The Consequential Jesus

In my lectures and tutorials on the ‘historical Jesus’, I have sought to find ways to introduce my students to shifts in the terrain of HJ scholarship in recent years. While there has, since at least Form Criticism in the early 20th century, been an awareness that any attempt to grasp the historical figure of Jesus must make some sense of the gospel tradition as a whole, in recent years – in line with historiographical shifts more broadly – we have all been more aware of the crucial importance of the earliest impact of Jesus in its manifold form for ascertaining something about the earthly Jesus (think Dunn, Allison, Watson, le Donne, Keith, et al.). Scholarship is divided as to whether one can ever leap the gap and cross from memory to event, and there are real questions about what it might even mean to reach an uninterpreted Jesus – as if one could, in some Emersonian dream, become a transparent eyeball, seeing all as a part or particle of God. I’ve tried to speak with my students of the shifts from criteria of authenticity to plausibility, to recurrence, to memory. I have sometimes borrowed the language of my supervisor, Markus Bockmuehl, to speak of the ‘footprint’ of Jesus in the memory of the early church, or to contend for an elision of the adjective historical to ‘historic’.

I’ve learned much from the recent emphasis on memory, but have sometimes wondered whether the connotations of the word could suggest to students something slightly too narrow, and need to be set in a slightly broader framework assessing the impact of Jesus. Memory need not be understood in purely cognitive terms, of course, and there is a capacious usage that would encompass what I have in mind. But as in reception history one can draw a meaningful distinction between Auslegungesgeschichte (history of interpretation) and Wirkungsgeschichte (effective history or history of effects), with the former bearing more of an emphasis on a self-conscious intellectual stance toward the subject in question, might it be possible to include memory as one key component in a broader assessment of the impact of Jesus – and so to speak not simply of the remembered Jesus but of the consequential Jesus?

I’m sure I’ve stolen the phrase ‘consequential Jesus’ from someone (if anyone knows its derivation do speak up), but think I’ll hang on to it as a way to help my students understand these important shifts.

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