New Testament scholar Scot McKnight says the attempts to discover the “historical” Jesus have failed—and that it’s a good thing.
In the 1980s, the central academic organization for biblical studies, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), was energized in remarkable ways by a renewed interest in the historical Jesus, a project that had been abandoned for some decades. At that time, the Jesus Seminar, designed by former childhood preacher and fervent critic of all things orthodox Robert Funk, frequently made headlines. Noted scholars sat at tables and voted on what Jesus really said and did based on the historical evidence. Funk and others drew up their conclusions in books that supposedly revealed the real Jesus.
Some of these studies were outlandish, some much closer to orthodoxy and the canonical Gospels. The headline-grabbing names included Ben F. Meyer, E. P. Sanders, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, and N. T. (Tom) Wright. I have sat in packed lecture halls to watch Tom and Dom go at it, and I’ve listened in as two friends, Marc and Tom, bantered back and forth about who was getting it right. Paula, a Catholic convert to Judaism, continued to warn the entire discipline that too many errors were being made about Judaism. Those were heady days, and I remember giving a paper to over 500 scholars about how Jesus understood his own death. The neon-light days for the historical Jesus are now over.
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Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct Jesus in conscious contrast with the categories of the evangelists and the beliefs of the church. Wright is the most orthodox of the well-known historical Jesus scholars; I can count on one hand the number of historical Jesus scholars who hold orthodox beliefs. The inspiration for historical Jesus scholarship is that the Gospels overdid it, and that the church more or less absorbed the Galilean prophet into Greek philosophical categories. The quest for the historical Jesus is an attempt to get behind the theology and the established faith to the Jesus who was—I must say it this way—much more like the Jesus we would like him to be.
One has to wonder if the driving force behind much historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian’s genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise.
The question that many of us in the discipline must ask is this: Can theology or Christology or, more importantly, faith itself be connected to the vicissitudes of historical research and results?