Sunday, March 29, 2009

Johnson and Meier on the "Real" Jesus

New Testament scholars, Luke Timothy John and John P. Meier, are among some of the most influential, and indeed thought-provoking thinkers in the current NT-studies field. What we discover upon reading their works are quite a few similarities. However, there are also some key differences between the methodologies of the two. While Johnson attempts to “do away with” the notion of a pure study of the historical Jesus, Meier believes that such attempts can be intellectually stimulating, and that they have an important place in a faith that seeks understanding.

Johnson includes in his “Epilogue,” an attempt to construct an alternative to the historical approach toward faith. He writes, “A more adequate model for reading the New Testament, then, can be called an 'experience/interpretation' model. The model take seriously the deeply human character of the writings, the experiences and convictions that generated them, and the cultural and historical symbols they appropriate.” [1] This line of thinking may help if one's approach to knowledge is an experience-based method of determining what is true, or “real.” This is not to say that historical research is entirely useless, but when it comes to faith in God and Jesus, the historical solutions that result are rather superfluous.

By contrast, we might note how Meier does attempt to answer faith-based questions with at least some historical inquiry, even if the latter is not a necessary precondition of the former. He points out that, “Five key pieces of data help impose initial, though rough, limits on our speculation about Jesus' dates. Once these general limits are set, we can attempt to be more precise.” [2] The data that Meier points out are those facts about Jesus that are almost universally accepted, e.g., the death of Jesus during the era of Pontius Pilate. It is on the basis of these core facts that one is, therefore, able to construct a portrait of Jesus that closely corresponds to what the historical Jesus was like.

It should be noted that for neither scholar is the historical method then final word on the “real” Jesus. Even if we are capable of supplementing what we know about the real Jesus, historical inquiry does just that: it supplements, rather than holds up the faith in the risen Lord. Even though I am not entirely convinced that the dichotomy between “historical” and “real” is a necessary one, I concede that it can provide some utility. For example, for a methodological naturalist, like Bart Ehrman, the notion that God raised Jesus from the dead cannot be determined by any historical inquiry. The reason why is simply because history is by its very nature a science, and science deals only with those things that are repeatable.

The above idea is, of course, subject to the criticism that some historical cannot be repeated. Take Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, for instance. It will never be the case that Julius Caesar will ever live on earth and cross the river as he had done before. Yet, this criticism does appear to be faulty. One might not that while we cannot observe Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon again, there are certain parallels to it. Certainly, nobody would doubt that people do, in fact, cross rivers. That appears to be obvious to anyone who accepts their sensory perceptions and cognitive faculties as essentially reliable. On the the other, we cannot observe God raising people from the dead. So, the interlocutor might conclude, we cannot use historical means to determine whether God raised Jesus, or anyone at all, from the dead.

This response to the original objection, however, also appears to have some holes in it. Few people will say that we can use historical methods to know whether God exists or not. In fact, only a minority would contend that science in general could demonstrate God's existence. Yet, there are actually many philosophical arguments for God's existence. On these grounds, we might point out that while history all by itself cannot provide us with sufficient reason to believe in a resurrected Jesus, history can be involved in a conjunction with metaphysics.

In fact, this reiterates my initial concern that the separation between the historical Jesus and the real Jesus is a legitimate one. It was, after all, only since the nineteenth century that people began to separate the sciences. Instead of one science (literally taken from the Latin, scientia, or knowledge) that has multiple facets, we now think of there being multiple sciences, each distinct and independent from the other. I think this causes many epistemic problems. Take a hypothetical distinction between physics and logic. It is not the case that physics can operate independently of logic; instead, physics presupposes logic in order to come to reasonable conclusions about the various functions contained within the universe. I think of faith and reason in the same way. It seems to me that philosophy/theology need not be separated from history. The two may actually overlap and have some kind of mutual dependence on each other. Thomas Aquinas, for example, considered theology a science in its own right.

I don't wish to derail the topic of this paper. However, it seems apparent to me that the difference between Johnson and Meier comes down to these fundamental issues. Even if history is not the ultimate basis for one's faith, history can be used to supplement and confirm the rationality of one's faith. Even assuming, then, that Johnson has a valid point about the necessity of experience to determine who the real Jesus was/is (and Meier would agree that it does), that does not necessarily preclude the use of history as a means to provide one with knowledge about the Lord Jesus.

Overall, I consider the historical methods and conclusions of both Johnson and Meier to be both highly effective, as well as true. And, even though I am more on the side of Meier, the experience/interpretation based way of thinking of Jesus is certainly a legitimate one.

Works Cited

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, p. 174.

[2] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Doubleday Publishing Group, 1991, p. 373.

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