Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“New Quest, Old Errors” first appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Touchstone.
New Quest, Old Errors
The Fallacies of the New Quest for the Historical Jesus
by James R. Edwards
No institution felt the impact of the Enlightenment more than the Church and orthodox Christianity. The sources of the Church’s life, particularly its Scripture and creeds, fell under the lens of secular scrutiny. The Bible was subjected to the same literary and historical theories used to judge other literature. Among the many forms this new criticism took, perhaps none was more celebrated than The Quest of the Historical Jesus, to quote the English title of Albert Schweitzer’s monumental book (1906). His quest was to uncover the “real” Jesus, the exclusively human Jesus, beneath the layers of dogma and ritual that had accumulated over the centuries. Although Schweitzer’s Quest came after more than a century of debate, it did not end debate. In mid-century a more modest Quest resurfaced, and since the late 1980s dozens of books have appeared on Jesus, indicating that the New Quest is in full swing.
All three Quests, to be sure, are controlled by the presuppositions and methods of naturalism. That is to say, only evidence “from below” is admissible, i.e., what can be known about Jesus from history, literary sources, anthropology, and reason. Evidence “from above”—for example, the faith claims of the Apostles’ Creed—falls outside admissible evidence, unless such evidence can be verified apart from the authority of Church, creed, and confession.
But in other respects today’s New Quest parts company from Schweitzer’s eloquently chronicled Quest. The original Quest, a nineteenth-century European (largely German) endeavor, was the product of liberal Protestantism, whereas today’s late twentieth-century New Quest is dominated by North Americans and includes not only Protestants and Catholics, but also Jews, New Agers, and people of no religious commitment, including Marxists and atheists. But perhaps most importantly, the first Quest was sparked by the scientific method whose hallmark was rationalism, whereas the New Quest is the child of the social sciences and particularly the ideologies of liberation and cross-cultural anthropology.
The Jesus Seminar
The most publicized forum of the New Quest is “The Jesus Seminar,” a highly publicized scholarly think tank of some 50 scholars that has met twice yearly since 1985 to vote on the historical accuracy of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. The chief result of the seminar is a new translation of the Gospels, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Macmillan, 1993). The fifth Gospel in the title is the Gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in 1945. The Gospel of Thomas generally is considered by New Testament scholars to be a tendentious product of a Gnostic Christian community in existence ca. A.D. 100. But it is regarded by the Jesus Seminar as a more important source for the sayings of Jesus than any of the four canonical Gospels. The “Scholars Version,” as the seminar refers to its translation, shuns pious and puritanical phraseology that, in its opinion, characterizes existing Bible translations, in favor of “the common street language of the original.” The results vary from occasional fresh and insightful renderings to clearly affected and even sophomoric ones.
Seminar members cast ballots on each saying attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (including Thomas). A red ballot indicates that a given statement (or something like it) was spoken by Jesus; a pink ballot, that a statement resembles something Jesus might have said; a gray ballot, that, although the ideas may be close to those of Jesus, the statement did not originate with him; and a black ballot indicates a definite negative, that the statement derived from later tradition.
What is the final result of the seminar’s deliberations? Eighty-two percent of the words attributed to Jesus were not spoken by him. Only one statement in the Gospel of Mark (which generally is regarded by New Testament scholars as the earliest and most reliable Gospel) is judged by the literati of the seminar to have come from Jesus (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” Mark 12:17). As for the Gospel of John, “the Fellows of the Seminar were unable to find a single saying they could with certainty trace back to the historical Jesus” (The Five Gospels, p. 10).
The conclusions of the Jesus Seminar have been publicized widely—by the seminar itself—as having achieved a final breakthrough in the Jesus Quest. It seems that the Church, particularly evangelical Christianity, has been living in a fog of deception and ignorance that has now been dispelled by the intrepid endeavors of the Jesus Seminar.
The impression of a new breakthrough, however, is itself a deception. In reality, the seminar plies the same trade and reaches similar conclusions to those that have been reached in liberal theology for decades. The introduction to the Scholars Version, a 35-page primer in higher criticism, parrots the standard theories and methods of the New Testament guild, including the two-source and four-source hypotheses of the Synoptic Gospels, the Q-hypothesis, and the standard criteria for determining the veracity of a given statement. Among the latter are the principle of uniqueness (a statement with no parallel in Judaism or Hellenism cannot have derived from the latter and may go back to Jesus); the principle of difficulty (“hard” sayings have greater claim to authenticity since they would less likely have been fabricated by the Church); and the principle of multiple attestation (the more often a saying is attested to in different sources, the greater its likelihood of authenticity).
Old Bias, New Saviors
The hype about the Jesus Seminar misses the real story. What is new is not methods and results, but a bent against the Church and orthodox faith. Not unlike the infamous Re-Imagining Conference of 1993 at which radical feminist theology was used to mock Christian dogma, the Jesus Seminar is not engaging in objective investigation but plying a theological bias that surfaces in undisguised iconoclasm towards Church, faith, and creed.
The Church is stereotyped as a medieval instrument of inquisition and censorship. In contrast, the Scholars Version is “free of ecclesiastical and religious control” and “not bound by the dictates of church councils” (p. xviii). Like Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, and David Friedrich Strauss, to whom The Five Gospels is dedicated, the seminar pretentiously hails itself as a liberator “from windowless studies and the beginning of a new venture for gospel scholarship” (p. 1).
Seminar members regard themselves as a Promethean breed: “The Christ of creed and dogma . . . can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope.” The “old deities and demons,” they maintain, have been swept from the skies. “The refuge offered by the cloistered precincts of faith gradually became a battered and beleaguered position,” before which “biblical scholars rose to the challenge and launched the tumultuous search for the Jesus behind the Christian facade of the Christ” (p. 2). Affecting high destiny, the Jesus Seminar endeavors “to break the church’s stranglehold over learning” and to free Jesus from the “tyranny,” “oppression,” and “blindness” of his ecclesiastical Babylonian captivity. The Apostles’ Creed, asserts the Scholars Version, “smothers the historical Jesus” (p. 7), overlaying and overwhelming him with the heavenly figure of later Christian conviction (p. 24). Purged of the barnacles of ritual, creed, and dogma, Jesus has been sanitized and de-christianized for the academy and for public consumption. Obedient to its heroic and historic destiny, the seminar has dispelled the age of darkness by the light of reason: the wine of myth has become the water of reality.
The idea that Jesus and the Gospels need to be “rescued” from “the Church” is, of course, profoundly incongruous, for the Gospels are the product of the Church. The New Testament, and the Bible as a whole, is uniquely the Church’s book, not the academy’s. From its inception the story of Jesus was transmitted verbally and scripturally by Christian faith communities who regarded themselves not as fabricators or deceivers but as custodians of God’s redemptive work in the world. Throughout its history the Church has defended its story against detractors—against Celsus in the second century and now the Jesus Seminar in the twentieth. The scholarly triumphalism of the Jesus Seminar is thus rather melodramatic, and has been rightly criticized as such.
The state of current Gospel research is in reality far different from the liberation from oppression and conspiracy theories presented in the Scholars Version and propagated by media appearances of Seminar members. The situation continues to be—as it has been for many decades—a debate between a more naturalistic liberal persuasion that minimizes or eliminates the supernatural in the life and work of Jesus, and a more conservative and evangelical persuasion that admits of the possibility of Jesus being God’s eternal Son in human form, and which finds substantial evidence to that effect in the various strata of the Gospels.
The most misleading (and unscholarly) aspect of the Jesus Seminar is its blackout of any position but its own (the seminar is a club of handpicked “members only”), leaving the impression that conservative scholarship has nothing to say to its speculations. For more than a century a pantheon of scholars, including Schlatter, Lightfoot, Westcott, Manson, Cranfield, Bruce, Martin, Barrett, Cullmann, Schweizer, Stuhlmacher, Hengel, Metzger, Brown, Wright, and many more, has both studied and answered the methods and conclusions of liberalism. Their work may have been sidestepped by the Jesus Seminar, but it has not been refuted.
From Son of God to Cynic Sage
Who, then, is the Jesus of the New Quest? Two members of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, have written three books each on Jesus in the past decade. Their anthropological approach and the resultant picture of Jesus as a Jewish teacher of alternative wisdom is characteristic of the New Quest. The New Quest is concerned with the role of social forces in history. The main order of business is an examination of the social world of Jesus, about which more is known today than ever before.
The first axiom of the New Quest is that Jesus’ society, and Jesus himself, was thoroughly Jewish. That may seem a commonplace, but given the history of anti-Judaism in Christianity, and the tendency to “Aryanize” Jesus by separating him from his Jewishness, it is an important acknowledgment.
Like all of Jewish society, maintains the New Quest, Jesus grew up in a patriarchal culture, which, in addition, was woven on the warp and woof of distinctions between clean and unclean, pure and impure. In contrast to Jerusalem Judaism, the Judaism of Nazareth and Capernaum where Jesus lived was peasant and rural, which colored his experience with a second contrast between ruling urban elites in Jerusalem and landed laborers in Galilee. In the minds of Borg, Crossan, and others, this social world produced an alternative social vision in Jesus, accompanied by a social passion for an egalitarian society, that broke down social barriers between fathers and families, men and women, learned and illiterate, observant and lax Jews, pious and profane, and even Jew and Gentile.
The role Jesus adopted to promote his vision, according to the New Quest, was that of itinerant teacher. Less Torah-bound than the average rabbi, Jesus appears in the New Quest as a teacher of alternative and subversive wisdom. The earliest and truest form of the gospel, in this view, was the wisdom teaching of Jesus, which is better preserved in “Q” (a hypothetical source of Jesus’ sayings preserved in Matthew and Luke) and in the Gospel of Thomas than in the canonical Gospels with their later accretions of miracles, atonement, and resurrection. New Questers hold that the original message of Jesus was incorporated into a later faith agenda of the early Church which, for better or worse, distorted the historical Jesus. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (Harper San Francisco, 1994), Borg calls these faith agenda “macro-stories.” The task before the critical scholar is to liberate Jesus from such stereotypes. The method of preference of the New Quest for recovering the “real” Jesus beneath the Christ idealized by the faith and piety is a typology of religious leaders in general, especially that of the shaman or holy man.
The bottom line of the New Quest is that Jesus was a peasant Jew who, like Buddha or one of the Cynic philosophers, espoused a subversive view of traditional wisdom, and who both preached and practiced radical egalitarianism. He also gathered a group of followers and formed them into a movement (which was free from messianic or eschatological expectations). This Jesus had no messianic or divine self-concept, although most of the New Questers grant that he performed at least some healings by inducing trance-like states or by the powers inherent in him as “a spirit-person.”
On this last point, an important distinction must be drawn between curing a “disease” (a biological malady) and an “illness” (a psycho-social experience). The “healings” of Jesus in the New Quest turn out to be more subjective than objective, i.e., they were changes in the psychological state of the patient rather than in the physical condition (unless the illness was psychosomatic and curable by suggestion). In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper San Francisco, 1994), Crossan cites the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40–45 as an example. Jesus “did not and could not cure that disease or any other,” states Crossan, but he was able to remove the shame of leprosy and its social ostracism. “Miracles,” in other words, “are not changes in the physical world so much as changes in the social world” (p. 82).
Shreds of Evidence
The New Quest’s profile admittedly omits a large—and for the evangelical Christian essential—body of the New Testament testimony to Jesus. In addition to eliminating miracles in the normal sense of the word (physical changes in nature), Crossan denies that Jesus called twelve Apostles (too large a group to travel in rural Galilee), and denies that there was a Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (a later scribal addition) or Temple cleansing (a later story symbolizing the destruction of Jerusalem) or Last Supper (since it is not in “Q” or Thomas). Jesus was indeed crucified as a suspected political subversive, but his death has no atoning significance and there was no resurrection (Crossan attributes the resurrection accounts to free associations by the early Church on the scapegoat theme in Leviticus 16). Finally, insists Crossan, Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs!—a conclusion for which there is not a hair of evidence in the New Testament or ancient Christian literature. Dogmatism and lack of historical evidence coexist in trouble-free juxtaposition in the minds of Crossan and other New Questers.
But how can scholars assert things that are not in the Gospels, and deny things that are? One answer is found in the premise that historical claims are valid only where corroborated by external sources. Crossan, for example, says that unless a Biblical claim is paralleled in Josephus, early Christian literature (especially the Gospel of Thomas) or cross-cultural anthropology it cannot be accepted. Crossan’s Jesus, not surprisingly, is a carbon copy of Josephus’s description of Jesus in Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.3)—a charismatic wise man and wonder-worker condemned by the Romans. It is important to understand the rules of play here—that the criteria of truth claims exist only outside the body of evidence being investigated. That is indeed a dubious test of historicity—rather like writing the history of a small town by excluding what the local newspaper says in favor of what might occasionally appear in the New York Times.
More importantly, this rarefied or even contrary Jesus is achieved by subordinating the Gospel accounts to a cross-cultural ideology. For instance, Crossan asserts that “Jesus was illiterate”—a statement that flatly contradicts the New Testament. Luke 2:46–47 and 4:16f., for example, claim that Jesus could and did read. Here is the trail that leads to this incredulous conclusion. Crossan begins with the statement in Mark 6:3 that Jesus was a tekton (usually rendered “carpenter”). Next, he quotes a social historian (Ramsay MacMullan) who asserts that tekton is not, in fact, the name of a trade, but a description of a social class of peasant expendables, like the shudra caste in India. Third, Crossan asserts that 95 to 97 percent of Jews in first-century Palestine were illiterate. Finally, Jesus’ low social status placed him irrevocably in this class of illiterates. Crossan concludes: “[The stories that Jesus was literate] must be seen clearly for what they are: Lukan propaganda rephrasing Jesus’ oral challenge and charisma in terms of scribal literacy and exegesis” (pp. 24–26).
There is, of course, a headwall of contrary evidence to every point. To begin with, all Greek lexicons render tekton “carpenter.” Moreover, manual labor was not a derogatory distinction in Jewish Palestine; the Mishnah, in fact, places the teaching of a manual trade on a par with the teaching of Torah. As for a 95 percent illiteracy rate among Jews, that is simply inconceivable among a people whose fathers were commanded to teach their sons Torah and who produced the large body of literature that distinguishes early Judaism. Never mind, finally, that a 95 percent illiteracy rate would obviate any reason to make Jesus literate. (Disciples of Siberian shamans do not portray their masters as graduates of the Sorbonne.)
Crossan is not unaware that his speculations are as fragile as hoarfrost. Indeed, he often follows his points by saying, “I realize how tentative all this is. . . .” Despite such caveats, however, he doggedly sides with his social theories. And where social theories rather than primary historical evidence determine truth, “history” becomes a very malleable matter.
The Shortfall of the New Quest
The increase of knowledge about social conditions in first-century Palestine is clearly a valid and fruitful path of investigation into the life of Jesus. But to assume that a social context—even a correctly perceived one—captures the meaning of a person in it is rather like supposing that a resume divulges the essence of an applicant. The chief problem with lives of Jesus exclusively “from below” is one of inadequacy. C. S. Lewis observed that “a naturalist Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian,” and this is a telling critique of the New Quest. Each of the elements in its profile of Jesus—peasant Jew, movement founder, overcomer of social barriers, healer, ecstatic, and sage—is arguably a fair description of some aspect of Jesus. What is false is the attempt to package the list as the sum and extent of the historical Jesus.
There is an absolutism in the New Quest, as in all approaches that deny in advance the possibility that Jesus was God incarnate, against the fuller testimony of the New Testament to Jesus. The social world of Jesus, important as it was for certain necessary raw data, cannot account for who he was. That Jesus was a peasant or teacher or movement founder or even a Jew is, in the final analysis, secondary to the core claims of the New Testament that he was the unique incarnation of God, by whose death salvation is freely offered to the world. Every page of the New Testament clamors for this deeper, essential understanding. Every reconstruction of Jesus that denies this results in a paltry shadow. The question the New Testament puts inescapably to readers is not “What do you make of my social context?” but “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)
Finally, a purely social reconstruction of Jesus cannot account for the effect that Jesus has had on history. To assume that the earnest though bewildered Jesus of the New Quest could have affected the course of human history as Jesus Christ really has is rather like stumbling upon a crater and supposing it the result of a cherry bomb.
Finding the Right Picture
All the various Quests have critically erred in making what might be called the “assumption of discontinuity”—that the Jesus presented in the Gospels is essentially the fiction of the early Church and hence discontinuous with the historical Jesus.
Modern scholarship has rightly shown that the Gospels are not strict biographies but presentations of Jesus told from the standpoint of faith and for the purpose of furthering faith. Jesus, in other words, can be known only through the testimony of his followers. But it cannot be assumed from this—as liberal scholarship often has—that that testimony results in a distortion of the historical Jesus. Indeed, given the respect with which Jesus’ words and deeds were held (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:6, 12, 25), it is more reasonable to think of the early Church as custodian rather than corrupter of the tradition.
The critical study of Jesus now has the momentum of more than two centuries behind it. In the history of the debate four essential positions have emerged. In order to illustrate them, imagine four pictures on a wall. The first picture is a sharp black-and-white photograph of Jesus, the second a portrait of Jesus painted by an accomplished artist, the third an abstract painting with no discernible sense to it, and the fourth a mirror. The first represents the literalist who believes the Gospels deliver an exact, photographic likeness of Jesus. The second represents a moderate critical scholarship that affirms that although the Gospel portraits emphasize various facets of Jesus they stand in trustworthy continuity with the Jesus of history. The abstract art in the third frame represents radical critical scholarship that affirms that the historical Jesus actually existed, but it is disagreed on what, if anything, can be known about him. The mirror in the fourth frame represents a subjectivist approach that regards the study of Jesus as essentially autobiographic. That is, all statements about Jesus are in reality statements about ourselves that are projected onto Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar (and other studies mentioned) belong to one of the last two frames. Either their critical theories permit only the barest evidence and result in very selective outlines of Jesus, or they altogether fail to find a historical figure and compensate by projecting a Jesus of their own values and ideologies.
The photographic likeness is not an appropriate analogy, either. There are four Gospels, not one, each of which presents a unique profile of Jesus, depending on the special purposes for which it was written. Particulars in one Gospel are not always reconcilable with other Gospels. It is obvious to any sensible person that the same Jesus is the subject of all four Gospels, but the uniqueness of each of the four portraits makes it very difficult to produce from them a single harmonized life of Jesus. The photographic likeness is not dismissed out of irreverence or devaluation of the Gospel record, but simply because it is inappropriate to what God has given us in the Gospels. The Gospels are thus not distortions of the historical Jesus, but faithful depictions of him.
The modern critical distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith is an essentially artificial and untenable distinction. In its endeavor to discern the historical Jesus, critical scholarship has exaggerated to an unwarranted degree the differences between the Jesus of history and the Jesus who is presented in the Gospels. Among the various arguments that can be made for the historical reliability of the Gospels, the following four are particularly important.
The Question of Christological Titles
Some of the titles of Jesus found in the Gospels, such as Son of Man, Son of God, Lord, Messiah (or Christ), Prophet, etc., were used by Jesus of himself, whereas others were used only later of Jesus by the Church. The primary question, however, is whether any of these titles, especially the ones likening Jesus to God, can be said to represent Jesus’ self-understanding.
It has become an axiom of New Testament scholarship to regard as secondary statements in the Gospels that attribute messianic or divine status to Jesus. The Christology of the Gospels, especially its titular Christology, is generally considered either to have arisen as a result of the early Church’s encounter with the categories of Greek thought (e.g., “divine man”, “son of God,” etc.) in the Gentile mission, or to have been projected back onto the Gospel accounts by the early Church as a result of its desire to attribute to the historical Jesus an honor commensurate to the Church’s post-resurrection experience of his Lordship.
This hypothesis has been around a long time, and its longevity has given it an appearance of credibility that is unwarranted. The idea that messianic titles and the divine status of Jesus first arose in the Gentile mission is neither a provable nor especially convincing premise. The first evangelists to the Gentiles were, after all, Jewish Christians, and the elevation of Jesus to divine status, and the projection onto him of sayings and titles commensurate with that status, constituted no minor compromise to the monotheism that such Jewish evangelists held. The ace in the hand of every Jew in the face of Gentile polytheism and idolatry was the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). The hypothesis that Jewish Christians would be willing to surrender their trump card of monotheism in exchange for acceptance of the gospel by “Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15) and idolaters (Rom. 1:23), as Paul called them, is a very questionable hypothesis.
The hypothesis can, in fact, be tested to some degree in the New Testament itself. In its search for categories by which to describe Jesus, the early Church came perilously close at various points to calling Jesus God (John 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13), and it ascribed titles of ontological status to him, such as Lord and Son of God. Nevertheless, the New Testament is extremely reluctant to call Jesus “God,” which, given its monotheistic environment, is exactly what we would expect.
Think of the question this way: is the deity ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament more likely to be the result of the early Church’s desire to court the Hellenistic world (which it largely disdained), or to honor its experience of Jesus—despite the problems that it caused for its monotheism? By far the most satisfying answer to this question is the latter. The dominant gene of Jesus’ self-consciousness was transmitted by Jesus to his followers. It was not a product of the early Church projected back onto the Gospel accounts of Jesus. It is, in other words, easier to start with the Messianic self-consciousness of Jesus and explain the Gospel accounts than it is to start with the assumption that Jesus was simply a Jewish teacher or charismatic healer, for example, and imagine how his followers came to regard him as God—and fabricated the Gospel accounts accordingly.
The Question of the Creativity of the Early Church
This leads to a second axiom of liberal New Testament scholarship, that the early Church wildly invented sayings and stories of Jesus that reflected its needs and experiences rather than truths about Jesus himself. This supposed inventiveness of the early Church results in a puzzle that has never been adequately resolved: namely, how a simple first-century Jew, about whom little is known and who was uncertain (if not confused) about his identity, could have been recast as the unique revealer of God (Matt. 11:25–30) whose death was the once-for-all remedy for sin. (Rom. 3:21–26)
There are, in fact, a number of “quality control” factors that argue strongly against the supposed fanciful and ultimately misleading inventiveness of the early Church. It is possible to say with confidence that the Gospel writers did not wildly invent material about Jesus, but were quite careful with the entire Jesus tradition. Among those factors are the following:
A. Eyewitnesses of the events described in the Gospels were still alive at the time of the writing of the Gospels. Such eyewitnesses functioned as gatekeepers and custodians “of the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). The wild inventiveness often attributed to the Gospel writers is, in fact, first evident in certain second-century documents (e.g., the Infancy Narratives of Jesus, the Protoevangelium of James) that were produced where Jesus traditions circulated in communities separated from the apostolic Church.
B. The rabbinic method of teaching by rote favored accurate and careful transmission of Jesus traditions as opposed to novel interpretation.
C. The presence of embarrassing and even problematic material in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 9:1; 14:71) speaks against the inventiveness of the early Church, even when the Church might have profited by it.
D. The absence of parables outside the Synoptic Gospels is the strongest possible argument for the authenticity of the parables deriving from Jesus.
E. A comparison of the Epistles with the Gospels reveals that neither Paul’s words nor those of other New Testament writers have been projected back into the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels. This is a strong argument against the radical form critics, for example, who assert that the Gospels tell not the story of Jesus but the story of the early Church projected onto Jesus.
F. Paul is careful to differentiate between instructions from the Lord and his own opinions (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:10, 12, 25). Was Paul an exception in this matter, or typical of the Church as a whole? Surely the latter. It is highly doubtful whether Paul could have won acceptance from the Twelve and the Jerusalem leaders had he been known to play loose with the Jesus tradition.
G. It can be shown within the New Testament itself that written sources are handled with integrity (e.g., the generally faithful handling of Markan material by both Matthew and Luke). Is it not reasonable to assume the same care in the transmitting of oral tradition? One characteristic of children, primitive peoples, and religious groups is that they do not like to see their traditions changed. What evidence do we have to suggest that the early Church was an exception to this rule?
H. Finally, the supposed inventiveness of the early Church meets its strongest opposition in the Gentile question. According to Acts and the Epistles, the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles and their admission into the Church was the burning question of the early Church. This issue, however, is virtually absent from the Gospels. Had the Church actively engaged in framing “Jesus material” according to its needs and interests, surely it would have developed sayings on the Gentile question. The fact that such material is absent in the Gospels argues in favor of the historical reliability of the material that is there.
The Question of Jesus’ Self-Consciousness
An earlier generation of liberal scholars was persuaded that Jesus’ elevated self-concept, as shown by his presuming to forgive sins, cleanse the temple, and his authority to speak and act on behalf of God, would have been unthinkable within first-century Jewish monotheism. It was concluded that anything indicating divine awareness could not have come from Jesus himself but only from subsequent tradition ascribed to him by Hellenistic Christianity. Comparative studies within Judaism, made possible in part by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have now sharply reduced the credibility of this view. The Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran, for instance, distinguished himself from the community to which he brought deliverance in these words:
Even more pronounced was Rabbi Hillel’s self-understanding. “If I am here, everything is here; if I am not here, what is here?” (b. Sukk. 53a), declared the sage who died less than a decade before Jesus was crucified. Hillel was known to apply to himself biblical quotations that referred to God. “Hillel’s self-understanding,” says the well-known Jewish New Testament scholar David Flusser, “was so extraordinarily high that later rabbinic tradition often could not admit that Hillel had made such elevated claims for himself; it was asserted, rather, that Hillel was actually speaking of God” (Entdeckungen im Neuen Testament. Band I: Jesusworte und Ihre Überlieferung [Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1987], p. 210 [my translation]).
Such examples warn us against categorically discounting sayings of preeminence attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the self-consciousness of Jesus and his understanding of his place in God’s economy are without parallel in ancient Judaism or Hellenism. To quote again from David Flusser: “There is a great difference between Hillel and Jesus. Hillel’s self-understanding was not limited to his own person, but was an archetype for each individual person. Jesus’ understanding of his surpassing status . . . was linked to the knowledge that his person was not interchangeable with anyone else. He understood himself to be “the Son,” and as such to have a central status and commission in the economy of God” (Ibid., p. 215 [my translation]). This is a remarkable testimony coming from a Jewish scholar.
Jesus’ consciousness of standing in a unique and sovereign relationship with God is the key that makes the Gospel accounts intelligible, without which the Gospels are reduced to a conundrum. We may briefly consider three apertures into Jesus’ consciousness of Divine Sonship and messianic authority that are preserved in the Gospels: his calling of the disciples, and his use of amen and abba.
Unlike the rabbis, Jesus assumes a commanding role in calling his disciples (Mark 1:16–20; 2:13–17; 3:13–19). No Jewish rabbi called disciples. Rather, Jewish rabbis were chosen by their disciples, much like students today choose universities. Jesus, however, called his disciples, and not to Torah (as did the rabbis), but to himself. Moreover, rabbis assumed that gifted disciples might equal or surpass their understanding of Torah, eventually succeeding them. Jesus’ disciples, however, can never equal him, much less succeed him. Finally, the fact that Jesus calls twelve disciples signals that he presumes to reconstitute Israel. The prominence of Jesus in the call of the disciples indicates that their response to Jesus determines their response to the Kingdom of God itself.
A second insight into Jesus’ divine self-consciousness emerges in his use of amen. The Old Testament prophet prefaced his pronouncements with “Thus says the Lord” as a guarantee of Yahweh’s authority. Jesus, however, assumes that authority himself, solemnly pronouncing, “Truly I say to you” (amen lego hymin). Jesus’ use of amen as an introductory formula, thereby attributing to his words divine authority, rather than as a concluding prayer response as was customary in Judaism, is, in the words of New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias, “without any parallel in the whole of Jewish literature and the rest of the New Testament” (New Testament Theology, trans. J. Bowden [New York: Scribner’s, 1971], p. 35–36; also H. W. Kuhn, “amen,” EDNT 1.69–70).
A third insight into Jesus’ Divine Sonship comes from his addressing God as abba, Father. Evidence in Jewish Palestine is extremely rare, if not entirely lacking, of “my Father” being used as an individual address to God. Jesus, however, addresses God intimately and personally as abba (e.g., Mark 14:36). T. W. Manson rightly recognizes that “The experience of God as Father dominates the whole ministry of Jesus from the Baptism to the Crucifixion” (The Teaching of Jesus: Studies in its Form and Content [Cambridge: University Press, 1963], p. 102). Jesus’ confidence in his unique placement and empowerment by God is the source of his filial consciousness and authority to speak and act on behalf of God.
Equally without precedent, yet present in all layers of the traditions, is Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to address God as abba (See J. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, trans. J. Bowden [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978], p. 11–65). Nowhere is the unshared sonship of Jesus more evident than in the 51 occurrences (excluding parallels) of Father in the Synoptics, in which Jesus either speaks of God as “my Father” (29 times), or teaches his disciples about God as “your Father” (22 times), without however including himself with the disciples in addressing God as “our Father.” The presence of abba in the Gospel traditions preserves a seminal memory of Jesus’ filial consciousness not only in relationship to the Father, but also in contrast to the derivative sonship of his disciples.
The Question of Jesus’ Death
The most uncontested fact of Jesus’ life is that he was crucified. The impression left by the Gospels is that the Jerusalem religious leaders instigated a procedure against Jesus that was finally executed by the Roman authorities. It is worth considering, however, exactly why Jesus was crucified. Jews, after all, did not randomly kill people, even over theological disagreements. The Mishnah, an 800-page Jewish sequel to the Torah that spans the time from roughly the birth of Jesus until A.D. 200, preserves thousands of differences of opinions among rabbis without one of them leading to a plot of death and execution. The fate of Jesus, in other words, was categorically different from that of other Jewish rabbis. Not the least formidable obstacle to the quest for a non-Messianic Jesus who champions our causes and espouses our ideologies, to paraphrase a modern critic, is that such a Jesus would have scarcely gotten himself crucified.
There was, however, one ground for which Jews did impose the death sentence, and that would account for Jesus’ execution: the charge of blasphemy. The earliest Gospel, in fact, preserves this charge in Mark 14:61–64. All the Gospel accounts agree that the point at which Jesus most threatened the Jerusalem authorities was his attack on the temple (e.g., Mark 11:27–33). What might have caused Jesus to presume to challenge the most sacred site of Judaism? Mark clearly indicates that Jesus understood his person to supersede the temple itself, and that makes sense only if Jesus understood himself to be divinely appointed and empowered. The Jerusalem authorities, of course, took both the deed and the word justifying it as a blasphemous presumption on Jesus’ part, justly punishable by death. The charge of blasphemy testifies unmistakably—even if from his opponents—to Jesus’ true mission and purpose.
The Historical Jesus of the Creeds
Our examination of four aspects of the Gospel tradition allows us to affirm with confidence that the Gospels preserve a diverse and significant body of evidence of the verus sensus Jesu. Nowhere is the continuity between the memory of the early Church and the self-understanding of Jesus more discernible than in the many witnesses to Jesus’ bearing, his consciousness of standing in an absolutely unique relationship to God as his Father, and his authority to speak and act on behalf of God in the world of humanity and nature.
There is a host of scholars who understand that the Gospels point to the Apostles’ Creed, not away from it as the Jesus Seminar insists. The eminent Christian historian of Tübingen, Martin Hengel, lays an ax at the root of the modern presumption to find an adequate Jesus by the methods of modern historiography and sociology:
“Did Jesus know that he had an identity which his followers later came to understand in terms of his being God?” asks Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic who stands at the apex of American New Testament scholars.
Statistics, it is often said, can prove anything. Likewise, critical theories about the Bible can produce various results, depending on the disposition of scholars. We have seen that some of the very theories and methods employed by the Jesus Seminar to discredit the New Testament portrait of Jesus when handled carefully and reasonably actually underscore the veracity of the account. The most reasonable answer to the question of why the Gospels present Jesus the way they do is that is essentially the way he was. The Gospels faithfully preserve the memory that Jesus left on his followers, that he was divinely legitimated and empowered to be God’s Son and Servant.
James R. Edwards is Professor of Religion at Jamestown College in Jamestown, North Dakota. He holds a doctorate in the Gospels from Fuller Theological Seminary and has published several scholarly articles in that field.
“New Quest, Old Errors” first appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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