Toward a fuzzier Jesus
by Steve Douglas
February 13th, 2013 | 2 Comments
[Morna] Hooker expresses the kind of skepticism towards the authenticity-criteria that is indicative of most of the contributors. She writes, “Perhaps…the time has come to abandon the whole enterprise of trying to discover the ‘real historical Jesus’” (xiv). Why is she wanting to throw in the towel? A large part of it has to do with the tendency to focus on words and phrases, which ends up being too “cut-and-paste” for good historical study. [Hooker writes,] “As with an expressionist painting, what we need to do is to stand back from it, rather than poring over details, for the closer we get, the less we see the whole” (xv).
This of course is specifically addressing the authenticity criterion for the words of Jesus in the Gospels, but I think the problem touches on more than just that. I’ve been following historical Jesus studies and biblical criticism for several years, at least from a distance in my armchair. It can be exhausting after a while seeing completely contradictory theories posed equally plausibly. The frequently cacophonous and yet somehow still unnervingly self-assured stances of critical scholars, especially when coupled with the clever but fundamentally speculative revisionist reconstructions of NT texts, have disconcerted and discombobulated many people into abandoning all hope for commitment to any understanding of the Jesus laid out by the Gospels. Indeed, it’s no doubt partly responsible for the popularity of the movement defined by the denial of even Jesus’ historical existence, which seems to have been declared guilty by its close association with the Gospels.
An impression gradually emerged that when all is said and done, many of the arguments and reconstructions are interesting, but in order to understand what the Jesus of history was all about we ultimately have to step back and try to grapple with the gist of the accounts, to find the impressions Jesus left on his followers and try to recover why they got those impressions. If we waste our time like some (but not all) text critics have done, pulling each phrase out of context and stitching them all back together like some kidnapper’s ransom note, we’ll never reach the more interesting and, arguably, more attainable goal of seeing the bigger picture.
Making concessions to the very real ambiguities and imperfections of the documents we collectively call the New Testament, we must avoid the inerrantist’s claims of a clear picture of Jesus and his teachings; but we really shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can reach a similar level of clarity through biblical criticism. It sounds as though Keith, Le Donne, et al. are sensibly coming to grips with the necessity of adopting a “fuzzier” view of Jesus’ life and ministry, one that’s more heuristic and less definitive.
Many of these historians of shadowy antiquity seem to have been trying to approach the data as engineers pulling apart complex math equations rather than as interpreters of what is actually messy literature. Historical criticism and text reception history as we’ve typically seen them over the past century strike me as analogous to trying to describe Rembrandt’s works, themes, and overall artistic character by envisaging the brush strokes that created his works–trying to reconstruct the order in which he laid them to canvas, the source of his brushes, and the composition of his paint. Those theories may be interesting, and not even necessarily wrong, but at the same time, even should they somehow successfully recover the fine details about what Jesus said and didn’t say, I have sincere doubts that those insights will be especially helpful for understanding the artist or his work. The latter in comparison seems to me to be low-hanging fruit.