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Issues in Jesus Research and Scholarship

From the Quarterly Review 21/2 (Summer 2001): 211-17. Used by Permission.

By Mark Allan Powell
Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary Author of Jesus as a Figure in History (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998).
Chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, beginning in 2002.  

    The “quest for the historical Jesus” has returned and is currently generating more publications than at any time in the history of scholarship. The central issue is the question of what can be reliably asserted about the person of Jesus on the basis of historical evidence alone—apart from the imposition of a faith perspective. I sometimes explain this to laity by asking the question, “What would it be appropriate for a teacher to say about Jesus in the public schools?” Most Christians in the United States recognize that it would not be appropriate for such a teacher to tell students that Jesus was born of a virgin; though we might believe this as Christians, it is a conclusion of faith rather than of historical research. That Jesus was crucified, however, or that he befriended outcasts and taught a radical ethic of love—these are matters that virtually all scholars (Christian or not) accept as indisputable facts of history.

    Most pastors will know that the historical study of Jesus was in vogue in the nineteenth century but was derailed by the work of Albert Schweitzer, who seemed to demonstrate the futility and irrelevance of such research. The movement was taken up again in the 1960s in a chastened and more critical movement called “the new quest.” For those who wish to review some of the essential documents of these periods, an anthology has recently been published, The Historical Jesus Quest: Landmarks in the Search for the Jesus of History, ed. by Gregory W. Dawes (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2000).

    The current explosion of scholarship on the historical Jesus is sometimes called “the third quest,” because it takes off in directions that were not pursued previously. One noteworthy facet of this third quest is its interdisciplinary character: scholars draw on resources of archaeology, literary criticism, cultural anthropology, sociological analysis, and even psycho-historical study in ways that were not possible in previous generations. This essay only begins to describe what is afoot, but it does so with attention to the questions that I hear most often from pastors and parishioners.

    How Can I Get Up to Date?
    So much is being written so quickly that it may be impossible to stay current on this issue; but I can recommend three surveys of recent scholarship that provide a general orientation:
    • Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997)
    • Marcus J. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1994) 
    • Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998)

    Witherington writes from a conservative theological perspective, seeking to correct notions that are most challenging to traditional Christian understandings of Jesus. Borg also critiques research from an explicitly Christian perspective, but he is more open to ideas that challenge traditional or even orthodox understandings of Jesus. Powell’s book is intended as a classroom text and so strives for neutrality, describing positions without indicating whether they are right or wrong.

    Who Are the Major Players?
    Many of the world’s most important biblical scholars and theologians are now involved in historical Jesus studies; but if pressed to name “the top three,” I would list the following (with their major works):
    • John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993)
John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998)
    • John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1991, 1994). A third and, possibly, a fourth volume are forthcoming.
    • N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992)
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996)

    These works are for the truly committed. They are dense tomes, devoted to explicating Jesus’ life and teaching with exhaustive attention to detail. Was Jesus really baptized by John? Did he have twelve disciples? Was he born in Bethlehem? Did he tell the story of the Good Samaritan? Whatever the question, these scholars compile the data, weigh the arguments, and render their verdicts. Crossan’s work generally favors a secularized view of Jesus as an innovative social reformer not particularly interested in matters of theological doctrine. Meier sticks pretty close to the biblical portrait of Jesus as an eschatological Jewish prophet who announced that God’s kingdom was imminent, while challenging some Jewish traditions in startling ways. Wright radicalizes this view by presenting Jesus as a politically charged prophet to Israel who became convinced that he was the Messiah appointed to die as an atoning sacrifice for his people’s sins.

    There are shorter works also, ones that would be more appropriate for use in an adult study group. The following three books are merely examples of the dozens of fine “biographies of Jesus” that are being produced:
    • Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991)
    • E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993)
    • Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Knopf, 1999)

    All three of these works are written in a lively and engaging style. They do not assume an advanced level of theological awareness. All three are written by Christians with sensitivity to the impact that historical study can have on faith and piety; but all three also allow scholarship to challenge traditional notions in what they consider to be responsible ways. Borg does not (in this book) dispute facts about Jesus so much as encourage Christians to envision certain aspects of Jesus that are often ignored: What does it mean for us to realize that Jesus was a social revolutionary who defied the conventional wisdom of the political and religious authorities of his day? Do we really appreciate the charismatic quality of Jesus’ personality—the fact that he was a mystic who saw visions, heard voices, and often devoted himself to long periods of prayer and fasting? Both Sanders and Fredriksen are more concerned with the historical reliability of biblical reports. They think that much of what the Synoptic Gospels tell us can be sustained, but there are specific instances where they conclude that the Bible is wrong. For both of them, a recurring problem is that the Gospels are written for a church engaged in Gentile mission, to the extent that the specifically Jewish aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry are often transformed.

    What about the Controversial Jesus Seminar?
    Many laity have heard about historical Jesus studies primarily through reports about the Jesus Seminar. This group was a consortium of scholars who met during the 1990s and voted (with colored marbles) as to whether Jesus really did say or do the things attributed to him in the Bible. Their conclusions were often widely reported in national news outlets, especially when the verdict was negative. Headlines would scream, “Scholars Decide Jesus Did Not Teach the Lord’s Prayer.” Borg and Crossan were members of the Jesus Seminar, though they did not necessarily agree with all of that group’s findings.

    The Jesus Seminar seems to be off the radar screen at present; but for those who remain exercised over the group or simply want to understand better the role that it played, I cautiously recommend two books that should be read in tandem:
    • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
    • Robert J. Miller, The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1999)

    Johnson’s book is a blistering attack on the Seminar by a theologian who believes its work is not only misguided but antagonistic to Christianity. Miller writes as a member of the Seminar and responds to Johnson’s charges, while also offering a sober analysis of what the group did and did not seek to accomplish.

    What about Those Other Gospels?
    Historical Jesus studies have brought new attention to the oft-ignored apocryphal gospels, such that many parishioners are now hearing of these works for the first time. A certain sensationalism attaches to the phenomenon when the volumes are touted as “secret gospels” that the church has tried to keep hidden from the public. In fact, they are readily available in theological libraries but are of less interest to the general public than conspiracy theorists would have us believe. For one thing, the only apocryphal gospel that any scholar regards as conveying authentic information about Jesus is the Gospel of Thomas. All of the other apocryphal gospels are studied for what they reveal about later Christianity, not what they say about the historical person of Jesus. This is a rare point on which virtually all scholars of all persuasions agree. The Gospel of Thomas, furthermore, is not thought to reveal anything authentic about Jesus that would counter traditional concepts—at most, it enhances those concepts with similar, parallel material. The Jesus Seminar probably has a higher estimate of the worth of the Gospel of Thomas than any other group of scholars; and in the entire book they find only two unique sayings (that is, sayings not also found in our canonical Gospels) to be authentic. Neither of these unique sayings would alter the biblical portrait of Jesus. Finally, many laity may confuse the Gospel of Thomas with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is a completely different work. The book that may contain some historically authentic material is simply a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a second-century account of fanciful stories about Jesus when he was a child; no scholar considers these stories to be historically authentic.

    What Was the Message of Jesus?
    When we inquire historically as to the content of Jesus’ teaching, we discover that scholars are divided. In general, the teaching contained in material attributed to the Q source is regarded as most reliable; material derived from Mark’s Gospel belongs in a second tier; and that which is found only in John is least regarded. But we may also construe this topically. 

    The greatest level of agreement concerns what the Bible presents as Jesus’ ethical teaching. Almost all historical scholars accept the authenticity of this material (e.g., the bulk of what is in the Sermon on the Mount). Most stress that Jesus proclaimed a social ethic in addition to personal morality, and many insist that this was geared specifically to the context of Israel’s crisis as a puppet state of Rome. Crossan emphasizes Jesus’ critique of the patron-client relations and brokerage systems that had evolved under Hellenistic rule. Wright argues for the hope of liberation and articulates Jesus’ message as a prophetic call to dependence on God.

    There is less agreement with regard to the authenticity of eschatological sayings attributed to Jesus: did he really think that the kingdom of God was at hand, and what did that mean? Many scholars (Meier, Sanders, Witherington, Wright) insist that Jesus expected the end of the world (or, at least, the end of a world) and proclaimed the imminent activity of God in this light. Recently, however, several scholars departed from this former consensus. Borg, Crossan, and others associated with the Jesus Seminar argue that Jesus was not a future-oriented prophet but a down-to-earth sage, extolling lessons for a life focused on the present. These scholars attribute the eschatological material in the Gospels to later Christians who were responding to such apocalyptic crises as the disastrous Jewish war with Rome.

    The material attributed to Jesus that is least likely to be regarded as authentic by historians is that in which he describes his own person or mission. When the Bible presents Jesus as saying that he must “give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) or as proclaiming “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), most historians dismiss these remarks as projections of later Christians who are putting their own ideas about Jesus’ significance on the lips of the teacher himself. There is a growing movement among many scholars, however, to ground apostolic christology in the historical teaching of Jesus. Wright asks, for instance, whether it is reasonable to presume that the radically monotheistic followers of Jesus would have attributed divinity to him if he had not told them that he was, in some sense, a manifestation of God.

    The following volume offers a summary on the teaching of Jesus from a perspective that grants a high degree of authenticity to what is found in the Bible:
    • Scot McKnight, A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999)

    As the title implies, McKnight tries to relate all of Jesus’ teaching (his ethics, prophetic announcements regarding the future, and articulation of his purpose and mission) to the context of Palestinian Judaism rather than to the later context of Gentile-oriented Christianity.

    Did Jesus Work Miracles?
    Most Christians are curious as to what historians do with all the reports of Jesus’ miracles. It should come as no surprise that most scholars dismiss these stories as legendary or else bracket them out as unsuitable for historical discussion. To believe in a miracle requires faith. Therefore, by definition, no one can ever say on the basis of historical science alone that a miracle happened. This is not the end of the matter, however. Meier has recently broken with this longstanding tradition of avoiding discussion of the miraculous. He devotes several hundred pages in the second volume of his study to a detailed examination of every miracle story in the Gospels. His conclusion is that, although historians cannot say whether or not the miracles occurred, they can (indeed, must) say that Jesus did inexplicable things that the people of his day regarded as miracles. This much, he avers, is historical fact. Wright goes even further, questioning whether historical reporting must restrict itself to limits set by post-Enlightenment scientific theory. If historical evidence points to something that scientists cannot explain (as he believes it does in this case), the tension should be allowed to stand. The following volume offers an in-depth study of the miracles from a perspective that is basically compatible with that of Meier and Wright:
    • Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999)

    Conclusion
    It is no doubt obvious that church leaders must approach this topic with the utmost sensitivity. Parishioners rightly perceive that what is being said about the historical Jesus has implications for the legitimacy of Christian doctrine and popular piety. Academic distinctions between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith” are artificial and unconvincing to the average churchgoer who hears whatever the academicians say about Jesus as applicable to the One they worship as Lord and Savior. A degree of humility is warranted—and perhaps attainable—by emphasizing the operative word: quest. The Bible presents the kingdom of God as something that must be sought (Matt. 6:33). Above all else, historical Jesus scholars are seekers.

Mark Allan Powell is a distinguished Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. He is the author of Jesus as a Figure in History (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998). He has been elected to serve as chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, beginning in 2002