The Status Quaestionis of Historical Jesus Studies and Modalities of Transmission

The Status Quaestionis of Historical Jesus Studies and Modalities of Transmission

jesus-christI suppose the title of this post could be a bit misleading, as I am certain that I am not up-to-date on the very latest in Historical Jesus Studies (HJS). My love affair with HJS began back in the late 1990’s after reading Schweitzer’s Quest, followed by the reading of much third-quest material. My time has only recently allowed me to revisit the topic and consider how these studies have since progressed within the guild. See footnotes for some suggested reading material.

Nevertheless, in my absence, it seems that interest in Historical Jesus studies has continued year after year without any reduction in intensity. A recent trip to Vanderbilt University’s Divinity Library revealed two lengthy isles of books dedicated to the subject. In fact, those shelves seem to increase in size every time I visit. Despite all of the scholarly reflection now at our disposal on the topic of the historical Jesus, no solitary portrait has yet emerged that has been convincing to all. Of this, Dale C. Allison has given a plausible reason:

My guess is that most New Testament scholars form a fairly clear picture of Jesus near the start of their careers, a picture that, while it may undergo some modification in subsequent years, rarely loses its basic features. Once a paradigm about Jesus is in place, a cognitive bias will also be in place. We all see what we expect to see and what we want to see; and if we hold a belief, we will notice confirming evidence. Disconfirming evidence will, to the contrary, make us uncomfortable, and so we will be more likely to miss, neglect, or critically evaluate it.1

However, more significant to this post is the fact that no single modus operandi for determining which Jesus tradition is “authentic” or “inauthentic” (now considered to be outdated terms) has developed that has been swaying to all. Of course, the search for Jesus tradition has long been conducted under the hegemonistic benchmark of the “Criterion of Authenticity.” However, many historical Jesus scholars have come to regard this criterion as inadequate. The criteria of authenticity has firmly been rooted in formgeschichte. Its proponents have sought to discover the pre-literary origins of Jesus tradition in its “original setting and function.” A significant assumption of those who adhere to this approach is that in order to deem specific Jesus tradition as “authentic” or “inauthentic” it must first be determined whether it is the product of Jesus himself, the brainchild of the early church, or the theological invention of a biblical redactor. Thus, the modus operandi of this approach has been to: (a) attempt to locate the original form of a specific tradition—one uninfluenced by the early church, hence formgeschichte; (b) to determine whether the tradition was actually devised by Jesus, and; (c) to then paint a sketch of Jesus based upon only that which was deemed to be authentic. However, now many historical Jesus scholars argue that any attempt to discover the “original form” of a tradition is problematic, because it is based upon the faulty supposition that it once actually existed.

Along these same lines, the notion that this supposed “original form” must be unconnected from the theological influence of early Christians in order to be deemed as “authentic” has also been challenged. Chris Keith has said, “The criteria approach has accepted an inadequate form-critical conception of the development of the Jesus tradition.”2 Likewise, David de Toit writes, “Current reconstructions of the historical Jesus are either based on antiquated form-critical principles or they are constructed without being at all set within the framework of a theory about the processes and the modalities of transmission in early Christianity.”3

Concerning modalities of transmission, de Toit and Keith elicit a significant point. The following question must then be considered, “What was the process of transmission of the Jesus tradition and how was it actually preserved?” This question cannot be answered before considering what data we actually possess. As James Dunn has pointed out: “what we actually have in the earliest retellings of what is now the Synoptic tradition, then, are the memories of the first disciples—not Jesus himself, but the remembered Jesus.”4 That is, we only possess “remembered stories” about Jesus or reflection compositions derived from a largely oral culture. Of these reflection compositions, we do not possess any “original” MSS. Thus, we only possess the biblical writer’s “impressions” or “reflections” on those historical events that involve Jesus’s own claims about himself. Moreover, memory is preserved out of relevance. This is something that Anthony Le Donne has called “memory distortion.”5 He points out that “we do not see the past as it exists in time.”6 Instead, we only see “present cognitive states associated with the past . . . a bent, or refracted, version of the past.”7 Thus, the past has somewhat been distorted by the passing of time, and thus, we can now only see an inexact image of the past. Of this, Keith writes: All tradition—all memory—is an indissoluble mix of the past and the present. The present would have nothing to remember if it were not for the past; the past would not be capable of being remembered if it were not for the frameworks of the present.8

So then, could this be exactly how Jesus tradition was preserved? Some scholars are now suggesting that early perceptions of Jesus were likely fashioned by what were the most significant memories of him as they related to their present situation. If memory is indeed a continuous mediation of both past and present in light of contemporary circumstances, then this just might reveal just how early Christians appropriated past memories of Jesus. That is, their frequent references to Jesus tradition from memory, demonstrates just how his earliest followers actually remembered him. Thus, Jesus was never to be found in the quest for an “objective history,”9 but instead, located in the recorded influence he had on his early followers. As Allison has said, “[Jesus] was always interacting with others, and their perceptions of him must constitute part of his identity.”10 Moreover, Michael F. Bird posits:

The gap between Jesus and the Gospels was not an empty space but was inhabited by people influenced by Jesus. Since Jesus said and did memorable things, the memory of such sayings and deeds filled that space. These memories of Jesus, when verbalized or inscribed, became the Jesus tradition. The memories were shared, circulated, and elaborated, often material was grouped together differently, with conclusions drawn to show the relevance of the stories for the current situation of the audience.11

This being the case, old historical “discrepancies” found in the Synoptics can easily be explained. Though I do not think this solves all aspects of the Synoptic problem (e.g., Matt 3:7–10 and Luke 3:7–9 are clearly not the result of oral tradition). However, if the veracity and genuineness of the Jesus tradition no longer depends on whether the stories have been told in a completely historically pristine manner, it changes the game a bit. As Le Donne suggests: “It is when the editors of these stories disagree the most that we can most confidently postulate historical memory! The fact that the memories of Jesus were refracted (bent in different directions) is the very fact that allows the historian to postulate the historical event.”12 Thus, in the search for authentic Jesus tradition, maybe it is the “frequency” of these “impressions” in both pre-Synoptic and Synoptic writings that must then be evaluated. That is, we can see in both pre-Synoptic writing and the Synoptics themselves “repeating patterns.” Maybe the mere quantity of these “impressions” or “reflections” should be taken to produce a plausible image of Jesus. However, I do wonder if this idea might somehow still fall under the criteria of multiple attestation.

Nevertheless, memory theory has changed the game a bit, both in criteria and concerning ideas about the transmission of Jesus tradition. As Le Donne says, “the initial force of his [Jesus’] words set memory trajectories in motion.”13 That is, the early perceptions of Jesus were likely fashioned by what were the most significant memories of him. As Allison has said, “[Jesus] was always interacting with others, and their perceptions of him must constitute part of his identity.”14 This all being the case, the development of beliefs about Jesus  was then constituted by those significant memories of him, and thus, it is upon that basis that we might be able to determine the validity of Jesus tradition.

I find this all extremely fascinating, and yet, refreshing!


1 Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 48.

2 Chris Keith, “Memory and Authenticity: Jesus Tradition and What Really Happened” in Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche 102, no. 2 (January 1, 2011): 156.

3 David S. du Toit, “Redefining Jesus: Current Trends in Jesus Research,” in Jesus, Mark and Q: The Teaching of Jesus and Its Earliest Records (ed. Michael Labahn and Andreas Schmidt; JSNTSup 214; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001): 123–24.

4 James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 130–31.

5 Anthony Le Donne, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 107.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 108.

8 Chris Keith, “Memory and Authenticity,” 170.

9 Maybe Martin Kahler’s claim that historical Jesus research amounts to a “blind alley” was correct, if by this he meant the quest for an “objective history.” See Martin Kahler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (trans. and ed. Carl E. Braaten; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 46.

10 Dale C. Allison Jr., The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, 25.

11 Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2014), 98.

12 Le Donne, Historical Jesus,130.

13 Ibid., 133.

14 Dale C. Allison Jr., The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, 25.