Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

No Controversy about the "Heresy" of the Quest for the Historical Jesus?

In a very interesting earlier post, Anthony opened up the discussion for responses Michael Bird’s quotation of a provocative statement from Luke Timothy Johnson:

“Since the time of the Enlightenment, the longest-running of all Christological heresies has deeply infiltrated the church with scarcely any protest or controversy, much less the calling of a council of bishops to clarify and defend the faith of the church. I mean the replacement of the Christ of faith with the so-called historical Jesus.” (Johnson, The Creed [2004], p. 300 [emphasis added])

Anthony took issue with Johnson’s statement about a lack of “protest or controversy” based on  recent experiences of professors who have been fired and/or silenced because of positions they have taken on the historical Jesus. As a Catholic, I found Johnson’s statement puzzling from a different angle: the history of Catholic biblical studies in the early 20th century.

The Modernist Controversy and the Excommunication of Alfred Loisy
Alfred Loisy
As Luke Timothy Johnson surely knows, in European Catholic circles in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was in point of fact an enormous controversy about the popular late 19th century antithesis between the “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith.” I am referring of course to what came to be known quite simply as the “Modernist Crisis.” See C. J. T. Talar, ed., Prelude to the Modernist Crisis: The Firmin Articles of Alfred Loisy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Although the point is sometimes forgotten, the Modernist Crisis took place in large part in the wake of the publications on Jesus and the Gospels by the prolific French priest scholar Alfred Loisy (1857-1940). Although Loisy is all but unread by most New Testament scholars today, he was extraordinarily prolific (I think Loisy may even have written more than Michael Bird), very influential, and very controversial in his own day. (By the way, Loisy was taught by Ernst Renan.) Particularly significant in this regard were Loisy’s books L'Évangile et L'Église (1903; trans. The Gospel and the Church) and Les Évangiles Synoptiques (1908). In fact, it was precisely in the wake of his publications on the Synoptic Gospels that Loisy was excommunicated. I call that controversy.

The Syllabus of Errors and the Quest for the "Jesus of History"
Johnson also certainly knows that in 1907 Pope Pius X—largely in response the growing influence of Loisy’s views about the historical Jesus and the Gospels—promulgated a famous document entitled “Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists” (the Latin title is Lamentabili Sane). 

In keeping with the style of early twentieth century magisterial documents, the Syllabus is basically a list of propositions that are “condemned and proscribed.” One of these condemned propositions is formulated precisely in terms of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith:

“It is permissible to grant that the Christ of history is far inferior to the Christ who is the object of faith.” (Holy Office, Lamentabile Sane, no. 29)

Notice here that what is proscribed is not "The Quest for the Jesus of History" per se, but rather the claim that the Jesus of history is "inferior" to the Christ of faith. Nevertheless, I call this protest. To be sure, Johnson is right that the publication of the Syllabus of Errors does not come close to the extraordinary act of calling an ecumenical Church council (like Nicaea). Nor does the joint publication of the the companion papal encyclical, On the Doctrines of the Modernists, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907). Nevertheless, in European Catholic intellectual circles in the early 20th century, the Syllabus of Errors and Pascendi were extremely controversial documents. Ask any Catholic biblical scholar in his 60s-80s if either one was controversial and you will get an earful. 

A Forgotten Chapter in the History of the Quest
In sum: in contrast to the impression created by Johnson's quote, there was in point of fact quite a bit of controversy and protest about replacing the Christ of faith with the so-called historical Jesus in early 20th century--at least in Catholic intellectual circles. To be sure, almost none of this makes it into standard overviews of "the Quest for the Historical Jesus", which continue to be written mostly by Protestant or secular scholars. (I for one can't think of the last time I read a major Jesus book that spent any serious time exploring the Modernist crisis or the controversy over Loisy's works on the Gospels, much less his excommunication.) But it remains an important chapter in of the history of the Quest nonetheless.

Now, whether to search for the historical Jesus per se is “heresy” (as Anthony put it in his original post) is another (very interesting) question altogether. The answer will, of course depend entirely upon what you mean by (1) the "historical Jesus" and what you mean by (2) "heresy." Those answers, we will have to save for a future post.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Brant Pitre Joins the Jesus Blog

The Jesus Blog just got 20% more Catholic. This is a bit more Catholic than Bono but not quite as Catholic as Nightcrawler of the X-Men. It is my great pleasure to introduce Brant Pitre, Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Dr. Pitre is our newest contributor (only one week newer than Christine Jacobi) and brings serious papal gravitas with him. How Catholic is Brant? Well, if the rumors are true, he drives behind a modified Toyota Land Cruiser with a bumper sticker that reads Ab Apostolis Approbata.

Dr. Pitre studied under Amy-Jill Levine during his time at Vanderbilt and John Meier as he completed his doctorate at the University of Notre Dame. His dissertation (directed by David Aune) is published as Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile. If you'd prefer a shorter read, he's the author of the article on "Apocalypticism and Apocalyptic Teaching of Jesus" in Joel Green, Jeannine Brown, and Nicholas Perrin's Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (2014). He writes of himself:
  • I am a Cajun boy from south Louisiana.
  • I bring a Catholic perspective to the Jesus Blog. 
  • My teachers Amy-Jill Levine and John P. Meier remain two of my favorite Jesus scholars.
  • I studied archaeology through a joint venture between Vanderbilt and Tel Aviv University under Israel Finkelstein and Baruch Halpern at Tel-Megiddo back in the late 1990s.
  • My newest book, Jesus and the Last Supper (Eerdmans, 2015), took about 4 extra years to write because Dale Allison's work, followed by Anthony and Chris's book Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (2012) blew my previous methodological assumptions to pieces and forced me to rethink how Jesus research should proceed.
  • This SBL 2015, I'll be presenting a paper for the Historical Jesus section entitled: "Beyond the Criteria of Authenticity: Where Do We Go From Here?"
I'm thrilled that Dr. Pitre has agreed to be our fifth voice. Next week we will announce our sixth.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky. 

                     ~Muhammad Ali

Friday, October 2, 2015

Winner of Jesus and Brian Giveaway

The true random number generator has spoken, and the winner of the Jesus and Brian giveaway is the owner of comment 25:

True Random Number Generator 25 

That comment is from "slebyh": 

"slebyh," if you'll write to me at, I'll arrange for you to receive your book!  Congrats!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hidden from the world in German higher education

New Testament scholarship within the German system of higher learning works like this: You have to slog your way through the whole modern intellectual history of a topic and write at least two monographs with approximately 5000 footnotes. The second book is your postdoctoral thesis. At the end of this phase of research you will be rewarded with an academic title called “PD” (“Privatdozent”). With this title you still have one letter less than a PhD-holder in Anglophone countries—not to mention, that this person is very likely to be 15 years younger than you at this point. Perhaps the reason for this stony path is that, in the collective memory of Germans, the image of a widely educated scholar looks like this:

The generation of the so called “große Gelehrte” to whom Bultmann belongs is to this day very influential. Especially in the case of Rudolf Bultmann young, ambitious New Testament scholars have to deal with the fact that this professor from Marburg set the agenda in New Testament research for several decades until now. In modification of a famous quote one could say: New Testament scholarship consists of a series of footnotes to Bultmann. The topic of my doctoral thesis is no exception. I, like many others, am still wrestling with the consequences of his insights. Taking serious the end of the “Leben-Jesu-Forschung”, Bultmann focused resolutely on the synoptic tradition, its origin, and its pre-literate forms. Some of his students, above all Helmut Koester, followed up on the trace of the synoptic tradition in various early Christian writings, including the Gospel of Thomas and the letters of Paul. The research interest was in pre-literate, catechetic collections of early Christian tradition and in the question whether Paul and other early Christian authors included such collections in their writings. If so, the early dates and perhaps even the historical reliability of the primitive Gospel tradition could be proven. As a consequence the analysis of parallel tradition aroused new interest in the historical Jesus. And New Testament research turned to the letters of Paul hoping to find sayings of Jesus who match the criterion of multiple attestations. Programmatic in this field was Dale C. Allison’s influential article on “The Pauline Epistles and the Synoptic Gospels: The Pattern of Parallels” (NTS 28), published in 1982.

Often discussed analogies to synoptic tradition can be found, inter alia, in Romans 12:14-21 and 14:14, 20. The passage in Romans 12 seems to allude to a part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus commands non-retaliation and to love one’s enemies. Romans 14 on the other hand deals with purity. Paul here declares, that there is no impurity in “Kyrios Jesus” and hereby supposedly evokes the disputation passage in Mark 7:1-23. Traces of an “original Jesus tradition” have been claimed for this Pauline passage as it seemed necessary that Paul would use the authority of Jesus in a question as important as the suspension of the food laws. Following this thesis however, the lack of an original saying of Jesus seems all the more conspicuous. The missing command to love one´s enemy in Rom 12 is significant. Instead Paul cites Prov 25:21-22 as an example of how the congregation should deal with enemies! Wouldn´t it at this point have been much easier for the apostle to just cite Jesus and use his authority, had he possessed a such command from his master? And exactly how much is the criteria “multiple attestation” worth, when Paul in these cases doesn’t even mention Jesus? Even the only two unmistakable references to words of Jesus in 1 Cor 7:10-11 and 9:14 are actually just paraphrases. Paul creates his own context to use these words in and even changes the content of what the Lord had commanded. Paradoxically he sees himself authorized to do so by the lord Jesus Christ himself, since he himself in Jesus spirit can command independently (cf. 1 Cor 7:25,40; 14:37; Phlm 8-9). One could even go as far as to say, that Paul uses the authority of the lord against the Jesus tradition. 

And so the question remains, how much knowledge did Paul really have about the Jesus tradition? Furthermore, was at all important to him? He was surely not interested in Jesus of Nazareth in any modern historical sense and he seems to care very little for Jesus’ authoritative teachings.
Following Bultmann on this matter, Paul was much more convinced about the significance of the risen Christ, the healing implications of this event for the whole of humanity, and its overall influence on Christian living. It is precisely through this lens that Paul views the Jesus tradition. This circumstance raises the hermeneutic question as to whether it is even possible to examine the Pauline letters with an interest in the historical Jesus. As Paul’s letters follow a completely different agenda, on our search for traces of the historical Jesus do we not much more risk dragging our own interests into those texts?

Being a newcomer and researching, hidden from the world, in German higher education, I was able to meditate on and investigate these and other exegetical, theological and philosophical questions and surprisingly, many of my insights turned out to be very close to the theses of this famous man shown above. So I find myself asking: Are we living in a Bultmann-revival-era?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Christine Jacobi Joins the Jesus Blog!

Today we welcome the first of our new bloggers to the Jesus Blog—Dr. Christine Jacobi.  Christine is wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and is a perfect addition to the Jesus Blog because she is an innovative scholar working in the area of Jesus tradition in the writings of Paul.  As is standard in the German system, she is currently writing her second doctorate (Habilitation) under Prof Dr Jens Schröter, whom readers of the Jesus Blog will recognize as one of the leaders in recent historiographical shifts in Jesus studies.  Christine also wrote her PhD in Berlin under Schröter, which was published as Jesusüberlieferung bei Paulus? Analogien zwischen den echten Paulus-Briefen und die synoptischen Evangelien (de Gruyter, 2015).  In this study, Jacobi argues that restricting consideration of Paul’s knowledge of the Jesus tradition to mining his epistles for words and sayings of Jesus from the Synoptics is ill-conceived.  One must, according to Jacobi, be more attuned to Paul’s own conceptualization of Jesus and the Jesus tradition.  Focusing particularly on his usage of “in the Lord,” she demonstrates that Paul “receives” “Jesus” as more of a hermeneutical sphere or orientation toward the past than anything else, and thus his reception of Jesus and Jesus tradition amounts to much more than simply repeating some words that Jesus may have said.  This study is one of the first applications of the emerging “memory approach” to the Pauline epistles, and is thus groundbreaking in that and many other ways.  We could not be more pleased to have Christine join us and we look forward to her contributions.  I (Chris) should also mention that I’m particularly pleased to be working with Christine as a co-editor (along with Helen Bond and Jens Schröter) of the forthcoming 750,000-word Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries (Bloomsbury T&T Clark).  She is also the co-editor (with Jens Schröter) of the forthcoming Jesus Handbuch (Mohr Siebeck, 2016).

We will soon get her picture and books on the sidebar, but for now, welcome Christine!  We look forward to your first post!