A brief interview with Jens Schröter, Professor for Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament and New Testament Apocrypha at the Faculty of Theology, Humboldt-University in Berlin.
Professor Schröter, you have been active in the Jesus research for many years now. In your opinion, where does the Jesus research stand today?
Jesus research since the time of enlightenment in the 18th and the rise of historical criticism in the 19th century has achieved many remarkable and important results. From historical-critical evaluation of the available sources we have learned to distinguish between historically reliable traditions and later legendary embellishments or pure fiction. We have also learned that a portrait of Jesus has to interpret his message and activity within the context of contemporary – in the first place: Galilean – Judaism. It also must explain why he could be understood as the final and decisive envoy who represents God on earth.
An important development, at least from my point of view, in more recent Jesus research is that the epistemological and hermeneutical presuppositions of historical criticism themselves have come under critical scrutiny. Several scholars have pointed out that a historical portrait of Jesus is not just the result of historical-critical evaluation of the data, but by the same time the product of historical imagination. This situation has led to an interesting bifurcation in more recent scholarship. There are scholars who prefer to stick with the narrative accounts about Jesus’ activity and fate in the Gospels, whereas others use the historical material – Jewish and Christian writings, archaeological data and so forth – to get closer to the “real” Jesus “behind” the texts. In my view, both ways suffer from inadequate reflection about the character of a historical portrait of Jesus. Data or events from the past are only accessible by way of interpretation from a current perspective. Therefore, the past can only become meaningful by way of connecting the remains from the past that are still available in the present to a more or less coherent picture. In this way the past becomes “history”. This is also true for portraits of the historical Jesus. Such portraits are important to base Christian interpretation of reality as well as ethical norms of Christianity on the traces of the past, i.e. on Christian origins. But these portraits are always products of the historian and therefore are due to corrections and revisions as it is the case with all other historical descriptions as well. Interpretations of the data are therefore always “in front” of the texts and will never get behind them. In other words: The past is gone, what is still accessible are our interpretations. This conjunction of traces of the past and historical imagination is what I would call “memory”. Jesus research in my view can gain importance for Christian theology as well as for discourses on human life and ethics by pursuing historical Jesus research as “Jesus memory”.
Considering a 300 year history of Jesus research, are there really any new insights about Jesus to be expected? Could it be that our knowledge of Jesus does not substantially change and merely the paradigms of research shift?
No one can predict, of course, whether fresh perspectives on Jesus will emerge, e.g. on the basis of newly discovered texts or other historical material not known so far. But also our perspectives on the historical data are in constant flux. Therefore, Jesus portraits from the 19th century differ considerably from those of the second half of the 20th or the beginning of the 21st century. This is partly caused by newly discovered material, as e.g. the Dead Sea scrolls, non-canonical gospel texts and archaeological findings from the Galilee. But it is also the result of new perspectives on material that is known already for a long time. Therefore, our perspectives on Jesus may be altered by new material as it can be transformed by new views on old texts.
Where do you see the Jesus research in the future? Do you think that one day a scientific interest in Jesus will cease?
I am quite confident that interest in Jesus will last as long as the Bible and Christian traditions can contribute to the understanding of our world and of human existence. You can compare this with the interest e.g. in Homer or Plato. Their writings are of interest as long as they are meaningful for our understanding of culture, humanity and ethics. With regard to the Bible and the figure of Jesus this is even more the case because Christianity is a religion – or a „philosophy“, if you like – with many adherents who try to base their lives on the Bible and the life and message of Jesus. As long as this is the case there will also be academic interest in Jesus.