I find Chris’ use of the phrase “make do” quite revealing because it suggests that the goal remains unchanged even if the means are less suitable. If I cannot afford a car, I still have to get to work so I “make do” by riding the bus or walking. If I cannot afford steak, I still have to eat so I “make do” with hamburger or peanut butter. If the evidence is insufficient to say with any certainty how some first century Jews came to believe in a resurrected Messiah, the Bible believing Christian still has to affirm that the historical Jesus is the Jesus of orthodox Christian faith. For conservative scholars, “making do” means paying lip service to objective historiography while finding some way to define the historical Jesus solely in terms of the gospel accounts.
I think I find Luke Timothy Johnson’s approach in Five Views most interesting. He freely acknowledges that the gospels “are replete with accounts of 'events' that in principle fall outside the ability of the historian to declare: virgin birth, voices from heaven, exorcisms, healings, transfiguration, resurrection.” He does believe that it can be established “that Jesus existed as a Jew in the first century, that he was executed by Roman authority in Palestine, that a movement arose in his name and proclaiming him as risen Lord spread across the Mediterranean world within twenty-five years” along with a few other basic facts. However, he doubts history’s ability to get much farther.
For Johnson, the solution to this dilemma is to read the gospels as literature and Jesus as a character in a narrative:
Rather than ask first concerning a word or deed of Jesus, “did Jesus really do this or say that?” the reader asks first, “what does attributing this saying or that deed” do to shape the meaning of the character of Jesus within the narrative?Johnson believes that this makes the gospels into useful sources.
In this approach, the Gospels are treated not as limited and problematic sources for historical reconstruction but as invaluable witnesses to and interpretations of—precisely in their integrity as narratives—the human person, Jesus. The Gospels are read literarily rather than historically.According to Johnson, understanding the literary character leads to understanding of the historical person:
Precisely because of their obvious divergence in their interpretations of the human Jesus, the Gospels are all the more valuable as witnesses on those points where they agree—even if their understanding of the point differs.As Johnson’s alchemy proceeds, the literary character becomes historical fact.
Finally, the Jesus whom we engage and come to know as a human character in the canonical Gospels is also the historic Christ. It is this fully rounded literary character that provides the basis for the “Christ-Image” in literature, so recognizable a way of being human that it can be mistaken for no other.It is a marvelous piece of prestidigitation. Perhaps Johnson can apply his techniques to root out the facts about other characters whose true history has been obscured by legend. Surely he can tease out the truth about King Arthur from Excalibur, Camelot, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. No doubt the facts pertaining to the rogue of Sherwood Forest lie somewhere between Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Kevin Kostner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Cary Elwes in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. It is too bad that historians have not discovered this technique before.
Like Johnson, James D.G. Dunn is willing to admit that the gospel accounts pose problems for a historian. He acknowledges that “normal historical means can hardly confirm” the resurrection. However, he denies that the historian should draw a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith:
In direct contrast to this deeply rooted suspicion of faith as a barrier to and perversion of any historical perspective on Jesus, my proposal is that the quest should start from the recognition that Jesus evoked faith from the outset of his mission and that this faith is the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission.Where Johnson made do with a literary character, Dunn makes do with the faith that the historical Jesus inspired:
One thing we can be sure about: that Jesus made an impact in and through his mission. . . . What has not been given sufficient recognition or weight, however, is the effect of this impact. These disciples encountered Jesus as a life-transforming experience: they followed him; they left their families; they gave up their livelihoods. Why? Because they had believed Jesus and what he said and taught. Because they believed in Jesus.Frankly, however, I think it is precisely the faith response of his disciples that calls into question the Jesus of history and affirms the Jesus of myth. In all the surviving letters from first century Christians, not a single one indicates that the writer's faith was based on what Jesus said or taught. Not a single one indicates that its author had been influenced by a parable Jesus told or a miracle he performed. Their faith is shaped entirely by their understanding of the resurrected Christ. The itinerant preacher who wandered Galilee is absent.
Rather than “making do” with the evidence, perhaps we need to “make peace” with the evidence. We need to acknowledge that there are many possible historical explanations for how the stories about Jesus came to be written the way they were ranging from a Jesus who is largely legendary to a historical Jesus who said and did many of the things that are attributed to him. Our sources are not sufficient to allow us to do much more than outline some of the possibilities. Choosing any one of them as most likely is by nature speculative and choosing any one to the exclusion of all others is silly.