Monday, April 12, 2010

The Death of Historical Jesus or the Eclipsing of Form-Critical Views?

McKnight vs. Keener

A bit of a debate is ranging on the pages of Christianity Today about the significance of doing historical Jesus research.

It all started with a piece from Scot McKnight, who, echoing statements he has made elsewhere, declared that historical Jesus research is "dead." I've been wanting to interact with this piece since it can out three days ago. Unfortunately, I've been just a little swamped.

Suffice it to say, with great respect to McKnight's scholarship, I think he is wrong on this one.

Now, Craig Keener--whose outstanding recent book on the historical Jesus should be must-reading for all interested in the field--has responded. Check out the exchange.

I heartily agree with Jim West's assessment of the debate: in this bout it's Keener by a "TKO."

The Eclipsing of Form-Critical Assumptions

In fact, I think McKnight is correct about the fact that a major paradigm shift is occurring in scholarship. However, I do not think he has correctly identified the precise movement taking place. In short, what I think we are witnessing is not the death of historical Jesus research but the death of historical Jesus research reliant on the older form-critical model. A certain approach to historical Jesus scholarship has been dependent on certain assumptions made by older form-critics. These assumptions--e.g., the anonymous nature of the transmission of the Jesus tradition; the view that in the oral transmission stage the community exercised a highly creative tendency--are finally being questioned. I've touched on such issues in the past on this blog.

In my view, approaches to the historical Jesus based on these views has run its course and is passing away. The reason the historical Jesus section at SBL wanes is because the excitement of the subject in the 90s was largely due to the controversy launched by the Jesus Seminar and the response of people by people like N.T. Wright. The argument of the Jesus Seminar that the Gospels were actually in large part wrong about who Jesus was made headlines. Yet such approaches are no longer news-worthy.

In fact, I think Keener, whose work more carefully integrates more recent work on the genre of the Gospels and other recent issues in Gospel studies, has much more to offer. It may not make headlines to say, "The Gospels' portrait of Jesus is more historically plausible than reconstructions offered by scholars." But that's the truth.

But I digress. . .


Kyle Essary said...

Well, I think McKnight's rhetoric was a little stronger than his actual case. For instance, knowing his crowd, he said that he could count the number of orthodox Jesus scholars on his right hand. Of course, I could name 30 or 40 right off the top of my head.

Maybe he meant historical Jesus scholars who are well known or something...but then again, you could probably list all of the well known Jesus scholars on one hand when you're talking about the general public...Wright, Borg, Crossan and maybe Meier or Witherington or Bock since these are the six that are asked to do the interviews on the History Channel.

Brant Pitre said...

Wow, Michael,
Great post! I was just about to do the exact same post! (I saw McKnight's and Keener's posts today thanks to Jim West)
Glad you beat me to it. Now I can go to bed.

John Bergsma said...

Have you ever noticed that on that icon, Jesus' left eye is bigger than his other one? I wonder if that's historically accurate.

Anonymous said...

John: you can see the same thing on the Turin Shroud. Medical experts who have examined the Shroud have, among other things, argued that the face shows signs of blows to the left side of the head around the eye.

(Ian Wilson's book The Blood and the Shroud has details on this among other things, but doesn't link to the icon).