Baker Academic

Monday, September 28, 2015

Is Historical Jesus Research Heresy?

Today Mike Bird plays the role of provocateur with this post:
I’ve been reading through Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Creed and found this provocative statement: 
"[T]he most remarkable evidence for Christianity’s confusion – at both extremes [progressive and conservative] – is the fact that since the time of the Enlightenment, the longest-running of all Christologies heresies has deeply infiltrated the church with scarcely any protest or controversy, much less the calling of a council of bishops to clarify and defend the faith of the church. I mean the replacement of the Christ of faith with the so-called historical Jesus." 
I wonder what the guys at The Jesus Blog would say to that?
I have a few thoughts on this. For a start, I might take issue with the claim that the discipline has infiltrated the Church "with scarcely any protest or controversy." Those of us fired and/or silenced because of our work on this topic have a different perspective.

But I'll put it to our readers to answer the more important question: is historical Jesus research heresy?

-anthony

33 comments:

  1. Only if a heretic is doing it.

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  2. Whenever an entire set of research questions, methodologies, and results are described in monolithic and particularly negative terms by other Christians ("Historical Jesus studies is heresy!"), I revert back to my free church roots and respond back: "Who cares?"

    The church, however one wants to parse that out, is at its worst when it disqualifies rigorous historical study because of the pressure such study might apply to cherished and long-held traditions. It is at its best when it allows those scholars who pursue such study a place at the table -- or when it at least resists the temptation to paint entire fields and sub-fields with such a broad brush.

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  3. Well, if you look at the origins of historical Jesus scholarship his accusation is not far from the mark.

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    1. I assume you mean the modern origins, Todd. I'm not sure this holds for the ancient origins, though. Origen and Augustine were at various times doing things that look a whole lot like historical Jesus research. The Gospel of John, too, seems quite quick to acknowledge a distinction between who Jesus' followers thought he was during his earthly ministry and who they thought he was post-resurrection. Such authors (Origen, Augustine, Fourth Evangelist) weren't considered heretical in general.

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    2. That's what I think Johnson is thinking of at least ("since the time of the Enlightenment"). I don't think he's not quite right to draw a line in the sand at Reimarus, since he is just following Augustine - as you say. But the Enlightenment historical Jesus projects did take Augustine's starting point and turn it on its head to overturn the Christ of faith.

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    3. Been reading some Francis Watson, eh Todd? :)

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    4. You can't dangle names in front of us without telling us what work you're referring to!

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    5. It's the book "Gospel Writing", specifically the beginning and ending chapters.

      Chris, would love your thoughts on Origen's historical Jesus methodology.

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  4. Based on just his quote, he only identifies the 'Christological heresy' as "the replacement of the Christ of faith with the so-called historical Jesus." But he doesn't appear to be calling the discipline heretical in itself. (Maybe he does elsewhere--I really don't know). What I find interesting is his terminology in the last quoted line: the 'Christ of faith' / 'historical Jesus' dichotomy he appears to assume owes something to the HJ 'quests'.

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  5. I'd like to see the wider context, but this reads like a swing of the pendulum. Like Josh Mann mentions, it seems like his main target is the replacement of the Christ of faith with the historical Jesus in churches, not whether historical Jesus research in and of itself is heretical. Regardless, Johnson is painting with a pretty broad brush here. Surely he knows that there are many historical Jesus scholars throughout the history of the discourse who didn't necessarily view the historical Jesus and Christian of faith as mutually exclusive options, even though there are plenty who have.

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    1. *Christ of faith not Christian or faith

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  6. I love NT Wright's view on research on the historical Jesus: "I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship." (The Challenge of Jesus, page 15)

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  7. I could be wrong here, but it seems that LTJ is using "historical Jesus" to mean either or both (1) the historian's Jesus or (2) the reconstructed Jesus. The question isn't whether historians could or should study Jesus, or even whether we aren't all, in one way or another, beholden to reconstruction. But what is the value or role of this "reconstructed Jesus" vis-a-vis any of the Gospel portraits of him (let alone of the "credal Jesus"), especially when the reconstructed Jesus doesn't look much like one of these Gospel portraits? It's hard, e.g., to find a historically reconstructed Jesus that looks much like the Johannine Jesus (although as I point out elsewhere, NTWright's Jesus, who is "reconstructed" on the basis of the Synoptics, turns out to be nearly the Johannine Jesus both in self-conception and in mission). So, isn't LTJ protesting the replacement of John's (or Luke's or Mark's) witness to Jesus with a single historian's reconstructed Jesus? LTJ's written work clearly suggests he doesn't eschew historical research per se. (Note: I'm not necessarily agreeing with him, just trying to explicate his point.)

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Dr. Thompson. I would argue that the historian's Jesus is always a reconstructed Jesus. But I might say the same for the theologians Jesus or the creedal Jesus, or - for that matter - the Johannine Jesus. I like what Dagmar Winter says: historical Jesus research is for the Christian a way of taking the incarnation seriously.
      -anthony

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    2. Yes, I've heard that before more than once, and have said it myself to my students. Of course, John (the Gospel) took the incarnation seriously, and surely understood himself to be presenting Jesus "as he really was," but not many historians take John's portrait seriously as "history." It at least gives one pause.

      I do also agree that "the theologian's Jesus" or "the exegete's Jesus" is in some ways a reconstructed Jesus -- and that's what I meant that, in one way or another, we are all beholden to reconstruction. In some ways, that's what the Gospels themselves are, right?

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    3. Right. Absolutely right. I've often used the phrase "setting the record straight" to explain historical consciousness. Is the author attempting to set the record straight? This is an anachronistic projection, but I think that the spirit of the phrase works for both ancient and modern historians. Of course, for the Fourth Gospel, setting the record straight means getting the theology right first and foremost. But (and I think we might agree on this) I don't think that Mark, Luke, or Matthew are much different.

      BTW, Marianne, I'll be using your youtube dialogue with Tom Wright in my historical Jesus class this term: "The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God."

      -anthony

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    4. Cool ( to follow the thoughts on this thread!). That was one of the most fun things I wrote -- but not sure I got any "victory" here! Still, I've always thought that the Jesus of JVG is remarkably like John's Jesus. The reconstructed "synoptic" Jesus actually is/becomes John's Jesus. Hmm.

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    5. Johnson and Wright have actually had a very interesting (and somewhat testy) exchange on this topic in "Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright's Jesus & the Victory of God (ed. Carey C. Newman). They have very different views about what "historical" means in historical Jesus research and what historiography can accomplish. For my money, I'm with Wright on this one.

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  8. The best known line from *Cool Hand Luke* comes to mind: "Luke Johnson ain't got his mind right."

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    1. A movie that absolutely is *NOT* quoted enough in NT studies.

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    2. Yeah. Think of the Christology embedded in "He's a natural born world-shaker."

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    3. "Nobody can eat fifty eggs."
      -anthony

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  9. "What we hayuv heeyuh, eeis a failyuh to communicayit!"

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    1. "Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes,
      Long as I've got my plastic Jesus" (Coolhand Luke's song)

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  10. Historical Jesus research pertains to those interested in fact, truth, and reality. In my mind, especially if a person's eternal destiny depends upon the truth of the historical Jesus, it is the most important endeavor in human history.

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  11. I like Bauckham's thoughts on this at the end of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. It reminds me of the dialogue between John Wesley and the Moravian:

    “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” “True,” replied he; “but do you know he has saved you?”

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    1. There's a biblical defense of a nondescript historical Jesus. 99% of the time - and arguably all - he does not say he is the Christ or God. But only asks "who do you say I am?"

      No big claims there, even from Jesus himself.

      Likewise, bigger "son of Man" sayings, may or may not refer to Jesus.

      So maybe there's just a little guy there, after all. Consistent with humanistic theology. And HJ.

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    2. That's a good defense of the importance of historical Jesus scholarship. But my LTJ (and people like Richard Hays) like response would be that why did people write about Jesus in the first place? Could it have been that he was the Christ or dare I say God?

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    3. But what if Jesus was Man with, for the moment, a capital M? Wouldn't even that merit some attention, from men and women?

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  12. The process of historical Jesus research is neither heretical nor orthodox. But the outcomes may well be, especially if they chanllenge the orthodoxy of the day. The good news is that apostles, apostolic fathers, and theologians from Origen to Augustine to Luther have all been heretical in one way or another. Some heresies have wormed their way into the halls of orthodoxy, others left behind at the door. Heresy is part and parcel of what Jesus meant when he said that he did not come to bring peace but conflict. www.jesustheheresy.com

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