More Exaggeration About the Historical Jesus

Scot McKnight suggests, in an article in Christianity Today that

… scholarly attempts to discover the ‘real’ Jesus have failed. And why that’s a good thing.

Then he suggests

This leads to a fundamental observation about all genuine historical Jesus studies: Historical Jesus scholars construct what is in effect a fifth gospel. The reconstructed Jesus is not identical to the canonical Jesus or the orthodox Jesus. He is the reconstructed Jesus, which means he is a “new” Jesus.

How does he know that those scholars have missed the boat?  He’s suggesting, after all, that the entire lot of Jesus Seekers has it wrong.  But again, how does he know they are?  Has he met the Historical Jesus and so knows, without a doubt, who’s right and who’s wrong?

The problem with McKnight’s essay is that he falls into the same trap of certainty which he demonizes and denounces in others. He KNOWS they are all wrong.  But how does – or could- he KNOW such a thing?  He disapproves of the reconstructions of the Jesus Lookers at the same moment he reconstructs his own Jesus, made in his own image, and after his own likeness, in negative.  He has, to borrow a line from Jesse Helms, come to the conclusion that ‘he can’t define the Historical Jesus, but he knows what it is when he sees it, and he hasn’t seen it yet’.

McKnight concludes his essay thusly-

I now make a confession. For the better part of my academic career, I have participated in studies of the Gospels and the historical Jesus. I am an insider to the conversation, and have been part of the steering committee for the SBL’S Historical Jesus Section. In fact, I was once asked to be the chair. Had that invitation come five years earlier, I would have eagerly accepted the responsibility. But that invitation came at the end of a long project of mine that culminated in my book Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory. I declined the position because I could no longer commit myself to historical Jesus studies. The last thing I wrote in that book was the first chapter, which was an essay about method and what historical Jesus studies can accomplish.

Count the number of times he uses the word ‘I’ and you get a sense of what the quest is for him- ‘it’s all about me’.  And since none of the Questers have found an Emergent Image of Jesus, McKnight has measured them in the balances and found them wanting.  Not because they are all wrong (how could they be- for then Jesus would be utterly alien- unlike anyone and anything that has ever lived), but because he doesn’t find one that suits HIM.

In other words, failing to find a Jesus who measures up to the ego-centrism of the Emergent movement, McKnight has no use for that quest.  So he tosses the baby out with the bath water.  What use is the Quest if it doesn’t provide one with a Jesus one can co-opt?

9 thoughts on “More Exaggeration About the Historical Jesus

  1. In some sense I would agree with McKnight, perhaps the only value outside the biblical canon has come more from the aspect of anthropology, but with the help of the ontological and existential. Also from a biblical epistemology, with it’s certain limits and validity. We are cast back upon the Biblical Revelation and Text alone!


  2. Well said Jim. Sounds completely self obsessed. Excuse me, but exactly who is ‘bored’??? Often happens to scholars whose interests are too narrow… And who ‘assumes’ the material cannot be historically reliable? Speaking for himself again, or his small social subgroup, or perhaps an american assumption. Neon lights? Just around the corner… 🙂


  3. Isn’t that “fifth gospel” rather inevitable? Isn’t one of the standard axioms these days that each of the four gospels an account from the authors’ viewpoint, crafted for a certain perspective? Does anyone ever have a fully rounded picture of another person? Isn’t it current assumption that eyewitness testimony is inevitably not what one saw, but rather what one understood of what he saw?

    Decrying investigation of any historical person because it cannot be all things to all people, or answer all questions is, well, silly. Such investigations are never meant to be the final word, by their very nature. I mean, when we sit around and remember our dear departed, for example, does any of us think that our memories completely define them, or rather do we appreciate the greater light shed upon them by others’ memories?

    All historical investigation can do is make a person(s) more real to us in their humanity. They place them in perspective in the events of their time and the intellectual and social trends before and during their time. This with the caveat that what one historian thinks is important may be disregarded by another in fifty years time. Not because it is truly unimportant, but rather that society wear different glasses, as it were. This is why serious historians don’t completely disregard scholars who came before them. Second opinions are valuable, and golden nuggets can still be found buried.

    Jesus is necessarily a special case of biography, because for believers, He is two people, in essence. The Jesus who was, and the Jesus who is. Historical method doesn’t have the tools to examine the Jesus who is, because there aren’t documents depicting what He is doing that can be collated and compared and agreed upon. Historians don’t necessarily agree on what weight to give ancient documents about Jesus (See complete gospels editions, agrapha, etc), much less on eyewitness accounts of today.

    Really, a little common sense about aims and possible results are called for in historical Jesus studies, like everything in life. Faith, like love, is not a completely rational thing, and shouldn’t expect to be built on completely intellectual grounds. Nor should the study of the past of a Living Figure be expected to completely define them.

    I think Luke Timothy Johnson already said most of this some years ago, and better, too.


  4. Glory glory – one of the few times I agree, mostly, with Tom – apart from his implication that historians can prove the truth of resurrection. For me they can demonstrate what people believed, but not whether ‘resurrection’ can happen. That is beyond the boundary of historical inquiry and no methodology can be applied. However, he disagrees with McBlight, and here he is ‘Right’ (or at least I agree).


  5. and contra what both Keener and McKnight imply, critical Historical Jesus scholarship isn’t about ‘scholarly speculation’, it is about what can be demonstrated to be historically reliable in the Gospels. So complaining that the Gospels rather than scholars’ speculations are where we encounter Jesus misses the point of critical scholarship, which neither of them must do.


  6. PS..Jim,

    I just saw the history channels work on the Shroud and the Face of Christ. I thought it well done myself. All the data is quite amazing! Yes, the Shroud is still alive and well! I know you quite disagree, but there is much more data then just the idea of the painted Shroud. But it will be around when we are both before the Lord no doubt! But this is not to argue however. I admit my presuppositions are inclined to mystery!


  7. Pingback: Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ sham methodology « Vridar

  8. Pingback: Scot McKnight’s lament and the fallacy of the HJ historical method « Vridar

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