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Scot McKnight advocates a kind of fasting. I am to give up the lifetime habit of studying Jesus historically. Okay, it's Lent, but this is going to be harder than doing without Merlot. Or even Macallan.

But is this necessary? Or even coherent? Three comments, then three conclusions.

There's History and then there's History

First, the words history and historical can refer to two different things: (a) past events, or (b) what people write about past events. Most people assume the former—"the historical American Civil War" means the Civil War that actually happened, not historians' reconstructions of the Civil War. Scot, however, suggests that "the historical Jesus" must only mean (b). I doubt that this will catch on. Yes, that's how many scholars use it, but not all. English usage allows, nay, encourages, sense (a). Even Scot uses it like that in his penultimate paragraph.

Second, Scot makes no distinction between different types of historical Jesus studies. Following Ben F. Meyer (The Aims of Jesus, 1978; new edition, 2002), I have demonstrated a massive gulf between the kind of historiography Scot describes and the kind I christened the "third quest." I reject the double dissimilarity criterion and have proposed the balancing "double similarity": Jesus must have been recognizably (if crucifiably) Jewish, and recognizably (if uniquely) the starting point for what we now call "the church."

Not all historical Jesus scholarship is skeptical in intent or effect. Genuine historical study is necessary—not to construct a "fifth gospel," but rather to understand the four we already have. History confounds not only the skeptic who says "Jesus never existed" or "Jesus couldn't have thought or said this or that," but also the ...

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April 2010

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