The Search Continues for the Historical Jesus Two Scholarly Works Attempt to Bridge over the Lack of Biographical Detail in Biblical Accounts, but May Widen the Gap in Real Understanding

By William H. Willimon. William H. Willimon is professor of Christian ministry and dean of the chapel co- with Stanley Hauerwas of 'Resident Aliens: Life Christian Colony' . | The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Search Continues for the Historical Jesus Two Scholarly Works Attempt to Bridge over the Lack of Biographical Detail in Biblical Accounts, but May Widen the Gap in Real Understanding


William H. Willimon. William H. Willimon is professor of Christian ministry and dean of the chapel co- with Stanley Hauerwas of 'Resident Aliens: Life Christian Colony' ., The Christian Science Monitor


AT the dawn of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, whom the whole world later remembers as an African missionary doctor, wrote an eloquent book, "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." Decades of scholarly renditions of Jesus as the world's grand moral teacher and thousands of sermons on Jesus the ethical exemplar were shattered by this bombshell of a book.

Using evidence from the Bible itself, enriched by what German scholarship had learned about the religious tensions of First-century Judea, Schweitzer depicted the Jesus of history as opposed to the Jesus of church doctrine or the believer's imagination.

As a contemporary preacher, I read through Schweitzer from time to time to remind myself that there is usually a great gap between the Jesus of my tame sermons and the historical Jesus. Too many of my sermons, like those 19th-century "biographies" of Jesus (such as Ernest Renan's "The Life of Jesus," 1863) look down into a deep, unfathomable well named Jesus and see there little more than the reflection of my own face.

As useful a corrective as this quest to recover the actual Jesus may be for believers, it faces a large problem - a modern historian has precious little to work with when attempting to uncover or rediscover Jesus as he was to his contemporaries. Considering the import this First-century Jew has had on the world, little was written about his life.

Gospels like Matthew and Luke tell tantalizingly little about his birth and much of what they tell is in conflict with one another. Mark and John begin their accounts of Jesus with his adulthood. Only a couple of ancient historians mention Jesus. The Romans who crucified him apparently considered him unworthy of record.

Ironically, a Jewish, sometime turncoat, would-be collaborator named Josephus provides the best, though neither wholly reliable nor textually accurate, account of Jesus. Historians, who dig about in the writings of the past, verifying events by discovering collaborating documents, hoping to "get back" as close as possible to originating events, have a tough time getting back to Jesus.

Which makes all the more surprising a recent religious publishing event - two massive works attempting (again) to get us back to Jesus. Both volumes carry provocative titles - somewhat more provocative than their contents, I might add.

John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (Doubleday, Anchor Bible Reference Library, 484 pp., $25) is the first volume in a proposed two-volume work on the historical Jesus by this Catholic University of America professor.

"Suppose," says Meier, "that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic - all honest historians cognizant of First-century religious movements - were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library ... and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended...." "A Marginal Jew" is the supposed result.

Meier's methodology apparently requires that his hypothetical Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic forget that they have confessional loyalties or histories. Although Meier knows enough about the postmodern assault on notions of objectivity and value-neutral, allegedly "scientific" historical research, and although he makes an admirable attempt to lay out his guiding assumptions and methodologies at the beginning, value judgments must be made at every turn in this sort of undertaking.

Forgive the reader for being skeptical of Meier's claims to have depicted "a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended." From the first, Jesus provoked many reactions in people - consensus was not one of them.

Reading Meier is terribly slow going and the results of this huge effort are meager. When one is determined to find historical answers to questions like "Was Jesus married? …

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