I enjoyed Scot McKnight's piece on the Historical Jesus, because much of it is important to say. Historical Jesus work is often deconstructive (the key word here is often). History at its best is reconstructive work, based in probability and working in a discipline that is severely limited in what it can deliver.
There are many historical Jesuses out there, and many have the face of the scholar who studies them in terms of his or her own desires for Jesus. Historical Jesus work cannot take the place of faith. The Jesus that the church and world deals with is the Jesus of the gospels. All fair points. But historical Jesus work matters, and it matters a lot. Here is why.
Contrary to what Scot suggested, no one claims that historical Jesus work gives us or seeks to give us an uninterpreted Jesus. Anyone who demands to be taken seriously as one sent from God (as Jesus did in his mission and work) comes with an interpretive package wrapped up in his actions. Historical work helps us get the context of those actions. How can one fully appreciate what the temple act (the "cleansing of the temple") meant without understanding Second Temple Jewish expectation that the new era would purge the temple and call people to a renewed righteousness? People who work only with the text of the Bible might miss this backdrop. It is precisely this kind of context that historical work gives us, or at least can alert us to, so we read our gospels more carefully.
As both Tom and Craig alluded to but I wish to highlight, there are different kinds of historical Jesus work. Some seek to reduce the data base of Jesus (and challenge the sources), but others seek to illuminate the sources and help to explain what is going on. Yes, we cannot "prove" it all, but we can make a compelling case for much of it, even key parts of it. When a compelling case is made, and when the burden of proof is high, that is impressive.
This is why the key criteria in this other type of more constructive work is not double dissimilarity (whether Jesus' sayings or actions are different from both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity). Instead, emphasis is placed on multiple attestation (how many sources say it happened), embarrassment, and other features that reveal the source depth of our Jesus material or place it in cultural context.
Source depth means we can show how certain teachings and themes reach deep into the Jesus tradition (for example, the Son of Man theme is deeply rooted in the tradition). When a theme runs across various strands, a compelling case can be made that the attested event should not be easily set aside—even among those who are skeptical about the gospels.
The criterion of embarrassment attacks skeptical claims that the early church has made up scenes, events, or sayings by showing it is very unlikely the church would create an event that could leave a misimpression, bad impression, or no impression. Examples here abound. Why would the church invent the story of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, where Jesus is baptized for forgiveness of sins and is for a time subordinate to John, unless it really happened? Why record Jesus calling Peter unless it really happened? Shaming Peter is not the best way to promote your leadership after the fact! Would the church have made up women as the first witnesses to whom the resurrection was announced in a time when women were not seen as credible witnesses? The more skeptical model claims we have created a posthumous story that tries to sell an unpopular idea (physical resurrection) using witnesses that do not culturally count. Not likely. The women are in the story because they were a part of the original, counter-cultural story. Now all of this is "historical Jesus" logic, using criteria Scot did not mention. These examples matter, because these kinds of discussions apply well to key parts of the Jesus story.
So historical Jesus studies give us context for Jesus' actions and help us understand the sources. But there is another reason we should not so quickly or publicly dismiss historical Jesus studies: This discussion is happening in the public square.
Some who engage in this discussion doubt the gospels' credibility—and observers of the discussion are being urged to such a position on TV specials constantly. If we walk away from this discussion, saying it is not so important or that the only discussion that counts is the one from Scripture, then we abandon key ground in the public square at the very point it is being challenged.
So how does one engage such public and widespread claims? How does one open people up to reconsidering what the gospels have to say? It is by making the case that there is good reason to respect the gospels and the account they give on grounds people already embrace, pushing people to appreciate that if even the gist of the gospel story is right, then they must think through who Jesus is.
Now I do not want to argue that the Spirit need not be present here to change the heart (as if history is transparently clear), but the Spirit can and does use the footprints God leaves behind when we appreciate the context in which he acted. Historical Jesus discussion engages at this dialogical level, both within the units of the story as well as making sense of Jesus' ministry as a whole. It does so without saying to someone, "You have to believe all I do before you can assess and appreciate Jesus." So, yes, historical Jesus does not bring us all the way, but it may put some people on the way—and that matters a great deal.
Darrell Bock is research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he is also professor for spiritual development and culture. His book Recovering the Real Lost Gospel will be published by Broadman & Holman in November.
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This article is a response to Scot McKnight's cover story on "The Jesus We'll Never Know."
Previous Christianity Today articles on Jesus include:
King Jesus the Disguised | There's a reason it's not easy to spot him. (December 22, 2006)
The Jesus I'd Prefer to Know | Searching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (December 7, 2008)
The Jesus We Never Got | Elijah stands for what I want in a God: someone to offer an escape route around life's messiest problems. By Philip Yancey (December 8, 1997)
Previous CT articles by Darrell Bock include:
When the Media Became a Nuisance | How to respond to the next blockbuster book/documentary/movie that questions traditional Christianity. (December 12, 2007)
The Good News of Da Vinci | How a ludicrous book can become an opportunity to engage the culture. (January 1, 2004)
No More Hollow Jesus | In focusing so intently on Jesus the man, Peter Jennings' report missed the big picture. (July 3, 2000)