Daily Archives: 2018-08-23 22:59:02 UTC

Just what do you mean… HISTORICAL JESUS?

Fellow-former members of the now defunct Worldwide Church of God will recognize that cult’s influence in the title. (It is tongue-in-cheek, an in-house joke.) It came to me after reading the following by PZMyers:

Now I have to recalibrate. What does “Jesus mythicist” mean? Apparently, rejecting the idea of the Son of God wandering about Galilee, and thinking that many of the tales that sprang up around him were confabulations, does not make one a Jesus mythicist. I also don’t know what the “historical Jesus” means. If I die, and a hundred years later the actual events of my life are forgotten and all that survives are legends of my astonishing sexual prowess and my ability to breathe underwater, what does the “historical PZ” refer to? Does it matter if my birth certificate is unearthed (and framed and mounted in a shrine, of course)? Would people point to it and gasp that it proves the stories were all true <swoon>?

Exactly. What do we mean by “historical Jesus” in any discussion about him, most especially the very existence of such a figure. (PZ begins by asking what Jesus mythicist means and that’s a good question, too. Most critical scholars, at least among the critical ones I have read, would say that the gospels do present a mythical Jesus, a Jesus of myth. The quest, they would say, is to find the “historical Jesus” behind the “mythical Jesus” of the gospels.

So we return to my previous post and I have thoughts of revising the conclusion of it to discuss the idea of definition more explicitly. Others may disagree but I think we can replace the concept of “reference class” with “definition”.

Outside the more fundamentalist-leaning believers few people would believe the historical Jesus is the Jesus of the canonical gospels: a miracle working, water-walking, temple-cleansing power who instilled such fear and jealousy among the leaders that they had him crucified, etc.

Many say something quite the opposite, that he was someone who was essentially a nobody that no-one was particularly interested in apart from a few village followers — hence we have no record of him until the movement his followers started somehow remarkably reached a critical mass that included gospel-writing literates who recorded how this nobody was remembered as the turning point in human history.

In general we have those two theories of historicity, the reductive theory (Jesus was an ordinary but obscure guy who inspired a religious movement and copious legends about him) and the triumphalist theory (the Gospels are totally or almost totally true).

Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 30

The “reductive theory” confuses me sometimes, though. Some of those who say he was a “local nobody” also say that he was a political rebel not very unlike other political rebels (or maybe a prophet of “the great tribulation” before “the wonderful world tomorrow”) we read about in the Jewish historian Josephus, and who therefore was not so obscure at all. For some reason Josephus did not speak of this Jesus in the same way he spoke of other political rebels or apocalyptic prophets who met their demise at the hands of Roman power, but spoke of him as a good man without any hint of him having political ambitions or rebellious modus operandi — even though Josephus is typically hostile to all other political and religious outsiders. Nonetheless, that is the “definition” of historical Jesus that some critical scholars embrace. (For those not familiar with the arguments, they believe this to be what Jesus “must have been” because that’s the only way they can understand how he came to be crucified as a supposed claimant to be king of the Jews. Of course that leads to another question that they then must grapple with: why did the Romans in this one case execute the leader and ignore his followers?)

Notwithstanding the logical problems that surface with either definition — that he was a nobody who made no ripple in the history of his own day; that he was a political rebel who supposedly made a notice in Josephus unlike his portrayals of any other political rebel — these are the commonly advanced depictions of what is meant by the “historical Jesus”.

But scratch the surface of historical Jesus studies and we find that there are many more views on what this historical Jesus was.

So the quest at the turn of the millennium is characterised by the production of different ‘types’ of figure which more or less plausibly capture the Jesus of history:

the Jewish ‘holy man’,70

the rabbi,71

the Pharisee,72

the Galilean peasant,73

the Cynic philosopher,74

the social revolutionary,75

the sage, the seer,76

the prophet of the end-time,77

the true Messiah.78

70  Vermes, Jesus the Jew and The religion of Jesus the Jew.

71  Chilton, Rabbi Jesus.

72  Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee.

73  The Jesus Seminar and Crossan, The historical Jesus.

74  Crossan; and Downing, Christ and the Cynics.

75  Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs and Jesus and the spiral of violence.

76  Witherington, Jesus the sage and Jesus the seer.

77  Sanders, Jesus and Judaism and The historical figure; Allison, Jesus of Nazareth; Ehrman, Jesus.

78  Wright, Jesus and the victory of God.

Mitchell, Margaret M., and Frances M. Young, eds. 2006. The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 1: Origins to Constantine. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 23 (my formatting)

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