More and more my reading is starting to focus down on the current scholarship about what scholars like to call “the historical Jesus”. By this, they mean the human Jesus and what we can know about him through historical, archeological, and sociological research. The very idea of a historical Jesus at all is somewhat controversial — another book I’m reading on Christology argues we should focus on the Risen Christ known to the church, not the historical Jesus we can never really know. It’s interesting to read both sides of the controversy. However, I tend to come down on the side of the historians. My reasoning is that otherwise we do have a tendency to create a Jesus that looks a lot like us. Although of course we can never get a complete picture of Jesus’ earthly life, there is a lot we can know from historical data about Palestine in Roman times.
The search for the historical Jesus has gotten a bit of a bad rap because there are a lot (lots and lots and lots) of badly researched and badly written books out there on the topic. Historical Jesus writers are just as likely as anyone else to create a Jesus to fit their own preferences. Thus, there’s a need for really rigorous scholarship on the topic. Although of course any scholarship always has some bias in it of the scholar’s unconscious or conscious leanings, the best scholars note these up front and pay attention to them. Having made my way through a few books by N.T. Wright, I’m now working on John Meier’s excellent 4-volume series.
I’m always amazed at the amount of fiction people can write about the Bible. More than any other topic of academic interest, it seems to inspire even the best writers to take unsupported leaps of conjecture. Right now I’m also reading Karen Armstrong’s “One City Three Faiths” in preparation for going to Jerusalem. Armstrong is a wonderful writer, but I’m taking issue with her assertions that just because the Bible does not mention any massacre of the citizens of Jerusalem by King David when he conquered the city, that David was therefore an example of a ruler who valued multiculturalism and religious pluralism. Clearly Armstrong is trying to make an argument for religious pluralism today, which I heartily agree with, but I’m not sure that trying to read it back into the Old Testament is historically accurate or helpful.
In other words, when reading a popular book about “what Jesus really meant”, make sure to read critically and watch the footnotes! Hopefully by getting to really know the Jesus of history as well as the Risen Christ in our own daily lives, we can truly “put on the mind of Christ” as St. Paul urges us to.