McKnight, Historical Jesus and April 14

Scot McKnight has responded to the CT responses of Tom Wright, Craig Keener, and myself at This was the topic of my previous blog. The full McKnight response article is at:

Scot McKnight has responded to the CT responses of Tom Wright, Craig Keener, and myself at This was the topic of my previous blog. The full McKnight response article is at:

Scot is a good friend and does first class NT work. The issues his response raises are important. Here is the latest exchange with me.

"Darrell Bock's online piece latched on to my "uninterpreted" Jesus comment. Well, I've read what I said again and here's what I think I meant, and I suspect Darrell would agree with me: I meant the canonical interpretation of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God and the Creedal Jesus who is the Second Person of the Trinity. They want to get behind "those" interpretations to the real Jesus. I can see why Darrell grabbed that word. Darrell is, of course, right in what he says that there is no uninterpreted Jesus. But, Geza Vermes, often credited with the origins of the Third Quest, said an objective historian ought to be able to find the real Jesus if he (or she) pursues such in a disinterested way using sound historical methods. That's what I mean by "uninterpreted."

And, once again, I agree with Darrell: by all means historical work; yes, that work will enable apologetics. But what Darrell focuses on, apologetics, is not what the HJ enterprise is about at all; it's about getting behind the Church's Jesus. I will simply repeat myself in a different form: apologetic work is not HJ enterprise work. It's apologetics.

But I'd like some admission by these three, or at least some more admission, that the vast majority — nearly all of it — of historical Jesus studies have had one major intent: to get behind the creeds and Gospels to see what Jesus was really like, before the Christians began rewriting history to present a christology, a Messiah Jesus, a Son of God Jesus, etc..

The question for me is this: Whose Story will we tell? This leads to a chase question: Will it be ours, the Story we fashion on our historical methods, or will it be the Church's Story? I've chosen, after a decade of working in this field and being as rigorous with methods as I could have been, to opt for the Church's Story. It's the gospel."

My response to his response: Scot is right that much Historical Jesus (hereafter HJ) work seeks to get behind the biblical materials and claims to get to the real Jesus. His citation of Vermes appeals to one kind of historiographical definition of the enterprise, one that has been more recently challenged by many with the recognition that no interpreter or interpretation is as neutral as Vermes claims. I agree with Scot that this kind of a quest is flawed in its expectations as my response indicated. But this point in his response is minor and Scot and I agree on the hermeneutical point being made in the end.

In addition, the claim that the method as practiced is neutral and gets us to a real Jesus (as Vermes claims) fails to appreciate the limitations of historical method, which when turned in a skeptical direction or when it chooses to rely on the criterion of dissimilarity, can be completely inadequate to handle uncorroborated sources (a detail that excludes, for example, most of the gospel of John — say 88%– and half of Luke).

However there is a more fundamental issue in McKnight's reponse that needs more attention. His response says that my claim is that the value of HJ studies lies in its apologetic potential. Actually I think that I was making a more fundamental claim. There are kinds of HJ studies or, perhaps better, emphases in what HJ studies can yield. (In other words, what can we or can we not expect from such a quest?). My claim was that such study, done with an appreciation of the limits of what it can do, yields, as the CT response title affirmed, context for us (so this is not apologetics). This was part of my point in the Second Temple example. This Scot also acknowledged in a sentence in the response.  (Part of my point here is to show how much Scot and I agree about on this issue). Now it is true I also see HJ study as having an apologetic potential (hence my point about what criteria can do in my CT piece). The key point here is that it is not so easy to distinguish hisotrical work and apologetics. It is hard to treat these categories as so distinct when a key issue in HJ study is the credibility of sources.

It is the nature of the beast that historical reconstructive work, especially with limited ancient sources, produces various reconstructive results. (By the way, Scot and I also agree that this work is reconstructive, as all historical enterprise is). So let's define what "apologetics" is in the sense Scot is appealing to it. It is to make a case about whether the sources we have in the biblical materials are fundamentally trustworthy or not. The issue of whether sources are fundamentally trustworthy or not is a core historical question within any historical work. It is not distinct from the HJ enterprise. It is fundamental to it in terms of the results such study may or may not yield. This point about there being kinds of HJ study and that there is a swath of study that emphasizes the quality of the sources we have in the gospels is one all three of the respondants made (and one Scot also recognizes). It is a point obscured by the manner Scot responds by focusing on the question of getting behind sources.

So the "get behind" claim also needs defining. Placing Jesus in context means that what we look for is Jesus in terms of the events he participated in. Harder to sort out (and debated) is whether or not one reads or should read those events in a manner much like they were experienced when they happened or in light of what the events generated in light of their impact (both of which are historical ways to read materials and to present them). One might even have to contemplate some mix of the two levels in the same book. Most people do not even think about these kinds of layers as they work with the gospels. In my mind, HJ study can and has to read the material with all these options on the table; in part, because gospel authors can and did choose between these kinds of options in doing their work. It also can be valuable to say this is what we think the sources say the disciples went through at the time and this is what they saw looking back. In fact, in places John's gospel says this for us. Now important in Scot's framing of this question is the claim that for many or most HJ scholars the gospel writers rewrite history for the sake of christology (read add a theology on top of the history and play with events in the process). He is right. Many do this. But my point in part is that in Scot's setting up these discussions as either-or (either history or apologetics; either history or the gospels; either a skeptical reading of history or the church's reading), some serious both-and nuancing is lacking.

So ironically, it is at this crucial point that Scot walks away from HJ work and says in effect give me the gospels and the gospel as the church gives them to us. The gospels as we have them is the story Scot wants to embrace and wants us to embrace, not some reconstructed or decontructed Jesus. (And I agree with him here as well in terms of where the key story lies). My point is that walking away at this key juncture is precisely when we need to hang in, engage and debate with those who argue the very sources the church uses do not take us to the desired source, Jesus, or to the real story. The dilemma this state of affairs leaves us is this: how do we attempt to adjudicate between those who claim the gospel writers "fudged" (even seriously so) with the history to make their point and those who think that what the gospel writers did was in fundamental conjunction with what those events were and where they took people? This is where history, source trustworthiness, and apologetics merge as a core part of the process—yes, even the HJ process. In my mind, it is why we can accept virtually all Scot says with so much insight about the flaws in HJ study and yet still not walk away. Because in this case how sources are seen is a key part of whether the story the church tells is appreciated or not.

So in the end when asked whether I tell the church's story or the one of history, I will answer both, because part of the way in which I can appreciate the church's story is by understanding the historical context of the evangelist's story.  That work will guard me against reading in a history and maybe even a theology that is not rooted in the first century context. It may also prevent me from rejecting sources I should take seriously. It may allow me to make the case for those who are hesitiant that the sources can be accepted that there is good reason (by rules many share) to regard the sources the church appeals to with respect. As I said in my initial response, such work may not bring a person all the way, but it may start them on the way—and that matters a great deal.