The Jesus of History vs. The Jesus of Faith: Which is the Real Jesus?

The Jesus of the gospels is the only real historical Jesus” (p. 23).A lot has been written about the historical Jesus, especially by John Dominic Crossan, an American Catholic, and a recognized biblical scholar. He is a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, which attempted to search the gospels for the authentic words of Jesus. In 1994 he published Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, in which he clearly spelled out his aim – “to move behind the screen of creedal interpretations and, without in any way denying or negating the validity of faith, give an accurate but impartial account of the  historical Jesus as distinct from the confessional Christ” (p. ix of the Prologue).

To those who say the four canonical gospels should be enough for us, he answers that, when you read them comparatively, “it is disagreement rather than agreement that strikes you most forcibly. And those disagreements stem … from the coherent and consistent theologies of the individual texts. The gospels are, in other words, interpretations” (p. x). Crossan’s desire is to peel away “all those laminated layers of development and interpretation” (p. xiii) in order “to reconstruct the historical Jesus as accurately and honestly as possible” (p. xiv).

If we turn to a similar book, Gerhard Lofink’s Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was (2011, English translation 2012), we find a very different approach. The author is a German Catholic biblical scholar. The first chapter of his book is entitled, “The So-Called Historical Jesus.” Without naming Crossan, it is clear that, though he asks some of the same questions about who Jesus was, he rejects Crossan’s methods in trying to answer them.

As for the gospels being interpretations, Lohfink points out that “Jesus was apparently interpreted from the first moment of his appearance and in entirely different ways” (p. 4). We have only to look at Matthew’s Gospel (16:13-16), where Jesus asks,

“Who do people say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

He asks, “In the end, after the removal of all secondary layers, would we arrive at pure facts?” He goes on to ask a further question: “Where is the truth – in the facts or in their interpretation?” (pp. 2-3). And there is a still further question: What is a fact? There are all kinds of events or occurrences in the natural world, but they are not facts unless someone observes and records them. For the observer there is an experience of something happening, and the answer to the question “What happened?” involves interpretation. In other words, there is no such thing as a pure fact free of any interpretation. And when that interpretation is recorded in language for communication to others, still more interpretation is involved.

Lohfink says that the process of interpretation goes further still. “The gospels, after all, are not displaced texts floating somewhere in the air. They are the church’s texts, and their true ‘life situation’ is the liturgy. There they are celebrated as the word of God. There they are proclaimed as Gospel and authentically interpreted” (p. 8). He goes on to speak of “The People of God as Interpretative Community,” not only in the past but also today (p. 14). The whole People of God, that is, the Church, continues to interpret the gospels. Likewise, faith and knowing cannot be separated. Lohfink says, “Faith is true knowledge, true recognition” (p. 21). And so the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith cannot be separated or opposed. He concludes, “The Jesus of the gospels is the only real historical Jesus” (p. 23).

This very brief summary hardly does justice to Lohfink’s argument, but I hope it encourages you to get hold of his book and at least read its opening chapter for yourself.

Eric Jensen, SJ, works in the Spiritual Exercises ministry at Loyola House, Guelph, Ontario. He also paints and writes. He is the author of Entering Christ's Prayer (Ave Maria Press, 2007)and Ignatius Loyola and You (Novalis 2018).

  • Susan Garbett-Snidal
    Posted at 03:27h, 16 June Reply

    Thank you Father Eric for this wonderful post! I was so glad to read it. I had always had a difficulty with Crossan’s argument. I could not say what exactly; but I felt it missed the mark in some way. Now that you have introduced me to Lofink’s work. I think that his view is something that I can take on. You are still teaching me! Now, not from the pulpit at St. Ignatius, but in this digital expression. I miss you still, even though we have been blessed with many good Jesuits since you left. Sandy, always felt highly of you and your words. He often commented upon them. He really enjoyed your sermons. Now, of course, he is learning from other sources, for “the eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart experienced” all that God has prepared for us. I pray that Sandy is learning and loving and being loved.
    As for me, as I am still upon this earth, I am always striving to believe, to understand, and to do what God wills. I am thankful for all the persons that God sends to me to help me along the way. You, Father Eric, are one such person. You have encouraged me to seek out Lofink’s book. Many thanks!

  • Vicky Chen
    Posted at 07:28h, 16 June Reply

    Dear Eric, I feel that both the incomplete documentations of our Gospels and the grace of our faith together help create a picture of the true Jesus for us. That mystery is still evolving to this day. That is what we imperfect humans try to evangelize.

    You love visual arts. You know that the perception of a painting, a photograph, a sculpture differs somewhat in different observers. That may even change within the same person depending on the stage of his or her life experience. I never cease to be amazed by the ongoing creativity of our ultimate Artist.

    Thank you for this evocative article.

  • Brian Tansey
    Posted at 09:04h, 16 June Reply

    wonderfully crafted way to exhort us to read that book; your short piece reminds me of
    1. Lonergan ( about “knowing”) / and eventually the element of faith;

    2. that one definition of theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’ … and

    3. the frequent references to faith in Dei Verbum

  • Pauline Mary Theresa Lally
    Posted at 09:07h, 16 June Reply

    Appreciate this input.

  • Jim Radde
    Posted at 09:24h, 16 June Reply

    Very helpful Eric. I’ll check out Lohfink.

  • Karen Arthurs
    Posted at 09:54h, 16 June Reply

    Thank you.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 11:21h, 16 June Reply

    Thank you Eric!

  • Grace C.
    Posted at 12:14h, 16 June Reply

    Thank you Eric. I have one of Lohfink’s books sitting on my shelf and your article encourages me to read it.

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 12:33h, 16 June Reply

    Thank you for making me aware of this thinker! How interesting that he decided to leave the university setting and continue ‘doing theology’ within an integrated community of lay and religious.

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