I have been reading Scot McKnight’s recent article for Christianity Today titled “The Jesus We’ll Never Know” (here). I cannot help but notice that he referred to historical Jesus scholarship as essentially writing a “fifth gospel”. The echoes the criticism Richard B. Hays leveled at N.T. Wright’s and other’s historical Jesus programs in his lecture at the recent Wheaton Theology Conference. In essence, the academy is doing exactly what the church did–theologizing about Jesus. This time there is a different approach, but the goal is the same.
Each scholar relies on various forms of so-called historical method that each one finds acceptable using that approach as a “canon” for understanding the “real” Jesus. Each of these scholars–including Wright, J.P. Meier, J.D.G. Dunn, and others more friendly to the church–settle on their historical reconstruction as the basis of their understanding in this Jesus. By default, this rejects the witness of the community of the church who has presented a way to understand Jesus. The evangelist cannot be trusted; the Jesus Seminar with colored beads can.
It is popular amongst Jesus scholars to point to the diversity of views about Jesus in early Christianity. They often mock how long it took for the “Orthodox” party to emerge against other views of Jesus. Yet the academy has come no closer. As McKnight wrote in the aforementioned article, “Albert Schweitzer understood Jesus as an apocalyptic Jesus. In the latest quest, Sanders’s Jesus is an eschatological prophet; Crossan’s Jesus is a Mediterranean peasant cynic full of wit and critical of the Establishment; Borg’s Jesus is a mystical genius; Wright’s Jesus is an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet who believed he was God returning to Zion.”
If historical Jesus studies is such a “scientific” enterprise why are they so bad at reaching any sort of real consensus. They may criticize the church for imperial interference leading to the victory of orthodoxy (which is a misguided reading of church history in my opinion since there were plenty of heretical emperors in Rome-Byzantium), but this ignores their own “emperor” of naturalistic presuppositions and predetermined approaches like “double dissimilarity”. The academy fears challenging this ruler no more than the church, at times, felt threatened challenging an emperor (though if you read the story of Athanasius you may notice the church was often much bolder).
Honestly, if we must compare the historical Jesus to the canonical Jesus give me the canonical Jesus any day. This is not to say that the canonical Jesus is ahistorical. I don’t believe that. What it is to say is we are choosing between two sources of authority, two agendas, two lens through which to interpret the data. If Jesus did say something like what is recorded in Jn. 14.26 and 16.13 that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his followers, reminding them of his teachings, and leading his people into “all truth” then this is a promise to his people–the church–and not the academy.
I think we should be thankful for some of what has resulted in the First, Second, and Third Quest for the historical Jesus. It helps us read the canonical gospels better at times giving us insight into what this literature would have been in that era and what those stories would have sounded like to first century peoples. Nevertheless, I am with those who say we have the canonical Jesus, let us approach him.
For more: Trevin Wax’s interview with McKnight here.