Jesus according to Scripture: The Importance of the Gospel Portraits
Among those efforts that have garnered the most attention in the last decade is the Jesus Seminar, which claims to be representative of New Testament scholarship but, in fact, is not.
Research Professor of New Testament Studies
Dallas Theological Seminary
There is much discussion today about the historical Jesus. There also is much debate about what the historical Jesus looked like. This is an important discussion, and I serve on the editorial board of a new journal that is committed to making the study of the historical Jesus an important discussion point in New Testament studies. It is called the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, published by the Sheffield Academic Press. The journal was launched this year and will have many cutting edge studies on Jesus from a variety of theological points of view.
Among those efforts that have garnered the most attention in the last decade is the Jesus Seminar, which claims to be representative of New Testament scholarship but, in fact, is not. For a variety of reasons, it has failed to receive the wide recognition it claimed it represented. First, the Seminar failed to represent a balanced cross section of New Testament scholarship, something Richard Hays of Duke pointed out in a review years ago. Second, its use of sources was tainted by its early placement of Thomas in the line of tradition, treating what most regard as an early second-century document as a mid-first-century document. This skewed its results in the direction of preferring short sayings material. Third, the dominant criterion used for authenticity was dissimilarity; this highlights where Jesus is unique but also cuts him off from the cultural context that he certainly also drew from in his teaching, something the third quest has taught us to appreciate about his work. Fourth, the resultant "non-eschatological" Jesus, a Jesus who did not preach the kingdom or judgment, goes against the consensus of New Testament scholarship of all wings that Jesus emphasized these themes. Fifth, the collection of sayings that the Seminar regards as authentic cannot credibly enough explain how Jesus was crucified for being a messianic claimant nor how the early church preached about him after his death. The minimalist, socially concerned Jesus who basically taught an ethic cannot explain how Jesus became an object of worship in the church rather than simply a great teacher-prophet. In sum, one of the most publicized efforts to explain Jesus to the public-at-large is flawed with results that do not adequately explain why Jesus had the impact he did.
Now it is often the case that in engaging in historical Jesus study and its picking and choosing about what goes back to him as the Seminar did we lose an important fact. The Jesus who impacted Christianity and Western culture is not the one of the various reconstructed, historical Jesuses who have been propounded over the last few centuries, but Jesus according to Scripture. The complex but fascinating picture of Jesus given through the four portraits of four evangelists is the Jesus most of the world has engaged with for over twenty centuries. In light of this fact, I have written a book, Jesus according to Scripture (Baker Books), that is a careful study of these gospel portraits.
The bulk of the study works through the synoptics together and then John, separately. one passage at a time and with careful discussion of how the passages and portraits relate to each other. It is argued that the synoptics tell Jesus’ story "from the earth up," which means it starts with categories we are used to in describing people and then gradually discloses more and more of who Jesus is until a more complete understanding of who he is emerges. For example, in Mark, we see the disciples struggling to grasp who Jesus is and asking questions about his identity until they finally come to understand he is the Messiah, only to have Jesus spend the second half of the gospel explaining that this Messiah will suffer in ways they had not anticipated. Matthew helps to explain how this suffering Messiah gets at the heart of fulfilling the law in seeking the pursuit of a righteousness that is not just about obeying the letter of the law.
Luke gives us an ethical thrust in Jesus’ teaching, showing how he warned about excessive attachment to wealth and the world while calling his disciples to reach out to those on the fringe. All these commitments reflected Jesus’ teaching about the arrival of God’s kingdom, his rule which Jesus was bringing with him, and the accountability every person has to him. John’s gospel is different. It tells Jesus’ story from "heaven down." Jesus is one who came from God to inhabit the earth and show us the way to God, to give us an unending quality of life in fellowship with God, that was known as eternal life, a life of quality, not just of duration. So we get a look at Jesus in a kind of quadraphonic perspective that one running story could not really give us. Appreciating the distinct nuances of the various stories and yet seeing the basic thread running through all of them are the major goals of this work. So the synoptic story is studied with keys to how each version of a given event in Jesus’ story overlaps with and presents unique elements with its parallels.
The research ends with a hundred-page summary of the cumulative results. It is here that the study has its most valuable discussion. Set against the backdrop of first-century Judaism, we look at Jesus’ most basic teachings. We concentrate on those events and themes that show up across the tradition. So we examine the kingdom of God and its "already here but not yet complete" character. We consider not just what Jesus said about himself but what he did that shows who he is. This leads to a consideration of what Jesus did and what those actions meant. Who has the authority to say we should fellowship with sinners or offer forgiveness? What kind of authority is it who heals or engages in exorcism or who performs the scope of miracles that Jesus did? Who has the right to define when or when not to engage in purity practices or discuss how the Sabbath is to be observed? Who can take a major rite of worship in Judaism and resymbolize it as Jesus does at the Last Supper? Who has the right to walk into the temple, the most sacred spot in Judaism, and tell people how to conduct themselves there. Who can claim to suffer for others?
The point of this summary is that others have done some of these things, but no one before Jesus has put together such an extensive résumé of activity drawing upon God’s power. The scope of the authority exercised (over temple, law, purity, demons, nature, sin, judgment) is a major clue as to Jesus’ identity as the gospels present him. All these themes are not on the fringe of the tradition in the gospels but at its core. They reveal that the Jesus according to Scripture is the unique authoritative revelator of God. It was this figure who gave birth to the church and to the Jesus people worship. Sometimes in looking and debating the historical Jesus, there is value in remembering what the story of the scriptural Jesus is. Some people are not familiar enough with that story, and it is the one that has impacted the church and our culture the most.