Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thoroughgoing Eschatology and Thoroughgoing Humility

In The Historical Jesus: What If The Key Pieces are Missing?, Mark Goodacre reminds us:
"There is an assumption at work in a lot of historical Jesus research that all the relevant and necessary materials for a reasonably complete picture of Jesus are available. They are available somewhere and we can get at them somehow. We just have to work hard to get to them. We spend many painful hours sifting and honing criteria because we feel that the literary deposit is somewhere bound to contain all the material of real importance... The assumption develops out of an unrealistic perspective on the task... Discussion about the historical Jesus should constantly involve the reminder that massive amounts of key data must be missing."
In the same vein, John Meier began his project by insisting that "the vast majority of [Jesus'] deeds and words, the 'reasonably complete' record of the 'real' Jesus, is irrevocably lost to us today. This is no new insight of modern agnostic scholars... The point I am making is true of most figures of ancient history." (A Marginal Jew, Vol I, pp 22-23). And I believe the final sentence of the fourth gospel contains as much historical truth as confessional ecstasy: "There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (Jn 21:25)

Meier and Goodacre each rightly emphasize the futility of salvaging a "reasonably complete" portrait of the historical Jesus, though I think we can get at a reasonable sketch of him, and that sketch sits across the synoptics, the letters of Paul, and the epistle of James. If these sources are largely unreliable, then we're out of luck and should concede victory to the mythicists. As I said in Millenialism or Myth?, mythicism is actually a more credible position than minimalism. (I would sooner ally myself with a Bill Arnal than a Dom Crossan.) The Jesus/Christian movement shows every sign of being a failed apocalyptic movement and having evolved in the manner typical of one. The Schweitzerian cliché, "thoroughgoing eschatology or thoroughgoing skepticism", imposes the same choice as ever. Though perhaps in view of Mark's reminder, we should choose "thoroughgoing eschatology and thoroughgoing humility".


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