The introduction of Thomas L. Thompson’s and Thomas Verenna’s edited volume, Is This Not the Carpenter?A Question of Historicity has been published on The Bible and Interpretation.
The first essential step in any historical inquiry
This is a heartening introduction to the essential basics of valid historical methodology that has been very fudgy in the field of historical Jesus studies. The first thing any historian needs to grapple with when undertaking any inquiry is the nature of his or her sources. While probably most biblical scholars have acknowledged that the Gospels are theological narratives that depict a “Christ of faith” rather than a “Jesus of history”, there has at the same time been an assumption that that theological layer has been created to portray what the “historical Jesus” meant to the authors and their readers. Given this assumption, it has been believed that it might be possible to uncover some facts about the historical Jesus nonetheless. Historical Jesus studies have in this way been confused with the question of Christian origins.
The contributions in this book are from a diverse range of scholars. The introduction explains the purpose of the volume:
The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.
This sounds a little like an approach I have been suggesting on this blog and elsewhere for some time, so I find such a statement personally encouraging.
Historicity is an assumption
On the question of the historicity of Jesus itself, and how it is always assumed — never argued (despite strident assertions by some scholars to the contrary) — one reads in the Introduction:
For some time, New Testament scholarship has avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus. Their assumption of an historical Jesus has been secured within a debate about the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life, as referenced in the New Testament, reflect either Jesus’ own life and teaching or a construction of early Christianity. The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts.
Did that last sentence say “Paul”? (It’s looking even better.)
Although no effort has yet been made to respond to recent efforts to focus on the question of historicity, the question as such is dismissed without argument. While the assumption of historicity has prompted many to attempt to describe what the historical Jesus must have been like, it has also encouraged many to ignore both literary and theological issues central to an understanding of New Testament narrative. . . . The question of historicity, itself, however, remains unaddressed and there is, accordingly, little discussion of the central questions regarding the significance and function of our texts. One has begun with the unwarranted assertion of a “probability” of an historical Jesus existing in ancient Palestine and freely presented one or other of such a possible figure as a viable alternative to the only known Jesus—the mythic one of our texts. Jesus has become a “concrete entity with recognizable parameters.” This was so thoroughly accepted that, when the Jesus Seminar was originally assembled, it was assumed from the outset that Jesus had been in fact an historical person. The Seminar, hence, could proceed to produce specific guidelines for determining the type of person he had been.
No first century general messianic expectation
It’s nice to see I’m also not alone in attempting to point out the absence of any evidence for a general expectation among Jews of a Davidic messiah in the early first century:
Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century—such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah—has been found wanting. The ancient world’s many mythic and theological representations of a figure comparable to the Jesus of New Testament texts are not alone decisive arguments against historicity, but they are part of the picture, which needs to be considered more comprehensively.
Jesus, a literary character in the train of Abraham, Moses, Jonah . . .
The Jesus we encounter in literature is by definition a literary Jesus. Whether there is additionally a historical Jesus behind that literary figure is a separate question, and one that cannot be assumed by default solely on the grounds of the existence of that literary one.
An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David. To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. The best histories of Jesus today reflect an awareness of the limits and uncertainties in reconstructing the story of his life. Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations. The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers.
How many Jesus’s have been reconstructed?
Doherty has observed that the sheer number and widely divergent reconstructions of the historical Jesus is an indicator that there is something seriously wrong with the nature of the so-called evidence for such a figure. As I have asked a few times also, what other historical figure do historians have such fundamental diversity of view of their very identity? Socrates was a philosopher, Caesar a politician and military leader, Aristophanes a playwright.
Here is the Introduction’s list of the many Jesus’s modern scholarship has produced:
- itinerate preacher (Crossan)
- a cynic sage (Mack, Downing)
- the Essene’s righteous rabbi (Allegro)
- a Galilean holy man (Vermes, Thiering)
- a revolutionary leader (Brandon, Buchanan)
- an apocalyptic preacher (Ehrman)
- a proto-liberation theologian (Robinson)
- a trance-inducing mental healer (Davies)
- an eschatological prophet (Sanders, Meier)
- an occult magician (Smith)
- a Pharisee (Falk, Maccoby)
- a rabbi seeking reform (Horsley, Borg, Chilton)
- a Galilean charismatic (Vermes)
- a Hillelite (Maccoby)
- an Essene (Maccoby)
- a teacher of wisdom (Borg)
- a miracle-working prophet and an exorcist (Koester)
See the online introduction at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/carp358009.shtml for a summary of each of the contributions to appear in the volume.
Thompson’s introductory exegesis points one way to where the evidence and discussions in the ensuing chapters leads. I am not so sure that each of the contributors would be willing to follow Thompson here, but maybe I can be pleasantly surprised to find at least an acknowledgement of the validity of Thompson’s position. (Previously on this blog when Thompson’s views on the Historical Jesus and the assumptions underlying HJ studies have been raised, they have been dismissed on the grounds that Thompson is “not a New Testament scholar”. Hopefully this volume will open a wider understanding that the methodological approach one adopts to inquire into Christian origins trumps all other considerations.)