History Online - Jesus Christ
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The quest for historical Jesus
The quest for the historical Jesus went into eclipse soon after the beginning of this century. The "old quest" which flourished through much of the nineteenth century was replaced by a period known as the time of "no quest" in the history of Jesus scholarship.1 Throughout this period, three central convictions operated strongly in the collective consciousness of New Testament scholars and those they taught, including most mainline clergy and professors of religious studies in colleges and universities.
First, there was a strong sense of the theological irrelevance of historical Jesus research. To a large extent, this was the aftermath of Albert Schweitzer's brilliant and provocative portrait of Jesus as a mistaken apocalypticist in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). According to Schweitzer, Jesus both proclaimed the imminent end of the world and deliberately sought to bring it about by undergoing the suffering of the end-time in his own person. Schweitzer's work had the effect of bringing the "old quest" to an end. The Jesus he found was indeed "a stranger to our time," and Schweitzer's statement about the theological irrelevance of the historical Jesus was both powerful and persuasive.
Second, there was a strong conviction that little could be known about the historical Jesus. The foundation of this thorough-going historical skepticism was prepared by nineteenth-century scholarship with its emphasis upon Jesus as a teacher. It had hoped, by stripping away the supernatural and doctrinal elements in the Gospels, to uncover what was most central: Jesus' message, his preaching and teaching. Jesus' words, detached from any picture of his person, activity, or intentionality, became the bedrock for constructing an image of him.
In the twentieth century, the bedrock seemed to turn into shifting sand. Fifteen years after Schweitzer's book, Rudolf Bultmann, this century's single most influential New Testament scholar, published The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921). His study of how the traditions about Jesus developed during the oral period suggested that very little of the preaching and teaching of Jesus as reported in the Gospels can be traced back to Jesus himself. The historical skepticism engendered by Bultmann's form-critical work was reinforced after World War II by redaction criticism, the meticulous study of how the evangelists modified and shaped the traditions they received to adapt them to their own times and convictions. It became very clear that everything in the Gospels-not just the doctrinal and supernatural elements, but also Jesus' teaching-was thoroughly shaped by the experiences, situations, and theological beliefs of the early Christian communities, both during the oral period and in the redactional activity of the Gospel authors themselves. Recovering the "message of Jesus" behind the documents seemed increasingly problematic.
A third conviction also dominated the period of "no quest." The minimalist picture of Jesus' message that could be recovered was eschatological: Jesus expected and proclaimed the imminent end of the world. The eschatological core of his message was then made relevant by filtering it through an existentialist hermeneutic. Here again, Bultmann was very influential. In a number of works, he argued that the historically authentic preaching of Jesus-a small collection of largely eschatological sayings-needed to be "demythologized" by means of existentialist interpretation.
The period of Jesus scholarship known as "the new quest" did not really change this state of affairs. Inaugurated by Ernst Káásemann in a lecture presented in 1953, the "new quest" quickly produced two book-length studies: Günther Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth (1956) and James Robinson's A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (1959).2 Important as the new quest was, it continued to share the central. characteristics of the "no quest" period: a minimalist portrait of the message of Jesus conceived in eschatological terms, coupled with, existentialist interpretation. Its methods and results remained largely the same. What made it "new" was a theological concern: the question of the degree of continuity between the message of Jesus and the preaching of the early church. Yet, even this question was pursued within an existentialist framework which made it seem quite esoteric: whether the understanding of existence mediated by the message of Jesus was the same as the understanding of existence mediated by the kerygma. This, it was affirmed, was the proper subject matter of the quest for the historical Jesus.
The central convictions of the "no quest" period converged in an overarching conclusion that historical Jesus scholarship was an area of study that did not matter very much. Its fruits were meager and largely inedible. Not much could be known about Jesus, and what little could be seemed unrelated to theology and the practical needs of Christian preaching and teaching. The figure of Jesus seemed both remote and irrelevant.
Against this background, the resurgence in contemporary Jesus scholarship is remarkable. Dating the beginning of a renaissance is difficult, for a renaissance is never ex nihilo; it always has antecedent. causes. But developments in the past decade clearly indicate that one is underway.
There has been a burst of publishing. Some of this, dating back to the 1970s, provides a more richly detailed picture of the background for understanding the ministry of Jesus.New translations of primary texts have appeared. A bibliography of recent scholarly books about Jesus lists over fifty titles, forty-two since 1980. In the past three years alone, five major works centering on the historical Jesus have been published:
In the recent past, the framework for formulating the questions brought to the texts has become less specifically Christian. Changes in cultural consciousness and in the institutional settings where Jesus scholarship is done are largely responsible. Though important work continues in seminary and divinity school settings, a large majority of biblical scholars now teach in public universities or secularized private colleges. Not only would an explicitly Christian agenda be inappropriate in such settings, but, for the most part, our students no longer bring specifically Christian concerns to the texts. Instead, the questions have become more "global," that is, related to the broad sweep of human history and experience. How is the figure of Jesus similar or dissimilar to religious figures in other traditions? How is his teaching like or unlike the teaching of other great sages such as Lao Tzu or the Buddha? How is the Jesus movement similar or dissimilar to other sectarian or revitalization movements? How do studies of pre-industrial societies illuminate the world of Jesus? What understandings of reality and what kinds of religious consciousness are reflected in the texts?
The new questions have been accompanied by new methods. For most of its history, the primary methods used by New Testament scholarship have been literary and historical, with the latter understood in a fairly narrow sense. Lately, largely in the last ten years, Jesus scholars (and biblical scholars generally) have begun systematically to use insights and models gleaned from the history of religions, cultural anthropology, and the social sciences. These not only provide comparative material and theoretical understandings, but also models constructed from either empirical or historical data which can then be used to illuminate historical periods for which we have only fairly scanty data. The new questions and new methods have produced new ways of seeing familar material: we are able to re-view the data with new lenses.
This use of new "disciplinary allies" is one of the most striking features of the renaissance. It has produced a massive amount of publishing. A recent bibliography on the use of the social sciences in New Testament studies lists over 250 items, most published since 1980.9 It has also generated two new organizations: the Social Science and New Testament Interpretation section in the Society of Biblical Literature, and the Social Facets Seminar, which came into existence alongside the Jesus Seminar. As one scholar put it in 1984, "the historical quest for the historical Jesus has ended; the interdisciplinary quest for the historical Jesus has just begun."
The renaissance is marked not only by new methods, but also by new results. Like all scholarly results, they are tentative and not final, the product of a particular intellectual history, radically conditioned in the way that all human knowledge is. Nevertheless, they sharply transform the image of Jesus which has dominated much of this century's scholarship. Three emergent trends might fairly be considered as elements of a new consensus.
First, the old consensus that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world has disappeared. Though some still affirm it, the central conviction that marked the "no quest" and "new quest" periods is no longer held by the majority of North American scholars actively engaged in Jesus research. Its disappearance as a consensus is indicated by polls taken of two major groups of historical Jesus scholars: three-fifths to three-fourths of them no longer accept it.
The erosion of the dominant consensus was gradual, even though the realization that it had happened seemed quite sudden. The old consensus was based on four main elements: the atmosphere of crisis in the Gospels; the sayings which spoke of the imminent coming of the Son of Man; the Kingdom of God sayings; and the fact that some within the early church expected the final eschatological events (second coming, end of the world, last judgment) in their lifetimes.
Of these elements, the "coming Son of Man" sayings were most foundational. Some of them explicitly spoke of the end of the world and the last judgment coming upon the generation then alive: "This generation will not pass away before all these things take place." The imminent coming of the Son of Man was then connected to the coming of the Kingdom of God, and both were used to account for the element of urgency and crisis in the Gospels: there is no time to waste, for the end is at hand. Finally, the eschatological expectation of the early church was explained as a continuation of the eschatological message of Jesus. The whole was an impressively coherent picture; indeed, the image of Jesus as an eschatological prophet was persuasive to a large extent because of its great explanatory power.
But its foundation was weak. By the late 1960s, the texts that had served as its basis were being undermined. It became increasingly accepted that the coming Son of Man sayings were created by Jesus' followers in the decades after Easter as "second coming" texts, expressing the early church's conviction that the crucified and exalted one would return as vindicator and judge. But if these texts are seen as inauthentic, then the central reason for thinking that Jesus expected the imminent end of the world vanishes.
In the same period, a number of scholars argued that Jesus' "eschatology" was not to be understood in a chronological temporal sense, that is, not as referring to an end of actual time. More recently, the centrality given to the Kingdom of God as the primary motif of Jesus' message has been persuasively challenged. Though Jesus certainly did speak of the Kingdom of God, our impression that it was the central element in his message is clearly due to Marcan redaction. Moreover, without the coming Son of Man sayings, there is no good reason to identify the coming of the Kingdom of God with the end of the world. Finally, it is now a commonplace to locate the origin of the church's eschatological expectation in the Easter event. It was the conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead (for resurrection was an event associated with the end of time) that led some in the early church to believe that they were living in the "end times."
Combined, these factors have produced a growing conviction: the mission and message of Jesus were "non-eschatological." That is perhaps too simple a way to put it, given the long history of the words "eschatology" and "apocalyptic" in biblical scholarship and theology. Both were initially used in Jesus studies to refer to the end of the world of ordinary history. But subsequent scholarship in this century has given the terms many different senses. "Eschatological" can be used metaphorically in a non-end-of-the-world sense: as a nuanced synonym for "decisive," or as "world-shattering," or to point to the telos of history entering history but not in such a way as to end history. Even "apocalyptic," we are discovering, need not refer to the end of the world; some apocalyptic literature describes experiences of another world (visions or other-worldy journeys) and does not refer to the imminent end of the world of ordinary history.
Thus, there is considerable terminological confusion in the discipline. For example, I have heard one scholar argue that Jesus' message was eschatological but not apocalyptic; that is, concerned with a decisive change in history, but not with the end of the world. I have heard another scholar argue that Jesus' message was apocalyptic but not eschatological; that is, grounded in the experience of another world, but not concerned with the end of this world. Despite the directly contrasting language, at a fundamental level both scholars meant the same thing: Jesus did not proclaim the imminent end of the world of ordinary history. It is best, therefore, to specify what is meant by the phrase "non-eschatological Jesus." The contrast is specifically to the image of Jesus as one who proclaimed the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, understood as involving the last judgment and the end of human history as we know it. That, according to the emergent consensus, was neither Jesus' expectation nor message.
The collapse of the old consensus creates exciting questions for re-viewing the Gospel texts. If the proclamation of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God was not the heart of Jesus' message, what was? Moreover, if the crisis permeating his message and ministry was not the imminent arrival of the last hour, what was it? Was it simply the crisis of individual decision or response? Or is it to be understood in another way?
A second consensus element of the renaissance is a new understanding of Jesus as teacher, especially as a teacher of subversive wisdom. There is a near chorus within the discipline about this, flowing out of recent studies of the forms of Jesus' teaching, especially the wisdom forms of proverb, parable, aphorism, and nature saying.
Jesus' teaching as involving a "subversion of world" is seen most easily in contrast to the notion of conventional wisdom. Every culture has its conventional wisdom. It is the dominant consciousness of a culture, "what everybody knows," the taken-for-granted assumptions that comprise the "world" within which people live. Composed of two elements, worldview and ethos, an understanding of reality and a way of life, it constitutes the heart of culture.
Though the specific content of conventional wisdom is particular to each culture, it has a number of common characteristics across cultures. Seeking to be practical, it provides concrete guidance about how to live, ranging from matters of etiquette to overarching values. It orders life on the basis of rewards and punishments, whether expressed in religious notions about karma or a last judgment, or in more secularized form like success as the reward for hard work. It is thus not only practical but prudent: "Follow this way and all will go well" and "You reap what you sow" are its common themes. It also confers identity and creates hierarchies. The canons of conventional wisdom teach a person who one is. In traditional societies, such as first-century Palestine, some of these identities and the status accorded to them are, in a sense, "given": man/woman, oldest son/younger son, Jew/Gentile, aristocrat/peasant, rich/poor. Some are contingent upon measuring up to the standards of conventional wisdom: righteous/sinner, success/failure. Conventional wisdom thus creates a "world" in which one lives, providing guidance, sanctions, identity, and status.
It is this world of conventional wisdom that Jesus subverts in his teaching. His proverbs and aphorisms are crystallizations of insight which, either radical in themselves or radical in their application, frequently embody the theme of world-reversal. So also with the parables and nature sayings; they are invitations to see differently, bringing about a shattering of world. Consistently, Jesus undermined the world of conventional wisdom with its safe and prudent ethos, its notion of reality organized on the basis of rewards and punishments, its oppressive hierarchies, its categories of righteous and sinners. As a teacher, Jesus was a subversive sage, not only subverting conventional wisdom, but inviting his hearers to ground their lives in the Spirit of God rather than in the securities and identities offered by culture.
Finally, a third feature marking the renaissance is not so much a consensus result as a consensus focus: studies of the social world of Jesus have become central. To some extent, this emphasis is the result of new information. Archaeological excavations continue, highly specialized studies of extent materials proliferate, and ongoing analyses of recently discovered documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi texts add to our understanding. We simply know more about the world of first-century Palestine than earlier generations of scholars did.
But the surge of interest in Jesus' social world is not due primarily to the accumulation of additional information. Rather, it flows from new ways of construing that information, made possible by the interdisciplinary borrowings described earlier. Central among these is the notion of "social world" itself, which entered New Testament scholarship only recently. It refers to the total social environment of a people, including especially the socially-constructed reality of a people, that non-material "canopy" of shared ideas that makes each culture what it is. Though it includes conventional wisdom, it is even more comprehensive, consisting of the beliefs, values, laws, customs, institutions, rituals, and so forth, by which the group orders and maintains its world.
Fundamental to the emphasis upon social world is the recognition of how radically different the social world of first-century Palestinian Judaism was from our own . Because meanings are embedded in a social world, understanding the shape of a particular social world enables us to construe the meaning of things said and done in that social world. Words and actions that seem trivial or inconsequential in one culture can be of the greatest import in another. But they need to be located in the social world within which they occur.
For example, the attention given to purity issues in many Gospel texts seems puzzling to modern ears. What could it matter whether one ate with unclean hands or with impure people? To us, it seems the preoccupation of a righteous piety tilted toward excessive scrupulosity. Moreover, the gathering of more information-of more texts showing the concern with purity--does not really enhance understanding. It is one thing to see that Jesus' contemporaries were concerned about issues of purity; it is another thing to see why purity was such an issue.
The notion of social world enables us to see why. The polarity of pure and impure, clean and unclean, was a fundamental political structure of the first-century Jewish social world. Moreover, it was correlated with a number of other polarities, all of which established boundaries: righteous and sinner, Jew and Gentile, to some extent even male and female, rich and poor. These boundaries were part of a politics of purity, which dominated the ethos of that social world, its way of life as well as the cultural dynamic shaping its historical development. Thus, disputes about clean and unclean were not trivial, but concerned the fundamental question of how society was to be structured. Disagreements about purity were potentially world-shattering and world-transforming.
The interpretive power of the notion of social world is further illustrated by a number of studies of particular features of the social world of Jesus. It was a social world in crisis, and a number of revitalization or renewal movements operated, each with its own program or set of strategies for creating a transformed social world. Within this framework, the group that formed around Jesus can be seen clearly as such a movement, competing with other Jewish renewal movements in the social world of first-century Palestine. Studies of the dynamics of peasant societies provide a clearer basis for understanding popular and anti-establishment movements in the time of Jesus. Studies of the cosmology and social dynamics of witchcraft societies illuminate the rivalry between Jesus and his opponents. An understanding of the pivotal role played by issues of honor and shame in that social world enables us to understand much that would otherwise be obscure.
Because of the great cultural distance separating us from the social world of Jesus, reconstructing and entering it requires a disciplined act of historical imagination. Such reconstruction, aided by the study of the dynamics of social worlds very different from our own, enables us more and more to see the rootedness of Jesus' mission and message. The almost discarnate picture of the teaching of Jesus, floating above the particularities of his time and place, which dominated much of the quest for the historical Jesus in all of its periods, is being replaced by one that locates his words and deeds rigorously within the social world of his time.
Now I wish to move beyond reporting consensus elements of the renaissance to sharing some concluding perceptions flowing from my own work.
One of these is a methodological observation. There remains a widespread sentiment among many colleagues in New Testament studies and in the broader field of religious studies that it is extremely difficult to know anything about Jesus with any degree of probability. As noted earlier, this sentiment was one of the central tenets of the "no quest" and "new quest" periods, and is the direct consequence of the scholarly preoccupation with the words of Jesus. If one begins with the words of Jesus, and develops one's methodology primarily by working with his words, radical historical skepticism is the inevitable result. Seldom if ever do we have direct quotation; the transmission of tradition did not work that way.
But there is another starting place for the study of Jesus. Familiarity with a typology of religious figures (derived from the history of religions, anthropology, and the psychology of religion) provides an illuminating vantage point. Four types of religious personalities, known crossculturally as well as in the Jewish tradition, are particularly relevant: the charismatic "holy man" (a person vividly in touch with another reality who typically functions as a healer), the sage (teacher of wisdom), the prophet (in the sense of the classical prophets of Israel), and the revitalization movement founder.
When the texts of the Gospels are approached from this perspective, broad strokes of a credible historical portrait emerge. It is another instance of re-viewing the Gospel data with fresh lenses. That Jesus was each of these is attested by recurring motifs and themes that permeate the Gospel narratives, found in multiple sources and forms. That is to say, the model is established by a cross-cultural typology; it is then validated by what we find in the Gospel texts themselves. This framework then provides a gestalt for locating and understanding the traditions ascribed to Jesus; or, to change the metaphor, it provides a skeleton which can then be enfleshed.
This approach in no way denies that the traditions about Jesus developed. It accepts that in all likelihood we never have direct quotation. It acknowledges that specifically Christian affirmations cannot be attributed to Jesus. The latter include, but are not restricted to, christological affirmations, texts speaking about the social formation of the early church (including applications of Jesus' teaching as "church rules"), reflections about the meaning of Jesus' death, and, in my judgment, texts that refer to a second coming. This approach seems to me to provide a promising means for breaking the methodological impasse that has marked much of Jesus scholarship. We may be more historically certain of the larger picture than we are of the historical exactness of any particular tradition.
Secondly, the increasingly clear picture we have of Jesus' social world and his relationship to it, along with the collapse of the eschatological Jesus, seem to me to suggest that his mission was much more concerned with that social world than this century's scholarship has typically affirmed. The element of crisis then appears in a new light. Rather than being the expected imminent end of the world or the crisis of individual decision, it was a crisis in the social world itself that called for a radical change. In short, the more clearly we are able to imagine the dynamics of Jesus' social world, the more obvious it seems that his mission and message were intensely and intimately involved with changing it. As a charismatic who was also a subversive sage, prophet, and renewal movement founder, Jesus sought a transformation in the historical shape and direction of his social world.
Finally, it seems to me that much of the scholarly renaissance has important relevance for the life of the church. Ironically, in a time when specifically Christian questions are no longer the starting point for approaching the texts, what emerges seems more rather than less relevant. Perhaps this is not so surprising; the earlier approach to the texts, with the conscious or unconscious agenda of confirming or disconfirming continuity with Christian teachings, tended to focus the questions on the most problematic areas. Did Jesus think of himself as the Messiah? Did he think of his own death as salvific? Did he "institute" the Lord's Supper, or intend to found a "church"? To these questions, uncertain answers at best could be given. Moreover, such questions tended to give the quest an anxious flavor, an exercise in debunking or defending. No wonder the quest for the historical Jesus seemed to flounder in a sea of uncertainty.
The asking of non-Christian questions seems to be producing results that are both more certain and more interesting. In my own work, the picture of Jesus as a charismatic or "holy man" vividly in touch with what the texts call "Spirit" radically challenges the flattened sense of reality pervading the modern worldview and much of the mainline church, and suggests that reality might indeed be far more mysterious than we suppose. It invites us to consider seriously the central claim of the Jewish-Christian tradition (and most religious traditions): that we are surrounded by an actual, even though non-material, reality charged with energy and power with which it is possible to be in relationship. Similarly, the picture of Jesus as a subversive sage undermining his culture's conventional assumptions, as a prophet calling it to change its historical direction, and as a revitalization movement founder seeking to create an alternative culture, all point to a deep involvement in the life of history. The historical Jesus may well have been more historical than we supposed.
The image of Jesus as a person of Spirit whose mission focused on the transformation of his social world can provide significant content for the meaning of discipleship. Discipleship means "to follow after." "Following after" Jesus means to take seriously what he took seriously: life in the Spirit, and life in history.
By Marcus J. Borg