Professor April DeConick: “Should the Historical Jesus matter to people of faith?”

Dr. April DeConick, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, has a brief essay on the potential relationship between the “Jesus of history” and the “Jesus of faith” in the minds and hearts of the faithful.

In this post I want to try to respond to one of the comments that was left on my last post on whether or not the historical Jesus can be recovered. I argued that I am quite sure that we can recover very early memories of Jesus, but whether or not these get us to the historical Jesus himself is still open for me because of the way in which social memories are constructed from the get-go (both as a natural process or a conscious plan). I think we would need to look at the picture of the early memories we recovered and then do some evaluating from there, with the caveat that we are treading on very dangerous waters.

The questions left in the comments?

I’m a preacher who has had no anxiety (or little, at any rate) about preaching what has been called the “Jesus of faith.” Can you say what you think the implications of your method of constructing Jesus might have for those who preach, who take” the quest,” as you have described it seriously? Is this something that simply doesn’t belong in the pulpit? Or… do you have no opinion on this, since your project is scholarly and not about faith? There is a long history about this very issue – of faith and reason and whether reason should matter to faith. I leave that to your reading.

For me personally this is very difficult for me to answer because even though my project is not about faith – it is an historical project – the results matter for some people of faith.

I have found that for some Christians they could care less, because for them the Jesus they know is the Jesus of the spirit and the scripture, the Jesus of faith as you put it. There is nothing that an historian is going to say that will make a bit of difference to their religiosity or change their perception of their own experience of God. They are like Paul, the apostle who knew next to nothing about Jesus’ life or teachings, and this didn’t seem to matter one bit to him in terms of his faith which was based on a mystical experience and conversion.

But then there are those Christians who want their faith to be factual, because for them only facts are true/truth. So they want to align their faith with what they understand to be historical facts about Jesus. It is for these people that the Jesus Seminar was so valuable, because it gave them a new “scientifically”-constructed red letter edition of Jesus’ teaching, minus all the supernatural stories and theology.

For me to suggest that the Jesus of history may be lost to us, and all we have are memory constructions of him by Christians writing long after he is dead, can be traumatic for some Christians because we live in a society where truth and fact are equated, and where myth-story-memory-experience (which are definitely not observable empirical facts) are what? Untruth? Highly suspect? False?

So now we see scholars like Richard Bauckham coming to the rescue of these “faithfully nervous”, trying out the argument that the early memory constructions in the gospels must have been those of eyewitnesses (they do?) because the texts make this claim (so what?) and because these eyewitnesses were the apostles (they were?) we can trust them (we can?) because they wouldn’t purposefully lie to us (they wouldn’t?) and we all know that our memories are fairly accurate anyway (they are?).

So I don’t know if this answers your questions, which are honest and good questions. But should this information be distributed from the pulpit? I have found in my classroom when students begin to think critically about the scripture, many become angry and confused, wondering why they didn’t hear about any of this in their churches. To these people, it matters.

The comments are worth reading.



8 responses to “Professor April DeConick: “Should the Historical Jesus matter to people of faith?”

  1. gregg townsley

    “Memories always serve the present,” said Alfred Adler. And I tend to agree. So when doing NT research and reading, it’s quite easy to redact, or to see why a certain story is important, or even remembered.

    But as to what the memory represents, apart from the person remembering it? Well, that’s a stretch for sure.

    As a professionally trained pastor, I want to believe there’s a kernel there. Bauckham’s assertions seem more born from his own anxiety than they do the kind of careful reading and writing lesser lights like myself depend on.

  2. I recently read an article arguing that the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith are the same person – or at least, they need to be (“From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus” by William P. Loewe). It takes just as much faith in trying to uncover and understand and dissect the historical Jesus as it does to have faith in the Jesus in Scripture and who is experienced through tradition and community.

    If the “historical Jesus” is going to ruin people’s faith, what was their faith in to begin with?

    I also would like the believe that there are ways to distribute this “dangerous” information about Jesus without people going [too] crazy. I know my professors who are carefully being watched by the Vatican always find a tasteful backdoor to teaching what may be considered outright, dare I say, unorthodox (for all of Christendom).

  3. N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Luke Timothy Johnson, Richard Hays, etc. have done a lot of work to find a good place between the Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith. I also suggest Fr. John Behr’s Introduction in his Way to Nicea.

    The issue, to me at least, is one rooted in an overly modern and skeptical epistemology that is disastrous on many levels outside of theology.

  4. The relative content of the terms “Jesus of History” and “Christ of Faith” are often shifting and unhelpfully suggest that the confession of faith regarding Christ is something that is, at best, tangential to the actual historical figure to which the title applies.

    Under many guises, this dichotomy is simply a different version of Docetism. This is especially true when one dismisses in principle that the results of historical research could have any impact on faith. If we truly believe in the Incarnation, we should admit that there are certain historical claims which, if proven true, would prove the faith wrong.

    But there is a further question: what are the limits of historical reconstruction? Biographies of modern and public figures (e.g., Pius XII) are hotly contested, and there is far more evidence – not to mention living witnesses for some – than we have for the life of Jesus. What evidence can we realistically expect to marshall about this 1st century figure?

    Not enough to build a faith on, certainly. If we are to do that, we really must rely on the multi-faceted portrait of Jesus offered in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean that we need to insist that the New Testament always offers us the correct historical details – it may very well be that Jesus’ family did not actually flee to Egypt – and we should allow historical research to provide interpretive aid for these details. But it does mean that Christian orthodoxy must be committed to the position that the “Christ of faith” is ultimately the same thing as the “Jesus of history” – even if the act of historical research cannot deliver all of it to us on its own.

    What kind of skepticism are you talking about, Maximus? I would argue that DeConick’s claim about the complete social constructedness of memory may itself be a kind of skeptical and unhelpful route to take, even as she responds to a more Enlightenment-influenced skepticism.

  5. Isn’t this duality natural and even meaningful in and of itself? Personally, I’m glad the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith don’t match. Lord help us if we ever find a way to reconcile them.

    When historians are talking about the historical Jesus, they are necessarily talking about the Jesus apart from the material the Church preserved and apart from how the Church interprets that material.

    While we’re all judging one another’s validity, what’s the necessary improvement for basing one’s view on material that was banned but escaped getting burned?

    Modern academic assumptions prejudice it’s process far more than tradition is prejudiced. Most of this stuff is just silly. How long are people going to freak out about exactly who ran to the empty tomb when and with whom?

  6. I like the way you think David. This is ultimately an argument about the divinity of Jesus, in particular, demonstrated by the resurrection (other illustrations as well, but that is where the stabbing typically begins).

  7. I think distractions are very important to people–to unbelievers and believers alike.

    Somewhere along the way to my conversion to Orthodoxy I realized that much of what I was resisting in my secularized protestant (maybe gnostic would be a better term, or at least materially dualistic) mindset wasn’t the practices of the Church but the Incarnation itself.

    It seems strange to say that I was a Christian my whole life but never really confronted the incarnation. However, this was essentially the case. I was distracted by things like who got to the tomb first, or what the authorship of Hebrews, or “decoding” Revelations.

    The one danger I’ve experienced becoming Orthodox is being distracted by liturgical confusions (I just wasted a few hours on a debate as to whether a particular service in English should have used the word “worship” to Mary or whether honor or adoration or some other word would be better so we can preserve “worship” for the Trinity).

    All of this is a distraction. I realized in the middle of the Annunciation Liturgy Wed that none of my terribly vexing questions will matter a wit when I see Him face to face, so why do I let them bother me now?

  8. Joseph Patterson

    If the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith are not the same then “let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. (I Cor. 15:32)

    Another book that is worth reading on this subject is “Christ, Councils and Christ: Did the early Christians misrepresent Jesus?” by Gerald Bray.

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