Searching for JesusWhat has propelled and influenced generations of scholars in their efforts to separate fact from legend about Jesus?
The quest for the historical Jesus has gone on for about three centuries. Now, the classical study of this was done by Albert Schweitzer, at the turn to the 20th century, in his book, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus." What he showed was that from the 18th century on, the attempt to find out who Jesus really was had been conditioned all the way through by the needs and wants and desires of the people who were writing the book.... So, Jesus turned out in the 19th century, for example, to look very much like somebody who would be happy with a form of relatively liberal social Christianity, such as might have been practiced in various western societies, at that time. I think that this approach to the study of Jesus actually is correct in the sense that even the early Christians looked at Jesus in a way that suited their needs for the development of the church and the Christian religion at the time. The quest for historicity, though, in the way we think of it, is more a modern quest. I think that people in the early church were very eager to use the stories and sayings of Jesus for purposes of moral edification, for building up the church, exhorting congregations, and so on but they really were not wracked with this question of historicity and was it authentic, in the way that people in the 19th and 20th century, particularly, have been.
You refer to Schweitzer. What did he think he found, what did he make of Jesus?
Albert Schweitzer concluded at the end of this enormous study of all these lives of Jesus, that the Jesus that might have been the Jesus of the synoptic gospels was an apocalyptic figure who preached a fiery message of the coming of the Kingdom of God, who separated families, who told people they should have no occupations but go out and follow him and so on. He had to conclude this was quite irrelevant to the needs and wants of Western Christians at the turn to the 20th century. This was not a form of Christianity that was compatible with his day and age. And he devised, in keeping with many of the trends of his time and German Protestantism, a kind of simple message of how Jesus preached - the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man - some elements of social justice and that's sort of what he got out of it. So, he, in his own way was kind of shaping and changing for his own needs and those of German Christians of his time, a portrait of Jesus, or a message of Jesus that he thought in fact, was maybe somewhat different, from what the New Testament, itself contained.
THE QUEST FOR THE 'HISTORICAL' JESUS
What did Jesus imagine his role as being in this new order?
What did Jesus imagine himself to be, or what did Jesus think himself to be? This is another mystery, another question which has bedeviled the minds of many interpreters for a very long time. We really don't know. We have the famous set of passages in the gospels where he says, "Whom do men say that I am?" You know, he turns to the disciples and we get a series of answers. "You're one of the prophets, you're Jeremiah." And whom do you say that I am? "We think you are the son of the living God." Well, we don't really know what to make of these passages. It's clear that the passages show that Jesus was seen by his followers in many different ways. That strikes me as imminently reasonable and imminently historical. He will have been seen or interpreted differently by different people. Some will have seen him as a prophet. Others as a holy man. Others as John the Baptist returning from the dead. Or a wide variety of possibilities. But how he saw himself is really a mystery to us, because that is hidden from us. It is impossible to disentangle in the New Testament accounts what the later church believed Jesus to be, or the later church believed Jesus thought himself to be, from what the historical Jesus actually thought himself to be. I don't see any way to... distinguish very clearly and securely what exactly is the historical core and how it then gradually develops in the history of the church. That is lost to us. And I don't know how anybody can know what Jesus thought about himself.
If you're not a practicing, believing Christian...
And I'm not, I state for the record. Yes, a shocker. If you're not a pious believing Christian then why should we care about Jesus?
Well, the story of Jesus, his life, teachings and death, are of interest to me on two counts. One, I'm a historian of Judaism in antiquity, and Jesus was probably the most famous Jew of antiquity and in many respects one of the most interesting Jews of antiquity. And consequently it's a fascinating historical puzzle to try to figure out and understand exactly what this man did and, almost as important, what he didn't do. That is to say to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Jesus who will play an important role in the on-going developments of Christianity. But also for me as a Jew, Jesus is important. Jesus has played an important role in the world history in the creation of Christianity. Christianity, in turn, has had a major impact, either positive or negative, on Jews and on Judaism, and clearly a better understanding of Christianity is important also to me as a Jew. The historical information about Jesus, therefore, is precious to me as a way of understanding not just the historical puzzle about Jesus, but also to understand the nature of Judaism and of its varieties...
You suggested that there's really very little that we can know in a firm historical sense about the real Jesus, and yet Jesus looms so large on the landscape of faith and culture and history. So who is this? This person whom we know only by bits and pieces?
I suppose I'd be saying the obvious if I said that we're interested in Jesus because of Christianity. But for Christianity, Jesus would simply be a minor historical puzzle, no more complex or difficult, say, than trying to understand the nature of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, his contemporary, who also exists for us as a puzzle in the historical record. We also have conflicting evidence about his personality and politics, but for us that is just a historical puzzle, and only for historians to worry about. The rest of us don't concern ourselves about the personality, life and times of the Emperor Tiberius. So, but for Christianity, Jesus would be just a puzzle, a small historical puzzle of concern only to a small group of people. But obviously, Jesus is not just that. Because for Christians Jesus is a lot more than just a historical puzzle. And because of Christianity, because of its growth and its importance in the history of the world thereby retrospectively the historical puzzle of Jesus now emerges as a big puzzle. Not a small puzzle for historians, but a big puzzle for us all....
Is there an irony in all of this that here's the kind of person that history does not normally remember, who has emerged in such a profound way?
In our own age we've come to realize in the late 20th century that truth is very elusive. That there is probably no such thing as objective truth... we realize that there are many truths, and different people construct truths differently. And the same event can be true in different ways, for different people for different reasons. We understand this now, and we realize that the pursuit of the 19th century historicists looking for history as it actually happened, or the objective truth..., is something that we will never attain, and it's probably ultimately unattainable. That doesn't mean of course that we can't try. It doesn't mean of course that we can't realize that there may well be many different kinds of truths about Jesus. And that it is interesting to see how we construct different portraits of the historical Jesus.
But what's more important than the historical Jesus, of course, is the impact of the image of Jesus on history. It's less important to me to know exactly what Jesus said or did in any given year or actually what happened to him, than to understand the impact that shifting images [of] Jesus have had on Christianity. That is a real historical question, right? That one we can discuss and analyze as a real historical question with real historical answers. So even if the ultimate historical Jesusis unknown or unknowable, nevertheless, the Jesus of myth or the Jesus of image, the "believed in" Jesus, or the Christ of faith, is a historical figure, because we can trace that figure as influence, as impact upon later Christians from the first century to our own....
It sounds as if almost every generation, whether it's believers or scholars, has a kind of impulse to reinvent Jesus, to make Jesus once again in order to understand him.
Absolutely. Modern scholars have routinely reinvented Jesus or have routinely rediscovered in Jesus that which they want to find, be it rationalist, liberal Christianity of the 19th century, be it apocalyptic miracle workers in the 20th, be it revolutionaries, or be it whatever it is that they're looking for, scholars have been able to find in Jesus almost anything that they want to find.Even in our own age scholars are still doing this. People are still trying to figure out the authentic sayings of Jesus..., all our middle class liberal Protestant scholars who will take a vote and decide what Jesus should have said, or might have said. And no doubt their votes reflect their own deep seated, very sincere, very authentic Christian values, which I don't gainsay for a moment. But their product is, of course, bedeviled by the problem that we are unable to have any secure criteria by which to distinguish the real from the mythic or what we want to be so from what actually was so....
One standard scholarly approach is to say that anything that is really odd or really eccentric that's attributed to Jesus must be authentic. Because no one would attribute anything really odd or eccentric to him, and therefore it is so. Its very oddity and eccentricity are testimony to its truth or to its historical veracity. This is a rather peculiar kind of argument, and what it means, of course, is that the only kind of sense that will emerge as historical are the man bites dog kind of sentences. Whereas the bulk of what he might have said, the dog bites man kind of sentences, will of course be rejected as simple commonplaces, the sort of thing that would be invented or projected upon Jesus by his followers. The result then is even if this method has some truth to it, it's going to wind up yielding by definition a very peculiar portrait of Jesus at odds with the world around him, and at odds with society around him, and at odds with the Judaism around him. Now perhaps some scholars want the Jesus like that, precisely because he is, after all, the founder of Christianity which we want to imagine is at odds with the world around it, with the Jewish world around him. But obviously, from the point of view of method this is a very peculiar method indeed, and seems to assume in advance the answer that it's trying to achieve.
Can you describe the work of the Jesus Seminar?
THE JESUS SEMINAR
The Jesus Seminar does three different things; two of them are totally regular, and one is quite surprising. It was founded by Bob Funk in 1985 to bring together scholars to talk about the historical Jesus, to come to some decision; because he says scholars never come to decisions, and to make it public. That's the most important thing. Scholars coming together happens all the time at conventions. They sometimes even vote on decisions; for example, Greek bible texts had to be voted on to see what text goes in there. But to go public, that's something very new, and Funk's argument was it was an ethical necessity that what we all knew was going on within scholarship and did within our scholarly journals and meetings should be made clear to the public, not wait for a hundred years when we tell you the decisions; come right in on the process. So, the function of the Jesus Seminar from the beginning was to be public.
Therefore, when we voted, we decided to do it not by simply raising our hands or any other way but to use colored beads; drop them into a little box, and vote. And what we were voting on is when we print this gospel, will it be red, that is, we're very certain Jesus said this; will it be pink, we're not so certain; will it be gray, we're very uncertain; and black, the original color, meaning that this will stay in this color because it does not represent anything we think Jesus said. Those were not value judgments as far as we were concerned. They were historical judgments. But the essential thing which is important to understand about the Jesus Seminar, it was programatically public, and the beads were designed so they could be visualized; they could literally be seen by a camera as distinct from raising your hands or writing on a text or something like that. The going public is the ethical question.
Could you compare the work of the Jesus Seminar with what Jefferson set out to do?
First of all, Jefferson was only one person, and he said "what I like is in; what I don't like is out," and that's a perfectly reasonable proposition. Unfortunately, if you're forty people around the table, you have to say well, we can't do it that way. You have at least to give me an argument why what you want in should be in, and so having at least forty people, fifty people, at each meeting of the Jesus Seminar, we had to justify at least our arguments, and convince our colleagues because, otherwise, we would get simply votes all over the place. If there wasn't any consistency, we'd have nothing to report.
Why was it ethically important to conduct its hearings in public?
Because in North America, the Bible is extremely important, culturally and politically. If nobody was the least bit interested in the Bible, then it would not be ethically important, it would be just talking about ancient history, as it were. The Bible has a profound influence, not as a vague cultural archetype in the background but has immediate effects on, say, creationism, on our school curriculum, on all sorts of other questions. If scholars all interpret the Bible literally so that everything that's literal must be taken literally, then we should say that. If large numbers of scholars do not, then the public should know that. They should know what is being discussed....
One of the controversial things that the Jesus Seminar has done is to take very, very seriously extra-canonical materials, and among those extra-canonical materials, at least for the words of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, is quite crucial. This is a list of the sayings of Jesus, and they're not really even as organized as the sayings of Jesus are in the Q gospel. They're not a biographical gospel like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; they're a sayings gospel. But we have a lot of material which is not only unique to Thomas, which is, of course, his own work, but also common to the Q gospel or to Matthew, Luke, Mark, John. We have used this very seriously. Now, it's used primarily for the sayings of Jesus. For some people, something which is not in the canon should not be given the weight that materials in the canon should be given, but that's to confuse historical priority and theological priority. For Christians, there are four gospels in the canon, period. For historians, any gospel we find at any time has to be used. So, it's a confusion between what you might call historical priority and theological priority....
Has the Jesus Seminar increased the number of authentic sayings of Jesus from what other scholars would recommend?
It's very hard to get scholars working on the Jesus material to take a account and say, "these I take as original and these others I take as not being original." Very often a scholar will use some and not tell you about the others. The Jesus Seminar lays out a whole inventory; that's part of the ethical imperative. These, we think are original; these, we think are not. If you actually go through scholars who have done historical Jesus books and look at the ones they've based themselves on, we probably have far more sayings and far more deeds....
THE JESUS SEMINAR
Is it possible to isolate the sayings of Jesus, as the Jesus Seminar attempts to do? Is that a realistic enterprise?
No, I don't think so. I think the Jesus Seminar that tries to isolate the sayings and tries to find out which sayings are most original and which ones are later editions has only a limited useful result. It may give us a little more insight in the way in which the tradition grew. But things which have been added later to the tradition may very well be much older, they just didn't happen to enter that particular writing at an early stage. So traditions appearing later in literature are not necessarily traditions that came into existence late.So the voting on, "Is this most likely what Jesus said or is it not very likely or is it unlikely or are we sure that Jesus didn't say it at all?" is a voting that is to me of very, very limited historical value, and of no value whatsoever in asking the question of the historical Jesus, of the earthly Jesus.
For example, the Jesus Seminar comes out in saying that the three beatitudes of the Sermon on the Plain -- the blessing of the poor, the blessing of those who are hungry, the blessing of those who weep -- these are the most original parts of the tradition.... But Jesus certainly did not preach, "blessed are the poor, and blessed are the hungry and blessed are those who weep, hallelujah, and I'll give you the continuation tomorrow." If Jesus was a popular preacher, he wouldn't just have issued aphorisms. He would most likely have given a good long sermon, a long speech that got people excited. These three beatitudes are a distillation of Jesus' preaching, but certainly not a mirroring of Jesus' preaching. They are formulated by people who heard what Jesus said and then recoined it into something that could be transmitted. The whole sermon of Jesus probably lasted an hour or two hours; we don't know, but certainly Jesus' preaching would have had long sermons, long debates with people, and people coming up and asking questions and what not.
Try to imagine how it was, how Jesus' ministry really happened. It certainly never happened in the way in which the tradition tells about it. Because the tradition tells about it in order to have a formulated way of understanding and transmitting and teaching. So I don't think we can go back. I don't think the attempt to reconstruct can be made in such a way, the attempt to discover Jesus can be made in such a way. There is another way to do it. I've tried to do one of those attempts in saying that perhaps the closest to historical memory of Jesus is a ritual, is a celebration of a meal. And here we have a direct continuity from Jesus' celebration of meals with an eschatological outlook, to the disciples' celebration of meals afterwards. There we may have continuity. There may be other continuities, but they can only be concluded from the whole of the tradition. So one would have to go the opposite way from the Jesus Seminar, or have to say we have to understand the entirety of that piece which is preserved and ask what kind of understanding of Jesus' message is here reflected, and how is that totality of the understanding of Jesus' message related to what Jesus actually initiated and said.
What kind of Jesus emerges from the work of the Jesus Seminar?
Well, it's very interesting that in a lot of the more recent discussion around the Jesus Seminar and around also such books that speak about Jesus the cynic, the eschatological element has been excised or has been not very much emphasized. I think it has much more to do with our own difficulty today to think in terms of eschatology. And as one scholar has said in this context, it would be so good, and this is what we want to do, to find a Jesus who is a rational advisor for the problems of our time. Now that is very revealing, and I think completely unhistorical. That early Christian community was a community that got the spirit, that spoke in tongues, where apostles performed miracles, where foreigners came into the assembly and thought these people are all mad. And that movement goes back to someone who was an eschatological prophet, I'm absolutely sure. An eschatological prophet in the tradition of Israel and Judaism. And not someone who was saying a few things that might help us today to order our society according to wise and rational principles.
For more about the controversial Jesus Seminar, see their web site.
Read more about the quest in this 1995 article "The Historical Jesus" from the journal Tikkun.