The Flight from History

The quest for the historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth has been marked throughout by tension between faith and history. Initially the faith in question was conceived as dogma, the developed and formalized faith of the Christian churches, perceived as forming a kind of suffocating layer which separated present from past, or even a kind of prison from which the historical Jesus needed to be liberated. At first history was seen as the great liberator. Careful historical research, it was assumed, would enable the present to reconstruct the past clearly enough to expose to modern gaze the real (historical) Jesus. And even when faith returned to a more and less cerebral form, it was still assumed that historical inquiry would enable a fresh encounter between the faith of the 'historical Jesus' and the faith of the present-day believer. The surprising confidence of the quest bespeaks the same liberal optimism, that the tools of his torical inquiry are wholly adequate for the job of finding a wise teacher behind the theologized Gospel portrayal, behind the dogmatic Christ of classic Christian faith. It is matched only by the same confidence in their ability to decompose documents, not least later Gnostic Gospels, into definite compositional layers and more 'original' tradition.

But there is the other side of the tension still to be considered, a second plot line running through the story of the quest. History has by no means always been seen as a positive force. And what it is that history, that is, historical inquiry, can actually do, what historical research can actually be expected to produce, are questions too little asked by too many of those involved in the quest. It is this second feature of the quest, including the hermeneutical questions it has posed, to which we now turn.

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