Book Review: Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (Part III)

Part III of my review of Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed’s Stanley Porter and Tom Holmén). Read Part I and Part II.

Well, I was planning on blogging a part of this review every week or two. Unfortunately, I got through the first two parts and then had to take a long hiatus. Such is life I guess!

I have finally managed to free up some time and make my way through a few more chapters in this outlandishly expensive “handbook”. But hey, it’s Brill… they may be known for producing some damn fine academic volumes in various fields of study, but providing them at a reasonable price is something they are not so well-known for.

Richard Horsley’s chapter in this volume (pp. 207-39) is called, Jesus-in-Context: A Relational Approach. In it Horsley provides an account of how his own research projects are “building-blocks toward a more comprehensive relational and contextual approach to the historical Jesus” (208).

I am providing the following quote because not only is it an astute criticism of historical Jesus studies (in my estimation), but it also shows where Horsley’s own emphasis on the historical Jesus is to be found:

Many involved in what has been called the “third quest” for the historical Jesus surely think of themselves as engaged in a genuinely historical inquiry by comparison with the heavily theological discussions among the Bultmannian German Lutherans of the “new quest.” If we look at the concepts in which the supposedly historical inquiry of the “third questers” is conducted, however, it is still heavily determined by Christian theology. Participants in the “quest” are now more “ecumenical” than before, since Catholics and conservative Protestants as well as liberals have joined the quest. But the terms of discussion are still Christian, indeed western Christian. […..] Because of the western European separation of religion from politics, however, Christian theology was confined mainly to religion, and Jesus became, by definition, mainly a religious figure. In the Christian theological construction of religious history, Jesus functioned as the pivotal figure in the epoch making shift from “Judaism,” as the parochial and overly political religion, to “Christianity,” the universal and spiritual religion. Because of the dominant influence of bourgeois individualism, Jesus was understood mainly in individual terms, compounding the Christian doctrine that he was a unique human being. Influenced, as well as placed on the defensive, by the Enlightenment rationalism that came to dominate western European culture, moreover, theologically rooted interpreters of Jesus tended to retreat from his divine derivation and miraculous actions to his teachings as the only secure basis for a “historical” Jesus who could be intelligibly discussed. Jesus’ teachings were, accordingly, abstracted from their gospel containers, like individual artifacts taken from an archaeological site and displayed in museum cases. (208-09)

What he is driving at here is that in historical Jesus studies, Jesus is still largely discussed primarily in terms of a religious context (i.e. Second Temple Judaism), with perhaps some lip service being given to Jesus’ political-economic context and the political consequences of his teachings. He goes on to say:

The separation of religion from other aspects of life such as politics and economics is a distinctively modern western development. Pretending that Jesus was (only) a religious figure thus tends toward an anachronistic modern reductionism and domestication. (209)

The solution to this problem?

To approach Jesus as a more complete historical figure in a more complete historical context, therefore, it is necessary to shift to historically valid assumptions and by-pass or cut through standard Christian theological constructs of religion as separate from politics and economics and of Judaism. (210)

Horsley proposes that we approach the gospel documents as a whole, as each component of a gospel document (e.g. an aphorism, speech, miraculous act) can only be understood in the context of the whole (which the gospel document provides). Naturally, though, each gospel source will offer up different representations of Jesus, which can then be assessed in their own historical context and then compared against the historical context of Jesus.

The next contribution to this volume comes from John Kloppenborg (241-90) and is called, Sources, Methods and Discursive Locations in the Quest of the Historical Jesus. In a nutshell, Kloppenborg presents a survey comparing and contrasting the differing methodological foundations on which historical Jesus portraits are erected. This involves discussing a few key issues related to historical Jesus studies e.g. the sources used, the criteria of authenticity, whether Jesus possessed an apocalyptic eschatology, etc.

Next up is John P. Meier’s chapter (291-331), Basic Methodology in the Quest for the Historical Jesus. This essay is based on chapters 1 and 6 of the first volume of Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. He begins by saying that:

The historical Jesus is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is not the historical Jesus. I stress this paradox from the start because endless confusion in the “quest for the historical Jesus” arises from the failure to distinguish these two concepts clearly. (291)

He then goes on to delineate what exactly he means by this. Here is the gist of it:

The total reality of a person is in principle unknowable—despite the fact that no one would deny that such a total reality did exist. … students of ancient history can sometimes reconstruct a reasonably complete portrait of a few great figures (e.g., Cicero, Caesar) … However, we lack sufficient sources to reconstruct a reasonably complete portrait for the vast majority of persons in ancient history; the “real” Thales or Apollonius of Tyana is simply beyond our grasp. It is in this last category that Jesus of Nazareth falls. We cannot know the “real” Jesus through historical research, whether we mean his total reality or just a reasonably complete biographical portrait. We can, however, know the “historical Jesus.” … the Jesus of history is a modern abstraction and construct. By the Jesus of history I mean the Jesus whom we can “recover” and examine by using the scientific tools of modern historical research. (296)

Meier then spends the rest of his essay discussing the criteria of authenticity, which he neatly breaks down into two categories: (1) primary criteria, and (2) dubious criteria. In the “primary” group are embarrassment, discontinuity, multiple attestation, coherence, and the criterion of rejection and execution. In the “dubious” group are found the criteria of traces of Aramaic, Palestinian background, vividness of narration, tendencies of the developing synoptic tradition, and historical presumption. The five “primary” criteria that Meier discusses are deemed by him to be “really valuable”, though he does stress that the criteria are not a magic key unlocking all doors:

As many a weary quester has remarked before, the use of the valid criteria is more an art than a science, requiring sensitivity to the individual case rather than mechanical implementation. It can never be said too many times that such an art usually yields only varying degrees of probability, not absolute certitude. But, as we have already seen, such judgments of probability are common in any investigation of ancient history, and the quest for the historical Jesus cannot apply for a special exemption. (331)

Stay tuned for the next part of this review.

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