Jesus among the theologians

In the introduction to “Jesus of Nazareth: Volume II”, Pope Benedict reflects on the heritage of the historical-critical method. He is certainly not negative, but, like a modern day Oliver Twist, asks for “more” than the gruel that this method has served up to people hungry for “a personal relationship with Jesus” (yes, he, the Pope, actually uses this turn of phrase!). He writes:

One thing is clear to me: in two hundred years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit. If scholarly exegesis is not to exhaust itself in constantly new hypotheses, becoming theologically irrelevant, it must take a methodological step forward and see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character.

It must learn that the positivistic hermeneutic on which it has been based does not constitute the only valid and definitively evolved rational approach; rather, it constitutes a specific and historically conditioned form of rationality that is both open to correction and completion and in need of it.

It must recognize that a properly developed faith-hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limits, so as to form a methodological whole.

There has been, of course, the long history of the quest for the “historical Jesus”. It has become standard, in relating the history of the “Quest”, to mark out three stages, the first two predominately German protestant “Quests”, and the third… well, more about that in a minute. Ratzinger, the eminent German theologian, recommends a couple of other theologians to whom one might go for a “Life of Jesus” style book, Joachim Gnilka (an old favourite of Ratzinger’s, now available in English) and John P. Meier, a contemporary historian of the Gospels who is a part of that “Third Quest”.

I haven’t read much of Meier, tending to focus more on N.T. Wright, another “third Quest” author. Of course, the most infamous contribution to the “third Quest” is the Jesus Seminar of Don Dominic Crossan et aliter. Ratzinger and Wright – and Meier – could not be further from them in their conclusions, and in their ideology (which is, of course, the source of many of those very conclusions, no matter who the “Quester” may be!).

I was actually googling to try to find whether N.T. Wright had engaged in any way with Ratzinger’s books when I came across this article by John Meier: “The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain”. It is a terrific article and methodically evaluates the strengths and weaknesses, the “losses and gains” of the “Third Quest”. I recommend it. It has whet my appetite to read Meier’s “The Marginal Jew” – when I have finished or run out of N.T. Wright to read (which may not be this side of the eschaton or Wright’s demise, whichever comes first).

While doing the above googling, I also came across this entry on Ben Witherington III’s blog, where he actually does write about Pope Benedict’s book. Witherington is another of my favourite NT scholars, and I value his comments also – although I don’t agree with all of them, for instance, the comment that John’s Gospel is non-sacramental and the complaint that he wished the Pope could have had time to read “more of the best biblical scholarship that has emerged in the last 30 years” (John P. Meier is certainly within that time frame). He comments:

What is also true, however, is that the Pope is decidedly a post-Vatican II exegete. By this I mean, he does not just interact with older Catholic scholars (though he certainly has a predeliction for folks like A. Feuillet the great French exegete), he also interacts with a variety of Protestant exegetes as well. and furthermore, he is fully conversant with historical criticism of various forms (form, source, narrative criticism etc.) but he is concerned to get beyond such ways of analyzing the text and focus on its theological and also historical substance. This is to be commended. His approach is not pre-critical, nor is it done simply in the tradition of historical Catholic or patristic scholarship but in fact is post-critical in a helpful and healthy way. His judgment is that historical criticism, which should continue to go on, has nonetheless offered most of what it has to offer already. And at the same time, the Pope is concerned about the spiritual food that one can find in the text. His is not a dry abstract scholarly discussion. Indeed, a good deal of what he says will preach.

I find a great deal of joy in working with this material. Pope Benedict’s contribution, while not of the “Third Quest” but something completely in its own category, forms something like an “anchor” in my continued reading of “Jesus among the theologians”.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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7 Responses to Jesus among the theologians

  1. Matthias says:

    Albert Schweitzer wrote a book called THE SEARCH FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS. Being a Unitarian he had a different view to the orthodox Christian one of Jesus. The Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer believed that Schweitzer ‘s Quest was an abject failure,as he came up with nothing at the end of the book.
    Incidentally Scaheffer’s son left Evangelical proddism and is now Orthodox

    • Schütz says:

      Schweitzer was the “First Quest”. Bultmann and his successors was the “Second Quest”. Meier, the Jesus Seminar, and N.T. Wright are the “Third Quest”.

  2. Terra says:

    Thanks for these links David, but I’d have to say on my quick skim so far all they reinforce is the Pope’s judgment that the historico-critical method has little to offer.

    I haven’t read the new book yet, and I gather he does engage a little more with hist-crit scholars in it than his other works (although I suspect that has to do with his agenda of redirecting their efforts!).

    But in general, I read most of his various comments on the subject as throwing them a bone – when you look at what he actually does, he never deeply engages with this method because at root it is fundamentally opposed two basic catholic Scriptural premises: firstly that history has a providential dimension, not just being ‘what happened then’ but also having a universal context and meaning; and secondly that Scripture is an inspired text that is true!

    That is not to say it is totally useless – of course there is potentially considerable value in work on topics like the nature of first century Jewish religion. But almost inevitably such work is distorted into serving particular agendas…

    No wonder then that the Pope in his encyclicals and elsewhere, when he draws on Scripture, he draws primarily on the monuments of the tradition – how a text has been used liturgically, iconography, architecture, and above all the Fathers…

    • Schütz says:

      In truth, I should have called this post “Jesus among the Historians”, because really the questions addressed by the various “Quests” are, ultimately, about history rather than theology. The interrelation comes about because we believe in an Incarnate God, that is, we believe our God actually entered history. History matters. More than that, history can be trusted as the means by which the Incarnate God is known. Hence, I value the work of these men. I also trust that their work will ultimately vindicate the faith of the Church – in so far as any scientific research can do so, at least. In other words, the Jesus Seminar/J.D. Crossan people will fail, and Benedict’s vision – that of no separation between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith – will be vindicated. Nevertheless, it is a fruitful exercise for us to follow the deliberations of the historians/theologians in this matter, because in this way (if we persist with writers such as Meier, Wright, Witherington and Ratzinger) that our Scriptures and Tradition regarding Jesus are reliable and our faith is confirmed and strengthened.

  3. Vin says:

    Consider the theologians, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin.
    But I say to you, that there are more of these than at which a stick ye can shake. And consider the wise guys who think they’re funny…on second thought, don’t.

  4. An Liaig says:

    It seems to me that, while the work on the socual and religious background of Jesus is certsainly valuable, there are two problems which are inherent in all versions of the historical Jesus quest. The first is historical reductionism. It is true that some authors will say that what is not historically provable may well still be true but they will then write as if only what is acceptable to their criteria is true. Others simply state this later position, can not be traced back to the historical Jesus = untrue, didn’t happen. Yet it is clear that many things which do not meet the criteria of the historians may well be historically true. This is eapecially so when you consider problem number two – the criteria themselves have an inbuilt bias. This is most true of the criterion of embarrassment, especially when taken with the secondary criterion of avoidance of ideas which seem to conform to the theology of the early Church. This necessarily gives a view of Jesus inherently biased against a high christological view. These are, in my opinion, fatal flaws.

    • Schütz says:

      I think Meier’s summary of the ‘pluses and minuses’ is pretty spot on, Doctor. Historians have to be historians, afterall. A little like scientists having to be scientists! You can’t – you shouldn’t – ask them to be theologians first. But theology can then work with what they come up with – again, both pluses and minuses there. Still, Papa Benny gives a good line on how to handle this. Like the work of science, we come to the works of history with the mind of faith.

      A case in point is the miracle tradition of Jesus. Meier rightly points out that the “Third Quest” (barring the Jesus Seminar) is much more open to the fact that the tradition of Jesus as a miracle worker goes right back to Jesus himself, and cannot be entirely put down to the early Christian “post-Easter” development of faith in Jesus. I find especially helpful N.T. Wright’s dealing with the “historicity” of Jesus’ miracles in his “Jesus and the Victory of God”. It is important that the historians – qua historians – have determined that the accounts of Jesus as a miracle worker are authentic in terms of their historical origin with the life of Jesus himself (rather than shifting it to the first generation Church or later). At that point, Christians need show no embarrassment in affirming the miracles as real acts of the historical Jesus. That goes beyond “history” of course, just as it goes beyond “science”, but it at least means that we are not playing silly-buggers with history – whatever the scientists may claim about the “possibility” of the miraculous in the first place!

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