First, basic historicity should never be defended or dismissed outright, although wooden literalism absolutely should be eschewed. The chief sin of positivism wasn't trusting the text, it was equating history with text. The challenge of extracting potential historical matter from these narratives requires practical kind of interpretation, analysis for reconstruction's sake. Remembering that all reconstruction is hypothetical, each historian should conclude by presenting multiple scenarios. All in all, then, point number one is that we must not be always apologetic or critical for theo/ideological reasons. Since objectivity is impossible, we'll just be pluralistic. We can take turns being trusting and skeptical, understanding that each choice should only apply in the interest of furthering historiographical objectives. We aren't trying to shore up our camp, here. We're trying to analyze the Gospel's content with greater historical sensibility. We define nothing, but possibilities.
Second, as God is one of those claims we shall not always reject or assume, there will be some scenarios in which notions of divine and human causality must be held in tension with one another, and those scenarios must be constructed through historical understanding, based on textual claims about God in that moment of time. This requires suspending theological presuppositions. Each interpreter has their own philosophy of History, and their own philosophy of God's involvement with History, but we must accept two competing principles at the same time. On the one hand, Jesus and his contemporaries took various moments to act, react and be acted-upon. On the other hand, the divine power from 'above' was not necessarily absent from nor dominant over any of these particular events, so far as we can tell. In other words, as events actually unfolded, the Father and Son were precisely, and only, two of our many historical players. And though God may be considered the strongest of actors, if ever playing at all, The Divine One does not always seem to provide the most impact on any given occasion. Many times, God's impact seems to be nothing. Therefore, reconciling these concepts however we may, History's stage must pay proper respect to all dynamic personae, and to all potentially causative factors.
Third, we must draw careful distinctions about what our finished project will or won't claim to be, and thus sidestep traditional fears of undermining the Gospels or constructing a "fifth Gospel" as a new, summarized narrative. What we produce cannot fail to be vastly different than some Tatian-esque textual rearrangement. In fact, any narrative(s) we produce is(are) likely to wind up being polyphonal, and appended in fragments. But for all reconstructions based on a high view of the content, the central point here is that we will not be attempting to compose one remastered medley of four separate tunes. Instead, the most we can do is compose in our own words a new song - at least, technically new - which succeeds at three tasks: A) to faithfully capture the spirit and soul of our source texts, B) to represent both Gospel content and contextual 'background material' holistically, and C) to provide greater awareness and insight into aspects of texts that we should already know, but often fail to recognize. Likewise, for all reconstructions with some skepticism about content, the goal - still - should not be to replace the four gospels, in patches or wholly, but to explain them and to re-present the original situation based on as much of their core as one finds to be trustworthy, however much that may be.
Fourth, the purpose of writing this Gospel based History is not to discover something the Gospels didn't already tell us, not to redefine and discover (Aha!) some radical surprise no one else ever noticed, somehow. The purpose, as proper for any historical reconstruction(s), should be to build upon and make more from whatever these texts may be judged to be actually telling us. If a critical scenario rules out certain elements of a key passage, that reconstruction should emphasize whatever judged to be worthy of building upon, instead of centering on whatever imagined details might most plausibly replace the bits which were judged inauthentic. If a confessional scenario rules out no elements of a key passage, it must endeavor to ascertain what implications or connections may be plausibly formed with other elements of our knowledge. As mentioned in point one, the historian's job is not to defend textual historicity. The chief sin of positivism was not trusting the text, it was stopping with only the text. The historian cannot be afraid to imagine. All reconstructions are hypothetical, all conclusions are tentative and all history is making 2 + 2 into 5.
In summation, the goal of these Gospel Based Histories is not to create an imagined situation and then declare it to be so. The goal is to imagine several plausible scenarios and then compare them each, one to another. In the old world, scholars battled over authenticity of text, as if that could be proven. In the new world, increasingly, scholars are going to construct plausible scenarios and allow those to compete freely against one another. The text will remain as untouched as it ever has been, but anyone not producing a scenario for consideration will be left out of the conversation. Personally, I think we need more scenarios, at this point. At the moment, at least, there is not one "Jesus of the church" and there is not one "Jesus of the scholars". There might be a "Jesus of the Gospels" but that conversation - I suggest, very humbly - may need to go much, much wider before we might possibly draw more near to a narrow conclusion. It's the 21st century, and anyone who claims to have one view is so obviously supporting personal agendas that - I propose - we need to blow this thing clean apart. But let's each do that. For the next hundred years or so, let's produce Histories instead of History. That's what I'm saying.
These are my four points. This my whole proposal.
But here, just publicly, is an important Addendum for my fellow confessional types.
To all Seminarians and Theologically minded New Testament scholars: Please consider what I am proposing in the following light. Properly done, reconstructing sound History is a little bit (or hopefully, for many of you, quite a lot) like constructing sound Theology, except that Historians naturally ask different kinds of questions. But if Historical work is too speculative, is the Trinity not speculative? Christians speculate upon scripture. We need to admit it, and then learn to do so more responsibly. I believe History can help with that. As far as pluralism goes, please read my summation above very carefully, again.
Now, what my proposal allows us to do, aside from encouraging the valuable exercise of working through multiple perspectives, is to gain equal time for proposing scenarios that are faithful to how we believe in the scripture. The heart of historical Gospel material is scripture's testimonies about people (like Jesus!) and the events of their lives. Such things are History. We'll be examining how these persons passed through circumstances and happenings, how they carried and passed along their ideas and beliefs, how they took action and interacted with one another, and how they did so in ways that may or may not have been fully in line with anything God Himself might have been attempting to do, at those particular moments. That much, and more, is a good example of how this valuable work can be helpful in illustrating our task, for elucidating the Gospels, for potentially enlightening the christ-like and disciple-like lives that we are called to lead.
We'll be speculating a bit, but not creatively or inspirationally. If we learn from professional historians, we'll be speculating wisely and carefully. I dare say many churches could benefit tremendously from our good example.
In my personal wish-dream, a Historian of Jesus' life needs to believe in the texts of the Four Gospels, but analyze those texts historically. She must read, consider and comment on them while asking different sorts of questions than theologians typically ask. She must write different sorts of overviews than theologians have usually written. Like any good Theologian, she must build up and make more of scripture's God-breathed content, in ways that neither add to nor take away from scripture's claims, but which enhance what is already contained there. The Historian must engage with historical issues without ignoring theological truths, and construct narrative summaries without ignoring the deep perspectival distinctions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Like any good work of Theology, a Gospel based History should impact readers by making them *more* eager to dive into the scriptures, not less. Such a project should neither be calculated to inspire a radical new vision OR a refreshed reinforcing of traditional views on church history. Instead, a Gospel History project should be expected to render fresh four-dimensional (ie, fully spatial & temporal) perspective on historical facets of the original Gospel Story - especially on the most living and active aspects of that holy scripture. A just-so story can be flat, in our heads. These stories were meant to reflect life, in all its mess, order, chaos & glory. Therefore, when most properly situated, the goal of these new (confessional) Gospel Based Histories will be merely to bring out more fully the actual vibrancy of the One Story which is already there to be found in the four irreplaceable Gospels.
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