History, Theology, and Jesus

Today there was a wonderfully stimulating session in the Theological Interpretation of Christian Scripture group, as a panel of reviewers critically assessed and compared Darrell Bock and Robert Webb (eds.), Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus with Richard B. Hays and Beverly R. Gaventa (eds.), Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

The conversation on the panel swirled around the questions of what it means to read the Bible as Christians; or, how to do greatest justice to the historical narratives contained in the gospels.

In this, I was much more sympathetic to the Hays and Gaventa volume. Their volume strives to cultivate reading strategies for the canonical gospels that witnesses to Jesus. The Bock and Webb volume strives to establish, and explain the coherence of, a dozen key moments in the life of the historical Jesus.

Bock and Webb, along with Michael Bird, spoke of historical Jesus research as a necessary prolegomenon to New Testament Christology and other such study.

No, I don’t think so.

The church has not canonized the historical Jesus, it has canonized four Gospels. We can cultivate a rich theology for the church based on these interpretations, without digging behind them to the “real Jesus” back there in history. In such a practice, inevitably we tell a new story, construct a fifth quite theologically conditioned Jesus of our own. Our fifth Gospel is not the “starting point” for studying the four.

But for all my wariness about the historical project as such, I am not ready to rush into the arms of some versions of an already theologized Jesus, either.

And here I come back (again!) to the challenges posed by those who think that we should be reading the Jesus stories toward Chalcedon. In a line that was quoted a couple of times, Rob Wall spoke of scripture as something along the lines of spirit sanctioned witnesses to Jesus as incarnate Christ. I’m butchering the first and beautiful part of the sentence, in which Wall draws us to give the four canonical gospels their rightful place as starting-point for our Jesus deliberations.

But in articulating that to which they witness in the terms of the divine christology of the later church, the bible has lost the place he seems to be claiming for it, and now Chalcedon has come to take its place.

And so I once again walk away appreciative of both history and theology, but wanting to reiterate what I see as a better theological method: not beginning with the history behind the text, nor beginning with the theology placed in front of the text to refract our vision, but beginning with the stories of Jesus themselves.

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