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 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, yet also ignorant of Christian faith and Church history. He follows Jesus around for three years, jotting down the things that he says and does. He conducts many in-depth interviews both with Jesus and the Twelve. But on the day of crucifixion, he still does not really understand who he is or what his mission is all about. Jesus’ identity still eludes him. He reads over his notes and despairs of writing anything meaningful about this man. He knows he lacks the interpretive key by which to understand him. All the Jewish and Hellenistic categories seem inadequate.
On Easter Sunday our reporter accompanies Cleopas to Emmaus. On the road a stranger joins them. They share with him their dismay regarding the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. They thought he was the Messiah, Cleopas tell him. The stranger directs them back to the Scriptures and shows them how they in fact witness to the passion and death of Jesus. When they reach Emmaus, they share supper together, and the stranger reveals to them his true identity. It’s Jesus! Finally, our reporter understands. The resurrection provides the key unlocking the mystery of the Lord’s ministry and mission. From this point on he must interpret Jesus in light of the resurrection and all that it means. To do otherwise would misrepresent him. Thomas F. 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 are confessions of paschal faith. We should not be surprised that when secular historians attempt to reconstruct the history of the Nazarene independently of the faith of the apostolic Church, they inevitably fail. The historical-critical method rips the person of Jesus from the divinely-ordained frame of meaning that allows us to grasp 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 preresurrection 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 “Did Jesus actually say that” 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 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. A Christian historian cannot “pretend” he does not know 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. And so we continue to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:30-31).
(24 April 2014; rev.)