The Jesus We'll Never Know
On the opening day of my class on Jesus of Nazareth, I give a standardized psychological test divided into two parts. The results are nothing short of astounding.
The first part is about Jesus. It asks students to imagine Jesus' personality, with questions such as, "Does he prefer to go his own way rather than act by the rules?" and "Is he a worrier?" The second part asks the same questions of the students, but instead of "Is he a worrier?" it asks, "Are you a worrier?" The test is not about right or wrong answers, nor is it designed to help students understand Jesus. Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that we all think Jesus is like us. Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and, on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.
Spiritual formation experts would love to hear that students in my Jesus class are becoming like Jesus, but the test actually reveals the reverse: Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves. If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.
Since we are pushing this point, let's not forget historical Jesus scholars, whose academic goal is to study the records, set the evidence in historical context, render judgment about the value of the evidence, and compose a portrait of "what Jesus was really like." They, too, have ended up making Jesus in their own image.
Heyday for the Historical Jesus
In the 1980s, the central academic organization for biblical studies, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), was energized in remarkable ways by a renewed interest in the historical Jesus, a project that had been abandoned for some decades. At that time, the Jesus Seminar, designed by former childhood preacher and fervent critic of all things orthodox Robert Funk, frequently made headlines. Noted scholars sat at tables and voted on what Jesus really said and did based on the historical evidence. Funk and others drew up their conclusions in books that supposedly revealed the real Jesus.
Some of these studies were outlandish, some much closer to orthodoxy and the canonical Gospels. The headline-grabbing names included Ben F. Meyer, E. P. Sanders, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, and N. T. (Tom) Wright. I have sat in packed lecture halls to watch Tom and Dom go at it, and I've listened in as two friends, Marc and Tom, bantered back and forth about who was getting it right. Paula, a Catholic convert to Judaism, continued to warn the entire discipline that too many errors were being made about Judaism. Those were heady days, and I remember giving a paper to over 500 scholars about how Jesus understood his own death. The neon-light days for the historical Jesus are now over.
So, what did the loaded expression "the historical Jesus" really refer to?
To begin with, "Jesus" refers to the Jesus who lived and breathed and ate and talked and called disciples. This Jesus is the Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and, according to the witness of many, was raised again. Through historical studies, this Jesus has been set in his Jewish context. We might call this Jesus the "Jewish Jesus."
Then again, the four evangelists and the other New Testament authors, because they encountered Jesus in the context of how Scripture unfolded, interpreted Jesus by using terms like "Messiah," "Son of God," and "Son of Man," understanding him as the agent of God's redemption. We might call this Jesus the "canonical Jesus."