One one side we have Jesus Seminar guys like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Stephen L. Harris, Robert M. Price and Burton Mack. Then we also have guys like Luke Johnson, Donald Senior, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Raymond Brown.
When it comes to historical critical insight wher can we really go for something helpful?
I love posts, like this one, where the fundamental question, properly treated, would require a doctoral thesis, at the very least.
But, perhaps I’m over-reacting.
Eisenman’s book doesn’t seem to fit the bill of answering the title question. As the blurb at Amazon states, his book is about addressing the “quest” for the historical Jesus.
Benedict XVI’s series on Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t satisfy you about the historial Jesus?
If I knew those biblical scholars (which I don’t), perhaps they’d fall into two opposing forces, the centrifugal forces pulling away from orthodoxy and the gravitational forces tending towards it. We have the Church and its leaders like Benedict XVI to help us keep our eyes set on the target.
It’s really hard to pigeonhole academics. Price, Eisenman, Mack, Robert Funk, Crossan, Borg, Bart Ehrman, Kenzo Tagawa, Sanders, and Geza Vermes are on the ‘liberal’ side of historical Jesus scholarship (with Crossan, Price, Funk, and the Jesus Seminar as a whole perhaps leaning more toward the ‘radical’ fringe - Sanders and Vermes are more on the opposite side of them). Fr. Brown, Fr. Senior, Fr. Meier, Maurice Casey, and Luke Timothy Johnson I think would be somewhere in the middle. (At least Fr. Brown definitely was.) N.T. ‘Tom’ Wright, Ben Witherington III, Richard Bauckham, Gary Habermas, Craig Blomberg, Edwin Yamauchi, and F.F. Bruce are more on the ‘conservative’ side.
As for what portrait of the historical Jesus these people are advocating, that’s going to be another matter. Some of these views are:
Jesus as egalitarian peasant-wandering cynic: Crossan, Robert Funk, Borg, Burton Mack, Stephen J. Patterson, Jesus Seminar
Jesus as apocalyptic prophet: Albert Schweitzer, Sanders, Ehrman, Meier, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Theissen, Vermes
Jesus as Jewish holy man (hasid): Vermes
Jesus as Pharisee: Hyam Maccoby
Jesus as myth: Price
Jesus as Savior (traditional view): Wright, Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert Stein
Jesus as Qumran sectarian-revolutionary: Robert Eisenman
Of course this is just an arbitrary categorization and is not totally accurate: take the first one (Jesus as wandering peasant sage) for example. John Dominic Crossan generally focuses more on what Jesus said, while Marcus Borg looks more at what He did. So while they both agree in classifying Jesus as a wandering sage who was non-eschatological (contrary to the idea of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet held by Sanders et al.), Crossan’s portrait is more of a wisdom teacher while Borg’s is more of an active “spirit person,” as he calls it. In this Borg has some overlap with Geza Vermes (who thinks of Jesus as a charismatic Jewish ‘holy man’ in line with other contemporary ‘holy men’ like Hanina ben Dosa) and Stevan Davies. Unlike Borg though, Vermes also thinks of Jesus contra Borg as being an eschatological prophet (again, like Sanders), while Davies does not think that Jesus was a teacher at all but a full-time spirit-possessed healer. (Remember: not every fellow of the Jesus Seminar hold the same academic views as attested by the differences between Price, Crossan, Funk, and Borg. For every opinion that gets chosen another gets voted out - and in a number of cases Borg at least seems to have voted against the majority.)
I’m not too much a fan of much of Eisenman’s scholarship: namely his attempts to link the Dead Sea Scrolls with Christianity. That being said, I could commend his efforts for being the first to call the controversial James Ossuary as fraudulent.
I have heard some Catholics have problems with Raymond Brown. I have not read him in about 20 years.
Yes. The late Fr. Brown is, as I said earlier, academically in the middle. He has caught flak from more conservative folks (the late Fr. Richard Gilsdorf and Cardinal Sheehan are two of his critics from this side) because they argued that he denied the inerrancy of Scripture and cast doubt on the historical accuracy of numerous articles of the Catholic faith. At the same time, he has also caught flak from more liberal folks (such as Geza Vermes) because they thought he was ‘playing it safe’ too much: they alleged that he was busy refusing to acknowledge the radical implications of the critical methods he was using in order to secure an Imprimatur.
Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., professor of spirituality and New Testament at The Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, argues that historical criticism does not provide an adequate hermeneutical foundation for a religious appropriation of the Bible (The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 1991).
Do you suppose it gets in her way?
Anyway, I took Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth I off the shelf and will revisit it.
He says the Historical-Critical method has given us a wide range of reconstructions of Jesus that tell us more about the scholars and the ideals they hold than Jesus himself.
In a sense, she is right: while the various forms of the historical-critical method (form criticism, redaction criticism, etc.) are the most commonly used and known nowadays, it is by no means the only method available, nor is it supposed to be the be-all end-all. In fact there are a growing number of people today who are trying their hand at other methods, of which I can assume Schneiders is one.
Now Crossan is a graceful writer and a careful scholar, and I’ll acknowledge gratefully that I’ve learned a great deal from him. His emphasis on Jesus’ “open table fellowship” and his readings of Jesus’ parables as subversive stories are both, I think, right on target. The problem is that he so consistently reads Jesus through a conventional political lens that effectively reduces him to the level of social reformer.
How does Crossan explain the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? They are, he says, essentially “parables,” figurative representations of the disciples’ conviction that Jesus’ way was more powerful than the Roman way. They were never meant to be taken literally but rather as poetic inspirations for the succeeding generations of Jesus’ followers. How does he explain the church’s dogma of Jesus’ divinity? It is, essentially, a misleading overlay that effectively obscures the dangerous truth of who Jesus really was: a threat to the cultural, religious, and political status quo.
Skilled at translating academic debates into relatively accessible language and blessed with a charming Irish brogue, Crossan became a favorite of television producers and documentarians. On numerous programs and specials, Crossan has popularized his reductionistic vision of Jesus and has succeeded in convincing many that orthodox Christology is appealing only to those who haven’t taken the time to think through the historical evidence clearly. Time and again, he has argued that his version of Christianity is for those who haven’t “left their brains at the door.”
The little problem, of course, is that Crossan is compelled to ignore huge swaths of the New Testament in order to maintain his interpretation. All of the evangelists indeed present Jesus as a dangerous, even subversive figure, a threat to the conventional Jewish and Roman ways of organizing things, but they are much more interested in the utterly revolutionary fact that Jesus is the Son of God.
hey assert that he is Lord of the Sabbath and that he is greater than the Temple; they show him as claiming authority over the Torah itself; they relate stories of his blithely forgiving sins; they report his breathtaking words, “unless you love me more than your mother or father … more than your very life, you are not worthy of me;” they consistently show him as the master of the forces of nature. The only one who could legitimately say or effectively do any of these would be the one who is himself divine.
St. John gives explicit and philosophically precise expression to this conviction when he says, in regard to Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” To maintain that all of this is a distorting overlay is simply absurd and requires that one blind oneself to the deepest intention of the evangelists themselves.
And the theory that the resurrection is an imaginative construct gives every indication of having been formulated in a faculty lounge and, in fact, does violence to the spirit of the early Christianity. What one senses on practically every page of the New Testament is an excitement generated by something utterly new, strange, unprecedented.
When the first Christians proclaimed the Gospel, they didn’t say a word about Jesus’ preaching; what they talked about was his resurrection from the dead. Look through all of Paul’s letters, and you’ll find a few words about Jesus’ “philosophy,” but you’ll find, constantly, almost obsessively, reiterated the claim that God raised Jesus from death.
The great New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, moreover, that the very emergence of Christianity as a messianic movement is practically unintelligible, on historical grounds, apart from the reality of the resurrection. This is the case because one of the chief expectations of the Messiah was that he would conquer the enemies of Israel. Someone’s death at the hands of the Romans, therefore, would be the surest sign imaginable that that person was not the Messiah.
Yet the first believers announced, over and again, that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel: Jesus Christ simply means “Jesus the Messiah.” How could they possibly say this unless they were convinced that in some very real way Jesus had indeed proven more powerful than his Roman executioners?
This is where we see how untenable Crossan’s reading is. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then his disciples had no business saying that he had conquered Rome or that his way was more powerful than the Roman way. In fact, one would be justified in maintaining just the opposite.
My hope is that careful students of the New Testament and of early Christianity will see that John Dominic Crossan’s painfully reductive reading is a distortion of who Jesus was and that classical orthodox Christianity tells the deepest truth about the one called “the Christ.”
John Dominic Crossan was part of the radical ‘Jesus seminar,’ which is a liberal group: denies Jesus as God and do not think the New Testament documents are as valid as extra biblical sources which makes no sense because in the historical method the primary documents are usually the most trustworthy
Fr Barron comments on John Dominic Crossan’s Strange Jesus
Dr William Lane Craig on how seriously scholars take The Jesus Seminar
At this point we need to ward off several frequent misunderstandings. I find myself not for the first time, in full agreement with Ernst Käsemann In his famous 1953 lecture, which effectively launched the so-called “new quest,” he urged that without serious historical-Jesus study the Church and the world could re-invent Jesuses to suit their every whim. That is the negative reason for engaging, as I believe every generation of the Church must engage, in the historical study of Jesus. Just as the Nazi theologians, Käsemann’s obvious target, had re-invented a non-Jewish Jesus so today people are inventing Jesuses who support all kinds of ideologies. And if we in the Church think we are immune from this, I would urge that we think again. Christians are alas, capable of all kinds of fantasies and anachronisms in reading the Gospels, and to pull the blanket of the canon over our heads and pretend that we are safe in our private, fideistic world is sheer self-delusion. It is demonstrably the case that where the Church has thought itself safe in its canonical world worshipping the ever-present ascended Jesus in prayer and the liturgy, it is capable of massive self-delusion and distortion. Whether or not this reaches Docetism proper, without continuing attention to history we can pull and push the word “Jesus” this way and that and make it serve our own ends. It will not do, again, to sneer that historians always see the reflection of their own faces at the bottom of the well. Those who forswear historical Jesus study will find it impossible, ultimately, to escape seeing the reflection of their own faces in their dogmatic Christs.
But if that is the negative reason for engaging in historical Jesus study, as a kind of necessary check on fantasy and idolatry, the positive reason is so important, so exciting, and in our generation so possible and accessible that I cannot begin to describe the frustration I experience when I find this enterprise caricatured, slighted, and dismissed with a wave of the hand. Just because Muzak and hard rock exist, that is no reason not to write great music today. The existence of kitsch does not mean that there is no such thing as great contemporary art. The existence of the Jesus Seminar does not mean that historical study of Jesus is a waste of time. If only people had read Ben Meyer’s great book when it was published in 1979, twenty years of nonsense could have been avoided.
The positive reason for studying Jesus within his historical context and using all the tools at our disposal to do so has to do with that still-neglected factor, the meaning of Israel within the purpose of God. If we are to be biblical theologians, it simply will not do to tell the story of salvation as simply creation, fall, Jesus, salvation. We desperately need to say: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, salvation. If we ask the question of how this particular human being is the instrument of salvation and do not say as our first answer, “because in him God’s Israel-shaped plan to save the world came to fulfillment,” then we leave a huge vacuum in our thinking (and in our reading of scripture). I believe it is because of this vacuum that people have elevated minor themes, such as the sinlessness of Jesus, to a prominence which, though not insignificant, they do not possess in the NT itself. Thus it is not enough merely to say “earthly” or to allude to Jesus’ sandals, and then to proceed to construct a Christ-figure as a back-projection of a fully-formed theology. This approach is unacceptable for the same reason the approach of Crossan and others is unacceptable: they call their Jesus “Jewish” while actually constructing a Jesus out of symbolic features of the wider mediterranean world, ignoring many crucial elements of Jewish self-understanding. After all, it is precisely the cavil of the heterodox today that the Gospels themselves are the self-serving back-projections of a later, and perhaps corrupted, theology. I fail to see why we should provide such people with more ammunition than they already have.
For starters, it is far too generous (and inaccurate) to call John Dominic Crossan a “scholar.” Same for the rest of the gang of the so-called Jesus Seminar.
I am well acquainted with Luke Timothy Johnson, with John Meier, Raymond Brown.
I have not read Eisenmann directly, only about him, and what I have read about him does not inspire me to read him.
Some of my fave scholars are
Meier, Brown, Ben Witherington, Dale Allison, Bruce Chilton, Daniel Harrington. But then again, my area of study is Matthew. These guys get it when it comes to Jesus’ Jewishness.
Johnson’s good on Luke. However, recently he has shown an Agenda as far as sexuality goes.
People bash the historical-critical method too much. When understood and used correctly, it does not eviscerate the spirituality of the Gospels. Historical-critical has always enhanced my spirituality, in fact.
Back to Crossan: he misunderstands the parables. It is a difficult literary form and oral form. To call them merely “symbolic” misses the point. They are more obscure to modern readers; they were less obscure to ancient Mediterranean hearers.