Historical Criticism and the Christ of Faith

Before there was Bart Ehrman, there was John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar. My younger readers may not even have heard of the name John Dominic Crossan; but let me assure you, back in the early 90s his The Historical Jesus was quite the bestseller, and he maintained a strong presence throughout the 90s, continuing into the early years of the 21st century. But perhaps even more famous was the Jesus Seminar and its 1996 publica­tion of The Five Gospels. The scholars of the seminar were asked to vote on the authentic­ity of each saying of Jesus using color-coded beads:

      • red: Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it
      • pink: Jesus probably said something like this
      • gray: Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own
      • black: Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition

I am not a biblical scholar (I came close to flunking my Greek class in seminary, and Hebrew is all Hebrew to me); but I’ve long been interested in the Jesus debate. I am personally skep­tical of skeptical reconstructions of Jesus. The more different “Jesus” looks from the man we find in the canonical gospels, the more skeptical I become. Hence I tend to trust scholars like N. T. Wright, E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier, Raymond Brown, Günther Bornkamm, Reginald Fuller, Richard Bauckham, Ben Witherington more than I trust John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Bart Ehrman. Even so, I receive all of their readings with a question mark. The historical-critical method in biblical studies was developed to enable neutral, scientifi­cally rigorous research of the famous Jew from Nazareth, yet the scholars who practice this method, each working from the same data, often produce wildly conflicting portraits of the man. When a sophisticated scholar like Crossan, for example, can seriously claim that Jesus’ body was buried in a common burial ground and eaten by dogs—on the basis of no evidence whatsoever—one might reasonably suspect that controls upon the use of the evidence have been abandoned.

In the first volume of A Marginal Jew, John Meier envisions bringing together an “unpapal conclave” of biblical scholars to compose a religiously neutral portrait of Jesus:

Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic—all honest historians cognizant of 1st-century religious movements—were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place. An essential requirement of this document would be that it be based on purely historical sources and arguments. The resulting unreligious “formula of concord” would suffer from all the ills endemic to ecumenical statements drawn up by committees. At times ambiguous language would he carefully chosen to paper over differences, at times points of divergence on which no agreement could be reached would have to be openly admitted. Probably this white paper on Jesus would reflect fully the opinions of no one member of the famished conclave. Certainly it would not contain affirmations that the Catholic or Protestant member would firmly hold by faith. The basic require­ment that the consensus document be open to verification by any and all persons using the means of modern historical research would produce a narrow focus, a fragmentary vision, perhaps even distortions. (I:1-2)

Meier thinks of his A Marginal Jew volumes as an attempt of a reconstruction of the person and life of Jesus along these consensual, historical-critical lines. He has provided us with a plenitude of information and judicious interpretation of the historical data, yet has he really brought us closer to the real Jesus?

The Christian historian, I propose, rightly and necessarily approaches the task of rendering a portrait of the historical Jesus differently than the secular historian. First because the Christian approaches the historical data from the perspective of a theistic worldview and therefore is open to historical possibilities to which the nontheist cannot be open. And second because Jesus is not, for the Christian, just a person of the past but a living person who is known and worshipped within the community of faith. The Christian knows that he has been addressed in the gospel by the living Lord who has conquered death. He experi­ences the Lord’s presence in manifold and varied ways in worship, prayer, and service. It is this risen Christ, now enthroned in the power and glory of God, who leads, guides, and inspires the Church. It is this Jesus who ultimately identifies himself to the Church through his Holy Scriptures.

The Christian thus properly begins his historical work believing that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, risen from the dead. This is a truth that has, by its intrinsic intelligibility, truth, authority and heuristic power, imposed itself upon the heart and consciousness of the community of Christians down the ages. Belief in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ is rightly described as an “ultimate belief.” It cannot be proven on the basis of historical reasoning alone. It must be accepted and believed on its own ground. It is the foundational miracle of the gospel and interprets all other beliefs of the catholic faith. Thomas F. Torrance explains further:

It is essentially in this way that the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ came to be accepted by the early Church and classical Christian theology: they forced themselves upon the minds of Christians from their own empirical and theoretical ground in sharp antithesis to what they had believed about God and in genuine conflict with the framework of secular thought or the world view of their age. That God himself had become man was an offence to the Jew and folly to the Greek; that Jesus Christ rose from the dead was deemed to be utterly incredible. Yet the incarnation and resurrection forced themselves upon the mind of the Church against the grain of people’s convictions, as ultimate events bearing their own intrinsic but shattering claims in the self-evidencing reality and transcendent rationality of God himself, and they took root within the Church only through a seismic restructuring of religious and intellectual belief. In the life of Jesus Christ an objective self-disclosure of God in Word and Act had taken place within the structure of the world which was discerned to be of a final and decisive nature, commanding commitment in the response of faith, in which Jesus Christ himself constituted the central point of focus in an exclusive relation with God the Father. (Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 17-18)

Ultimate beliefs are rightly subjected to rigorous self-criticism to ensure that the events to which they witness do indeed bear compelling power and conviction. It is proper for the Christian to ask whether the resurrection happened and to seek and evaluate evidences. It is proper for the Christian to examine the historical testimonies to Jesus to see if the apostolic and creedal claim of incarnation is convincing. Yet ultimately the incarnation and resurrec­tion of Jesus must be accepted in their own self-evidential power; they must be accepted on the grounds that they themselves posit in the preaching and worship of the Church. The historical-critical method is unable to accommodate the key Christian claims about Jesus and is therefore intrinsically incapable of making sense of the Jesus rendered in the gospels (Royce G. Gruenler’s New Approaches to Jesus and the Gospels remains relevant and helpful).

By the historical nature of the claims of the gospel, Christian belief is vulnerable to histor­ical disconfirmation. If scholarship should demonstrate that Jesus never lived or if archae­ologists should one day produce his bones, the gospel would be decisively disproven. If biblical cri­tics were to show that Jesus was dramatically and irreconcilably different from the Jesus rendered in the canonical gospels, then faith would become impossible. But ultimately Christian belief is not grounded on the fragile reconstructions of historians–and never has been. The gospel is the proclamation that Jesus has been raised from death for our salvation. To believe this message is to know that Jesus is risen, for only he can speak to us the prom­ises of the gospel. Christians place their faith in the living Christ, who gives himself to his disciples in Word and Sacrament. “We cannot reach Christ through histori­cal reconstruc­tion,” declares Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. “It may be helpful, but it is not sufficient and, on its own, becomes mere necrophilia. We encounter him as a living Person only in the fore­taste of his presence which is called ‘Church'” (Feast of Faith, p. 28). Ratzinger is not sug­gesting that historical research is irrelevant. He is not promoting a gnostic Christ discon­nected to the Jesus of history. But he is reminding us that Christians need not look to the ever-changing opinions of historians for permission to believe the claims of the gospel.

(9 April 2014; rev)

(Go to “Doing Faithful Biblical Criticism”)

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4 Responses to Historical Criticism and the Christ of Faith

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Neutrality as far the historical Jesus is concerned is impossible, because the principle record of his life is a religious work. For any secular figure the existence of well four separate well-preserved biographies of similar broad outline with their sources at least dating from living memory of the person concerned would pretty much settle his life story, at least in the absence of really substantial contradictory evidence.
    Because it is a religious work, however, the plausibility of the basic narrative, or indeed whether one considers it intended as a factual account at all depends pretty much entirely on your acceptance of the religious message concerned.


  2. apoloniolatariii says:

    One should read MacIntyre’s critique of modernity/Enlightenment before reading Meier’s book. No doubt Meier admits that his project is an abstraction and that it does not portray the real Jesus.

    At the same time, I have to say that as the “American successor” to Raymond Brown, his books are probably the best when it comes to the “historical Jesus” project. I have also learned a lot from his books and his knowledge of Scripture and second temple Judaism is just amazing. I hope he is healthy enough to finish his project.


  3. sybrandmac says:

    After so much ‘quarrels’ about apokatastasis, this post is most welcome 🙂

    “He experiences the Lord’s presence in manifold and varied ways in worship, prayer, and service. It is this risen Christ, now enthroned in the power and glory of God, who leads, guides, and inspires the Church. It is this Jesus who ultimately identifies himself to the Church through his Holy Scriptures.”
    To experience Christ, however, is depending a lot on how to interpret the Scriptures. Don’t know how to escape this circular reasoning…


  4. What a great read fr., I fully concur with the Greek yet I almost flunked Aramaic ( I thought I was being smart as a young seminarian but I was not). I think though, looking at our seminary days, would you not perhaps agree, that there were occasion when some of the lectures pulled a little at your strings of Faith. Faith after all is strongly believing in something of which there is no tangible evidence? Change is not always for the better regardless of the advances it may initially bring. Benedicite


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