Monday, May 14, 2012

the original Jesus?

With the Spring 2012 semester behind me, I've turned my attention back to research and writing, and my first task is to review Alexander J. M. Wedderburn's recent book, Jesus and the Historians (WUNT 269; Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Wedderburn is unhappy with how historians of Jesus (and Christian origins more generally) have pursued historiographical questions—that is, questions about how we can know anything about the past. He surveys the work of a half-dozen prominent (more or less) historians of Jesus in order to explore his unhappiness and suggest appropriate corrective measures.

One of the historians Wedderburn surveys is Jens Schröter, and in this post I want to ask a question about Wedderburn's objections to Schröter. First, the quote from Wedderburn:
In the same vein is perhaps his [viz. Schröter's] endorsement of the view that neither in textual nor in tradition criticism is it appropriate to talk of an 'original form' of the text or the tradition;57 this may be true although it is surely still legitimate to raise the question of earlier and later forms and to try to explain, often very plausibly, how later forms arose from earlier ones. (16–17)

In footnote 57, Wedderburn cites Schröter's essay, "Jesus and the Canon: The Early Jesus Traditions in the Context of the Origins of the New Testament Canon" (in Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark [Fortress Press, 2006]) and goes on to quote Schröter directly:
"The effort to uncover the one text or the one Jesus behind the multitude of traditions appears therefore more and more clearly as an inappropriate attempt to discover a unified starting point for the tradition" ([Schröter's] italics). And yet there was surely only one Jesus, however many the traditional images of him may have been that once circulated. (17n. 57)

I am interested in Wedderburn's last sentence: "And yet there was surely only one Jesus, however many the traditional images of him may have been that once circulated." Wedderburn's point is self-evidently true, of course, but it is also historically unhelpful (I'm tempted to say useless). The problem here is the two senses of "historical Jesus," a problem of which Wedderburn knowns full well (see pp. 3–7). On one level, the historical Jesus refers to the real person, Jesus of Nazareth, whose feet wandered the Galilean and surrounding countryside and whose voice echoed across its valleys. On another level, the historical Jesus refers to historians' reconstructions of the real Jesus—the representations of him produced by means of historical-critical and other research. Both Schröter and Wedderburn are engaged in discussing this second level—the reconstructed/represented Jesus, and Schröter is objecting to much historical-critical work that insists that, of two parallel traditions (e.g., Matt. 5.3||Luke 6.20 [this is my example, not Schröter's or Wedderburn's]), one must be earlier and (more) original and the other later and derivative. But notice that, in discussing how we generate the historical Jesus (= the reconstructed Jesus), Wedderburn changes the subject back to the historical Jesus (= the man himself).

Let's explore the question of the first beatitude (Matt. 5.3||Luke 6.20) a bit further. Granted that there was only one historical Jesus (= the man himself), historians have to pose the question, Did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens"? Or did he say, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God"? Historians of Jesus have generally (but not universally) concluded that Jesus said something more like the latter—Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God—and that Matthew has altered this saying in order to spiritualize it ("poor in spirit") or to avoid referring directly to God. This is certainly plausible. But why should we assume that Jesus himself could not have said the beatitude as Matthew records it and that Luke has altered it to accord to his demonstrable emphasis on the poor? Or, moreover, why couldn't Jesus have employed this same principle (the poor are blessed) in multiple contexts, some more material and literal (per Luke 6.20) and some more spiritual and metaphorical (per Matt. 5.3)? Why does the singularity of the historical Jesus (= the man himself) justify our insistence on the singularity of the historical Jesus (= the reconstructed/represented Jesus)? The only answers I can think of assume either (i) that Jesus was perfectly consistent in various circumstances, or (ii) that Jesus was completely and totally present in every situation. On the contrary, historians assume that Jesus developed in his thinking, his teaching, and in his relationships (like every other person). We likewise assume that Jesus responded to his social context(s) in ways he deemed appropriate; he was no detached from his society and culture but was fully a part of it.

I have elsewhere posted on the problems of assuming a singular original starting point in Gospels or historical Jesus research (for example here, here, and here, among others). And given the problems with Wedderburn's objections to Schröter's particular ways of accounting for the multiformity of the Jesus tradition from the very beginning, I remain unconvinced that historians of Jesus should continue to search for the ever-valued "original tradition."


Rafael said...

Just two pages later Wedderburn proposes "a distinction between any interpretations of Jesus and a Jesus who is at least potentially discernible as he was before all interpretations, either pre-Easter or post-Easter" (19; my emphasis). Given that even every act of perception is already "interpretation" (i.e., that just by perceiving an object as distinct from its "ground" [or background] we are already interpreting it), what, precisely, could Wedderburn be talking about?!

John said...

Everyone who preaches, and especially those who often preach the same message, preach it just a little differently each time, the change being motivated sometimes by the audience, sometimes by the preacher's mood and sometimes by an ever changing engagement between the preacher and the preacher's own message(s).

Our own engagement with our theology causes us to rethink our message and not necessarily on an evolutionary tradgectory, but sometimes on a 'back and forth' tradgectory and sometimes a 'both/and' tradgectory.

So is it not just as likely that the different traditions represent what the witnesses(s) took away from different sermons? And is this not the interpretation which is most conconsistent with the Church's adoption of the four Gospels?

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