Jun  2011 23
The Historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus has always been controversial because it turns out that Jesus has always been something of a problem for the churches. At first this might seem counter-intuitive.  But just think about it.  There are elements of Jesus’ message that we all find difficult:

“You are missing one thing: make your move, sell whatever you have, and give <the money> to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come on, follow me!”  . . . .“Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s empire! 25It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to get into God’s empire!” (Mark 10:21, 25, translation from The Complete Gospels).

Even the most literalist and fundamentalist interpreter of the New Testament finds a way not to take these verses literally.  And yet the sayings are there!

Just about the time the churches have it figured out, Jesus intrudes.  A famous example is Francis of Assisi.  In the high middle ages when the church in the West had everything under control, Francis started a major revolution that challenged the church’s wealth and power by taking literally the teaching of Jesus about wealth and possessions. And Francis of Assisi is not unique in church history.  

So Jesus has always been a problem.

On June 13 nineteen students showed up for class. The male female balance was about even, ages ranged from mid 20s to mid 60s. Most were MDiv students; some were enrolled in other degree programs at other schools; several were auditors; one was a regional minister on sabbatical. Theologically they ranged from liberal to conservative, with moderate surely in the majority.

This class on the historical Jesus was an intensive class, so instead of lasting a whole semester (13 weeks), the basic part of the course lasted a single week, from 8:30 to 4:15.  Can you learn as much in a one week as in a 13 week semester? The answer is yes and even more if properly designed.  An intensive course allows us to drill down on a topic, to stay with it. 

I designed this course as a workshop.  Instead of reading what many authors have to say about the historical Jesus, we actually did the work.  What are the problems and how do you do it?

The chief problem is the very nature of the sources. All the gospels were written from the point of view of faith. Or to put another way, as the great New Testament scholar Norman put it, “So far as we can tell today, there is no single pericope [unit, selection] anywhere in the gospels, the present purpose of which is to preserve a historical reminiscence of Jesus” (Norman Perrin,. Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 16).

A saying may contain a historical reminiscence, but its purpose was not history but faith. A subtle but critical distinction.

Therefore the burden of proof falls on the one who would claim that Jesus said or did something.

For someone use to reading the gospels naively, this appears to be not taking the gospels at face value.  But actually, it is taking the gospels seriously, at face value, namely as statements of faith, not history. 

Faith and history ask different questions.

A student has to learn how to make an argument that something comes from Jesus. And so we set about creating a database of the sayings of Jesus.  In groups and as a group we worked through the sayings of Jesus, identifying the sources, and then evaluating those sources as to their historical probability.  Piece by piece, saying by saying, deed by deed, the students worked through the material and learned how to make a case. This was hands on learning.

Slowing but surely, the class began to build up a picture of who Jesus was and what he was about.

As the students began to read what other scholars had written about the historical Jesus, they had their own questions and their own view of the evidence. So they could interrogate the views of other scholars with a good grasp of the evidence and the methodology.

The question that haunted our week of study was on the surface a practical question. How do I use what I am learning in my preaching? In my church? How will my people respond to this?

This practical question raises deep theological and controversial issues. What is the place of the historical Jesus for faith?

Some argue that the historical Jesus is irrelevant to faith.  Luke Timothy Johnson is probably the most well known proponent of this position in recent years, but he stands in a distinguished tradition.  Rudolf Bultmann, undoubtedly the greatest New Testament scholar of the 20th century held the same position.

The Jesus in whom we have faith is the Jesus we encounter in our faith communities. It is there that we perceive him as alive and enlivening.

This is surely correct. 

But this is a tricky situation.  If we cannot equate the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, what is their relationship? How do we know that the Christ of faith is not simply a projection, what we want Jesus to be?

For me, the historical Jesus is a discipline that keeps our faith honest.

To help the students with these questions, on the last day of the class I invited Sarah Morice Brubaker who teaches theology and Gary Peluso-Verdend who teaches pastoral theology and is president of PTS to talk with the class. They helped the students see how different folks from different points of view work out these issues. A lively conversation ensued.

The course did not arrive at a definitive resolution. There is no definitive resolution. Searching for the historical Jesus is an ongoing task. Asking what to make of the historical Jesus is a continuing challenge.  But these students are equipped with the tools to carry out that task. 

Browse more posts by: B. Brandon Scott, Phillips Faculty Emeritus
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