The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus in

Our Inclusivism, Exclusivism, Syncretism, Normativism Debate

The Challenge of Multicultural Pluralism: Progress or Betrayal


Text:  Acts 4.12ff.  No Other Name!!  Is there salvation outside a personal relationship with Jesus of Nazareth?                    




                                                      The last half of this decade has been a busy one for questioners after the historical Jesus.  The Jesus Seminar capped a decade of self promotion with the publication of The Five Gospels:  The Search for The Authentic Words of Jesus (ed. Robert W. Funk, Ray Hoover (NY: Coleridge Press, 1995).  Note:  see other authors at the end of this paper. 


                                                      What is next after The Jesus Seminar?  Now the narrative displacement has moved to Paul, who was not seduced during the Jesus Seminar.  But the color-coding and ballot taking continues unabated.


                                                      The previous group of Gnostic gurus operated within liberal to radical paradigms.  Time will tell that little think tank operating in Santa Rosa, CA whether these self appointed scholars were on the cutting edge of scholarship.  The post modern Paul project is concentrating not on the search for the historical Jesus but rather for the historical Paul.  If there is no way to establish the right Jesus how could there be a “Wrong Jesus”?


                                                      This new emphasis challenges the importance of Ramsay, et. al. and attributive pejorative propaganda on the Pauline corpus.  In 1996 Jerome M. O’Connor produced Paul, A Critical Life (Oxford University Press).  Then in 1997 three new titles appeared--Paul Between Antioch and Damascus by Martin Hengel and Anne M. Schwemes (Westminster/John Knox); A. H. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of An Apostle (Norton); and Wilson and N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, A Critique of the deep scepticism present in the previous work; the most significant evangelical work by Ben Witherington III, The Paul Quest, The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus (InterVarsity Press).  The paramount Roman Catholic scholarship is that of Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, a Jesuit priest, The Commentary on Acts (NY: Doubleday); also consult his previous commentary, The Gospel of Luke in the same series).


                                                      The Jesus Seminar and the new search for Paul are a total rejection of the historical foundations of the Christian faith.  It surely is not hard to recognize the significance of the influential attack by the Gnostic gurus on the foundations of the Christian faith.


                                                      The Roman Catholic feminist, Rosemary R. Ruether, says that we need to develop a “spirituality of recycling a spirituality that includes ourselves in a renewal of earth and self.  We need to compost ourselves.”  Ms. Ruether was addressing a gathering called “Earth Spirit Rising: A Midwest Conference on Healing and Celebrating Planet Earth.”  The May 22-25 1998 conference was held in Cincinnati, Ohio and attracted some 400 participants who were treated to neo-pagan earth ritual presentations by shamans and sorcerers and explicit attacks on Christianity for violating the tenets of “eco-spirituality.”  Astonishingly, the gathering was sponsored by over 30 religious orders and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church.  Ms. Ruether was introduced as “one of the greatest theologians ever” and she blamed Christianity for our environmental and social woes.  Traditional Christianity makes “elite male humans” think they have the right to dominate women, the earth and other creatures.  Christians believe that “they are sojourners on their way to heaven.”  They believe such a thing because they misunderstand the Incarnation.  “The cosmos is the real incarnation”, she explained.  (Note that this is postmodern pantheistic Christian tolerance syndrome.)


                                                      To develop “a healing culture” she said we must draw not on the Judaeo-Christian tradition which is the primary source of domination and subjugation, but on the Eastern religions of Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, which teach “compassion for all sentient beings.”  We must realize that “nature does not need us to rule over it.  We are parasites, utterly dependent upon the rest of the food chain.  Nature would be much better off without us.”    


                                                      What emerged in Earth Rising was a new theology, actually a new religion, centered on ecology, animal rights, and feminism, all grounded in a new age--Pantheistic metaphysics. 

                                                      Another speaker at the conference included United Church of Christ pastor, Mendel Adams.  Instead of building a place of worship, his congregation has turned its property into nature trails.  “Christianity is arrogant,” he complained.  Christians believe that “even if there are other religions and we have a few to prove it, we are the best.  Likewise Christians seem to assert that even if there are other creatures on the earth, man is our best.” 


                                                      The great challenge in the post modern search for the real “Jesus” is the paradigmatic shift from “man the measure” to “nature the measure.”  This pantheistic new age narrative is crystal clear.  Our unique incarnate Lord is rejected as total nonsense in our post modern arena.  The deity of Christ was replaced by the deity of man and now by the deity of nature.  Within this received narrative no wonder there is a continuing search for the Wrong Jesus.  There can be no wrong or right Jesus.  There is only a pluralism of views of Jesus Christ.


                                                      This pluralism of public exhibits, Searching for the Wrong Jesus, have shown how shaky some of the premises and how shady some of the procedures are in a great deal of pseudo-biblical scholarship.  Media has manipulated The Jesus Seminar.  This band of scholars has only considered Jesus’ sayings, not his acts (cf. if His acts are non-historical, why are any of His words considered historical?).  If a scientific method of investigation has been used, why are there so many conflicting and contradictory results?  Where is the debate over the conflicting/contradictory images of Jesus?  How can a scientific procedure yield such widely divergent results?


                                                      Where is the debate over what constitutes a legitimately derived image, or a demonstration of why one image should be preferred to another?   One can never construct an image of anyone or thing if there is no normative source!  Yet, the denial of the availability of a normative image is central to all the 19th/20th century debates which searched for the Historical Jesus.  The debate presupposes a philosophy of historical evidence, a philosophy of linguistic communication, an epistemology for evaluating truth claims about any thing.  Is anyone’s reconstructed image an image of the real Jesus?  This question presupposes that there ever was a real Jesus.  To even ask the question in our era of pluralism of hermeneutics is a futile enterprise.  If it has no idea of what one is looking for, how is one to determine when one arrives at contradictory assured results of scientific scrutiny?  Scientific progress entails the epistemological/ontological presupposition of what would count for or against a received interpretive paradigm.  Human reason can and does transcend defective and/or false theoretical paradigms.  All hermeneutical paradigms must account for all data that is under investigation, but postmodern hermeneutics precludes both epistemological availability and ontological reality to True Truth.  The Jesus Seminar, et. al., makes many assertions while not producing effective, necessary and sufficient arguments (see my article, “Whatever Happened to True Truth?--After Quine, Rorty, Berstein, et al”). 


Theories of Evidence


                                                      What would count for or against a scientific hypothesis?  This author hold that there is massive creative imagination in the works of Crossan, Borg, Thiering, Michael, Mack, Wilson, Spong; see especially Meir’s work, a brilliant challenge to the very foundation of the Jesus Seminar.  It is impossible to decide whether the language of the postmodern searchers for the Historical Jesus are sloppy or cynical.


                                                      How can the post modern gurus claim to be doing critical scholarship without presupposition or bias, with the neutral assessment of sources, with a goal of simply discovering who Jesus “really was”?  The post modern seekers assume that the “historical Jesus” should somehow be normative, in light of their scholarly deductions.  Robert Funk claims that the Jesus Seminar is practising the most advanced critical research, yet the other side of his mouth claimed that the Seminar’s ultimate intention was to save Christianity from its evangelical captors.  (Funk’s remarks in Forum 1/1 (1985), p. 8-12; see especially T. Johnson’s, The Real Jesus:  The Misguided Quest of The Historical Jesus and The Truth of The Traditional Gospel (Harper, 1995).  Despite the fact that Paul’s letters are the earliest datable sources for anything about Christianity (ca. 60-64 A.D.) his work is not considered in the debate.


The Pauline Christ and The Orthodox/Heresy Controversies


                                                      Paul’s interpretation of Jesus is identical with the Jesus exposed in the Canonical Gospels.  Why doesn’t Paul’s evidence receive attention in the post modern Christological or the Gnostic search for the real Jesus?  In their scholarly hands the real Jesus is transformed into one who could not have transformed the world!  The reason for this failure lies in ideological rather than historical evidences.  One is a commitment to a conflict model of earliest Christianity that goes back to the Tubingen School of the mid 19th century, which was given a powerful new life over 30 years ago under the influence of Walter Baur’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Earliest Christianity (Fortress Press, 1971).  This model elevated a pluralism of diversity into a dogma (e.g. Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel can posit the 40-year development of a community “in Galilee completely untainted by any influence from the Jerusalem Church or Pauline churches.”).


                                                      This thesis is in diametric opposition to the evidence of Acts and the Pauline corpus.  The tension in the early churches is transcended by communication and cooperation between leaders based in the gospel norm.  The post modern search for the wrong Jesus stands or falls on the removal of evidence from Acts and the Pauline corpus by fanciful Gnostic reconstructions.  Paul is totally excluded from the postmodern Christological reconstructions.  In post modern reconstruction Paul plays the first and greatest enemy.  In contrast to the itinerant cynic peasant, Paul is the urban householder (see John Crossan’s Jesus; also Craig and Crossan, et. al., debate on the Resurrection (Baker, 1999). If contrasted to the woman-defined Jesus and wisdom-driven Jesus Movement, i.e., imagined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Paul is a proto patriarch in contrast to the gay magician Jesus imaged by Morton Smith, Paul is the hateful homophobe.  In other words, to have an ideologically correct Jesus (worldview paradigm, legitimization structure), we must exclude the complexity of an ideologically deviant Paul.  But this procedure is hardly scientific hermeneutical revolution of available historical data. 


                                                      A second tendency in post modern Christological reconstruction: The new questers claim to be able to determine, by means of various ‘criteria’ whether sayings attributed to Jesus are “authentic.”  They also claim the ability not only to detect within extant unified compositions a variety of earlier sources, but also discern to the most minute detail various levels of redaction within such sources.  Another assumption that lies behind every composition is a community and that one can move from the literary configuration of a text to the historical social and ideological configuration of a specific community.  Based in their Gnostic ideology, the Jesus Seminar participants are unjustifiably confident that Jesus could not have spoken certain parables or have made certain declarations.  The procedure is circular and subjective!  This same procedure is applied to Paul to eliminate any counter factual data to their imaginative hypothesis.  This procedure is used to reconstruct the history of Jesus’ community in Galilee (cf. the same procedure was used by Willi Marxsen to reconstruct the history of conflict in Philippi his Introduction to the New Testament (E.T. Fortress Press, p. 59-68).  This hermeneutical maze is a complete rewrite of history, which is further expressed in politically rewritten history in our post modern media, education, etc.


                                                      A final but crucial tendency of recent Jesus research, especially visible in Borg and Crossan, is the embrace of so-called social, scientific models.  Borg’s Jesus is based in the sociological type of the charismatic context which Geza Vermes posited on the basis of Honi and Circle Makers and Chanima ben Dosa from Rabbinic literature.  (This becomes formulae in Crossan’s Who Killed Jesus?, see esp. p. 11-12, 40-42, 50-58).  This procedure completely dismisses the narrative controls of the canonic gospels and the writings of Paul. 


                                                      John D. Crossan, on the other hand, appeals to the category of the peasant.  No number of “authentic” words of Jesus can ever pile up a free flowing narrative.  No pile of pieces can ever reach meaning, for meaning can come only from pattern.  The unique is collapsed into the universal, the particular disappears into the general.  Nothing new and surprising is encountered, only an instance of a universal law.


                                                      The Jesus of post modern searchers presents only a possibility, available to a sociological abstraction.  Jesus must think like a peasant, speak like a peasant, do what a peasant would do.  Forget Old Testament messianic prophetic preparation for messianic consciousness or sense of unique son-ship.  He cannot even be literate!  The employment of such models enable pieces to be put into a new combination, in place of the pattern provided by Paul and the Gospels.  Is it a mere “historical” pattern?  Only if we think that a “brandy imbibing,” “cigar smoking,” British imperialist adequately captures the significance of Winston Churchill.  Something other than disinterested historical research motivates these recent Jesus books. Each of these works contains a presupposition that classical Christology (Canon, Creeds) is a distortion of the real Jesus.  Although with Paul they hold that the Jesus Movement was corrupted into the Christian religion.  For Crossan and Mack, the distortion of Jesus’ goals precedes the creeds and is found in the narrative form of the canonical Gospels themselves.  These scholars want a new understanding of Jesus and Christian origins to have an impact on the cultural phenomenon called Christianity by removing what Mack calls “the privilege of the Christian myth.”  Myth of Innocence (Fortress Press, 1988), p. 254; see also his work, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Christian Origins (Harper, 1993).


                                                      Two assumptions still prevail from the time of the birth of the historical critical method:  (1) Historical knowledge is normative for faith.  If historical research comes up with a “different Jesus,” then Christianity will have to change its ways (Crossan, Historical Jesus, p. 426; Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 200 and Who Killed Jesus?, p. 217.  (2)  A second assumption is that a religious origin defines its religious essence, so that the first understanding of Jesus was better than any development of understanding.  But these are not properly historical observations.  They are rather ideological commitments.


                                                      The production of such poor historiography and such confused theology in the same package suggests that these self appointed Gnostic gurus of post modern images of Christ are caught within some deep and unresolved conflicts concerning the proper on legitimate functions of critical biblical scholarship, and concerning the usefulness of an overarching historical model as the dominant paradigm for biblical studies (see esp. L.T. Johnson, “Crisis in Biblical Scholarship” in Commonweal, 120 (April 1993):18-21).  After all, how much history can we do with these ancient fragments?  In their hands what is called “history” is really a “camouflaged form of cultural critique of contemporary religious observance.”  The frenzied dismantling of the narratives of the New Testament, the scavenging of usable pieces from the wreckage, the pasting of such pieces into a new pattern derived from anthropology, psychology or some other social science this effort increasingly appears to be an attempt to avoid or replace the unmistakable image of Jesus exposed in the pages of the New Testament, the writings of Paul (eg. I Peter, Hebrews) and the Canonical Gospels converge in presenting an image of Jesus that is instantly graspable and has been unfailingly grasped by those whose lives have been transformed in its pattern.  The image, constructed by the narrative of the New Testament and found only in these compositions as such, not in their pieces, is emphatically not the developed Christ of The Church - True God - True Man - nor is it the historical Jesus reconstructed from bits and pieces - time cynic - or true peasant.  It is, rather, the etching of a certain human character, a model of the disposition of human freedom in obedience to God and in service to others, an identity so distinctive that it is readily grasped even in history nemesis, like that of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, in The Idiot or Melville’s Billy Budd (i.e. influence of Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Fortress, 1972).


Critics Within and Without


                                                      If critics within Christianity or critics of Christianity would openly challenge that image, not on the basis of its historicity but on the basis of its religious or moral coherence and adequacy, something far more critical and interesting would be done with the New Testament than we find in the tired rationalist reductions that try to make history do criticism’s work (see eg. of challenges to the image of Jesus as the suffering one in Michael Harrington’s work, The Vast Majority: A Journey to the World (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1977), p. 94-95; or Susan Griffin’s Pornography and Silence (NY: Harper, 1981), p. 14-15, 46-47-68-69; for politically correct rewriting of history see my papers “From Historicism, The Idea of Progress to Post Modern Revisionist History” and “The Rewriting of History--Revisionism.”) 


Additional authors: Marcus Borg, Jesus, A New Vision, Spirit, Culture and The Life (Harper, 1987); Barbara Thiering, Jesus and The Riddle of The Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Secrets of His Life (Harper, 1992); Burton Mach, A Myth of Innocence, Mark and Christian Origins (Fortress Press, 1988); John Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of A Mediterranean Peasant (Harper, 1991); John Meir of Roman Catholic University in Washington, D.C.), A Marginal Jew: Rethinking The Historical Jesus (2 volumes, Doubleday, 1991-1992); Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, “Christ and Christology,” p. 94-115 (Intervarsity Press, 1993); also Joel B. Green, Scott McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and The Gospels “Christ,” (IVP, 1992), p. 106-117; articles “Logos, Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Wisdom.”



James Strauss, Lincoln, IL 62656