Monday, May 11, 2009

more on "Creating Jesus"

In the fifth installment in her series, "Creating Jesus," April DeConick asks the very difficult question, Why did the Christians "create" Jesus? As I mentioned in an earlier post, I really like DeConick's series title. But I suspect that, for at least some of us, the idea of creating Jesus makes us a bit uneasy. How can it possibly be legitimate to talk of "creating Jesus," especially for those of us with variously traditional views of Jesus and the gospels?

I think some of our problem really is rooted in the modernist frameworks governing most of the last two hundred years' writings about Jesus, whether confessional exposition of "the Jesus of faith" or critical historical analyses of "the historical Jesus." Critical Jesus historiography explicitly and programmatically distrusts the gospels' portrayals of Jesus as self-interested depictions that form Jesus in their own image. Ironically, very much conservative scholarship has accepted the implicit ground rules underlying (but rarely, if ever, stated) critical scholarship but has argued that the canonical texts accurately and faithfully portray Jesus "as he really was."

One problem, of course, is that the gospels don't portray a unified, single image of Jesus, so any argument that the texts don't craft and shape their image of Jesus has to explain how these various depictions jive with the "as he really was" approach to historical reconstruction. As one example, just today I saw a book that advertised itself as "the definitive resource where all four Gospels have been harmonized into one chronological story line. The reader gets an in-depth look at Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection—a look not attainable when reading each Gospel separately." Notice that the gospel texts, even in this very conservative approach to knowing the historical Jesus, present an obstacle to the one seeking Jesus, an obstacle that this harmonized account overcomes as it offers a view of Jesus that not even the biblical texts make "attainable." The harmonization—and not the messy, fourfold portrayals—brings knowledge of Jesus within reach.

This method of getting "behind the gospels" to uncover "the real Jesus" is as bankrupt (see all four posts in DeConick's series) for conservative scholarship as it is for efforts such as the Jesus Seminar. While I believe whole-heartedly that there is significant work left to be done under the banner of historical-critical Jesus scholarship, very much of that scholarship has run headlong down a blind alley. Rather than subtracting the various dynamics according to which ancient texts "create" their portrayal of Jesus in an effort to reveal Jesus pure and "uncreated," historical Jesus scholarship would be better served by asking how the actual person of Jesus constrained and motivated later commemorations and memories, as well as how later contexts presented new and innovative challenges to remembering Jesus authentically in an ever-changing present.

From a rather conservative position—one that affirms the canonical gospels as inspired portrayals of Jesus in themselves, portrayals that neither require nor are aided by harmonization—this approach rejects the modernist notion of uncovering the historical Jesus from beneath the gospel texts. But this also means that there is no point arguing that the gospels are inspired portrayals of Jesus because their information is factual in the sense that an obituary is factual. Rather, we affirm the gospels are inspired portrayals of Jesus precisely because we affirm that the ways in which they "create Jesus" result in authentic commemorations of Jesus in shifting and unstable contexts. And, perhaps ironically, this approach finds someone like April DeConick a much more fruitful conversation partner than someone who brushes past the texts in search of atomistically verifiable historical data. In other words, we affirm the gospels' inspiration not because they are historically true; rather, we affirm (and subject to analysis!) the gospels' portrayal of the historical Jesus because they are inspired texts.

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