Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is the Historical Jesus of value to Christianity? - Le Donne

Scot McKnight asked me to summarize the major points of criticism to his chapter leveled by folks at last week’s conference. As I sat down to do this, I realized that it might spur some good discussion for this blog.  Before I get into the nuts and bolts, I want to thank Scot for his contribution to our book. His voice is always an interesting one that generates fruitful talking points.

My thanks to Joel Watts for this photo and for the "Last Supper"
typology.  I suppose this makes Goodacre the Christ,,, and me Judas.
Last week at the conference, Professor Keith asked this question:

What value does historical Jesus research have for theological education? 

This question was posed to a panel that included Dale Allison, Loren Stuckenbruck, Mark Goodacre, Dagmar Winter and myself. One of the more interesting answers came from Dale Allison. Dale reflected on a very docetic Jesus who was presented to him by the church of his childhood. That Jesus, in his words, was an “alien from outer space, and that’s not really an exaggeration.”


Allison, speaking from his own experience, suggested that studying the historical Jesus helped him discover the human Jesus. Earlier that day, Dagmar Winter suggested that historical Jesus research is one way to “take the incarnation seriously.”

These two comments, which reinforce my own experience quite well, serve as bookends to a discussion we had on the recent thesis by Scot McKnight. The conversation was a bit more focused, but was (perhaps) less pointed than it might have been. It is generally bad form to have a debate without an interlocutor. But what we did have were Scot’s published words. He writes that
historical Jesus proposals are of no use to the Church. I do not mean to suggest that history is of no use. I am not arguing that historical work doesn’t illuminate the Gospels and the Church’s Jesus, and I am not arguing that it is impossible to get behind the Gospels to reconstruct the original Jesus, and I’m also not suggesting that some historical work on Jesus confirms what is already believed by the church. I affirm the opposite of each: history is valuable; historical work clarifies elements about Jesus; in some ways it is possible to reconstruct a “historical” Jesus who is different from than the church’s and the Gospels’ Jesus; and there is a place for confirming faith (apologetics). Apart from the apologetical task, which isn’t always performed under the most rigorous of historical conditions, I just don’t think such an undertaking has any value for the church—at all. So, to use language from an earlier way of talking about historical Jesus studies, I think they are both possible and theologically useless (for the church) [p.175 of Demise].
In response to this, Dale said, “If Scot were here, I’d like to ask him if this line of thought works for other religions.” This is an interesting question.  Doesn't it matter a great deal to many Jews, Muslims, and Mormons that Abraham, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith are grounded historically? Doesn't the Apostle’s Creed attempt to ground Jesus within a particular time and place by referring to Pilate? Doesn't the creed that is cited in Romans 1:3-4 begin with an attempt to ground Jesus within the "flesh" of David’s lineage? It seems that, like other Western Religions, Christians have always wanted (needed?) a historically grounded Jesus.

Dagmar Winter voiced wariness at McKnight’s thesis. If Christians took McKnight’s words to heart, would the default position be a kind of anti-intellectualism? Is there room for historical Jesus scholars within McKnight’s vision of the Church? If there is a role, what is it?

Lastly, and this was my point, every time a Christian sings a hymn about Jesus there is narratological reconstruction at work. Every time I sing “That Old Rugged Cross” I am framing Jesus anew. This hymn isn’t a creed or a canonical Gospel, nor is it even a hymn that is sung very widely anymore. Christians re-narrativize Jesus and the history of Jesus every Sunday morning. We do it because it impossible not to. So my question is this: why not do it critically rather than uncritically? Or why isn’t there room for critical reconstructions of Jesus alongside uncritical reconstructions?

I look forward to reading Scot’s reply over at jesuscreed.


  1. Scot's post is here.

  2. Anthony, your last point is the best. In that spirit, here again is the question I tried (poorly) to ask at the session last week:

    Can we not make a way to *receive* Gospel content uncritically (as Scot wants the church to do, or, basically as NT Wright does) and then proceed to *analyze* that content as critically minded historians (something Wright does not really do, imho) and finally go on to construct (or to re-narrativize, as you so helpfully put it) a summative view, a composite view, perhaps even a larger or wider view of that content... not by reducing the Gospels, but by making more? Not by revising the Gospels' Jesus, but by revising our own churchey assumptions about him? Not by going to some Jesus "behind" the scriptures, but by enlarging our understanding of Jesus through building "atop" the scriptures?

    The church constructs atop scripture all the time, theologically, and trains seminary students in how to re-write *Theology*, right down to this present moment.

    Why can the church not do this with History?

  3. This topic makes me wonder what would happen if something about the historical Jesus was determined that contradicted the Church's teaching of Jesus. Would it matter? While I think that the quest for a historical Jesus is important to understand who he was as a historical figure, I'm not really sure if it would really have an impact on Christianity. Christianity has been around for so long, and it's an established religion. I think that the quest to understand Jesus as a historical figure and Christianity are two separate entities that don't really intermix.