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By C. Stephen Evans

Can the New Jesus Save Us?, Part 1

Bob Dylan told us that you don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. These days you don't have to be a biblical scholar to know that the historical Jesus enterprise is prospering. Cover stories in "Time" and "Newsweek," articles in local newspapers, and a flood of hot-selling books tell us "He's ba-a-a-ack." Not Freddie Krueger and not the Jesus worshiped and adored by the church, but the scholars' Jesus, the Jesus who is reconstructed by New Testament experts and ancient historians. These scholars claim their Jesus is the historical Jesus, the real Jesus, to be distinguished from the Jesus of myth or dogma who is the product of the church.

This is the third such "quest for the historical Jesus" in the span of roughly 150 years. The nineteenth century gave us the original quest, a project widely believed today to tell us more about the questers than about the actual Jesus. This original quest was finished off at the turn of the century by Albert Schweitzer's devastating "The Quest of the Historical Jesus," which argued that the actual Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was utterly different from the ethical teacher beloved by liberal theology.

For several decades, the project of reconstructing the "historical Jesus" lay dormant as a result of a strange alliance of liberals and some conservatives, who agreed on the necessity for a distinction between "the Christ of faith" and the "Jesus of history." These conservatives thought it was the church's task to proclaim the former; the work of Bultmann had shown liberals that the latter was beyond recovery.

However, it is hardly surprising that work on the historical Jesus eventually resumed as the "new quest" among Bultmann's former students and others. After all, the Christ of faith the church proclaims was a historical figure who "suffered under Pontius Pilate." And skepticism about the possibility of knowing the historical Jesus could hardly endure among scholars trained to investigate such things; otherwise, what would such people do?

As far as I can tell, this second quest for the historical Jesus--unlike the first quest--came to no dramatic conclusion. Rather, like so many academic debates, it just petered out, suffering from the law of diminishing returns. Once more the ugly face of skepticism and potential unemployment loomed, since one only needs a certain number of scholars to point out that knowledge of a particular kind cannot be had.

At some point, a third quest for the historical Jesus was inevitable. What is surprising about the newest quest is partly the sheer number of publications it has generated; a project that not many years ago seemed moribund is suddenly pulsing with life. Even more surprising is the public character of the new enterprise. The pilgrims on this new journey are not solitary travelers, nor are they content to form modest little groups who recite tales to one another. Rather, they seem determined to drag a large section of the population with them.


The Jesus Seminar clearly has played a central role in taking this display of scholarly energy into the public arena. In 1985, a group of around 30 scholars formed this group "to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to more than a handful of biblical scholars." The last clause seems a masterpiece of understatement. Now numbering around 200 members, the Jesus Seminar has been spectacularly successful in hitting the front pages of newspapers and the covers of magazines with its unorthodox conclusions--not to mention the provocatively titled best-seller "The Five Gospels," where the seminar's methods and results are presented in detail.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of content, how did the seminar arrive at its picture of Jesus? In true democratic fashion, the members of the seminar voted, determining the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus by dropping colored beads in a box. (Though the seminar is now working on events in Jesus' life, the original work dealt only with the alleged sayings of Jesus.) Different colors of beads represented various grades of authenticity, ranging from red ("Jesus said this or something very like it") to black ("This saying was created by later tradition").

Such a procedure was bound to generate media coverage, and this result seems to have been foreseen and intended by the seminar. However, the more fundamental question concerns the basis for the voting. How did the members of the seminar determine the authenticity of various sayings?

A quick answer seems to be "skeptically." Only about 18 percent of the sayings traditionally attributed to Jesus were accepted by the seminar as authentic. The seminar came down on the skeptical end of the teeter-totter because its members adopted the judicial assumption of "guilty until proven innocent." (The scholars assumed the Gospels "to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church's faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand." This procedure partly reflects a widespread--though, in my view, mistaken--idea that such a skeptical view of sources is a necessary characteristic of a tough-minded, critical historian. However, it also reflects a suspicious view of the communities that created the writings we know as the New Testament.

These communities, as well as the writers of the four canonical Gospels, are seen as having no qualms about attributing common lore to Jesus or even about putting their own words into the lips of Jesus. Seminar leaders contend that even when authentic historical materials are present, they are often "Christianized" to such a degree that they require wholesale recasting in order to restore them to their "original" form.

It seems likely that the seminar put a fair amount of weight on what is called the "criterion of dissimilarity," though it is hard to know this without the ability to read the minds of the "voters." Since the policy was to accept as authentic only what can be proven to stem from Jesus, sayings of Jesus that could have been created by the early church or that could be general rabbinic teachings of the time must be rejected. The idea is that we can only be sure of those sayings of Jesus that fit with neither the early church nor first-century Judaism. (By the same reasoning, future historians would judge as authentic words of Newt Gingrich only those statements that are dissimilar from those of other Republicans.)

The members of the seminar relied on other "criteria of authenticity" as well. Some, such as the principle of regarding material that is attested by multiple sources as more likely to be authentic, seem close to common sense (though the question of what counts as an independent source is rather controversial). Others, such as the principle that more complex versions of stories are later than simpler versions, depend upon debatable theories about how oral and literary traditions are transmitted.

The methodology of the Jesus Seminar described thus far does not seem too far out of line with the working assumptions of most New Testament scholars. It is true that many scholars take a less skeptical attitude toward the texts, and a great many have pointed out the limitations of the criterion of dissimilarity, which would at best appear to capture what might be called the idiosyncratic elements of Jesus--those elements that fit with neither his predecessors nor his followers. What seems most unusual about the Jesus Seminar is the high reliance its members place on extra-canonical gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas.

Thomas, discovered among other documents at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, is a gospel that consists largely of "sayings." Though the actual document dates from several centuries after the time of Jesus and is a Coptic translation of the original, some scholars theorize that Thomas is a very early source composed independently of the synoptic Gospels. Its existence gave added importance to a document called Q, never actually found, that had already been theoretically postulated to help explain similarities between Matthew and Luke that could not be traced to dependence on Mark. Q, like Thomas, is presumed to be largely a collection of sayings of Jesus. Since Q is supposed to be a source for Matthew and Luke, it is regarded as a document significantly older than those Gospels, and perhaps older than Mark. Thomas, Q, and noncanonical writings of a similar character suddenly took on new significance as scholars pondered the purposes of such collections. Since these "sayings" gospels contained no accounts of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, could it be that there were early communities of "Jesus-followers" for whom these events were unimportant?

Some of the more prominent members of the seminar think this speculative question can be confidently answered. Burton Mack, in his work "The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins," writes with breezy chutzpah about the hypothetical community that employed the hypothetical book Q. According to Mack, these people were not Christians; they were "Jesus-people" who cannot be seen as the early foundation of what later became known as the church. "The people of Q did not think of Jesus as a messiah, did not recognize a special group of trained disciples as their leaders, … did not regard his death as an unusual divine event, and did not follow his teachings in order to be 'saved' or transformed people." (Interestingly, the Resurrection is not important enough to Mack for him to include it in this list as an item to be denied!)

What, then, was Jesus like, and why did such people follow him? The suggestion is that Jesus was a Jewish--though not-so-very Jewish--version of a wandering Cynic philosopher, a sage whose wisdom was presented in an aphoristic, unconventional style and whose content challenged the prevailing cultural and social assumptions. A portrait somewhat like Mack's is presented in John Dominic Crossan's "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant," though Crossan does not go so far as Mack in seeing discontinuity between the early followers of Jesus and the church. Crossan's picture of Jesus puts special emphasis on table fellowship--Jesus' practice of eating with people of dubious moral and social standing. This "open commensality" was a proclamation of an "unbrokered kingdom of God," a new social order that meant an end to mediators and hierarchies.


This Jesus who is a Cynic sage--a "talking head," as one waggish critic has put it--is by no means the whole story of the third quest. Many members of the Jesus Seminar reject the idea that Jesus was a kind of wandering Greek philosopher. And many other scholars, including liberal ones, take very different views from those of the Jesus Seminar.

For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other discoveries have shed new light on first-century Judaism, and such scholars as E. P. Sanders have taken the quest down a completely different path. On this view, the key to an accurate reconstruction of the historical Jesus lies in highlighting the Jewishness of Jesus, rather than understanding him in the supposedly Hellenistic environment of Galilee. Though such an approach can be used to drive a wedge between the historical Jesus and the church, it does not have to do so, as is shown by N. T. Wright's significant work, "The New Testament and the People of God." Wright argues that there was a spirited debate among first-century Jews as to how to tell the story of Israel as the people of God. In particular, how is the story to be completed? As Wright sees it, the early Christians told the story as culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which constituted the "great divine act for which Israel had been waiting." Such a view makes sense of both the Jewishness of the early church and its eventual distinctiveness as a rift with other versions as the Jewish story developed.

A number of important Roman Catholic scholars have joined in this third quest. Many of them, while professing allegiance to the same critical-historical method practiced by the members of the Jesus Seminar, come up with results which, though far from pleasing to naive fundamentalists, are much more congruent with the Jesus of Christian theology. Raymond Brown, for example, in "The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels," sees the gospel accounts of Jesus' trials and executions as containing much that may reasonably be taken as historically authentic, a far cry from Burton Mack's sweeping dismissal of Mark's gospel as "a fiction."

The work of John P. Meier is particularly interesting as a test case of how critical-historical studies comport with orthodoxy. In his massive study, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus" (two volumes have been published, and a concluding volume is promised), Meier illustrates his commitment to such a method with an imaginary description of an "unpapal conclave." The scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus should proceed, Meier suggests, as if it were conducted by a committee consisting of a Christian, a Jew, and an agnostic who are locked in the basement of the Harvard Divinity School Library and fed bread and water until they produce a consensus document. On Meier's view, such a method cannot possibly arrive at many of the conclusions the Christian will want to affirm about Jesus by faith. It cannot, for example, assert that Jesus actually performed miracles (nor deny that he did). However, Meier himself thinks such an objective historical study will overlap with the church's teachings to a great extent; for example, though a good number of the miracle stories are judged to be later creations, in some cases we have good historical grounds for saying that in Jesus' own day he was believed to have performed miracles, whether or not he actually did.


The works mentioned above constitute only a small sampling of the newest quest for the historical Jesus. My purpose, however, is not to give a comprehensive scholarly overview but rather to ask, What does it all mean to me? What stance should the intelligent layperson take toward this quest? As a Christian believer, who holds that salvation depends on the life, death, and resurrection in the history of Jesus, I can hardly suspend judgment about such issues. We have here what William James called a "momentous option." My very life is at stake, and practically I cannot suspend judgment, since I must continue to live either as one who believes in this Jesus or as one who does not.

Should I simply ignore the whole business? Given the very public nature of the enterprise, this may not be possible. I recently had a conversation with a pastor planting a church in a suburban community. He told me that when he talks with his new parishioners, many of whom are previously unchurched professionals, they often inquire about such issues. They seem surprised that these scholarly claims have not been discussed in church, and they tend to think that the pastor is probably ignorant of such matters. A debate that is carried out in magazines and newspapers is no longer restricted to the ivory tower.

In any case, to ignore such intellectual challenges would appear to be a dishonest attempt to evade genuine intellectual problems. But there is a still better reason for avoiding ostrichlike maneuvers, and that is the possibility that historical-critical studies of the Bible might have genuine value for the Christian church. If the Incarnation really did take place in history, then it stands to reason that an understanding of the nitty-gritty world of first-century Palestine might indeed deepen the Christian's insight into Jesus of Nazareth.

The predicament of the layperson here is not unique. There are other cases where academic experts pronounce on issues about which laypeople must make up their own minds--in part, because the experts disagree among themselves. Experts may disagree on whether the world is in danger of global warming and on how to avoid it, but laypeople must vote for legislators committed to carrying out preventive and palliative actions. Economists may disagree on the impact of tax cuts, but I must decide for myself how to vote. So, too, with the quest for the historical Jesus.


In the process of arriving at an independent judgment where experts disagree, it is often useful to try to isolate the assumptions that lie behind the experts' opinions--including the assumptions that almost all the experts take for granted as well as the ones that may underlie the disagreements. One crucial assumption that a great many biblical scholars seem to take for granted is that the historical-critical method is the best means of arriving at the truth about the historical Jesus.

It is easy to see why such a belief should be assumed by historical scholars; after all, the historical-critical method was devised precisely as a way to transcend the biases and limitations of traditions and communities so as to discover historical truth. Why should it not be the best way to understand the life of Jesus?

Nevertheless, a little reflection shows that this principle is far from obviously correct. After all, the Christian believes that eternal life can be found in a relationship to Jesus of Nazareth, and that the path to such a relationship requires knowing about this Jesus. It is hard to believe that God could have acted in Jesus to make salvation possible for the human race and at the same time believe that knowledge of the story is possible only for those who have the intelligence and leisure to fight their way through the thicket of historical Jesus research. Surely, if knowledge of Jesus is as vital as Christians believe it to be, God would have made it possible for ordinary people to gain this knowledge without learning Aramaic or receiving Ph.D.'s in historical-critical biblical studies.

The church has always maintained that it is possible for ordinary people to gain the knowledge they need about the Jesus they meet in the gospel narratives. I think there are two primary accounts as to how this is supposed to happen, though these stories are by no means mutually exclusive, rival accounts. Both may be true and, in fact, can be seen as complementary.

One story, traditionally emphasized by the Roman Catholic church, though in principle open to Protestants, stresses that the knowledge the ordinary person needs to have about Jesus is grounded in the testimony of the church. On this account, the witness of the church with respect to the life and teachings of Jesus is a trustworthy guide to the truth; ordinary people who rely on that authority are reasonable to do so. Historical scholars can hardly object to this by claiming that relying on authority is, in principle, unreasonable for the overwhelming majority of what all historical-critical scholars believe is based on their acceptance of the testimony of others.

The other story, which one might call the Reformed story because of its prominence in John Calvin (though it clearly is present in other Protestants as well as Catholics), lays great stress on what is termed "the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit." Calvin regarded the Bible as containing a divinely inspired account of what people need to know for salvation, and he argued that the truth of the biblical account can be grasped by ordinary people on the basis of the witness of the Spirit of God.

Calvin's story is sometimes disparaged as an appeal to an unverifiable subjective experience, but it does not have to be construed in such a manner. In talking about the "witness of the Spirit," Calvin is giving a theological account of how people actually arrive at a conviction that Jesus is the divine savior. Suppose I begin to read the New Testament and, in some sense, I hear God speak to me through its pages: through the person of Jesus I hear God question me, make promises to me, give commands to me. As I think through those questions, promises, and commands, they begin to make sense of my life in a way I have never known. I gain a sense of who I am and who I should become, and I find myself gripped by a conviction that the story of Jesus I have encountered is true.

Such an account of faith does not necessarily divorce faith from knowledge. Some contemporary philosophers have theorized that knowledge is best understood as a true belief that is produced in a reliable manner. Thus I now know there is a computer screen in front of me, not because I can give a philosophical proof of this that would satisfy a skeptic, but because the belief is true, and it is produced in a reliable manner, employing my sensory faculties. If the story of Jesus is true, and if the work of the Holy Spirit is similarly reliable, it would appear that the outcome is also knowledge. (On this point, see my book "The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History," forthcoming from Oxford University Press.)

One can see, therefore, that the assumption that the historical-critical method provides the best way of getting at the historical truth about Jesus of Nazareth is open to question. What I have called the Catholic and Reformed stories may be false, but their truth or falsity cannot be established by historical scholarship alone; it requires theological and philosophical argument.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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