Historical Jesus and Theology


Over the churchandpomo website Carl Raschke has posted a review of the first two chapters of Westphal’s new book on hermeneutics in the Church and Pomo book series. He discussed hermeneutics and makes a claim that I’d like to explore more in depth, “So much of this Kantian-Diltheyean tendency in German philosophy throughout the nineteenth century is the real, hermeneutical innovation that underlies what we now know as the “historical-textual criticism” of the Scriptures,” which today dominates academic Biblical scholarship while driving fundamentalists, and even Neo-Orthodox as well as Radical Orthodox types, absolutely crazy.”

Let’s return Barth’s famous commentary on Romans to assess theology’s uncomfortable relationship with historical research. Barth’s powerful work is undoubtedly one of the most aggressive and impressive theological readings of Romans. What surprised Barth’s liberal Protestant teachers was the utter lack of historical research throughout Der Römerbrief. A historical-critical tradition in which liberal Protestant had been so immersed. His movement away from liberal Protestantism towards asserting the infinite qualitative difference between man and the wholly Other God changed the trajectory of modern theology.

Likewise, Tillich also adopted Barth’s attitude never wanting to equate the historical Jesus with the cosmic Christ. Although there are many differences that separate Barth and Tillich’s systems, both thinkers offered us ahistorical theologies.

Hauerwas followed Barth’s lead and focused on Christian orthodoxy’s interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth. His theological program has focused on the construction of communal narratives and enacting the gospel in local church community. This post-liberal communal-linguistic theology while interesting, has its shares of problem. I think Yoder’s criticism of Hauerwas is right on, “One reason Hauerwas does not do text-based Bible study is that he is overawed by the notion of community-dependency and underawed by the objective reality of salvation history. Also underwared by the study the real (unsaved) history. He would rather read novels” (Kerr, Christ, History, and Apocalyptic, 113-114). Milbank and clan also refuse to engage historical research on the singular history of Jesus of Nazareth.

I remember having a conversation with one of Hauerwas’ student. When I pressed on the issue of historical Jesus research his response was your typical “Whose History?” His justification for not listening to the research was something like a Foucauldian view of history where there’s no neutral, objective picture of the past. I remain skeptical. To me this is a clever ploy to avoid the awkwardness that abounds when one begins to study what we know historically about Jesus of Nazareth.

Whether you take a more apocalyptic view of Jesus via Schweitzer or rely on the work of Crossan and Borg, either way there are some disturbing results. When one begins to compare the gospels, contradictions abound. Genealogies, birth stories, crucifixion narratives, and the stories of the resurrection don’t match up. Even if we bracket the vast differences that separate the synoptics and John’s gospel, there are still issues that contradict our rather naïve views of Jesus based on the story we grew up hearing in church.

My main issue is that I believe there are serious dangers if we continue speaking of a Jesus that might be nothing more than an idol. Or, perhaps a mere Freudian projection. We need to go back to worshiping Jesus of Nazareth for who he was not what we would like him to be. Let me start offering some of the historical Jesus research how this could help us construct a more accurate (and I believe) challenging picture of the Son of God.

For one, it is virtually impossible that Jesus went around declaring himself to be the Messiah or the Son of God. In fact, when on reads the synoptics one gets the impression that he was constantly evading answering questions about his identity. His mission could not be hampered by these curiosities. His gospel message was a repetition with a difference of John the Baptist’s radical apocalyptic call for repentance of the Jewish people. Jesus’ innovation was declaring that this coming Kingdom was already breaking in the here and now but still to come (see Mark 13). His group of followers symbolically enacted the egalitarian community by practicing an open-table fellowship. Everyone was welcome even the unclean were invited. I think Caputo is spot on compare this sort of dinner party to the mad tea party as described by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. Except there’s no mad hatter just prostitutes, lepers, and children gathering to share a meal with the Son of God. Further clarification around the crucifixion stories also sheds light on this horrible event. He died the death of a political criminal. His sense of abandonment and failure is perfectly illustrated by his cry of dereliction in Matthew and Mark. I’ll leave it at that for now.

I guess what I’m pleading for is more honesty in theological circles. I don’t think that historical research necessarily ruins any belief in the divinity or resurrection of Jesus. It might make it more difficult, but I believe it’s worth the risk if we want to be honest followers of Jesus. I just don’t understand, what is everyone so scared of? I could possibly understand theologians hesitancy to base their theology on research that’s evolving and impermanent. But, after 100 years of historical Jesus research it appears that most scholars are in agreement over how to interpret this man’s exemplary life. As much as Neo-Orthodoxy and Radical Orthodoxy rightfully distance themselves from the insipid theology of Evangelicalism, it’s disturbing to me that they all three schools treat the Bible in the same manner. Although, Hauerwasians and Milbankians might not actually posit a belief in the infallibility of the Bible, they might as well given the way they appropriate Scriptures.


5 Responses to “Historical Jesus and Theology”

  1. A.J. Smith Says:

    “I don’t think that historical research necessarily ruins any belief in the divinity or resurrection of Jesus. It might make it more difficult, but I believe it’s worth the risk if we want to be honest followers of Jesus.”

    For the most part, I would agree with your appraisal (from what little I know). Although, I’m not sure that concur with the statement that historical studies makes belief in Jesus divinity any “harder.” It may, perhaps, in the sense that the historical Jesus we uncover may differ somewhat in certain particularities from the Jesus we know in scripture (e.g. that Jesus did not identify, openly anyway, as the Son of God or Messiah as presented in, say, John; cf. Jn. 8:58). But, does that make it more difficult to believe in his divinity? I would say not.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Harder was probably a poor wording choice. What I meant to say is that coming from a belief in the infallibility of the Bible, it makes one belief in doctrines more tentative when one approaches the Bible from a historical-critical view. If the Jesus one was presented with in Sunday School openly went around proclaiming that he was God’s Son, the Christ, and that he preached that his life/death/resurrection would offer us the forgiveness of sins then it makes things more complex. If the Jesus of history went around as a vagrant apocalyptic preacher announcing the coming reign of God without any claims to his specific ontological nature save for the claim of being a prophet, then I think it might be more difficult for us to reconcile the two. Difficult in the sense learning to appreciate how these two pictures of the same man are not necessarily contradictory, but they certainly are one an the same. That comment might have been more of an autobiographical comment. I know personally that studying the New Testament from a historical perspective shattered many of the naive beliefs I held about the early Christians and Jesus of Nazareth.

  3. A.J. Smith Says:

    If you are couching it in the context of “insipid” Sunday-school evangelicalism, than a historical-critical view of the Bible would indeed make it harder to believe in a very real sense. This, I think, is best seen in the creation-evolution struggle where many evangelicals apparently lose their faith because they discover that the world was not in fact created on Sunday, October 23rd, 4004 BC. I would concur that it is more difficult, not in the sense that some probability number corresponding to the likelihood of Jesus being divine (a la Richard Swinburne) is thereby diminished, but because more work, intellectual speaking, is need to appropriate these two facets of the study of Jesus. If I can make an off-the-cuff analogy, I would say that an historical-critical approach to Jesus makes belief in Jesus more difficult like Einstein’s belief about the universe are more difficult (read: complex, complete, nuanced, etc.) than Newton’s notions were.

    I certainly had an intellectual journey, probably similar to yours, from Conservative evangelicalism to whatever I am today (Post-evangelical? Barthian, Pannenbergian??) that certainly decimated my erstwhile intellectual and religious self.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I am trying to put the difficulties within that context given that’s from where it emerged. However, the thing I’m most grateful about that background was the fact that I actually read the Bible. Granted I read it through a naive, positivist, uncritical hermeneutical framework, but I studied it nevertheless. Yeah the creation and evolution debate has always and will forever remain incredibly stupid. Probably because the creationist and atheistic fundamentalists read Genesis as if it was written by some proto-scientists as opposed to a people group trying to construct a narrative to establish their social identity and its relationship to Yahweh.

    I think the Newton/Einstein comparison is helpful.

    I prefer not to consider myself post-evangelical because I feel the post still suggests some sort of association with that movement. Although, I understand the reason for the prefix, I’d rather envision my current position as being wholly divorced from this thought. In fact, I try not to harp on it too much as I’ve seen that certain sectors of Christianity (read emerging church) stumble because they fixate on the ills of their past experiences in (evangelical) church. I think Hegel’s dialectic comes in handy. The emerging church has not been able to negate the negation of evangelicalism and so remains overly dependent on individuating itself from their past.

    Barthian, Pannebergian? Hmm. I consider myself to be most sympathetic to liberation theology although I will admit a love affair with Altizer’s apocalyptic theology. It should be noted however, that Altizer is Barthian (that is to say Christocentric to the core).

    Also, let me know if you’d like to do some joint book study together. I’m more than willing to study any theologians: Barth, Tillich, Pannenberg, Niebuhr, Yoder, Jungel. I’ll email you a reading list to see what’s on my agenda to read theologically.

  5. A.J. Smith Says:

    “The emerging church has not been able to negate the negation of evangelicalism and so remains overly dependent on individuating itself from their past.”


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