Perhaps one of the most curious ironies of our post-Christian culture is that we still desperately crave to know who the historical Jesus of Nazareth really was. To prove this point, one need only browse the local bookstore’s religious section to see the plentitude of books about the historical Jesus on offer. The flip side to this irony is historiography’s inability to arrive at anything like a consensus about the Jesus of history after roughly two-centuries of critical attempts, making it seem impossible to present the Jesus-craven public with an agreed-upon historical reconstruction. All this on the heels of a more optimistic era when scholars had identified set criteria (e.g. “critical method”) that they believed, perhaps rather naively, would give rise to an “objective” historical reconstruction of the man of Nazareth. Thus, the question, “Who do people say that I am?” posed by Jesus seems to be haunting us still.
If we are ever to answer this question satisfactorily, at least from a historiographical perspective, we are going to have to clear the board and alter our strategy—of course!—this doesn’t mean our previous attempts have been in vain, after all, we are here because of them and we are sure to play the game differently in light of our mistakes and progresses (I speak as a biblical scholar). One scholar playing this historical-Jesus game differently is James D.G. Dunn, who, in his massive Jesus Remembered, the first volume in his series Christianity in the Making, paves new ground and insight into how scholars might finally move towards a more unanimous picture of the allusive Nazarene—though the edges are sure to remain rough and the outer lines blurry. According to Dunn, his fresh approach is prompted by recent developments within the field which are as follows:
(a) “In terms of analyzing sources and traditions, a crises of the hitherto self-assured historical-critical method of analyzing sources and traditions, a crises occasioned by post-modernism in its various forms, needs to be addressed at some length.”
(b) “The interaction with social-scientific disciplines, particular sociology, has shed a good of fresh light on the texts and Christianity’s beginnings, which need to be incorporated, but critically, into any such overview.”
(c) “The discovery of new texts, particularly the Dead Sea Scrolls and codices from Nag Hammadi, has undermined the older wisdom which had previously determined scholarly views on the emergence of Christianity in its distinctiveness from its Jewish matrix and within the religious melting pot of the first- and second-century Mediterranean world.”
But before Dunn can employ these developments into a critical articulation of the historical Jesus he must first diagnose both the methodological and the presuppositional errors of previous critical attempts. The first, scholars over emphasis on “texts” for sources of information regarding the historical Jesus, usually witnessed in the reconstruction of hypothetical earlier texts (e.g. Q, even layers of Q!) from the Synoptic Gospels to identify information unadorned by later Christian theology or redaction. This methodology assumes there is an unChristianized Jesus awaiting us behind the later theologically charged documents in our possession. However, this method has failed, as many form critics following Bultmann a century ago learned that there is no tradition unadorned by the church’s Christology. What should likewise make us suspicious is the Jesus that usually appears often reflects the scholar doing the reconstruction, and thus we are just trading one Christology for another. The problem, simply put, is that the only Jesus that existed from the very first is the Jesus remembered by his closest followers. What we have in the Synoptics (and to an extent, John) is the standardization of decades of oral retellings which were never static per se, but lively and organic. The idea of a textual source[s] for Jesus that is in some sense “purer” is sheer fallacy, because such a period or text never existed. Dunn sums it up well when he writes:
There was teaching of Jesus which had made such an impact on his first hearers that it was recalled, its key emphases crystallized in the overall theme and/or in particular words or phrases, which remained constant in the process of rehearsing and passing on that teaching in disciples’ gatherings and churches. All the teachings reviewed would have been important to their identity as disciples and community of disciples and for the character of their shared life. Such teaching no doubt have been treasured and meditated upon in communal gathering.
The second obstacle that must be overcome prior to achieving a consensus on the historical Jesus lies in the realm of the presuppositional, which Dunn categorizes loosely between a “flight from dogma” and a “flight from history.” The former tended to approach the task with the Enlightenment’s ethos that all things ecclesiastical—hence the church’s Christology—must be shed for a more objective/scientific approach. The weakness in this anti-ecclesial approach is that it ignores vast amounts of quality source information for the historical Jesus simply out of a priori bias, such as miracles, and often fails to recognize the otherness of historical times and places, as was first-century Galilee. For example, we cannot assume that because we do not believe in certain things (e.g. apocalyptic end of the world), that Jesus couldn’t have either. The latter, the “flight from history” is summed up well by Gotthold Lessing who famously said, “Accidental truths of history can never become necessary truths of reason.” In sum, the religious faith of Christians cannot be proven by the historical method and should thus be jettisoned for the pursuit of universal meaning and reason (more or less) contained therein. Nevertheless, such a dichotomy will not do, because the truth that Jesus’ disciples felt compelled to remember was precisely in the manner of retelling the historical events themselves. In other words, they managed to hold faith and history together. And any hope of reconstructing the historical Jesus will of course have to do the same. Dunn’s approach will allow for both the church’s faith and the historical events which sparked them to remain in dialogue while keeping in mind the oral nature behind and within the sources. Dunn remarks:
The idea that Jesus reconstructed from the Gospel traditions (the so-called ‘historical Jesus’), yet significantly different from the Jesus who taught in Galilee (the historical Jesus!) is an illusion. The idea that we can see through the faith perspective of the NT writings to a Jesus who did not inspire faith or who inspired faith in a different way is an illusion. There is no such Jesus. That there was a Jesus who did inspire the faith which in due course found expression in the Gospels is not in question. But somehow to hope to strip out the theological impact which he actually made on his disciples, to uncover a different Jesus (the real Jesus!), is at best fanciful.
Now that we are aware of the nature (a combination of flexibility and stability) of oral tradition as it relates to the sources that we have for the historical Jesus coupled with the fact that historical events themselves were the causal force behind the church’s faith and theology, we can finally proceed towards the task of reconstructing a historical abstraction of the man of Nazareth. While doing so we will be keen to our sources, historical context, and oral themes and patterns that are contributing factors to our “quest.” Dunn divides his investigation by “Mission of Jesus,” “Jesus Self-Understanding,” and the “Climax of Jesus’ Mission.” The picture that emerges is parallel to what we see depicted in the Synoptics, but what we see is more or less a vague representation that can be summed up as follows:
- Whose aim it was to restore/renew Israel in some sense, though it is not clear how this might spell out.
- Whose mission entailed good news to the poor and a call to sinners under God’s final rule.
- Was central to the arrival of the inaugurated eschatological kingdom of God as foretold by the prophets and witnessed through his mighty deeds.
- Perceived an intimate sense of sonship with God as “Father” and invited others to participate in the same.
- Allowed the office of prophet at times as a useful description for his mission.
- Seems to have repudiated the title of Messiah as it carried to much nationalistic baggage.
- Jesus seems to have to have preferred the title “son of man” as it evoked the image of expectant suffering, though he used this often in the plain sense of “one like a human.”
- Provoked his crucifixion by his symbolic actions of judgment in the Temple.
- Was crucified, and believed to be vindicated by way of bodily resurrection by his followers.
The outline above thus corresponds to the Jesus as remembered by his earliest followers and we should hopefully begin to witness more historical reconstructions along this general pattern, after all, the only historical Jesus available will always be the one who elicited the faith of his disciples; any other will be an illusion built largely after our own fancy.
Dunn’s Jesus Remembered is a crowning achievement in the “quest for the historical Jesus” and is chalk full of fresh insight and methods that will better equip those undertaking the task in the near future. First, it is helpful in correcting our anachronistic perceptions that an oral culture like first-century Judea was anything like the print culture of the twenty-first. Second and most of all, we can thank Dunn for helping us to cross Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch” between truth/reason and history—the moment when these necessary truths were often discovered; reminding us that neither flight from history nor faith will do in the pursuit of the historical Jesus. We may be in a “post-Christian” era, but the Jesus of history to whom we still want to know still looks a lot like the church’s Jesus of faith. Paradox indeed.