Losing My Historical Jesus

So, I drank the kool aid.

One of the great joys of being at the Candler School of Theology has been the faculty that we as students get to engage with. Last semester it was people like Dr. Jacob Wright, Dr. Brent Strawn, Dr. Tom Long, and Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore.

This semester, I have had the privilege of being under the teaching of Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson. Most known for his deep critique of the most recent quest (Third Quest) for the historical Jesus, Johnson is a former Benedictine monk and very well respected scholar. His books include: The Real Jesus; Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity; The Writings of The New Testament: An Interpretation (to name a few).

(As an aside, and for those of you who maybe reading and wondering “quest for the historical Jesus?” In brief, this quest is an effort to reconstruct the life of Jesus of Nazareth using historical methods to reconstruct a biography of his life and times. It also pro ports to be able to say very specific things about how or why Jesus did things (even to the point of psychology) based on a very broad sweeping categories that the scholars impose upon his time period. Some of them work, other not so much. Google it if you need;))

Today, as a convinced student of LTJ, I’m officially letting go of my own quest for a historical Jesus. Below are two very brief examples of why this is a good thing.

1. In my own experience, and the experience of others through the centuries, the narratives about Jesus’ life and character have always be more powerful and transforming than any fixed historical reconstruction.

The thing about Christianity is this: it has never really derived its power from the facts. I am not Biblical literalist and neither do I think that if sections of the Bible were pure allegorical (and they are) would it change the reality that people have for centuries been moved to do great things because of it.

Neither does this mean that I think the facts which can be known don’t matter. History is important so long as it doesn’t become the cancer of myth. History has a great deal to tell us about historical figures, but it can never replace or capture the experience of a person, place, or idea in its original (and subjective) context.

2. As such, history is a limited way of knowing reality. While there may be things that history can tell us about Jesus (facts), it can never tell how people experienced Jesus or the resurrection (as an idea or a reality).

In this regard, Johnson’s experience-interpretation model actually makes more sense in the context of my postmodern epistemology by suggesting that there is more to being Christian in the world than certainty of faith, or surety of fact (maybe even Doubt?). Even more than that, the model says out loud that epistemology cannot be reduced to the knowable because there are different ways of knowing. Furthermore, this knowing is wonderfully empowered by the diversity of our interpretations of the narratives about Jesus not the universality of our best reconstruction of him as an historical figure.

As is such, even if a historical Jesus could be reconstructed, the implicit failure in the quest would be that if it succeeded, it would put Jesus on the biography shelf somewhere near Jessica Alba and Jesse Jackson. In my opinion, this says much more about the failure of history in the pursuit of Jesus than it does about the power of myth.

In conclusion, I want to make two things clear:

1. If it were not for my own personal engagement with the quest for the historical Jesus, namely Marcus Borg‘s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously without Taking it Literally, I wouldn’t be where I am today. In fact, if it weren’t for that book some 8+ years ago, I probably would have stopped reading the narratives about Jesus a long time ago. And be assured, if I am in conversation with someone who is in a similar place that I was in those days, I’ll recommend that book to them.

2. The Kool Aid is good, but I still have a few serious questions about other bits. For now though, the quest is over and the questing begins.

Much more will be said about all this in days to come, but I wanted to at least put these thoughts out there for the bantering. What say you oh friends and conversants?

Think. Read. Live.


13 thoughts on “Losing My Historical Jesus

  1. So you knew I would respond to this one. Here are some initial thoughts:

    1. Amen! As a self-professed N.T. backer on the interpretation of the NT I found myself yesterday rethinking some of the tenets of the Wright interpretation because Johnson makes such a good case that the Jesus of history is indeed the Jesus of faith-and that Jesus better captures the true impact God can have in this world through the Incarnate.

    2. I am also going to read more and questions more. Not that I doubt LTJ but rather that it is probably the true signs of a good lecture to inspire someone to read and study more.

    3. The Kool-Aid does indeed taste good. That lecture, for me, was pivotal in my faith journey so far. If you want some more Johnson material to follow up on I have some you can borrow.

    Here’s to giving up the quest for the historical Jesus. At least for me I think it will open more doors for my faith in the real Jesus!

  2. I don’t understand a fair amount of this, and thus am open to correction at any and possibly every point.

    But I do wonder: what does this mean one is to believe about Jesus of Nazareth?

    While some parts of the Bible are metaphorical, of course, (as Thomas Aquinas explains so well), I would think our choice with respect to Jesus is pretty stark: either believe Jesus was the Son of God and everything else the Gospels say about him, doing so on the authority of the apostles, or admit that Jesus is a placeholder noun for whatever we happen to think right now.

    Is that wrong?

  3. I know exactly what you mean. I’ll be forever grateful to all the Jesus seminar folk for my necessary period of demythologization. But now I’m on the other side of all that. And I’m finding it much more exciting.

    I’ll always love that quote by Paul Ricoeur: “after the desert of modern criticism we yearn to be called again.” I think it best describes my own relationship to the “quest.”

    Mary Elizabeth Moore seems like one cool lady (I’m at BU, btw). She gave the annual practical theology last week. It rocked!

  4. Guys-

    Thanks so much for the comments.

    Ben- alas, we do agree on a couple of things;)

    Kevin- I’m not sure I completely follow the logic of your argument. I’m not sure anyone is saying that we need to create an “either or” with regards to Jesus. In fact I think that is what the historical Jesus folk are doing.

    I think that there is a middle position that allows the mythologies/allegories of Scripture and the historical realities of Jesus’ world to coexist. I actually think that this place has historically been the church; that is until conservative literalism of modernity sought to make everything knowable and provable. The reality is: it isn’t. And that’s not a commentary on truth, but a commentary on all the ways we know.

    Blake- If you can get some time with MEM, you’ll be glad. If you can get a class with her, even better! Great quote.

    So here are a couple of follow-up questions: 1. why am I now be accused of becoming a neo-conservative?

    And (here is thought Nick gave me last night) 2. Is a quest for the historical Jesus the only way to combat Biblical literalism?

    Thoughts? Banter?

  5. LTJ has his own Kool-Aid. My Chandler friends drink and love it. I have listened to a couple of his Teaching Company Classes and thought his Kool-Aid wasn’t that good. Of course if that is the means you develop get out of the desert of criticism then awesome! I would rather get out with Ricoeur. In your own description you could just as well have been talking about reading Kierkegaard.

    It seems that Borg, for example, is out of the desert but hasn’t felt a need to change his scholarship. LTJ \ Borg experiences among friends has made me wonder just how much our own biography determines what becomes reasonable scholastically.

    I guess my biography is a long ways from anything with a Creed that the LTJ Kool-Aid’s RCC trademark on the package makes me leery.

  6. Josh,

    Thanks for a thoughtful reply. Let me see if I can clarify what I’m pointing to. It seems to me that either Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, a historical person, and one who made particular claims about himself and performed particular acts, those believing in which claims and acts are called Christians, the acceptance of the truth of which is grounded on Faith (the theological virtue) in the truth of the texts handed down to us by the apostles and their successors, as guaranteed by the Holy Spirit…

    or else the word “Jesus” might as well be replaced by the phrase “stuff Kevin likes” because we’ll all be reduced to picking and choosing which claims in Scripture by and about Jesus we believe and which we don’t. And upon what non-arbitrary basis could we possibly do that?

    I don’t see how a middle position is metaphysically possible. Though I would want to emphasize that nothing I’ve said here is tantamount to “literalism” if “literalism” is meant to exclude the possibility of God teaching through parables. Scripture both employs metaphors and stipulates propositions (which is why I never understood the resistance of some contemporary theologians to propositions — good enough for God, good enough for me).

    Does that clarify or only muddy what I was getting at?


  7. I love Borg, I love LTJ, and I love John Shelby Spong — who is in town Tuesday, by the way:-) As for LTJ, even though I disagree with him most, I love him most because I know what an amazing man serves as keeper of that amazing mind.
    I see his point, and often agree. However, I go further. LTJ is still bound to the actual, historical existence of… Read More a Jesus of Nazareth in order for the whole package to work. Acc. to LTJ, just did ACTUALLY rise and ascend, or he’s not Christ and we’re not saved. BUT you are still OK if you adhere to another faith tradition, provided you are faithful to its teachings without exception. So long as you don’t just make up your own. It’s an intriguing proposition, but the logic is ultimately specious. If you are bound to an incarnation of Christ, and require that the resurrection be historically true, that interferes with true pluralism.
    Have you read “The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters”? That’s his major opus, theologically speaking. I was disappointed that I found it too easy to pick apart. I wanted a good, strong fight and he didn’t give it to me. My reply, “The Screed: What Luke Timothy Johnson thinks of my theology, and why it doesn’t matter,” soon to be released from a yet-undetermined publisher πŸ˜‰
    Thanks for this, Joshua. It’s great stuff and I miss these conversations since graduating. Oh, and Mary Elizabeth Moore is as a divine presence to me — inspiring, generative, catalyst and theological genius. Also, perhaps the most genuine and compassionate person ever to live.

  8. Tripp- It feels good to offer a response like Kierkegaard;) And you are right, Ricoeur is a very viable option out of the desert of criticism.

    But here is the thing: I think I’ve been out of the desert for a while and sense that this is much more reconstructive. And although LTJ may to some have the RCC tag, he doesn’t teach that way. At least not so far.

    Lynn- Good point. But as a listener and observer, on the point of being bound by history, I really sense that the concentration of LTJ’s writings on Jesus (though limited as mine has been so far) seems to say that we already know Jesus lived, but we can not limit what Jesus did to history.

    If and when I get to that place with LTJ (that is: either it the resurrection literally happened or we’re not saved) then I will part ways with something more still; namely, a way of understanding the reinterpretation of symbols and the transforming power of mythic story-telling generation after generation.

    Tripp, is this where Ricoeur comes back in? Or are we on to William James now?


    Oh- Ben, I think we might disagree on my last point.

  9. History is history and faith is faith… they each have their place, and they should inform one another. I think language like “abandoning the quest” or the rhetoric that LTJ uses to talk about the historical Jesus (hell, even referring to it as a “quest”) muddies the waters between faith and history. the gospels can feed my faith even if I recognize them to be (sometimes) historically unreliable.

    To me, looking at the gospels for historical evidence in order to make informed historical judgments about what Jesus did and didn’t do is still a worthwhile enterprise. The problem comes when we engage in that enterprise with the goal of overturning Church tradition and revising faith(which the Jesus Seminar did). I agree with LTJ that a project like that doesn’t serve anyone, but I disagree that the solution is to give up historical examination of the texts. Instead, telling the difference between history and myth helps us understand more about the myth, how it was created and evolved over time, and what it meant to Christ’s ancient followers. As Christians, if we are as committed to the power of that myth as we claim to be, we shouldn’t be afraid to examine it from all sides.

    I think “The Quest” is always going to have dubious results if you jump in hoping to prove the bible true, or scheming to prove it false. But if we can find security in the knowledge of our own experiences with Christ and the power of the Christian story, we should be able ask historical questions about that story with honesty and learn what we can learn.

  10. “If and when I get to that place with LTJ (that is: either it the resurrection literally happened or we’re not saved) then I will part ways with something more still; namely, a way of understanding the reinterpretation of symbols and the transforming power of mythic story-telling generation after generation.”

    Unfortunately, my friend, this is where we part ways. But when you get to “that place” with LTJ, know you will be joining me as well πŸ˜‰

    Pluralism is another discussion for another day. I’m not sure I even know what it really means to be pluralistic. As a Christian I can not deny that God is working in the lives of other people in other faiths. The OT tells us that God works within the stories of other peoples (Isaiah) as well as the people of Israel. But as a Christian I can not deny what God has done and continues to do through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m not as pluralistic as I thought.

  11. Brother,

    I say Amen and Amen to this. Let the absurdity and the radicality of the life of Jesus speak truth rather than the carbon-14 dating of his bones.

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