Friday, June 6, 2014

The Basic Problem of Historical Jesus Studies: “Criticism—to make judgments in the light of evidence”

This essay appeared in a revised form in The Fourth R 28.1 (January-February): 21

Everyone interested in Jesus of Nazareth should be interested in this short essay.  I am not certain who first stated the basic problem of historical Jesus studies in so many words, but any historian who works comparatively and critically with the gospels today immediately becomes aware of the problem.  Here is how the German scholar, Wilhelm Wrede, formulated the problem in 1901: "How do we separate what belongs properly to Jesus from what is the material of the primitive community" (Messianic Secret, 4).  Wrede may even have been the first to state the problem in this way.  Albert Schweitzer, who critiqued all the scholarly lives of Jesus in German and French written from 1778 through 1901, was in the best position to have recognized the problem, but in fact did not.  Schweitzer rejected Wrede's literary-critical analysis of Mark in 1906, and assumed that the earliest two gospels were historically reliable in what they reported.  He also was less than critical in what he generally regarded as authentic Jesus traditions (J. M. Robinson, "Introduction," to Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, xix).  After Schweitzer's book, no critical studies of Jesus were written until 1956, in part because of the difficulty of separating Jesus from the church's beliefs about him.  An axiom of critical Jesus studies is this: the gospels contain some reliable historical information about Jesus, but it must be separated from the basically faith descriptions of Jesus where they are concealed.

               Recently it appears the situation has changed to judge from the spate of critical Jesus books published at the end of the twentieth century.  In spite of scholarship's failure to solve the basic problem, scholars have again begun writing "biographies" of Jesus.  Some confidently combine an extensive "course of life" with psychological analyses of Jesus.  Nevertheless, these studies do not first lay out for readers exactly where they draw the line between the good-intentioned machinations of the early community and Jesus himself.
               Actually in the two-hundred and fifty year history of history-of-Jesus research only once has it happened that a large group of scholars (The Jesus Seminar) has convened to address formally the basic problem of Jesus research.  The Seminar did its study in the public eye (not behind the ivy-covered walls of academia), reached a consensus (that did not please everyone), and published a report to the public (The Five Gospels, 1993), which included their findings and the reasons for their findings.  One would have supposed that this report would have become the basic point of reference for all future Jesus studies.  Scholars could cite the report by adding or subtracting sayings and giving the reasons for their judgments.  But the report was generally treated at best with benign neglect by the guild of scholars, and Jesus studies continued apace without first carefully sorting out "what properly belongs to Jesus" from the "material of the early community."  In other words the basic problem of Jesus studies is routinely ignored.
               How should we regard books on Jesus of Nazareth that: (1) do not recognize this axiom of critical Jesus studies: that not everything attributed to Jesus in the gospels originated with Jesus; (2) do not include a specific list of the historical raw data on which the author bases his/her description of Jesus; (3) do not include a justification for regarding such raw data as historical; and (4) do not carefully distinguish between the data and their own interpretation of it.
               It is easier for me to respond by describing the extremes.  At their very worst such studies are romantic and devotional, and are intended, either consciously or subconsciously, to buttress the faith of the believing community.  Hence they are not critical studies, but fall into the category of propaganda or devotional literature.
               On the other hand, at their very best they are still flawed studies because they confuse the raw data with their analysis, and fail to justify what they do use.  Hence at best they are unreliable and misleading.
               What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. Right on target, Charlie. Thanks very much!

  2. Somewhere between joining DesCartes in his cabin and doubting our own existence and a full acceptance of the gospels as a reliable record of history there is likely a reality that is yet so far removed from us that it can only be reached by conjecture and scholarly care in cautious reflection. I spent 30 years believing that Q was pretty much a foregone conclusion of textual criticism and have lately realized that a proto-Luke in the hands of Marcion seems like a much more likely source of what we have called Q. However, John Spong, for example, has recently published his conviction that Matthew was the source of Q sayings (I can produce a truck full of very plausible reasons why that is not true but he is not an easy man withwhom to disagree when I am going to have to spend three days with him in August).

    We look to you, Charlie, and those of your ilk to keep asking the right questions so that we keep trying to strip away our prejudices and get down to the facts that can be reasonably defended.
    Roger Ray

  3. Good afternoon Roger!
    Thanks for the comment. Here are a few comments in response. Probably you already knew this information. Q is the result of literary criticism on the synoptic gospels. Its content is judged to be the passages where Matt and Luke agree on material that is not in Mark (Q scholars argue for additional material). Oddly, the Proto-Luke theory is the hypothesis that Luke wrote an early first draft of the gospel. In the early first draft Luke begins with Q and expanded it with material from L (Luke's special source) and accounts of the passion and the resurrection. Later on Luke enlarges this first draft with material from Mark. Hence, broadly speaking our canonical Luke is (Q + L) +Mark + birth stories + preface. So even Q plays a prominent role in the Proto-Luke hypothesis. I am not sure how the Proto-Luke hypothesis clarifies the situation. The early draft of Luke is only slightly earlier than Mark and Q is earlier than both. In my view it seems to be more complicated.
    It is interesting that the IDB published in 1962 has a short summary statement on the Proto-Luke hypothesis but as best as I can tell the ABD (1992) and the NIDB (2008) do not. The two document hypothesis (Mark + Q) has been the preferred explanation for the synoptic problem during the 20th century. I am not sure what you mean that Proto-Luke in the hands of Marcion is a much more likely source of what we call Q.
    I would like to add that what is at stake in the way we resolve the synoptic problem is nothing less than the character of early Christianity. So what we are discussing is not an idle question, but one that goes to the heart of the early Christian movement.

  4. The single best attested trait of Jesus' career is the performance of miracles, or, as I prefer, magical demonstrations of power. Jesus' "charismatic" performances are attested by surviving Jewish and pagan sources and his early followers were famous for exorcism and healing. Christian magic is the boast of the apocryphal Acts and infancy gospels. There are, of course, "sayings" sources such as the Gospel of Thomas, but, as Morton Smith among others pointed out, an identifiable central core of consistent teaching is hard to sift from these collections. That Jesus' "teaching" has been variously and inconsistently characterized is a well known issue (or scandal) in life-of-Jesus studies.

    That said, if there is no Jesus apart from miracles and miracles are not real, where does that leave the historical Jesus? There are traces of the pre-miraculous Jesus in the gospels, questions about his parentage and the source of his powers, his humble Galilean roots, the disbelief of his immediate family, his rejection by the people of his village. All of it is rather embarrassing, most of it conceded out of necessity. My response would be that the historical Jesus, like any successful religious figure, was already mythologized in his lifetime by the people who knew him least. According to Mark, word of his power spread through Galilee and other exorcists used his name to conjure with. That people in misery thronged to him would suggest that healthcare in Palestine was nearly as deficient as our own system. The Jesus of popular culture today is a product of iconography and theology; the Jesus of popular culture during his lifetime, the only period that counts for historians of the actual Jesus, was, on the best surviving evidence, an apocalyptic preacher who established his bona fides by working miracles (or magic). Like it or not, I think the magical Jesus is the Jesus we're stuck with and we make the best of it as we can. The reason we're discussing Jesus at all after 2000 years is because of what people 2000 years ago believed about him, and I would submit they believed he worked miracles (or magic).

    Robert Conner

    1. Morning Robert,
      Thanks for your comment. I cannot reply at length but here are four brief responses.
      1. Jesus as a magician is one of several descriptions of Jesus that can be extrapolated from the ancient texts: Jesus as teacher, as wise man, as Israelite messiah, as son of God, and as wonder worker (miracles/magic). Ultimately all of these rely on impressions of the man by contemporaries (unverified because we have no sources) and the gospel writers--i.e., on what others thought about him. There are two sources that do not present Jesus as a magician: Thomas and the passages thought to be from Q (one "miracle story" with no magic features).
      2. It is true that no consistent core of teachings by Jesus has been agreed to by scholars, but it is by no means clear that Jesus was a teacher. There is a central core of sayings, however, that virtually all would agree originated with Jesus in the Jesus seminar report. Most would add sayings to that list, although few would eliminate sayings.
      3. No doubt it is true that Jesus was mythologized during his lifetime but that merely points up the risk of basing your view of Jesus on the way others saw him. And in any case we cannot verify that his contemporaries actually did that.
      4. Jesus as apocalyptic preacher--the biggest challenge to this way of describing Jesus is that the most reliable part of the sayings tradition, the parables, does not reflect that kind of mentality on the part of the man who invented them. Apocalyptic ideas must be imported into the parables.