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.