Open Issue July 2000

Recovering the historical Jesus

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor OP

Can we discover anything of the historical Jesus? Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, who is professor of New Testament at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, gives the reasons why an earlier scepticism in answering this question has been challenged and why the search for the historical Jesus does contribute to our spiritual lives.

The change in academic attitude towards the historical Jesus is graphically illustrated by the contents of two Catholic one-volume commentaries on the Bible. A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (CCHS) was published in England in 1953, and contained an entry on ‘The Person and Teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ’. Nothing similar was to be found in its American competitor The Jerome Biblical Commentary (JBC) which appeared in 1968.

Documenting the change

Why the difference? The editors of both volumes recognised the same problem but solved it in different ways. The climate of scepticism regarding the possibility of knowledge of the historical Jesus was such that what would be acceptable in the academic world would not be tolerated by Rome. The CCHS bowed to Rome, and published a completely uncritical article written, not by a biblical scholar, but by a dogmatic theologian, presumably because he could be trusted to know the limits over which one dare not step! For its part, the JBC bowed to the academic world, and said nothing, thereby appearing to confirm that there was nothing to be said about the Jesus of history. Criticism of the CCHS intensified with the appearance of the JBC, and a revised edition, The New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, appeared in 1969. It contained an erudite and detailed history of research into the problem of the historical Jesus, which, however, remained studiously non-committal regarding ‘facts’ in the life of Jesus. The revision of the JBC appeared twenty-one years later as The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990). It contained an article on ‘Jesus’ which both met the most critical standards of academe, and managed to say much that was positive about the life of Jesus. Clearly there had been a radical change in academic attitudes. What brought it about?

Before dealing with this question, however, it is helpful to outline briefly the factors that led to the scepticism that infected both Catholic and Protestant research into the historical Jesus in the past generation.

Growing scepticism

New Testament studies in the years between the two world wars were dominated by a profound scepticism regarding the possibility of writing a life of Jesus. This was the culmination of a process, which had begun in the seventeenth century, and which saw potential sources for information about the historical Jesus progressively eliminated. This process was initiated by those who turned to the Bible as an antidote to the divisiveness of factional theology which had riven the Church of Christ into warring sects. They believed that only a return to the uncontaminated teaching of Jesus as contained in the Gospels could restore unity to the Church. Very quickly, however, they came up against the differences between the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke did not always say the same thing about Jesus. John was set aside because its theologising was too much like that of the Churches. The scientific temper of the time quickly recognised that documents that had so much in common must have borrowed from each other. The hypothesis that Matthew and Luke depended on Mark and a sayings source called Q was demonstrated in 1863. Thereafter, the whole burden of history rested on these two documents, of which Q was itself only a hypothesis. Matthew and Luke were dismissed as derivative. They could no longer be invoked as independent historical sources. The confidence placed in Mark was shattered by Wilhelm Wrede’s 1901 bombshell Die Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (The Messianic Secret in the Gospels). He argued that Mark was anything but a simple biography of Jesus. On the contrary, it was a highly sophisticated theological interpretation of the meaning of Jesus. The evangelist was not an objective historian, but a theologian.

Form Criticism

In order to bypass Mark’s editorialising, a group of young Germans immediately after the First World War abandoned his narrative framework and focused on the individual stories in the Gospels. Once detached from their context, these stories could be shuffled around and classified. This was the birth of Form Criticism.

These stories, exegetes argued, were collected by the evangelists from the oral tradition of different Christian communities. The stories were not guaranteed by any named witnesses. More importantly, they were not thought of in terms of historical truth, but in terms of the solutions they provided to community problems. In fact the stories corresponded so well to the needs of the community that it was almost inevitable that they should come to be considered creations of the community. They were not historical records, but practical, utilitarian inventions. Such radical scepticism was most forcefully articulated by Rudolph Bultmann in his influential Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (The History of the Synoptic Tradition,1921). He admitted the possibility of historical elements, but would not concede them any probability. A Gospel pericope is not a clear pane of glass through which one can see Jesus in the clear light of objective reality but a prism which refracts that light and breaks it up into a spectrum of colours, which are the various ways in which the early Church thought of its Founder. There is no way in which the prism can be transformed into plate glass.

Conservative reaction

Not all scholars bought into Form Criticism. Marie-Joseph Lagrange’s 1922 review of Bultmann set the tone for Catholic scholarship, and reflected the views of conservative Protestants. Lagrange ruthlessly exposed the underlying philosophical assumptions, highlighted the arbitrary character of a number of Bultmann’s exegetical decisions, and poured scorn on the idea that a community could be creative. The one value of the method in his view was the attention it directed to the oral tradition that preceded the written Gospels. In the light of Divino afflante Spiritu Pierre Benoit’s judgement of the method was marginally more open in a celebrated article published in 1946. In the last analysis, however, neither he nor Lagrange really answered the question that lay at the root of the scepticism of the form critics, namely, what role did the community play at the level of oral tradition?

Two communities

The one who provided the real answer to this question was an East German Roman Catholic priest, Heinz Schürmann, in a 1962 article entitled Die vorösterlichen Anfänge der Logientradition. Versuch eines formgeschichtlichen Zugangs zum Leben Jesu (‘The Prepaschal Beginnings of the Sayings Tradition: an attempt to develop a form critical approach to the life of Jesus’). The key words are ‘form critical approach’, i.e. he tackled the problem from within the perspective of Form Criticism. His starting point is that of the form critics, namely, the community. But he is the first to ask: which community? Bultmann and others had assumed that there was only a post-paschal community, and no one had had the wit to contradict them. Schürmann points out that such a restriction is methodologically illegitimate. The basic postulate of the form critical method is a community related to Jesus, not a community of a particular date. Whatever be our understanding of Jesus - teacher, revolutionary, Messiah - it is certain that he was the centre of a group. No teacher refuses students, and no revolutionary turns away followers. Nothing would be known of a teacher who had no students or of a revolutionary who had no followers. Thus there was a pre-paschal community composed of those who followed Jesus in Galilee and in Jerusalem. Now a teacher wants his students to remember and to act in conformity with his beliefs. He prepares them to carry on where he leaves off. Inevitably he has to settle the problems which develop within the group. Thus the pre-paschal community had needs which meant that remembering what Jesus said and did became a functional necessity. Hence, there was a pre-paschal setting for words and deeds of Jesus.

Schürmann, naturally, does not deny that there was also a post-paschal community, but he makes the obvious point that the nucleus of the post-paschal community came from the pre-paschal community. We have to do with two phases in the history of the same group. Those who knew Jesus in the flesh, and who had followed him as God’s last agent in history, were those who confessed him as Lord in the period following the resurrection.

The fisher disciples

In the case of the first Christian community this tendency would have been strongly reinforced by the character of the core group of the first disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John. Luke has the religious authorities in Jerusalem dismiss them as ‘uneducated, common men’ (Acts 4:13). Probably this would be the dominant view among Christians today. Certainly it is the lynchpin of the scepticism of the Jesus Seminar and such groups. Such ignorant, labouring men, we are told implicitly, could not be expected to remember accurately. On the contrary to increase their own importance they were likely to invent and embroider at will. In consequence, little or no confidence can be placed in what they report about Jesus’ words and deeds. The meagre evidence we have does not support this assessment. When read carefully against the background of what is known about the fishing industry in the ancient world, the scattered references to Simon and Andrew in particular coalesce into a coherent picture. Even though they were Jews they had Greek names. In business they had partners and employees. They must have come from a prosperous, assimilated, Jewish middle-class family. Speaking both Aramaic and Greek, they were educated to take an administrative, as well as a practical, part in a major industry which supplied an essential need. They knew how to plan and organise. As experienced businessmen they were astute enough to make a sacrifice of personal comfort in order to take advantage of a tax break. Their move from Bethsaida (John 1:44) in the territory of Herod Philip to Capernaum (Mark 1:29) in the territory of Herod Antipas meant that they paid less to have their fish prepared for export at Magdala/Taricheae which belonged to Antipas.

Such shrewdness, one can be sure, also manifested itself in the way they handled competition from the many other fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan river. In a word, they were anything but ‘uneducated, common men’ (Acts 4:13).

Shrewd businessmen

Business and profit, however, did not completely satisfy the fisher disciples. Idealistically they looked for something more spiritual. Their background and training, however, ensured that they would carefully balance risk against gain. What they accepted would first have been thoroughly checked. They were not gullible, and nothing in their personalities hints at a tendency towards self-deception. Even when committed to Jesus, Simon more than once exhibits a developed cautiousness regarding the safety of his own skin (Mark 8:32-33; 14:66-72). From what has been learned of their characters it is clear that Simon and Andrew at least would have functioned as a conservative control in the creative ferment of the post-resurrection community. They were not the sort of people who would base their lives on what they knew to be a lie. They had the authority of eyewitnesses, the sobriety to report accurately, and the intelligence to discern between authentic and inauthentic development. They could confirm proposals to apply the teaching of Jesus to new situations, but they could also dispute false interpretations of what Jesus had said and done.

In terms of their temperament the fisher disciples of Jesus were not unique in the early Church. Others of their stamp made the transition from the pre-resurrection community to the post-resurrection community. One of Jesus’ earliest converts, for example, was a toll collector (Mark 2:13-14). It is not known at what level of the tax system he operated, but he was certainly relatively wealthy because he had to pay in advance the sum for which he was responsible. His profession was one that generated a certain scepticism regarding the commitment of the average person to the truth. No one with the slightest trace of gullibility in his nature could succeed as a toll collector. The shrewdness it took to recoup his investment with profit was balanced by the toughness it took to live with unpopularity. Toll collectors were hated for their exactions, and could never expect hospitality from their fellow Jews. According to the Mishnah, ‘If tax-gatherers entered a house [all that is within] becomes unclean’ (m.Tohoroth 7:6). Once again, therefore, we encounter among the earliest bearers of the Christian tradition a personality type that would have little sympathy for the febrile religious enthusiasm that is the alleged well-spring of the creativity of the post-resurrection community. The growth of tradition in the early Church was monitored and controlled by those who knew the difference between truth and fiction, and who could distinguish between authentic development and inauthentic creativity. Their pride in being eyewitnesses ensured that they did not stand aside and permit their authority to be trampled on.

Trained memories

The importance of Form Criticism was to highlight the importance of the period of oral tradition which antedates our written Gospels. The significance of Schürmann was to point out that this period did not begin with the resurrection, but with the earthly ministry of Jesus. An equally important insight concerning the attitude towards the words and deeds of Jesus in both phases of the oral period was published virtually simultaneously. This was the famous 1961 Uppsala dissertation of Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: oral tradition and written transmission in rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

Gerhardsson focused on the first-century Jewish attitude towards the transmission of religiously important teaching. He showed that this was a process controlled with scrupulous exactitude. The tradition was not a springboard for creative thought. It was something to be preserved. Memorisation of the exact words, both of the Law and of its interpretation, was fundamental, with the result that there eventually grew up a group of official repeaters, pupils gifted with exceptional memories for the exact wording of the oral tradition.

There was also a narrative tradition, which originated in the actions of the rabbis and was remembered or recalled by the pupils for imitation. This picture is based on material which is spread over several centuries, and all the critical evidence is from a period subsequent to the oral stage of the gospel tradition. Its importance is that it highlights aspects of the New Testament, to which the form critics did not give adequate attention, and which strongly suggest that somewhat the same mechanism was in operation in Christian circles in the first century. Gerhardsson finds this evidence in the concern of Luke in Acts for the authentic transmission of ‘the word of the Lord’ which was the principal preoccupation of the apostolic college entrusted with ‘the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4). The type of discussion which took place in the community is exemplified by the Jerusalem Conference, where different opinions are in play, where precedent (Peter and Paul) or Scripture (James) is evoked, and a decision given. Another witness, of course, is Paul who clearly manifests his dependence on tradition. Not only does he cite authoritative dominical sayings (1 Cor 7:10; 9:14), even when he disagrees with them, but he insists on the precise wording of a traditional creed (1 Cor 15:2). Moreover, Paul had been a Pharisee dedicated to the scrupulous obedience of the traditions of the fathers (Gal 1:13). Paul, of course, is unlikely to have been the only Pharisee to be converted, and so within the early Church there were those who knew how an authoritative tradition had to be handled in order to function properly as a support and guide. Memorisation of the authentic tradition is explicitly mentioned by Irenaeus and Papias. The pseudo-Clementine Recognitions make Peter say, ‘I have formed the habit of recalling to memory the words of my Lord, which I heard from Himself; and for the longing I have towards them, I constrain my mind and my thoughts to be roused, that, awaking to them, and recalling and arranging them one by one, I may retain them in my memory’ (2. 1). The major consequence of Gerhardsson’s work is to show that control is much more likely to have been the dominant characteristic of the oral period of Christian history than the wild creativity postulated by Bultmann. Thus the natural conservatism of the group was accentuated by deliberate policy.

Why bother?

To sum up what has been said. The academic attitude towards knowledge about the historical Jesus changed because hitherto ignored evidence made it clear that the traditions about Jesus had passed through extremely trustworthy channels. In consequence, the data in the Gospels could no longer simply be dismissed en bloc. A presumption of non-historicity had been replaced by a presumption of historicity. This does not mean, of course, that everything in the Gospels should be taken at face value. Stories were embroidered. Theological insights were given narrative form. Thus the data have to be sifted critically. This is a long, arduous, and time-consuming task. Why should anyone bother? How does historical knowledge of Jesus contribute to our spiritual lives? Is it not sufficient to do the will of God? The fundamental answer is that Christianity is a historical religion. In the Incarnation God became flesh, not in a general way, but in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in a specific place at a specific time. In other words, God revealed himself in a unique way through a historically knowable individual. That humanity, in consequence, is the only access to authentic knowledge of God. On another level, research into the historical Jesus is an antidote to the perennial tendency of Christians to slide from christology to theology. They focus on determining the will of God because it can be manipulated to be whatever one wants it to be. They prefer to avoid focusing on Christ because the message of his life is too unambiguous to be comfortable. The will of God is to give oneself totally to and for others. To struggle to know precisely what Jesus said and did for us keeps him at the forefront of our minds. Finally, without the historical Jesus, the ideal proposed in the Gospels, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, could be dismissed as a beautiful, but impossible, utopia. We would not know that it was really possible to live that way unless we were convinced that Jesus had in fact done it under the conditions of time and history that constrain us.

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