I have finally finished reading Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage (eds. Gaventa and RB Hays; Eerdmans). This is a scholarly book about Jesus, obviously. And, yet, it is of a different kind than the traditional book that goes on a quest for the ‘historical Jesus’. As a project undertaken by scholars associated with the Center of Theological Inquiry (Princeton, NJ), this book fits within the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement (as diverse as its members may be). The presuppositional forerunner to this book is The Art of Reading Scripture (eds. Ellen Davis and RB Hays; Eerdmans).
Something that marks a new direction in ‘Jesus’ studies is the conscious effort to make the investigation an inter-disciplinary one. Traditionally, questers (or many of them) have been suspicious of ‘theologians’ as if they were religious spin-doctors, making Jesus into something he wasn’t. the TIS approach is defined, in part, by an appreciation for the Church’s recollection and worship of Jesus, in the canonical NT and in the life of the church in history.
The contributors will be well-known to many: Robert Jenson, Markus Bockmuehl, Dale Allison Jr., Francis Watson, Joel Marcus, Beverly Gaventa, Marianne Meye Thompson, Richard Hays, Katherine Grieb, Walter Moberly, Brian Daley, David Steinmetz, and Sarah Coakley, among others. The book is divided into four sections: sources and methods, the testimony of the biblical witnesses, the testimony of the church, and a brief epilogue by the editors.
Wisely, the editors decided to try and summarize the ‘convergences’ in the thoughts of the contributors (as these chapters began as papers at a conference). First of all, there was a general impression that it is important to recognize that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew’ (see Bockmuehl’s chapter). Thus, as the editors write, ‘Jesus’ teaching and activity makes sense only within the context of Israel’s history and Israel’s Scripture’ (p. 19).
Secondly, ‘The identity of Jesus is reliably attested and known in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments’ (p. 19). This comes from, what Hays has strongly advocated before, a hermeneutic of trust.
Thirdly, ‘the entirety of the canonical witness is indepensible to a faithful rendering of the figure of Jesus’ (p. 19). This includes, not just reading the Synoptic Gospels, but entire NEw Testament (see Hays on Paul in this volume), and also the OT (see Gary Anderson and Walter Moberly).
Fourth, ‘in order to understand the identity of Jesus rightly, the church must contantly engage in the practice of deep, sustained reading of these texts’ (p. 20).
Fifth, ‘to come to grips with the identity of Jesus, we must now him as he is present to us through the medium of narrative’ (p. 20). This would be to deny that the NT writers like Paul only cared about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Sixth,’The trajectory begun within the NT of interpreting Jesus’ identity in and for the church has continued through Christian history’. In most academic research on Jesus, the Church is either ignored or villianized. Hays and Gaventa add, ‘One of the pervasive illusions of modernity is that we can dispense with tradition and replace it with more scientific modes of knowing’ (p. 20).
Seventh, ‘Jesus is not dead; he lives’. This is a striking statement in an academic book about Jesus from eminent NT scholars! Their choice to focus on the identity of Jesus recognizes the emphasis in the NT and in Christian tradition on the living identity of Jesus the crucified-and-raised messiah.
Eighth, ‘Because Jesus remains a living presence, he can be encountered in the community of his people, the body of Christ’ (21).
Finally, and most strikingly, ‘Jesus is a disturbing, destabilizing figure’.
I will leave this review with the words of Hays and Gaventa on this last point.
‘…Jesus’ teachings and presence have a way of unsettling things, challenging privilege, calling people to radical and costly service. Wherever Jesus is invoked as the guarantor of an established order, we may rightly sus[pect that some sort of identity fraud is being perpetuated. The Jesus we knpw through Scripture and the creeds does not leave us at ease; rather, he calls his followers to deny themselves and take up the cross. He teaches us that we are sinners and that we are called to actions of costly discipleship that bear witness to God’s coming kingom of justice in an unjust world’ (p. 21).
Not all of the essays are as invigorating or as inspiring, but some of them (like one by Sarah Coakley) are pieces of art in and of themselves.
I am curious how some of you Jesus scholars out there found the book. As a Paul person, I was impressed, but I don’t know how much this book threw common rules and assumptions to the wind.
A long-term result of the book is this: if you want to do a phd thesis on a subject having to do with theology and the Gospels, the obstacles to this project are disappearing thanks to Theological Intepretation of Scripture. We live in a time of transition. It is an exciting time where some walls built up against theological research have begun to crumble.