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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive "What is 'Historical' about the 'Historical Jesus'?"

Research into Jesus's life and teaching treats the question of the "historical Jesus" as if we were dealing with a known and an unknown: everyone understands what "historical" means; the unknown variable is that enigmatic figure, Jesus. The overwhelming position within historical Jesus research is that "historical" equals "authentic," and the absence of the label "historical" equals "inauthentic." Jesus was a real human being who walked the countryside of Galilee and, at least once, the streets of Jerusalem. He said and did real things, and anyone present would have observed them as concretely as one observes Batman atop Buckingham Palace. The Gospels are not those concrete observations, but they have preserved some of them.

If only things were so simple. The relationship between past and present is not straightforward or automatic, as if the past simply "existed" and made itself available for the present to retain, cherish, and appropriate. Neither is that relationship impossible, as if the past were continually in the process of evanescing and left it up to the present to create the past according to its own needs and interests. Both of these extremes find expression in books on the historical Jesus, but between them is a whole spectrum in which past and present interact. The present turns to the past in order to legitimate and further its own interests, yes; but it also turns to the past to understand itself and to know what its interests are in the first place.

History as a Synthesis of Past and Present
What are the dynamics of the relationship between past and present, between objective and constructed history, between historical truth and legitimation of current interests? What follows are some brief thoughts on (a) how the past proves malleable in the hands of the present, (b) how the past resists efforts in the present to remake it (and, in turn, ends up remaking the present), and (c) how the two considerations (a) and (b) can be synthesised into a theory of past-and-present from which we can make some meaningful statements about what we mean by "historical" in "historical Jesus" research.

Contingent Pasts in the Present
American sociologist Barry Schwartz proposes that "the most widely accepted approach [to collective memory] sees the past as a social construction shaped by the concerns and needs of the present" (Schwartz 1991:221). In this connection, the perception of the past is distorted (in a strong sense) in light of the present. "'Traditions' which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented" (Hobsbawm 1983a:1). The essays in Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) analyze the rise and installment of new practices in society that are then supposed to have their origins in the distant past. In the case of societies that are still emerging from a period of radical societal restructuring, the consequences are almost predictable: "the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with [the past] is largely fictitious" (Hobsbawm 1983a:2).

Importantly, Hobsbawm identifies repetition as an important aspect of inventing traditions and constructing a sense of continuity with the past (1983a:1). Also, Hobsbawm identifies social change as a factor that necessitates the invention of traditions even in societies whose histories are legitimately historic. Hobsbawm also notes the role of public reception in the analysis of the successful invention of traditions, insofar as "conscious invention succeeded mainly in proportion to its success in broadcasting on a wavelength to which the public was ready to tune in" (1983b:263).

The constantly shifting, negotiated nature of social structures and cultural logic impress themselves upon how society conceives of its past ("history"), so that societal changes and fluctuations in the past are related. When we consider the unstable conditions in Galilean and Judean society at the turn of the era, it makes sense to suppose a priori that the content and structure of the past during this period were contentious and in flux. But we ought not to assume that past and present bear a one-to-one relationship; groups do remember pasts that are no longer relevant to their cultural situation, or that are not as relevant, or that are relevant for different reasons. In many instances, the past outlives its particular usefulness for society, yet society does not always feel free to efface its history in favor of its present.

Consistent Pasts in the Present
Despite the analytical utility of conceptualizations that describe the vicissitudes of the past, studies that emphasize the contingent record of the past often "see the past as precarious, its contents hostage to the conditions of the present." Schwartz's analyses (1991; 2000) attempt to supplement—rather than undermine—studies that emphasize the contingency of the past. The past fluctuates, and it does so under the influence of the present. "But this is half the truth, at best, and a particularly cynical half-truth, at that" (Schudson 1989:113). The present fluctuates as well, not just at the passage of time, but also because of the presence of the past: "Concerning memory as such, we may note that our experience of the present very largely depends upon our knowledge of the past" (Connerton 1989:2). This is '"the other half of the truth": the past is frequently (not always, and not perfectly) consistent across fluctuations in the present. Schudson contends that "the past is in some respects, and under some conditions, highly resistant to efforts to make it over" (1989:107), and he identifies three factors that limit the ability of present interests to rewrite history. First (1989:108-109), "There are features of our own pasts that become part of the givens of our lives, whether they are convenient or not." That is, historical events and figures have varying degrees of salience that fades as time passes, but that also exert pressure on the subsequent presents. "Once commemoration gets underway, it picks up steam; it operates by a logic and force of its own. . . . Even powerful groups and individuals, therefore, can only muck with the salient past so far" (1989:108, 109). In other words, once a figure or event is installed in collective memory, it attracts power to itself (whether or not the installation itself was the doing of traditional centers of cultural power), a power that is "self-perpetuating" and that resists efforts to displace the figure or event.

Second (Schudson 1989:109-112), the psychological impact the past makes in the minds and behavior of individuals and groups also restricts the lengths to which present interests can go in reconstituting the past. Schudson identifies four dynamics that restrict the individual's (social) psychological ability to remake history: trauma, vicarious trauma, channel, and commitment (1989:109). Schudson defines trauma as events that are consequential, not necessarily events that are consequentially negative. This applies to traumas that are both personally and vicariously experienced; traumas are those experiences that people or groups "cannot ignore even when they would like to, cannot divert their attention from without courting anxiety, fear, and pain" (1989:110). Certainly, the relationship between the structures of available pasts and of individual choices are closely related. Through traumatic experiences (especially those of others), the past becomes didactic; they provide "not only information about the past but appropriate emotional orientations to it" (1989:111).

By channel, Schudson is referring to the "inertial pull" of historical precedent; even rare or unique events "may have extraordinary influence on people and organizations long after the fact" (1989:111). Events in the present can call upon earlier events in order to suggest appropriate ways of thinking about and responding to the issues raised by those events; this can happen automatically or after some degree of conscious reflection (cf. Schudson 1992:167, 183). Finally, Schudson (1989:111) defines commitment as the attachment an individual or group feels to "what is called identity or character or, with a more social aspect emphasized, reputation." Even when rational consideration would suggest that the present self-interest of the individual or group would be better served by severing the past and moving on, this will be difficult because it would mean altering the individual's or the group's sense of identity.

Third (Schudson 1989:112), the competition between rival definitions and conceptualizations of the past also limit the extent to which the past is susceptible to being made over. "People's ability to reconstruct the past just as they wish is limited by the crucial social fact that other people within their awareness are trying to do the same thing." The alternate definitions of reality and of the past by rival (or simply coexistent) groups do not have to be convincing to restrict the lengths to which present interests can rework history; their presence as plausible alternatives will constrain efforts to provide self-interested narratives. Perhaps paradoxically, this suggests that the more contested the past becomes, the more salient and resistant to change it will be (cf. also Fine 1996:1186). As (pre- or proto-) revolutionary groups arose and grew in influence in the decades prior to the Jewish-Roman War, social conditions became increasingly destabilized. Nevertheless, in this period of destabilization, the motivation to hold onto and press one's image of the past became more urgent, so that "history" in this period would have become simultaneously more contentious and more rigid.

Contingency and Consistency in Tension
So are we faced with having to choose a model of either a contingent past or a consistent past? Hopefully not. Schwartz devises a model by which the past consists of a stable core to which later conceptions and interests are appended or stripped away as present needs dictate. History-telling, then, is a process of construing and structuring historical "facts" in order to make them meaningful and relevant, but doing so within the restraints of objective history and previous conceptualizations of the past, both of which form part of the "stable core" that resists restructuring at the whim of present interests and perspectives. Both the objective "facts" of history and the way that history has previously been told interact with constantly shifting social structures and logic to shape new (re)conceptualizations of the past:

The presence of inherited memories in the midst of invented memories is not an anomaly requiring reconciliation. . . . As each generation modifies the beliefs presented by previous generations, there remains an assemblage of old beliefs coexisting with the new, including old beliefs about the past itself (Schwartz 1991:234).

Schudson refers to "the power of contingency" and "the power of continuity" (1992:3) and argues that investigations into the past need to take both into account (cf. Schudson 1992:207).

The Gospels as "History" of Jesus
The model by which peripheral (though not unimportant or insignificant) historical elements are added or emphasized (also stripped or neglected) to a stable and established historical image is therefore both theoretically and empirically confirmed (cf. Ben-Yehuda 1995:301). This model also makes sense of the Synoptic gospels, where the development of tradition appears to be much less along a trajectory (away from Jesus and toward the Synoptics) as it was of "abbreviation and omission, clarification and explanation, elaboration and extension of motif" (Dunn 2003:224; cf. also 233-234). Studies in social memory suggest that our apprehension of the past is encouraged along and constrained by both past and present. Remembering the past always means turning to a period in time that is not the present and that is different from, and in some ways alien to, the period in time in which we are remembering. There is no perfect fit between past and present. And yet the past is never completely foreign or unrecognizable; otherwise we would lose all motivation for turning to it in the first place. Turning to the past is always connecting two different periods of time in order to make sense of both. This is what "history" is.

And if this is what "history" is, then we suddenly find no occasion for surprise when we turn to the gospels (especially the Synoptic gospels) and see in them the "history" of Jesus. Certainly the Evangelists—and the communities that nurtured the traditions they adapted and wrote down—understood the past of Jesus' ministry in terms of their present, but this is not to say that they (re)constituted their past completely. We also see in the gospels aspects of the past that are not especially conducive to the present of the later Jesus movements; this is usually what is meant when some logion or other is classified as "dissimilar" or "embarrassing." But Jesus's followers, including the Evangelists, constituted their present in light of the past. There was no perfect fit between Jesus and the circumstances of his later followers, but neither was the "historical Jesus" an unrecognizable figure, in need of updating, to those who endeavored to write his story.

Rafael Rodriguez,Rodriguez is a graduate student at Sheffield University, ra_rodr@hotmail.com

Works Cited

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman

1995 The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Connerton, Paul

1989 How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cruikshank, Julie

1990 "Myth as a Framework for Life Stories: Athapaskan Women Making Sense of Social Change in Northern Canada." The Myths We Live By. Edited by Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson. London and New York: Routledge, 174-183.

Dunn, James D. G.

2003 Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans.

Fine, Gary Alan

1996 "Reputational Entrepreneurs and the Memory of Incompetence: Melting Supporters, Partisan Warriors, and Images of President Harding." American Journal of Sociology 101/5:1159-1193.

Hobsbawm, Eric

1983a "Introduction: Inventing Traditions." The Invention of Tradition. Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-14.

1983b "Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914." The Invention of Tradition. Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 263-307.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger

1983 The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schudson, Michael

1989 "The Present in the Past versus the Past in the Present." Communication 11:105-113.

1992 Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. New York: Basic Books.

Schwartz, Barry

1991 "Social Change and Collective Memory: The Democratization of George Washington." American Sociological Review 56/2:221-236.

2000 Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Citation: Rafael Rodriguez, " "What is 'Historical' about the 'Historical Jesus'?"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=436

 
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