Outline

I. The question "What does Jesus of Nazareth have to do with Christianity?" is not as frivolous as it sounds.

A. Next time, we shall see how Christianity begins, not on the basis of Jesus's activity, but on religious experiences concerning Jesus after his death.

B. Everything said about Jesus in early Christian writings (both canonical and non-canonical) comes from communities whose perceptions are "post-Easter."

C. Nevertheless, the historical person Jesus must be taken into account.

1. He is the central symbol of Christianity and the subject of all its discourse.

2. The issue of whether the church faithfully represented or fundamentally distorted Jesus has been a debate since the Enlightenment.

3. The "quest for the historical Jesus" has been one of the dominant theological exercises in Christianity since the Enlightenment: A Jesus purged of "religion" is sought as the norm for a Christianity freed from religion.

II. Although Jesus appears as a subject in virtually all early Christian writings, the canonical and non-canonical

Gospels provide indirect and second-hand evidence concerning his historical activity.

A. The Gospels are best understood, not as biographies in the contemporary sense, but as witnesses and interpretations.

1. They use traditions that derive from the oral tradition of Christian communities of the first generation and, in some cases, from companions of Jesus himself.

2. But the Gospel narratives are composed from the perspective of belief in Jesus's resurrection and interpret his ministry from that perspective.

3. The most accessible level of meaning in the Gospels is that shaped by the respective evangelists. Getting at the earlier traditions they used is more difficult; harder still is finding the facts about Jesus.

B. As literary compositions, the Gospels present extraordinarily complex problems to those posing historical questions.

1. The earliest Gospels composed (Mark, Matthew, Luke; from between 70-85 c.e.) are called "the Synoptics" because they share so much material and are literarily interdependent. Matthew and Luke use Mark and share a source sometimes called "Q."

2. The Gospel of John (ca. 90 c.e.) shares some traditions about Jesus with the Synoptics but presents a picture of Jesus that is markedly distinct.

3. The apocryphal (meaning: not in the canon of the New Testament) Gospels are the latest written (between the second and fourth centuries c.e.) and range from versions that contain valuable Jesus traditions (notably, the Gospel of Thomas) to those that are legendary (such as the Infancy Gospel of James).

4. Much of the material is not accessible to historical analysis, such as working wonders or experiencing a transfiguration.

5. The accounts differ dramatically on very important points.

6. The Gospels do not give access to Jesus's motivations or his psychology.

C. Faced with such problems, scholars tend to follow one of three approaches to the Gospels.

1. Some emphasize their historic reliability (the maximalist position), but the differences in the Gospels are a huge problem for this approach.

2. Some emphasize the creativity of the community—the story of Jesus's life as depicted in the Gospels is a creation of the Christian community (the minimalist position). This runs into the problem that many of Jesus's deeds and sayings do not make any sense outside of the first-century Palestinian context, especially the parables, which clearly have an air of authenticity.

3. Some acknowledge both the role of the community and the tradition (the dialectical approach).

III. Using appropriate historiographical methods, it is possible to make responsible judgments concerning Jesus as a historical figure.

A. The basic method is to place greatest reliance on lines of converging evidence; that is, where the ancient witnesses converge on facts despite their disparate interpretations, we are on more solid ground. (Such sources include non-Christian sources, such as Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Lucian, as well as Jewish sources, such as Josephus.)

B. The result is a picture of broad patterns that falls far short of the "historical Jesus" purveyed by the popular press but has the advantage of being solidly based on the evidence.

C. Speaking of "Jesus's religious experience" is even more difficult and requires a dependence on the narrative portrayal of the Gospels (their interpretation) that goes beyond, but does not contradict, the historical evidence.

IV. Some features in the Gospel portrayals of Jesus point to a distinctive religious character.

A. Jesus clearly had some sense of a call as prophet or messiah that involved a mission to his fellow Jews.

B. Jesus had a highly developed sense of personal relationship with God as "son" that went beyond membership in God's people.

C. Jesus claimed and enacted an extraordinary freedom and authority that expressed itself in acts of healing, in teaching, and in the transgression of religious norms (e.g., to eat with sinners, break the Sabbath, break dietary laws, and so on).

D. Jesus's obedience to God was expressed in a radical lifestyle that combined itineracy, poverty, and celibacy.

E. The Gospel reports of Jesus's teaching and of his actions agree that his message and mission expressed a vision of God characterized by mercy and compassion.

F. His manner of death raises the intriguing question about his messianic consciousness.

Essential Reading:

J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1991, 1994).

P. Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York:

Knopf [Random House], 1999).

Questions to Consider:

1. How do the literary complexities of the sources make a straightforward historical reconstruction of Jesus difficult?

2. What different view of the Gospels results from changing one's perspective on them from poor biographies to good witnesses and interpretations?

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