The Jesus We'll Never Know
This leads to a fundamental observation about all genuine historical Jesus studies: Historical Jesus scholars construct what is in effect a fifth gospel. The reconstructed Jesus is not identical to the canonical Jesus or the orthodox Jesus. He is the reconstructed Jesus, which means he is a "new" Jesus.
Furthermore, these scholars by and large believe in the Jesus they reconstruct. During what's called the "first quest" for the historical Jesus, in the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer understood Jesus as an apocalyptic Jesus. In the latest quest, Sanders's Jesus is an eschatological prophet; Crossan's Jesus is a Mediterranean peasant cynic full of wit and critical of the Establishment; Borg's Jesus is a mystical genius; Wright's Jesus is an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet who believed he was God returning to Zion. We could go on, but we have made our point: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was really like and orient their faith around that reconstruction.
This leads to a third point, one that needs renewed emphasis today: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct Jesus in conscious contrast with the categories of the evangelists and the beliefs of the church. Wright is the most orthodox of the well-known historical Jesus scholars; I can count on one hand the number of historical Jesus scholars who hold orthodox beliefs. The inspiration for historical Jesus scholarship is that the Gospels overdid it, and that the church more or less absorbed the Galilean prophet into Greek philosophical categories. The quest for the historical Jesus is an attempt to get behind the theology and the established faith to the Jesus who was—I must say it this way—much more like the Jesus we would like him to be.
One has to wonder if the driving force behind much historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian's genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise.
The question that many of us in the discipline must ask is this: Can theology or Christology or, more importantly, faith itself be connected to the vicissitudes of historical research and results?
Whose Jesus will We Trust?
The last session on the historical Jesus that I attended at the SBL meetings met in a small room, and there were about 20 of us there. The session, during which I gave a short paper, tells the story of the discipline itself.
The scholarly hope that we would discover the original Jesus had crashed against the rugged rocks of reality, and on that day we witnessed the end of a disciplinary era. One by one, most of us had become convinced that no matter how hard we tried, reaching the uninterpreted Jesus was nearly impossible—however fun and rewarding it was and however many insights about the Gospels we discovered along the way. Furthermore, a reconstructed Jesus is just that—one scholar's version of Jesus. It is unlikely to convince anyone other than the scholar, his or her students (who more or less feel obligated to agree), and perhaps a few others.
German theologian Martin Kähler convinced his generation that faith in Jesus could not and should not rest on historians' conclusions about what did and did not happen and the consequent reconstructions that entailed. We must be willing to ask, Whose Jesus will we trust? Will it be that of the evangelists and the apostles? Will it be that of the church—the creedal, orthodox Jesus? Will it be the latest proposal from a brilliant historian? Or will it be our own consensus based on modern-day historical scholarship? There is an irreducible futility to the historical Jesus enterprise.