Hugh Bates begins an examination of some contemporary views of the historical Jesus

PART OF MY EARLY training was in Ancient History, which has never lost its interest for me, even after I moved on to Liturgy and Doctrine. In particular I have often felt that insufficient attention is paid to the historical background of the New Testament in general, especially that of the Gospels. So, on the face of it the latest Quest for the Historical Jesus ought to have been something which I should have welcomed. It was in this positive spirit, then, that I approached Marcus Borg’s Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship 1. Keep up to date with your reading! Borg came with the recommendation of Tom Wright 2 which should be good enough for anyone. I found the exercise stimulating and challenging. Why was it then that I was left feeling more than a little uncomfortable at the end? It was not Borg’s fault, but rather the general picture which his survey revealed. I now know how the Seer of the Apocalypse must have felt when he was presented with the scroll by the angel. “It was sweet in my mouth but bitter to my belly”! “Bitter”, incidentally, is the word used by St. John Chrysostom in his homily which is now used as the Orthodox Paschal Proclamation, repeated insistently with powerful effect, to describe hell being obliged to disgorge its prey!

What could have produced this effect on me? The recurring use of the word Gestalt may have had something to do with it. It does make some of us want to start reaching for the bismuth! The English equivalent used here is a ‘lens”, through which the available data may be scanned in order to enable us to construct, reconstruct or deconstruct, as the case may be, a coherent and convincing portrait of the Historical Jesus. The Third Quest, as it now is, has been able to take off because Gospel studies have, at long last so we are told, recognised the value of co-operation with other learned disciplines sociological, anthropological, political, economic, linguistic, etc., etc. There is no shortage of possible lenses. There is more than enough to stock a complete optometrist’s kit. Perhaps enthusiasm has exaggerated the novelty, but it may have been overlooked how Gospel studies may be putting themselves at the mercy of only the broadest conclusions of those disciplines whose aid they (properly) invoke. It is not always possible to criticise or evaluate these conclusions. Nobody can be an expert in everything! Besides, if these other disciplines are respectable activities, both their broader and narrower conclusions should be undergoing a constant process of revision an updating. There is, or should be, no such thing as ‘received wisdom’ either in Gospel studies or in anything else. It would be most unwise to pretend that there is.

There is the further problem of which lens (or lenses) you are going to select in order to view the data. The background material is in danger of becoming so extensive that the selection is bound to become, more or less, a matter of personal choice and inclination, as the various different portraits described in Borg’s survey might suggest. The results may be illuminating – or they may not. Lenses can be tricky things. They may be used to distort as well as to define. They may also be used in ingenious combinations to produce trick photography, and there is always the temptation to massage the data to bring about a suitable result. The latest buzz-word appears to be “trajectory”. I suppose the word has been borrowed from rocket science. If you are able to plot the exact point of launch, the load, the thrust, the elevation, and numerous other factors, then you should be able to calculate the point at which the projectile will impact. Has the term been appropriated to give the impression that the Third Quest is operating as a similar exact and demanding enterprise? However, history is not rocket science, and, anyway, even rockets have been known to go off course!

Of greater concern will be the sort of Jesus who is now being offered to us, and also the sources which are used to support the various portraits and reconstructions. Broadly speaking the latest Jesus of History is somebody who was all talk, insofar as anything may be said of him at all. One cannot discuss the contemporary (American) scene without reference to John Dominic Crossan, his big book The Historical Jesus 3, and the other publication with which he is closely associated The Five Gospels 4. Here, the earliest sources for the life of Jesus are the Sayings’ Sources – in other words our old friend Q, in which Crossan claims to be able to separate an earlier from a later stratum. Next there is The Gospel of Thomas. This is a Coptic papyrus containing a collection of the sayings of Jesus that was discovered in 1946. The origin of this collection is quite early but otherwise unknown. Sufficient to say that it contains very little material that is not already present in the canonical gospels, and this appears to have been given a thorough makeover by the Valentinians and others during the second/third centuries. To elevate this to the status of a ‘fifth Gospel’ on a par, at the very least with the Fourth, might strike some as rather perverse.

As has been said, The Gospel of Thomas contains no narrative. The Passion is ignored. In any event, according to Crossan, the canonical Passion narratives have to be secondary. There were no eye-witnesses. They all ‘forsook him and fled’, did they not? The earliest narrative is not that of St. Mark (or must we now say Marcia?)5, but that of The Gospel of Peter. Unfortunately Crossan did not have the benefit of Raymond Brown’s The Death of the Messiah which was not published until the following year. Brown is able to show, with very little difficulty, that Peter adds very little to what we already know. It is merely the traditional Passion story embellished with ‘corroborative detail, to add artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative’. The list of sources would not be complete without a mention of The Secret Gospel of Mark. It caused a certain amount of fluttering in the quality media dovecotes when its discovery was announced and its contents published by Morton Smith back in 1973 6. It is quoted in a letter written by Clement of Alexandria to an otherwise unknown Theodore. It consists of three pages written in an eighteenth century hand at the end of a seventeenth century manuscript. It attracted attention and achieved a certain degree of notoriety because of a possible suggestion of homosexuality somewhere. It had sunk without trace until now.

Finally, though opinions about the details of the Historical Jesus may vary widely, seekers of the Quest have this much in common. Eschatology is out. Borg, for example, offers ‘a temperate plea for a non-eschatological Jesus’. Crossan draws a careful distinction between ‘eschatology’ and ‘apocalyptic’, though he does not make as much of it as he might. Much effort is expended on proving the inauthenticity of the sayings about the coming, or return, of the Son of Man, as if it were an earth-shaking discovery. But I have known, ever since I had to learn my Greek vocab. in prep at school, that erchomai is simply about movement. It can mean either ‘go’ or ‘come’. It seems that the Son of Man is only doing in the Gospels what he was already doing in the Book of Daniel. He is ‘going’, riding on the clouds, perhaps, to be brought before the Ancient of Days. The sayings, to use John Robinson’s distinction in Jesus and His Coming are not so much about visitation as about the vindication of the elect as represented by and embodied in the person of Jesus. But whether the Son of Man sayings are authentic or not is beside the point. Right across the Gospel tradition there is the atmosphere of urgency, crisis, the challenge to decision, and the sense of events moving to a climax which cannot be ignored. Aristotle was only stating the obvious when he affirmed that a proper storyline must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Does the Gospel, then, did Jesus, have no end in view? Where there is no end there can be no middle and no beginning either. There never was any story in the first place! Discounting eschatology is all of a piece with discounting narrative. Narrative, apparently, is perceived as a threat. Might it not (heaven forbid) give birth to meta-narrative, something intolerable to post-modern persons!

The non-eschatological Jesus comes across as a rather “wet” individual, a wandering purveyor of subversive wisdom who showed an eccentric disregard for all the proprieties. With his disciples he travelled about the countryside accepting simple peasant hospitality, and, in return, those who received him felt better for it (? were healed) and for having encountered him. Such a person might have appeared, in turn, endearing, provocative, irritating, or plain ridiculous. You might have loved him, laughed at him, ignored him, or shown him the door. But would you have feared him? Would you have wanted to crucify him? Why did Pilate have to be drawn into it? If Jesus really was such a social nuisance, a quiet contract killing would have served equally well; nor would there have been any undesirable after effects.

So far the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus has made relatively little impact in this country, or on the Europaean scene. Crossan’s book only rated three-review pages in JTS 7 and two in Theology 8, followed by an extended critical review in the same journal by N.T. Wright 9. Was this ever answered?. This is not to deny that many of its insights are important, and may help us to see things, which have hitherto passed unnoticed. Criticism is nothing to be afraid of. We have learned to live with it now for two hundred and fifty years, and we cannot disinvent it even if we wanted to. The real danger comes from criticism in uncritical hands, particularly the hands of those who have an axe, or axes, to grind. The relation of the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus to the broader religious scene in the States way well deserve further investigation not least because what happens there might, only too easily happen here.

Hugh Bates is a retired priest living in the diocese of York

[to be continued]


1. Marcus J. Borq, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, Trinity Press International, Pennsylvania, 1994
2. Stephen Neill & Tom Wright The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861- 1986, Oxford, 1988. p.389 f.
3. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, T & T Clark, Edinburgh. 1991
4. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover & The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, Macmillan, New York, 1993
5. Mark, 14.:9, “Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in all the world, what she has done will be spoken of in memory of her”. Hence the title of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s book!
6. Morton Smith , The Secret Gospel. The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel according to Mark. New York,1973. Clement of Alexandria and the Secret Gospel of Mark. Harvard UP.1973
7. By A.E. Harvey, JTS (NS), vol 44, no.1, pp.226-8
8, By Graham Stanton, Theology vol. XCVT no.763, Nov/Dec. 1992, pp-452-3
9. N.T. Wright, ‘Taking the Text with her Pleasure,’, Theology, vol XCVI, no.772, July/August 1993, pp.303-10.