Luke Timothy Johnson of the Candler School of Theology gives a talk entitled “Jesus among the Philosophers: Ancient Conceptions of Happiness” (Jan. 30, 2013).
Luke Timothy Johnson of the Candler School of Theology gives a talk entitled “Jesus among the Philosophers: Ancient Conceptions of Happiness” (Jan. 30, 2013).
I have been reading Jonathan T. Pennington‘s marvelous new book Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction and it has helped me a lot when it comes to thinking about hermeneutics, particularly the function of the historical-critical/grammatical approach juxtaposed with literary readings and canonical/theological readings. In “Chapter Five: Texts and History: The Testimony of the Fourfold Witness” Pennington examines the historical-critical approach, explains it value, and critiques its weaknesses. For Pennington the danger of putting all our eggs into the historical-critical/grammatical basket is that this is limits our reading of the Gospels, refuses to listen to the Gospels as the Gospels are designed to be heard, and ignores the limitations of the historical-critical/grammatical hermeneutic (as well as recent criticisms from the field of philosophical hermeneutics, exemplified by the likes of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricour to name a couple). The Gospels make claims that presuppose things like the existence of Israel’s God and you cannot appeal to deity when doing critical historical studies. There are some things that can be understood about Jesus through historical-critical study, but one can never reach the theological claims of the church through this approach. This is a danger Pennington thinks we must avoid, but he doesn’t think the answer to the problem of the historical-critical lens is one that abandons the importance of history like a Docetic Christology. He writes:
“If we approach the Gospels only as repositories of grand theological ideas and ideals, divorced from the historical reality of the incarnation and the resurrection, then we lose the history. Yet if we (even as believers) draw near to the Gospels thinking we must abandon all orthodox, creedal, and ecclesial notions and constraints on our reading or, less strictly, at least grow our theological construction in pure historical soil, then we not only fool ourselves in these possibilities, but we also deny the canonical nature of the Gospels.” (Kindle Location 2354)
He concludes that the language of “testimony” as presented by Richard Bauckham is a better avenue upon which one can approach studying the Gospels from a confessional perspective. Testimony honors both the aim of these works as a form of bios claiming to speak about historical events as well as recognizing that the theological claims of the Gospels move into a new frontier making the Gospels a unique subcategory of bioi. Likewise, testimony doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that historiography ancient or modern can ever be anything but interpretive (i.e., never fully objective as some claim). Since all history is interpretation the Gospels as testimony about Jesus care about historical events as interpreted through the apostolic kerygma.
I won’t delve much further into Pennington’s argument against limiting ourselves to the historical-critical approach—because it would be unfair to the author for me to try to condense a very well written, thoughtful chapter into a short blog post—but I will (1) encourage you to read this book; (2) provide a book review on this blog when I finish it; and (3) share the approach Pennington suggest for people who read the Gospels both as testimony of historical events and Scripture.
Pennington advocates reading the Gospels from multiple hermeneutical paradigms. He writes, “…my goal in reading is interwoven with the biblical idea of wisdom more than the modern scientific idea of knowledge, understood narrowly and impersonally.” (Kindle Location 2431) So in “Chapter Six: Reading Holy Scripture Well” he provides “three avenues of reading” that I will share and then use as a way to approach studying the doctrine of the virgin birth so that you can understand where Pennington is trying to take his readers.
First, “Behind the Text” or Historical, which includes redaction, form, and source criticism, social-scientific criticism, historical criticism, grammatical-historical exegesis, and movements like the Quest(s) for the historical (historian’s) Jesus.
Second, “In the Text” or Literary, which focuses on literary criticism, genre analysis, narrative criticism, composition criticism, and intertextuality.
Third, “In Front of the Text” or Canonical/Theological, which includes the history of interpretation, reception, history, Wirkungsgeshichte, biblical theology, redemptive history, theological reading, Regula fidei, figural reading, and intertextuality.
Let’s examine the doctrine of the virgin birth from these angles. First, the “Behind the Text” approach aims to understand not the message of the text itself alone, but the culture within which it was proclaimed. Honestly, if we use traditional historical-critical criteria as found in academic discussion we will not arrive at a virgin birth because solutions that cannot be reached by means of methodological naturalism are disqualified immediately. In other words, when doing history in this context, we cannot say, “Well, yes, it is impossible for this to happen, but God…” This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, if we acknowledge the “language game” in which we chose to partake if we do academic history. If a scholar of Islam happened to be a confessing Muslim we Christians would question his academic biography on the Prophet Muhammad if when s/he reached the tradition about the Prophet’s ascent into heaven s/he begged-the-question by telling readers, “This happened because Allah…” This is not to say that it is impossible in reality that Allah accepted the Prophet into heaven, but rather that there are limitations on doing academic history that attempt to prevent any and every suggestion from having the same value (e.g., the abduction of a famous person is easier explained as having a human protagonist, even if the mystery is never solved as to who did it, than it is an alien from space, even if the alien theory is theoretically possible it is not the most probable).
On the other hand, historical-grammatical readings of the text might have more wiggle-room when it comes to discussing the doctrine of the virgin birth. In fact, I propose that most evangelical scholars who delve into historical research do so from a historical-grammatical angle rather than a historical-critical one. In the words of Gadamer the difference is between approaching a text with the hermeneutical of suspicion over against the hermeneutic of trust. Christians, even when engaging these texts as historians, tend to give the authors to benefit of a doubt in a way that a scholar who is not a Christian is not likely to do. This is not to say that one is better or more objective in my opinion. There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. For example, if Jesus did not resurrect from the dead a confessional scholar is not likely to see this because of the presuppositions brought to the study of the proclaimed event. Likewise, a skeptical scholar is not likely to come to affirm the reality of the resurrection, even if it did happen, because of the presuppositions brought to the study of the proclaimed event. I don’t mean to say that it is “all relative”, but it is subjective, always.
The historical-grammatical reading aims to make sense of a proclaimed event by means of studying the historical context in which it was proclaimed (e.g., the resurrection can be understood as a event proclaimed to have happened in first century Judea, near Jerusalem, under Roman governance, and so forth, and honestly, the presuppositions with which one approaches this topic will likely inform how this historical data “functions”, just compare the works of people like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan to others like N.T. Wright or Michael Licona). So when one studies the doctrine of the virgin birth through a historical-grammatical lens it might be one and the same with the historical-critical, or it may be from a confessional standpoint where the virgin birth is understood as something that did happen, and then the study of everything from ancient womanhood, birth practices, first century Bethlehem, and other factors will be considered.
The “In the Text” is not concerned with the historical events within which the doctrine of the virgin birth is proclaimed. Even the Synoptic Problem falls into the first category better, though there are points of contact. This second approach may study things like how the doctrine of the virgin birth is proclaimed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and how this claims fits into the immediate narrative and how that narrative fits into the larger message of the Gospel. This approach can be used by the atheist scholar who doesn’t find these Gospels to produce much truth as well as the pastor who is preparing a sermon for Sunday and who wants to make sure that s/he proclaims a particular text in such a way that the literary message is received by the audience. One could discuss how the doctrine of the virgin birth fits into the message of the beginning of the Gospel of Luke without ever discussing the archaeology of Bethlehem, the socio-cultural role of “shepherds” in the first century, and other elements that are “Behind the Text”, though very helpful to understanding the text itself.
Finally, we have the approach that is “In Front of the Text”, i.e., an acceptable presupposition that informs how we read a text. For example, if one reads the Gospel of Matthew from approaches one or two it doesn’t matter all that much whether the Old Testament canon ends with Malachi as we find in the Christian tradition or Chronicles as it does in most versions of the Hebrew Bible. In this third paradigm it does matter though because Malachi ends with a proclamation to remember the Law of Moses and a promise to send the prophet Elijah before the “Day of the Lord” (4:4-6) whereas the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of “Jesus the Messiah” (1:1), describes his birth of a virgin, the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and then we have “Elijah”, or John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. If you use approaches one or two you want to read Luke-Acts together, but if you read it canonically you know that John recreates the contexts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and ends the fourfold Gospel transitioning to Acts which moves through the sequence of three main figures—Jesus to Peter to Paul—which then escorts the reader into Romans, the gateway and interpretive key to the Pauline corpus. Canonically Matthew transitions readers from the Old Testament to the fulfillment of the Old Testament, Jesus. Acts transitions from Jesus to his authoritative apostles, including Paul, and validates the Pauline corpus that comes next (I owe these insights to Brevard Childs).
Is there a way (singular) to approach the Gospels? Pennington will suggest “no” if you are a Christian. I concur. If you are a Christian willing to discuss the “historian’s Jesus” then you must enter that language game knowing what you can and cannot say and prove about Jesus. The goal and aim is to show that some really important things can be said about Jesus, even through the limitations of modern critical historiography, e.g., Jesus was a first century Jew; Jesus was remembered as a miracle worker and an exorcist; Jesus was crucified; Jesus’ followers did not disperse but became convinced for some reason that the eschatological resurrection of the dead has an “already, but not yet” exception in Jesus of Nazareth and they were willing to die for their believe. All of this is fantastically interesting, but you can’t secure the confession that the Spirit has raised Jesus from the dead, or that Jesus has been made Lord and Christ, or that Jesus is the Logos of God, or that Jesus is the second person of the one God as Trinity.
I think the historical-critical method is immensely valuable, as does Pennington, but it does have limitations. It is a matter of epistemology (what can we “know” through the restraints of academic historiography?), rather than objective truth (the dozens upon dozens of historical Jesus models you will find should be sufficient evidence of this). Sometimes the use of the Gospels to get “Behind the Text” to the historical Jesus misleads us into misreading the Gospels themselves. We ignore the message of the evangelists about Jesus for some piece of solid footing upon which we can reconstruct Jesus. Again, this is good and necessary in certain venues, but it doesn’t determine truth.
Likewise, the third approach tells us a bit about how Christians should read Scripture as Christians in the ancient-to-contemporary community of the faithful. If we use the historical critical approach we may conclude that Mark as the earliest Gospel shows no interest in a virgin birth, so he did not know about it or (from a more skeptical view) the myth had not been invented when Mark was composed. Matthew received or invented the tradition somewhere. Luke received it somewhere, maybe from Matthew. John’s Logos Christology doesn’t need a virgin birth as long as you affirm that Jesus is the Son of God come from God the Father in heaven. A canonical/theological reading realizes that Mark doesn’t need the virgin birth if it doesn’t fit the literary message because the Spirit has provided this proclamation in Matthew and Luke, already, and that John’s Logos Christology should be interpreted canonically, meaning, the Logos of God entered this world through the virgin birth—this is the beginning of how Christians discuss Christology in the language of faith.
All three approaches have value. Where we Christians struggle at times is realizing that these different approaches are different language games sometimes intended for a variety of audiences. When we try to use the historical-critical method apologetically to “prove” something like the doctrine of the virgin birth we have gone the wrong direction, not because it didn’t happen in space-time history, but because historical-critical methodology includes the presupposition of methodological naturalism, something that can never “discover” a virgin birth anymore than one may have been able to discover Jesus was born of a virgin if his DNA was studied to examine the genetics of his “father”. We can believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth from a confessional perspective, and we may have decent reasons for believing it happened historically (e.g., Matthews awkward use of Isaiah 7:14 leads me to think Matthew already believed in the doctrine and he sought a passage of Scripture to support it, rather than he happened to read Isaiah 7:14 one day and thought, “This proves Jesus was born of a virgin!”), but we cannot prove it historical-critically, and that is OK. We must recover some comfort with speaking the language of faith and sometimes faith demands that we speak of things catholically, rather than individualistically, as if something can be true if and only if I can verify it through means that make me the final authority, rather than the church and the Scripture of the church.
I watched the documentary (?) Derrida (2002) today. I am not a philosopher, nor do I spend a lot of time reading philosophy, but I find this man to have been a fascinating figure. He is confusing at times; he is enlightening at times. I think that was his aim.
In the film there are several places where you go to appreciate Derrida. At one juncture he lectures his interviewer on the artificial nature of interviews and documentaries. Later in the film he asks how they will choose from all the footage to create a hour long film. His point? Do not confuse the filmed, cut, clipped, and organized with actual events.
For all of us who watch the news this is a helpful reminder. No one reports “just the facts,” but all tell us a story with bias. It is what it is.
At another place he is asked to explain “deconstruction” and he does far better job through speech than through writing (in my opinion). Plain and simple: Do not assume to be natural that which is not natural or do not assume to be natural that which has been dictated by culture, or institutions, or historical norms. This is important to remember when we discuss race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and more. We don’t have to affirm or deny everything Derrida affirmed and denied, but neither must we live life without a critical lens.
The interviewer told Derrida that some have compared his thought to the American sitcom “Seinfeld,” which I have heard Christian thinkers do. He was unfamiliar with the show. He responded that if someone thinks his philosophy is like a sitcom they should stop watching sitcoms and try reading his work to understand it. Touche!
When asked to explore “love” he rebuked his interviewer telling her that she cannot ask about something as vague as “love,” so he request that she ask something more specific. She asks why “love” has matter to so many philosophers. He moves the question to something more specific saying that philosophy asks whether we love “someone” or “some thing.” In other words, do you love your spouse or do you love characteristics about your spouse. Can you love someone intrinsically for who they are? If aspects of who they are change do you continue to love them? Good questions worth asking and far more interested than vague clichés about “love,” something Derrida sought to avoid.
All in all the film is worth watching. It is a documentary, kind of. It is an interview, kind of. It is a film that makes you stop and think on several occasions, definitely!
Mortimer J. Adler was an American philosopher and educator. He wrote many books, but I think there is one that is his gift to all students in every field: How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.
During my first semester of seminary back in 2006 my professor Dr. Gary Tuck assigned this book for his introductory hermeneutics class. I was a bit puzzled by this decision. First, we were seminarians. We were grad students. Did we not know how to read a book? Second, this is hermeneutics! Shouldn’t we be reading something like Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral or Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Is There Meaning in the Text? or almost anything by Anthony C. Thiselton? What about philosophical hermeneutics from the likes of Hans Georg Gadamer or Paul Ricoeur? Well, I have had the opportunity to read some of these writers or dabble in their works. They have been very helpful. But my professor made a very good decision to chose Adler.
In this book’s simplicity it allows you to learn how to read not like you learned to read in grade school, but to ready wisely. In fact, I would say that reading Gadamer, Ricoeur, et al., can be enhanced by reading Adler first.
I won’t give a large overview because I think the blogger at Classical Bookworm does an excellent job in her post “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I advise taking a moment or two to read her post. But I will say that this book helped me become a better reader of Scripture, the text books assigned to me, other books I needed for research, and even my own papers before submitting them to a professor.
Adler teaches you how to skim over a book to see if it is worth your time. Listen, there is far more secondary literature on topics that matter to you than you can begin to read. Don’t try! Rather, learn to browse a book quickly so that you can determine whether it will be worth your time and address your current interest. When I was doing my thesis on the Epistle to Romans I began to become overwhelmed by the reality that everyone and their mother seems to have written on it. Contemporary works are being produced as a rapid pace. Older works exist is mounds and piles. I had to determine whether a book was worth ignoring. I know, I know, everyone who has written on Romans thinks their work is necessary and important, but this isn’t true and it can’t be. If I were to have spent all my time reading secondary works I would have been unable to read Romans itself.
So learn to read wisely. Adler’s book may sound elementary and maybe it is, but I sense that you will agree with me that it is extremely valuable if you read it.
For the many who are beginning new school years this September please take my advice and read this book.
Dr. Jerome Wernow is not listed on the website as one of the faculty of Western Seminary though he does contribute by lecturing on matters related to ethics and philosophy. He is the executive director of the Northwest Center of Bioethics. Most importantly he has been one of my favorite mentors.
Jerome has a brilliant mind and a big heart, which is a unique combination. He joined our philosophy and ethics class a few years ago and he did a fine job of keeping all of us students on our toes asking us questions and providing us with parabolic answers. When he gave his talk on bioethical issues I lamented that this is a standard subject of all M.DIV students. Thankfully, Western Seminary’s online learning option will include a class that he teaches on the subject.
I will miss going to lunch with Jerome to talk about ontology and epistemology while eating Cuban or Lebanese food. Those lunch meetings were all fun and encouraging. About a week before my thesis defense/oral exam I went to lunch with him and I was able to keep pace in our conversation. I knew at that point that I was ready for the exam. I knew if I could keep up with Jerome I was in good shape.
Jerome, thank you for being a great friend and mentor over the last couple years!
A few weeks ago James K.A. Smith wrote a bit about N.T. Wright’s new book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (see “Kings, Creeds, and the Canon: Musings on N.T. Wright”). Initially he praised the work, then he moved into his critique. To summarize Smith didn’t like (1) that Wright seems to present his views on the Kingdom of God in the Gospels as something of which everyone is woefully ignorant until he came to explain it; (2) that Wright talks about the creeds as if they are “…the villain that tempted us to miss this ‘forgotten story.’ “; and (3) Wright dismisses “canonical readings” of Scripture (if this true then what are we to make of this video titled ‘The Whole Sweep of Scripture’ produced by The Work of the People featuring Wright?) and “the rule of faith” because he sees “tradition” as a “blinder.” Smith announces, “I’m not persuaded that the fruits of historical science have suddenly put us in a position superior to pre-modern interpreters.” (This is his challenge to Wright’s “originality” as someone who is as much a historian as a theologian.)
To summarize, Smith doesn’t think Wright has introduced something new that the Reformed tradition overlooked. He doesn’t see historical research as having added something essential to our understanding of Christian doctrine that the canon and creeds failed to provide. This book says what people like Abraham Kuyper, Richard Mouw, or others in the Reformed tradition have said already.
Some people commented questioning Smith’s suggestion that Wright sees himself as delivering something new that is actually quite old. One person pointed out that even if there have been people saying the things Wright is saying this doesn’t mean it is not a message that many still need to hear. Then N.T. Wright responded:
He began by clarifying that his experience has led him to come across many people who do not have a solid answer for why we need the “content” of the Gospels themselves. Many see the reason for Jesus as being his death, burial, and resurrection. What are we to do with Jesus’ life and teachings? I must say as someone who has been around Pentecostal and E/evangelical groups if it weren’t for the writings of Wright I wouldn’t have an answer to that question either. It is great that Smith’s tradition has addressed this subject. For the rest of us who are outside Reformed circles with little to no interest in entering we are thankful for the work Wright has done on this subject.
Second, Wright defends his appreciation of the creeds. I must quote a large section:
“I take care precisely NOT to ‘fault’ the great creedal tradition. I use the two classic creeds in my regular prayers and worship – in the Anglican manner: the Apostles’ Creed every day, and the Nicene Creed at the Sunday Eucharist. (Just as they do at Calvin, of course.) The creeds are not the ‘villains’. They were not written to provide a teaching syllabus. They are the symbol, the badge, the list of things that were controversial early on which the church had to hammer out. The problem comes – and at what point in church history this occurred I couldn’t say, that not being my period – when the creeds are used as teaching outlines; because of course they skip precisely over the ‘middle bits’ of the gospels, and thereby, quite accidentally and non-villainously, collude with a quite different movement, with which many of my readers tell me they are all too familiar: a form of Christianity in which it would be quite sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, died on a cross and never done anything in between. The rise of such a truncated form of Christianity is not at all (I suggest) the fault of the wonderful and beloved Creeds, but of quite different movements which have then (ab)used them as a teaching outline which has reinforced (quite accidentally in terms of the Creeds’ original purpose) the omission of the kingdom of God as a present reality. In other words, I not only don’t reject Nicene Christianity, I embrace it, affirm it, love it, live it, and pray it. But the best sort of Nicene Christianity has always insisted that you read the gospels themselves, and indeed pray the Lord’s Prayer, and that these are just as important for shaping who we are in Christ as the formulaic creeds themselves.”
Third, Wright rejects that he dismisses canonical readings. He states that his book is “a plea to let the canon be the canon!” According to Wright appeals to “the canon” often mean appeals to a tradition and not the biblical canon at all.
Finally, Wright refutes Smith’s seeming dismissal of extra canonical literature. He states,
“So what’s this about ‘extra-canonical resources’? This is often said but it’s (frankly) nonsense. Without extra-canonical resources – e.g. lexicography – I would not be able to read the New Testament at all. Without knowing a bit about who the Pharisees were – and what the Sabbath meant to a second-Temple Jew – I wouldn’t understand Mark 2. And so on.”
Then Wright goes on to say a few more good things about the necessity of understanding at least some things about the context of Second Temple Judaism and the first century world. I am thankful to Smith for highlighting what he thought should be approved (I haven’t read the book yet), but as someone who has read a lot of Wright’s work over the years I am more appreciative of his response which I think frames his project as I have understood it. One comment said that the next generation will look at Wright’s work “as just another dead end project.” This is false already. For many of us in that already emerging next generation he has helped us rethink the Apostle Paul, the message of the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, the use of Hebrew Scripture in the New Testament, Second Temple Judaism, eschatology (one pastor friend of mine said he had given up on eschatology until he read Surprised by Hope), and so forth and so on. In some sense most scholars are forgotten in a generation or two. That is how the guild functions. To say Wright’s work is a dead end is to ignore the impact it has had already! (Of course, that person said in his comment that Barth’s project was “a dead end” and although I am not a Barthian I think this overlooks the reality that Barth remains one of the most influential theologians even now.)
Update (04/13): Smith replied to Wright and Wright has added a couple additional comments. Make sure to read those as well!
If you’ve haven’t had an opportunity to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my interaction with Keith Jenkins’ Re-thinking History I recommend reading those post first. In the third and final chapter of this book titled “Doing history in the post-modern world” Jenkins presents his logic for still doing historical work, even though he has shown himself to be very skeptical about one’s ability to accurately “know” the past. He addresses the definition of postmodernism, the implications of postmodernism, and how to do history now. (p. 59)
Jenkins follows Lyotard’s “death of centres” and “incredulity towards metanarratives”. He explains it as such:
“…all those old organizing frameworks that presupposed the privileging of various centres (things that are, for example, Anglo-centric, Euro-centric, ethno-centric, gender-centric, logo-centric) are no longer regarded as legitimate and natural frameworks (legitimate because natural), but as temporary fictions which were useful for articulation not of universal but of actually very particular interest; whilst ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ means that those great structuring (metaphysical) stories which have given meaning(s) to western developments have been drained of vitality.” (p. 60
There is much right and some things wrong with Jenkins’ argument in my estimation. First, he is right to criticize the convolution of our unique perspectives into universals. Some like Kant thought this or that was self-evident in all humans because we share humanity. This may be true in part, but it is false in part as well. We do bring our socio-political, socio-economic, linguistic, biological, and other presuppositions to the world. This shades how we understand things.
For instance, if a Spaniard wrote a history of the conquistadors it may look very, very different from if a Native American sat down to tell the story. This doesn’t mean some “objective facts” like dates, names, and that one civilization “defeated” another aren’t obvious, but how that story is “framed” is relative.
I agree with Jenkins on the relativity of history telling, but he can easily, easily be misunderstood as ignoring any form of sure knowledge when we do historical work. We must remember that Jenkins doesn’t deny that some things can be “know”, but he questions whether the overarching story or message in which those facts are placed can be anything but subjective. As long as we realize subjectivity isn’t “bad” or necessarily “wrong”, but simply angled and limited, we can move forward.
Of course, we find ourselves with one major problem. If certain ways of telling the story of the world cannot be “true” why is Jenkins call to utter subjectivity “true”? He side steps this to say “Post-modernism is the general expression of those circumstances. Post-modernism is not a united movement. It is not a tendency which essentially belongs to either the left of the centre or the right…” At the end I still wonder what makes this “description” truer than other descriptions. Can postmodernism’s definition automatically kill this understanding of postmodernity? Or maybe the relativity of postmodernity proves its own point?
When we say that there are “histories” instead of a “history” we admit that our telling may be unique and limited. It doesn’t explain the world. On a side note, how does this jive with a Christian description of the world? In part we can affirm it. We know that the Christian way of explaining the world is our own. We can’t speak of God’s redemption through Christ as an active reality for those who believe. It isn’t “obvious” and “universal” for those who don’t believe. This doesn’t mean it isn’t “true”, but that is where eschatology comes into play.
Jenkins “steps” toward doing historiography in a postmodern world are helpful. First, he emphasizes a “reflexive methodology”. In other words, be self-reflective and self-critical. (p. 69) You must realize your work is an “act of interpretation”. (p. 70) Second, remember that when you write a history you are selective. You chose the data to present and the data to ignore. In doing this you control how your hearers understand “the past”. This makes it most obvious that what you are doing is not universal or objective, but it can be “true” none the less.
Let us imagine we are one of the Evangelists writing a Gospel. Is our historiography objective? No. We intend to tell the story of Jesus and we are intentional about tying Jesus to the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Does this mean history is lost? No. It is framed and shaded. There are some things that will easily convince most people (Jesus of Nazareth existed) and other things you will work hard to prove (the resurrection). This is why the Four Gospels tell the same “Gospel” differently. They are subjective “histories” of Jesus.
That said, scholars mostly recognize they are better sources than some other later “gospels” because even if subjective and skewed to convert readers they are closer to the events, closer to eyewitness accounts, closer to the land and people. This doesn’t make them universal or faultless, but it does make them more reliable.
Now imagine you are a modern historical Jesus scholar. Your presuppositions and worldview concerning Jesus will inform whether or not you reject or accept the claims of the Gospels. One can hardly pretend to be the “objective” agnostic against the “subjective” Christian. Both are subjective. Both look at the data through a lens. Both may recognize some “truth” though it will be angled and not objective. I think realizing this is helpful moving forward. Acknowledging presuppositions never hurts…except those who want to pretend they don’t have any.