Search SBL
 











SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive 'Things That Matter': Historical Jesus Studies in the New Millennium

The flurry and the furor of historical Jesus studies that marked the 1990s is over. The Jesus Seminar has gone on to study Paul and creeds. N. T. Wright is now Bishop of Durham and producing a series of devotional commentaries. His fellow bishop John Shelby Spong has turned his attention to advocating gay marriage and denouncing theism. Raymond Brown is gone (and missed). Somewhere in the bowels of Notre Dame's libraries John Meier must be tediously working on Volume Four of his magnum opus, and we will all read it when it arrives, but there is not quite the breathless anticipation that awaited Volume Two.

Serious scholars are still doing serious scholarship but, at a popular level, fans of the historical Jesus may long for those days when the discipline was more lively. Remember when Time and Newsweek devoted at least one cover each year to Jesus studies? Now they've had to turn to The Da Vinci Code, Mel's passion movie, the Left Behind series, and (God help us) Christian rock to sell those requisitely religious mid-December and holy week issues.

On cable television the VH1 network (that's the pop-music video channel for you ivory-tower types) is currently enjoying a hit with their nostalgia series I Love the Nineties. The show explores images and fads from a decade gone by: it was the time of Ally McBeel, Tanya Harding and Tickle-Me-Elmo.

And it was a time when Bible scholars could blackball Jesus by dropping little marbles into bowls; when headlines could scream, "Scholars Decide: Jesus Did Not Teach the Lord's Prayer"; when John Dominic Crossan could announce that the post-crucifixion body of Jesus was devoured by wild dogs. Jane Schaberg called Jesus a (literal) bastard; Meier called him "a marginal Jew"; Leif Vaage said he was "a party animal"; Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza characterized him as a feminist prophet of the goddess Sophia; Crossan described him as "a Galilean hippie in a world of Augustan yuppies." At one meeting I attended, a journalist named Russell Shorto—who was covering the event for (get this!) GQ magazine-turned to me and said, "You can't make this stuff up!"

So where are we now? What are the earmarks of Jesus scholarship in the mid-2000s? I'll name five features that distinguish the discipline in just what might turn out to be its doldrums decade—and you can decide for yourself how to evaluate what seems to be transpiring.

First, I notice a decrease in biographies of Jesus and an increase in dissertations concerning him. That translates into more focus on detail. There is a new generation of scholars who seem to have little interest in telling us everything about Jesus but who possess a passion for persuading us of some one thing that they are sure is true.

Second, I notice less reliance on the apocryphal gospels than was in vogue a few years ago. No one can ignore those writings completely, but they seem to have worn out their welcome among many scholars who think that their significance for historical reconstruction was exaggerated. With the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, the apocryphal works are almost unanimously viewed as late and all but void of historically reliable material independent of what can be found in canonical writings.

Third, I think I notice an increased interest in the historical Jesus on the part of women scholars, though the field remains overpopulated with men. Kathleen Corley, Amy-Jill Levine, and Paula Fredriksen have joined Schussler Fiorenza and Schaberg as high-profile examples of scholars who have gone where few women have gone before, and the "Call for Papers" that goes out for each annual meeting of the SBL inevitably draws responses from female doctoral candidates around the globe. The nature of Jesus' stance toward women has been a topic of special interest to these and other scholars, as has the related question of what can be affirmed historically of his female associates (especially his mother and Mary Magdalene).

A fourth trend is more difficult to name and will take some time to substantiate. I discern what I can only describe as a resurgence of orthodoxy. Conservatives, traditionalists, evangelicals—call them what you will—have entered the field in droves and, in many cases, have seized the offensive. In the 1990s, Jesus studies was stereotyped as a left-wing haunt for radicals and disaffected apostates; the cautious and the conventional (Meier; Wright) were viewed as "hold-outs" from a previous era. Evangelical scholarship was almost always defensive and reproachful, as might be inferred from the literally inflammatory title of the popular book Jesus Under Fire (ed. by Michael Wilkins and James Moreland). Luke Timothy Johnson also devoted an entire book to kicking against the goads and won himself a place in evangelical hearts he had not inhabited previously (see The Real Jesus; for the goads reference, cf. Acts 9:5; I avoid using the KJV translation, though some might have thought it applied).

Times have changed and those who maintain that the Gospel portraits of Jesus are largely inauthentic now find themselves on the defensive. The single greatest factor in this turnabout has probably been the de-throning of dissimilarity as the favored criterion for historical research. For decades, scholars deemed material inauthentic if it seemed overly compatible with the interests and ideologies of developing Christian religion. There is logic to this that ought not be dismissed, but scholars with a more optimistic appraisal of tradition have complained that such a criterion guarantees a Jesus who has little in common with those who were willing to die for devotion to his cause.

The conservatives (or whatever one wants to call them) often claim to have Occam's razor on their side. Let's take two examples:

1. Jesus fulfills what were thought to be messianic prophecies. The dominant paradigm for decades held that those instances in which the Gospels portray Jesus doing things that the scriptures were thought to predict the Messiah would do must be regarded as apologetic fabrications of the early church. A new wave of scholars has asked which of two scenarios seems more likely: a) Jesus never claimed to be the messiah, but his followers decided that he was the messiah nonetheless; these otherwise honest persons then scoured the scriptures for passages that spoke of the messiah and proceeded to make up stories about Jesus that presented him as doing the things that they now thought he should have done; or b) like several other persons known to us, Jesus became convinced that he was the messiah; he read or heard about things that the scriptures supposedly said the messiah would do and tried to shape his life accordingly.

The latter scenario does not explain everything, but it might allow authentication of much that those who rely on the criterion of dissimilarity would dismiss. Of course Jesus could not have orchestrated his own birth in Bethlehem (the authenticity of which is often contested), but why would he not have chosen to ride a donkey into Jerusalem in emulation of Zechariah 9:9? Over thirty years ago, Rudolf Bultmann presented the latter story as his definitive example of an apologetic legend; it must be regarded as non-historical, since we would otherwise have to assume that "Jesus intended to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 . . . [which] is absurd." [1] No scholar today would be able to treat the absurdity of such a construction as a matter so self-evidently obvious that it does not even require argumentation. This fact alone attests to a shift in predispositions of the guild.

2. Jesus proclaimed an eschatological/apocalyptic message of a coming kingdom. Perhaps the most distinctive hallmark of Jesus scholarship in the 1990s was a repudiation of the notion that Jesus expected and announced an imminent end of the world. Indeed, that repudiation was what prompted coinage of the term "third quest," to distinguish the work of scholars like Borg, Crossan, and Robert Funk (all associated with the Jesus Seminar) from that of persons associated with what had been popularly called "the new quest of the historical Jesus" (e.g., Günther Bornkamm, Norman Perrin, and Gerd Theissen, all of whom did attribute an imminent eschatological perspective to the Jesus of history). The emerging, third-quest paradigm favored a Jesus who did not speak about the end of the world but of a new way of being. The eschatological and apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were dismissed as enthusiastic attributions of a church in crisis, exemplary of the kind of rhetoric spouted by sects experiencing violent persecution and/or social ostracism.

Again, the so-called conservatives have raised the question of whether the scenario that rejection of this material requires is really more plausible than that which ensues if the material is accepted as authentic. They start by noting that almost all scholars grant that 1) John the Baptist spoke of an imminent end; and, 2) Paul also thought the end was at hand. Is it reasonable to assume that Jesus broke with his mentor on this apparently essential point only to have his own view subsequently rejected by his most prominent and earliest interpreter? That could have happened, but isn't it more reasonable, this argument suggests, to regard Jesus as the midpoint on a trajectory, as the connecting dot on a line from the Baptist to the Apostle? Is it not simpler (Occam's razor again) to assume a progressive development of ideas than to adopt a scenario that requires at least two 180 degree turnabouts?

My point here is not to argue for the traditionalist view—it can be challenged. What I think must be granted, however, is that the vision of a non-eschatological Jesus that was presented so forcefully in the '90s has fallen on hard times. When Borg published his Jesus in Contemporary Society in 1994, he dealt extensively with the work of E. P. Sanders, whom he regarded as the principal remaining exponent of "the previous eschatological consensus." [2] But subsequent works by Meier and Wright would make clear that Sanders was not alone, and in recent years, studies on Jesus by Dale Allison, Darrell Bock, James D. G. Dunn, Bart Ehrman, Craig Evans, Joachim Gnilka, Leander Keck, Scot McKnight, and Graham Twelftree have all either argued for an eschatologically focused Jesus or treated that vision as a near-consensus that can almost be taken for granted. The debate does continue [3] but I think that those who grant general authenticity to the eschatological material are now once again regarded as representative of the mainstream.

Pendulums do swing, and I have no predictions as to where the guild may end up on such questions as Jesus' own messianic consciousness or apocalyptic inclinations. I also plead a degree of personal agnosticism on these matters. I am not suggesting that the conservatives are right on such matters, only that they are (currently) winning. The growing respect for Gospel tradition that we see among historical Jesus scholars today is a far cry from the skepticism that marked the guild a decade ago. Perhaps that is one reason we are no longer as interesting to journalists.

A fifth and final trend that marks current Jesus studies is a strong effort by scholars to integrate their work into some sort of larger task. Today's historical Jesus scholars want to emphasize the significance that reconstructing a historically credible Jesus has for systematic theology, pastoral preparation, spiritual formation, ecumenical discourse, and a variety of other agendas.

Those who have made their way through N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God will have no doubt noticed the breadth of its concern. Historical questions are raised, but the book also wants to deal with theology; it wants to explicate what resurrection faith has meant, does mean, and ought to mean for those who commit themselves to it. Likewise, James Dunn's massive Jesus Remembered is explicitly marketed as volume one in a "Christianity in the Making" series and is less concerned with establishing what Jesus said and did than with analyzing how Jesus was remembered and why.

Donald Capps is interested in understanding the historical Jesus from a psychological point of view, apparently because such an understanding will be significant for his work in counseling and pastoral care. Other Jesus scholars—including Borg, McKnight and the present author—have recently authored books on spirituality in which their prior convictions regarding the Jesus of history remain relevant.

This all seems to illustrate something that I heard myself saying back in the '90s when Robert Funk was invited to speak at a meeting of the Ohio Academy of Religion. The controversial founder of the Jesus Seminar was slated to give a very academic and fairly non-controversial address on some topic of historical interest, but his mere presence in the mid-west was noticed by the general populace and the building where he was to lecture was surrounded by protestors with picket signs. Indeed, threats were called in, necessitating police protection and armed bodyguards—a first for any plenary session of the OAR. I was asked to introduce Funk that night and, appraising the situation, I chose to do so with the following line: "Robert Funk is a man who gets people riled up over things that matter."

And so it is with the current state of historical Jesus studies. People are less riled up than they used to be—I don't know whether that's entirely good or only partly so. But both historical Jesus scholars and their detractors would still agree that these are things that matter. We are studying subjects of fundamental importance to religion and society, topics with profound implications for theology and piety, as well as for politics, philosophy, and the very self-image of western civilization.

Mark Allan Powell is Robert and Phyllis Leatherman Professor of New Testament Studies at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Notes

[1] Rudolph Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Problem, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 261-62.
[2] Marcus J. Borg. Jesus in Contemporary Society (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 74.
[3] An up-to-date resource for assessing this discussion is Robert J. Miller, ed., The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2004).

Citation: Mark Allan Powell, " 'Things That Matter': Historical Jesus Studies in the New Millennium," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=333

 
JOIN SBL   |  DONATE TO SBL   |  CONTACT SBL   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY   |  REVIEW OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE   |  SBL TWITTER   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY TWITTER

© 2018, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.