It is something of a paradox that questions against the existence of the historical Jesus (the so-called ‘mythicist’ position) are not entertained in mainstream historical Jesus scholarship whilst having been simultaneously discussed (in rejection) by some of the most prominent or important historical Jesus scholars in recent decades, such as Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey. While some of the mythicist arguments are of course presented by amateurs of varying quality, it is notable that some are academics with qualifications in relevant areas, whether in ancient history (Richard Carrier) or, in the case of the author of this book, religious studies and the philosophy of religion. But neither are they trained in the conventional way of historical Jesus scholars either. This is not a criticism—indeed, interdisciplinary insights are crucial, as this book rightly stresses—but an observation which can help us think about the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus and what might be about to change.
If, for one moment, we step back and think of the modern study of the historical Jesus in terms of ideologies and interests rather than evidence for ancient historical claims, then it is perhaps no surprise that challenges to the consensus come form those outside the conventional demography of the mainstream. In recent decades, that mainstream is a bourgeois one, dominated by North American (and to a lesser extent British and German) men from white Christian (largely Protestant) backgrounds. This is obvious to some degree. That mainstream academia is bourgeois with, at most, minimal connections to labour or working-class interests is practically a given. That a subfield of biblical studies should attract Christians is unsurprising. Emerging from elite concerns about the European nation state and then taken up into North American elite culture means that we should not be surprised about the racial and ethnic concerns (or lack of) in the subfield. It is not quite as clear why mainstream historical Jesus studies is even more male-dominated than other areas of male-dominated biblical studies but in terms of prominent publications and the history of the representation of the field it certainly is.
These are important points to grasp when understanding ideological functions of the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus. Whatever the personal motivations of scholars, wider ideological interests continually frame the emerging Jesuses, from the influence of nineteenth-century European biographies of Great Men and bourgeois concerns about the nation state through to the ‘culture wars’ of liberal and conservative Jesuses of the 1980s to the present. The subfield of historical Jesus studies has even seen anti-Jewish and even Aryan Jesuses in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. But what
This is not to valorise representation in the field, significant though it may be. The lack of connection to labour and working-class interests is not looking like it will change in the near future and without significant shifts in that direction, the field will remain bourgeois, irrespective of changes in representation. Nevertheless, the demographics are changing, including religious affiliation and self-identification in the West (and notably America), and this will lead to new questions being thrown up and old assumptions being challenged. In this sense, Lataster represents a changing academic world, the results of which will soon begin to look quite different from the previous generation. For what it is worth, several conversations I have had among (so far) less published scholars would suggest that there is some appetite for this among scholars. So, if we shift the emphasis towards what might be done with questions of ancient history, what might Lataster’s position offer? Lataster’s book is not quite a ‘mythicist’ work but it does challenge assumptions about an easy route to finding the historical Jesus and I want to make some comments on why going back to the basic assumptions of the subfield of historical Jesus studies can be particularly helpful.
While critical questions about the historical Jesus have hardly been alien from the field, assumptions about historicity have only really become foregrounded with such challenges from outside in recent years. Thinking about the challenge provided by Lataster, my take is that more scepticism is indeed needed. If we think about our main sources (the Gospels) then this should always have inspired a cautious attitude. There is not even agreement on where the most concrete source (Mark) was written and the best educated guesses (Rome and the region of Syria) are quite far apart—that in itself should be cause for some concern. Even if we think of pre-Gospel tradition, what can we say? We could (hypothetically) argue that there is evidence for themes emerging in Palestine from the years prior to Mark and (should we accept it) Q. We could say that concerns for the details of Sabbath observance or purity law, which reflect little concern for non-Jews, were likely to predate the Gospels, or that predictions of the imminent eschatology were early enough to influence Paul. But then what? Did these issues emerge with the historical figure of
Unfortunately, we simply do not have sufficient independent evidence to make strong claims about who was the exact figure or figures responsible for producing such material, if that isn’t a too wooden way of understanding the situation. As is hopefully clear, this is not a mythicist position in the sense that it does not disprove Jesus’ existence (nor does it attempt to do so) but it is a position which acknowledges that we are severely restricted in what we can say about reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus. But this does not have to be a bad thing. Instead of relentlessly focusing on reconstructing an individual, and precise claims that cannot be proven, we might instead turn our focus to a history of ideas in Christian origins and provide a more solid grounding for scholarly claims. Around when did this or that idea about Jesus emerge? What sort of interests does this or that idea represent? What are the socio-economic and historical changes that generate shifts in thinking? And if we cannot make precise claims about who was responsible for such an idea then so be it. So, instead of more polemical reactions on all sides of these debates about the historicity of Jesus, perhaps it would be more worthwhile to see what can be learned. In the case of Lataster’s book and the position it represents, scepticism about historicity is worth thinking about seriously—and, in light of demographic changes, it might even feed into a dominant position in the near future.
Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham
Editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus