Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Reality of Historical Jesus Studies

I have generally been a little hesitant to post things here that deal directly with historical Jesus studies. After all, I am writing a monograph on the matter, and I would like to use this space to post ruminations on critical realism that go beyond the more specific focus of that book. Plus, I don’t want to steal my own thunder. Still, there are sometimes things that burn in your brain and won’t release you until you share them with the world. What follows is an example of such a thing.

I have come to realize that the central issue in historical Jesus studies is where we locate reality, and thus also what we mean by the word "true." The criteria approach proceeds upon the supposition that the real (or, to use the term preferred in such scholarship, "authentic") is to be found in ancient statements about Jesus. That means it is in the gospels, canonical and otherwise, select passages in Paul, select passages in Josephus, etc. This supposition however does not entail that every ancient statement about Jesus is a statement about the real. Thus it is concluded that the task of the historian is to distinguish those statements which are about the real from those which are not, i.e. to distinguish true statements from untrue statements, and then to assemble a Jesus from whatever statements are deemed to be true. Thus results what Collingwood called "scissors and paste history," wherein our historical narratives about Jesus become mere collages of pieces cut out from the gospels and potentially other material. I like to think of this as the Frankenstein Jesus.

The last ten years or so have seen genuine advance in the study of the historical Jesus precisely because the discourse has moved from a general focus from the truth of statements found in the sources towards the interpretation of said sources. This shift can be conveniently dated to Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, and has been advanced by the work of younger scholars such as Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and Rafael Rodriguez. They have rightly grasped that what we have in statements given in the sources are not the real but rather interpretations, and that moreover what we produce as Jesus historians are in fact further interpretations. For the historian the question “Is this statement given in the sources?” is thus invariably a question mal posée. That the discourse as whole has moved from such questions is genuine advance. It nonetheless leaves a number of epistemic questions unresolved.

Where I think that we presently struggle is that we do not yet have a clear idea how one can move from the interpretation of sources to judgments about the real. If we locate the real within our interpretations then how do we know what interpretation is true? How do we know whether my interpretation is any truer than your interpretation? That is where we are at, I think. There has been genuine advance, but like any genuine advance it has created new difficulties that now require resolution. In response to these difficulties there will inevitably be the reactionary who wants to return to the more familiar world that existed before the advance (consider Foster’s argument at “The Blow-up in Baltimore” that what Keith and Rodriguez are doing isn’t really historical Jesus studies because it is not concerned with the truth of statements given in the sources); there will also be the nihilist who will declare that if the old ways of doing things will not yield truth then truth cannot be found (consider Crook’s declaration in the same session of a “New No Quest”); then there will be those who diligently, thoughtfully, carefully, work through the difficulties (consider Keith and Rodriguez in that session, or Le Donne and Jens Schröter in print). Neither the reactionary nor the nihilist represents a way forward, for the former counsels taking a step back whilst the latter denies the very possibility of further steps.

Returning to the question of the real, if it is not to be found in statements given in the sources or our interpretations of the sources then where is it to be found? Lonergan’s answer is that it is found in the “fit” between the sources and the interpretation thereof. Put differently, the interpretation is a hypothesis advanced to answer a question borne from observation of the sources (which we will henceforth designate as “data”) and insofar as it is warranted by the data a hypothesis articulates the real. Thus Lonergan’s critical realism is the position that the real consists of warranted judgments. For the historian the real is not a past “out there” because there is no past out there. Today is not two millennia ago. However the past that did exist two thousand years ago left traces of itself upon the presence that does exist and through these the historian can say things about that past. And insofar as those things which the historian says are warranted by those traces they are the real.

Of course, the above is just a sketch of how to go about making judgments regarding the (historical) real, but then again this is only a blog post. Perhaps it might give readers a better sense of why I am doing the work that I am doing. Contrary to those who might think that we are in a bad place in historical Jesus studies I think that quite the opposite is the case. We are in a very good place. There has been tremendous advance. Our next two steps are obvious: we need to consolidate this advance whilst using it as the stage for further advance. Exactly how that consolidation and further advance will look is the question before us.


  1. The question of moving from "interpretation" to "reality judgments" is one I've wrestled with, but you've posed it in a much more refined and knowledgeable way than I've as of yet been able to explore – this has been extremely helpful. Thanks so much for your outlook.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Damon, and I am pleased to hear that I could help. I mean, really, that's all I'm trying to do: share my own struggles on these matters, with the hope that perhaps others will find some nuggets of insight that can help them in their own.