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After a period of relative quiescence, the quest for the historical Jesus has again become a center of controversy. Two major contributions to the theme—John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew and John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus—appeared just before Christmas 1991 and were widely reviewed. They have provoked criticisms and countercriticisms, focusing primarily on issues of method.

The quest for the historical Jesus is not an idle pastime. It began in the eighteenth century as a fierce attack on the Christ of faith. Throughout the nineteenth century, its aim was to establish another Christ to replace the Christ of dogma. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, who wrote the classic history of the early quest, “The dogma had first to be shattered before men could once more go out in quest of the historical Jesus, before they could even grasp the thought of his existence.” The assault on orthodox belief has not died out. Many historians of the present day share the same animus.

Can believers be indifferent to the historical quest? Can they keep their faith intact while letting historians do what they will with the Jesus of flesh and blood? Can they let go of the historical grounds that have heretofore sustained Christians in their belief? These questions raise difficult and fundamental issues about what faith is, what history is, and how the two are related.

For purposes of this article faith may be considered a firm adherence to a total vision of reality in the light of God’s revealing word. For Christians that word comes to us preeminently in Christ, as he is known through the canonical Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. Faith involves a free, reasonable assent made possible by the grace of God, which enables us to discern and confidently embrace God’s revealing word.

The concept of history is complex and controverted. In the broadest sense it includes everything we know, or think we know, about the human past, whether based on faith, on vague general impressions, or on methodical investigation.

In a narrower sense, history is knowledge derived by means of a recognized method devised to provide reliable access to the human past. The method involves a kind of detective work by which we critically use the available sources, including documents that testify to past events. Applied to Christian origins, historical method will seek to ferret out the earliest and most reliable reports about Jesus and, from them, to reconstruct the sayings and deeds that may most plausibly be attributed to Jesus and his circle.

There are no rules that automatically determine what accounts are to be accepted as accurate. Historians generally rely on rules of thumb. For instance, they prefer accounts that can be traced to early witnesses and those that are attested by several independent sources. They are also inclined to credit reports that present Jesus as saying and doing what the Jews of his day would have avoided as well as making assertions that would be embarrassing to the early Church. This principle of discontinuity, as it is often called, does not presuppose that Jesus was never in agreement with the Jews of his day or that his character and doctrine were generally out of phase with the teaching of the early Church, but simply that it is more difficult to account for dissimilar statements as originating from sources other than Jesus himself.

To give more precision to their method some historians make assumptions of a philosophical character. According to a positivist view that was widely accepted fifty or a hundred years ago, history is a science analogous to physics or chemistry. It proceeds on the assumption that the world is a closed system in which causes and effects are connected by strict necessity. History, in that view, leaves no place for the unique, the exceptional, and especially not for events brought about by God’s direct activity. On positivist grounds many historians have written off the Gospels as unreliable, insofar as they portrayed Jesus as an utterly unique figure, conscious of a special relationship to God, and working miracles by divine power.

This positivist view is not convincing. The historian cannot antecedently rule out the possibility that something unique and unparalleled might happen, or that God might bring about exceptional events by an exercise of divine power. If positivist rules were adopted, history and faith would be on a collision course from the beginning.

Does the possibility of miraculous or supernatural events introduce a surd and thereby destroy the intelligibility of history? This might be the case if God frequently interposed his action without any plan or reason. In the view of theology, however, God respects the order of created causality that he himself has established. If he intervenes, he does so rarely and according to a rationale that has its own intelligibility. Where serious grounds exist for suspecting that God has acted in a direct, supernatural way, historians cannot dismiss the evidence in the name of historical integrity. They are invited to look higher and to enter into dialogue with theologians. Such dialogue is necessary for the sake of history itself. The theological intelligibility of the alleged event should enter into the assessment of the credibility of the reports.

In their quest for the historical Jesus, scholars have adopted four different approaches.

According to the first approach, history is antithetical to orthodox faith. The quest for the historical Jesus, as in the works of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, David Friedrich Strauss, Ernest Renan, and others, arose from hostility to dogma: efforts were made to substitute a purely human Jesus of history for the Christ of faith and dogma. This effort still goes on in our day, as may be seen from the works of John Allegro, Rudolf Augstein, Morton Smith, and Thomas Sheehan. Another partisan of this effort, Paul Hollenbach, asserts that the Jesus of history is to be sought “in order to overthrow, not simply correct, [what José Porfirio Miranda calls] ‘the mistake called Christianity.’ ” The mistake, according to Hollenbach, was the “divinization of Jesus as Son of David, Christ, Son of God, Second Person in the Trinity, etc.”

This use of history is of course unacceptable to Christian believers. They reply that antidogmatic historians are dogmatic in their own way, since they antecedently rule out the unique and the transcendent. Their approach ruptures the continuity between Jesus and the community of his followers. It does violence to the sources in expunging sayings and deeds of Jesus that are attested to by what, according to the standard criteria, must be regarded as early and reliable traditions. Having reduced Jesus to the stature of a common prophet or wonder worker, this approach has difficulty in accounting for the extreme reactions of his followers and adversaries and for the rapid emergence of Christianity as a distinct religious faith.

Crossan’s recent book on The Historical Jesus in some ways resembles the approach just described. It portrays Jesus as a “peasant Jewish Cynic,” whose conception of the kingdom of God involved “a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power.” Crossan describes Jesus as a magician bent on subverting the existing social structures. He denies the historicity of the Last Supper, including the institution of the Eucharist. He likewise rejects the stories about the discovery of the empty tomb. The earliest accounts, he believes, saw no need for resurrection appearances between the departure of Jesus and his now imminent return in glory. But Crossan does not portray himself as opposing the Christ of dogma. In fact, he defends the assertion that Jesus was wholly God and wholly man. “I find, therefore, no contradiction between the historical Jesus and the defined Christ, no betrayal whatsoever in the move from Jesus to Christ.” With his somewhat paradoxical and apparently selective appropriation of the Church’s dogma, Crossan is able to affirm the identity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

The second major position may be called separationist. It maintains that history and faith, if each keeps within its legitimate sphere, can neither confirm nor contradict one another. History deals with empirical facts of the human past that are accessible to any rational person who uses historical method. Faith, on the other hand, deals with transcendent realities that are known only by revelation, freely accepted by religious believers thanks to the grace of God. The Jesus who lived and died in Palestine belongs to history; the living, risen Christ belongs to faith. This, roughly speaking, was the position of the dialectical theologians between the first and second world wars, particularly Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich.

To judge from the first volume of his A Marginal Jew, John P. Meier is not far removed from this second position. Since his views are subject to clarification and modification in future volumes, one can only speak tentatively at this point. It is also not certain whether his method reflects his personal preferences or his desire to reach out to a wider audience, including non-Christians. In any case he keeps the Christ of faith well insulated from historical scrutiny, so that as a historian he can be content to let the chips fall where they may. Agreeing with Bultmann and his school that “the Jesus of history is not and cannot be the object of Christian faith,” he writes:

In the historical-critical framework, the “real” has been defined—and has to be defined—in terms of what exists within this world of time and space, what can be experienced in principle by any observer, and what can be reasonably deduced or inferred from such experience. Faith and Christian theology, however, affirm ultimate realities beyond what is merely empirical or provable by reason: e.g., the triune God and the risen Jesus.

A little later Meier writes: “In the realm of faith and theology the ‘real Jesus,’ the only Jesus existing here and now, is this risen Lord, to whom access is given only in faith.”

Meier admits that there must be some continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, since the risen Jesus was previously the man from Nazareth. But he leaves unclear whether any particular assertions about the earthly career of Jesus are required by faith. His discussion of the virginal conception of Jesus and of the resurrection may be used as examples.

Although he points out in a footnote that some theologians, such as Karl Rahner and Walter Kasper, are more conservative, he gives greater prominence to authors who call the virginal conception a theologoumenon—a term he interprets as generally meaning “a theological narrative that does not represent a historical event.” As a believer Meier presumably accepts the virginal conception, but as a historian he cannot take account of supernatural explanations. Since he limits himself to the human and the empirical, he can give only a weak response to the charge that Jesus was Mary’s illegitimate child.

On the ground that the resurrection is knowable only by faith, Meier contends that it falls beyond the scope of a historical study of Jesus. Others of us would maintain that even if the resurrection in its full reality transcends the grasp of history, it has a historical aspect, and that historical research can help to establish the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead. If the resurrection was something that happened to Jesus, and not simply to the community, its occurrence would seem to be pertinent to the history of Jesus. The fact of the resurrection casts a whole new light on the previous career of Jesus and gives credibility to sayings and deeds that might otherwise be written off as legend.

Meier repeatedly reminds his readers that he is not denying faith and revelation, only putting them in brackets. To judge from early reviews of his book, non-Christians may find that Meier’s attitude toward Jesus is not as neutral as he declares it to be. Christian believers, on the other hand, will wonder whether Meier the believer would disagree with Meier the historian. What would he say about the career of Jesus if he took his faith out of brackets? Perhaps in some other work Meier will find an opportunity to say how his account of the history of Jesus would differ if he were to avail himself of faith.

This separationist view has some plausibility, because as Christians we do assent to transcendent realities not knowable apart from faith in God’s word. History by itself cannot establish that Jesus is reigning in heavenly glory or that he makes himself present in the Eucharist. But, as even Meier himself would probably admit, no total separation between history and faith is feasible. Most Catholic Christians consider themselves committed as believers to profess various facts about the earthly Jesus. While no official list is available, a good case can be made for including items such as the virginal conception of Jesus, his consciousness of his own divinity, his miraculous and prophetic powers, his redemptive intent, his institution of the Eucharist, his crucifixion, his empty tomb, and his bodily resurrection. If facts such as these were disproved, Christian faith would be seriously affected.

Recognizing the importance of these matters for faith, the Church has considered itself obliged to defend the historical value of the Gospels. Vatican Council II, following up on several earlier pronouncements, taught that the Gospels, “whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus the Son of God, while living among men, really did and taught” (Dei Verbum). The position on faith and history that severs the links between them fails to account for the Church’s concern for the historicity of the Gospels.

According to the third major approach, history is itself the ground of faith. That is to say, historical investigation establishes rational foundations for the commitment of Christian faith. This position has been developed in at least three different forms.

The first is exemplified by many apologists of the early twentieth century, including Hilarin Felder and Louis Claude Fillion. Taking up the challenge of the rationalists, they argued that the Gospels, viewed as strictly historical sources, could provide conclusive proofs that Jesus claimed to be, and in fact was, the only-begotten Son of God.

These authors used a rather naive approach, ignoring what most scholars of our own day hold about the authorship, date, and literary form of the Gospels. As a result, the work of these apologists is no longer convincing. More recent apologists, such as Joachim Jeremias, take a much more sophisticated approach to the Gospels and therefore make more modest claims. Jeremias argues persuasively that Jesus was conscious of having a relationship of singular intimacy with God as his Father. But it is hard to say that his arguments give more than a high probability that could be upset by further research. Few Christians would want their faith to depend on scholarly hypotheses such as these.

The second form of the view that history is the ground of faith is the so-called “new quest for the historical Jesus,” instituted in the late 1950s. Several former students of Bultmann, rebelling against his divorce between faith and history, made use of a kind of existential history and tried to recreate an experience of encounter with Jesus on the basis of the earliest Gospel traditions. The works of Günther Bornkamm, Heinz Zahrnt, and James M. Robinson, representative of this school, may still be read with profit.

These works succeed in achieving an impressive picture of Jesus based on the texts that have good claims to historical reliability. The members of this school, however, limit their quest to Jesus as he presented himself in his public life. They do not incorporate the further light given to the community by the events of Easter and Pentecost. Their work, like that of Jeremias, must be regarded as a helpful beginning that can put the reader on the road toward eventually accepting the Christ of faith.

The third form of this position is represented by Wolfhart Pannenberg. For him history is the only mode of access to the reality of the past; faith gives no information in addition to history. But he defines history in a very comprehensive sense, so that it is capable of discerning the action of God. Pannenberg finds that the event of Jesus Christ, when interpreted in its own historical context, must be seen as the work of God himself, ushering in the final age of the world. Because the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact, says Pannenberg, historical reasoning can exhibit Jesus as the self-revelation of God.

Pannenberg avoids the simplistic arguments of earlier apologists. He takes a highly critical approach to the Gospels and does not admit the historicity of the virginal conception. But he does affirm the historicity of the empty tomb and of at least some post-resurrection appearances. Thus he arrives at a more complete Christology than is obtainable by the existential history of the “new quest.”

Some difficulties may nevertheless be raised. Pannenberg’s comprehensive concept of history is so broad that it deprives history of its character as a special discipline. But even in this inclusive sense, history does not seem to terminate in a firm intellectual commitment, higher than the fluctuating judgments of probability. Many theologians, among whom I count myself, would say that the historical arguments for the divinity of Jesus will not provide the full assurance of faith except for those who submit to the attraction and illumination of divine grace. With this reservation, however, I find great value in Pannenberg’s argumentation.

Finally, there is the fourth position, the most satisfactory. This position holds that Christian faith does not normally arise from, or rest on, a critical examination of the New Testament evidence concerning the Jesus of history. Rather, it comes from God’s revealing word as conveyed by the testimony of the Church. But since the word of God tells us something about past events, faith cannot be insulated from history in the broad sense of the term.

The Gospels are not merely, or primarily, works of history. Above all else they are Gospels—that is to say, proclamations of the good news of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ. They are religious testimonies, composed for the sake of arousing and strengthening the life of faith. Richly charged with theological interpretation, they give us much deeper insight into the real meaning of Jesus than stenographic reports about him could ever do.

Because they are written with a kerygmatic and pastoral concern, the Gospels should not be judged as though they were intended to be merely factual reports. The believer cannot say a priori that every Gospel narrative is an exact account of the event. The story of Jesus has been reworked in the light of the Church’s Easter faith, and then further adapted to meet the needs of the particular communities for which the four Gospels were written. According to the 1964 Instruction of the Biblical Commission, modern scholarship makes it evident that “the doctrine and life of Jesus were not simply reported for the sole purpose of being remembered, but were ‘preached’ so as to offer the Church a basis of faith and morals.” The biblical interpreter, says the instruction, must seek to explain why the different evangelists narrated the life and words of Jesus in different ways.

If they had been intended simply as historical works, the Gospels could be judged deficient. They do not satisfy our curiosity about many points. For example, they give us no description of Jesus and no exact chronology of his life. They recast many of his sayings, rearrange them into continuous discourses, combine distinct events into a single story, and take other liberties that would be unacceptable in academic history.

It is therefore legitimate and possible to probe behind the Gospels and try to reconstruct a more accurate and detailed account of the career of Jesus. For Christian believers, the intention of the quest will not be to detract from the teaching of the New Testament but rather to provide additional data and thereby give a better understanding both of Christ and of the Gospels.

The Christian believer will use many of the same procedures as the neutral or hostile historiographer. Catholic and Protestant scholars, without prejudice to their faith, make use of textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, and historical criticism. It is essential to obtain reliable texts, to identify their literary genre, and to single out the more primitive strata of material. The properly historical phase comes with the movement from the texts, considered as data, to the words and deeds to which they refer. Applying criteria such as early attestation, multiple attestation, and discontinuity from late Judaism and from early Christianity, the historian can make more or less probable judgments about the reliability of the accounts.

It must be recognized, however, that judgments of historicity depend in great part upon presumptions. Even those who try to bracket their faith have to use some presumptions about the kinds of reports that are to be viewed as credible. Because of differing presuppositions, some historians will admit, and others will discount, the antecedent possibility of revelation and miracles. In the area of religion, these presuppositions make all the difference. Believers who want to recover the full truth about Jesus will wish to take advantage of the light that faith can supply. They will not assume, even for purposes of the argument, that Jesus was less than faith declares him to be. To adopt such artificial restrictions would seriously prejudice the results. As John Henry Newman wrote in his critique of the apologetics of William Paley,

Rules of court are dictated by what is expedient on the whole and in the long run; but they run the risk of being unjust to the claims of particular cases. Why am I to begin with taking up a position not my own, and unclothing my mind of that large outfit of existing thoughts, principles, likings, desires, and hopes, which make me what I am?

Christians, convinced that Jesus was an utterly singular person, the incarnate Son of God, will be prepared to credit testimony that God acted in him in a totally unprecedented way. Faith is an advantage because it alerts us to the particular strand of history in which God has acted decisively for our salvation. But faith does not eliminate the need for scholarly inquiry. Certain kerygmatic and theological ingredients have to be filtered out by the critic who wishes to reconstruct what was actually said and done by Jesus in his earthly career.

Historical method, when applied to the Gospel materials, has not yet led to a broad or striking consensus. Most historians can agree about a few general features of the public ministry of Jesus and the fact of his execution by the Roman authorities. But the different perspectives on the relationship between history and faith will lead to radically different views on matters of doctrinal significance. Even historians who share the same faith disagree about many details, such as the time and place at which Jesus was born, the duration of his public ministry, his messianic or divine claims, his intent to establish a Church, the dates of his Last Supper and of the crucifixion. Different historians will provide different theories and argue for them as best they can.

Of what use, then, is this historical investigation, conducted in the light of faith? Four main values come to mind.

First, on many points qualified historians will be able to supplement the information that could be gathered without reliance on their technical skills. They can give us probable answers to many questions that are not settled, one way or the other, by faith and theology. For example, they may be able to tell us whether the Matthean or the Lukan form of the Beatitudes or the Lord’s Prayer is closer to the actual words of Jesus, and whether it is likely that the Last Supper was celebrated as a Paschal meal. History may be able to clarify Jesus’ attitudes on social and political questions such as war and revolution, the rights of women and the poor. On these and many other debatable questions historical investigation provides probable answers that are of interest.

Second, by identifying certain elements in the Gospel as historically factual, the historian can on some points confirm the faith of believers. Solid arguments can be made for holding that Jesus understood himself as bringing in the final age of salvation, that he chose apostles to share in his ministry during and after his own life, that he placed Peter at the head of the apostles, that he understood himself as having a singular intimacy with his heavenly Father, that he regarded his own death as redemptive, and that he was convinced that the Father would raise him from the dead. The figure of Jesus reconstructed by technical history, incomplete and tentative though it be, can be helpful to people who are inquiring into the credibility of the Christian religion.

Third, critical study of the Gospels enables us to distinguish more clearly between the competences of faith and history. In some cases historical investigation stands in tension with the teaching of the Church. For example, some serious scholars, including Catholics, think that the strictly historical evidence does not favor the virginal conception of Jesus or the perpetual virginity of Mary. Even if these scholars are correct, the difficulties that they raise can be taken in stride. For Catholics and, I suspect, most other Christians, faith does not rest on historical research but on the word of God authoritatively proclaimed by Scripture and tradition. As Newman said, no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by history. In some cases the historical evidence may seem to point away from the Catholic doctrines. “In all cases,” Newman concluded, “there is a margin left for faith in the word of the Church. He who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic.”

Fourth, historical study of the New Testament may, finally, contribute to the better understanding of faith and assist in the development of Christian doctrine. According to Vatican II, the work of exegetes is one of the means through which the judgment of the Church comes to maturity. An instance of this may be the case of Jesus’ knowledge and self-consciousness. Theologians of earlier centuries often spoke of Jesus’ infused knowledge in such a way as to suggest that he did not need to learn from other people, from books, or from experience. Modern biblical scholarship has helped to correct this view, and has enabled us to make the psychology of Jesus more intelligible.

Thoughtful Christians in our day are anxious to take advantage of modern historical research. Many look to Catholic biblical scholars to show how new findings in this area cohere with Catholic faith and teaching. But their expectations are disappointed when exegetes pursue their scientific investigations without regard for faith and theology. Has the gap between theology and biblical scholarship become so wide that each must be pursued without reference to the other? I am confident that faith and intelligence, dogma and history, can and must be integrated. Historical scholarship, if it erects itself into a purely positive discipline independent of philosophy and faith, can only widen the gap. But, conducted in dialogue with philosophy and theology, the historical quest can cast added light on the reality of Christ.

Avery Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University. His most recent contribution to First Things, “Tradition and Creativity in Theology,” appeared last month.

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash. Image cropped.

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