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Jesus Projects and a Different Kind of Minimalism (Perhaps)



Historical Jesus scholarship still pushes the “great man” view of history with Jesus the individual massively influential. One of the ways in which the Jesus Project could provide a distinctive contribution to scholarship is to challenge and test this general scholarly assumption by analyzing broader socio-historical trends underlying the emergence of the historical Jesus and Christian origins.

Jesus Projects and a Different Kind of Minimalism


By James Crossley

Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies

Department of Biblical Studies

University of Sheffield, UK

January 2009


The recent interest in the Jesus Project shows that the historical Jesus is still not quite dead. The scholarly blogs dedicated to Christian origins and related areas have long taken interest in the Project and we have now seen articles analyzing the significance of the Project by Bruce Chilton and Joseph Hoffman in Bible and Interpretation. As an invited participant to the Project (unable to make the opening session due to prior commitments), I want to add further suggestions whereby the Project might be able to challenge or test the default setting of critical historical Jesus studies and open it up for (sort of) new and distinctive work.

One obvious problem is that it is not easy to see how much more there is to say on the historical Jesus. As is very well known, there are numerous portraits of Jesus by numerous major scholars ([eschatological] prophet, rabbi, Cynic-like philosopher, social critic, charismatic holy man, etc). This is not to say that absolutely nothing more can emerge from the chaos. Chilton is right to emphasize the Aramaic background to Jesus’ sayings. In many ways, this should have been a well-trodden path in historical Jesus scholarship, but it is not. An educated guess for this lack of emphasis on Aramaic contexts in such a densely populated scholarly area might be that New Testament scholars are trained, naturally enough, in Greek with biblical Hebrew to some degree. Aramaic is not a main language of sacred scripture and certainly not of the New Testament. So why would scholars bother? Also, learning Aramaic and further linguistic abilities for the reconstruction and contextualization of Gospel traditions is even more hard work in a time when so many other skills seem equally important. Or, as Chilton points out, “the sociology of graduate education in the field of New Testament and early Christianity…has notoriously skimped on the study of Semitic languages, although Aramaic and Syriac, as well as Hebrew, were clearly major languages of Christianity alongside Coptic, Greek, and Latin until at least the time of the rise of Islam.” It is, therefore, no surprise that little emphasis has been placed on the language in which Jesus spoke and no surprise that Chilton could not find many wider opportunities in his times in the Jesus Seminar. However, this lack of emphasis means that we have one area waiting for further exploitation and gospel passages awaiting further detailed evaluation, with the help of foundation work laid down by scholars such as Chilton, Maurice Casey, Matthew Black, and a few other (and earlier) pioneers. That said, the Jesus Project will need as many Aramaic gospel specialists as it can lay its hands on to undertake such an important and ambitious task in a time when few are available. While I strongly agree with Chilton’s aims, we have to ask the inevitable: it is possible to get the staff?

I wonder, however, if there is another (and not necessarily incompatible) way to approach the historical Jesus not wholly dependent on close exegesis of the gospel traditions. The dominant paradigm of critical historical Jesus scholarship is still, despite all the developments among historians working in history departments, the “great man” view of history with Jesus the individual at the center of everything and, along with Paul, supremely influential, though perhaps not so surprising given that Jesus and Paul are at the heart of Christian faith. The sheer amount of scholarly attention to Jesus’ words and deeds and the massive range of lives of Jesus suggest the dominance of the “great man” paradigm. The beginning of historical Jesus books frequently point to his massive significance and influence (E. P. Sanders’ Historical Figure of Jesus is particularly interesting in that Jesus is compared to major influential historical figures such as Churchill and Alexander the Great).

Of course, this emphasis is not always the case, yet exceptions are significant in terms of the ways in which they are received. The work of John Dominic Crossan has attempted to place Jesus in the context of broader social historical development and change, yet the reception of Crossan’s work typically concerns his reconstruction of Jesus: was Jesus really a peasant Cynic-like philosopher and social critic?

As Hoffmann pointed out, “the possibility that Christianity arose from causes that have little to do with a historical founder is one among many other questions the Project should take seriously. Inevitably, scholars and critics (if not always the same people) will ask, And just how do you go about doing that?, and neither the answer ‘Differently’ or ‘Better’ will suffice.” While my attitude towards historical Jesus studies is increasingly deconstructive, I hope I can add some constructive comments here and suggest ways in which the Project might go about “doing that,” namely ways to challenge or test the dominant assumption that Jesus was singularly so influential. There is enough work on social history and social anthropology and enough empirical data collected and analyzed to exploit these issues. Areas ripe for exploitation might include: social networks, ethnic interaction, and the origins of gentile inclusion; class-conflicts and the emergence of a new religion; universal monotheism, developments in communication, and the origins of the deification of Jesus; and so on. In each case, the influence of Jesus the individual could be tested. We might even get answers to big, big questions. Perhaps the historical Jesus was influential in changes which brought about Christian distinctiveness and identity, perhaps he was not, or perhaps his individual influence was somewhere in between. Perhaps broader socio-economic developments better explain change than the individual; in this case, we could add a further question: why was the figure of Jesus the object of affection? Perhaps Jesus’ teaching was a crucial factor in interacting with longer- and medium-term trends in historical development. Big though these questions undoubtedly are, they are not questions widely discussed in historical Jesus scholarship.

While challenging or testing the dominant assumption of individual influence would be important in its own right, this of course does not mean an end to the intricate debates over authenticity and interpretation of this or that passage. However, there are ways in which further progression could be made based on broader issues concerning Jesus and the emergence of a religion in his (other) name. So, to fill out the slightly abstract comments of the previous paragraph, let us take the big issue of the full deification of Jesus, one of the key ways in which Christianity would identify itself over others, and indeed one of the key ways in which others would identify Christianity. Hypothetically, one explanation might be that there were long-term “monotheistic” developments in the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean tied in with the growth of empires and developments of trade routes and international communication. Perhaps the movement associated with Christianity tapped into these broad developments and eventually deified their figurehead as part of developing Christian distinctiveness over the world and as a way of bringing an international and disparate group of people together. Perhaps the historical Jesus was significant in this. Perhaps his healings and exorcisms were partly a result, so to speak, of broader social conflict in first-century Palestine and more specifically the building and rebuilding of two major urban centers in Galilee as Jesus was growing up. Perhaps Jesus made some kind of grand claim of himself as a reaction to his social context as others have done throughout history in times of social upheaval, and this helps explain why there was so much Christological speculation about Jesus after his death. Perhaps exorcisms and Jesus’ claims were not remotely important. After all, John, where the deification of Jesus is most pronounced, drops the exorcisms.

These are obviously issues that are never going to be resolved here, but they are issues for something as major as the Jesus Project to tackle. Here we have (potentially) points on which all could agree without too much sidetracking: Jesus was deified and the historical Jesus was known as an exorcist and healer. Are they linked? If so: how? If not: why?

For decades and decades historians have been approaching other areas of history by looking at broader trends underlying historical change, so why not more effort from historical Jesus scholars? More to the point, is this not something to be vigorously developed by the Jesus Project? The early Marxist attempts at reconstructing Christian origins (e.g., Engels, Kautsky) looked at the bigger picture and, while their results and their methods are problematic, perhaps historical Jesus and Christian origins scholarship missed a trick by more-or-less dismissing this broader analysis of Christian origins. Maybe it is time for more people to catch up.

One of the striking issues of historical Jesus research is that it is so obviously theologically and ideologically loaded with so much confessional and cultural investment, not to mention serious commercial interest since the 1980s, that it seems nearly impossible to convince people which Jesus best represents the real thing. Would more and more reconstructions (and I include the questioning of Jesus’ existence in this) actually produce anything significantly new? Whether the possibility of a persuasive narrative through broader social historical or anthropological explanations (and if the figure of Jesus fits in) is a more achievable goal remains to be seen. But we will never know unless more of us try and keep trying. Given the scholarly resources available for the Jesus Project, this is one area which could be explored and at the very least provide a distinctive approach to the study of the historical Jesus and Christian origins.