Baker Academic

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Earliest Jesus Creed and the Jewish Jesus - Le Donne

Scot McKnight’s argument has much affinity to Martin Kähler’s argument from the early twentieth century. McKnight claims that his argument is distinct, that he isn’t just recycling Kähler. I do not doubt that Scot knows his position better than I do. But, from my vantage point, the two arguments have much in common and I am not the first to recognize this. McKnight, like Kähler, argues that it is the venerated Jesus that matters for Christian faith. This Jesus has been crystalized in the canonical Gospels and the seminal creeds of Christianity. Moreover, “Historical Jesus studies are decidedly contrarian to orthodoxy and the church and even the Gospels, if I may say so, and that is why they subject the church’s Jesus to criticism.”

I think that Kähler’s thesis was a brilliant and influential one. It created space for Jesus in the hearts and minds of a people who would have otherwise abandoned all ties to Christianity. In other words, Kähler’s thesis was exactly the sort of thing one would expect from a hyper-modern context. But it had fatal flaw and I fear that Scot’s thesis has the same flaw.

Kähler’s Christ was a “supra-historical” figure. This is to say that, for Kähler, Christ had transcended the mundane particularities of first-century Judea. This Christ could be cosmic in scope and personal in character. Of course, this is quite similar to the Jesus of evangelical veneration. But, and this has been overlooked by too many historical Jesus people, Kähler’s “supra-historical” Christ also transcended Jesus’ Judaism in a context where a Jewish Jesus was desperately needed.

In the early years of National Socialism in Europe, it was not uncommon to talk about Jesus over and against Judaism. French polymath Ernst Renan is a prime example of this. For Renan, Jesus was “the destroyer of Judaism.” As the Nazi Party reached the height of its power, Jesus became the mouthpiece of Aryan supremacy [see the magnificent work of Susannah Heschel on this topic]. My point is a simple one: the Lutheran Church needed the historical Jesus during this period but all they had was a cosmic Christ that was untethered from his Jewish identity. The result was disastrous.

Ironically, if the Lutheran Church in Germany had paid better attention to the historical Jesus, they would have found a Jesus very much in line with the earliest Christian Creed.

Most scholars of Paul’s Letter to the Romans think that we find the earliest Christian creed in Romans 1:3-4:
born of a seed of David according to the flesh…
declared the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness 
Notice here that the first line anchors Jesus to his Jewishness. It is not an incidental or trivial fact of Jesus’ ethnicity or upbringing; it is gospel truth that Jesus was a Jew. This is the very first thing one needs to know about his identity. Tragically, this primary statement of faith had been forgotten in Kähler’s context. And if not forgotten, then trivialized or problematized. Simply put, the Nazi Christians were in breach of the first line of the first Christian creed.

Historical Jesus studies, and this has been true of the discipline since Josephus and Augustine, has guarded this element of the life of Jesus. And it is this element that has made the last four decades of Jesus studies the most fruitful in history.

So I must disagree with Scot when he writes that “Historical Jesus studies are decidedly contrarian to orthodoxy and the church and even the Gospels.” The historical Jesus is the Jewish Jesus. This supports an orthodox understanding of Christ. And it is the historian’s job to diligently pursue this Jesus even when church folk have strayed from the path. For more on this topic see my two chapters in this book.

Look, I'm not blaming the Holocaust on Martin Kähler. And I am certainly not saying that a lack of historical grounding can lead to Nazism. I'm saying that historical Jesus research should be one voice at the conversation table, if for no other reason than to correct the Church when our Jesuses start looking too much like us.


  1. The same point can be made for politically oriented revisionists of American history (whether conservative or liberal):

    Anytime people's veneration of past figures fuels their [theo/]ideological orientation toward a present day [religio-]political agenda, their historical vision likely stands in great need of correction.

    I'm not sure if Scot McKnight is leaving the church with a purely supra-historical Jesus or not, but I sincerely hope we continue improving our efforts, in various ways, to guard against such a danger.

  2. I'm not sure your argument holds up against McKnight.

    To argue for a Jesus of the Gospels is not to argue for a suprahistorical Jesus, but for a Jesus the stories of whom are deeply rooted in assumptions and realities of first century Judaism. Especially if we stick to canon and not just creed, the Jewishness remains front and center.

    I find the overall argument here somewhat ironic, as it has long been recognized that "historical Jesus" research ends up being, in essence, a mirror that reflects the scholar as much as a tool to discover a reality of the past. Jesus' Jewishness has not been any better preserved by HJ research than by Gospels research.

  3. Daniel, thanks for your comment.

    You are quite right that HJR has tended to reflect the interests and personalities of those researching. One could say the same of the multiple and varied Jesuses of the Church. I'm not saying that HJR research is always better, nor am I saying that the ecclesial Jesus is always worse.

    I'd just like to have better conversations between the two camps rather than none at all.

  4. What do you think would help to facilitate better conversations between the two camps?

  5. This is something I've thought a great deal about, Peter. A topic that deserves its own post, methinks.

  6. Anthony, just wondering, but what do you mean by 'Jewish Jesus'?

    For example, King Herod was 'Jewish' but he wasn't an Israelite. He was an Edomite.

    Do you mean 'Jewish' in the same sense King Herod was Jewish, or some other sense?

  7. Ethnically I am Jewish. Where as spiritually I am Orthodox Christian. Orthodox Christianity does not allow for any diversity other than ethnic. So many Orthodox Christians who were born and raised Jewish have immigrated to Israel. They can't/won't give up one for the other. They like myself want to incorporate both together. After all the traditions by which the Orthodox stand by were based on Judaism. To deny that is for a black person to deny his skin tone. Christians need to accept and incorporate the Jewishness of Jesus in mass if they really want to know who Jesus was and what he taught. 'Salvation is from the Jews' is a quote from the gospel of John. Salvation, redemption is constantly written in the psalms. I myself silently sing a psalm and biblically study it then read scripture of the day. So much of what Jesus said is in those psalms, Isaiah, the first five books of the OT. All of His message and mystery does not have to be intangible. One simply has to go beyond what is written. Research biblical definitions of things like sacrificial offerings be they animal, crops or herbs in order to unravel the unknown and find common ground between the two distant cousins. The Arch will no longer be split and we will see how similar we are.