There are no “raw facts.” All historical reporting is an interpreted reporting, and this is especially true for the canonical gospels. For the evangelists, and for those communities that told and retold the sayings and stories of Jesus, Jesus was not a dead person to be remembered; he was–and is–the living Son of God who reigns in glory and who shares himself with his people in Word and Sacrament. The gospels are theological texts. They interpret Jesus of Nazareth through the lens of faith.
Imagine if you will a modern reporter who is transported back into the past, armed with a thorough knowledge of first-century Jewish and Greek culture and languages. He follows Jesus around for three years, jotting down the things that he says and does. But on the day of crucifixion, he still does not really understand who this man was and what his life was all about. Jesus’ identity still eludes him. He reads over his notes and despairs of writing anything meaningful about Jesus. He knows he lacks the interpretive key and structure by which to understand him. All the old categories seem inadequate.
And so our reporter accompanies Cleopas to Emmaus on Easter day. Jesus appears to our reporter on the road and quietly interprets the Scriptures to him. Finally, he reveals his identity in the breaking of the bread. And finally, our reporter understands. The resurrection of Jesus provides that key by which he can comprehend Jesus’ identity. It generates new ways, new conceptualities, and new images by which to think about Jesus. From this point on he must interpret Jesus in light of the resurrection and all that it means. To do otherwise would be to utterly misrepresent him. Thomas Torrance elaborates:
After the ascension of Jesus the reporter takes out his notebooks and goes over them carefully, for he knows that everything must be corrected and recast now that he is able really to see and understand what he observed. His ‘careful’ account of the events in the life of Jesus as they actually happened is, he is forced to admit, seriously distorting, for it abstracts their appearance, their phenomenal or literary surface, from its objective structure in Jesus Christ himself and thereby deprives the events of their underlying ontological integration; while ‘the objectively established data’ are quite evidently organized through concepts which, in considerable measure, derive from himself rather than from Jesus, and thereby betray his own subjective bias. … Thus an astonishing thing about the resurrection is that instead of cutting Jesus off from his historical and earthly existence before the cross it takes it all up and confirms its concrete factuality by allowing it to be integrated on its own controlling ground, and therefore enables it to be understood in its own objective meaning. Far from being ‘violated’ the historical Jesus comes to his own within the dimension of the risen Jesus, and the risen Jesus is discerned to have no other fabric than that in the life and mission of the historical Jesus. It is the resurrection that really discovers and gives access to the historical Jesus, for it enables one to understand him in terms of his own intrinsic logos, and appreciate him in the light of his own true nature as he really was–and is and ever will be. (Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 165-166)
The canonical gospels, in other words, provide the spectacles and interpretive structures by which we can accurately see and know Jesus of Nazareth. Thus we should not be surprised that when secular historiography attempts to reconstruct the history of the Nazarene independently of the faith of the apostolic Church, it inevitably fails. The historical-critical method rips the person of Jesus out of the divinely ordained frame of meaning that allows us to understand correctly his words and actions (see Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Translation).
Christopher Seitz maintains that the secular attempt to find the “real” Jesus is doomed to failure, because it is pouring all of its energies into a hopeless quest to find a Jesus hidden “behind the words about him.” But no such Jesus ever existed and thus cannot be found. The true challenge is posed by the subject matter itself:
The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting Jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God. But this is not an inadequacy that can be remedied through historical-critical heavy lifting, because it inheres with the subject matter itself, which is God in Christ–who exposes our inadequacy in trying to speak of him, and yet simultaneously remedies this through the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, allowing the frail testimony of human minds to be the lens on the glory of God, a touching of the ark of the covenant. (Word Without End, p. 58)
This confession of faithful narrative identification does not resolve the question of historical reference. Apparently the precrucifixion Jesus did not say and do everything exactly as reported in the gospels. It is therefore proper to ask questions like “What really happened?” and “What did Jesus say and do?” But unlike his Jesus Seminar counterparts, the believing historian does not seek a hidden Jesus underneath the texts. Perhaps we might think of his work not so much as excavation but as penetration.
Who is, therefore, the “real” Jesus? Is he the reconstructed Jesus of the historians? Is he the Jesus remembered by the Church and narratively rendered in the gospels? Is he the risen Lord and Savior who is experienced by Christians in prayer, worship, liturgy, Bible study, and service?
As Christians we properly approach the apostolic witness to Jesus as a whole, in all of its variegated texture and depth. While it may be useful to identify levels of tradition, to the extent that such identification can be intelligently and reasonably done, that’s fine. Such knowledge merely adds to the riches of our tradition and hopefully provokes even more interesting preaching. But it would be artificial for the Christian to identify one level of the biblical witness, say “Q,” as being the one, true, authoritative tradition. That would be a form of Q-fundamentalism. We are properly concerned with the apostolic witness in its entirety, in all of its stratified depth and complexity, for it is through this witness that we are given to know the real Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Son of God.
It is this living Jesus of the Apostles who has spoken to us in the gospel and incorporated us into the salvific life of the Church. How can a believing historian of integrity “pretend” that he does not know, in the knowing of faith, that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is now enthroned in glory as Lord and King? In the terminology of Alvin Plantinga, this belief is properly stipulated as basic for the Christian. It would be irrational and schizophrenic for believers to acquiesce to the preconceptions of modernity, preconceptions which exclude a priori the Christian worldview.
Because of our commitment to the fidelity of the biblical witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, Christians will rightly accord greater credence to historical reconstructions that are consistent with the canonical witness than those that are not. Robert W. Jenson explains:
In the church, we will credit reconstructions of “the historical Jesus” that are compatible with the canonical narrative before we credit alternative hypotheses that are not. Theology will thus, for example, give a more willing ear to such pictures of the historical Jesus as those drawn by the midcentury “new quest,” in which he appears as a radical prophet and rabbi, than it will to more recent depictions of a New Age guru. There is no reason to be embarrassed by this prejudgment; it is far more reasonable than any possible alternative, since … the very existence of the Gospels as a corpus depends on the community constituted by the faith that so judges.
Nevertheless, it is conceivable that we might be driven, past “reasonable doubt,” to conclude that research falsifies the canonical narrative. To conclude that would be to conclude that no one person presents himself in the total tradition about Jesus, that Jesus is not now an agent in history. This is a real possibility; whatever may be true of other religions, Christian faith must be in this fashion historically vulnerable. (Systematic Theology, I:174)
Ultimately, the Christian believes and hopes that the identity of the “Christ of faith” and the “Jesus of history” will be eschatologically confirmed.
I’m pretty sympathetic to historical Jesus study (when I was a kid I used to buy history books and read them till they fell apart), moreso than Torrance (and by extension, Barth). But I’m no fan of the ‘assured results of higher criticism’.
All good points.
I don’t have anything to add about the “subject matter” of the gospels, but I do have some thoughts about the process of writing. As a poet I sometimes find myself paraphrasing in order to diffract some deep content from the original saying or event that I want to bring out – usually some knowledge that was plain while the event was happening, but did not take verbal form at that time. I notice the hymns of the Church do this a lot. Also if I am telling a story I sometimes combine events or tell something out of order to clarify or make a storyline more succinct. (Part of writing is knowing whether this will obscure the point or reveal it in any given case.)
People forget too often that the scriptures are literature. That
God is absolute
the Bible is God’s Word
therefore if the Bible is true it must be true in an absolute sense
is badly reasoned (language is incapable of expressing anything absolutely) and is the reason why most atheists, if they were religious, would be fundamentalists.
However, protestant theologians will often lean a little too hard on this or similar points because to many of them, faith rests entirely on the text of scripture so there is this terror of its not being invulnerable to historical error in the modern sense. I remember that terror viscerally. However, I think it is likely that the gospels are more or less historically accurate when you consider that they are written in a literary way, and not like a modern history textbook.
So what gives us (believers) confidence that the Gospels are telling the truth in a literary way?
St. Paul’s scriptures tell us that the Church is like a building with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone and the apostles as the rest of the foundation. Elsewhere he says that Christ, simply, is the foundation. Jesus himself identifies Peter (when he becomes the first apostle to perceive Jesus as God’s son) as foundational to the church he plans to build. This recurrent figure of speech helps us to put the written Gospels in perspective.
Peter’s heavenly gift of recognizing Jesus for who he is (and not the written Gospel) forms the foundation of the Church. The other apostles receiving a share of this gift, these all, in their own order, became the foundation of the Church, and all of us, sharing in that same gift as well, are added to the whole structure. Our faith is the faith of the apostles or it is not the faith of Christ; we must be united to the apostles by being given a share of their faith, of St. Peter’s gift, or we are not united to Christ.
So to sum up: the truth about Jesus is known in the witness of the apostles, and the Gospels are that witness in literary form. The Gospels are not the whole witness, though. The non-literary part of that witness is passed from person to person to this day – it is the faith, something substantive and spiritual that originally was given to St. Peter from God the Father, through direct contact with the risen Christ, and was amplified in the descent of the Holy Spirit.
This way of thinking allows me to be consistent in my own mind, though it doesn’t prove anything from a secular point of view. I feel the best we can do for unbelievers is to present an approach to faith and a faithful way of life such that they can say, “If I were a Christian, that is the kind of Christian I would have to be.” And, of course, proclaim the gospel if that is your gift – for, through preaching the gospel, that original faith is still passed from person to person.
Thanks for another great post.
“through direct contact with the risen Christ…” actually that was before the resurrection.
Nice commentary. Do you know Guissani? I think he has a good grasp of how art allows for a deeper purchase on truth. Moderns in general tend to think it is all just subjective, irrational dreaming. Philip Sherrard has some nice things to say on this, as does David Bentley Hart.
Interesting. I have no trouble with the Torrance quote, which I think is a helpful way of putting it. In fact, the quote is quite wonderful! Further, there was so much in this piece that I could appreciate and am thankful for. That said, let me challenge you just a bit….
“There are no “raw facts.” All historical reporting is an interpreted reporting, and this is especially true for the canonical gospels.”
If by no “raw facts” you mean there is a subjective element tied up in all our observing, interpreting, etc., of course that is, true. Just like a recent academic monograph put it, “Raw data is an oxymoron”. That said, what practical difference does that make? Does it not seem clear that not all facts are hopelessly in dispute due to their being impregnated by culturally constricting conceptual schemata born of concerns regarding rivalry – power concerns regarding the one against the other?
Perhaps here is a fruitful question: just what is the difference between “historical reporting” and just plain reporting?
After all, as is often the case in both modern news reporting and the discipline of history, there are often events – recognized to be of some real significance – that most everyone knows happened … even if there are details about that event are unknown. Of course this is the case even if there are persons who are divided about what such events might mean in the larger scheme of the past, present, and future as a whole.
Particularly interesting here is this observation: this same thing can be said not just of history – but of “world histories” and “microhistories” – as we “zoom out” to talk world history or “zoon in” to get more local and particular. Again, in either case the statement above holds true even as events may be more or less known by the overall number of persons in the world.
Luke is indeed a “theological text” but it is also, as it purports to be, a historical text as well and one that must be dealt with as such. Further, in Luke part II (Acts), the author reports that in Herod and Agrippa (in Acts 26), must have known very well that the resurrection of the man Jesus of Nazareth occurred. In Luke’s own words, they would have had to have been living in a corner to not know this. They are not culpable for denying this, but for failing to deal with the implications and – the meaning of – such an event.
Finally, I would just point this out as well. While Jesus was undendingly patient with his disciples and kind beyond measure to the two men walking to Emmaus, I think it does us well to remember that He also, as He often did, seems to get a bit exasperated with them and their slowness. I certainly do not think that the Gospels expose any inadequacy in trying to speak of Jesus Christ, because I believe, as did the early church, that the Scriptures are God’s very own words. And while human words are limited in what they can accomplish, I dare not call them insufficient.
“Apparently the precrucifixion Jesus did not say and do everything exactly as reported in the gospels.”
FYI, I hope to be expanding on these matters of Jesus, history, and knowledge in future posts of my own, at my own blog.
“Does it not seem clear that not all facts are hopelessly in dispute due to their being impregnated by culturally constricting conceptual schemata born of concerns regarding rivalry – power concerns regarding the one against the other.”
Great sentence, Nathan! 🙂
I suppose that I am trying to look for a middle way between a strict historical-critical approach, guided as it too often is by a conviction in its own neutral objectivity, and a an inerrantist approach, which commits itself to defending the historical reference of the Bible in all details.
I do not disagree with any of the above. I agree that Jesus is God, and that his life story is a story of the supernatural impinging on the natural. I think that any scholarly project that categorically excludes the supernatural as one of its starting premises is going to go awry when studying Jesus.
However, I think that the problem for the historical Jesus project is even more fundamental. It is just is not possible to “get behind” the text when you are doing history. That is to say, I am perfectly comfortable treating Siddartha Gautama as an ordinary human whose life story can be told in purely natural terms with no recourse to the supernatural in order to make sense of this or that aspect. But that does not mean that I think that the quest for the “historical Buddha” is likely to be any more successful than the quest for the “historical Jesus.” All we have to go on in both cases are writings about the men by their followers and their critics. Attempts to sift the “facts” from these writings, and to separate these “facts” from the followers’/critics’ “embellishments” and “interpretations” is a fool’s errand. It cannot be done.
This does not mean that I object to the work of folks like Crossan or Tabor or Goodacre. I rather enjoy reading some of it. I just wish that they would admit that what they are doing is “theology” (albeit of a different sectarian bent).
Hey, I think I recognize your handle. Didn’t you used to visit my old Pontifications blog? Is it Greg? 🙂