The Historical Jesus
The Postmodern Jesus

There is an unresolved dilemma regarding belief about Jesus.

The dilemma is between the historical Jesus and the postmodern Jesus. The starting point is how little we really know about Jesus beyond a few basis facts: these facts do not even include that he died on the cross (although this is highly likely). Thanks to support from Josephus and Tacitus, most Scholars from liberal to conservative pretty much agree that Jesus was killed:

Shorto, 1997, 163

His existence therefore and a ministry are pretty much certainly historical, but we suffer from highly theologised accounts of it and these events viewed from a stance of post resurrection claims in terms of Paul in particular and others.

All the time I want a credible view of Jesus and who he was, and this is following on from those who try to establish the historical Jesus. Unfortunately it has been likened to people looking at the historical Jesus down a well and seeing their own reflection.

On this basis we have many descriptions of Jesus and so the postmoderns say this is all that is available. In essence Jesus is a literary event for the reader by the reader: the writers lost responsibility a long time ago. This sort of approach is welded into community readings, so that there is postliberal theology which sticks to the drama of the text: a supposed ecumenical interpretation of reading and the drama therein.

I have a lot of time for this approach, except of course there is nothing to privilege the ecumenical reading, if there is one (and diversity demands there is not). As there is no objective reference point beyond the reading, you are still free to construct biographies from the reading. It is also legitimate to go beyond, to include the Gospel of Thomas.

Yet at the same time I still want to say who this strange man was. One major historical approach is that of the Jesus Seminar, the academics who in effect vote on likely sayings and actions of Jesus, dismissing those that are constructions of the early Church put into the gospels.

My difficulty is the low priority they give to eschatology. In effect they say a great deal of this comes from John the Baptist, Paul and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but not Jesus. When Jesus speaks of God being near, he means almost like an individualism of the now. It just seems incredible to me that all the urgency of this ministry and going to Jerusalem is beyond expecting hefty supernatural events to take place.

Here is my construction. Yes John the Baptist did think the known world was about to end and the Kingdom of God was coming. Jesus took his baptism and this interpretation. He then went about Galilee preaching this and what the Kingdom of God was ike. We have many of his rabbinical sayings collected together in what was called the Sermon on the Mount (there wasn't one sermon). He preached furthermore that the people who were poor and weak had more chance of entry than those who were rich and corrupted, given Roman rule. This was opposite to the prevailing view that took ill health and shortness of life as evidence of sinfulness, and riches as evidence of reward. Jesus was a healer, and met the poor and gave healings. I doubt he was ever a carpenter (he never built anyone anything!) but was a rabbi and well schooled in the scriptures. Those scriptures informed his history (we know it was a construction, he could not have) and he was well versed in messianic expectations. At first, I think, he expected another figure to come in all power to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. As his ministry went on, he considered that he was central to bringing this about. It is unclear how much he came to identify himself with the messianic figure to come: at the end these were very close in terms of carrying out his own role. His own role was essential. Thus he went to Jerusalem, and (not a timetable as a holy week) came to the notice of authorities by attacking the riches he had never seen in this neck of the woods consistent with his bias to the poor and weak. By this time his band of followers were wrapped up in this coming new reality, and believed that the messianic models in the scriptures would come to be. Jesus himself was picked up by the authorities, likely killed and the body dumped in a pit never to be identified by anyone. The disciples had gone out of reach but, if disappointed about what they knew would happen to Jesus, were still full of expectation for the immediate future. Beliefs in resurrection were bound to fit into this. Years after we have Paul the cosmopolitan writing about the communities and beliefs, and organising the situation, and we have fragmentary texts and accounts that his view influenced as well as those of the others which later were written up in a more formal set of accounts according to the concerns of those communities.

So I end up with a biography that I claim is historical, but then I must concede is also another literary construction!

If one believes that the time on the cross was some six hours then Jesus may well have survived the cross. It takes days to die of suffocation from crucifixion, which was why victims were left up there. Nevertheless the accounts of resurrection do not tally with resuscitation, in that they deal with an entity that appears and disappears according to the message being made in the text (when they "see" the point, he disappears). So it is more likely he is dead, not just gone over the Roman border looking for other tribes of Israel. The texts suggest he was more than some distance away, intending to come back when the Kingdom comes very shortly. Yet historical alternatives are possible.

What is certainly not historical is a statement that Jesus died to save us all or did so out of love. Arguments about penal substitution or otherwise do not belong in the realm of history. Jesus died because he was arrested and killed: there must be a question whether he thought the ultimate suffering was necessary to help bring about the Kingdom, and so "used" the cruelty of Roman power, or if he really did not want to be arrested and killed and see the Kingdom in, or this and realised against his will that he would pay the ultimate price in his God-following drama. Such historical options are impossible to pin down as they depend on incredibly weak evidence and theological stance.

Nor in history is the resurrection, except claims about the resurrection and the impact upon the community. Historical work can be done only on the texts as sources, and they are especially theological. Paul's claim of a spiritual body (whatever that is) is too subjective, but his travels and church organising have historical detail. More fruitful therefore is textual work, so that the resurrected Jesus is a narrative and postmodern Jesus, being the story of the early Christian communities as readers of the text (including orally transmitted text) and the layers of motivating and experience generating meaning. This is where theology lies.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful