The Jesus I know is the “living Jesus” described by Luke Timothy Johnson in his recent article in America, “The Jesus Controversy” (Aug. 2-9), the one he called in an earlier book the “real Jesus.” He is the Jesus of faith, the Jesus of the church and its tradition, the Jesus of prayer and liturgy, the Jesus of service and the hidden Jesus encountered, as the First Letter of John reminds us, in the neighbor. But unlike Johnson, I have not found the search for the historical Jesus an obstacle to faith.
I have been a critic of some of the more pretentious endeavors of the search for the historical Jesus, like the Jesus Seminar’s color-coded New Testament, marking authentic and putatively less authentic sayings of Jesus. But I have not been a fan of large tomes of scholarly minutiae from Jewish antiquity, no matter how outstanding, in which the author is unwilling to take a theological position.
I do not trust an author who won’t tell me what his findings add up to or what she believes. Even though it may take some sorting through, I like my Jesus scholarship to feed my faith and help me nourish the faith of the congregations to whom I preach. The deconstructive imagination has a subordinate role in any intellectual exercise. It helps us re-examine our assumptions, but if it does only that it is toxic. Without the positive movement of “a second naïveté,” such intellectual disassembling of historical detail is the chop-logic Plato dismissed as “butchery.”
Jesus scholarship can nourish faith by engaging our minds, our affections and our spirit. My earliest encounter with the so-called New Search for the Historical Jesus came with the work of the German New Testament scholar, Joachim Jeremias. He is notorious perhaps for having said that abba, “father,” was the one word we can say with certainty came from Jesus. But Jeremias wrote his own New Testament Theology, and some of his themes, like the new family of God, Jesus’ intimacy with the Father and God’s kingdom, remain topics of my preaching until today.
John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, while the work of a theologian, not an exegete, unpacked the social background of the Gospels for generations of students. In the United States, it opened the way for a new wave of the social gospel across denominations. Johnson, it seems to me, is especially allergic to that kind of social reading of the Gospel. The approach has sometimes been overdone, but the uncovering of “the faith that does justice” in the Hebrew Scriptures, rabbinic Judaism and early Christian writings is one of the great gifts of contemporary scholarship.
For those who can handle his complex prose, N. T. Wright’s two-volume set called Christian Origins and the Question of God offers rich background for observing both the Advent and the Lenten seasons. An exploration of the religious movements leading up to Jesus’ time, Vol. 1, The New Testament and the People of God, offers a rich preparation for celebrating the coming of the Messiah; and Vol. 2, Jesus and the Victory of God, lends support to the view that Jesus’ own identity was directed to accepting his death on the cross. Wright shows that Jesus scholarship and the Jesus of the liturgy complement each other.
What matters with historical Jesus research is what we do with it. It needn’t lead us to accept an ersatz Jesus nor leave our faith a shambles. There is a pragmatic test for the lived truthfulness of Jesus research. Do we know Jesus better? Are we inspired more to follow him? Are our desires more focused and committed? Are our hearts more generous? Are we readier to be led by God’s Spirit? Read critically, Jesus research can lead us to a deeper encounter with the living Christ.