August 1, 2012

Mere Historicity

This is the chief problem with all Historical Jesus work, I believe: that is, mere historicity. Allow me to explain...

Accepting the Resurrection as true, if one can only believe it, absolutely provides the single best possible answer to every pertinent question about the early Jesus movement, which all essentially boil down to the most obvious question of all: Why did it last, when he died? There's never been any question about this. If it's true, it's the best explanation for everything since.

Denying the resurrection, if one cannot believe it, leads one down an alternative but equally and entirely valid line of rational questioning. Logically, if an actual resurrection doesn't explain things, then omg, what the heck does? It's a very good question. Despite the fact that I, personally, could only undertake such a study as hypothetical exercise, the line of reasoning itself and investigation which follows is completely legitimate. If Jesus didn't rise, then historians all have a duty to explain what's happened since then.

Challenging the resurrection, whether sincerely or hypothetically, has led scholars like Dominic Crossan, Dale Allison and John P Meier to some very engaging and arguably compelling historical representations. In stark contrast, however, defending the resurrection hasn't led anyone anyplace nearly as fascinating in a very long time. If there's an exception I've overlooked, it would NOT be anyone like NT Wright, Mike Licona or Craig Keener, whose conclusions about the Gospel Testimonies always faithfully result in nothing more than further assurance of mere historicity.

I'll confess my political ignorance: the choir may not or may require such preaching and unbelievers may not or may be convertible. I don't know, but I care less every day. Longtime readers know my primary rooting interest is Jesus, Historically, and what I'm dying to see is a new group of scholars arise who will set themselves up to address this great problem we have... this great problem, that is, which most Christians don't often seem to recognize as being much of a problem.

What problem? This potentially earth-shaking cognitive dissonance. To wit:

Assuming the Resurrection actually happened, then how does that change the ways we view Gospel texts, as historians? Is the Resurrection always our conclusion, or can we begin there, for historical research? For example, does accepting the resurrection change any of our views on memory, source theory, redaction or form theory? Should it? Why or why not? And what would we do then, that we don't do now, historiographically?

And for that matter...

If this Jesus in Nazareth was the Son of the Almighty God, then how did he live a devout life, in practical terms? How did this Christ go about engaging with God and his world? I mean not to ask for isolated theological or ethical principles that we might observe, extract and perhaps re-apply, but rather I mean to ask - How did Jesus of Nazareth actually do what he did, in his days, in his world? How on earth did that spiritual life work for him?

If historical facts about Jesus are so hugely important, then why don't we do more historical writing about Jesus, based on the Gospels? Why don't we analyze Jesus' career with historical reasoning? Did he learn from John the Baptist? Did he change course here and there? Did he make any specific blunders or profound paradigm shifts at any recognizable points in his life? If so, what-where-when-why-and-how?

These are just some of the big questions worth asking. There are easily dozens more, and probably hundreds of smaller ones.

But here is the point:

If we can't answer those questions... or if the questions themselves even sound somewhat odd... then I submit that in all practical terms we Christians effectively have no Gospel Historiography to speak of, almost none whatsoever... in which case, how can the Church claim that our Jesus is the Historical one?

We desperately need for our Christian Historians to move far beyond mere historicity.


1 comment:

Chris Jefferies said...

Hmm. Interesting questions, Bill.

I'm not sure how to respond but I will certainly go on thinking about it.

And I'd like to say 'thank you' for the hard work you put into NT history. You've done an impressive job so far - pretty much single-handed. Please don't stop!

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton