Scandal of particularity

There were some good comments on the previous post, moving away to some extent from the value of John Dominic Crossan’s work in particular to the relevance of “historical Jesus” scholarship more broadly.

Christopher‘s and Derek‘s comments in particular have got me thinking that there is a tension here. On the one hand, it’s true that the historical data about Jesus are (relatively) scanty and what we do have is filtered through the theological prism of the early church’s witness. On the other hand, it strikes me as important that we have access to the shape of Jesus’s life as a particular kind of life. Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing the Incarnation as simply an affirmation of our humanity that doesn’t call us to a particular (cruci)form of discipleship. (John Howard Yoder–who in many ways would I think dissent from the assumptions made by much of the recent historical Jesus stuff–makes a similar point in The Politics of Jesus.)

So, I guess one thing I find valuable about the efforts of folks like Borg, Crossan, etc. is the attempt to situate Jesus in his historical context. Even if we grant that the (heavily interpreted and theologized) New Testament portraits of Jesus are as close as we will ever come to the “historical” person behind them, understanding the context matters to how we interpret those portraits. Too often, I think, Christians have been tempted to read the Jesus of the gospels either as offering a set of timeless moral platitudes (a lot of liberal Christianity) or as living exclusively for the sake of dying on the cross to atone for sin (conservative Christianity). What historical Jesus scholarship can remind us of is that Jesus had a particular mission and ministry to a particular people at a particular time and place. Of course, as a Christian, I want to affirm the universal significance of that mission, but I think we have to start with the particular before moving to the universal, and historical scholarship, properly done, can help with that.

2 thoughts on “Scandal of particularity

  1. Too often, I think, Christians have been tempted to read the Jesus of the gospels either as offering a set of timeless moral platitudes (a lot of liberal Christianity)

    I may be reacting to this is an overly sensitive manner, but I’d suggest there’s another way to understand this. When my monks read the Scriptures a lot of what they find are lessons in morals or, more precisely, virtues. Finding the virtues is one thing; striving to embody them is another entirely–and is one of the pathways to authentic Christian Formation.

    And yes, I’d also agree with your main point that contextualization is necessary but the question is how to do it best and authentically.

  2. Hey Derek – I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that the Bible doesn’t have a role to play in Christian moral formation. I was thinking more of certain 19th and 20th century liberal theologians who tended to reduce Jesus to a “great moral teacher” without respect to his particular context. Not surprisingly, these theologies tended to be implicitly (or explicitly!) anti-Jewish.

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