Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1997
Volume 9, Number 1

Forum Focuses on Historical Jesus Research

Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Professor of Theology

Some 275 persons attended "NOW What Are They Saying About Jesus? A Colloquium on Historical Jesus Research," held at Creighton University, March 1, 1997.

The idea for the forum had been prompted by the public response (interest, concern, and even confusion) triggered by ten years of media attention stirred by the group known as the Jesus Seminar. The impression conveyed in some accounts was that the integrity and veracity of the Gospels was gradually disintegrating under the scrutiny of a group of scholars casting votes with colored beads. Those of us who work professionally in biblical studies know that the historical study of Jesus has been going on for more than a century and that Robert Funk's Jesus Seminar does not represent the consensus of contemporary New Testament scholars. Funk and company have, nonetheless, seized the media spotlight and have become, for many, the symbol of what is going on in New Testaments studies. It seemed to the board of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society that here, surely, was an issue that calls for some public clarification. To this end, we invited three prominent Catholic scholars to address various aspects of historical Jesus research.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emery University and author of The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, addressed the question, "Are We Still Looking For the Real Jesus? A Survey and Critique of Current Jesus Research." Johnson saw the Jesus Seminar as forcing an artificial choice between faith and scholarship and he found their quest misguided on five counts. (1) The Jesus Seminar rejects the gospels as reliable sources. (2) It unjustifiably rejects the rest of the canon as irrelevant. (3) It sees the Jesus movement solely as a cultural critique. (4) It pursues a hidden theological agenda, that of showing traditional Christianity to be a distortion of the "real Jesus" of their reconstruction. And (5) it makes historical knowledge normative for faith, presuming that origins define essence.

In response to the presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar, Johnson argued that the real Jesus (like any real person) is not reducible to the criteria of historiography, and that history is a mode of knowing that embraces only selected aspects of reality. In effect, the Seminar "seeks the living one among the dead." He argued that the character of Jesus is conveyed not by text fragments but by the narrative pattern of the Gospels (as also in some Pauline writings). This narrative pattern describes Jesus as one who gives his life in service of others in faithful obedience to God. Johnson concluded with these words: "I wonder whether the quest for a Jesus who adjusts social arrangements is not a also a flight from the Jesus who transformed the structures of human existence by the power of the Holy Spirit and whose gift is also a call to follow in his path of a suffering service to a suffering world.

Daniel Harrington, S.J., prolific scholar, editor of New Testament Abstracts, and professor of New Testament at Weston School of Theology, spoke on "Retrieving the Jewishness of Jesus: Recent Developments." Fr. Harrington explored four recent developments touching on the Jewishness of Jesus: (1) the relevance of the Dead Sea to questions about New Testament language describing Jesus and the origin of the Christian movement, (2) the recognition of Jesus as Jewish wisdom teacher, (3) renewed discussion regarding who killed Jesus and why, and (4) the Jewish context of the Gospel of Matthew and why it is at once the most Jewish and the most anti-Jewish Gospel. These discussions show the cultural realities of Jesus' historical context to be far more complex than the portrait projected by the Jesus Seminar. For example, the presence of both Wisdom teaching and apocalyptic material in the same Qumran documents demonstrates that at least some first-century Jews could integrate both modes of discourse, and it illustrates the arbitrary nature of the Jesus Seminar's decision to separate apocalyptic from sapiential in Jesus' teaching, accepting the latter as authentic and rejecting the former as inauthentic.

Monika K. Hellwig, recently Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown and author of many popular books, including Jesus, the Compassion of God, spoke on "Historical Jesus Research: Its Relevance to Thoughtful Christians and to Systematic Theologians." Dr. Hellwig asserted the need for historical research into Jesus and the Gospels to overcome our own distortions and to steer a sober course between the polarities of fundamentalists on one side and deconstructionists on the other. She observed that Roman Catholics have long understood that the testimony regarding Jesus resides in the community, that Jesus Christ is always larger than the canon, and that Christ for us is the Christ known in the community that brought forth the Scriptures. Ultimately, the real Jesus, for Christian believers, is most profoundly accessible through the living of discipleship. Dr. Hellwig observed that the modern quest for the historical Jesus was prompted in part by the inversion of the teaching of Council of Chalcedon (451). That council declared that Jesus Christ is one person both divine and human. Much of subsequent catechesis upset the balance of Chalcedon by making Jesus' humanity secondary. Consequently, much of the modem interest in the historical Jesus has been prompted by a valid and necessary interest in taking seriously once again the humanity of Jesus.

(Video tapes of the three presentations are available for viewing at the Reinert/Alumni Library at Creighton.)