Saturday, 29 January 2011

Lives of Jesus 2 - James M Robinson

James M Robinson's A New Quest of the Historical Jesus is not so much a life of Jesus as an essay about the possibility of writing such a life.  It is also a serious scholarly work, which means I am completely unqualified to make any judgement on it.  However, because it is a reflection on the possibility of the Quest, and because it was written in 1959, 50 years after Schweitzer's work and before the more populist Lives I will review from here on, it provides a useful bridge between these works.

Robinson is an American bible scholar but recieved part of his theological education in Germany and at the time of writing this book was immersed in German theology.  His starting point is that Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus marked the end of a stream of historical research.  This stream was based on a Enlightenment view of history as an objective pursuit of "what really happened".  While Schweitzer critiqued the various attempts at this task, he was positive about the task itself and ended with his own attempt at it.

Later theologians, led by Rudolph Bultmann, criticised both the possibility and legitimacy of this task.  They saw it as impossible, because the "factual" history could not be seperated from the proclamation of the Church enshrined in the New Testament.  There is no way, they said, of getting past this to the historical details that lay behind it.  They also saw it as illegitimate, because they saw these "historical facts" as a minor part of the understanding of history.  Of greater importance to them was the underlying meaning of the events, the world views and thought processes that lay behind it, the structures and relationships.  This meant that the content of the proclamation and the way it was used were seen as of much greater importance than the "brute facts of Jesus' external biography."  Hence, attention shifted from trying to write a factual biography of Jesus, to understanding the content and significance of the proclamation.

The initial result of this thinking was to kill off the Quest - or at least to put it to sleep.  Robinson asks the question "can it be revived, and if so on what basis?"  In responding to this question, he reaffirms that the Enlightenment version of the Quest is indeed dead.  Neither the emergence of new source material, nor further developments in the study of the New Testament, can resurrect it.  Instead, he finds guidance for a new Quest in radically changed notions of both history and human identity. 

History is the act of intention, the commitment, the meaning for the participants, behind the external occurrence....  Hence it is the task of modern historiography to grasp such acts of intention, such commitments, such meaning, such self-actualisation; and it is the task of modern biography to lay hold of the selfhood which is therein revealed.

In other words, the task of history is not to sift each detail and put together a collection of verifiable facts.  Rather, it is a search for the meaning of events, for an understanding of how people saw themselves in time.  This not only makes the task more holistic and to a large extent more interesting, it also makes it more possible.  The proclamation of the Church, which must by definition at least preserve something of the proclamation of Jesus himself, is precisely this - a declaration of meaning, a proclamation of how Jesus and/or his followers saw themselves and the world in which they lived.

Once this view of history is accepted, the sorting of fact from myth becomes less crucial.  Whether Jesus said these precise words, or did these deeds precisely as recorded, is less important than what they meant, for him and his followers.  Myths invented after Jesus death are just as important as his actual words and deeds in understanding how he was perceived, and what meaning he gave to himself, his society and the cosmos.

However, Robinson is not content to just show that a new Quest is possible.  He also wants to know what purpose it will serve.  He is particularly keen to warn against the use of such a Quest as a way of avoiding faith.

It is illegitimate to dodge the call of the "kerygma" (the proclamation) for existential faith in the saving event, by an attempt to provide an objectively verified proof of its historicity.  To require an objective legitimisation of the saving event prior to faith is to take offence at the offence of Christianity and to perpetuate the unbelieving flight to security.

Instead, he sees the new Quest in the following terms.

...the objectivity of modern historiography consists precisely in one's openness for the encounter, one's willingness to place one's intentions and views of existence in question, i.e. to learn something basically new about existence and thus have one's own existence modified or radically altered.

The researchers of Schweitzer's day worked with a basic distinction between the "Jesus of history and the Christ of faith".  Robinson wants to dissolve this distinction.

...the historical Jesus cannot be seperated from the Christ of faith, as the original quest attempted to do.  Yet...the Christ of faith cannot be seperated from the historical Jesus, if we do not wish to find 'a myth in the place of history, a heavenly being in the place of the Nazarene'.

This is where the importance of the new Quest lies.  Sure, we have the proclamation contained in the New Testament, which for most of its life was all the church had.  This in itself is sufficient for faith.  However, we also have a body of historical research produced from the 18th century onwards which presents another picture of the historical Jesus.  We can't pretend this research doesn't exist.  Instead, we need to grapple with it and use it to deepen our understanding of Jesus. 

What this means in practical terms is left open, as is how it differs from the earlier Quest.  It seems to me that Schweitzer's work is not too dissimilar to what Robinson is describing.  Schweitzer's conclusion is not a shopping list of historical "facts", but a comprehensive and stirring picture of Jesus' self-identity and mission.  Nor does Robinson reject the methods of historical criticism.  His final chapter discusses briefly the implications of Bultmann's "demythologising" of the Gospels, and of the findings of biblical criticism.  However, these questions are for later works.

Robinson himself, now in his 80s, has continued to be a prominent New Testament scholar and was a leading member of The Jesus Seminar, which I'll be writing about later.   It's enough to say here that his wish was fulfilled.  After the fallow years of the first half of the 20th Century, the Quest of the Historical Jesus has blossomed and produced a diverse and times bewildering array of fruit, some of which I'll tell you about soon.

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