Friday, 29 August 2014

The Development of Historical Jesus Studies

The title of this post is subtly but only apparently ambiguous, for in fact "the development of historical Jesus studies" could potential refer to at least one or both of two distinct phenomena. The first potential referent is to development of historical Jesus studies as a sub-discipline, i.e. its origin, emergence, and growth within the broader discipline of New Testament studies. The second potential referent to the fact that it is often construed to take as its object of study the development of what is commonly called the Jesus tradition, i.e. the canonical and extra-canonical gospels, references to Jesus in the broader New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, etc. This subtle ambiguity is apparent because in fact the second referent potential cannot reasonably be construed as the actual referent, not at least if it is supposed that I am referring to sound historical method. Please let me explain.

Development is a very simple idea. Fundamentally, it is simply the recognition that on the one hand the way things are today are not the way they were previously, on the other hand the way things are today are predicated upon previous states of the world. Xn is not Xn+1 but Xn+1 is possible only because of Xn. Such an understanding of the world is really a discovery of the nineteenth century. That statement requires qualification. Of course people knew about the basic idea of change over time. Nonetheless, in the nineteenth century the notion of development assumed a philosophical as well as social and cultural prominence theretofore unknown. This is perhaps best represented by what we might call the Four Horsemen of the Old Atheism: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. All were philosophers of development: Marx, of social and political development; Darwin, of biological; Nietzsche, aesthetic; Freud, psychological. From henceforth, as the result of such thinkers, we could no longer think of the great matters of the world in static and synchronic but rather always in dynamic and diachronic terms: and those who did think in the former terms have come increasingly to look as quaint dinosaurs, left behind by development itself.

New Testament scholarship was hardly untouched by this development that was the discovery of development. Textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, each entail in one way or another the study of textual development, and it hardly seems an accident that they came fully into their own during precisely the time that human consciousness was fully grasping for the first time the significance of development. In the study of early Christianity proper the first philosophers of development are David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur. The former had the more direct impact upon historical Jesus studies, the latter the more impact upon New Testament more broadly. In doctrinal and systematic theology it was John Henry Cardinal Newman who first fully made the leap to a philosophy of development. The sequences of transformations that led to and followed from the Straussian breakthrough can be reasonably described under the rubric of the development of historical Jesus studies.

The second potential referent of “the development of historical Jesus studies” is the idea of development within the Jesus tradition. There is a longstanding supposition among not a few scholars that whatever might be the proper method for discovering the historical Jesus such a method will surely be archaeological in character. The Jesus tradition, as the product of development, is like an archaeological tell, and thus the task of the historical Jesus scholar is to dig through this tell, stratify its layers, and when she or he reaches the bottom layer cry “Eureka! I found him!” We will, when we hit the bottom, see the historical Jesus, the same way one would see an archaeological feature. This is often left implicit within the discipline, and sometimes (most notably in Bultmann’s Jesus) made explicit.

Although sufficiently compelling to be the norm for much of the last two centuries, this understanding of the task of the historical Jesus scholar is obviously ill-conceived. It simply cannot be how the historian should proceed. The fact that after more than a century proceeding this way we seem no closer to a collective eureka moment speaks to that fact. It simply cannot be how the historian should proceed because it is not history at all. It is actually just a sophisticated version of what Collingwood calls “scissors-and-paste history,” which is a procedure by which one removes from the data set that which one judges could not happened and stitches together history from what remains. The product is Patchwork Jesus, having no more resemblance to a real human person than Frankenstein’s monster.

More fundamentally, such a procedure is only conceivable if we suppose that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there and not seeing what is not there, and that consequently the task of the knower is to eliminate from her or his field of vision that which is not real. But this is an ultimately inchoate theory of knowledge, one which reduces knowing to perceiving, such that a failure to know is always a failure to see or hear or taste, but never a failure to think. Thus is in fact thought eliminated from the theory of knowledge, which effectively renders impossible the effort to think about whether what we perceived is true or not, whether it is real, whether it is there. But since we can think about that matter then knowing cannot be reduced to perceiving and the task of the historian cannot be reduced to digging down through a metaphorical tell to reach a Jesus that can be known exclusively through perception.

And thus, if we suppose that I am speaking only of sound historical method, "the development of the historical Jesus" can only have one actual referent, namely the development of the sub-discipline qua sub-discipline.


  1. Hey Jonathan. Nice to see you done and your book out so quickly. Well done!

  2. Thanks Wayne. Good to hear from you.