Reprinted with additions from The Sources of the Jesus Tradition (c) 2010 R. Joseph Hoffmann
The Canonical-Historical Jesus
R. Joseph Hoffmann
With the thunderous exception of the canonical version of Luke’s gospel, the historicity of Jesus is not a question for the New Testament writers. I suggest that his historical existence cannot be established and cannot be confuted on the basis of the literary remains we possess from the late first and early second century. Both the radical myth- school of the 19th century which advocated non-historicity and the view that serious scholarship is no longer interested in the question mark the extremes. However, the question that dominates early Christian discussion, the question through which the question of the historicity of Jesus emerges in later discussion, is fundamentally theological: It is the question of his humanity.
My argument in this modest essay is that while we cannot know for certain very much about a historical Jesus, not even for certain whether he existed, we can reconstruct fairly exactly the theological conditions under which his historical existence became indispensable for Christian theology. This being so, the question of the selection of books that were useful in the pitched battles between two views of Jesus–call them spiritual and earthly–is central, not anterior, to the question we call historicity.
When we think of the chronology of events that lead to the development of the New Testament, we usually think of the canon in final position. The making of the church’s book is regarded as the last act, so to speak, in the compilation of letters, short stories, an apocalypse and gospels that make up the collection. The way scholars and theologians have traditionally spoken about the canon suggests that it has almost nothing to do with the subject matter of the whole, but that its wholeness determines the permissible limits of the subject matter. That it is, in some sense, an executive decision imposed on unruly members. If Jesus is the protagonist of the gospels, the saving presence that inspires Paul’s letters, the heavenly king of revelation, he is, in some strange way, missing from the concept of a canon. That is because a canon is a selection of books thought to be authoritative and complete. In Greek the word implies a hard and inflexible instrument used for writing, and its closest Latin equivalent is regula, from which we get words like ruler and rule—a standard against which other things must be judged. The canon as it is traditionally understood, regulates what can be regarded as trustworthy, or to use a term manufactured by the church fathers, apostolic.
The theory that has dominated NT scholarship until relatively recently has run something like this. The historical Jesus was enshrined in memories about his life, words, and work. This would have happened before his death and the process would have accelerated following his death, especially if his death was interpreted as a martyrdom, or otherwise thought to have significant consequences.
Of these memories (without prejudice to their historicity), the event of his resurrection was the most prominent, for obvious reasons. The memory, embedded in oral traditions about Jesus, was not fixed and final; it moved from mouth to ear, community to community. It became affixed to local traditions—the Jesus of Rome was not in every detail the Jesus of Antioch or Anatolia. The Jesus of Mark is not the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel. Scholars for the last century have described the variance in these memories as trajectories or lines of tradition rather than as a single tradition arising from a single source. Various Jesus quests and other Jesus projects have made it their business to bring the trajectories as close as possible to a defining event, and this defining event is assumed to be historical.
In time, recorders of the traditions arose. We think they worked in the service of a movement (communities of believers), not as simple biographers, and that their work was closely attached to preaching and propaganda. They recorded things Jesus was said to have said, and said to have done. Their words were not coherent biographies, but more of the order of aides memoires or collections of sayings, reminiscences. They were not, as far as we can determine, transcriptional—that is, based on direct knowledge, though later, for apologetic reasons, the concept of witness and successions of witnesses becomes prominent. The assured authority these writings lacked at the point of their composition is imposed by later writers in debates about what constitutes right belief or orthodoxy.
Some early communities seem to have possessed a class of prophets—women and men believed to be able to recall the words of Jesus on a number of topics, ranging from divorce to paying taxes to the unimportance of worldly goods and duties towards neighbours and enemies. Other strands envisioned Jesus pronouncing on the end of days and God’s judgment. Others envisioned him as a teacher of aphoristic wisdom and a revealer sent by God to preach, essentially, a message about his heavenly origins. This last strand tended to portray Jesus as a relatively obscure figure whose sayings were mysterious and limited to a kind of spiritual elite, as in the Fourth Gospel. But even in the so-called synoptic gospels, this strand is present with the role of the elite being played by apostles whose minds have been clouded by earthly concerns. Since the mid 20th century it has been convenient if not exact to call this strand “Gnostic.” Gnosticism was not one thing however but many things; even Irenaeus who made bashing Gnostics a fine art, compares them to weeds.
To be brief, however: At some point at the end of the first century and continuing well into the second, gospels appear, as do letters from missionaries, apocalypses both Christian and adopted, books of oracles, stories of the apostles and their miraculous feats. One of the remarkable things about this development is the sheer increase of letters ascribed to “the apostles” and women followers of Jesus’ day, some 75 years and more after the death of Jesus. It is hard to hard to avoid the impression that the historical tradition began to erode in conjunction with competition between communities and their indepednent claims to possess “fuller” or more detailed representaions of the Jesus story. It is equally difficult to ignore the fact that the work of some missionaries–Paul being the outstanding example–was so hostile to historical tradition that it risked sacrificing it entirely to eccentric theological interests and the desire to out-perform rival teachers.
As in the study of secular literature, scholars recognize these variant literary forms as genres or types, each type serving a slightly different confessional purpose but all tending to support the interests of Christian communities in knowing who Jesus was, what he said, what he had come to do.
Different communities said different things, however. The most heavily gnosticized of them possessed a theology of such Pythagorean complexity that it sometimes verges on what Joseph Fitzmyer once described as crazy. The ones we recognize as “orthodox” or canonical, for the most part, are familiar if unresolved blends of the historical and supernatural, the pedagogical and the mysterious: words about the poor, or advice about adultery, stand next to stories about raising a widow’s son from the dead, and being transfigured alongside Moses and Elijah. The effect of this blending was to create a god-man of uncertain proportions. How human was he? How divine?
The literature itself did not provide the percentages, the definitions, but the questions nagged and would finally result in official decisions about the divinity and humanity of Jesus in the fourth and fifth century.
Between the second and the fourth century however is the making of the New Testament. And this is where the canon—the process of winnowing and selection–comes into view. It is important to remember, as we look at the canon, that no one who wove the web of sayings and deeds into the form we call gospel wrote with the intention of having his work anthologized. –Think back to those literature-survey courses you may have taken in college—Shakespeare wrote what he wrote; he did not design it to be included as a unit in the section before the Metaphysical poets and Restoration Drama. “Mark” likewise wrote what he wrote; his editors edited what they edited, and the canon-makers chose what they chose.
The canon gives an impression of consensus, evangelical uniformity, as if a vote had been taken, with all members present, to certify that what’s written is their contribution to the “authorized version” of Jesus. This is of course the impression the proponents of canonicity (though not with one voice or at one time) wished to convey when they linked the canon to the defense of a growing body of doctrine, or teaching about Jesus, and the origins of that doctrine to another idea, belief in apostolicity.
To oversimplify this process: certain beliefs about Jesus, including above all the matter of his humanity and divinity were at the center of second and third century discussion. This discussion does not take the form of theological point and counterpoint in its earliest phases. In its earliest phases, it must go back to the way the Jesus-story spread, or was understood, in places like Antioch, Ephesus, Rome and Sinope, or was communicated by missionaries like Paul, whose references to the historical Jesus, if there are any intentional ones, are not prominent.
What we possess are documentary traces of the discussion before it becomes an official debate by early church leaders, who will make each other orthodox and heretical in the course of the argument. In its formative stages, including the composition of the individual New Testament books, Christianity did not seek uniformity of doctrine because the shapers of the Jesus tradition did not imagine their works would be forced into alignment.
The idea of a fourfold or tetramorph gospel goes back to ancient harmonies like Tatian’s and were still being produced for use in Sunday schools, like McGarvey’s 1914 Fourfold Gospel “Resulting in a complete chronological life of Christ, divided into titled sections and sub-divisions, with comments injected in the text.” It is too much to say that individual writers thought they had a monopoly on the whole story—an author of John’s gospel for example expressly puts his story forward as a collection, a partial one—or that individual writers wrote in order to produce a final version, though an editor of the gospel called Luke writes with an intention to sequentialize versions of the sources he knows. That is all we know. Because of the way in which sources were used and refashioned, however, it is tempting to think that the cache of materials that could properly be desribed as ‘historical’ (in the sense of being thought to originate very close to the time when Jesus lived) was quite small. John’s contribution stands outside this matrix, though it presents some tantalizing possibilities.
In terms of other kinds of NT literature, Paul may have had a “canonical intention,” but the collecting and canonizing of his letters and the creation of new ones, is an event of the early second century, of a Paul-devotee known to history as a heretic—Marcion–not of his lifetime.
The canon does not arise as a spontaneous development, any more than Christian orthodoxy emerges as a single deposit in a bank account–to use an image from the second century. The canon is the regulation of sources that supported a growing consensus about who Jesus was, or rather, what was to be believed about him. If not a majority, then a significant, well-organized, and powerful minority of voices found his complete and total humanity a non-negotiable criterion for believing the right thing about him. They found their support for this view in a fairly small number of sources that they believed dated from apostolic times.
My argument here is that it is impossible to discuss the historicity of Jesus simply on the basis of the individual sources available in the church’s selection of books, or by parsing their contents, and equally difficult to advance the argument much further on the basis of gnostic and apocryphal sources that did not make the final cut. I am certainly not saying that research into the sayings of Jesus and attempts to construct a prototype gospel are useless. But the endeavor is bound to be incomplete unless the theological motives for defending a fully historical Jesus are brought into the picture. The early church, the framers of the canon especially, were not interested in an historical Jesus per se but in a fully human Jesus. Indeed, it is partly their concern and stress on this overt humanness with no accompanying mitigation of other claims—e.g., that he ascended into heaven, calmed seas, rose from the dead—that fuels speculation about whether such a man can have existed historically at all. The canon is not the proof of his historicity therefore but the earliest theological matrix out of which suspicions about it arise.
In any consideration of the historical Jesus , the following propositions about the canonical and human Jesus need to be weighed:
1. The gospels make no explicit argument for the historicity of Jesus. In the gospels, his historical existence is assumed. In the letters of Paul—while I agree that Paul is profoundly silent on many of the historical markers—it is in the background. In late letters, such as 1 John, acknowledgement that Jesus has come in the flesh is made decisive—those who deny it are antichrist (4.3). I regard Galatians 4.4f. completely helpful as a “proof” of Paul’s conviction as to the existence of an earthly, flesh and blood, Jesus. ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναῖκος, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον, 5 ἵνα τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον ἐξαγοράσῃ ἵνα τὴν υἱοθεσίαν ἀπολάβωμεν. It is also significant that Paul is not willing to go much further with this claim, even though he offers it as a way of establishing Christians as the inheritors of “sonship” on the same axis he uses to establish the Abrahamic succession through Isaac.
2. If there is a litmus test for the “physical historical” Jesus in the gospels, it is the crucifixion. Secondarily it is his bodily resurrection—which may sound odd, but in a significant way qualifies the kind of human existence his believers thought he possessed. In time, stories of virgin birth, fabulous details and genealogy are appended to complete the story. The birth stories however are designed to illustrate Jesus’ exceptionality, even to correct the impressions of his human ordinariness. Any indifferent reading of the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke see them as epiphany stories whose closest analogies are accounts of the birth of Hermes in the Homeric “hymn,” or of Augustus’ in the account of Atia’s pregnancy. That miraculous components from biblical sources are intertwined with these allusions is equally plain and as far as I can tell uncontroversial.
3. I believe that by the early second century a certain comfort level concerning the humanity of Jesus was being achieved among significant teachers—the names we now group under designations such as apostolic fathers, the apologists, heresiologists—men like Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian. At the risk of being outrageous, I would add Marcion to the list even though he was not destined to become a church father but rather an arch-heretic. They had settled on the idea that Jesus was “truly” or “wholly” human. In the Creed it would run, ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς Παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα. Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου, καὶ παθόντα καὶ ταφέντα.
4. Beginning with Polycarp, that is prior to 155 or so, the practice of proof-texting or citing scriptural passages to teach doctrine and win arguments, becomes a standard method in Christian theology. This presupposes a process of selection of sources useful to root out teaching thought to be false, or to use the word that becomes fashionable by the end of the century, heretical. The canon therefore arises in the process of these debates with false teachers.
5. The key element in this process—which is not always explicit: that is, not a simple list of books decreed to be canonical such as the so-called Muratorian fragment or the decree of Pope Gelasius in the fifth century—is to affirm against the teachings of docetists and assorted Gnostic groups, that Jesus of Nazareth has come in the flesh (truly born and truly died). This is the doctrinal motif of canon formation. It also establishes once and for all the conjunction between canonicity, historicity, and humanity—three ideas now so closely interwoven theologically than they cannot easily be separated phenomenologically.
6. But there is a second motive: with the exception of Luke’s belated construction of an apostolic college in the book of Acts, the apostles do not fare well in the gospels. To be kind, they are slow-witted students. Without exploring the many interesting guesses about this characterization, early Christian writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian were obsessed with their rehabilitation—especially since teachers like Marcion preferred to leave them in the mud or at the bottom of their class. The true reasons for this characterization had been lost by the second century, indeed even by Luke’s day, though there is ample reason to believe it was not historical accuracy but pedagogical necessity that sealed their reputation in Mark’s gospel. By the time Irenaeus writes his treatise against the heresies at the end of the 2nd century, the idea of a continuous tradition of truth, transmitted by faithful, inerrant followers, and a faithful passing down of teaching from apostle to later teachers (John to Polycarp and Anicetus for example) has become standard. Canonicity has been tied to apostolicity.
7. Irenaeus is really the first to make this motive explicit around the year 180, though an earlier church leader (how much earlier is hard to decide) named Papias hints at something of the same logic. Actually Papias is remembered by the historian Eusebius as a man with limited intellectual powers (3.39.13), but the germ of an idea of unbroken tradition extending from Jesus to the apostles to the presbyters is present in his journalistic approach to sources. His criterion is oral tradition handed down to presbyters; in fact he says he doesn’t put much stock in “books” and rejects the voluminous falsehoods they contain—whatever that may mean—but prizes the living “voice of truth.” Papias’s reference to “books” is odd, and even what he says about what he says he knows, for example, about gospels like Mark and Matthew is improbable.
However that may be, Irenaeus exploits the idea of unbroken male succession to offer a fourfold attestation of truth, corresponding he says (3.11.8) to the four principal churches, the four winds, and the four corners of the earth. “It is impossible that the gospels should be greater or fewer in number than four.”
Irenaeus argues tradition as a natural principle: using his predecessors’ assumptions, he finds denial of the humanity of Jesus the benchmark of false teaching, and in a famous scene depicts his own teacher Polycarp as rejecting Marcion in a bathhouse in Ephesus calling him the first born of Satan (AH 3.3.4). The key to overcoming the spiritualized Jesus of Gnosticism was to insist on an unbroken tradition that required his material, physical existence. An earthly, fully historical savior is the presupposition of the historical process he uses as the basis of his argument.
The historical Jesus is therefore not inherent in any gospel, nor even in the canon, but in a process. That process was slow to develop and developed in response to specific threats, the teachings of men and women who rejected a mundane understanding of salvation and the role of Jesus in the process. The historical Jesus was not necessitated by the gospel, but by the need for an authoritative teacher who selects and commissions other teachers, and in a self referential way, who are able to select those books where the approved story is told. It follows that only by deconstructing that process from its canonical end-point will it be possible to reconstruct the question of Jesus. This process is largely the opposite of Schweitzer’s approach, with his post-Enlightenment protestant faith in documentary sources in their “original” form, and conviction that the Jesus who emerged from such investigation would stand in marked opposition to the Jesus made by the church’s theology. Important as his insights were for their era, they were based on an epistemology that now belongs to the history of biblical studies and cannot serve as a template for future research on the question.
[to be concluded]