“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
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?
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.
Cassandra 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.