Saturday, December 29, 2007
A New Perspective on Jesus
I'm currently reading one of my Christmas books, James Dunn's A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed. As the subtitled indicates, the book is basically a critique of some of the major flaws in the assumptions and methodology of the so-called "Quest for the Historical Jesus", and especially among members of the Jesus Seminar. I've not studied this field in much depth up till now, so forgive me if some of my observations here are rather elementary.

What I'm most struck by is that the "questers" must have a radically different understanding of the word "historical" than I do. When I think about discovering the "historical Jesus", I naturally think about putting Jesus into his proper context by looking at the events and ideas that both preceded and followed him. However, this is almost the opposite of what the Seminar folks mean by "historical". In fact one of their criterion for judging the authenticity of Jesus' sayings is the principle of dissimilarity to anything that had gone before or come after Jesus. In other words, if a saying or action of Jesus is found to be similar to anything found in the Old Testament or to any beliefs of the early church, it is judged to be inauthentic. This method sounds absolutely insane to me (and equally fallacious to Professor Dunn as well), since what they end up with is a strangely de-historicized Jesus who was just a wandering sage spouting off pithy aphorisms that have no real connection to the culture and history of his own people, nor much influence at all on the movement that developed out of his ministry. To me this seems the opposite of a "historical Jesus".

What I was also struck by is how similar this "liberal" approach to Jesus ends up being to the "conservative" approach it has been in reaction to all along. The original impetus behind the "quest for the historical Jesus" was to strip away the centuries of doctrines and traditions that had been built up around Jesus in order to get back to who he really was and what he really said - an admirable goal in my opinion. Unfortunately this quest began with a premature assumption that the "Jesus of History" and the "Jesus of Faith" were completely separate and even opposed. In their rush to reject anything that smacks of "doctrine", what they end up with is a Jesus that looks suspiciously like a Modern liberal scholar. Their Jesus has little connection to his historical context, and instead naturally conforms to their preconceived notions of what Jesus' message was. Furthermore their method of using the Bible is one that reduces it down to fragmentary sayings that are completely stripped of their biblical context and can thus be used to support whatever the scholar thinks they ought to be saying.

And of course, most of this could equally be said of conservative Christians as well. The "traditional" Jesus, the one of conservatives who see no reason to question the centuries of accumulated doctrines and traditions about him, also ends up being strangely unhistorical and conformed to preconceived ideas about what the gospel is supposed to be about in the first place. Likewise, the most common method of using scripture within conservative systematic theology is to take fragmentary sayings (i.e. verses) stripped of their literary and historical context and then use them to support whatever traditional doctrine the scholar is defending. I think this is simply more evidence of what many in the emerging church have said about both liberal and conservative Christianity simply being two sides of the same Modern coin. Both are using analytic and atomistic techniques to shoehorn the gospels into their preconceived ideas about Jesus, both end up with an a-historical and de-contextualized Jesus, and both are defining themselves primarily in opposition to the other. Liberals assume that anything resembling the traditional Christian faith could not have possibly come from the real Jesus, and conservatives assume that any historical insights that question their traditional doctrines must necessarily be false.

In contrast, scholars like Dunn (and other in the "new perspective" movement - NT Wright, Ed Sanders, etc.) suggest a new way forward - one that doesn't draw such a sharp dividing line between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. Unlike the conservative traditionalists, they are not afraid to look at Jesus in his historical context, even when that historical view calls into question some long-cherished doctrines about him. On the other hand, they do not automatically assume that this historical view is necessarily opposed to the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith. As Dunn argues, it makes sense to think that many of the beliefs and practices of the early church were in fact a result of Jesus' actual teachings. Likewise, if Jesus really was a first-century Jew steeped in the history and faith of his people, then it also makes sense to think that his teachings would have resonated with the images and ideas found in the Old Testament as well.

In other words, just because the gospel accounts show a connection both with the Judaism that preceded them and the Christian doctrines that followed doesn't mean that they aren't authentic accounts of what Jesus really said and did. Indeed, if the things Jesus said and did really did catalyze a movement among first-century Jews that resulted in the formation of a new religion called Christianity, then the Jesus portrayed in the gospels - the Jesus that has connections to both his Jewish roots and to the community that developed from his teachings - is exactly the kind of historical Jesus we should expect to find.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 4:51 PM | Permalink |


At 12/29/2007 10:39:00 PM, Blogger Heart of Wisdom

Thank you for the review. I agree they don't use the word historical correctly.

I have a list of books that put Jesus in His historical setting at

I look forward to browsing your blog.