I lied yesterday. I didn’t mean to. It’s more like I exaggerated. I was a bit fed up with the historical Jesus project. And I was hasty to say I wouldn’t go to any more historical Jesus sessions at SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). In fact, first session Monday morning I was in the John, Jesus, and History group. And it was fabulous.
Also, props to Ovadia who pointed out, while historical criticism may be an insufficient place to finish, skipping it altogether is not a good proposal. And sure, those of us who think there are better ways of knowing than rationalism, positivism, and following myths of disinterested investigation, we still benefit from the kind of research and questions historical criticism engages in.
Take today’s session on John, Jesus, and History . . .
James Charlesworth gave us fourteen reasons why the Fourth Gospel should not be ignored in historical Jesus research. Paul Anderson challenged many of the myths about the Fourth Gospel (“it’s too theological to have historical merit”) and a great deal more. I will be buying his The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus (I’d have it already, but T&T Clark ran out of copies at the book exhibit!). Richard Horsley explained how his project researching economic and political conditions intersects with the realism of the Fourth Gospel (so I bought his Jesus and the Spiral of Violence).
Then Ismo Dunderberg gave a short, clever, dissenting paper. It’s not so easy, he said. There are problems with the Fourth Gospel that can’t be overlooked. I mainly remember one example: that in scenes where the Beloved Disciple appears he is absent in parallel passages in the synoptic gospels.
I guess what I liked today was the willingness to suspend many issues of “proving history” and to recreate the story of Jesus as best possible given the sources, not overly worrying about criteria that supposedly make for more or less likely history.
Reading stories of a person’s life can only give us a window into knowing them. But, then again, meeting people in person and conversing with them only gives us a window into who they are. No one can truly know another (can we even know ourselves?).
Historical criticism has overreached, by miles, and has come to a place in which the story of Jesus is supposedly the story of late first century communities projecting themselves onto a fictional canvas of Jesus’ life. Only a dozen or so out of hundreds of sayings and events can be affirmed by the historical critical method. Does that mean these are the only things Jesus said and did?
Or, we can do as the presenters in this John, Jesus, and History session: tell the story and examine historical implications without some artificial bar of proof. A little uncertainty pervades every field of study. But the story of Jesus is a compelling one no matter how you research it. Those who remembered him and passed the story on left us teachings and events of great depth and surely these point to the genius of a real man and not the productions-by-committee of late first century inventors of Jesus the Messiah.
It is hard for me to believe that “Mark” (whoever we may think he, she, or they are) and “John” (same) could both be such geniuses and have so much correspondence in their genius. It is much easier to believe the genius is the one they are telling the story about.