McKnight Turns to the Historical Jesus

Scot McKnight has followed his illuminating series of posts on the “New Perspective on Paul” with an equally illuminating series on Historical Jesus research, which concludes with nine general points for the reader. Mark Goodacre responded to these final points with a number of minor critiques, several of which I would second (e.g., his argument that some scholars are more effective than others in their attempts to objectively and dispassionately produce an historical reconstruction of Jesus). A few additional observations and comments of my own:

McKnight’s fourth point is as follows: “I don’t think historical Jesus has any place in theological studies for the Church. To bracket off one’s theological views in order to study the historical Jesus and then to do theological studies on top of that bracketed-off-study-of-Jesus is a vicious circular argument. You won’t find the Church’s Jesus this way because you’ve decided the Church’s Jesus isn’t allowed at the table! Historical Jesus studies is for historians.” While his warnings against circular arguments are well taken, it seems to me that our evolving conceptions of who Jesus really was–what he said, did, didn’t say, didn’t do, etc.–can and should have a profound effect on the church which is supposedly fundamentally based on his life and teachings. The Church’s Jesus and the Historical Jesus may not always be one and the same, but they can communicate with one another, and learn from one another.

And his fifth point: “still, nearly every historical Jesus scholar I know–and I know most of them–believes in the portrait of Jesus they construct on the basis of the historical methods. John Dominic Crossan and Marc Borg and Tom Wright and Dick Horsley et al believe, so it seems to me, in the Jesus they have constructed. (We all do this, don’t we?)” Goodacre objects, and again points to Sanders as a pertinent example. The key to this question is one’s understanding of the term “believe.” If it is to be understood from a religio-spiritual perspective, then I would agree with Goodacre, and add additional examples such as Bart Ehrman (as I don’t think an avowed agnostic can “believe” in Jesus in this way!). If it is to be understood from a more empirical perspective, then I would be more inclined to agree with McKnight. It is to be expected that researchers believe in the results they achieve. Thus the research process must be carefully regulated and comprehensively executed, in order to obtain a result worth believing in.

And, finally, his sixth point: “historical Jesus studies have waned significantly in the last ten years. The hey day was the 80s and 90s but the creative work has been done, climaxing perhaps in Tom Wright’s big book, and mostly the conversation has grown stale. What used to attract hundreds to academic sessions now attracts 30 or 40.” Goodacre essentially agrees, and adds that “[t]here is so much of it; it is so much in the mainstream that it has become somewhat less exciting. I am tempted to add that I have not seen anything in twenty years that begins to approach Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism for stimulation and interest, but then I really would sound like a Johnny-one-note.” Here I find myself disagreeing with both of my esteemed colleagues. McKnight suggests that the climax of recent Historical Jesus research is Tom Wright’s “big book” (which I assume is Jesus and the Victory of God, released in 1997). However, both McKnight and Goodacre fail to mention John P. Meier’s magisterial Marginal Jew series, the most recent of which was released in 2001 (the third volume, with another volume forthcoming). For my money, these are the definitive volumes on the Historical Jesus, and they are every bit as stimulating and interesting as Jesus and Judaism, albeit in a slightly different vein. McKnight mentions the work of Paula Fredericksen and Amy-Jill Levine, but doesn’t mention that their work is relatively recent as well (Fredericksen’s Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews was first published in 1999; Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew was first published last year). Last fall I took a seminar course with Adela Collins entitled “The Historical Jesus”; it was one of the largest seminars I’ve taken at Yale. There’s still a great deal of interest in the Historical Jesus, and if some of that interest is outside the academy, so much the better.

Take a look at all these intriguing posts (and Goodacre’s responses) and see what you think!

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August 2007


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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