Baker Academic

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Interview with Helen K. Bond (Part II)

Part I can be found here.

ACLD: Do you think that there is such a thing as too much empathy in the task of historical reconstruction?  No doubt, we cannot help but project a bit of ourselves onto interesting historical figures, but this can’t always be a good thing.

HKB: You’re certainly right about the pitfalls of self-projection – and this has been the scourge of historical Jesus scholarship since it all began. Scholars now tend to be more open about their own preconceptions and agenda, but we need to be continually asking ourselves to defend our own decisions. Have I chosen x, y and z on good historical grounds, or because that’s the kind of Jesus I want to see? A Jesus who holds my own views? It’s often very hard to differentiate between the two, but we need to be continually on our guard.

ACLD:  In your discussion of the political backdrop for the careers of John the Baptist and Jesus, you say that while there is little evidence of uprisings during the 20’s, “tension was clearly brewing beneath the surface” (Bond, p.60). Very few historians would disagree with you on this point. In fact, it has become quite commonplace for North American and British scholars to talk about Jesus’ subversive stance against the Roman Empire. Do you think our interest in defining Jesus against “empire” tells us something about our own historiographical needs and/or motives?

HKB: Yes, quite definitely! I have the impression its actually much more common in the US than in the UK, and I think there's a good reason for that - probably all bound up with US angst about its own imperialism. The 'Jesus against Empire' seems to me to be an attempt to find a useful liberal Jesus for modern US Christians (Marcus Borg pretty much says as much in his latest book on Jesus). There's nothing wrong with wanting a useable Jesus, but he shouldn't be confused with the Jesus of history.

I actually think there's very little in the gospels that suggests that Jesus was 'anti-Empire' or specifically anti-Rome. Like most Jews, he probably saw history as a succession of Empires, all under God's control, and hoped that one day God himself would reign from Jerusalem. What set him apart from others was his overriding sense that God was coming to reign soon - in other words, his apocalypticism. I'm not saying that most people liked Roman rule, but apart from Hasmonaean times, it was how things had been pretty much since the exile. Josephus tells us that there were plenty of clashes between Jews and Romans, but most of these are in the 50s and 60s, when the Judaean governors seem to have had little ability (or perhaps interest) in arbitrating between the competing ethnic groups within the tiny province. It may not be very ‘cool,’ but I think Jesus was probably far more interested in human relationships between one another and God than in an empire that ruled though God's favour and was about to be swept away in the near future . . .


  1. More segments of this interview will be published later this week.

  2. I agree that it is impossible to completely get rid of all biases that a historian may have when interpreting history. I think that as long as they are open and acknowledge their position on the matter up front, a variety of historical reconstructions can be helpful to understanding history. I'm not sure how much Jesus was anti-empire; to some extent he seems to despise Roman rule when he refuses to pay taxes and the prevalent symbolism of the 12 disciples someday reuniting the 12 tribes of Israel. I do agree, though, that more of his focus is concentrated on people and building their faith and morality. While Jesus does seem to have some political motives, that is not his sole driving force.

  3. I definitely agree that it's often hard to differentiate between good historical information and what we would like to see/believe. It's a lot easier to imagine the Jesus that best suits us and our needs rather than what we truly know based on historical fact.

    I found it interesting to read that a liberal impression of Jesus is more common in the US. I hadn't thought of it like that, but when it was mentioned I thought, "Oh, that makes sense." It seems like we can find just about every type of Jesus based on some sort of historical fact in the US to fit each individual's lifestyle and beliefs.

    So this makes me wonder: which Jesus is the real Jesus?

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