Irish Theological Quarterly
http://itq.sagepub.com/ The Invincible Allure of the Historical Jesus for Systematic Theology
James F. Keating Irish Theological Quarterly 2001 66: 211 DOI: 10.1177/002114000106600302 The online version of this article can be found at: http://itq.sagepub.com/content/66/3/211
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Pontifical University, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland
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What is This?
com by guest on January 28. KY: Westminster John Knox Press. Mark Allen Powell. Jesus as a Figure of History. Although some systematic theologians have taken the lack of clear progress as a justification to ignore this latest stage of the quest. Evaluations of the State of Current Research. The present essay explores why some form of the second position is inevitable given both the historical character of divine revelation and the ultimate unity of faith and reason. 1994). This revival can be credited to a movement called the ’third quest. ranging from affording the quest no importance for theology to granting it determinative significance. 1995). The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove: Intervarsity. How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Louisville. Keating
The Invincible Allure of the Historical Jesus for Systematic
With the emergence of a third ’quest for the historical Jesus’. the relationship between history and theology once again comes to the fore. On one end of the spectrum are those who deny any theological significance to critical historiography. suffice it to say that this third quest differs primarily from its predecessors in its intent to locate Jesus fully within the world of first-century Judaism. Good surveys of this scholarship include Ben Witherington III. Studying the Historical Jesus. To anticipate the conclusion.James F.
causal observer of the theological scene will be aware quest for the historical Jesus has.). (Leiden. many others have sought to discern the significance of the third quest for what is said of God in light of Jesus Christ. On the other end are those who insist that what is said about Jesus theologically cannot contradict what is known about him historically.’ Unfortunately. after a brief hiatus. I am most sympathetic with those theologians who link the significance for the quest for the historical Jesus to the unavoidable requirement that Christian theology conform itself to what God has
1. It is hoped that by the exploring each option’s strengths and weaknesses many of the essential issues at stake can be clarified. the undeniable gains inherent in this methodological evolution have not yet yielded a consensus portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. Evans (eds. Bruce and Craig A.’ Without rehearsing the familiar narrative of the rise and fall of the old quest in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the new quest in the mid-twentieth century.sagepub. 2013
. The following essay offers a survey of four options within contemporary theology. reentered the theological stage. there is evidence aplenty that the historical debate is more furious than ever and no closer to resolution. The Jesus Quest. 211
Downloaded from itq. Brill. Indeed. 1998).
For a treatment of Drews and other radical skeptics see Walter Weaver. 1999). Sorting all this out
theory appears in his Philo. Aalen: Scientia Verlag. 5) the significant differences of fact found in the four gospels.1841 (reprint. 1877). one of the best-known Jesus scholars. xxviii. upon which the other gospels depended.
Jesus of history
gained in any
The first option is that of historical scepticism. 1972) and Christus und die Caesaren: Der Ursprung des Christenthums aus den rö. the sceptic will argue that any objective portrait of Jesus must be considered to be at best sketchy and at worst arbitrary.’ How are we to assess this option? On the one hand.com by guest on January 28. gap between the creation of these texts and the oldest surviving copies.’. is pure fantasy and at the centre of this grand illusion lies the fabricated figure of Jesus. 3. 2) the historical gaps separating not only the death of Jesus from the first accounts of his life but also the less remarked-upon. The four Gospels not only disagree at critical points. Strauss und Renan und das Urchristentum.
2. At the
time. 45-71. 6) the morass of disagreement existing among those engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus. Sceptics of this type cite the following factors to support their case: 1) the meager historical record. The pioneer of this approach to Jesus is surely the German historian Bruno Bauer ( 18091882). I reject all attempts theologians can claim. and finally. 3) our lack of knowledge about the authors and their connection to the original events. there is not much else we can say about him with certainty. Bauer’s
Downloaded from itq. 4.212
Jesus Christ. who argued that the Gospel of Mark. openly acknowledges that the quest runs the danger of becoming a ’bad scholarly joke’ and that ’it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history. Radical skepticism did. 2013
. When this list of obstacles to constructing a convincing portrait of Jesus is put together.sagepub. and perhaps more troubling. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco.’ Other and more probable versions of scepticism claim that while there are few reasons to deny Jesus’ existence. to do autobiography and call it biography’. (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International.mischen Griechenthum (Berlin. create a stir during the first decade of the twentieth century in response to Arthur Drews’s Die Christusmythe (1901). 4) the stance of the authors as Christians primarily interested in supporting their new religion.Not many serious people followed Bauer in this radical conclusion. 1991). it is certainly true that the historical traces Jesus left behind are far from ideal for reconstructing his life. however. John Dominic Crossan. but these differences appear to reflect struggles within the early Church as much as disagreements over what actually happened. The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century (1900-1950).
comparison between the possibility of knowing Jesus and knowing Alexander the E. demonstrated by the very number of alternative reconstructions of Christian origins.
statement is true 6.
5.’ When this standard is applied to the historical Jesus. This follows from the very character of faith. The significant works are Martin Kä. Historical judgements are of their nature tentative. tr. E. Carl Braaten (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1964). P. A.
Downloaded from itq. Any sceptic with respect to Jesus must be prepared to be consistent. For a similar point by Kä. judgements about the possibility of finding reliable information about Jesus must be tutored in the methods and intrinsic limits of historical knowledge.hler. ed. 111. the results of historical study are continually changing A faith ~Jhich looks to history for support will find not a mighty fortress but shifting sand. While faith must be both certain and sustaining. 1983).W. Moreover. Sanders.sagepub. The basis of faith must be something fixed. The Commumion of the Christian with God. 2013
. Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. Stewart (Philadelphia: Fortress Press. At the same time. whatever the chances of finding the historical the historian has nothing to tell the believer. The Second Option: The Jesus of history less) but has no real significance for faith
be gained (more
Jesus.hler see The So-Called Historical Jesus. This position is most often 7 associated with the work of Martin K5hler and Wilhelm Herrmann. Communion. always awaiting either new evidence or a deeper understanding of the evidence we already possess. 1971).213
has proved a Herculean task. 3-4. Herrmann. In Herrmann’s words: ’It is a fatal error to attempt to establish the basis of faith by means of historical investigation. The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. both agreed that any attempt to base faith in the findings of historians is the purest folly. Wilhelm Herrmann. If the basic outline of Jesus’ life is inaccessible to historical scrutiny. Sandys Stanyon and R. either about whether he should believe or what he should believe.&dquo.com by guest on January 28. historical judgements are tentative and forever open to revision. Ernst Wolf. 1993). there are reasons to temper the strength of these objections.’ While the historical record of Jesus’ life is neither expansive nor without its problems.
This option holds that. 5. 8. The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin. one is dealing with historical knowledge. Once any particular interpretation is more likely than any other. The decisive issue is whether the evidence is such that it allows judgements to move beyond the merely arbitrary. trans J. it is far from a blank slate or a whirlwind of confusion. For
Great. it is clear that the problem of his religious significance cannot be so easily dismissed. 7. Although their differences are considerable. This fact leads to a second option. surely most of the.figures and events which fill the pages of history books on the ancient world suffer the same fate. 76. Harvey remarks that ’[W]hat we have to ask is not whether agiven with a kind of supernatural certainty but whether the fact which it reports may be regarded as at least as well established as any other fact which comes down to us from antiquity’.
a product of an encounter between proclaimed Word and believer. On the other side. To permit the quest for the historical Jesus to establish a monopoly over all theological reflection would be tantamount to denying the Christological riches of our tradition. The So-Called Historical Jesus. The Real Jesus. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels has gained great popularity as a stinging and at times hilarious rebuttal of some of the most radical Jesus historians. the
Downloaded from itq. charges of novelty must be tempered by a
9. Johnson asserts that the ’real Jesus’ is not a figure locked in the dead past waiting to be discovered. the Galilean of scientific history is pale indeed.’9 Faith in this Christ does not arise from the historian’s desk but from the preacher’s pulpit. Johnson’s wit is found to be directed against all attempts to allow an historically reconstructed Jesus to influence theological reflection. and that for faith to be correct. 151. therefore. The most influential modern proponent of this position is the Catholic exegete. 12. 2013
. but only to a faith-inspired engagement with the ’pattern’ which emerges from the variety of faith-textured testimonies found in the New Testament and embraced by the Christian Church. and the Jesus whom it brings to the world. 10. Johnson has provided an example of this approach in his Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. Finally. By comparison. This is the ’living Jesus’ of the canonical Gospels.Historical Jesus&dquo.
In any case. books has been the perpetuation of the notion that history somehow determines faith. It correctly notes that Christian faith got along quite well for most of its history without modern historiography. and recent &dquo.&dquo. 1999). but a living presence who abides with the Church transforming his followers through the power of the Holy Spirit.sagepub. This honorific goes to what Kahler called the ’real Christ’. and with whom the great witnesses of faith have been in communion . with whom millions have communed in childlike faith. ’[Tlhat is. dogmatic pronouncements.this real Christ is the Christ who is preached. The Real Jesus.com by guest on January 28. the historical accounts that gave rise to it have to be verifiable’. According to Johnson.&dquo. ’the most destructive effect of the &dquo. the Jesus who enlivens the Church’s faith. and writings of Christian mystics. the liturgy. 10 Yet when the dust settles. Moreover. few would wish for the intensity and assurance of faith to be captive to the latest scholarly fights and fads. It is this real Jesus and not some tentative reconstruction who is the proper object of true Christian faith and the source of systematic theology. is not available to historiography and its methods. 11. Johnson is certainly correct that the object of Christian faith is a living and abiding reality and not a scholarly reconstruction. 66-67. 1996. There is a good deal to say for this option. the Christ who has exercised an influence in history. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Jesus of history can never serve as the object of Christian the reality to whom believers are called to entrust themselves. Jesus’ reality. 141.214
faith. Echoing K5hler. Luke Timothy Johnson.Jesus Seminar&dquo.
1870). 158-256. If Christians can claim a special avenue to Jesus independent of the rules which normally govern historical inquiry.11 With the publication and dissemination of the anti-dogmatic portraits of Jesus by Strauss. Essays on the Work Entitled ’Supermatural Religion. The critics of the Enlightenment knew well that an attack on the historical basis of Christianity is an attack on its very foundations. honest historical inquiry can only serve to bolster this conviction. Prominent examples include George P. The rationale is that. For a survey of post-Enlightenment apologetic see Avery Dulles’s A History of Apologetics (New York: Corpus. on the whole. but a friend and ally. the historical credibility of the canonical Gospels became a field for intense combat. Knock the historical ground from under the Christian message and the edifice crumbles. if slowly. Not content to allow critics to undermine the traditional view of Scripture as true history. To counsel ignoring historical issues runs the risk of violating the very logic of a faith which claims that God has entered history. Lightfoot. surely.com by guest on January 28. rev. I believe. Furthermore. might not others claim their own privileged avenue to figures with whom they enjoy a special relationship ? In other words. securing their traditional dictum that an inspired text is as trustworthy as its divine author. since all Christians insist that the Jesus who actually lived is coterminous with the Jesus of
Christian faith. tended to focus their energies on the connection between true history and biblical inspiration. but the fact that the veracity of biblical history is now under siege. but overlooks the long tradition. 14 Catholics. and J. Protestants. 2nd ed. 2013
. or to compel theology to retreat into the private world of faith. on the other hand. Scribner & Co. This tradition results in a third option. What separates us
from Aquinas or Luther is not our obsession with historical truth. 14. Essays on the Supermatural Origin of Christianity (New York: C. One finds this confidence at work in much Catholic and Protestant apologetics since the Enlightenment. especially prized in Catholic theology. ed. that faith has nothing to fear from reason. Historiography is not the enemy. 1971). 1893).sagepub. not only opens Christianity up to the charge of special pleading. confirming by reason what is held in faith
This option is most closely identified with Catholic theology. 1865. apologists from both sides of the confessional divide fought back.
The Third Option: The quest for the Jesus of history is important for apologetic reasons. why should a believer’s opinion of Jesus of Nazareth be any less affected by continuing historical investigation than a Muslim’s opinion of Muhammad? An unsatisfactory rejoinder.. although it is also found in Protestantism. concentrated on the
13. (New York: Macmillan.215
recognition that theology prior to the advent of modem historical methods was not unconcerned about the historical veracity of the New Testament as much as it took that veracity for granted. Renan.
Downloaded from itq. B. Fisher. and others. those who pursue this option appear to reject the very legitimacy of historical scholarship at least when Jesus is under the glass.
must not. but credibility can and must be demonstrated. that is. must of course be equally scrupulous.Stoddard (New York: Benziger Brothers. Basil Whelan. The Papal Encyclicals 1939-1958.216
’signs of credibility’ surrounding the biblical account. his messianic consciousness. In this case. his resurrection. but it can prove the truth of the fact that Christ represented himself as God. ’It is true that history cannot immediately and plainly demonstrate the truth of the Christian revelation and of the divinity of Jesus Christ.&dquo. Christ and the Critics. It is fascinating to see how the attempt to steer a path between the errors of fideism and rationalism is reflected in Catholic contributions to the quest for the historical Jesus. marshalling arguments which could in principle be compelling to unbelievers. 73. 17. 19. ’If we. these theologians strove to keep faith and reason properly distinguished. is motivated not by any operation of reason but by the authority of the revealing God. 3008. the character of
apostolic witnesses. McGrath Publishing Co. Christ and the Critics. Jesus’ miracles. however. emphasis was given to rational arguments advanced in support of the historical credibility of the Gospels. which offered a more complex view of the intent of the evangelists with respect to history. the work of the apologist was affected by official pronouncements such as Pius XII’s Divino Af f lante Spiritu (1943). Claudia Carlen (Wilmington..l9 The concern to establish a more sophisticated stance. we. 16. His Person. presuppose either the faith or the scientific credibility of Christianity’ (Felder. Its warning to would-be apologists is telling. as apologists. 18. Douglas Carter. For example. ’Hence the Catholic commentator. 1924) and Lé. DS 3005. and in this case also the affair of history. summon the opponents of the Christian revelation before the bar of fair. See. tr.com by guest on January 28.17 This concern found official expression in the First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius which sought to avoid the excesses of separating faith from reason as well as making faith a conclusion of reason. (New York: 1935-1937). however.sagepub. one
15. but it is the affair of science. to prove that our faith is scientifically based upon the facts of revelation and Christianity. 3015-3017. and let him be convinced that this part of his office cannot be neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis’ (38). and is therefore reasonable’ (Felder. 3 vols. Jesus Christ..16 At the same time. In particular. although enjoying external supports such as miracles and philosophical demonstrations.
Downloaded from itq. e. As the century progressed. His Message. in whole and in part. to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the sacred writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation . 13). His Credentials..g. Catholic apologists operated against a backdrop of centuries of debate over how far reason can go in demonstrating the credibility of Christian belief by natural reason without supplanting either the priority of supernatural grace or displacing God as faith’s proper object. unclouded history. trs. John L. 2013
. in explaining the Sacred Scripture and in demonstrating and proving its immunity from all error. Faith cannot be attested by means of history. 15 In each case. 12). should also make a prudent use of this means. Prior to the Second Vatican Council.once de Grandmaison. on our side. A Defense of the Divinity of Jesus against the Attacks of Modern Sceptical Criticism. 1981). the style of argument mirrored that of the adversary. Christ and the Critics. and that he undoubtedly furnished proofs for this assertion. in order to comply with the present needs of biblical studies. determine. ed. Hilarion Felder. and his religion as divine. in particular. it declared that faith.. Faith is not a matter of science. and the glorious Church which arose then and abides still. To this end.
cols. 24. The Letter on Apologetics. 1. in Dictionnaire de thé. This caution accorded well with developments in the field of apologetics engendered by the work of Catholic intellectuals such as Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) and Pierre Rousselot (11878-115 ). A prominent example is found in Sté. trs. 2013
. just as faith must not determine what an historian says about Jesus. 22. 23. Blondel.~4 Moreover. 1. Not surprisingly. If the Gospel accounts were not intended in every instance to present ’what really happened’. 1991. Joseph Donceel (New York: Fordham University
Press. Rinehart and Winston. John M. ’The real Jesus’ who is the basis and object of faith is not Meier’s quarry but merely ’the Jesus whom we can recover. 1.-’ Influenced by modern philosophy. 55-514. The Eyes of Faith and Ansuer to Two Attacks.&dquo. received approbation in Vatican 11’s Dei Verbum (1965). especially Roman 20. in most cases. they held that the subjective disposition of the hearer will. it should cause no anxiety for believers. A Marginal Jeu. see
21-36. A Marginal Jeu. vol.217
that affirms the basic truth of the Gospel narratives without committing itself to the literal historical truth of each and every account. vol. Rousselot’s theory came under sharp attack by those who believed that his emphasis on subjectivity undermined Vatican I’s insistence that the credibility of the faith was available to natural reason.ologie catholique VI. he states. and death of Jesus. perhaps efforts to demonstrate the New Testament’s absolute historical veracity were misdirected. ministry.com by guest on January 28. Without denying the objective force of apologetic demonstrations. 21. Rousselot pointed to grace transforming the intellectual faculties of the potential believer such that what may otherwise be unconvincing evidence is seen as convincing through ’the eyes of faith’. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 1990). tr.2’ Although this task requires the bracketing one’s faith. 12 The first two volumes of his multi-volumed A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus make clear that faith will play no role in what he will conclude about the life. ’follows a simple rule: it prescinds from what Christian faith or later Christian teaching says about Jesus. ’My method’. McDermott. Dru and I. History and Dogma. the most prominent and highly respected Catholic scholar of the historical Jesus. 25. especially 260-275. 1. While Blondel did not specify the theological nature of this disposition in great detail. also 197-198. neither should what the historian finds have any direct consequence for faith. Trethowan (New York: Holt.
Downloaded from itq. 1994). 1. 1964).phane Harent’s article ’Foi’. 21 Many of the issues at play in modern Catholic apologetics can be detected in work of John Meier. A Marginal Jeu. 2 vols. A Marginal Jew. 1. vol. determine whether such demonstrations are found to be credible. recapture. or reconstruct by using the scientific tools of modern historical research’ . (New York: Doubleday. without either affirming or denying such claims’. these authors emphasised the subjective element intrinsic in any appraisal of the truth of Christianity.sagepub. For the difference between the real Jesus and
one. Rousselot. and the reactions it provoked. A.
J. 21 (March. DiNoia charges that Meier ’does not . in his detailed treatment of Meier’s method. events. 6. however. 585-87. esp. when studying Jesus. Likewise. He has been attacked from all sides. since a distinction between ’what we know by reason and what
affirm by faith’ is firmly within the Catholic tradition. Pro Ecclesia. vol. Message..30 In any case. 1. ’Testing the Gospel Story’. the Protestant. Commonweal (November 18. 2013
. speaks of an ’empathy’ which faith gives the believer. and motivations are integral to the life of Jesus. who judge the very project pernicious. vol. it seems unlikely that a consensus could ever be established which did not favor a secular position. or ’conditional’ believer. and the Reality of Jesus: Reflections on the Method of J. [T]he philosophical and theological presuppositions of what Meier takes to be the theologically (and doctrinally) neutral methodology of the historical quest thus slip unexamined and unchallenged into his argument’ (’A Review of A Marginal Jew’.sagepub.32
26. 515. ’Historical Research. 32. If Meier expected to be roundly applauded for his finely tuned Catholic sensibilities. Roch Kereszty. Naturally. Mentor. See DiNoia. But in neither case will the historian make the call or provide much assistance for those who will. the materialist is free to draw his own conclusions from the evidence. 509-1038. Theological Inquiry. 27 Meier believes that it falls within the task of the historian to probe all the relevant data for determining whether a purported miracle has a discernible earthly cause or was a product of trickery or excessive credulity. those. 576-600. ’The Public Square’. 124). 2. A Marginal Jew.. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. P. 19 (1992).29 Other critics have objected that Meier’s adoption of a neutral methodology amenable to Jew. 35. employing the benefits of faith to delve deeper than would be possible for those lacking this gift. 58. Miracle. ’[T]he Catholic. he must be quite disappointed. 1994). ’To affirm either that God has directly acted to bring about this startling event or that God has not done so is to go beyond what any historian can affirm in his or her capacity as a historian and to enter the domain of philosophy or theology. 12’ Accordingly. Richard John Neuhaus. and agnostic alike constitutes ’handing the palm of victory’ to the agnostic before the race has begun. consider the anti-metaphysical bias of the questers. vol. Communio. 2/1 . nor the implicit positivism and rationalism of their views of history. ought not a Christian historian at least offer some resistance to a methodological positivism which brackets all claims concerning divine action simply because God cannot be considered an historical actor without violating the rules of modern historiography?31 Some critics go further. Christian. 29. He draws a line..com by guest on January 28.218
’Historians’. 30. 27.
Downloaded from itq. between such judgements and the decision whether or not a miracle has actually occurred. a Christian is free to accept a miracle once properly vetted by the historian. 24. and the Jew must abide by the scholarly criteria of methodological skepticism as a condition for keeping the skeptic involved in the exercise’. A Marginal Jew. holding that Meier would be well advised to adopt a specially theological approach to the history of Jesus. 2. First Things. A. like Johnson. find little theological relevance in his work. Since religious beliefs. ’Review’. Meier’. 31.. 1992). 28. See Johnson’s review of Meier’s second volume. A Marginal Jew..’-6 The advantage of this capacity to distinguish faith and reason is most clearly evident at this point in Meier’s treatment of miracles. 125 and Dulles.
34. this approach recognises that the character of the New Testament message makes historical questions unavoidable and that theologians have a responsibility to address them using methods which appeal not only to the convinced. its harmony with a great deal of Catholic tradition on the relationship reason has with faith must be acknowledged. however. 35. A more apposite approach would employ all the resources of history and faith to demonstrate that it is likely that God was at work in the life of Jesus. one is entitled to ask what kind of claim is being
made which allows ’historical reason’ to support faith but never contradict it.219
The debate touches directly on the nature of apologetics when Meier accused of being a rationalist on historical matters but a fideist with reference to theology.&dquo. Joseph DiNoia raises the spectre of a ’doul:>le truth Dulles allows the of whether ’Meier the believer theory’. Moreover. while reason can be of service to faith. it can never undermine it or rightly demand a revision of its content. ’Historical Research’. some reasons to believe that this option is not wholly adequate. Meier is faulted not only for neglecting the apologetic task of identifying the historical Jesus with the Jesus of Christian faith but for blocking all such attempts through a definition of historical objectivity which excludes faith. 2013
. ’Historians’. or is it a philosophical principle which even non-believers should find compelling. Unaided reason does not possess the capacity to reach the object of faith .
DiNoia. Yet. The confidence that reason can uphold the historical truth of the Gospels is surely preferable to a protectiveness that can only nourish nagging doubts.
Downloaded from itq.com by guest on January 28. or at least reasonable? Another way to address this issue concerns how believer ought to characterise historical results which conflict with what Christians believe about Jesus or make their beliefs less credible.sagepub. Is this a priori delimiting of reason’s reach simply a consequence of the internal logic of faith which by its very nature asserts its own truth. let us suppose that an historian concludes that the basic outline of Jesus’ life round in the Gospels is an invention of the early Church which profoundly distorts Jesus’ actual life and message.only faith elevated by supernatural grace (and reason illuminated by faith) is granted this privilege . not compelling faith but leading the potential believer up to the
are. 125.and of itself has no control over what faith receives. The first relates to the shared assumption of most apologists that. Kereszty. 591. Are theologian::.
In assessing this third option. B4 Finally. but also to those who struggle to
believe.)3 Avery question would disagree with Meier the historian’. to consider such conclusions
33. In each case. Dulles. while the logic is clear enough. 22. Roch Keresky finds that Meier ’seems not only to distinguish but also to separate the realm of historical investigation from the realm of faith’. For example.’A Review’.
196-200. E. ’The Theological Relevance of the Historical Jesus: A Debate and a Thesis’. the quest for the historical
capable of this. Does the historical Jesus have a special power. Problematic conclusions are to be refuted not on the basis of their conflict with faith but because the legitimate methods of historical research have been misapplied. 38. ’The Theological Relevance’. 25. In short. whether informed by faith or not. 2013
. and if so. few theologians will deny that what is discovered by historians. that Christian theology must opt for the first of these responses. but goes further to assert that ’historical study of the New Testament may . Johnson is not responding to Meier but to David Tracy.sagepub.. The second objection is related. Even Meier’s modest claim that the historical Jesus has the capacity to explode easy labels raises the question of whether the Jesus presented in the canonical Gospels or affirmed in Church teaching is any
In each case. 30..
Downloaded from itq. whence does it
My point here is not to criticise those who take this third option for a clarity with respect to the precise relationship of faith and
36.’8 As such. contribute to the better understanding of faith and assist in the development of Christian doctrine’ . Even John Meier allows the quest some utility for theologians. Marginal Jew. vol. In a chapter tellingly entitled ’Why bother? The Relevance of the Quest for the Historical Jesus’. or the correction of inadequate images of Jesus. they keep alive the reality of Jesus’ humanity and serve to ’correct’ false images of Jesus which neglect or distort his liberating
power. Although the logic of faith requires that the believer hold that reason will always in the end prove to be supportive of faith. Meier asserts that the quest can combat attempts to mythologise Christ. Even if reason could be limited in the manner that proponents of this option hope. can be of great value for reflecting upon the mystery of Jesus Christ.com by guest on January 28. to deny his humanity. 1. the Jesus revealed by historiography has the power to break all human constraints and flummox all ideologies which seek his unconditioned support. The Thomist. Johnson. Excepting the most rigorous rejecters of the quest. 25.39 logical
Jesus appears to serve a theopurpose beyond merely confirming what the Church confesses apart from it. 37. it is worth asking whether such a limitation can account for the actual interplay between faith and the quest for the historical Jesus. 39. I believe.3’ Elizabeth Johnson takes another step in arguing that historical reconstructions of Jesus become part of the Church’s ’living memory’ of Jesus.36 Avery Dulles agrees with Meier on this point. or to co-opt his life and message for political purposes. Dulles.220
the result of bad history or the inevitable result of inquiring into a sacred subject without ’the eyes of faith’? Maintaining the ultimate unity of faith and reason requires. 48 (1984). ’Historians’. this conviction cannot be employed as an argument. The same question can be posed with respect to the development of doctrine.
In each case. Roy W. The preface to a colour-coded translation of the ’Five Gospels’ contrasts the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith and concludes that ’the church appears to smother the historical Jesus by superimposing this heavenly figure on him . Reimarus. and the German theologian. there are reasons to believe that just as the quest for the historical Jesus is a relative newcomer in the history of theology. Strauss.. 42 Pannenberg.sagepub. Both have produced monographs on Jesus in which critical history is incorporated into the theological task. Yet. Jesus-God and Man. ’The Five Gospels. T. Wright. has spent a lifetime arguing that attempts to shield faith from the question of its historical truth.
Option: The Jesus of history has potentially decisive significance for both the credibility and the content of faith
This final option seeks to give ’historical reason’ a central role in both and faith. the activity of the Jesus Seminar will spring to mind. trs. more edifying motivation for allowing history its full say in theological matters: the conviction that searching for the historical Jesus is an inevitable and fitting element within the Church’s on-going desire to be faithful to God as revealed in Christ. Wright. The need for further discussion is one justification for considering a fourth option. N.4‘ Yet there is another. and is given full reign to constitute an alternative. In the hands of the most radical of this group. not only discredit John Galvin observes that ’despite the significance of the reorientation of theological on the historical Jesus. 1993). T. Leading proponents of this option include the British exegete. Such confidence in the importance of the historian’s task is most often associated with those who would employ history to undermine traditional views about Jesus. its basis outside religious experience and dogmatic judgment.~2 This failure may in part be due to a general underestimation of the revision required in traditional modes of theological reflection. 1977). the ’historical truth’ is contrasted with the distortions found in the New Testament canon and later Christian tradition. once the historical Jesus is allowed relevance beyond simply confirming what can be said apart from critical history. 55 . Funk. 1996).com by guest on January 28. The very attempt to attain a balance is laudable enough.
40. the canonical portrait of Jesus is cast as little more than the spoils of the victorious ’orthodoxy party’ in its struggle for control over the new religion. One finds this motive at work in the originators of the quest. For those more attuned to current developments. N.221
41. 7. trs. 2013
.g. many important theological dimensions of issues relative to the Jesus of history remain disputed and obscure’ (’From the Humanity of Christ to the Jesus of History: A Paradigm Shift in Catholic Christology’.Wolfhart Pannenberg. the issues it raises have yet to be fully sorted OUt. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. Christian Origins and the Question of God. as is well known. e..
Downloaded from itq. Wolfhart Pannenberg. 42.
257). 2nd ed. Theological Studies. Duane Priebe and Lewis Wilkins (Philadelphia: Westminster Press. Jesus and the Victory of God. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. Robert W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Polebridge Press.
The phrase comes from John Galvin. Perhaps the most important aspect of this option is its connection to the actual practice of theology. 44. Wright makes a similar argument for an essential unity between theological search for the meaning of the term ’god’ and an open-ended critical inquiry into the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. 22-27. and hence the adjective ’divine’. 2013
. and ’Five Gospels but No Gospel: Jesus and the Seminar’.44
N. which underlies faith in Jesus. Wright’s scientific approach is not merely a matter of professionalism.
Downloaded from itq. vol. 1-61. Christology must ask and show how far this history of Jesus is the basis of faith. open-ended investigation of actual events in firstcentury Palestine) and rigorous theology (i. 28-82. but reflects a deeper conviction that critical history upholds faith’s self-understanding as a response to divine action. 266. 47. 1995). Wright. Pannenberg makes the following argument:
and justify christological statements about Jesus. 46. Jesus and the Victory of God.sagepub. christology get behind the confessional statements and titles of the primitive Christian tradition. 282. T.e. 115-158. Employing accepted conclusions from research into the historical Jesus avoids the suspicion that his ’theological significance [is] a product of the Church’s faith’. vol. Dialog. reaching the foundation to which these point. Of the many places one could look in Pannenberg’s writing for this argument. It does so by inquiring into the actual inner necessity of christological development in the NT and the continuation of this logic in the christology of the early church. One finds the same logic at work in the apologist who seeks evidence for Christian faith in historical fact. the most complete is Systematic Theology. 2. ’The underlying argument of this book is that the split [between faith and history] is not warranted. Wright’s searing criticisms of the Jesus Seminar gain credibility by carefully foreswearing any reliance on Christian tradition and restricting his case to the plausibility of the
Seminar’s reconstruction of the historical material. 1991). Systematic Theology. This foundation is the history of Jesus. 1.46 Yet. in Crisis in Christology: Essays in Quest of a Resolution (Livonia.&dquo. Arguments from authority leave the impression that Christian faith is its own creation with no anchor in a reality outside of itself. MI: Dove
Booksellers. tr. open-ended investigation of what the word ’god’. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. 37 (Winter 1998). and never more so than in discussion of Jesus’ (Jesus and the Victory of God.com by guest on January 28. ministry. 45
In assessing this final option. Since the advent of the historical-critical
43. might actually refer to) belong together. That rigorous history (i. Geoffrey W. 8). Eerdmans Publishing Company. and fate of Jesus. ’From the Humanity of Christ’.&dquo. 45. one can start with the intellectual integrity of refusing to place limits on what honest historical inquiry might mean for Christian theology.222
Christianity’s claim to speak of God but are wholly alien to the historical character of divine revelation witnessed in the Scriptures. With respect to scientific research into the life.e. For Pannenberg’s comment on the ’Third Quest’ see ’The Historical Jesus as a Challenge to Christology’.
it is widely agreed within the theological community that Christological conclusions which rely upon outdated or highly controversial historical theories are rendered on that account suspect Yet. 1978). Schillebeeckx. 1985). these reconstructions possess an invincible normative power. Kasper. no one concerned for the relationship that ought to pertain between Christianity and Judaism can afford to ignore what historians are saying about Jesus’ relationship to the Temple or the Law. if he is convinced that Luke’s (6:20) more likely goes back to Jesus himself. on the New Quest for ready proof. Jesus the Christ. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. what is discovered about the figure reflected by the canonical portraits is given a certain significance for determining what is said and not said about what God has revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. 1976). Prominent examples include: W. 260-270). On Being a Christian. Herbert Hoskins (New York: Seabury.com by guest on January 28. a theologian attempting to describe the proper Christian attitude toward poverty is very unlikely to employ Matthew’s version of the first Beatitude (5:3). 1976).P. when relevant. I am dependent for my examples (although not the implication) on Avery Dulles’s list of possible use for the historical Jesus in ’Historians and the Reality of Jesus’. Matthew J. This intent is
in E. Nonetheless. role for the historical Jesus must make clear the limits of their proposal. Edward Quinn (Garden City: Doubleday. the work of systematic theologians has been increasingly tied
conclusions of biblical exegesis. The same applies to a sacramental theologian fashioning a theology of the Eucharist.223
method. Galvin adds ’personal presupposition of Jesus’ preaching and actions’. 49. It is not merely that theologians are responsible to the most successful reconstructions of the historical Jesus. 51 In each case. it is virtually certain that a reconstruction of Jesus’ own attitude on these points will be given greater theological weight than the often polemical presentations of the four Evangelists. Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press.ng. and ’origin of the Church and the sacraments’ (’From the Humanity of
Christ’. This has been especially true in the field of Christology. one can go further. Indeed. more or less. ’Jesus’ understanding of his definitive salvific character’. even potentially decisive.
. it must also be noted that they run the risk of being obscured. To claim an invincible power for accepted historical conclusions about Jesus need not give the
48. ’present and future dimensions of the Kingdom of God’. tr. tr. Will she not need to rely on historiography to determine whether the Last Supper was most probably a Paschal meal? Finally. in assessing the strengths of this option.
50. No other theological source can trump an accepted conclusion of what really happened in Palestine two millennia ago. but that. 24. O’Connell (New York: Paulist. if a number of concerns are not addressed. Hans Kü. It is the rare practitioner of the discipline who does not attempt to ground at least some of his or her conclusions in the most accepted theories of what the historical Jesus did and said. E.&dquo. One need only consider the ongoing reception of influential Christologies based. The most important of these involves the relationship between the reconstructed Jesus and other theological sources. Moreover. Proponents of a strong. ’Jesus’ approach to death’. tr. For example.
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. determining what Jesus actually said and did. While a theologian must attend to hypotheses. it can be readily conceded that the historical Jesus is not the real Jesus. Theological Studies.224
historian monopolistic powers. but are often unrelated to strictly historical themes. Carey C. given the disparate nature of modern theology. if none have attained this status with respect to the issue at hand. For instance.sagepub.
Downloaded from itq. in Jesus & the Reconstruction of Israel. Both Wright and Pannenberg provide ample evidence that the quest for historical truth and the truth about God need not be opposed. which have gained a consistent and widespread following among respected exegetes. Those judgments in turn supply the data for yet another judgments concerning which image or images best render the facts constituted by the second set of judgments historically intelligible’ (’From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus’. no less than those of Meier. Wright makes this point in a response to Luke Timothy Johnson. just as the Jesus of critical history ought not enjoy a monopoly over theological reflection. The inadequacy of the historical Jesus for these roles can be admitted without forfeiting its importance.52 Moreover. Their arguments.
53. the quest for the reality of Jesus. T.5’ At the same time. can be evaluated for their credibility by believer and non-believer alike. 52.
Loewe. Following upon those judgments there follows another set. 61 . Both recognise that the presence of initial presuppositions does not determine objectivity.’3 Does the lack of unanimity pose a problem for this approach? The answer is no. Thus. but whether what is concluded can be tested by those who do not share those presuppositions. The complexity involved is well stated by William Loewe: "’The historical Jesus" thus refers to a complex construct that rests on a set of more or less probable judgments about which sources are relevant and to what degree. judgements. In either case. each one again of greater or less probability. After all. A final concern facing all those who would give critical history a central theological role is the relationship between objectivity and faith. No historical reconstruction can ever capture the reality of Jesus but remains forever informed by a panoply of inferences. 245-252. IL:
Intervarsity Press. statements about the real Jesus can never contradict any accepted historical conclusion. Moreover. Newman (Downers Grove. A related issue concerns the current absence of a ’consensus of scholarly opinion’ on the historical Jesus and. A Critical Assessment of N. taking advantage of one’s faith
51. and presumptions . Wright’s ’Jesus and the Victory of God’. 324-326. 1999). the theologian will be called upon to defend whatever choice is made. to the extent that assertions of monopoly are resisted. ’In Grateful Dialogue: A Response’. neither ought it be seen as either the foundation or the object of faith. Insights into the nature of God’s revelation in Christ not only predate the advent of the quest. the slim chance of any particular reconstruction becoming accepted by all.com by guest on January 28. to acknowledge a distinction does not justify a separation. he is free to look to other sources. the quest for the historical Jesus is. ed. The idea that faith needs to be bracketed as a condition for objectivity must be abandoned. 328-329). in essence.
Four options have been discussed. ’History and Reality of the Resurrection’. but whether or not God’s raising of Jesus is to be considered an event open to historical inquiry and judgement. 55.com by guest on January 28.
The above survey reveals that the theological relevance of the historical Jesus remains contested. Since faith brings with it a theological conception of history. 271-272. of course. 2013
. 3 18. See the comments of John Galvin in ’From the Humanity of Christ’. vol. Examples of recent statements include Systematic Theology. theology and scientific history can have no real relationship. is well known for holding that unless the resurrection is treated as an historical event. 91 (1994). however. with historical criticism becoming a new weapon in the apologist’s arsenal? Or does the objectivity that is the goal of every serious quest for the historical Jesus possess a special value for theology? Without claiming a final resolution to this choice.
Downloaded from itq. On the other side are all those who allow historical reconstructions of Jesus some value. With respect to the life of Jesus.&dquo. 1996). Constructing a credible alternative to the dominant secular historiography has been a project for theologians since the dawn of the modem era. there is good reason to believe that in the end only two fully consistent positions are possible. this essay has argued that the quest for the historical Jesus possesses an invincible allure for
54. the lack of positive response to Pannenberg’s proposal shows the long and dusty road ahead.sagepub. each with its own strengths and weaknesses. yet even with the theological community itself success remains more of a hope than a reality.3 28. ed. Whether or not Jesus can be located with any precision. Zeitschrift fiir Theologie und Kirche. the Christian historian of Jesus must be willing to defend a critical historiography open to miracles and revelatory events.Historic und Theologie’. Pannenberg. Does the value of constructing an objective portrait of Jesus lay solely in confirming what Christians hold apart from such research. 62-72.’4 Yet. The latter seems the more reasonable position given the historical nature of Christian religion and its basis in the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. 343-363.
Methodological vulnerability to criticism also pertains to the metaphysical presuppositions involved in any religious quest for the historical Jesus. ’Die Auferstehung Jesu . in Resurrection Reconsidered. whatever is found is irrelevant to a faith which finds its source and security in a realm safe from the intrusion of historians. On the one side there are those who deny history any power in theological formulations. Yet.225
perspective to gain a fulsome portrait of Jesus becomes when that portrait is thereby sheltered from critique. one must confront not only the problem
of the miracles. Gavin D’Costa (Oxford: One World Publications. what it gains in appropriateness to the Christian revelation is threatened by the enormous complexity of determining with precision the value of historical reconstructions for theology. 2.
it can put forward hypothetical reconstructions of this or that aspect of Jesus’ history. What could justify this practice except the suspicion that the objectivity inherent in a successful reconstruction of the historical Jesus enjoys a special value for theology. And. revered champions giving way to more vigorous challengers. at each turn.226
systematic theology. the vying for the best reconstruction will continue.
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.com by guest on January 28. to avoid relying on vulnerable reconstructions. it will play a decisive role in Christology. and therefore can claim no monopoly over theological reflection. or. It has found support of this contention in the practice of contemporary theologians attempting to anchor some of their conclusions in successful theories about the historical Jesus. at very least. as it attempts to discern the true character of what God has revealed? While the quest for the historical Jesus can never deliver the total reality of Jesus. Of course. When any reconstruction is deemed as more adequate to the reality than another. the hope for a more objective portrait will lure theologians.sagepub.