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The Historical Jesus vs. the Word of God

To what extent should the historical Jesus reconstructed by scholars be normative for Christian faith today?

A couple of decades ago, the Jesus Seminar made headlines in claiming to (ahem) “scientifically” – that is, using the neutral tools of the historical craft – free the true Jesus from the churchy, dogmatic accretions of the centuries.  Of course, folks like Luke Timothy Johnson have pointed out that such efforts are fraught with problems.  Even though out of fashion in New Testament studies now, the assumptions of the Jesus Seminar and their ilk are still very much in the water.

In a wonderful little book on the Beatitudes, Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal household, reflects on the degree to which historical assumptions have crept into the church and biblical studies.  Is the only authentic Jesus the Jesus of the “nugget” on which a critical mass of scholars can agree? Cantalamessa responds:

The research on the historical Jesus that is so fashionable today – whether by scholarly believers or by some nonbelievers doing farfetched study – conceals a grave danger: It can lead people to believe that something is authentic only when it can be traced back to the earthly Jesus; everything else is considered nonhistorical and thus not authentic. This would mean unfairly limiting to history the ways that God has at his disposal to reveal himself. It would mean tacitly abandoning the truth of faith in biblical inspiration and thus the revelatory character of Scripture.

The Word of God, which is normative for the believer, does not consist in some kind of hypothetical original nucleus variously reconstructed by historians; the Word of God is what is written in the Gospels. The result of historical research should be held in great esteem because it is needed to guide our understanding of subsequent developments in tradition. However, we will continue to exclaim, “The Gospel of the Lord!” at the end of a reading from the Gospel – but not at the end of a reading from the latest book about the historical Jesus. (pp. 49-50)

Notice how Cantalamessa refuses to play the over warmed faux-Barthian move of opposing the written text of the Bible with the Word of God.  The Word and the word ought not be played off of each other, not least because it is a kind of functional Marcionism.

But most importantly, the Pope’s preacher (talk about pressure!), puts in proper perspective the role of historical research in the life of the church and the disciple.  Top put it simply: historical Jesus research is a useful servant, but a poor master.

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