Historical Jesus: Criteria of Authenticity
After all, whose experience of Jesus should be considered authoritative or normative for faith and piety? Should it be the Jesus of Jim Jones, the Jesus of ultra-Pentecostals, the Jesus of the Catholic Mass, the Jesus of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Jesus of American Fundamentalism, the Jesus of the Crusades? The danger is, to borrow William Lane Craig’s colourful turn of phrase, that we add a little bit of pixie dust, make a wish and believe anything we like about Jesus.1
The canonical gospels don’t simply present to the reader one perspective on the life of Jesus. Four separate canonical portraits of Jesus are given, reflecting the use of different Jesus traditions and their diverse, but overlapping, theological and literary concerns . Each gospel also contains dissenting views to the canonical norm a– Jesus who is described by some as working for Beelzebub, of betraying God’s law, and of being a drunkard.
Likewise, within the ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ various portraits emerge, with Jesus appearing simultaneously in peasants apparel, a magicians gown, in the garb of an eschatological prophet, and a host of other portraits2. Different portraits, different Jesus’- do we simply adopt the latest portrait for use in worship?, or do we reject all the images in favour of retaining our own pre-scholarship or dogmatic construction? We could also choose to take a post modern turn and adopt whichever portrait furthers own ideological standpoint, or reject all portraits as a claim to power and objectivity.
In contrast to each of these responses to the historical Jesus, I join with a host of others who want to critique certain portraits of the historical Jesus whilst putting forward, however tentatively, an authentic reconstruction.
There are a number of ways which these portraits, like a painting in an art gallery, can be assessed. A painting in an art gallery can be assessed for its ability to evoke a response to the reader, or it can be viewed from its location in the ‘history of art’ and in its specialist use of tools, textures and canvas. The paintings methodology can be assessed. Likewise in assessing a ‘portrait’ of the historical Jesus it is necessary not only to look at the overall picture which is produced but the methodology which allowed the construction to be formed. As Denton, who has a keen interest in historical Jesus methodology comments,
‘It will not do for us to compare contemporary portraits of Jesus if fundamentally different means were used to arrive at these portraits. Comparisons and contrasts on the former level will result in the portraits talking past one another, for one portrait can criticize another as historically illegitimate only on the basis of some criteria of historical legitimacy. Such criteria are found, in critical history, in the means by which the historian claims to investigate the historical object’ 3
It is the purpose of this essay to examine the methodology of a number of ‘Jesus questers‘. Before analysing specific individuals and methodologies it is necessary to comment, however briefly, onto what has become known as the ‘quest for the historical Jesus.’
The Quest for the Historical Jesus.4
Contemporary historical Jesus scholarship traditionally divides Jesus research into four distinct time periods which have become known as
1)‘The First/Old Quest’,
2) ‘The No Quest’
3)‘The New Quest’
4) ‘The Third Quest’,5
Characteristics of the ‘Old Quest’ 1778-1906
This period of the quest is traced from Herman Reimarus (1694-1768) , so the story goes, to Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).
Reimarus whose writings were published posthumously in ‘Fragments’ sought to split apart the faith of the first Christians (‘Christ of Faith‘) from the ‘Jesus of History’. As a philosophical descendant of Spinoza, reason became the litmus test for truth,. Reason, thus, being used as a critical tool which can be held up against faith beliefs. The gospels were analysed for ‘contradictions’ and consistency’. If a document is inconsistent or incoherent it cannot be used as historical testimony. James Dunn, making a link with contemporary Jesus research, summarises Reimarus’ (and Strauss’) methodological presuppositions,
”Where texts seemed to contradicts other texts or were inconsistent with the universal laws which were now known to govern the course of events, the accounts in these texts should be judged unhistorical on scientific grounds. Here scientific criticism in effect was posed from the outset as a contradiction to the traditional claims of faith, a contradiction still seen as such by most scientifically educated people today.;6
One example of contradiction in use by Strauss is found in his discussion of the resurrection narratives. He compares the accounts of the resurrection and find that contradictions abound. After discussing the guard at the Jesus’ tomb Reimarus comments,
‘From these many contradictions we now see that the guard whom Matthew posted before the tomb will not bear the investigation by a rational mind. Thus, these fancies that were intended to divert suspicion of fraud from Jesus’ disciples on the contrary strengthen that suspicion. The guards disappear at all events, and it is always possible and extremely probable, if one looks into the matter, that the disciples came to the tomb at night, stole the body, and afterwards said Jesus had risen.’7
The gospels are unreliable due to contradictions as, using a law court metaphor, he states
Witnesses who differ so greatly in the most important points of their testimony would not be recognised in any secular court as valid and legal.to the extent that the judge could reply upon their story and base his decision on it’.
This critical understanding of the life of Jesus continued in the writings of Strauss (1835-36). In The Life of Jesus Critically Examined he sought to present a picture of Jesus which stood against the dogmatic Christ of orthodoxy (supernaturalist) and those believers who sought a ‘rationalised’ form of the Christian faith–that is those who sought to do away with the miraculous whilst allowing for the authenticity of the gospels.
This is illustrated throughout his book, in particular Chapter IX, and I use his discussion of the multiplication of loaves an example. Strauss mentions the view of the rationalists who see the event as ‘an acceleration of the natural process’8, or that of ‘the distribution of bread by Jesus having led to a general distribution, the whole multitude were satisfied.’9 For Strauss, the attempt to rationalise the account to make it acceptable to enlightenment sensibilities is a misreading of the texts for ‘the natural expositor is put to the most extravagant contrivances in order to evade the miracle’.10
For Strauss the presence of miraculous cannot be avoided in the gospels for it cannot simply be explained away. Strauss, however is no ally to orthodoxy, for although accepting the miraculous in the canonical gospels he disassociates the miraculous from the ‘historical Jesus’. The feeding of the 5,000 ‘must be rejected, as unhistorical’11 on the basis of contradictions amongst the gospel accounts.12 The true rationalist understanding of this account is to see it as a ‘mythical derivation of this history of the miraculous feeding of the multitude’ from Old testament precedents.13
Reimarus and Strauss, whose Jesus’ stand out from the dogmatic Christ, needs to be understood in the light of an enlightenment epistemology. By enlightenment epistemology I mean a historiographical approach which works with History as a hard scientist would work with data within a lab. The historical-critical method followed an enlightenment epistemology
Objectivity in History, allows history to be treated as an extension of the natural sciences, that historical facts are objects in history which can be recovered by scientific method
The historian could be impartial, strictly objective in his treatment of historical facts
Human reason is the sufficient measure of truth
The cosmos is a single harmonious structure of forces and masses. All events are predictable, the effects of causes already observable, no room for divine intervention14
The ‘Quest’ continued in the works of Renan (1863), Weiss (1892), Harnack(1900) and Wrede (1901)15 . At risk of generalisations these scholars used the scalpel of ‘scientific-historical-enlightenment criticism’ to strip away the layers of early church mythology, and reveal the ‘real Jesus’ .
Yet the enlightenment was not the only philosophical position at work, for in response to rationalism came the arrival of ‘Romanticism’ and Kant’s stress on ‘Moral Consciousness’. This had the effect, within ’Old Quest’ Research, of stripping the supernatural from Jesus and although being sceptical about lots of the Jesus tradition, finding a Jesus who taught the romantic ideals of the fatherhood of God and infinite value of the human soul.
‘The highest consciousness of God which has existed in the bosom of humanity was that of Jesus’. Jesus’ ‘great act of originality’ was that, probably from the first, ‘he regarded his relationship with God as that , of a son with his father’. …. he established the universal fatherhood of God’. ‘The morality of the Gospels remains… the highest creation of human conscience–the most beautiful code of perfect life that nay moralist has traced’. ‘A pure worship, a religion without priests and external observances, resting entirely on the feelings of the heart, on the imitation of God, on the direct relation of the conscience with the heavenly father…”An absolutely new idea, the idea of worship founded on purity if heart, and human brotherhood, through him entered the world’16
The sketches of Jesus being offered differed from that of orthodoxy but also looked remarkably like that of post-enlightenment romanticised man. The zeitgeist became the driving force despite the objectivist claims of the authors. As Dunn observes, ‘The trouble was, we may say, it allowed the spirit of the age to dictate not simply the language but also the agenda.’17
1 Michael Bird, “Shouldn’t Evangelicals Participate in the ‘Third Quest for the Historical Jesus’?” Themelios 29.2 (Spring 2004): 11
2 A whole range of Jesus portraits have appeared in recent years. For an introduction to these portrait see see Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest : The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. At the risk of caricature we can say.
3 Denton, Donald L.: Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies 7
4 This history, which has become somewhat of a assumed meta-narrative, has been rehearsed many times before. See, amongst others, Porter, Stanley E.: The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research : 28-62,also Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered 25-135, Darrel Bock Studying the Historical Jesus 141-153
5 This meta-narrative of research has been seriously challenged by Stanley Porter in his monograph The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research . Also, and with more force in a subsequent journal article. Stanley Porter Luke 17.11-19 and the Criteria for Authenticity Revisited Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 2003; 1; 201
6 Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered. 30
7 Fragment 171-172 From pages 177-194 he highlights ‘ten such obvious contradictions’ between in resserection accounts between the canonical gospels ‘ignoring the fact that many more could be given’
8 Strauss 512
9 ibid 513
10 ibid 514
11 ibid 515
12 ibid 515
13 ibid 517-518
14 See Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered 26-29 “It is important to remember
15 This is not an exhaustive list but a list of some of the ‘key players’. For a helpful timeline Porter The Criteria for Authenticity 60-62
16 Renan, Life of Jesus (London 1864) pages 82,83,87-88,90 as with Ritschl ‘‘The Kingdom of God consists of those who belive in Christ, inasmuch as they treat one another with love without regard to differances of sex, rank or race, therby bringing about a fellowship of moral attitude and moral proprieties extending through the whole range of human life in every possible variation’.A Ritschl The Christian Doctron of Justification 285 page 45 Dunn
17 ‘Since historical knowledge and hermeneutics are also dependant on such questions, questers of the ‘Historical Jesus; and readers of the Gospels at academic level need to be aware of the deep philosophical assumptions on which particular hypotheses are based and the unresolved epistemological issues and debates continuously rumblings below the surface. In this case, the most important principal at work was in effect the conviction that Jesus, the ‘historical Jesus’, the Jesus stripped of dogmatic accretion, would/must have something to say to modern man, and the consequential desire to provide a mouthpiece for the restatement of that message.’Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered. Cambridge, U.K.; Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003 page 29