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SPECIAL REPORT: Father Cantalamessa on Jesus

"Between History and … History"

ROME, JULY 15, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of a talk given in Rome by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, on historical research concerning Jesus.

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Talk given at a public debate held in Rome
12 May 2007

1. Jesus, between history and … history

It seems to me that, more basic than the alternative expressed in the title, "Jesus, between history and theology," is the alternative, "Jesus, between history and history." The notion of a rectilinear, univocal form of historical research concerning Jesus, leading progressively to a clear and complete picture of him is a myth which no serious historian of our day would claim to validate.

Leaving aside the diachronic variations -- that is to say, the historical reconstructions of Jesus that have come, one after the other, during the last two centuries -- let me look for a moment at the synchronic views, that is, those that have arisen simultaneously in one epoch, our own.

In the new introduction to her work: "From Jesus to Christ. The origins of the images of Jesus in the New Testament," Paula Fredriksen, Professor at Boston University, writes: "Paperbacks proliferate as the range of portraits of Jesus broadens. In recent scholarship, Jesus has been imagined and presented as a type of first-century shaman figure; as a Cynic-sort of wandering wise man; as a visionary radical and social reformer preaching egalitarian ethics to the destitute; as a Galilean regionalist alienated from the elitism of Judean religious conventions (like Temple and Torah); as a champion of national liberation and, on the contrary, as its opponent and critic -- on and on. All these figures are presented with rigorous academic argument and methodology; all are defended with appeals to the ancient data. Debate continues at a roiling pitch, and consensus -- even on issues so basic as what constitutes evidence and how to construe it -- seems a distant hope."[1]

Appeal is often made to recent discoveries that are supposed at last to have given historical research an advantage over the past, to wit the scrolls of Qumran, the library of Nag Hammadi, archaeological excavations, sociological research. Yet how variable the conclusions can be that are drawn from these new historical sources is clear from the fact that they have given rise to two images of Christ, one irreconcilably opposed to the other. On the one hand we have a Jesus "wholly and in all things Hebrew," and on the other, Jesus son of the hellenised Galilee of his time, imbued with a cynical philosophy.
Researches in sociology too tend to lead to diametrically opposed results, as E. P. Sanders, the great specialist on Jesus and Judaism has noted: For some, "Jesus' world faced a severe social and economic crisis, one that grew worse day by day. Palestine's small landholders were in a tightening noose of institutionalized injustices such as double taxation, heavy indebtedness, and loss of land. Peasant families fell ever more heavily into debt under the steady economic pressures of double taxation. The wealthy lent them money that they could not repay, charged very high rates of interest, and then foreclosed on the property… There was rising indebtedness and a declining peasantry, the social-economic infrastructure was in decline and poverty worsening." For others, on the contrary, "Galilee was urbanized, cosmopolitan and prosperous… in fact an epitome of Hellenistic culture… Jesus and his hearers spoke Greek."[2]
It is not surprising, then, that in the post-modern thinking a radical scepticism has developed. Here the alternative is no longer between history and theology, nor between one history and another, but between history and interpretation or literary criticism. The text is read without any regard for foregoing objective data; all turns upon the reader's direct confrontation with the text and the outcome is all subjective and relative.

The most recent, monumental (and in my view genuinely innovative) monograph on the historical Jesus, written by James Dunn of Durham University, England, ends off a review of the opinions with this assessment: "The loss of confidence in historical method in post-modern circles is thus complete. And so far as the quest of the historical Jesus is concerned, its results, particularly when the various Jesuses of the neo-Liberal quest are included, simply confirm the failure of traditional historical methodology. The simple and rather devastating fact has been that Gospels researchers and questers of the historical Jesus have failed to produce agreed results"[3].

What conclusion are we to draw from all this? That we might as well abandon research into the historical Jesus? Certainly not that. The author just quoted gives an example, devoting his ...

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