Baker Academic

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Narratives of the Gospels and the Historical Jesus—Chris Keith

I'm happy to report that my Journal for the Study of the New Testament article, "The Narratives of the Gospels and the Historical Jesus: Current Debates, Prior Debates, and the Goal of Historical Jesus Research," is now available online here.  This is an electronic version of the article that is published prior to the publication of the print version.  This article was originally an invited paper that I delivered in Amsterdam at SNTS last summer.  In it, I respond to criticisms of some of my work from my friend Tobias Haegerland in this article, but do so by situating our disagreements within broader trends in historical Jesus research.  I then address the differing epistemological and methodological foundations of two trends in particular.  Here's the abstract from my JSNT article:

The article argues that current debates over method in historical Jesus studies reveal
two competing ‘models’ for how to use the gospel tradition in order to approach the
historical Jesus. These models differ over their treatments of the narrative frameworks
of the gospels and, concomitantly, their views of the development of the Jesus tradition.
A first model, inspired by form criticism and still advocated today, attempts to attain
a historical Jesus ‘behind’ the interpretations of early Christians. A second model,
inspired by advances in historiography and memory theory, posits a historical Jesus who
is ultimately unattainable, but can be hypothesized on the basis of the interpretations
of the early Christians, and as part of a larger process of accounting for how and why
early Christians came to view Jesus in the ways that they did. Advocating the latter
approach to the historical Jesus and responding to previous criticism, this article argues
further that these two models are methodologically and epistemologically incompatible.
It therefore challenges the suggestion that one can affirm the goals of the second model
while maintaining the methods of the first model.

(If you have no institutional access to the article and want to read it for private research purposes, you can email me at


  1. Thank you CK for your clarification on this extremely important matter.

    - Dr. G

  2. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Perhaps it reflects the difficulty of packing so much information into a discreet paragraph, but I'm not understanding Dr. Keith's distinction between the two methodologies. I do not have access to the full article.

    What is the difference between "attempts to attain
    a historical Jesus ‘behind’ the interpretations of early Christians" and "a historical Jesus who
    is ultimately unattainable, but can be hypothesized on the basis of the interpretations of the early Christians." If the answer is that one approach claims a determination of fact and the other claims a determination of possibility, I would see that view- point as an oversimplification.

    It seems to me that there's probably not any sentence in the biblical material that doesn't point to multiple possibilities (hypotheticals?) for the identity of Jesus. My preference would be to search by every method available for what the early follower interpretations intend and then compare.

    But if one assumes in advance, that what they point to is only hypothetical, then does everyone draw the same hypothetical conclusion? I don't think so. And in terms of personal rather than abstract meaning, who commits their life to a hypothetical? And if it's only a hypothetical what's the point of going through any exegetical work? And if some people find that a certain perspective works for them, how could it then be called an hypothetical?

    For example, let's take the brief pericope (Mark 1:16-20) where Jesus walks along lake Galilee and "calls" four disciples. Is "call" what really happened or is that Mark's interpretation? Were folks called or did they naturally take to Jesus like a magnet? Where do sociological studies of group dynamics and charismatic persons come down on the matter?

    What does it mean that the father Zebedee "was left in the boat." Do we go with "Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciples...(and) leave the dead to bury the dead," or do we interpret those statements as exaggeration to make a point? What would be one's conclusions from a comparative study of the same "type' of story in other literature?

    My own thinking is that everything's a hypothetical (possibility) until someone or some group concludes that for them, it's a reality, and that's when dialogue comes in to reach out for as much objectivity as can be achieved.

    1. Dear Gene, I think the article explains well enough the specific reason for my identification of the two separate models, and have to note that you're running pretty far down this rabbit hole based solely on the abstract. But to plan along for the moment, let me ask two questions. First, how do you get so quickly from "determining possibilities" to dealing with "only hypothetical"? These are not the same things. Second, with regard to your question about the call of the disciples, even *if* what Mark writes is what "really happened," are we not still getting "Mark's interpretation"? Do you assume that we can get to what "really happened" completely without Mark's interpretation?

  3. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Chris, thanks for taking time to reply. We may be talking past each other. First to answer your questions: (1) My view is that everything in the gospels is interpretation, but some of it may be closer to the earthly Jesus than others. (2) I do not see a difference between possible and hypothetical. To me, "I hypothesize that..." and "It is possible that..." are the same construct.

    Please consider that subjectivity plays a role in objectivity. We can never be sure of objectivity, i.e., what really happened, but subjectively we can identify, as individuals or as members of some group, by whatever investigative rules, what seems most likely. What seems most likely becomes the "real." And if someone or some group bases their lives on this "real" it is no longer a hypothetical and so negates the claim to "an historical Jesus who is ultimately unattainable." The "real," or what is attainable, is then changed and modified through dialogue.

    Rather than any two methods being "methodologically and epistemologically incompatible," all are contributory, including those limited to a subjective reading. Again, thanks for the opportunity of this conversation.

    1. Thanks for this response, Gene, and for your contributions to the blog in general. Here we're in disagreement, though--two methods can indeed be methodologically and epistemologically incompatible. It happens all the time. That doesn't mean that they cannot both contribute to "knowledge," but it does mean that they do not do the same things. But I think we should end this here, as you clearly have not read the article prior to speaking on this. Thanks again for contributing to the blog.

    2. Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Keith, thanks again for the exchange. I feel the need to point out that in the first and second sentences of my first post I acknowledged my limitations. Perhaps there should be a blog rule that posts will not be recognized when the material has not been read.

  4. From: Dr. G
    To: Gene

    I think that what is causing your consternation, is a semantic problem. To those of us who already assume that all knowledge is subjective, it is indeed hard to distinguish an 1) "objective" view, and the "realities" it pretends to describe, from 2) a subjective view.

    However, the objectivists maintain an objective view is possible. So how do we address them?

    We attempt to show them they are wrong. But here is the source if confusion: in doing this, we may refer to their view as the "Objective" one. But in this process, note, we OURSELVES do not assume their view is ACTUALLY "objective." We use that term in implied quotes, as it were.

    Indeed, that is finally the point: those who claim to know objective truth are wrong.

    So when we use the term objective, we are using it in implied quotes, in effect.

  5. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Thank you for these observations Dr. G, I agree broadly. If we use the word 'objective,' it is always conditional.

    Allow me to offer the following for consideration: Biblical investigation functions broadly on three models. (1) The first model is that of the brilliant individual investigator who competes with other brilliant investigators for the attribution of objectivity/accuracy. For centuries this has been the model of choice. (2) The second model is that of brilliant individual investigators getting together and taking a vote for accuracy on any given subject of investigation. Since the 1980's this model has been promoted by the Jesus Seminar. (3) The third model is the subjectivity of the untrained reader, including placing him/herself somewhere in the pericope being contemplated to hear the message intended.

    In the first and third models the findings are subjective to the individual. In the second model the findings are subjective to the group, but to distinguish the two kinds of subjectivity we are likely to call the first and third models subjective and the second model objective, but there is no guarantee that the second model is less subjective and more accurate than the first or third.

    The three models can co-exist and feed into one another, and they may even occasionally agree. When they do, for ease of communication, we call that objectivity. It is really only a current communal 'reality,' but there can be some very positive and healthy communal realities.

    Any of these approaches, in a given investigation, might be a "best fit" for a given individual under given conditions. Could it be argued that when that dynamic occurs it becomes objective for that individual. In this respect, in order to live in a healthy world, it is at least as important to embrace differences as to appreciate commonalities.

  6. Hi Chris, I've enjoyed reading your article. Regarding historical Jesus research and "going behind the text", I was just listening again the youtube of NT Wright at the 2010 Wheaton conference (4/16/2010). I wonder what you, Anthony, Brant and others would make of this claim:
    "I believe it is a false dichotomy to say that doing historical Jesus studies involve somehow going behind the text, to construct some sort of 'other' Jesus than the one that you find in the text. Basically, we're trying to understand what happened. Jesus of Nazareth was not a private individual who hid away from the world. Jesus was walking about, being and doing and speaking, what he has seemed to have conceived of as public truth". This qoute was made shortly after Wright reflected on problems with source and form criticism ...

    1. Ferdie, I'm sorry. I just now saw this. I'm not sure that I necessarily disagree with what Wright says here, but I will note two things. First, there is still distance between how Jesus was initially perceived by his audience(s) and the perceptions that we see in the Gospels. I think they're related, but they're not the same, and I think Wright's wording (at least in this snippet) is open to being understood as saying that they are or could be the same. Second, however false that dichotomy might be, it didn't stop generations of historical Jesus scholars from operating with it. It categorically is a fact that the post-Bultmannians believed they were getting "behind" the text.