Tuesday, April 13, 2010

McKnight and others on the 'historical Jesus'

Scot McKnight recently posted an article about the historical Jesus quest. "The historical Jesus is the Jesus whom scholars have reconstructed on the basis of historical methods over against the canonical portraits of Jesus in the Gospels of our New Testament, and over against the orthodox Jesus of the church."

This is incorrect as the historical Jesus is reconstructed on the basis of historical methods applied on the NT gospels. So there is no category where historical methods itself became a category in contrast the NT gospels. McKnight recognizes this since he further explains that "Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was like by using historical methods to determine what in the Gospels can be trusted." This would simply place on the term 'historical Jesus' nothing other than the historical method in investigating the reliability of the NT gospels rather than the portrayal of Jesus in them.

One is puzzled over McKnight's repetitive phrase that historical Jesus is about drawing up another portrait of Jesus, "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." If that is the case, then this goes against what he expounded earlier that historical Jesus is really about the reliability of the gospels. It's not too difficult to see that McKnight is confused over the different category between two very distinct yet corollary studies: First, the study on the reliability of the gospels, and second the study of Jesus as portrayed by the gospels.

McKnight went on to complain that historical Jesus scholars are approaching the discipline by persupposing that the NT gospels and the church exaggerated and edited in their portrayal the real Jesus. Hence the work of the scholars are cutting through these exaggerations to get to the historical Jesus. Yet, I dont think this is the case as historical Jesus scholars such as N.T. Wright does not so much bypassing the NT gospels but to grapple with the gospels to provide a more historically situatied account of the Jesus described in these records. A better view is that the scholars are debating over which interpretation best describes Jesus historically through the NT gospels. As Wright himself rightly saw what McKnight missed, "Genuine historical study is necessary—not to construct a "fifth gospel," but rather to understand the four we already have." Darrell Bock brought this up too, "...no one claims that historical Jesus work gives us or seeks to give us an uninterpreted Jesus."

Craig Keener has also responded. Michael Barber too.


reasonable said...

Perhaps McKnight's ideas might be along these lines:

After analysing the Gospels, say 47% of the text about Jesus are deemed unreliable and not to be used to reconstruct the historical Jesus.

That means only 53% of the materials are admissible to be used to reconstruct this Jesus, and this 53% plus a little bit of info from non-NT sources might result in a reconstructed-Jesus that appears different from a Jesus based on 100% of the Gospel info about Jesus (call this the canonical Jesus).

If this is the case, then this reconstructed Jesus (using 53% reliable material plus a bit of non-NT material) might look different from the portrait given by the canonical Jesus constructed from 100% of the relevant Gospel material.

Not sure if this makes sense of McKnight.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

you have further described the two stages in historical Jesus studies which I think is what McKnight is talking about. But McKnight is actually reducing the historical Jesus studies to only the first stage: studies on the reliability of the gospel.

And it is on this that I think he misses the point.

It is not as if that one can simply get to the real Jesus with the 53% reliable material from the second stage. One still need to interpret that 53% material to come out with a portray of the real Jesus. Hence even two different persons who agree on the reliability of the 53% would come out with two entirely different Jesuses too. Hence that goes back to the point that such criteria is a confusion to start with.

As Michael Barber puts it: "what I think we are witnessing is not the death of historical Jesus research but the death of historical Jesus research reliant on the older form-critical model."

clement said...

Sze Heng,

I think that the "historical jesus scholars" are referring to people from the Jesus Seminar or like.

NT Wright does not identify with any such.