I’m going to post bits and pieces of my dissertation drafts. Not all is post. If you feel the need to destroy things, don’t comment. If you have questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. If you have constructive criticisms that won’t destroy my battered, bruised, and nearly non-existent ego, then leave them.
The need to identify those responsible for the death of Jesus touches our humanity with as much cathartic, theological, and ideological force as the death of Jesus. Indeed, we often root our search for these guilty parties in our individual apologetic need; however, we must move beyond mere guilt-assignment for Jesus’ physical death, because that death has moved past forensic understanding, as, after all, the body has long since vanished. From forensic matters, we must move into an assessment of what remains: the dearth of literary artifacts that pertain to guilt or cause.
The literary artifacts at our disposal are indeed vast. From recorded history and written traditions to social theories and other facets, there is virtually no shortage of material from which the researcher might draw. Through these documents we apprehend not only the cognitive environment of the New Testament, which formed the external environment in which Jesus lived, but also the way in which Jesus may have internally grasped his own identity.
From these literary artifacts about Jesus, scholars set forth a number of documents in which they sought to distill who the Jesus of history actually was. Often, these quests for the historical Jesus were driven by theological concerns and, as a result, became theological contributions themselves. This is true of many of these writings over the last two centuries. Certainly, the figure of Jesus is one of theology, rather than any historical fact – unless we are willing to alter our understanding of history. This is not to say Jesus was a myth or something other than a real person; but it is to say that what we have received of Jesus is theology more than it is history by our current understanding of those terms.
From this nexus of the quest of the historical Jesus, in addition to the literary artifacts described above, we have received a narrative about Jesus and several figures have spoken to the significance of that narrative. Roland Barthes called this narrative, “international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.” As Hayden White notes, the narrative is normally seen as only a “form of discourse which may or may not be used for the representation of historical events.” Because we have received not one but several narratives of the life of Jesus, including the final canonical chronicle, the person White determines as the “narrative historian” must learn to differentiate these narratives from one another, from the reception of the narrative, and, ultimately, from the author’s initial narrative.
If we are able to adequately take on the role of White’s “narrative historians” and thereby accomplish this multilayer task of narrative differentiation, we will then be left not with just a historical person of Jesus sans theological interpretation, but what we hope is a more realistic person of Jesus: the Jesus of theology, drawn from the earliest possible theological narrative, from which the authors of canon in turn would have constructed their various narratives. Rather than denying the Gospel writers, and perhaps even Paul, the role of “historians,” we should allow that they were simply translating their own “symbolic significances” into something of a theological stratagem.
If we then concede that the Gospel writers and even Paul wrote “histories,” we may then allow each their own “emplotments.” According to White, an emplotment is a literary device that encodes “the facts contained in the chronicle as components of specific kinds of plot structures.” Following this, we must then affirm that each author, as a historian and theologian, built their own story on a previous narrative. Because of this, we may hear echoes of previous narratives and see cultural images reused (albeit with minor and unique changes) rather than a conclusive and original symbol. Yet, for all of this transforming of narratives, emplotment, and editorial work, one thing remains, virtually untouched at the center of the New Testament and early Christianity: Christ crucified.
The one generality most New Testament and Historical Jesus scholars can agree on without much nuance is the death of Jesus. Who he was, or thought he was; the facts surrounding, and significance of, the resurrection; and even the overall message, or messages, of his ministry have been and still are, the topics of incessant debate, frequently resulting in as many conclusions as there are scholars. However, it is the death of Jesus that unites even the most diverse views of him. For example, Rudolf Bultmann argued for a historical account as the earliest report. Helmut Koester believed, “there was certainly a written form of the Passion Narrative at an early date.” John Dominic Crossan, somewhat following Koester, went so far as to suggest the passion narrative was the original document from which the Gospels sprang. Adela Yarbro and John J. Collins argued that the death and subsequent resurrection formed the heart of the already existent argument that Jesus was in fact the long-promised Messiah. Ellen Bradshaw Aitken posited that the death of Jesus constituted a central tenet of the Christian faith before Paul’s ministry. Centuries before these scholars, Justin Martyr called the cross the greatest symbol of the power of Christ. Finally, the Apostle Paul considered his message one beginning with the cross upon which Jesus was executed. In summary of these many viewpoints, little doubt should remain that early Jesus followers treated the crucifixion of Jesus as the first and most important narrative of the faith. The death of Jesus generated not just what has become Christianity, but also the multifarious expressions and interpretations of those events. Indeed, all of these variegations drew inspiration from in the same emplotments.
White writes, “istorical narratives succeed in endowing sets of past events with meanings… the historian charges those events with the symbolic significance of a comprehensible plot structure.” See White, Tropics of Discourse, 91–92.
Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh from the 2nd German ed. 1931; NHarper & Row, 1963; rev. ed. 1968) 273, 275-79, 281. For more on this, see Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, Jesus’ Death in Early Christian Memory: The Poetics of the Passion (NTOA 53; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht; 2004)
See his work, The Cross that Spoke, (Harper & Row, 1988), 16-30. In this work, Crossan argues that a brief narrative of the cruxifixion, lacking many of the elements found either in the canonical Gospels or the non-canonical Gospel of Peter, was all that the earliest Christians began with. Koester would respond to Crossan, arguing against a singular written source. See, Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Trinity Press International,1990) 216-30.