The Historical Jesus and the Life of Faith

by David L. Bartlett

David L. Bartlett is Lantz Professor of Communication and Preaching at Yale University Divinity School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 6, 1992, pp. 489-493. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.


Bartlett gives not only a review of two current scholarly approaches to the “quest for the historical Jesus” by John P. Meier and John Dominic Crossan, but a more general survey of the current state of this research, as well as the reviewer’s personal evaluation.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Vol. 1): The Roots of the Problem and the Person, by John P. Meier. Doubleday 484 pp., $25.00

The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, by John Dominic Crossan. Harper-SanFrancisco, 507 pp., $30.00.

These two lively books represent strikingly different methodologies and present some strikingly different results. Their very differences illustrate both the possibilities and the problems of research into the historical Jesus. A fuller comparison of the two works will have to await publication of Meier's second volume, which will begin with Jesus' public ministry. Meier's first volume takes us only to that point about halfway through Crossan's work where Crossan moves from issues of background to discuss the teachings, activities and passion of Jesus. However, we can already see differences in the way the two scholars carry out their search.

Meier's attempt to reconstruct Jesus' ministry relies almost exclusively on textual evidence. "Our goal will be primarily the ascertaining of reliable data, not sophisticated sociological interpretation of the data via models," he writes. One of the great strengths of Meier's book is his judicious sifting of sources in the first five chapters. After a careful analysis of the texts, Meier concludes that almost all the appropriate evidence for the historical Jesus is to be found in the canonical Gospels. Josephus provides only modest testimony that Jesus lived and had followers. Other pagan writers tell us a bit about the early community of Jesus' followers. "Contrary to some scholars," Meier states, "I do not think that the rabbinic material, the agrapha, the apocryphal gospels, and the Nag Hammadi codices (in particular The Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the NT."

Meier's criteria for evaluating the Gospel material refine those used by scholars like Joachim Jeremias and Norman Perrin over the past several decades. His primary criteria for determining what comes from Jesus are these: 1) Is the material so embarrassing that the church wouldn't have retained it unless it had historical grounding? 2) Is the material "discontinuous," that is, is it different enough from other first-century material, either from Judaism or the early church, that it cannot easily be attributed to those sources? (Meier admits that this criterion may depend on our knowing more about both Judaism and the early church than we actually do. He also nods to the problem raised by stressing Jesus' historical peculiarities. Will not such a criterion result only in a picture of his oddities, and not of his place in a trajectory of tradition? At its worst, as one of my colleagues points out, a Jesus who was simply "discontinuous" with his heritage and his heirs would be unintelligible.) 3) Is there attestation for a saying or a deed in more than one stream of early Christian tradition? 4) Is a saying or deed coherent with what we have established about Jesus by using the other criteria? 5) Does this saying help explain why Jesus was rejected and executed?

Meier's book is a model of that kind of scholarship we rightly praise as "judicious." Nonetheless, the book is as interesting for its biases as for its measured judgments, and these biases present some questions for the reader seeking to know the "historical" Jesus. Clearly, Meier is continually in conversation not just with Christian piety but specifically with Catholic dogma. Otherwise why does he pay so much attention to the question of whether Jesus had biological brothers and sisters? One would think that the disinterested historian (however ideal a construct) could dispose of that issue quickly, even while reaching Meier's conclusions. But because Meier needs to be in debate with dogma and church tradition about Mary's perpetual virginity, he devotes considerable space to answering claims that otherwise would merit only passing notice. Similarly, questions about whether Jesus was a priest arise not because the documents present any legitimate reason even to raise the question, but because the Book of Hebrews regards him as high priest, and certain theological strains within Roman Catholicism have highlighted those texts. Meier's further concern about whether Jesus was married springs in part from Roman Catholicism's tradition of celibacy. All this is not to say that Meier doesn't reach persuasive conclusions, only that the documents themselves do not seem to require such an expenditure of space and energy.

One is also bound to wonder if a neutral historian could possibly end up as Meier does in leaving the question open whether Jesus was conceived by a human father. Whatever one may wish to hold as a believer, as a historian how can one posit any other option? And a final question can be raised about Meier's intriguing use of the word "marginal" to refer to Jesus. As a kind of rhetorical come-on it works reasonably well, but the meaning of the term seems to shift from place to place within Meier's work. At the very least one can ask whether the lack of press given to Jesus by non-Christians in the first century means that he was marginal--or just that he was not very famous.

That every generation discovers the historical Jesus that it needs is a commonplace. I was intrigued when, in the course of reading Meier's book, I coincidentally came across an account of a symposium on the work of Franz Schubert. Of the symposium's quest for the historical Schubert, the reviewer wrote, "The view of Schubert as a 'marginal' composer is itself not a marginal view, but in the mainstream of contemporary interpretation. Our cultural pantheon practically requires marginality and alienation as an entrance requirement" (Edward Rothstein, New York Times, February 4).

Any assumption that a party line exists among Roman Catholic scholars searching for the historical Jesus disappears when we compare Crossan's work to Meier's. In the first part of his work, Crossan draws heavily on just the kind of sociological and anthropological models Meier avoids. In the second part of the work, Crossan seeks to sketch the historical Jesus on the basis of a carefully defined methodology. He examines only (or almost only) those texts that come from the earliest layer of the traditions about Jesus and which have multiple attestation. In many ways the heart of his argument is found not in the text but in the almost algebraic appendices. Checking through that material item by item requires a considerable commitment of time and enthusiasm, though fortunately Crossan brings enough of this painstaking research into the text to give us a good idea of his procedures.

The appearance that Crossan is arguing from hard data, however, can be deceptive. Crossan's reconstruction is controversial not by virtue of his appeal to early texts and multiple attestation. The questionable aspects of his enterprise consist rather in his decisions as to what shall count as the earliest layer of the tradition, and in his further decisions concerning which material forms discrete clusters of the Jesus tradition.

Unlike Meier, Crossan takes the Gospel of Thomas very seriously, arguing that it includes early source material for Jesus' teaching. Unlike many scholars, he thinks that a Secret Gospel of Mark was edited to produce the later canonical Gospel of Mark, and that behind the Gospel of Peter lies a "Cross Gospel" which provides our earliest tradition about Jesus' passion. When it comes to the issue of clustering material, Crossan can include in one complex, for example, Jesus' words from the synoptic Gospels about becoming like little children and his word to Nicodemus about being born again from the Gospel of John. Material which most scholars would keep separate Crossan does not shrink from joining together. I hope it is not only my stuffy orthodoxy that makes me more comfortable with Meier's attachment to canonical sources and (I assume) to more obvious textual parallels; but to follow Crossan is to move into territory where not many scholars have ventured before. That is part of the book's excitement.

What I found most stimulating in Crossan is probably equally tendentious: his sociological and anthropological description of the world in which Jesus lived. Unfortunately, the lines between that background and Jesus himself are left largely implicit, though clearly models of "brokerage" –or mediation--provide a central clue. In a way Crossan, whose books often interpret parables for us, himself writes in a parabolic style. Here's this; there's that. You put them together. This is a long book, and I sometimes wanted the parable maker to provide interpretation.

Both books, explicitly and implicitly, pose a larger question. What is the significance of research about Jesus' life and times for Christian theology and for the faith of Christian people? Let me address this question by first sketching a response to the broader issue, and then by responding to Meier's and Crossan's own suggestions.

At some moment, generally identified with the enlightenment, Christians discovered that a distinction can be drawn between the texts of Scripture and the history behind it. To this day Christians adjudicate that difference in varied ways. Some Christians want to maintain that the distinction itself is a confusion infecting the church from alien humanistic disciplines. The Gospels, they contend, are history; rightly read they state historical facts about Jesus. Christians who believe this are apt to claim that reading the Gospels as biography presents no problems, though of course the complicated harmonizations and interpretations to which they often resort show that they are mired in a very great problem indeed. The Gospel "histories" are not easily harmonized.

At the opposite extreme, other Christians, influenced by Rudolf Bultmann but moving beyond him have held that the stories about Jesus and the early preaching do tell us who God is and how we can relate to God in faith. In their judgment, however, faith is not dependent on any historical research, not even the research that assures us that there was a Jesus of Nazareth. Most of these Christians do not deny that Jesus was a historical figure, but they do not believe that his, historicity is a requirement for faith.

To be sure, over the years Christians have offered subtly shaded arguments concerning faith and history which range between these extreme positions. Some Christians acknowledge the distinction between the Gospel stories and the history behind them and argue that the starting point for Christian theology is not the faith of the New Testament but the teaching and ministry of Jesus. In the earlier years of this century Joachim Jeremias wrote a number of books seeking to help us find the historical Jesus on the assumption that his teaching was the first word, though not necessarily the last word, for Christian theology.

Bultmann himself, certainly the most influential New Testament scholar of this century, shifted the focus of attention somewhat. He argued that Jesus' teaching is the presupposition of the theology of the New Testament but is not itself part of that theology. For Bultmann, Christian faith begins with the preaching about Jesus, and Christian theology flowers for the first time in Paul and the Fourth Gospel, neither of which pays much heed to historically verifiable facts about Jesus' ministry. In the end, Bultmann does not wish to divorce Christian faith from history: that Jesus lived and was crucified are necessary presuppositions of our faith. Our faith, however, derives not from those historical facts but from the preaching that interprets them.

Still other Christian theologians and biblical scholars maintain that faith is built not on what we know about the historical Jesus, nor on interpretations that offer the demythologized message of the New Testament texts, but on what we find in the texts themselves. Hans Frei, a historian who reflected upon the history of biblical interpretation, was a theologian who called us to faith in Jesus Christ as presented in the texts, not behind the texts. In many ways Frei seems to make explicit what Karl Barth argued implicitly in most of his interpretation of biblical texts. Some of these Christians who focus on the canon think historical-critical research is very helpful in strengthening our interpretation of the texts of Scripture. Others think it's time to move on.

My irenic teacher Nils A. Dahl represents a kind of middle ground between the most extreme positions.

That faith is relatively uninterested in the historical Jesus research does not mean that it is absolutely uninterested in it. To draw this conclusion would be a kerygmatic theological Docetism, or even a denial of faith in God as Creator, under whose worldly rule even the historian does his service as a scholar. The fact that Jesus can be made an object of historical critical research is given with the incarnation and cannot be denied by faith, if the latter is to remain true to itself [The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays, 1974].

I want to suggest that Dahl is correct on both scores. Appropriately, faith is relatively uninterested in historical-Jesus research, because such research does not focus on the central source of faith: the witness to Jesus Christ proclaimed by the church and contained in Scripture. Faith is not absolutely uninterested in such research, because historical research does provide fascinating and sometimes even useful footnotes to our faith--angles of vision on our sources.

Consider, for example, the "last words" of Jesus on the cross. Despite attempts of harmonizers and oratorio librettists to concoct something called the Seven Last Words, Jesus' words from the cross in each Gospel provide a perspective on each evangelist's particular theological understanding of the crucifixion. For Mark, Jesus is the abandoned Son of God, the suffering one. For Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah who resists the temptation to evade his destiny. For Luke, Jesus is the innocent and faithful one whose courageous and merciful death foreshadows the death of Stephen and presumably of martyrs in Luke's own time. For John, Jesus dies triumphantly; his death is also his exaltation.

Suppose what is unlikely -- that we find documentary evidence that supports one of these versions of Jesus' last words as being historically more accurate than the others. What will change in our theological understanding of the crucifix-

ion? Nothing. Do we revise our lectionaries so that each Passion Sunday or Good Friday we preach only on the "authentic" version of the Last Words? Of course not. The new information might be exceedingly interesting, but it would not be normative for faith, preaching or dogma. Or suppose Crossan turns out to be right that not one follower of Jesus witnessed his death. He was crucified in a mass execution and dumped unceremoniously in a mass grave. Then the early Christians, seeking to make theological sense of a human absurdity, foraged the Old Testament to find texts that might give purpose to what appeared purposeless. They then gave narrative shape to their exegesis, telling the story of the Passion according to the Old Testament motifs they had found. That shaping, I would argue, is precisely what we reflect on theologically and what we preach on Good Friday. The narrative that conjoins faith in the God of Israel and trust in the executed one is central for our faith--not the possible but unprovable scenario Crossan provides.

In matters not quite so central to faith, however--but central to our being in the world as Christian people--historical research into the crucifixion has already proved helpful. For instance, historical scholarship has shown that the portrayal of the Jewish people and their leaders in much of the Gospel material is highly tendentious. The Gospels, whatever else they may be, are also first-century religious propaganda, and like all propaganda they present a polemical view of the opposition. The church's opponents are retrojected into Jesus' story to become Jesus' opponents, and are presented in ways that are almost certainly historically inaccurate and deliberately provocative.

Starting with the clear historical reminder that crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, form of execution, and with clear evidence of an editor's heavy hand in material like Matthew 27:25 ("His blood be on us and on our children!"), historians help us understand that the Judaism of Jesus' time was more diverse, interesting and grace-filled than the Gospels would lead us to think, and that the crucifixion cannot be understood as simply the result of a religious plot against Jesus carried out by the Jewish people or their leaders. The Gospels by themselves will not yield that insight. In our attempt to live responsibly and faithfully with our Jewish neighbors this scholarly correction is a helpful caution against our consistent temptation to bear false witness. The historical quest cannot anchor our faith, but it can broaden our charity and increase our wisdom.

While historical research cannot validate our faith, it may call faith into question. Of course, different Christians will have different lists of theoretically disturbing evidence, but within the community of faith the lists are discussable.

If we discover evidence that the disciples did steal Jesus' body and that they made up the story of the resurrection, a considerable amount of Christian testimony would be thrown into doubt. If we discover the body, such a conclusion would be less clear. Why? Some theological understandings of resurrection, including Crossan's, I take it, do not presuppose an empty tomb. None, I think, allows for fraud.

If we discover that Jesus was notoriously nasty to sinners and tax-collectors and that in a stunning example of deceit his disciples turned the evidence upside down, crucial elements of Christian faith and practice would be threatened.

The list could be extended, but not indefinitely.

Jesus of Nazareth's resurrection from the dead, surely the presupposition of the New Testament and Christian faith, is inaccessible to historical research. If this is so, then faith is based more centrally on the witness of the texts than on our best hypotheses about the history behind those texts. Apart from faith in the resurrection no kerygma would have been proclaimed and no Gospel would have been written. Yet resurrection faith is an elusive datum for the historian, and resurrection itself is an impossible one. The cornerstone of faith is the stumbling block for historical study. At best historians try to find acceptable analogies to resurrection stories--Crossan suggests that Holy Saturday may have lasted years and that presumably at the end of that long period faith somehow emerged. Such a claim is only barely comprehensible as history. Crossan's corollary claim, that Jesus continues to live with the faithful, is simply out of bounds for historical research.

Put most simply, the quest for the historical Jesus cannot be very near the center of Christian faith because it necessarily evades the issue with which Christian faith starts: Who is Jesus? not, Who was he? Historical quests are not equipped to answer questions about Jesus as present to believers. Of course, neither Meier nor Crossan thinks that historical research is sufficient to faith. Each in his own way suggests that historical research is useful to faith, but both are more sanguine than I about just how useful.

Meier presents his theological apology for the historical task in the seventh chapter of his book. The quest for the historical Jesus reminds Christians that Jesus was a particular person, not just a symbol. The quest for the historical Jesus guards against docetism. The quest for the historical Jesus emphasizes the nonconformist aspects of Jesus' ministry. The quest for the historical Jesus eludes our attempts to force the gospel into any box of contemporary relevance. Jesus' "refusal to be held fast by any given school of thought is what drives theologians onward into new paths; hence the historical Jesus remains a constant stimulus to theological renewal," Meier writes.

As a description of the way historical research has inspired theological reflection, Meier's words have considerable merit. Yet could we not also say that the Gospels remind us that Jesus was a particular person, that the canon guards against docetism, that the evangelists present not only a man who did not conform to the world's standards but a Lord who continually calls us to his cause, and that the New Testament itself stands in judgment over our quick embrace of this relevance or that? Moreover, the canon is a gift of God for the people of God. Its meaning emerges in our conversation with one another as people of faith. Christian faith need not depend on scholars' best guesses about what lies behind the canon, nor await the academy's authorization.

Crossan rightly reminds us that the text of the New Testament is itself a reconstruction. (He is comparing it to the famous multicolored text published by the Jesus Seminar where scholars vote on the probable authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus.) Of his own book he says:

This book, then, is a scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus.... But one cannot dismiss it or the search for the historical Jesus as mere reconstruction, as if reconstruction invalidated somehow the entire project. Because there is only reconstruction. For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction .... If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.

Yes and no. For all the problems with establishing the New Testament text, the reconstructions based on early manuscripts of canonical books do not for the most part differ wildly from one another (as, say, Crossan's reconstruction of Jesus' life, which views the Secret Gospel of Mark as a better source than canonical Mark, differs from more traditional reconstructions). Further, for Christians it is the life of the Word of God as witnessed in the text of the Word of God that elicits faith. To be sure, a critical Greek text of the New Testament is the work of a committee of scholars, and when we read it, it has probably been translated by yet another committee. Yet we have rightly decided that we will read these historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus in our studies and our classrooms. We will read the imperfect translations of those imperfect critical editions of the text when we preach, invite people to the Lord's table, discuss social ministry, baptize new Christians or bury our dead. The canon itself is central to our faith. These two books are footnotes. Very good footnotes indeed.