Posted by: Johnold Strey | April 13, 2010

The Jesus We’ll Never Know?

The April 2010 edition of Christianity Today includes a cover article titled, “The Jesus We’ll Never Know,” along with the subheading, “Why scholarly attempts to discover the ‘real’ Jesus have failed.  And why that is a good thing.”  The author of the article, Scot McKnight, points out how the recent attempts to discover the “historical Jesus” have failed.

I am no expert in this field, but I’m not so sure that Scot’s article hit the nail on the head.  He begins solidly, noting the tendency many scholars have to construct the Jesus of their own choosing: “Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct Jesus in conscience contrast with the categories of the evangelists and the beliefs of the church. … The inspiration for historical Jesus scholarship is that the Gospels overdid it, and that the church more or less absorbed the Galilean prophet into Greek philosophical categories.  The quest for the historical Jesus is an attempt to get behind the theology and the established faith to the Jesus who was — I must say it this way — much more like the Jesus we would like him to be” (Christianity Today, April 2010, page 25).  With this, I am very much in agreement!  As far as I’m concerned, it is undeniable that the “historical Jesus” movement and higher critical approaches to Scripture encourage people to see Jesus through the filter of their own ideas and experience.  While a graduate student at Santa Clara University, professors in the theology courses I experienced encouraged an approach to the Bible that assumed the individual would view the Bible’s content through the lens of his or her own life experience.  These approaches were given specific names such as “feminist criticism,” “liberation theology,” “post-colonial criticism,” “hermaneutics of suspicion,” “redaction criticism,” and the like.  The problem is that anytime you read your own experience, ideas, or theories into a historical document — no matter how good they may seem or well-intentioned they may be — you no longer let the document speak for itself.  One might compare this to a jury whose bias swayed the jurors toward a conclusion before the trial had even begun.

Despite McKnight’s proper criticism of the historical Jesus movement, I was left with the impression at the end of the article that any historical approach to the study of Jesus would be flawed.  Again, I’m no history scholar (and I have the grades to prove it!), but knowing the flaws of the historical-critical approaches to Scripture makes me wonder why one would want to dismiss a historical study of Jesus when the probably isn’t history, but methodology.  There is a real sense that I can agree with McKnight in his final paragraphs, but I also get the sense that he believes that historical, factual approaches to the study of Jesus have little connection to faith.  I don’t think McKnight wants to separate faith and history altogether, but the church has been down this slope once before (e.g. Karl Barth et alia), and it is slippery and dangerous. 

Christian apologist Dr. John Warwick Montgomery has pointed out on many occasions that the methodology used by the “historical Jesus” movement and the higher critical approach to Scripture was rejected by secular scholars a long time ago.  The anecdote Montgomery tells from his undergraduate years says it all: his classics professor observed one day, “After 75 years of higher-critical study on Homer’s Illiad and Oddessy, we have concluded that these works were either written by Homer, or by someone else who had the same name and lived at the same time!”  The fruitless attempts to reconstruct Homer’s works from scholarly theories apart from hard evidence led those scholars to return to traditional, evidence-based approaches to ancient secular works.  Unfortuantely, scholars in the field of ancient religious literature did not follow suit with the ancient documents we call the books of the Bible.  This is the ultimate failure of the historical-critical approach to the Bible — the adhearance to a methodology that has been rejected by secular scholars (with no axe to grind).  But this also ought not diminish a proper historical approach to the historical documents that we call the Bible.

McKnight’s Christianity Today article is followed by two responses; the first is by N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and well-known author of many books.  As I read Wright’s response, I think that he finds a better balance and relationship between proper historical study and Spirit-wrought faith in Jesus.  I especially appreciate his closing points that a true historical study can clear away the false ideas about Jesus and the New Testament that have been peddled as fact so frequently among so many.  The misinformation about Jesus in our world today is staggering.  Our apologetic task is to clear away the rubbish of higher-criticism and other faulty approaches to Scripture so that people will come face-to-face with the real Jesus — the one who was born of the Virgin Mary in time, lived a righteous life under the law of God, took the guilt and punishment for our sins upon himself at the cross, and rose from the dead in real history to demonstrate his victory over sin and to assure his believers of their own resurrection to eternal life.

With that preface, I share with you N.T. Wright’s response to Scot McKnight’s aforementioned article:



N.T. Wright

Scot McKnight advocates a kind of fasting.  I am to give up the lifetime habit of studying Jesus historically.  Okay, it’s Lent, but this is going to be harder than doing without Merlot.  Or even Macallan.

But is this necessary?  Or even coherent?  Three comments, then three conclusions.

There’s History and then There’s History

First, the words history and historical can refer to two different things: (a) past events, or (b) what people write about past events.  Most people assume the former–“the historical American Civil War” means the Civil War that actually happened, not historians’ reconstructions of the Civil War.  Scot, however, suggests that “the historical Jesus” must only mean (b).  I doubt this will catch on.  Yes, that’s how many scholars use it, but not all.  English usage allows, nay, encourages sense (a).  Even Scot uses it like that in his penultimate paragraph.

Second, Scot makes no distinction between different types of historical Jesus studies. Following Ben F. Meyer (The Aims of Jesus, 1978; new edition, 2002), I have demonstrated a massive gulf between the kind of historiography Scot describes and the kind I christened the “third quest.” I reject the double dissimilarity criterion and have proposed the balancing “double similarity“: Jesus must have been recognizably (if crucifiably) Jewish, and recognizably (if uniquely) the starting point for what we now call “the church.”

Not all historical Jesus scholarship is skeptical in intent or effect. Genuine historical study is necessary—not to construct a “fifth gospel,” but rather to understand the four we already have. History confounds not only the skeptic who says “Jesus never existed” or “Jesus couldn’t have thought or said this or that,” but also the shallow would-be “orthodox” Christian who, misreading the texts, marginalizes Jesus’ first-century Jewish humanity. Puzzle: I think Scot believes this too.

Third, when German scholars gave up historical Jesus research in the 1920s, they left a vacuum into which the “German Christians” inserted their non-Jewish Jesus, with appalling results. That was why New Testament scholar Ernst KŠsemann insisted that, despite difficulties, we had to study Jesus historically. How will we ward off the next generation’s dangerous follies (not just Dan Brown, though he matters too) if we don’t do history?

Clearing Away Smoke Screens

Now, three conclusions.

First, this isn’t about an “uninterpreted” Jesus. Jesus’ contemporaries perceived him within a network of narrative, symbol, and hope, and their stories about him reflect that. To say that “we can’t go behind that faith perspective” so that “the past is hard to recover” capitulates to a reductive modernist epistemology.

Second, of course history isn’t enough by itself. Back to Reformation theologian Philip Melanchthon: It isn’t enough to know that Jesus is the Savior; I must know that he is the Savior for me. History cannot tell me that. But it can reconstruct the framework within which it makes sense—the biblical framework that Jesus and his followers took for granted. If Jesus didn’t really exist, or was really a revolutionary Zealot, or a proto-Buddhist mystic, or an Egyptian freemason, the “for me” floats like a detached helium balloon on the thin, vulnerable air of subjectivism. It is when we put Jesus in his proper historical context that the Resurrection proposes that he was the Messiah, that the Messiah is Lord of the world, and that he died and was raised for me. History is challenging, but also reassuring.

Third, history cannot compel faith. But it is very good at clearing away the smoke screens behind which unfaith often hides. History and faith are, respectively, the left and right feet of Christianity. Modernism hops, now on this foot (skeptical “historiography”), now on that (unhistorical “faith”). It’s tiring, dangerous, and unnecessary. Puzzle: I think Scot believes this too.



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