How Well Can We Know Historical Figures? Not a Rhetorical Question (EHJ series)

"To go forward boldly, it is not necessary to solve every problem of interpretation or to determine a definitive historical Jesus. ... The challenge is to move forward with a human Jesus, not to interpret him conclusively. In the end, being human is exactly about the problem of interpreting others."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

Chapter 1 of 9, "Why the Historical Jesus Is the New Path," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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How well can we know historical figures? These days, it seems like there are so many claims made about the historical Jesus and other famous individuals that I want to throw my hands in the air in frustration. In Chapter 1 of Embracing the Human Jesus David Galston urges readers to recognize that our encounters with historical figures share something in common with our everyday, in-person interactions. That is, we can't know one other completely, and yet we still manage to make things work. It's not a hopeless cause.

Perhaps because I'm an identical twin, I've always been fascinated by the question of how deeply we can know another human being. What struck me as I read chapter 1 this week, is the supreme anxiety that underlies our desire to know. It's like we're holding the other at a certain distance, as a painter would, and saying, "Now hold still."

Jesus didn't hold still for his many ancient portraits, not because he's unique but because he's human. We all fidget; we can't help ourselves. Human beings, as part of this ever-changing world, cannot help but change. As Galston explains, this is a fact of existence, not an insurmountable obstacle. Roy W. Hoover, in his introduction to Profiles of Jesus, illustrates this issue in the context of historical Jesus research:

"The yield of the profiles [of Jesus] is what can be characterized as a collection of studied impressions of Jesus as a figure of history. They are different from the first impressions the young man known as Jesus of Nazareth would have made on the peasant farmers and fishermen, the homemakers and artisans of the small towns and villages of Galilee in the first century ce. We lack the direct access they had to what he looked like and how he sounded when he spoke, and we lack the ability to observe his behavior and what we would call his personality. We are also without that sense of their life situation and prospects that would have affected the way they perceived him.

But that we lack what they had is not the only thing that should be acknowledged. We also have what they lacked: the advantage of hindsight, the comparative capacities of knowledgeable and interested observers from another country, comparable in some respects to the case of the young Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville, who, during a nine-month visit in 1831–1832, noted things about America that had not been recognized by Americans themselves. Also available to us, but not to them, is not just one, but several texts by different authors, all written within a few decades of Jesus' life, that preserve a selected residue of his life and teaching in the context of their own assessments of his significance." (Hoover, Profiles of Jesus: 2–3, emphasis mine)

Hoover is making what seems to me a helpful point here, that immediacy of contact with a person or place doesn't necessarily equate to understanding it. Direct contact with a person is just a different form of human experience, which doesn't automatically trump the careful reflection of a later generation. Later generations depend on the immediate experiences of their predecessors, but may find things in the story that the original tellers didn't want or expect to matter.  These discoveries are not any less legitimate than the messages of the original tellers, as long as the claims can be anchored to the text and era.

Which brings me to another point. It's easy to get stuck on the variability and limits of knowledge, in part because it encourages greater tolerance for difference. I certainly like being able to say, "How interesting that you think that way. I don't, but I can see your point." But after learning the basic principles of tolerance and open-mindedness, even if we can't apply them as well as we'd like, at some point a person has to take real steps and leave real marks on the world. That requires making decisions, discarding some options in favor of others. As Galston says,

"What we mean by justice, by love, by forgiveness, and by hope is in our hands. These are the forms of life that we create, that we employ, and that we share with one another, but we and not a god are responsible for them. Love does not exist where people refuse to love." (EHJ: 29)

The concrete reality of those actions in relation to the historical Jesus, and rituals that might be associated with them, will come up later in the book. Although the historical Jesus is open to some interpretation, the possibilities are not infinite. If we take all inherited texts about Jesus—those found in the Bible and otherwise—and factor in the basic skills and insights of historical-critical research, we can reasonably squeeze our circle of interpretation into a manageable range. Was Jesus a purveyor of wisdom, or an apocalyptic prophet? These both may fit into the circle based on different arguments, but nobody to my knowledge claims Jesus was a Roman soldier, a woman, or an Italian. These fall outside the realm of realistic possibility. What else can we discard, while still acknowledging a range of options within the smaller circle?

Stone Age Panel of Hands (detail), Source: Anonymous - artdaily.org. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Anonymous, artdaily.org (Wikimedia Commons)

Beyond this question of a basic historical portrait of Jesus, though, I get the impression Galston is pushing for something more immediate to our daily lives. He's pushing us toward connection with others through the uncertainty, a step that cuts through the absolute obedience engendered by an Augustus Caesar, or multinational corporations, or whatever else seems so large we can't overcome it. Hands raised in praise—of Jesus or Caesar—can look alarmingly like hands raised in surrender to the powers that be. To connect is very different. To connect is to reach across a table and offer food, drink, a probing conversation, or basic human touch.

Dare we?

Continue to Chapter 2 » 

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

 

9 replies
  1. Peter Kane says:

    Cassandra: So you share something with Thomas the twin. I wonder if anyone ever tried to use that as an interpretive key to the Gospel of Thomas. Probably could con some grad student into it. Dare we?

    Mike is right that I was immersed in neo-orthodoxy like him, and often confused by theology. My systematics professor, Lutheran seminary in Chicago, was a student under Tillich, and even took us to hear him speak shortly before he died. I have started to reread Tillich’s Systematic Theology several times over the years, and always got stuck on Tillich’s in depth knowledge of every systematic theology ever written. Fortunately Mike saved me from all that . . . he showed me where the hospitality room was my first meeting in Santa Rosa.

    On to Chapter 1. To comment on your circle of interpretation of HJ including wisdom teacher or apocalyptic prophet, yes, but I have always had a little issue with both those categories. The problem is there were times in the 60’s when some of my civil rights sermons had an apocalyptic edge. And there were times when I had real fun presenting the open-endedness of the parables with adult groups using Brandon’s Reimagine the World. The categories aren’t as mutually exclusive as they are often painted. People are complex.

    But take a step backward. There is an underlying unspoken assumption in chapter 1, and in the driving motivation of the Jesus Seminar in general. We are saying, first orthodoxy, then science and the Enlightenment challenging religion, then biblical literalism as a reaction to the Enlightenment challenge, then neo-orthodoxy as a compromise which grants that walking on water doesn’t have to be taken literally, but the Christ myth must be protected. Then finally we come to various attempts to describe Jesus historically rather than mythically as the Christ. Isn’t that still extremely Christ centered?

    The unspoken assumption is everybody is interested in Jesus, as an individual personality, one way or another. So Jesus walks into the hospitality room, Mike hands him one of Sonoma’s finest, probably red. Peanuts are on the table. What is your first question?

    What do you really want to know? (Serious question.)

    • Cassandra says:

      Peter: Ha, yes, Thomas and I have a connection. I do remember as a teenager being especially confused by my friends’ urgency to “find someone” when for me there was never any need to look beyond my sister; maybe there’s an interpretive key in that!

      So we’re sitting in the hospitality room with our glass of wine and peanuts, and the historical Jesus is at hand. I want to know how he felt about human beings’ relationship to the land. As David said, “We are not another generation, either in the future or in the past. We need to go forward with what enables our life now” (20). Most days I’m anxious about the health of the land, wondering if my kids will know how to survive if/when environment becomes harsher and food takes more work. I was re-reading Matthew last night, the version in A New New Testament (I’m gearing up for the Fall Meeting, so I’ve got some reading to do!). This time around I really heard Matt 6:22-23: “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is unclouded, your whole body will be lit up; but if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be darkened. And, if the light inside you is darkness, how intense must the darkness be!” The SV reads, “It follows that if your eye is clear, your whole body will be flooded with light. If your eye is clouded, your whole body will be shrouded in darkness.” It seems to me that the new light is all an emphasis on the natural world, and I’m finally clear enough on that to get my priorities right. Although I can’t agree with everything a theologian like Wendell Berry says, for example, I do appreciate that he stepped completely outside the fundamentalist-liberal dichotomy and asked, “What does the Bible mean through the lens of agriculture?” Jesus uses agricultural and natural imagery in his parables, but how did he see the relationship between land and humans, and land and whatever is Ultimate (God)? I’d like to hear him spin a story out of that.

      Follow-up note: I appreciate that right now the Christianity Seminar is attempting to broaden our view to the earliest communities, rather than fixating on individual “star players” like Jesus and Paul. Very interested to see what comes of it.

      • Peter Kane says:

        Cassandra:
        Been thinking about the question you suggested.

        My wife has a friend who worked as a nurse in Green Bay, and retired to a small isolated house in the northern Wisconsin woods. They chop wood all summer to keep warm in the winter.

        A seminary buddy retired as a minister and went even further north to a lake in the Minnesota woods where he is attempting to perfect the perfect canoe design, building a number of them from scratch.

        My brother in law retired as a financial advisor, and now hunts for all his food, and his wife happens to be really good at cooking game. Probably hasn’t eaten beef for several years.

        My other brother in law retired to a rural setting deep within the Texas hill country, where we visit during bluebonnet season.

        My pastor just moved into the rural farmhouse that has been in her family since 1902, with only 2-3 other families living within a mile. Just visited last week, and I was struck by how visibly attached she is to the land, where she raises horses.

        I just returned from an Ansel Adams exhibit in Indy, which was way better than I was anticipating. The only problem was the huge highway construction project on the north side of Indy, which is a total mess now, but will whisk us to downtown at high speed with few stoplights by 2015.

        I am sensing a pattern. I also am feeling that living too far away from the land is somehow related to domination and a widening of the income gap. How would ‘religious’ groups function if we focused less on what Jesus might have been like, and more on reimagined images for the world, then and now. And possible strategies for living in those visions? A peoples’ history of Christianity.

        How come so much of being in the world is denying that we are of the world?

        Mike, can you refill the glasses? And don’t get me started on growing up next to Lake Michigan.

        • Cassandra says:

          Peter: I suppose my backyard garden and plans for a grey-water collection system can be added to the list!

          I also am feeling that living too far away from the land is somehow related to domination and a widening of the income gap. How would ‘religious’ groups function if we focused less on what Jesus might have been like, and more on reimagined images for the world, then and now. And possible strategies for living in those visions? A peoples’ history of Christianity.

          How come so much of being in the world is denying that we are of the world?

          I really like this, and I feel there is something to it. What I’ve discussed with my sister is the possibility that, ironically, our era may have more in common with Jesus’ era than with the world of the past couple hundred years (influenced as it was by the Industrial Revolution). We are being awakened to the fact that resources are finite, not always guaranteed, and subject to the vicissitudes of nature, which we cannot control, contrary to a brief era in human history in which that illusion ruled the day.

          Not to mention, I should add, the ever-looming threat of empire.

  2. Mike Short says:

    First off, I think we all understand, as this blog gets more publicized there will be more participants in the conversation and participation is welcome.

    After I left the Christ of the creeds behind and studied the historical Jesus from the seminar’s (and other scholar’s) point of view, I realized there is not much evidence for a specific historical figure of Jesus bar Joseph. But there is a significant amount of writing about such a person and the wisdom that is found in those writings may have usefulness to today’s life situations. Just studying the parables provides one with a different outlook on life. Who will we accept help from when we have problems on our way to Jericho or maybe on our way to retirement? What of our plans for the future that leak out of our jar as we walk along on our life journey? How do we tolerate or possibly facilitate a tiny bit of corruption that causes an immense leavening of society?

    From Cassandra, “To connect is very different. To connect is to reach across a table and offer food, drink, a probing conversation, or basic human touch.”

    Yes, we dare to do that. For some reason, day to day life, does not provide many opportunities for probing conversations. That is one of the advantages to religious institutions. They have been established for the purpose of exploring life’s vagaries. In my experience, real conversations do not happen much in the church. What we see happening is traditional, simple answers to complex problems that are not really helpful when people are seeking wisdom, solace, direction. “God has a plan. Let’s pray about that. It’s a mystery, my son.” All tried and true phrases but weak in the face of the complexity of life.

    “Jesus uses agricultural and natural imagery in his parables, but how did he see the relationship between land and humans, and land and whatever is Ultimate (God)? I’d like to hear him spin a story out of that.”

    If there was a Jesus and if he could be persuaded to exist in this century for a conversation or two, he would not be using agricultural imagery in his discourses. I would ask this mythical character over a glass of wine, which he would certainly accept, how he would respond to the present day pseudo-theology that uses quantum mechanics to explain everything in life. If we hope real hard, we can influence those sub-atomic forces to do our bidding. Utter Flapdoodle! What say you, Jesus?

    How would the ideas of commensality that Crossan champions, work for us now, Jesus? Or did Crossan get that wrong? How do you stand on raising the cost of my carbon usage so California can get enough water? Or, so my grandkids, that I don’t actually have but Peter does, can live in a world much like we had?

    Peter says it well, “How would ‘religious’ groups function if we focused less on what Jesus might have been like, and more on reimagined images for the world, then and now. And possible strategies for living in those visions?”

    I think this is where the new seminars and seminars of the future will have to look. Possibly as we get deeper into David’s book we will find the answers.

    Peter, somehow I knew Horsley would soon appear.

    • Cassandra says:

      You are both getting me curious about Horsley, whom I haven’t read.

      Mike said, “In my experience, real conversations do not happen much in the church. What we see happening is traditional, simple answers to complex problems that are not really helpful when people are seeking wisdom, solace, direction.” I was invited by a friend to attend her new church last Sunday, which I did. It was entirely focused on miracles and “God is love.” I appreciated that the minister emphasized love as actionable, but I have absolutely no patience for what amounted to sidelong boasting about being the conduit of the miracles. There was nothing new in all of that business. Speaking of my small rural hometown alone, there’s a glut of churches, but where can I go for the sorts of on-target questions I imagine Jesus offered?

  3. Brian says:

    I like your comments here, Mike. I have been thinking that Jesus is a fictional character that inspired many writers, kind of like King Arthur or James Bond. So there was no revolutionary Jesus, but a few genius authors that took an oral legend and gave it a literary boost.

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