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The Meaning of Jesus

Six scholars explain why they study the origins of Christianity—and why it matters.

If you suffered from claustrophobia, this wasn't a good place to be. Every seat was filled, and where the chairs stopped there were people sitting, squatting, lying on the floor. Every wall was lined with bodies standing or leaning, and the one open doorway was jammed with a sweaty human mass that extended out into the hallway.

The crowd defied easy categorization. Professorial types abounded, among them many prominent New Testament scholars, but the body-piercing contingent was also represented. (Maybe they were professors, too.) From a chair that stood out incongruously in the no-man's land between official seating and the speakers' table, Pauline scholar Krister Stendahl took in the proceedings.

What brought them all out on a Sunday night was a panel discussion on "The Meaning of Jesus: What Difference Does Historical Jesus Research Make?" The setting was a Potemkin village in Orlando, Florida, where the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature held their joint annual meeting in November 1998.

Three years earlier, at the AAR/SBL meeting in Philadelphia, a shrewd observer of religious publishing had predicted the imminent demise of "the historical Jesus craze." How wrong can you be? What looked like a fad, as some would have it, has shown remarkable staying power, adding depth along the way.

But it wasn't only the subject that drew a crowd in Orlando; it was the lineup on the panel: Marcus Borg, N. T. Wright, Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, Karen King, and Richard Hays, ranging in conviction from evangelical orthodoxy (Wright, Hays) to the Jesus Seminar. Here, assembled in one place, were some of the leading figures in the renewed quest for the historical Jesus, sitting at the same table with other New Testament scholars whose work to some degree intersects with theirs. (Pagels, who noted that her interests don't really fit under the rubric of the historical Jesus, is a scholar of early Christian thought best known for her work on Gnosticism; she commands a considerable following of her own.)

Here was an unusually distinguished panel, then, but also one with a distinctive origin. It began with a friendship between Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. Scholars are human, but it is easy to forget that in the heat of conflict, especially when the scholar in question is a person you know only on the page. Borg and Wright are friends and antagonists, scholars who differ in their views who yet deeply respect each other. "We are both committed," they have written "to the vigorous practice of the Christian faith and the rigorous study of its historical origins and to the belief, which we find constantly reinforced, that these two activities are not, as is often supposed, ultimately hostile to each other." Their lively dialogue is captured in a book called The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, published by HarperSanFrancisco. The Orlando panel was the brainchild of HarperSF editor John Loudon, who brought the group together and presided over the event. What follows is an edited transcript.


Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion, Oregon State University

As I speak about the question "Does historical Jesus research matter?" I want to use terminology that I commonly use in my own work. Namely, I want to use the language of the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. By the pre-Easter Jesus I mean, of course, the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. By the post-Easter Jesus I mean, colloquially, what Jesus became after his death. And slightly more fully, by the post-Easter Jesus I mean the increasingly divine Jesus of the developing Christian tradition and the living Christ of Christian experience.

So I mean both of those by the post-Easter Jesus.

And then to frame the question using that language, the question I want to address and I think all of us are addressing is "Does the historical study of the pre-Easter Jesus matter?" And then I'm going to add "for Christians and for the church?" If people want to talk about how it might matter for other reasons, that's fine; but I'm going to focus on does it matter for Christians and for the church.

And I'm going to make five statements. The first one is a negative statement; the next four are positive statements.

The negative statement: In an ultimate sense, the quest for the pre-Easter Jesus doesn't matter. And by that I mean the very obvious point that for centuries people have been Christians and some of them have lived the lives of saints without any awareness of the historical Jesus at all, knowing only the canonical Jesus and the living Christ that is mediated by Christian sacrament and tradition and so forth. So in an ultimate sense, no.

But I think for four reasons the historical quest for the pre-Easter Jesus does matter in a penultimate sense. Let me turn now to those four positive reasons.

First, when we don't make the distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus we risk losing both. This is what happened to me and, I think, to many of us growing up in the church. When I was a child—and for that matter, an adolescent—I didn't know about this distinction. And certainly, when I was a child I probably couldn't have understood it even if it had been around. The result was that I lumped everything that I heard about Jesus into a single pot producing what might be called the composite Jesus. And thus, in my mind, Jesus became a divine figure of the past.

And both of those phrases, "divine figure" and "of the past," are important. When I say a divine figure I mean, of course, that I took it for granted that even as a historical person Jesus of Nazareth was the embodiment of God in human form, and as such had a divine mind and divine powers and so forth; and thus, he ceased to be a credible human being. And I lost track of the utterly remarkable human being that he was.

More subtly and less obviously, I also lost the post-Easter Jesus because, for me, Jesus was a divine figure of the past. Here some two thousand years ago, on earth for thirty years more or less, then after his resurrection and ascension gone, now with God, will come again someday. But in the meantime, not here. And thus, I lost the living Christ as a figure of the present.

So when we don't make the distinction, we risk losing both; when we do make the distinction, we get both. My other reasons go more quickly.

Second, when we don't make the distinction we risk losing the political dimension of Jesus, and that's because the most common Christian understandings of Jesus throughout the centuries have been doctrinal and perhaps spiritual, what we might call religious. And his death is understood in religious terms. His vocation is understood in religious terms. And we lose track of the fact that he was executed because he challenged the domination system of his day. But when we do make the distinction, we recover the political dimension of his life and his death, and we recover the political meaning of Good Friday.

The third reason that this matters is grounded in incarnational theology. And this is quite obvious, it seems to me; but let me say it anyway. Given the foundational Christian claim that Jesus is the Word and wisdom and Spirit of God incarnate, it becomes important to ask: What does such a life look like? What does the embodiment of the Word made flesh look like? What does the embodiment of the wisdom of God look like? What does the embodiment of the passion of God look like?

As the embodiment of the Spirit of God in a human life, Jesus discloses, for those of us who are Christian, what a life full of God is like and what God is like. And the glimpses that we can get of the pre-Easter Jesus through historical scholarship helps to give content to what a life full of God is like.

And my fourth and final positive reason: I want to underscore the fact that historical Jesus scholarship in our time does matter to very many people. Look at this room, for example. As we all know, there is enormous interest in this subject in North America today, an interest reflected in many ways, not least in book sales. And most of the people who buy Jesus books are church folks, or people on the fringes of the church wondering if they should come back in. And they find historical Jesus scholarship to be very helpful.

For some of them, its primary significance is that they need to be liberated from a literalistic way of looking at the Gospels in Scripture. For others, it contributes to a vision of the Christian life that is more persuasive and compelling than the vision of Christian with which they grew up.

And so in our time, in part because of the collapse of an older way of understanding Christianity over the last thirty to forty years, historical Jesus scholarship has become an important resource in revisioning what it means to be Christian today. And thus, whether we as scholars and theologians think it matters or not, in the lives of many people it does.


Dean of Lichfield, Staffordshire, England

I want to give you five examples of things that I have been involved with in the last six or eight months which I see as growing directly out of my own Jesus research, and then I want to give you five reasons about what I discover as I do historical Jesus research, which for me generate and sustain the sort of agendas I'm going to talk about.

Seven months ago I led a pilgrimage to what is variously called Palestine or Israel and took a sizable chunk of my own congregation from Lichfield Cathedral there; during that time, we saw the sights, we told the story, we did the history, we did the worship. It was Orthodox Easter at the time. But in the middle of it, we did two things that remain highlights for most of the people who went.

One is we visited a boys' home run for Palestinian orphans by a small, struggling minority Christian community there; and then that same day we went to the Sabeel Center, where Naim Ateek runs what is basically a Palestinian theology of liberation in continual dialogue with the people of Israel. Naim is an Israeli citizen. And that was a consciousness-raising thing for my congregation growing directly out of what I do.

Four months ago we hosted a meeting in the cathedral to celebrate and give an impetus to the movement called Jubilee 2000. I am astonished that people in North America by and large don't seem to have heard of Jubilee 2000, which is a major program for the remission of debts in the poorest countries of the Two-Thirds World. It's very big in Europe. It's very big in the UK. It ought to be big here. I was pleased and proud to host that meeting at the cathedral, where we had politicians and theologians and bishops from the Two-Thirds World and from the UK.

Then two weeks ago I had to preach at one of the hardest Sundays in the year for me, which is Remembrance Day. And faced with a church, a cathedral, full of politicians, local counselors, war veterans, and cadets in military uniform, I preached a sermon that the real victory is not victory in war but victory over war.

One week ago today we hosted a service called Prisoner Sunday where we invited the representatives of eight prisons from our large diocese to come to the cathedral and display their arts and their crafts, where we had a leading prison governor as the preacher, where the intercessions were led by a team of four from our nearest prison—a governor, a chaplain, a member of the prison staff, and an inmate each praying for one another's spheres of work. And then we hosted a seminar in the afternoon on the work of prisons.

And next week we start an Advent series of televised services. One of the central features of these as a symbol of inclusion and hope is that I will be interviewing and leading around the cathedral a blind theologian, John Hull, who will be describing his sense of hope and his expectation in Advent.

All of these things are focused on the worshiping life of the cathedral. They focus into that, and they grow out of that. Now, how has my study of the historical Jesus produced those kinds of agendas—none of which, I have to say, I would have engaged in before I started to study Jesus in his historical context?

First, because of my study of Jesus' prophetic call to Israel, which I see as then to be translated into the church's prophetic call to the world. Jesus was not preaching or embodying a mere timeless ethic, however great or noble or just. If so, Jesus was just a failure, and so has the church been ever since.

The second reason is that I have discovered in the study of Jesus the power of enacted symbols. Jesus did things; and in that context, he said things. And my study of Jesus, like that of Ed [E. P.] Sanders, has highlighted Jesus' symbolic acts and the sayings that interpret them. And it seems to me vital that the church recover that perspective rather than simply being a wordy community that very occasionally gets around to doing things.

Third, because of Jesus' victory on the cross over the principalities and powers that had held human beings, societies, enslaved. Jesus on the cross embodied the love of the Creator God, the God of Israel doing the uttermost for God's people, for God's earth, for God's world. This is an eschatology, not just a set of ethics. This is an eschatology that today challenges the rival eschatology of the Enlightenment, which said that world history reached its climax in Western Europe and North America in the eighteenth century—and look where that got us—and the rival eschatology of postmodernity, which is a kind of gotterdammerung eschatology that says it's all going down the tubes now. Christian eschatology focused on the Cross, focused on Jesus' intentionality, says no, that was the moment that really counted.

Fourth, because of the Resurrection. My studies of the early church lead me to say that you cannot explain how the first century works without Jesus' bodily resurrection. And with that a new world order is opened up, not merely a new ethic, not merely a new set of ideas, but a new realm of existence.

And fifth and finally, because the Jesus that I discover through my historical work, who is quite unlike the Jesus that I thought I knew about before I really engaged in this historical task, reveals to me personally the Creator God at work—who is, yes, the God of justice, of course; but far, far more than that, the God of love.


Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion, Princeton University

When I was invited to participate in this symposium, I was intrigued by the topic—the meaning of Jesus—because what led me to study the origins of Christianity in the first place was the question of how Jesus of Nazareth became the symbolic focus of the lives of innumerable people throughout the world for two thousand years so far. But when I saw the subtitle of the series, I realized that I was invited on the basis of a misunderstanding. And since the convener refused to accept my resignation from the panel—I'm serious—I decided I would enjoy for five minutes sharing with you the gist of the last year of research on two meanings of Jesus—because what I study is historical Christians and the multiple meanings of Jesus that one finds throughout the history of Christianity.

Because we're talking about the Gospels, I chose the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John, two interpretations of the meaning of Jesus that come, probably, from the first century, each of which apparently had a strong following by the end of the first century or around that time. I'm not speaking precisely of dates.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion among people in the history of Christianity about the Gospel of John and the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas, and many people have noticed similarities that John and Thomas share that make them quite different from the synoptic Gospels. For example, Stevan Davies recently wrote an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature pointing out that the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas interpret Jesus not eschatologically but protologically; that is, comparing the present time not with the coming end of time but with the primordial beginning.

Many people have written about the similarities between John and Thomas; but when I started looking at them, I found that much more striking to me are the differences and how in particular each one goes back to Genesis 1 to offer conflicting interpretations of the meaning of Jesus. (I spell this out in greater detail in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Biblical Literature.) According to the very first saying of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus promises great reward to the one who finds the interpretation of his words. That person is promised to overcome the power of death, the power that felled Adam, and by implication, all Adam's descendants. The second saying says that whoever persists in the painful and startling process of seeking will recover the birthright of Adam, which is to rule over all things. That's taken, of course, from Genesis 1, where it is specified as the appropriate role given to the human species in creation.

Now, throughout the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus rebukes those who look for the kingdom of God eschatologically and instead directs them to look toward the beginning, the place where one may stand and know the end and not taste death. In one of the sayings, Jesus promises to give his disciples what is impossible to perceive in the ordinary world and then says the strange saying, "Blessed is the one who came into being before he came into being." Well, how do you do that? Going back to the beginning means that you have to go back not only to the beginning of time but even before the Creation.

What was there before there was a cosmos? The Gospel of Thomas suggests an answer, and it comes from Genesis 1:3. Before human creation—in fact, before there was anything—there was light when God said, "Let there be light," and the primordial light came into being on the first day. According to saying 77 from the Gospel of Thomas, that light pervades all creation. The living Jesus here says, "Lift up the rock and you will find me. Split a piece of wood and I am there." In this saying the risen Jesus, the living Jesus as he appears in this gospel, personifies the divine light; and that divine light speaks with a human voice in the first person and says, "I am the light that was before them all. I am all things. All things came forth from me. All things extend to me."

Now, this interpretation of the primordial light as an anthropomorphic being is not in any way original or unique in the Gospel of Thomas. It follows a rather familiar pattern of Jewish interpretation of Genesis, and there are many examples of this from that time. But where Thomas diverges from others is that he has Jesus as the one speaking from the primordial light. By doing so, he interprets the meaning of Jesus. Thomas says the meaning of Jesus is that he manifests the divine light that was in the world at the very beginning of time. Now that is exactly, of course, what the Gospel of John says as well.

And I was interested to hear Marcus Borg profess his own faith in some of the language of the Gospel of John because, like John, Thomas offers in his own way an extremely high Christology.

But for Thomas, unlike John, Jesus' manifesting of the divine light is precisely what relates Jesus to all human beings and not what makes him different from the rest of us. Because Thomas goes on to suggest that when God created Adam, 'adam—that is, humankind—in his image, he created the human race in the image of the being that appeared in the primordial light. So throughout the Gospel of Thomas, the living Jesus directs those who seek access to God toward the divine image given to all humanity in Creation.

According to some of the sayings, Jesus rebukes those who seek access to God elsewhere, even those who seek it by trying to follow Jesus himself. When the disciples say, "Show us where you are so that we can believe in you," Jesus doesn't even reply, but he directs the disciples toward the light hidden within and says, "Within a person of light there is light, and if it is not enlightened everything is dark." That is, the person who is not aware of the divine presence, the divine image, lives in darkness.

This suggests that Thomas's theology and anthropology do not depend, as many people have assumed, on some kind of generic presupposed gnostic myth; rather, the source of the religious conviction in Thomas is quite simply a well-known pattern of exegesis of Genesis 1, according to which the image of God implanted in Creation enables human beings to find their way back to the primordial light, often by way of the words of the living Jesus and, in the Gospel of Thomas, by way of baptism—but that's another story.

The Gospel of John also opens, of course, with a reflection on Genesis 1 in the famous prologue, and John too identifies Jesus with that divine primordial light. But John insists that this is what makes Jesus unique—that he alone is the light of the world and all other beings apart from him remain in darkness. John, of course, knows Genesis well; he knows that according to Genesis the divine light, the primordial light has been in the world since the Creation, since before the Creation. But what John says—and this is really quite striking and unique—is that that divine light never penetrated human beings in any way whatsoever until it was incarnate in Jesus Christ.

It's quite an amazing feat that John accomplishes. He puts in his prologue three negations. He says, well, of course there was divine light in the universe from the beginning, but, in fact, no one ever recognized it. He says, first, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness never understood it. That's verse 5. And the light of all humanity was in the world, but it was never recognized. That's verse 10. And finally it was outright rejected when it came to its own people.

Many commentators have pointed out how John depicts the darkness as very resistant and hostile to the divine light. What the prologue of John shows is that the Word of the Lord first created the world, sustained the world, then manifested itself to Israel but, despite all of this, failed to penetrate the deep darkness into which John sees the world plunged. So finally, John says, as a sort of last measure, apparently, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us incarnate so that some people could then declare triumphantly with the Gospel of John's author, "We saw his glory, glory as the only begotten Son of the Father."

I find it quite striking that as early as the first century we have two such different meanings of Jesus. It's a startling contrast. The Gospel of John insists that the meaning of Jesus consists in his utter uniqueness, his status as only begotten Son who alone offers light to a world otherwise utterly devoid of light anywhere. In the Gospel of Thomas, on the contrary, we see a Christian who finds the meaning of Jesus disclosed in the primordial light to include the image of God hidden universally within all humankind since all are created—according to this gospel, as I read it—in the image of God.


Chair of the Historical Jesus section, The Society of Biblical Literature

The question I'm answering really is this one: Is historical Jesus research necessary for Christian faith? It's not simply, Is the historical Jesus necessary for Christian faith? The answer to that is, Of course! But is historical Jesus research — the type of stuff that keeps some people up here off the streets—necessary for Christian faith? Or is it just entertaining, interesting background?

I have three reasons why it is necessary for Christian faith. Each of them goes deeper into the subject, from the more general to the more particular, from the more secular to the more sacred, from the more non-Christian deep into Christianity itself.

The first one is historical: Jesus is there. It's the Mallory principle. You climb Everest and you die because it's there. So you study Jesus. Any historian has a right to do it, just as you might study Socrates or somebody else. I have great distrust for people who tell me that you cannot know anything about Jesus. I think that is a subtle form of negative transcendence: "This person is unique. We cannot tell you anything about him."

The second reason is ethical. We Christians for two thousand years have made theological statements—Jesus comes from heaven; historical statements —Jesus comes from Nazareth; and what I'm going to call parabolic statements—that is, statements that are ostensibly historical but carry a theological content and were created to do so. They're parabolic. I'm using that word rather than mythological, because mythological might be a bad word for some people.

We have let these slide into one another so that they were all sort of historical. I think we are going to have to do a cost accounting for that and say: When am I making a historical statement with my best judgment? When am I making a theological statement? When am I making a parabolic statement? For example: Is the Virgin Birth a historical statement capable of relatively delicate—I would hope—checking by human resources? Or is it a parabolic story? What is it? And it's not enough simply to say: When we Christians tell our story we're telling you history; when you read the Buddhist stuff, that of course is myth. So there's an ethical imperative to clarify when you are making a historical statement, when you are making a theological statement, and when you are making a parabolic statement.

The third reason is much the most important one. It's based not just on the Incarnation but on the canonical Gospels themselves, on the fact that we have four Gospels, all of which do a very strange thing. They go back into the twenties [of the first century] where you find all the usual suspects—Caiaphas and Pilate and everyone else—but Jesus speaks from the twenties straight into the seventies, the eighties, the nineties. They never let history go.

Let me back up and tell you in a roundabout way why I think that's important. There was a deep fissure in sensibility, not just in ideology but in sensibility, in the ancient world, and it carries straight through into Disney World today between two visions of the human person. One is a monistic vision in which body and soul, flesh and spirit are two sides of the one coin. The human person is that amalgam. You cannot separate them unless you figured out a way of getting only one side on a coin.

On the other hand, there's a dualistic vision in which, however expressed, the human being is really soul or spirit temporarily lodging, like we are in some hotel for the next day or two, and eventually it gets out of there. Now, that lodging may be construed as a distracting mansion or a nomadic tent, a fleabag motel, an evil prison cell. That's not my point for the moment. It's dualistic. The real stuff's not stuff. The real you is the spirit.

Now, these are two different sensibilities. They separate soul and body, spirit and flesh. When I wrote the first draft for my editor here [John Loudon of HarperSanFrancisco] on The Birth of Christianity, I talked about the catholic Gospels, the four in the Canon, and the gnostic Gospels. The canonical Gospels all tell the story of Jesus. The other Gospels—the ones I was calling the gnostic Gospels—start, say, with the resurrection of Jesus, when Jesus comes back, as it were, from heaven and speaks for 20 chapters.

So John [Loudon] sent the manuscript to Elaine [Pagels]. And, of course, what John wanted was Elaine to say something nice for the cover.(I did, too, by the way.) Meanwhile, Elaine and I got on the phone and started talking about the book, and we were far more interested in talking about the book really than hurrying up for the cover. And Elaine said to me, "That's not right to talk about catholic and gnostic Gospels. You're just projecting and continuing an old stereotype in which all the good catholic stuff is in the New Testament, all the bad other stuff out there is gnostic." I think she was perfectly right.

So I coined a new term for this distinction, which is still crucial for me: sarkophobic, from sarx, a Greek word meaning flesh, and phobia, meaning what you think it means. Sarkophobic is that sensibility that somehow or other wants the real you to be spirit, the real you to be soul, and the other stuff that you temporarily reside in can be, as I said, a fleabag motel; it's basically temporary, expendable, dumpable. Sarkophilic sensibility is the opposite, where your flesh is part of your essential self. So I went through the manuscript and changed the terms.

Now in the first century, both of these sensibilities were strong, and the question was which side were the Gospels going to come down on. The canonical Gospels, all four of them, came down firmly on the side that the flesh and the body is not expendable. Jesus may give the most heavenly sermons ever in John, but he's doing it right back there in the twenties in Jerusalem or in Galilee. So my core argument is that if you are within the tradition of the canonical gospels—and not all Christians need to be; they weren't in the first century—then historical Jesus scholarship is not negotiable. You're going to have to do what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did. You're going to have to find out what is the historical Jesus for the late twentieth century and what does that mean for you as the risen Lord?

Finally, I will not make a dissociation between the risen Lord and the historical Jesus, because in Christian art, Christian mysticism, and Christian gospel, the risen Lord appears with the wounds. The wounds don't come from heaven, and they don't seem to heal up there either, by the way. These are the marks of crucifixion. They come from imperial Rome. And if you want to know why he got them, you'll have to ask. Maybe he was a criminal. So to understand the risen Jesus you're going to have to know the death of Jesus, and you're going to have to know why that was not the punishment of a criminal or the insane act, say, of an inhuman monster who just crucified somebody for fun. So I would insist that the wounds make historical Jesus research absolutely necessary for Christian faith.


Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity, Harvard Divinity School

The problem with the historical Jesus, I think, as everyone in this room knows, has been traditionally framed as a split between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith stemming, of course, from the work of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical criticism. But it could also be framed, I think, in terms of how important is the historical Jesus for Christian faith.

And when I think about this, one of the things I remember is what Helmut Koester once wrote: "The relevant question is in which way does the earthly Jesus actually determine the Sitz im Leben of the tradition in the church. He does this," Koester says, "insofar as he is in substance the content of the church's proclamation and the object of Christian faith. Whether this proclamation and this faith were legitimate does not depend upon the quantity of genuine Jesus material. Rather the answer to this question depends on the degree to which the earthly Jesus was the criterion for the church's proclamation of faith."

Now, if I understand what Koester is getting at, the earthly historical Jesus is substantially both the content and the criterion of legitimacy, but his words and deeds are not solely the content of Christian faith nor, indeed, even of the Christian proclamation. Christological presuppositions that take the early Jesus as their criterion can also govern the formation of authentic tradition and proclamation.

Another way, of course, of stating the problem will be to ask: How deep exactly is this gulf between the two, between the so-called historical Jesus and the Christ of faith? Well, Koester's work attempts to eliminate this gap. And I think that everything we have heard so far at this table tonight makes it clear that everyone here thinks that we can work to lessen that gap or eliminate it altogether.

Robert Funk is also wont to state that the problem of the historical Jesus turns on where one locates the site of revelation—in Jesus or in the church. And again, it seems to me that my colleagues at this table are precisely rejecting that dichotomy.

Now, these varied attempts in the end suggest that the answer to the question of how important is the historical Jesus for faith is being answered by saying Jesus is important, if not in terms of quantity at least in terms of continuity. By leaving the quantity issue open, of course, one risks the possibility that the words and deeds of the historical Jesus might actually play a fairly minimal role in the articulation of the content of Christian faith, and it may be that this is one of the reactions that people have as a danger to this kind of work.

But here's what worries me. What would happen if the historical Jesus became the sole or even the most crucial determinant for faith? And I think one can argue that this is, in fact, the kind of position that has been widely taken in one form or another, not only by liberal biblical critics but perhaps by fundamentalists and others as well.

First, I think this move reduces the Christian tradition to a single point of revelation and fundamentally denies the work of the Spirit in the formation and history of Christianity. In short, I want to know what happened to the Trinity? And not least important to me is the way this sort of sole focus on the historical Jesus yet again excludes, eliminates, hides, disposes of incredibly important voices in the formation of Christianity.

We've been working for the last twenty-five years as feminists to restore something about the importance of women's contributions to the formation of early Christianity—not just that Jesus liked women, but that women actually substantially contributed theologically and otherwise to this tradition. The same thing can be said about contributions from Africa, contributions from Paul the apostle, contributions from a wide variety of places in time and so forth. So it worries me, again, if one takes too strong a focus on the historical Jesus.

Now on the other hand, what are the implications if one pushes in the other direction? And here, I guess, I must say is where I'm going to push this very strongly precisely because this is where I would most like some kind of engaged and critical feedback from the persons who are here. It seems to me that it means not privileging the historical Jesus as the sole locus of revelation, as the sole criterion for the truth of Christianity. It means not privileging even the early church tradition, not even the Western church tradition.

It means accepting the whole history of Christianity, or Christianities if you prefer, globally across time and everywhere as sources and resources for theology making and practice. It means rethinking the notion that there is a pure tradition, and anything that changes is impure. It means rethinking the kind of antisyncretistic discourse that pervades discussions about Christian identity. It means examining the politics of orthodoxy and what we're doing when we do that.

Now, I understand from talking with church people about these implications that such a perspective might seem way too open, too unbounded, too impractical for instruction, discipline, spiritual formation, and so forth. But I think this approach offers some potentially very positive consequences.

The first is to make community central—to place the emphasis on Christians in community.

Second, and following from that, such a perspective would require that communities of faith and individuals within those communities take both individual and collective responsibility for their theology and practice, rather than being able to say, "Well, this has been passed down; it's all set and fixed," in some sort of authoritarian or authoritative way. Admitting not only Martin Luther King but perhaps even—and here I'm going to push really hard—the Christian Identity movement into the fold requires some serious reflection, some serious responsibility-taking. Admitting not only what is locally comfortable but what is distant means accepting the legitimacy of Christian communities globally in other places, in Latin America, in Africa and Korea and Hong Kong and so forth as working out the history of the church in ways that must instruct and must challenge the local and the comfortable.

Third, it would require articulating what one actually believes, that which has actually had some realization in thought and practice. In churches that I speak to, I have often found that affirming the Nicene Creed as the content of faith keeps people from thinking about what pieces of the Christian faith actually inform their daily life and practice. I'm not suggesting we give up the Nicene Creed—but we should articulate what are the operative pieces of Christian life and faith that are working, so that articulation can in the context of Christian community be critically evaluated and critically put into practice.

Fourth, it would require the recognition that communities in different cultural locales and social historical circumstances can be different without being wrong. Rather than assuming that unity requires uniformity, one might ask, "How does the Spirit work where you are?" It might lead to our inviting and being invited to prophetic change.

So my answer in the end is a very simple one. I think that the meaning of Jesus must include and does include, in fact, the entire history of Christianity.


Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School

It strikes me, in listening to this panel tonight, that one of the most remarkable things about it is what seems to be a wide consensus that the question of the historical Jesus has significance primarily as an intraecclesial question. That is, nobody here tonight has really argued that the purpose of undertaking historical Jesus research is apologetic in the sense that we can make an account that's going to convince unbelievers. It seems to me that everybody here has tended to formulate the question of the significance of the historical Jesus as a question that's primarily of interest within the community of discourse of the Christian faith. And it seems to me that's correct.

My remarks focus mostly on the subtitle that was given rather than the title. So in this respect, I'm at the opposite end of the table from Elaine. The subtitle is "What difference does historical Jesus research make?"

When that question is posed, I always recall a story that I tell my New Testament introduction classes, an apocryphal story about Paul Tillich.

It seems that back in the 1950s a team of Roman Catholic archaeologists conducting a dig in Jerusalem stumbled on the bones of Jesus and became convinced that indeed these were the bones of Jesus. Apparently they hadn't been carried off by dogs, as Dom [Crossan] thinks. But nonetheless, obviously, this was for them a horrifying discovery.

And so they called up the pope to notify him that the bones of Jesus had been found. And the pope decided that this was a matter of such terrible ecumenical concern that he was going to have to convene an ecumenical council. And he asked his advisers, "Who's the greatest Protestant theologian?" And he was told it was Paul Tillich. They were wrong about that, of course. But in any case, they were told it was Tillich.

So the pope called up Tillich on the telephone, explained that the bones of Jesus had been found. There was a long silence on the other end of the line. And finally Tillich said, "So then, he really did live."

Well, it seems to me that we chuckle at this story because it plays on a strange fact of our recent theological history, namely, that much twentieth-century theology has assumed that Jesus is unknowable. So Tillich and others sought to formulate a Christology that was detached from the Jesus of history. And of course, Tillich was influenced in this by Rudolf Bultmann and much other New Testament scholarship under the shadow of Bultmann's influence. But in the last twenty years or so, we've seen a determined renewed effort to give a purely historical account of Jesus, an account that is relatively free from the control of Christian doctrine and tradition.

Now let me focus on this question of what difference does historical Jesus research make. You may be surprised that my remarks here are going to be aimed somewhat polemically against Luke Johnson, who has argued that the real Jesus is the Jesus who is conveyed to us through the Christian tradition and the church's liturgy and tradition. In fact, I think another title for his book [The Real Jesus] could have been "All I Really Needed to Know About Jesus I Learned in the Liturgy."

In contrast, I want to agree firmly and emphatically with everything that Dom Crossan said under the heading of his third point. What difference does historical Jesus research make? First, it anchors us in history and politics; it prevents docetism and otherworldliness. And that is one of the concerns I have about Marcus Borg's work; I sometimes get the feeling that the discourse about the post-Easter Jesus threatens to lapse into forms of otherworldly spirituality and to be disconnected from the claims about the pre-Easter Jesus. But in any case, that's point number one.

Point number two is that religious experience is not a fully adequate way of knowing Jesus because our experience is notoriously subject to deception. And one of the things that historical inquiry does for Christian confession is to provide a way of cross checking the claims that we make about our experience. It provides a way of assessing critically the adequacy of what we claim we know about Jesus. And it does this by insisting the Christian confession necessarily involves referential claims about things that have happened in history. In other words, historical criticism is one among many ways of interrogating our ideologies.

Three. What difference does Jesus research make? It links us to Israel by linking Jesus to Israel. It forces us to take account firmly of the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and that whatever the identity of the church is, it's an identity that somehow has to be grounded in and related to the historical people Israel.

Point number four: study of the historical Jesus forces us to come to terms with the eschatological character of early Christian confession. I take it that the Jesus of history was an eschatological prophet who warned of the destruction of the temple, spoke of the coming of the Son of Man and the gathering of the elect at the end of the age. To recognize this clearly is to recognize that we have not seen the fulfillment of Jesus' proclamation, or as I would prefer to put it, not yet seen the fulfillment of it. And it's only when we are clear about this that we get into focus the real hermeneutical problem that we face as we try to appropriate this tradition as normative for our own faith and practice. In other words, dealing squarely with the historical Jesus focuses us to get clear about the "not yet" of Christian eschatology.

And last, study of the historical Jesus helps us to get clear about the determinate shape of the life of discipleship. Which I believe is to be centered on the Cross, which is the central fact that I think we would all agree is most historically certain about the life of Jesus.


ELAINE PAGELS: Just a quick comment. When this meeting was billed as Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright and others, I knew what I was getting into, having written a book about Satan as the intimate other. Given my own reputation as a heretic, I might be expected to speak in favor of the Gospel of Thomas. It may have sounded like I fulfilled that expectation, but I'd like to add a corrective.

When I first got to know the Gospel of Thomas, as a graduate student, it was because I was in the context of Christian tradition that this was so enormously exciting. Had we known nothing about Jesus of Nazareth, who would care about this particular ancient text? However, at the time I was in graduate school, the Gospel of Thomas was posed as an either/or. One had to accept either Mark, say, or Thomas. It was heresy or orthodoxy. It was Canon or rubbish, as it was put by one of our prominent colleagues.

But what I have begun to realize is that in the ancient world in which these Gospels were written, there wouldn't have been that either/or. The Gospel of Thomas claims to give teaching that Jesus didn't give in public. It would be incomprehensible if the reader didn't know something about the teaching Jesus gave in public. That is, it claims to give the teaching Jesus gave in private as Mark and the other Gospels say he did. But without the knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth and without some awareness of what the preaching was, it would make absolutely no sense at all.

What I would like to say is I'm not making a value judgment about that. For myself as a Christian who is deeply interested in and powerfully engaged with the Gospel of Mark as well as the Gospel of Thomas, I want to underline what Karen King said—that I think the meaning of Christianity really must include a whole range.

AUDIENCE: Marcus, I was interested in your statement that an important thing for you about the person of Jesus—and I wasn't quite sure whether you were referring to the pre-Easter or post-Easter or both—was that here we have an expression of what a life full of God means. And I would like for you to tell us a little more about what you could possibly mean by that on two counts. One, first of all, what is its content for you? And second, how can we know what a phrase like that means, "a life full of God"?

MARCUS BORG: I was speaking about the pre-Easter Jesus when I said that. The pre-Easter Jesus discloses what a life full of God is like. When I have to say that most compactly, I will say that the pre-Easter Jesus was radically centered in the Spirit of God; lived the way of wisdom, the alternative wisdom; and he was politically passionate about the least of these, challenged the domination system of his days. So if we take Jesus seriously as a disclosure of what a life full of God is like, you have spirit, wisdom, and politics—politics not to exclude individual virtue but not to reduce the ethics of Jesus to individual virtue.

KRISTER STENDAHL: Everybody seems to be avoiding the basic question: verily, why you draw the line between the historical Jesus and and the Christ of faith. Because if you go by the Jesus Seminar, you have indeed a trivialized, minimal Jesus with no historic wisdom and political savvy, whereas other historical perspectives offer a much broader, richer picture of Jesus. So the issue is really not whether we like the historical Jesus, but rather how small is he?

JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: I don't draw a line between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. I think Christian faith, by which I mean Christian-Jewish faith, was capable of being there and was there when any person first looked at Jesus and said, "I see God at work here." Peculiarly, specially, uniquely, Christian faith was there. It didn't happen on Easter Sunday morning. That's the continuation of the same faith that was there before, after, and despite the crucifixion of Jesus, for me.

RICHARD HAYS: I hope it was clear, Krister, that when I speak about the historical Jesus I would actually set that in antithesis to the kind of de-Judaized Jesus of which you spoke critically. It seems to me that a Jesus who's detached from Judaism is precisely not the historical Jesus. So my judgment on that point would be that the historical Jesus gives us a kind of a line of defense against precisely that reading.

MARCUS BORG: I would simply like to add that I think Professor Stendahl has identified one of the most central questions. If you agree this history matters, meaning the historical study of Jesus, then you have the whole rat's nest question, "Which historical portrait of Jesus?" I don't think that makes the whole thing impossible, but that is a really critical question.

In fact, if you set aside what I would say are the obviously idiosyncratic portraits, I think there is fairly close agreement on some really important things between, let's name it, Dom, Tom, and me.

N.T. WRIGHT: And some very important and interesting disagreements, too. Particularly because the major fault line that runs through contemporary Jesus studies, as I have understood and tried to express it, goes all the way back to Schweitzer and Wrede. Wrede has a minimalist Jesus who is significantly unlike the portrait in, certainly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and particularly John. Schweitzer has a Jesus who, precisely because he shares the Jewish sense in the first century that Israel's history is now reaching its decisive climax, turns out to be very like the Jesus of the canonical Gospels. And that's why I stand, as Sanders and others do, in the Schweitzer tradition.

KAREN KING: One last comment on the characterization of the Jesus Seminar. I think it needs to be said that there are three of us sitting at this table who have participated very broadly in the seminar. There's no one in the seminar who thinks that we began or ended up with something like a non-Jewish Jesus.

What is interesting is that if you understand that Jesus was a Jew, then you see that everything Jesus said and did was Jewish. So it's not possible, if you're looking amongst authentic materials, to find anything about Jesus that isn't Jewish.

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