Baker Academic

Monday, September 10, 2012

“It is a quest and not a conquest”: The Historical Jesus at the British New Testament Conference—Chris Keith

This past week was the British New Testament Conference.  I could attend only on Friday, but the seminar on the Historical Jesus was fantastic that day. 

The first session included presentations from Brendon Witte and Mark Batluck, both PhD students at the University of Edinburgh.  As far as I could tell, both were more focused on the Gospel texts than the historical Jesus per se.  Witte argued that Jesus’ interaction with the scribe in Matt. 8.18-20 underscores that Jesus’ identity is more along the lines of a prophet than a “teacher” as the scribe had assumed.  Batluck argued that the Gospel narratives reveal an interesting phenomenon—although many scholars assume that revelatory experiences were crucial to early Christianity, in the narratives themselves, revelatory experiences do not produce faith commitments on the part of the characters (with an exception here or there).  Both received some critical feedback, as always happens, but, as a proud Edinburgh alumnus, I was happy to see the school well represented.

Edinburgh was also well represented in the second session, which saw a current PhD student, Michael Zolondek, sit on a panel with Larry Hurtado, Justin Meggitt, Catrin Williams, and Dagmar Winter.  The topic was the status quaestionis of Historical Jesus studies.  Hurtado exposed a common assumption in motivations for Jesus studies; namely that the (theological) validity of later Christian claims about Jesus’ identity is necessarily linked to how Jesus thought about himself.  Catrin Williams reported on the John, Jesus, and History project.  She noted that lack of clear methodology was limiting its progress.  Justin Meggitt and Michael Zolondek both offered general comments on method in historical Jesus studies, and addressed the criteria of authenticity.  Zolondek argued that, in addition to the criteria being a bad idea, debate about the criteria is a bad idea and “hurting” Jesus studies.  I had to laugh a bit internally that he was making this point in the midst of participating in the debate, but found much of what he said sympathetic with the focus of our upcoming conference.

By far the most interesting presentation for me in this session was that of Dagmar Winter, who also contributed to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity and will be in Dayton for the conference.  She said she can’t see a point in the future where we won’t have some form of historical Jesus studies, simply because Jesus is too important of a historical figure for too many people.  I agree entirely.  Dagmar then, however, questioned what type of work will be produced in the future in light of the seeming witch hunts that take place in theological schools, particularly those in the States.  She cited the recent turmoil at my and Anthony’s former employer, and specifically Anthony’s dismissal, as evidence.  Her point was simple—What kind of progress could possibly be made by people who must remain silent for fear of losing their jobs?  This is an important question that I think evangelical Christianity must yet wrestle with, despite the wrestling already passed.

In this context, I pass along two absolute gems from Dagmar.  She said at one point that we must remember, “It is a quest and not a conquest.  Never getting to the end of the journey doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the hike.”  The second quotation I’ll pass along was her closing comment and I think an equally important thing to remember:  “My heart is in the quest because it makes us able to talk to one another.”


  1. I really appreciate this quote from Dagmar. I hear time and again that the problem with Historical Jesus study is that cannot pick a Jesus - as if the diversity of portraits is a problem. But, even if a consensus view isn't a possibility, perhaps the conversation is worth having anyway.