Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Search Continues for the Historical Jesus

Two scholarly works attempt to bridge over the lack of biographical detail in Biblical accounts, but may widen the gap in real understanding

AT the dawn of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, whom the whole world later remembers as an African missionary doctor, wrote an eloquent book, "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." Decades of scholarly renditions of Jesus as the world's grand moral teacher and thousands of sermons on Jesus the ethical exemplar were shattered by this bombshell of a book.

Using evidence from the Bible itself, enriched by what German scholarship had learned about the religious tensions of First-century Judea, Schweitzer depicted the Jesus of history as opposed to the Jesus of church doctrine or the believer's imagination.

About these ads

As a contemporary preacher, I read through Schweitzer from time to time to remind myself that there is usually a great gap between the Jesus of my tame sermons and the historical Jesus. Too many of my sermons, like those 19th-century "biographies" of Jesus (such as Ernest Renan's "The Life of Jesus," 1863) look down into a deep, unfathomable well named Jesus and see there little more than the reflection of my own face.

As useful a corrective as this quest to recover the actual Jesus may be for believers, it faces a large problem - a modern historian has precious little to work with when attempting to uncover or rediscover Jesus as he was to his contemporaries. Considering the import this First-century Jew has had on the world, little was written about his life.

Gospels like Matthew and Luke tell tantalizingly little about his birth and much of what they tell is in conflict with one another. Mark and John begin their accounts of Jesus with his adulthood. Only a couple of ancient historians mention Jesus. The Romans who crucified him apparently considered him unworthy of record.

Ironically, a Jewish, sometime turncoat, would-be collaborator named Josephus provides the best, though neither wholly reliable nor textually accurate, account of Jesus. Historians, who dig about in the writings of the past, verifying events by discovering collaborating documents, hoping to "get back" as close as possible to originating events, have a tough time getting back to Jesus.

Which makes all the more surprising a recent religious publishing event - two massive works attempting (again) to get us back to Jesus. Both volumes carry provocative titles - somewhat more provocative than their contents, I might add.

John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (Doubleday, Anchor Bible Reference Library, 484 pp., $25) is the first volume in a proposed two-volume work on the historical Jesus by this Catholic University of America professor.

"Suppose," says Meier, "that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic - all honest historians cognizant of First-century religious movements - were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library ... and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended...." "A Marginal Jew" is the supposed result.

About these ads

Meier's methodology apparently requires that his hypothetical Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic forget that they have confessional loyalties or histories. Although Meier knows enough about the postmodern assault on notions of objectivity and value-neutral, allegedly "scientific" historical research, and although he makes an admirable attempt to lay out his guiding assumptions and methodologies at the beginning, value judgments must be made at every turn in this sort of undertaking.

Forgive the reader for being skeptical of Meier's claims to have depicted "a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended." From the first, Jesus provoked many reactions in people - consensus was not one of them.

Reading Meier is terribly slow going and the results of this huge effort are meager. When one is determined to find historical answers to questions like "Was Jesus married?" or "What was Jesus doing during all those 'hidden years' before his ministry?," considering the paucity of sources and the apparent lack of interest about these questions in the Bible, the results are always going to be, well, meager.

After 450 pages and hundreds of footnotes, by the end of "A Marginal Jew" forgive the reader for wondering "Why? Why on earth would anyone have followed Jesus in the first place?" More telling, one wonders why scholars are still puttering about in this particular archaeological dig.

Much more lively, and idiosyncratic in the great tradition of the historical Jesus genre begun by Schweitzer, is John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperCollins, 507 pp., $30). Crossan gleefully acknowledges his own angle of historical vision. Jesus came, he says, with a program to be enacted, not a set of words to be repeated. Jesus wanted disciples who would turn upside down the Mediterranean world on his terms, based upon Jesus's strange announcem ent and enactment of what God was up to in the world. In Jesus, God really shook up the establishment.

Crossan leads the reader on a meandering, bumpy ride through the back streets of Judea as he searches for a rabble-rousing peasant named Jesus and his ragtag followers. He presents evocative chapters on Jesus the "Bandit and Messiah" and Jesus the "Magician and Prophet." There appears to be as much sociology here as history, but the search is all the better for it. Crossan reveals why modern, establishment types are embarrassed by Jesus's exuberant "magic."

After finishing this long, annotated journey, I don't know how much more I learned about Jesus, but I learned a great deal about myself. With Crossan, I went looking for Jesus and found my own staid, compromised, counterrevolutionary, modern self. Ironically, the best part of Crossan on Jesus appears to be when Crossan is least the dispassionate historian.

Therein lies the tale of this new quest for the historical Jesus. Here, at the end of the 20th century, amidst crumbling modernity, we find ourselves still wishing we could somehow penetrate to the historical kernel of the real Jesus. If we could only match what the gospels tell us with enough extra-Biblical documents, perhaps we could discover the originating truth about him, the hidden historical core that accounts, on modern terms, for how he has moved the lives of millions.

The quest has its roots not in modern science but in European romanticism, the notion that the truth has something to do with origins and that origins are available through investigation, which limits itself to currently approved secular means.

According to 19th-century positivism, what counts is "what really happened," limited to the coordinates of time and space, what can be dug up with the archaeologist's spade, or inferentially determined as the cause behind the layers of a text.

The attempt to get at Jesus through such limited means is particularly problematic. The sources are so sparse; none of the gospels appear to have the slightest interest in such questions. In fact, the gospels go out of their way to demonstrate that those who were historically near to Jesus usually had not the slightest inkling who he was, that his true significance became apparent only as one moved further away from his birth and death. In other words, the gospels claim that those who knew the decidedly nonhistorical, resurrected Jesus knew more about "what really happened" than those who knew him as a rabbi in Galilee.

Although history usually hopes to decrease the distance between our time and past time, the historical work of Crossan and Meier, at its best, serves to widen the gap between us and Jesus, demonstrating that we really do not own, capture, or define Jesus in our limited categories.

At their worst, these authors continue the illusion of cognitive superiority by which the modern investigator picks at Jesus as if he were an inert object for study or a problem to be solved through footnotes. The gap between us and Jesus is not named in history. The gap is called faith. To not know him is the first step to knowing him.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.