Too many Jesuses?

Tom Gilson over at Thinking Christian has a post inviting believers to reflect on who Jesus is for them. As I was writing a response I started thinking about the bewildering variety of scholarly portraits of Jesus out there. Writers often introduce lives of Jesus with a prefatory acknowledgment of the embarrassing number of similar books with titles like Jesus the Magician, Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Healer, etc. and apologize for adding yet another tome to the already creaking shelves of historical Jesus studies. The implication is supposed to be that scholars cannot avoid projecting themselves onto their portraits of Jesus, leading to the twisting of scholarly methods to (re)produce the picture of Jesus they already held. This often leads to skepticism about our ability to know anything about Jesus and, perhaps ironically, further license to become yet more eccentric in the application of historical method.

There are two problems with this piece of common 'wisdom': 1) the number of portraits is artificially inflated by dividing what are actually compatible aspects of Jesus' life and ministry into separate studies. So we are supposed to embarrassed that Jesus can be understood as a Jew, an exorcist, a healer, a prophet or a teacher, when in fact all of these come together in his ministry, and 2) upon close scrutiny the more eccentric views of Jesus are actually fairly easy to tell apart from those that take our sources most seriously and apply historical methods most consistently. It is no surprise that Jesus according to John Meier looks a lot like Jesus according to James Dunn or N.T. Wright or Dale Allison or E.P. Sanders or Gerd Theissen; these are the scholars who place Jesus in his proper context and operate methodologically just like other historians of antiquity. In contrast, the eccentric portrait of a John Dominic Crossan or Morton Smith results from the arbitrary classification and exclusion of certain sources and the imposition of externally derived analytical frameworks, such as Mediterranean or cross-cultural anthropology.

This doesn't mean that the portraits of the '3rd Quest' scholars are identical or that there aren't important points of disagreement between them. But when compared to the portrait of Jesus as shaman or Egyptian mystic or Hellenistic cynic their consensus on the basic contours of the historical Jesus is impressive and suggestive of success in getting at real knowledge of the historical Jesus (despite Dale Allison's protestations of the inadequacy of our scholarly tools his Jesus is similar enough to that of Dunn, Wright or Theissen so that they all seem to be doing something right). What it really comes down to is this: anyone interested in the historical Jesus should either conclude that we can know quite a bit about him from our earliest sources, the four canonical Gospels, or we really don't have anything upon which to base our reconstructions. I actually suspect that someone like Crossan, who famously introduced his study of Jesus by saying that the study of the historical Jesus has become a 'bad scholarly joke', may emphasize diversity in understanding Jesus precisely in order to make epistemological room for his own reconstruction. After all, if everyone's basically fixing the game and seeing themselves at the bottom of Tyrell's famous well, why can't I do the same?

But the truth is that the best scholarly portraits of Jesus won't look a whole lot different from that of the canonical Gospels, simply because they are our earliest and best sources. A responsible portrait will acknowledge that Jesus was a controversial teacher, a pious Jew, a powerful healer and exorcist, a charismatic leader, etc. because all those roles are amply attested in the Gospels. An adequate reconstruction of his teaching will note his emphasis on the inbreaking rule of God, the inadequacy of the religious establishment, his concern for the outcast and sinners, etc. We will notice that many women had important roles in the movement, that Jesus often argued over the interpretation of the Law with other Jews of his day, etc. All these things have been there in the Gospels from the beginning, and scholars are just now catching up to the evangelists again after two centuries of hyperskepticism brought about by the rise of Enlightenment philosophy.


Brad Haggard said…
This is a really good post. Hopefully as we move beyond the specter of 19th century scholarship the consensus will drown out the fringe theories. Probably too late for current apologetics, though.

Of course, to get published you have to come up with some "new" idea, though, right?
Anonymous said…
Unfortunately the urge for novelty in such a field is hard to resist. One book that I greatly look forward to that I'm confident will advance the consensus is Craig Keener's "The Historical Jesus of the Gospels".
slaveofone said…
“As Barefoot continually argues, it is improbable to say the least that documents written over such a wide period of time and in such different cultures by authors of such varying background and means could align so closely to give such a detailed, interconnected portrait of Jesus.”

Don’t you think, rather, that the opposite is the case? That those who gave us the portrait of Jesus deliberately assembled various symbolic, thematic, and conceptual elements that were already available to them from their scriptures and from their traditions in order to portray Yeshua in a certain way and to tell a particular story about him from within their own immediate context? Thus, for instance, Yeshua’s shining appearance on the mount when he is “transfigured” was probably a way of taking the story of Moses in which his appearance was altered to shining brilliance on Sinai and then applying it to Yeshua to communicate to us the belief that Yeshua had now stepped into Moses’ shoes and become the new bearer of the Torah from heaven to show Israel the way of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness. If one believes the authors of Yeshua’s portrait were in any way attempting to communicate about him using their own cultural, traditional, and textual context, then this would seem to explain such correspondences rather simply and easily.

"apologists, . . . are so often trying to deflect charges that the early Christians simply invented the life of Jesus out of thin air, drawing their 'inspiration' from the Hebrew Bible and even Homer."

Would this be referring to a statement like I just made? Because by making that statement, I don’t intend at all to say that the belief represented by the way the gospel texts were configured doesn’t have any true or real basis. That wouldn’t even make sense. There had to have been a reason for the writers and authors to portray Yeshua in this particular way as opposed to another. And if so, we can probably uncover that through historical inquiry. Just because a creative story is employed doesn’t mean the message it’s telling doesn’t make sense or have reason outside that story. I suppose that would be my biggest hang-up for checking out the book. Maybe you can allay my chief concern by speaking more on this subject or by providing some insights from the book which speak to this concern.
slaveofone said…
Oops. Sorry. I put that comment on the wrong post. Never browse a blog whilst being overcome by Beatlemania.

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