I just began my second time through an introductory course on the Gospels. The very first assignment I have my students do is to read and respond to an article Scot McKnight wrote in CT back in 2010 titled “The Jesus We’ll Never Know,” in which he argues that evangelicals should abandon the quest for the historical Jesus. (If you’re unfamiliar with this topic, here’s an introductory talk I gave on it last year at our seminary’s conference on preaching.) To help point my students in the right direction, I also have them read two responses CT published alongside McKnight’s piece, one by N. T. Wright titled “We Need History” and the other by Craig Keener titled “Jesus Studies Matter.” The point of the assignment is simply to get students thinking about the place of history and historical work—like the quest—in studying the Gospels. After we survey the quest and discuss the articles and their responses, I then offer two of my own reasons for why I think McKnight overstates his case, for why I think he’s too pessimistic about the quest and its work. I suggest, first, that history is necessary and, second, that for this reason the quest for the historical Jesus matters. Here I’ll briefly reprise the first argument, saving the second for a subsequent post.
History is necessary and it’s necessary for two reasons. First, it’s necessary because Christianity depends on historical events. In one sense, at least, Christianity is nothing more than an (the) interpretation of historical events. Here it may help us to remember that many of Jesus’ Jewish peers didn’t deny the historicity of his works; rather, they simply gave them alternative explanations (see, e.g., Mark 3:20-27; Matthew 9:27-34; Matthew 12:22-29; Luke 11:14-22; John 8:48-59; John 10:1-21) Christianity, to say it again, is an explanation of historical data, which is, in fact, one of the things that sets it apart from nearly every other religion. Christianity depends on history in a way, e.g., that Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Islam do not. Take away Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, take away history, and Christianity, with its interpretation of that event (e.g., Romans 4:25), becomes not only wrong, but meaningless. The interpretation, the faith, requires the event.
Second, history is necessary for understanding Christianity; it’s necessary for interpreting the Christian Scriptures. If we hope, e.g., to understand the Gospels in any sufficiently thorough sense, then we’ve got to understand the context in which they were produced and in which the events they narrate took place. This is what we mean, isn’t it, when we say we’re committed to historical-grammatical exegesis? History helps fill in much of what the Gospel writers simply assumed. It explains, e.g., (1) why Pilate was so worried about his status as Caesar’s friend and thus so ready to convict an innocent man; (2) why Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans (cf. John 4:9); (3) why the Sanhedrin didn’t have the authority to execute Jesus (John 18:31) but had the authority to execute his brother (Jos., Ant. 20.197–203); (4) who the chief priests or the Pharisees were; (5) how much, if at all, Jesus’ interpretation of the OT (e.g., his idea of ‘Christ’ or ‘son of man’) differed from his opponents or his disciples; (6) why Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender. In fact, more basic than all of this is the fact that without history most of us wouldn’t have access to the Scriptures, since most of us aren’t native Hebrew, Aramaic, or (Koine) Greek speakers. Every time we use a modern English version or look up a word in BDAG, we admit the necessity of history and acknowledge our dependence on it.*
Wright sums all this up nicely in his response to McKnight, saying, history “is necessary—not to construct a ‘fifth gospel,’ but rather to understand the four we already have. History confounds not only the skeptic who says ‘Jesus never existed’ or ‘Jesus couldn’t have thought or said this or that,’ but also the shallow would-be ‘orthodox’ Christian who, misreading the texts, marginalizes Jesus’ first-century Jewish humanity.”
*Wayne Grudem’s attempt in a recent article (“The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Them 34/4 :297) to distinguish between “lexicographical resources” and “historical background information” seems artificial to me. For example, which is at play when trying to understand the titles used of Jesus in the Gospels, spec. “Christ” and “son of man”?