Quest for the Historical Jesus (Part 2: Multiple Jesuses)

In my last post I sketched out the history of The Quest for the Historical Jesus (yes, that history has a history of its own!). You may have wondered why I spent so much time describing what’s come before … one reason is that this history helps explain what we see now, in the present-day Quest.

Let’s talk about the present day. We are in the midst of what the scholars call the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus. Characteristic of the Third Quest is an effort to understand Jesus within the context of first century Palestinian Judaism, and to ask how the historical Jesus led to the rise of early Christianity. In this way, the Third Quest is a change in direction – the criterion of double dissimilarity (discussed in my last post) led earlier scholars to judge as authentic the acts and sayings of Jesus that differed from Judaism and the early Church.

The effort to place Jesus within Judaism is apparent from the titles of many Jesus histories written during the last 30 years: E.P.Sanders’ “Jesus and Judaism”, James Charlesworth’s “Jesus Within Judaism”, Amy-Jill Levine’s “The Misunderstood Jew”, John Meier’s multi-volume “A Marginal Jew”, Peter Schafer’s “The Jewish Jesus”, and Bruce Chilton’s “Rabbi Jesus”, just to name a handful. (Confession: I have not read all of these books.)

But while the Third Quest scholars may have taken a new tack, many of them have arrived at a position similar to that of Albert Schweitzer from 100 years before: Jesus was a prophet who proclaimed a first century Jewish eschatological, apocalyptic worldview. In his book “Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History”, Dale Allison describes this worldview as follows:

Although God created a good world, evil spirits have filled it with wickedness, so that it is in disarray and full of injustice. A day is coming, however, when God will repair the broken creation and restore scattered Israel. Before that time, the struggle between good and evil will come to a climax, and a period of great tribulation and unmatched woe will descend upon the world. After that period, God will, perhaps through one or more messianic figures, reward the just and requite the unjust, both living and dead, and then establish divine rule forever.

The historians who see Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet have considerable evidence on their side. (Here, I am following the argument in Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium”.) We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other sources that many first century Palestinian Jews held an apocalyptic worldview. Jesus began his ministry in association with John the Baptist, who preached an apocalyptic message. Jesus’ death is described in the gospels as an apocalyptic moment, accompanied by the symbolic destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the sun going into darkness for three hours in the middle of the day. In between this beginning and this end, Jesus proclaimed the coming of a Kingdom of God, where a Son of Man would judge the living and the dead. As John Meier has written:

As the prophet of this kingdom, it was Jesus’ task to prophesy this world-changing advent of God and to begin the preparation of Israel by calling it to repentance, baptism, and a renewed moral life within a loving, compassionate society.

Naturally, the portrait of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet differs from author to author. For example: was Jesus merely a herald of the impending apocalyptic events, or did he intend (in Meier’s words) to set these events in motion, or even (in Allison’s words) to “direct” these events? Possibly the more difficult question is this: did first century apocalyptic Jews expect the end of the world and experience disappointment when the world continued to spin and evil continued to exist? I think Bart Ehrman would answer “yes” to this latter question, and I know that N.T. Wright would answer (at least on behalf of those Jews who eventually became early Christians) with an emphatic “no”.

Remember what I said above about history repeating? My feeling is that the idea of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet is no more popular today than when Schweitzer put it forward 100 years ago. In his book “Jesus: A New Vision”, Marcus Borg put it this way: “Never have I heard a preacher say in a sermon, ‘The text tells us that Jesus expected the end of the world in his time’ he was wrong, but let’s see what we can make of the text anyway.’” Few want to view Jesus as a prophet of doom – we don’t much like prophets of doom. Remember Harold Camping? According to Borg, the image of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet is “largely irrelevant to the life of the church” [my emphasis]. Understandably, Borg wants a relevant Jesus.

So Borg and other prominent scholars (including members of the controversial Jesus seminar) have worked out a different picture of Jesus, a Jesus that (in Borg’s words) “is as much of a challenge to both church and culture in the late twentieth century as it was in his own time.” Borg describes Jesus as a teacher who “called his hearers to a life grounded in Spirit”, but who was “not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals”. Instead, Borg’s Jesus is a social critic and political activist. Borg writes that Jesus taught “transformation” through “a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world.” Borg’s colleague, John Dominic Crossan, goes further: he sees Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary, a peasant Jewish cynic who followed the strategy of “free healing and common eating” to promote “a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power.”

Maybe you’re not happy with Jesus as either an apocalyptic prophet or a cynic social critic. If so, you can find countless other pictures of the historic Jesus in your local or virtual bookstore: Jesus as Pharisee, Jesus as magician, Jesus as royalty, Jesus as feminist, Jesus as capitalist, Jesus as doctor-therapist … the list goes on and on. I just received as a gift the book, “Kosher Jesus”, whose author claims that the “authentic” Jesus was a Jewish freedom-fighter who tried and failed to overthrow Roman rule in Palestine.

There is a pattern to many books about Jesus, a pattern aptly described by Luke Timothy Johnson in his book “The Real Jesus”: first, the author sets forth some “novel angle” on Jesus that was previously unknown, probably because it was “covered up” by the church. The Gospel texts are then read in light of this new angle: texts that run counter to this “novel angle” are rejected as church inventions, and texts that are consistent with this new angle are seen as either having slipped past the church censors or containing material too well known to be suppressed. Finally, the author “move[s] the pieces of the text around at will” and comes to “provocative” conclusions: As an example, Johnson cites the conclusion he says was reached by Barbara Thiering in her book “Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls”: Jesus was the “wicked priest” referred to in the Dead Sea Scrolls!

The proliferation of “provocative” Jesuses is disturbing to many. Luke Timothy Johnson describes this proliferation as the “Jesus business”, a “profitable trade in Jesus by a variety of publications that by creating a commotion in both the academy and the church also create a media-fed demand for more of the same.” I understand Johnson’s point, but I think the heart of the problem goes back to what Schweitzer described more than 100 years ago: people construct versions of Jesus to match their own ideal of who Jesus should be. For example, the Borg/Crossan Jesuses sound a lot like Gandhi, or Martin Luther King.

Let’s take a different perspective. We are the audience for these Jesus histories, and the Jesuses portrayed in these histories may say more us than about Jesus himself. If I restrict my focus to America, then I can say this confidently: we are a spiritually restless bunch. As Timothy Beal noted in a wonderful short book “Religion in America”, Americans are heirs to a religious tradition that is wildly diverse (Beal lists 36 different categories into which Americans who consider themselves Christian identify themselves), prone to conversion, and not strongly committed to particular denominations. America is fertile ground for new religious movements, going back to the Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Christian Scientists (not to mention Jewish Reconstructionism). The American quest for something religiously new did not begin with the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

We might go further. At least in America, there’s a tension between the authority of the Bible and that of the church. The preeminent historian of American Christianity, Mark Noll, describes how early 19th century American evangelicals rejected “ecclesiastical tradition, inherited authority, and historical confessions in order to insist upon the Bible and born-again human conscience as the primary religious authorities.” Anthony Le Donne makes a similar argument in “Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity”: American evangelicals have traditionally argued for the authenticity of the Bible against what they “saw as ‘unbiblical’ dogmas of man-made institutions (i.e. the traditional creeds of Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian churches)”. In this sense, many American Christians have traditionally looked to the Bible for something different from what was being preached at the pulpit.

So again, the Quest’s search for the authentic Jesus is nothing new, as Le Donne himself confirms: “In this climate of Bible-only theology, the need to prove the Bible’s ‘authenticity’ became paramount.” The difference between modern historians and evangelicals is not in the quest for an authentic Jesus, but in a “clash of notions of authenticity”: evangelicals tend to assume the authenticity of the gospels, while historians tend to see gospel traditions as inauthentic until proven authentic.

The bigger point, I think, is this: we are not disinterested bystanders.  Many, perhaps most of us, are questers.

In my next post, I’ll focus on a few Quest critics who’d like to see us doing the Quest differently.

NOTE: a reader kindly pointed out to me that the image I’d originally used at the top of this post was not of multiple Jesuses, but of multiple St. Judes. I’ve posted an alternative image. Lesson learned: never rely on an identification from Google Images!

  • Stephaniebarbe Hammer

    what a history… it’s pretty mind-boggling. I think your concluding point – that was has shifted/fractured is the very idea/claim of authenticity itself is an important one. Thank you.

    • lbehrendt

      Thank YOU. The business about “authenticity” is going to be discussed further in my next post. There are historians out there who would prefer to talk about “plausibility”, or “possible authenticity”.

  • Loving these posts, and learning loads.

    My one reaction to this one is, how in the world could anyone see a Jesus as apocalyptic prophet as NOT relevant to 21stC Christianity?

    • lbehrendt

      I tried to explain, so perhaps you could explain where my explanation went wrong. Or could you tell us why you find this portrait of Jesus to be relevant to today’s Christianity?