Friday, September 9, 2011

Jesus of History, Christ of Faith

(I've been away for an Army thing so I haven't had time to compose anything this week so I'm going to post something I wrote a few years ago.)

Who do men say that I am?

There are two images of the figure of Jesus which I have chosen that exhibit the distinction between traditional conceptions of Jesus as the Christ of faith and the more modern notions concerning the historical Jesus or Jesus of history.

The first is a painting done by Coppo di Marcavaldo around 1261 titled simply “Crucifix” which presents Jesus in the more traditional vein. His body is contorted in a slightly unrealistic manner in that his arms are too long and his torso is stretched too far. The face lacks any kind of definite emotion and behind his head appears the typical halo-like piece that can be seen in many of the representations of Jesus during this time period. Moreover, the crucifix is surrounded by well known images from the narratives of the four Gospels and the cross itself is “topped off” with a picture representing the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. In short this is a portrayal of Jesus that bears many of the hallmarks of traditional Christian thinking about Jesus at this time in history.

The second image is radically different and is the work of forensic scientist Richard Nieve. In 2001 the BBC ran a documentary on the historical Jesus and asked Nieve, via the appropriation of forensic tools, to form a hypothetical reconstruction of what the historical Jesus might have looked like. The result is strikingly non-fantastic. Nieve’s Jesus appears as a rather common looking Middle Eastern. His face is bearded, round-shaped, dark eyed, and olive-skinned. Also, Nieve’s reconstruction has none of the accompanying traditional material of the Maravaldo piece such as the Gospel narratives. Indeed, Nieve’s Jesus is amazingly plain. But this is precisely the point for Nieve was asked to reconstruct a portrait of the historical Jesus and not a traditional conception of the Christ of faith the assumption being that the two are in some manner distinct.

And it is precisely this (perceived) dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith and its assumption that the two are not completely one and the same that is the point at issue with which we have been dealing with in this class. As we have learned, prior to the Enlightenment no distinction within the Church between a Jesus of history and a Christ of faith existed since the two were believed (and assumed) to be one and the same, i.e., the Jesus of history was/is the Christ of faith. But the Enlightenment and its emphasis on empirical rationalism caused a shift in thinking which emphasized to various levels of degree that the two could, indeed should, be separated. And the task that has essentially been assigned to us is to ask whether or not the separation is truly possible or, for that matter, even desirable.

Now there can be no doubt that the figure of Jesus has exerted a powerful influence in the world since Late Antiquity. And regardless of whether one is a believer or not our culture (i.e., Western culture) is permeated with this figure and the culture that was established in his name, namely, Christendom. Thus, I am appreciative of Dr. Pacini’s point that even our discourse about Jesus has become grammatically saturated by notions of the Christ of faith such that a separation of the two might not be possible.

My concern, though, is that this notion might be used as means of declaring the entire scholarly pursuit of the historical Jesus as a non-legitimate task precisely because the Christ of faith cannot be separated from the Jesus of history. My reflex as a historian and as someone who has spent the last several years engaged in such a task is to shout from the top of my lungs that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith can be separated and that it is incumbent upon the historian and scholar to force that separation. Thus, my own bias in favor of historical research may be preventing me from seeing the impossibility of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are a few “reasoned” observations that can be made in favor of separating these two conceptions of the figure of Jesus. First, it appears that this unique problem only has the force it potentially has in that it serves more of a difficulty for those who are committed to some sort of “confessional” stance vis a vis the figure of Jesus. Now by confessional I do not necessarily mean “denominational”, rather, my usage of “confessional” here denotes anyone who believes that the figure of Jesus is somehow determinatively significant or important for their lives. In other words, those who have some sort of investment in a particular construction of the identity of Jesus as they believe it bears on their spiritual lives will inevitably reconstruct an historical Jesus which conforms to their conception of the Christ of faith. Therefore, the “confessional” individual will find it immensely difficult, and, in agreement with Dr. Pacini, probably impossible to separate the two conceptions of Jesus.[1]

It is then the individual who does not believe that Jesus has any significance for them in a “confessional” sense as defined above that I believe stands in a better position to separate the two. However, one could riposte with the assertion that anyone who deals with the figure of Jesus, whether a believer or not, does so with some sort of self-interest or stake in their particular conception or reconstruction of Jesus so that the non-confessional pursuer of a historical Jesus stands in no better relation in regards to the problem of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.[2] Furthermore, one could also retort that no individual who engages in attempting to reconstruct the Jesus of history does so from a dispassionate or disinterested perspective (otherwise why would they be attempting the task in the first place?) and thus can never achieve true objectivity with their subject matter.

I admit that these arguments have a certain powerful force to them. But they are problems that occur not just in regards to the question of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith but are problems that take place within the larger philosophical discourse/debate concerning epistemology and its relation to history. It has become fashionable these days to take up the mantle of post-modernism with its emphasis on relativism, deconstructionism, structuralism, “new historicism”, and all the other “isms”, to conclude that there really is no “truth” out there or if there is it cannot be known in and of itself and that when one engages in an attempt to write history all they truly are doing is writing “fiction”. For my own part I am a bit old-fashioned in that I still adhere to a form of 18th century positive historicism which believes there is a “truth” out there and that even though one can never completely ascertain it the historian can at the least come damn close. Therefore, granting that the believer and the non-believer both have problems when it comes to objectively studying the Jesus of history it is still my judgment that the latter has a better shot at separating the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith.

Secondly, even granting that separating the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history is an impossible task or at least extremely difficult I would still argue that attempting to do so is not only viable but a noble goal as well. In fact, the spirit of scholarship, which is ultimately concerned with the advancement of knowledge, demands it. To engage in history is to level the playing field in that whatever the subject matter is that is under scrutiny has to be treated in equal manner to every other subject matter that comes under investigation, no matter its significance or importance in the course of history.[3]

Therefore, just because the figure of Jesus cannot be easily separated from the Christ of faith (due to the massive permeation of Christendom in Western culture) does not give the Jesus of history a “get out of jail free” card. In other words, objective history (or at least the attempt at objective history) must attempt to “get at” the Jesus of history with little regard for the way he has been conceptualized by subsequent Christians. And perhaps in light of the very fact that this figure has exerted such a powerful influence over Western culture the task of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith becomes all the more urgent. Indeed, history and the spirit of scholarship demand no less.

Lastly, I have been writing chiefly from the perspective of a historian and not that of a theologian and so my assessment of this question is admittedly prejudiced. My beginning point or axiom is “reason”. I am truly a (proud) child of the Enlightenment. And this gets to what I think is the heart of the matter in discussions about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Essentially, the sticking point is epistemological. In attempting to assess the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith one has to have a beginning point: either revelation or reason. If one takes revelation as axiomatic then the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history will be impossible to separate and probably not even desired. Yet, if reason is one’s foundation then necessarily an attempt will be made to separate the two because, I would argue, reason has to assume at least the possibility that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are distinct.

To sum up, though I believe that Dr. Pacini is correct to say that the Jesus of history can never be completely separated from the Christ of faith this should not be construed as a theological mandate that would prohibit any attempt to engage in the reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Just because the two are so intertwined within our culture (and our way of thinking and discoursing) does not take Jesus off the hook, so to speak, when it comes to critical, historical investigation. Therefore, speaking as a historian, I believe it is both possible and desirable to at the very least make an attempt to separate the two even if, in the end, one can never force a complete separation of the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

[1] There are to my knowledge at least three possible exceptions to this observation: John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991, 1994, 2001) series who is a Catholic priest; E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism 1985), and his more popular work The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993); Dale Allison’s Jesus the Millenarian Prophet (1997). The latter two describe themselves as liberal Protestants. However, I would probably hesitate in labeling E.P. Sanders a “Christian”. For example, see his intellectual autobiography at

[2] The Jesus seminar could be adduced as a supporting example. However, most of the members of the Jesus seminar still believe themselves to be “Christian” in some sense and therefore, in my judgment, still engage in their scholarship from a particular “confessional” perspective.

[3] This of course forms part of Ernst Troeltsch’s famous tripartite method of historical reasoning.

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