do have are of one-off activities. Scholars often conclude, in part from this silence, that the gospel writers were not eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life. But whether they were or not, they or their sources had to have known quite a few people who had known Jesus. I suggest that their silence has rather to do with something more basic: much of Jesus’ actual actions and teaching were simply irrelevant to the issues with which the early Christians were dealing. In short, I think the early Christians faced the same problem of relevance that modern Christians do today, albeit on a smaller scale.

The gospels and early Christian correspondence agree that the critical event that spawned a new semi-Jewish sect was Jesus’ execution and resurrection. (The reader who so wishes may substitute whatever ad hoc explanation he or she wants for the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection. The historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is a difficult issue without any simple solution, so far as I can see.) What seems to have happened then was a search for clues in Jesus’ teaching as to the explanation for these events and their intended consequences. It seems to have been a frustrating search that came up nearly empty: the earliest Christians seem to have depended on intuition, scripture, prophets, and reason to solve most of the issues they came up against. Even today, with the addition of some Christian retrojections into Jesus’ life, there is relatively little religious instruction in the gospels, though Christian exegetes have done what they could with it.

The quest for the historical Jesus, then, poses an interesting epidemiological problem: how did Jesus start a new religion if so little of what he said and did contributed to it? (It does not matter whether Jesus intended to start a new religion—what matters is the fact that he did.) This strikes me as quite curious. It is one thing to start a new social movement by accident, but quite another to start one without contributing much to it.

Bibliography

Meier, J. P. (1991–2009). A marginal Jew: Rethinking the historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday.

2 Comments

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 12 September 2009 (21:58)

    Thank you for a very interesting post. Being a naturalist, I part company with Brian when he writes: “the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is a difficult issue without any simple solution” and take it as obvious that there is no such historicity or issue, but I appreciate the fact that, in spite of this difference, Brian is raising questions and making suggestions that are highly relevant both in his believer’s perspective and in mine. I would like to comment on two points: 1)Brian writes: “What seems to have happened then was a search for clues in Jesus’ teaching as to the explanation for these events and their intended consequences. It seems to have been a frustrating search that came up nearly empty: the earliest Christians seem to have depended on intuition, scripture, prophets, and reason to solve most of the issues they came up against.” I can see how such a search would have been frustrating if the early Christians had been after historical facts as we understand them today, but they may have felt that depending “on intuition, scripture, prophets, and reason to solve most of the issues” was as it should be and not frustrating at all. 2)Brian writes: “How did Jesus start a new religion if so little of what he said and did contributed to it?… It is one thing to start a new social movement by accident, but quite another to start one without contributing much to it.” I don’t share Brian’s surprise. What gets transmitted depend on relevance at the time and place of transmission. With relevance changing over time, what gets transmitted also greatly changes. It is a feat of modern historians to distance themselves from this hic et nunc relevance. As Meir quotes by Brian strikingly states: “relevance is the enemy of history.” Relevance is on the other hand a condition of historical causal continuity and therefore a cause of historical content discontinuity.

  • Royston Snart 14 November 2009 (21:04)

    I think Brian needs to think less about Jesus the individual and more about Jesus the inspirational team leader. He seems to have put together an extremely loyal and motivated team (apart from the one notorious exception)and, after his death,it was really the team of apostles who went onwards and outwards to start that new religion. In doing so I guess they could pick and choose whichever truths or fictions about Jesus the man that they considered necessary to achieve their objectives. The successors to the apostles undoubtedly acted in similar fashion…and so on to the present day.