Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus by Norman Perrin
Norman Perrin is the Associate Professor of New Testament at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus and has published numerous articles and book reviews. Published by Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1967. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Dick and Sue Kendall and Ted & Winnie Brock.
This work was originally conceived as an expansion of the last chapter of Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM Press, and Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), into a full-scale study of the teaching of Jesus. As it progressed, however, it began to take on some special features.
In particular, a great deal of attention has been given to the problems of methodology. Like many other English students of the teaching of Jesus, I have been greatly influenced by T. W. Manson’s The Teaching of Jesus (Cambridge: University Press, 1931, 1935) and particularly by the methodology worked out in that book. But that was a methodology based upon a view of the gospels held in the 1930’s, and critical scholarship has naturally made considerable advances since then. Above all, form criticism, which Manson vigorously opposed, has come to be more and more widely accepted. Today, indeed, the form-critical view of the gospels has to be accepted as the prerequisite for work on them as sources for our knowledge of the teaching of Jesus, just as, in his day, Manson accepted the source-critical view. But that means that a new methodology has to be worked out for determining authentic elements in the gospel tradition of the teaching of Jesus—authentic, that is, in the sense of going back to Jesus himself.
It is in an endeavor to meet this need that the first chapter of this book has been devoted to the discussion of methodology. There the arguments that have convinced me of the necessity of accepting a form-critical view of the gospels—despite the influence of T. W. Manson, my first teacher—are given, and there an attempt is made to work out a methodology for reconstructing the teaching of Jesus, given this view of the sources.
In the central part of the book, chapters II, III and IV, the methodology developed in the first chapter is applied to the tradition of the teaching of Jesus. In this part of the work the principle has been ‘When in doubt, discard’, for the purpose of the book came to be to establish what may be known with reasonable certainty of the teaching of Jesus. To this end, every effort has been made to apply criteria
strictly, and it has been accepted that the burden of proof always lies on the claim to authenticity. It is hoped that it may, therefore, be claimed that the material here presented does represent an irreducible minimum of historical knowledge available to us at the present time.
It will be found that, in respect to the authenticity of tradition, I have become more skeptical now than I was in my previous work on the Kingdom of God, and that, in consequence, some parts of this book represent a considerable change of view. At the same time, the basic emphases of the previous presentation of the teaching of Jesus have survived the stringent re-examination of the material. This is because those emphases were derived from a limited number of sayings, and especially from the Lord’s Prayer, and these have survived that re-examination. So the present work in part corrects, and in part supplements, the earlier work.
The most important change of view has come in connection with the apocalyptic Son of man sayings. A great deal of time has been devoted to an intensive examination of the difficult problems in connection with these sayings; indeed, the beginning of this present work was deliberately delayed until a solution had been found for them. Such a solution has been found, and it is presented in chapter IV. It will be seen that it is negative so far as the teaching of Jesus is concerned, but that it does seem to offer promise as an avenue of approach to the whole problem of the formation of christological traditions in the early Church. It is my present intention to turn next to an investigation of the formation of these traditions in general, using the methodology and insights developed here in the work of the apocalyptic Son of man tradition in particular.
There is no discussion in this book of the ‘messianic consciousness’ of Jesus, or of the Christology implicit in his teaching. From time to time attention is called to the personal claim implicit in a parable or saying, but there is no discussion beyond this. I hope to turn to this subject in a future work in light of the results of the proposed investigation of the earliest christological traditions.
The final chapter, on the ‘question of the historical Jesus’, has been added because the current intensive discussion of this question makes it necessary that any man attempting historical research on Jesus should be prepared to take a stance with regard to the significance he would attribute to the results of that work. So that chapter reviews the current discussion historically and critically, and states a position with regard to the issues conceived to he at stake in it.
A series of Annotated Bibliographies have been appended to the main text of the book. They are designed both to accompany and supplement that text, providing some guidance to the literature available, and, in some cases, giving a review of recent research on the subject concerned. No attempt has been made to be exhaustive in these bibliographies, if only for the reason that exhaustive bibliographies on some of the subjects covered would run into hundreds of items. Rather, they were compiled on the basis of considerations of intrinsic importance and availability.
It is my pleasant task, finally, to acknowledge with gratitude the extremely competent help I have received at every stage of my work from three graduate assistants at the University of Chicago: Dale Goldsmith, Dennis Duling and Vernon Robbins.
University of Chicago