Monday, June 01, 2009

from Jesus' death to remembering Jesus

April DeConick's tenth post in "Creating Jesus" examines the process by which Jesus came to be regarded as a divine figure. Or, for those of us with more traditional perspectives, we could ask how Jesus' followers became aware of and developed their thinking and talking about Jesus' relationship with Israel's God. Though I would demur at language of Jesus "being made into" God/a god, the early Christian sources themselves are explicit that Jesus' status as God's agent was not obvious to onlookers, or even to his followers (e.g., John 2.17, 22; Acts 10.34; 11.18, among others). It was obvious to many, however, that there was something special about Jesus. Not that people thought he was unique, necessarily, though a few NT passages may be interpreted in this direction (Matt 7.28–29; Mark 1.21–22). But whether unique or not, the gospels portray the crowds and even some of the retainer class coming out to Jesus, either to question him, to hear him, to be healed by him, or whatever.

DeConick continues with the "prophet-like-Moses" typology she identified in the ninth post in the series. Here, I think, is the point that needs to distinguish historical Jesus research in the future—historical Jesus research that must take account of social memory research—from all the "quests" that have gone before: We only have access to the historical Jesus as he was perceived and remembered by his followers. Inasmuch as they remembered Jesus wrongly, Jesus is lost to history. Inasmuch as there were aspects of Jesus life his earliest followers did not care to remember, whether because they created problems for their devotion to him or because they were unimportant, those things are lost to us. DeConick, I think, gets this point clearly. For example, she writes,
Whether the manner in which they framed his ministry as the Prophet-like-Moses was actually how his ministry played out is doubtful, but there were likely bits and pieces of Jesus' life that they saw corresponded enough with the expectations of the Prophet-like-Moses mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15-16 that this framing made sense to them. In other words, if Jesus himself didn't present himself as some kind of prophet, his very earliest followers did because it is multiply-attested in all the layers of the tradition. Clearly his followers didn't identify him with any ol' prophet. They hooked him into the traditions of the Prophet-like-Moses, who was a messianic figure within Judaism and especially Samaritanism.

The "prophet-like-Moses" motif clearly belongs among the patterns according to which Jesus' followers recalled him. This motif is clearly evident among the gospels and in the Acts. I'm not sure I would say it was "doubtful" that this motif was evident in Jesus' presentation of himself, but I think it is very likely that Jesus' followers did expand upon and develop this motif in their expressions of their memories of him.

Here's why I differ ever so slightly from DeConick in this regard: She rightly notes that "there were likely bits and pieces of Jesus' life that they saw corresponded enough with the[ir] expectations." In other words, there was something about Jesus' followers' perceptions of him that "fit" the pattern of the "prophet-like-Moses." But if Jesus' followers' noticed this fit, I'm not sure how we could argue that Jesus himself would have been oblivious to these connections.

Now I certainly wouldn't want to argue that Jesus went around proclaiming himself to be the Mosaic Prophet of Deuteronomy 18 (which his followers did do; Acts 3.22), which clearly suggests that the motif was developed, expanded, and put to varied use in the time after Jesus. But I find it unlikely that this motif was only a product of the disciples' faith after Easter, even if that motif came to fuller flower in the light of the Easter event. But this is the value of DeConick's careful discussion: Even though she minimizes, I think, the connection with the historical Jesus, she recognizes that had Jesus' life not exhibited "bits and pieces" that could be framed in terms of Deut. 18, then the "prophet-like-Moses" motif would likely never have been applied to Jesus.

This, I think, illustrates the problem with earlier histories of Jesus, especially the so-called New Quest but also the Third Quest. The fascination with authenticating bits and pieces of the tradition, discarding the "inauthentic" and attempting to allow a totalizing picture of Jesus arise out of the remaining data (as if that totalizing picture weren't already part of the processes by which the data was sorted into authentic and inauthentic bins in the first place!) condemned the entire project to chases down blind alleys. The Jesus tradition—both as we have it in our written texts but also as it would have found expression in oral, artistic, liturgical, and other media—is not made up of "true" and "false" memories but rather is the mediation of Jesus' past and his followers' present. The gospels may not simply record things "as they really happened," but that's not what they set out to do. Rather, they express with conviction and even with bias why "what really happened" is vitally urgent for "what is really happening now."

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