Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is the Historical Jesus lost?

Historical method has its limitations. It can be pushed only so far. In terms of understanding who Jesus actually was, historical method can take us back fairly early in the memories of Jesus among the first Christians. But is this enough for us? Or must we continue to confuse early memories of him with "him"?

It may be true that the earliest memories of him reflect most closely who he actually was, but there is no guarantee that these early memories are not already information refracted or distorted or wrongly attributed to him. Why? Even setting aside the fact that the first Christians were charismatics who believed that Jesus continued to live and teach in their presence in some kind of spirit manner (a fact which made it fairly simple to attribute to the historical Jesus things said in his name by early Christian prophets), we can expect that even the first memories of him are already in the process of shifting because of the natural processes of human memory and also social memory formation. In other words, the way we remember is a function of our brains and our societies. It is now and it was then.

So my approach to the historical Jesus comes at the issue from a slightly different angle and with a slightly different goal than the questers that have gone before. Not that the historical Jesus has ever been a goal of my research, but nonetheless I have had to work out a solution to the problem myself in order to be able to understand the beginnings of Christianity. I would call my approach "Constructing Jesus." I would frame it as an attempt to come to understand the earliest memories of Jesus from all the sources available to us. I would work the sources in a way that I would lay out how the various communities constructed Jesus. I would then compare these constructions to see where there are intersections of early material that is being rewritten or reformatted by the early Christians because it is no longer useful or relevant to them in their present situation. And I would see what I had in its entirety. And I would not kid myself that I was looking at Jesus himself, but only the earliest memories of him that the communities constructed. For me, that would be good enough.

The main criterion for identifying the threads of this early material would be what I call simply "Theological Reinterpretation." That is, I would identify all the areas in the sources where the early Christians are clearly rewriting Jesus, where secondary development of him is certain. One example must suffice for now.

Mark 9:1 - "And Jesus said to them, 'Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not die until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power."

This saying of Jesus appears to have a life of discomfort among the synoptic writers. Mark appears not to like its implication - that there have been followers of Jesus that have died and yet the Kingdom of God had not yet come in some eschatological manner. So he does something interesting. He places the saying sequentially right before the transfiguration story, which he hopes his reader will understand to be the moment that God's Kingdom manifested in power (rather than at the end of time). I would further suggest, based on other evidence that is too involved to post here, that when Mark did this he also recast an earlier source of his which had a version of this story (without the disciples) immediately following Jesus' baptism.

That this saying continued to cause distress and require further rewriting is evident from Matthew's treatment, who has softened the blow of a failed eschaton by reframing Mark's version to read: "Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not die before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom." Then follows the transfiguration story which shows Jesus transformed as God's "son." Neat. No more cognitive dissonance here.

Luke too is highly concerned about what he has received from Mark. So he makes his own adjustments: "But truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not die before they see the Kingdom of God." The End is no more, because according to Luke the Kingdom of God is already here among us (Luke 17:21).

Even more interesting to me is how this saying is still problematic to Christians today, so bible translators usually try to soften things by translating very woodenly "will not die" with "will not taste death". Now this is remarkable to me because usually bible translators try not to translate woodenly, but to convert the original language idiom into proper sentiment. When our ancient authors write "will not taste death" they do not mean that a person will flirt with death (and might not die), but that they will be dead. It is an idiom for "to die."

At any rate, this sort of analysis, done on a much more detailed level, would yield a good amount of information that I would label "earliest memories of Jesus." And one of them would be (based on a number of these sorts of examples) that the earliest Christian memories of him were of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who taught that the Kingdom of God was in the process of being established on earth as part of the coming of the End of the world. The last part of this sentence is important because we must be fair to our sources who are all rewriting the saying about the Kingdom of God, because they think that, as it stood, it was a failed prophecy of Jesus. And they were trying to correct or reinterpret this failure in a new theological direction, which they did admirably. This means that the earlier memory they are rewriting is one that understood Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God in terms of an imminent End.

I didn't say you would like it. But as an historian one has to be willing to recover that which might not be "likeable," and leave it for what it is.


Steven Carr said...

There is zero evidence that an historical Jesus ever said any such thing.

Is Mark's Gospel even intended to be history?

Is there anything in the Harry Potter books which show that JK Rowling was embarrassed by the implications of what Harry said?

Unknown said...

While I agree with you concerning the dislike of translations with apparent agendas (and you'd be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't), I have to wonder: why must they have to be reinterpreting the saying? I think that this is the essential flaw of modern Biblical scholarship: it automatically discounts the possibility that Christ was speaking the truth and that his followers spoke the truth about him (and the implications that derive from this). A great many modern Biblical scholars and (I mean no offense) yourself included seem to work from the basic presupposition that Christ lied and that all of the authors of the New Testament lied.

I think that, rather than reflecting a real search for the truth of Christ's time, this is a reflection of our own time: one of immense cynicism and popular distrust for one's fellow man. In other words, this approach to Scripture and early Christianity in general reveals one's own mindset (as shaped in a culture such as ours) more than it reveals anything about Scripture or early Christianity.

Magdalene6127 said...

I am intrigued by your method, and find it promising.

I'm a preacher who has had no anxiety (or little, at any rate) about preaching what has been called the "Jesus of faith." Can you say what you think the implications of your method of constructing Jesus might have for those who preach, who take
" the quest," as you have described it seriously? Is this something that simply doesn't belong in the pulpit?

Thank you for this blog. I was directed here by John Shuck, and am fascinated by your work.

Unknown said...

Mark 9:1 is tricky because it depends on the context in which we interpret "in power."

If we look at it as "in" like "into" as if denoting a future state of being... then yeah, it's an eschatological problem and we could say that the Transfiguration is an attempt to re-frame the statement away from that failed prophecy (because let's face it, that's what you're calling it ;-))

According to the 27th Edition of Nestle-Aland, the preferred reading is "the kingdom of God has come with* power." The asterisk says "Or in." This leads me to the general interpretation that "in power" or "with power" show that the Kingdom of God had authority even in the here and now on Earth. Even in the mighty Empire of Caesar, God's reign had begun type stuff.

The Transfiguration on the Mount which follows fits the interpretation pretty well, and when you look at Luke's message of the Kingdom of God is within and among you, you can see a harmony of ideas that continues to reinforce the interpretation.

Ultimately that's the problem with treating Jesus of Nazareth as simply a standard Jewish Apocalyptic Preacher... it negates the immanence aspect of his Theology in favor of the imminence aspect.

But this is just my humble opinion, take it for what it's worth to you.

Unknown said...

An addition to my comment from earlier:

First of all, I apologize for its harsh tone. I didn't intend it to quite be like that.

I want to add a further comment about what I see as anachronistic methods of modern Biblical scholarship. I think that a further distorting lens placed between modern scholars (especially American) in viewing early Christianity is the current Protestant make-up of our culture, which focuses so intently on eschatology.

Having studied the Fathers of the first three centuries very thoroughly, I don't see the same focus there. Talk of "the end" is certainly there, but in nowhere near the same degree. It is a modern phenomenon, especially of American culture, where the atrocious Left Behind series become bestselling books.

I certainly see that in this case here, where the verse is automatically assumed to refer to the end times. I think that this would be inconsistent with Christ's message that the Kingdom of God is within/amongst Christians (Luke 17:21) and the Church's very consistent teaching that it is indeed the Kingdom of God on earth, in however an imperfect manifestation.

As I looked through the early Fathers for comments on Mark 9:1, I noticed that not a single one of them relates this to the end times. They consistently relate it to a mystical experience of Christ (such as in the Transfiguration) and/or the establishment of the Church as Kingdom of God at Pentecost.

Origen is especially interesting in regard to what you call a "wooden" translation with the word "taste." His comments on this very word (and obviously he would be reading the Gospel in the original Greek) give good defense of the current translation. His comments can be found here:

In regards to the first comment on this post (by Stephen Carr), I would have to ask the author: Have you actually read the Gospel of Mark? If you have, you would see that it is very obviously intended as a presentation of actual historical events, not as a fiction writing. There are very obvious dating devices, such as prefacing the beginning of Christ's ministry with the end of John the Baptist's (whose exact, by the way, is independently verified by the Mandaeans, a semi-Gnostic group native to Iraq, who claim to be descendants of John's followers -- and also believe Christ to be a usurper) and naming the Roman procurator at the time (Pontius Pilate). To regard the original intent of Mark as anything but attempting to lay down the story of a historical personage is a great stretch of logic.

Steven Carr said...

' If you have, you would see that it is very obviously intended as a presentation of actual historical events, not as a fiction writing.'


Jesus speaks to Satan in the desert , and this is 'very obviously intended as a presentation of actual historical events'?

'Very obviously'???

The Gospel of Mark has no chronology, no author, no sources, and draws upon the Old Testament for plot lines.

It is obvious fiction.

Bob MacDonald said...

April, I am disappointed in your positive post. I don't think it is as strong as your critically negative posts. This reaction in me gives me a problem - maybe I just like the negatives.

I am teaching Sunday school this morning on the parable of the leaven. The K of H/G is like leaven that a woman hid... Just what is this kingdom? I note that kingdom is used far more in the gospels than in the rest of the Bible - that is a superficial comment because I don't have time at the moment - but it is a clue to the importance of something to those writers. I hope I will respond positively to your series later - some reading here may not see death till my response is written.

I never see embarrassment in the redaction of the Gospel writers - I think that is a misconstruction of the imputed author.

Unknown said...

You just demonstrated both of the major points about modern "scholarship" that I was talking about in my posts:

1. You begin from the assumption that Mark is lying, rather than the good faith assumption that he is not.

2. Anachronism: you're asking for a modern term paper with full sourcing and a header. You're not going to get that from ancient authors.

Irenaeus of Lyons, if I remember correctly, writing in the mid-second century, recorded that Mark had based his Gospel on what Peter had told him. No need for sources, I'd imagine, if you're working with firsthand accounts.

Unknown said...

Also should note that the key word here may be "intended." Whether or not it is a presentation of actual historical events you have yet to address. The intent, however, is quite clear.

Right up into the 21st century obviously incorrect and/or unbelievable statements are published as "historical fact." Just look at the garbage that students get taught about the Dark Ages, which never really happened.

The Dark Ages is fiction. Their accounts in modern history books have the INTENT of publishing fact.

This is not to argue that such is the case concerning Mark, only that we are discussing INTENT not REALITY.

Steven Carr said...

SO still not a bit of evidence that the anonymous author of Mark ever intended his stories of Jesus talking to Satan to be historical fact.....

Paul complains in 2 Corinthians 11 about Christians happily accepting a false Jesus.

Was Mark's Jesus one of the false Jesus's that Paul condemned?

We have no evidence that it was not.

There is absolutely nothing in the Gospel of Mark to indicate it is even intended to be history.

Indeed, the characters in it are absurd.

Mark 4:11 says that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to the disciples. What was this secret? When was it given to the disciples, who seem totally ignorant of who Jesus was (Mark 4:41)?

In Mark 6:7-13 till 29-30 the disciples are sent out to preach and teach.

As the disciples did not know Jesus was the Messiah until Mark 8:30, that must have been interesing!

Peter - Repent of your sins, and follow Jesus of Nazareth.

Bystander in the crowd - Is he the Messiah who will rid us of the cursed Roman occupation?

Peter - I never thought to ask him. I don’t know. I’ll ask him when I see him again, and get back to you.

What could the disciples have preached and taught in Mark 6 that had anything to do with the secret of the kingdom of God? Why send people out to teach without explaining that you are the Messiah?

They were also given power over evil spirits, but it is not until Mark 9:29 that Jesus explains that they have to pray first before driving out a demon. How did the disciples drive out demons before that, when Jesus had neglected to give them such basic instruction as to pray first?

Mark 7:14 gives some instruction about the Law which a simpleton could grasp, yet Jesus tells the disciples in verse 18 that they are without understanding. These are the preacher-teachers who had been given the secret of the kingdom of God.

Despite not being able to understand, and not knowing, elementary instruction about the Law, they had already by chapter 3 had liberal practices on fasting and the Sabbath,and the whole teaching of chapter 7 (which the disciples did not understand) was caused by a question about the practices of those same disciples!

Don’t forget that these preacher-teachers , who had been given the secret of the Kingdom of God in 4:11, had had their hearts hardened in 6:52, so that they did not understand even such a blatant miracle as walking on water.

Why give the disciples the secret of the kingdom of God and then harden their hearts so that they don’t understand it?

Surely the average Christian would fall about laughing if he read such stories in the Book of Mormon or the Koran

Reading the Gospels reveals nothing about an historical Jesus.

This is why the Quest for the Historical Jesus has failed so miserably that scholars are now counting the failures (First Quest, Second Quest, Third Quest)

Treating the Gospels as ancient sources means you fail to find the Historical Jesus so totally that you can have books devoted to documenting and classifying the failures.

Steven Carr said...

Anachronism: you're asking for a modern term paper with full sourcing and a header. You're not going to get that from ancient authors.


You are not going to get that from inspired writers of the Bible, as they were making it up, based on stories from the Old Testament

But serious historians like Josephus name sources.

Richard Carrier has a Ph D in Ancient History and he wrote to me in private correspondence (and I would like to thank him) '....good historians often denoted quoted text with characteristic language (i.e. 'he wrote this account in the following words') and named their source.

In fact, any historian who never once does this is always suspected as unreliable--even though we don't expect the level of citation common in our scientific age, a good historian in antiquity will at least mention or list by name a dozen or so sources. That Luke does not do this at all puts him in the BOTTOM rung of reliability as far as historians go (compare him with Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Josephus, even Christians like Eusebius, and you will see what a third-rate historian he is, if he can even really be called a 'historian')'

My thanks to Carrier for this... said...

"Is Mark's Gospel even intended to be history?"


R.Eagle said...

Carr, you're angry because you don't understand the spirit of the word of God, though you obviously want to.

To think of Scripture as merely history is think of a man as a mere mortal.

And that's just not the case.

José Solano said...

"The denunciation of Luke as a falsifier of history, at best naive, is forceful and scathing. Very generally speaking, the opinions of scholars are fixed along party lines: on one side the extreme scepticism of German exegesis concerning the historical work of Luke (Vielhauer, Conzelmann, Haenchen, Lüdemann, Roloff, with the exception of Hengel), and on the other side the determination of Anglo-American research to rehabilitate the documentary reliability of
Luke–Acts (Gasque, Bruce, Marshall, Hemer, Bauckham)." Daniel Marguerat, Ken McKinney, et al. The First Christian Historian: Writing the "Acts of the Apostles"

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