Quest for the Historical Jesus (Part 3: Quest Critics and the Whole Picture)

Let’s continue our discussion of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. In part one of this series, we considered the history of the Quest, and in part two I described some of the work produced under the current “Third Quest”. Throughout this series I’ve referred to Quest critics who deride the “profitable trade” in sensational and supposedly controversial material about Jesus. In response, I’ve suggested that diverse portrayals of the historical Jesus reflect our rebellious religious personality. At least in the United States, many of us are religious questers by nature, so the Quest will go on, no matter what the critics say.

But let’s look a little deeper at the criticism directed at the Quest by recent scholars. Here, I am indebted to a terrific book edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, “Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity, that includes chapters by Dale Allison, Mark Goodacre and other leading scholars of early Christianity. But for the Quest critique, I’ll rely mostly on the book’s introduction, written by Morna Hooker.

Like the other contributors to the Keith-Le Donne book, Hooker’s critique is directed against the criteria of authenticity I discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series. To reiterate: modern-day Questers use criteria of authenticity to distinguish between what Jesus really said and did, as opposed to those gospel sayings and doings that (supposedly) arose from the creative/interpretive/theological slant of the early Church. Using these criteria, certain morsels of gospel material are blessed as authentic (i.e., as coming from Jesus), and other portions are condemned as inauthentic.

Hooker is no fan of these criteria. The book’s authors credit Hooker for her opposition to these criteria, an opposition that dates back more than 40 years. Hooker’s problems with these criteria are numerous: she argues that the criteria falsely promise a pseudo-scientific and impartial method for finding the authentic Jesus. She claims that we cannot separate an “authentic” Jesus from the interpretation of those who first heard him and those who later recorded his sayings. She says that the categories “authentic” and “inauthentic” are themselves too extreme, and that we distort the truth in the effort to place Jesus traditions in one category or the other.

But for my money, Hooker’s primary critique of the Quest is that it produces atomistic histories of Jesus. In the effort to separate the authentic from the inauthentic, the Questers produce portraits that are fragmentary, broken into pieces. Hooker compares the production of a Quest history to the restoration of an old fresco, “where the restorers have managed to pick out some of the original features and to highlight them, leaving the rest of the picture in limbo.”

Is this a fair criticism?

Hooker’s critique certainly fits some of the work produced by the recent Quest. Hooker may have been thinking of the controversial Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who have been working for the past 25 years to construct their own portrait of the historical Jesus. One result is The Five Gospels(the Jesus Seminar adds the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas to the four Gospels in the New Testament), a book presenting the Gospels with its provisions color-coded  for authenticity: red = authentic, pink = probably authentic, gray = not authentic but not entirely irrelevant to an understanding of Jesus, and black = not authentic. The results might strike one as odd, to put it mildly. For example, the Jesus Seminar ruled that the only conclusively authentic words of the Lord’s Prayer are “Our Father” – perhaps a benefit for those of us who like our prayers short!

But if Hooker’s critique is fair, we should be able to apply it to the best works of Quest history – for example, E.P. Sanders’ landmark study “Jesus and Judaism. Sanders is a good choice here, as he begins his study with eight “indisputable facts” – using these facts as a beginning point is, per Sanders, “to found the study on bedrock”. Six of these “indisputable facts” concern the historical Jesus:

  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the Temple in Jerusalem.
  6. Jesus was crucified by Roman authorities outside of Jerusalem.

Understand, I admire Sanders’ scholarship … but if we look carefully at Sanders’ list, we can see some of the problems that Hooker is concerned about. The list does not seem to describe a complete person, let alone the person familiar to my Christian readers. The list mentions a preaching without any specified content, and a discipleship without any specified purpose. Something essential is missing, even for those of us who are not necessarily looking for the church’s Jesus. In the words of the late Gil-Scott Heron, these are “pieces of a man”.

Moreover, even the more specific facts on Sanders’ list are not terribly specific. Take fact 1: did Jesus’ baptism indicate an association with John the Baptist that went beyond a one-time dunking in the Jordan River? Did Jesus endorse John’s project, or adopt it, or join it?  Or take fact 5, which is a reference to the “Temple cleansing” incident evident in all four Gospels – did this incident occur in the manner generally described in the Gospels, a manner than might be characterized as a “breach of the peace”? Or was Jesus’ action peaceful and symbolic – closer to an act of “guerrilla theatre” (as it has been described by A.J. Levine in her lectures for The Teaching Company)? The specifics matter. Put another way, it accomplishes little to place an incident like the “Temple cleansing” on a list of “indisputable facts” when we do not have an indisputable grasp of the content, meaning and significance of the incident.

To his credit, Sanders moves from this imperfect list to produce what I think is an invaluable portrait of the historical Jesus, where most (if not all) of the questions I’ve raised are addressed in detail and with considerable skill. To oversimplify, Sanders’ history is much better than the list of “indisputable facts” that he starts with. Given that Sanders’ history is so much better than his list, we have to ask whether Sanders might have produced his history without a list. More on this question later, but first let’s turn back to Hooker.

What Hooker recommends is, don’t atomize, but begin the analysis the way you would if you were looking at a piece of art, and “concentrate on the whole rather than the details”. Sounds reasonable enough. By looking at the big picture, Hooker finds that “we know quite a lot about Jesus”. Hooker even provides her own list of the things we know, and it’s interesting to lay out Hooker’s list side-by-side with Sanders’:




1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The center of Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God.
2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed. Jesus spoke with “impressive authority” and taught in parables. Jesus performed various miracles, “even though we may disagree about precisely what happened or how.”
3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve. Jesus called men to be his disciples, and “he demanded – and inspired – remarkable devotion on their part”.
4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel. [not mentioned by Hooker]
5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the Temple in Jerusalem. [not mentioned by Hooker]
5a. [not mentioned by Sanders] Jesus “befriended those on the outskirts of society”, and “he offended the religious and political leaders.”
6. Jesus was crucified by Roman authorities outside of Jerusalem. Jesus was “put to death” by the Roman authorities.

Clearly, Sanders and Hooker are not working from the same list. But given Hooker’s long-standing problems with the Quest, the similarities between these two lists are surprising. Hooker’s list contains Sanders’ points 2, 3 and 6 – while Hooker words her list differently, much of the difference in wording is insignificant (for example, I’m sure that Hooker agrees with Sanders that Jesus was “crucified” and not merely “put to death”). Hooker omits Sanders’ points 4 and 5, and Sanders omits Hooker’s point 5a, though I suspect that the difference here not a disagreement per se but a matter of the few points these two scholars decided to emphasize. Ditto point 1: I doubt that Hooker would dispute that Jesus was baptized, and I know from his book that Sanders’ is aware of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.

A closer look reveals what may be more important differences between Sanders and Hooker. While Sanders mixed in a few specific facts with his general conclusions, Hooker seems to want to avoid listing any specific facts – almost as if mentioning a specific like “crucifixion” might lead us to examine the painting from too close up and miss the big picture. If anything, Hooker’s list exceeds Sanders’ in terms of overall vagueness. What does it mean, for example, to say that Jesus “befriended those on the outskirts of society”? Did Jesus have friends? Perhaps Jesus’ disciples were his friends, but with the possible exception of Matthew the tax collector, the disciples were not social outskirts – instead, they were poor, making them part of the social mainstream of first century Palestine.

Or what to make of Hooker’s statement that Jesus offended religious leaders? He did so always? All of them were offended? According to Luke 2:47, the teachers at the Temple in Jerusalem were favorably impressed with the 12 year old Jesus, and Mark 15:43 informs us that Jesus had support within the Sanhedrin even after his crucifixion. If it’s Hooker’s point that Jesus offended some of his fellow Jews some of the time – well, there’s nothing remarkable about that. (It would have been a miracle if he’d gotten along with everyone.)[1]

Or what to make of Hooker’s statement that “[i]f we want to understand Jesus, we must see him in his own context – very largely a Jewish one – and examine the impact that he made on those who followed him”? Agreed 100%. But many Quest histories already do this, the problem being that they don’t always agree on the nature of Jesus’ Jewish context. In Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, Bart Ehrman finds Jesus’ Jewish context arising from longstanding political and religious antagonism towards foreign rule, an antagonism leading to a widespread Jewish apocalyptic worldview predicting God’s overthrow of the existing order and establishment of his Kingdom on earth. But in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography”, John Dominic Crossan constructs a context consisting primarily of social-political factors: not only Roman occupation of Palestine, but also questions of class, power, egalitarianism and oppression. And for something completely different, there’s Morton Smith’s Jesus The Magician, where Smith stresses a mixed Jewish-pagan context infused with belief in supernatural beings and magical practices. Granted that we want to interpret Jesus in a Jewish context, we’re still left with the knotty question of which context(s) to choose.

No one ever said doing history was going to be easy.

I want to end on a (mostly) positive note. Hooray for Morna Hooker, and her championing of the big picture! Let’s never let the Jesus Seminar reduce us to praying “Our Father, yada yada yada.” And a big general hooray for the Keith-Le Donne book! It’s really a good book, and we can adopt many of its recommendations. Let’s toss into the trash heap the criterion of double dissimilarity, which equated an “authentic” Jesus with a Jesus divorced from both church and Judaism. Let’s dump the idea that historians can use something as hard-and-fast as “criteria” – let’s refer to these rules as “guidelines” or “suggestions”, or by some other more modest name. Let’s abandon the idea that Jesus traditions are inauthentic until proven authentic – this isn’t criminal court, and the Gospels are not on trial. In fact, let’s deep-six the immodest idea of “authenticity” altogether. History is not an exact science, and the best history can provide us is with what probably did and did not happen.

But let’s be careful out there. Doing history is nothing like examining a fresco, whether from close up or far away. I have about 5 Bibles on my bookshelf, and no matter where I stand to admire their book spines, the books say nothing to me. I have to pick up the books, and read them, and wrestle with them.  Hooker is right about the big picture, but reading also requires attention to detail, and the best historians give us both detail and the big picture in a way where one adds to the other. What concerns me about Hooker’s contribution to the Keith-Le Donne book is that it seems to promote a big gospel picture unanchored by detail … where the big picture floats towards whatever we might subjectively want or expect it to be.

So in this sense Sanders was right to begin his study of Jesus with a list of particular details.The list may be atomistic, but presumably the list was never meant to be examined on its own and divorced from the rest of his book. The list is there to make certain that in our search for the historical Jesus, we don’t drift too far away from the things we think he actually said and did.

Before we leave the Jesus histories to the historians, there’s one other idea discussed in the Keith-Le Donne book left to explore: the idea that we should regard the Gospels differently, not so much as our best evidence of historical information concerning Jesus, but instead as evidence of the memory he left behind. So look here soon for a discussion of memory studies and the historical Jesus.

[1] I find oddest Hooker’s statements that Jesus spoke with “impressive authority” and inspired “remarkable devotion” from his disciples. I’d have no quarrel with Hooker if she’d said that Jesus spoke with “remarkable authority” (Jesus’ authority was remarked upon, but not always in a positive way), and if she’d noted that Jesus also suffered from the lack of devotion of his disciples. If it is Hooker herself who is impressed with Jesus’ authority and who finds the disciples’ devotion remarkable – well then, she should say so.

  • Thank you. I “think” that Hooker might be gesturing towards — not just the bigness of the big picture — but the beauty of the big picture. That a painted portrait may not be as technically “accurate” as a photograph, but that a painting of a person can express perhaps better the totality of who that person is. The fresco — as a painting made directly on the surface of a wall, aesthetics meeting function — is a particularly apt and resonant metaphor for the attempt to “see” Jesus.

    • lbehrendt

      Stephanie, interesting comment! It is true that in our totality, we are more than the sum of our parts. The question is, how does the historian get to that totality? You are right, I think, to suggest that there is some art to this, and in this art there is necessarily something less (or more) than technical accuracy.

      But if we are more than the sum of our parts, we are at least related to the sum of our parts. Jesus is a good example of this. For most of Christian history, Christians imagined a thoroughly un-Jewish Jesus. Why? The reasons are complicated, but one reason is that for these Christians there was no beauty in a Jewish Jesus. So, the totality of the Jesus seen by these Christians left Jesus’ Jewishness out of the picture. I’d argue that as a result, the picture was a seriously distorted one.

      The desire to see Jesus as a beautiful big picture is at once necessary to the proper understanding of Jesus and a danger that we’ll create Jesus in the image of what we think is beautiful.

      • This is very interesting. Let me throw in another ringer: what if the lesson of Jesus is that totality and beauty are exact opposites? I keep coming back to the rock that broke and kept breaking the early church: the dual nature of Christ. I want to bring that duality–what we might call being endemically more than the sum of one’s parts–back from Christianity’s later theological travails and center it firmly in the guy, Jesus, himself. What does it do to someone to be both divine and human simultaneously? Can one help but become a prophet, a God-spawn, a Son of Man?

        • lbehrendt

          Justin, for a Jew, the dual nature of Christ is not only impossible to fathom, it’s just impossible. As a Jew, I respect the beauty and profundity of Christology, but I do so as a listener. I have to leave discussions of the nature of Christ to Christians. To ask what a person would be like who was both fully man and fully God — I don’t know.

          Your question about totality and beauty is also difficult, but not necessarily impossible. I had brought up the problem of totality versus particularity, to raise the issue of whether Christians searching for the historical Jesus in his totality, unanchored by detail, could perform the search without introducing their own notions of what is beautiful. I think you’re suggesting that beauty is the quality that transforms totality beyond the sum of its parts, which could mean that what I saw as a danger is something you see as necessary to seeing the “big picture”. That is interesting. It may also be the case that the historian needs to reach something like an aesthetic value judgment concerning the object of their historical study, and then to infuse their portrait of the historical object with qualities of that aesthetic. Am I following you so far?

          • This may indeed be a question specific to the Christian faith tradition, though I think it implicates us more generally through more profligate and insidious aesthetic categories. We look for beauty in totality, but we’re at the same time–at least in Western culture since at least the Romantics–driven to look for beauty in the excess, in the profligate, in the stars. The historical Christian theology of Jesus as both Son of God and Son of Man may play into this aesthetic, but can any of us who participate in a capitalist economy not play into it as well? I’m not sure the historian has much choice on which aesthetic value judgement to apply to an object such as the historical Jesus.

            • lbehrendt

              It is an interesting question, the aesthetic of God-action, or more particularly, the expectations we bring to this question. We DO tend to clamor for excess, whether it’s seas parting or loaves multiplying. We also clamor for perfection, and if a few enemies get smote along the way, so much the better. Sometimes I wonder if God has been type-cast. What, exactly, is God-work supposed to look like?