Recovering from a postmodernist & Jungian Jesus headache

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by Neil Godfrey

6ba73150824e779593148505241434f414f4141Hi there. If I don’t post again soon I’ll feel like I’ll have to introduce myself again. I’ve been taking time off mainly just to read, and especially to read a work that for me at least has been quite challenging. It’s full of coined concepts alongside esoteric ones: ontic as distinct from ontological; existentiell versus existentialia; historic versus historical; Dasein, Lichtung; “world” used not only as a noun but even as a verb; Jungian philosophy and psychology, Heidegger; “projection” but with a meaning fundamentally opposite from Freud’s meaning . . . I was labouring with a headache much of the time. But through it all I’ve come to at least work out (sort of) what Hal Childs is writing about in The Myth of the Historical Jesus and the Evolution of Consciousness.

Childs is comparing John Dominic Crossan’s approach to understanding the historical Jesus with that of Carl Jung. Crossan, recall, is well known for scholarly tomes such as The Historical Jesus and many others, some of which I’ve discussed on this blog. Childs argues that scholarly efforts to understand the historical Jesus are essentially efforts to create new myths about the Christ figure that is so much a part of Western cultural heritage.

Hal Childs is certainly not arguing for a Christ Myth theory (or, as Raphael Lataster rightly points out, the term should be Jesus Myth theory since obviously the “Christ” is mythical to begin with). He is attempting to raise the readers’ awareness of the extent to which all historical “reconstructions” and narratives are themselves mythical. From one perspective I can understand his point well enough, but I do have fundamental disagreements with some of his views of history (and the postmodernist view generally) that I cannot address here.

But for now I would like to mention one point in particular that is central to his thesis. Childs sympathizes with Crossan’s expressions of “embarrassment” over the way scholarship has produced such a wild array of historical Jesus figures. Crossan blamed the lack of a sound historical methodology for this “embarrassing” state of affairs; Childs, however, blames something else. Or rather, he doesn’t so much as lay “blame” as he does offer thanks:

[M]ultiple historical-Jesus-images are an unavoidable necessity in the light of the narrative and mythic essence of history — as such, it is not to be struggled against but embraced. (p. 259)

As far as I can understand from reading Childs’ work he falls into the same confusion about the nature of historical evidence that most biblical scholars also do. He writes with the assumption that historical Jesus studies are no different, at their base line, than any other study of an ancient historical question. But there is a significant difference and I have addressed it many times here. The difference revolves around something that is so fundamental that I think many historians rarely stop to think about it consciously. In brief, the core difference is as follows: 

Historians have “hard data” about the figures in ancient times (or any times) that they study. By hard data I mean data that securely confirms not only the existence but the nature and role or deeds of the person. This secure confirmation arises from what is called technically “primary evidence” — meaning evidence that is situated in the same time and place as the events/persons under study — or else it arises from independent sources that are ultimately confirmed by primary evidence. In relatively rare cases where there is no primary evidence there are conjunctions of independent works that provide us with clear reasons (provenance, authorship, independent external corroboration, genre) for us to trust them in varying degrees.

We don’t have multiple images of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. We do have different interpretations of them but that “them” remains core and stable no matter how mythical is the essence of history.

So why is the study of Jesus so different?

Because there is no “hard data” about the Jesus figure in the same sense as there is for any other historical figure. Every “fact” about Jesus is the result of a scholar attempting to apply educated guesses to mythical narratives or debatable letters and arriving at an conclusion that will never persuade everyone else. As Stevan Davies writes in Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity,

In the field of Jesus research, however, one person’s bedrock is another person’s sand. I cannot honestly think of a single supposed bedrock event or interpretive stance that somebody has not denied. (p. 84)

Can we imagine how it could be possible for anything like that to be said about the history of Julius Caesar, World War 2, . . . ?

No, it is not the “mythical essence of history” that is the problem with Jesus’ studies. It is the simple fact that scholars are engaged in trying to justify that their interpretations and deductions or inductions of mythical texts, the gospels, are truly “bedrock facts” and calling this historical research. No wonder these historical Jesus scholars are now arguing against what they see as a crude and dated “positivism” in their traditional approaches. We find New Testament scholars today trying to explain — as if they have discovered something very important and very, very new — that there is no such thing as a fact without interpretation of some sort. Well, that’s the first thing I and no doubt all my fellow students ever learned about historical research in our undergraduate days. But there appears to be a growing trend among scholars to take this “new discovery” that all facts are interpreted and their past efforts have been based on a misguided positivism in order to justify their leap into postmodernist methods. Suddenly it is cool not to worry about the exact details of what happened. The general idea or broad impression will do because that’s the most we can ever hope to find.

But this is just a fudged form of “positivism”, at least in my view. Instead of knowing exactly what Jesus did with a leper we can have a rough idea of what others thought he did. The positivist goal of using historical inquiry to establish the crystal clear facts has been substituted by an establishment of facts with blurry edges instead.

No, we can’t catch fish where there ain’t no fish.

Hal Childs may very well be correct when he argues that all historical Jesus research is about the researcher inquiring into him or herself. (I won’t cover the arguments here now.) All historical Jesus research must of necessity begin with a concept of our culture’s Christ figure and proceed to either support it or demolish it in some way.

Forget historical Jesus research. We simply don’t have the data we need, that is, the sort of data we have for Socrates or other patently historical persons.

Historical questions need to be structured according to the data we do have.

The question to be asked is how Christianity originated. Or if we will, how the Christ figure emerged and evolved in the early literature. Neither of those questions presumes nor denies the historicity of Jesus. Both of them simply accept that the state of our evidence does not allow us to investigate something for which we lack any “hard data”.





One comment

  • HoosierPoli
    2015-04-30 11:27:49 UTC - 11:27 | Permalink

    By the way, how hard is the data we have for Socrates? We have him being used as a sock-puppet for Plato’s philosophy, which is not exactly compelling. We have a biography that is…shall we say…suspiciously dramatic in its construction. Is there a smoking gun that I’m not aware of?

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