Ethnocentrism and Historical Questions
Richard L. Rohrbaugh
It is a commonplace in New Testament scholarship to say that the answers we get are determined bv the questions we ask. Yet it does not appear to have dawned on many historical Jesus researchers that ethnocentric results are frequently the result of questions that are themselves rooted in ethnocentric bias. In order to explore this possibility, I examine one of the central questions in historical Jesus research: the question of the so-called messianic self-consciousness of Jesus. Few questions in historical Jesus research have generated more print, or more disagreement, than this one.
To tread on this ground might at first seem dangerous. After all, Western scholars have debated it intensively for a century and a half and yet remain deeply divided. My purpose, however, is neither to review nor to analyze the enormous literature on this subject.1 Rather, I examine the question about Jesus’ self-understanding to determine (1) whether the question itself is inappropriate and (2) whether the question predetermines a range of answers that are peculiarly Western in character and, therefore, inevitably ethnocentric. Should this turn out to be true, it seems likely to call into question a considerable portion of the Western scholarly effort to understand who Jesus was.
First, let us explore the nature of the question being asked. The question appears in the titles of books and articles throughout the twentieth century.2 In its most basic form, the question inquires into the se/f-understanding of Jesus. Exactly who did he think he was? Was he acting out an identity of his