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A Renaissance in Jesus Studies

By Marcus J. Borg
"The picture of Jesus as a charismatic or 'holy man' vividly in touch with what the texts call 'Spirit' radically challenges the
flattened sense of reality pervading the modern worldview and much of the mainline church .... Similarly, the picture of Jesus as a
subversive sage undermining his culture's conventional assumptions, as a prophet calling it to change its historical direction, and
as a revitalization movement founder seeing to create an alternative culture, all point to a deep involvement in the life of history."
A major renaissance is occurring in North American Jesus studies. The relative disinterest in the historical Jesus that characterized much of this
century's scholarshi has come to an end. The signs of the re!irth are manifold" ne# rofessional organizations$ ne# %uestions and methods$ the
collase of old consensus elements and the emergence of ne# ones$ accomanied !y a surge of u!lishing. The major shift from the fifty years just
ast indicates a lessening interest in eschatology and aocalytic #ith an increasing a#areness of' the significance of the social&olitical #orld in
#hich Jesus lived. An e'citing develoment in scholarshi$ the renaissance also has otential relevance for the life of the church.
(
The %uest for the historical Jesus #ent into eclise soon after the !eginning of this century. The )old %uest) #hich flourished through much of the
nineteenth century #as relaced !y a eriod *no#n as the time of )no %uest) in the history of Jesus scholarshi.
+
Throughout this eriod$ three central
convictions oerated strongly in the collective consciousness of Ne# Testament scholars and those they taught$ including most mainline clergy and
rofessors of religious studies in colleges and universities.
,irst$ there #as a strong sense of the theological irrelevance of
Marcus Borg is chair of the Religious Studies -eartment at .regon State /niversity. 0e is also chair of the 0istorical Jesus Section of the Society of
Bi!lical 1iterature and a fello# of the Jesus Seminar. T#o of his !oo*s on Jesus are" !onflict, "oliness and #olitics in the Teaching of Jesus 2+3456
and Jesus$ % &ew 'ision 2+3476.
+
,or a comact and convenient chematization of the eriods of Jesus research$ see 8. Barnes Tatum$ (n )uest of Jesus 2Atlanta" John 9no'$ +34:6$
. ;;&73.

281 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
historical Jesus research. To a large e'tent$ this #as the aftermath of Al!ert Sch#eitzer's !rilliant and rovocative ortrait of Jesus as a mista*en
aocalyticist in The )uest of the "istorical Jesus 2+3<;6. According to Sch#eitzer$ Jesus !oth roclaimed the imminent end of the #orld and
deli!erately sought to !ring it a!out !y undergoing the suffering of the end&time in his o#n erson. Sch#eitzer's #or* had the effect of !ringing the )old
%uest) to an end. The Jesus he found #as indeed )a stranger to our time$) and Sch#eitzer's statement a!out the theological irrelevance of the
historical Jesus #as !oth o#erful and ersuasive.
Second$ there #as a strong conviction that little could !e *no#n a!out the historical Jesus. The foundation of this thorough&going historical s*eticism
#as reared !y nineteenth&century scholarshi #ith its emhasis uon Jesus as a teacher. (t had hoed$ !y striing a#ay the suernatural and
doctrinal elements in the =osels$ to uncover #hat #as most central" Jesus' message$ his reaching and teaching. Jesus' #ords$ detached from any
icture of his erson$ activity$ or intentionality$ !ecame the !edroc* for constructing an image of him.
(n the t#entieth century$ the !edroc* seemed to turn into shifting sand. ,ifteen years after Sch#eitzer's !oo*$ Rudolf Bultmann$ this century's single
most influential Ne# Testament scholar$ u!lished The "istory of the Synoptic Tradition 2+3:+6. 0is study of ho# the traditions a!out Jesus develoed
during the oral eriod suggested that very little of the reaching and teaching of Jesus as reorted in the =osels can !e traced !ac* to Jesus
himself. The historical s*eticism engendered !y Bultmann's form&critical #or* #as reinforced after 8orld 8ar (( !y redaction criticism$ the meticulous
study of ho# the evangelists modified and shaed the traditions they received to adat them to their o#n times and convictions. (t !ecame very clear
that everything in the =osels&not just the doctrinal and suernatural elements$ !ut also Jesus' teaching&#as thoroughly shaed !y the e'eriences$
situations$ and theological !eliefs of the early >hristian communities$ !oth during the oral eriod and in the redactional activity of the =osel authors
themselves. Recovering the )message of Jesus) !ehind the documents seemed increasingly ro!lematic.
A third conviction also dominated the eriod of )no %uest.) The minimalist icture of Jesus' message that could !e recovered #as eschatological"
Jesus e'ected and roclaimed the imminent end of the #orld. The eschatological core of his message #as then made relevant !y filtering it through
an e'istentialist hermeneutic. 0ere again$ Bultmann #as very influential. (n a num!er of #or*s$ he argued that the historically authentic reaching of
Jesus&a small collection of largely eschatological sayings&needed to !e )demythologized) !y means of e'istentialist interretation.
The eriod of Jesus scholarshi *no#n as )the ne# %uest) did not really change this state of affairs. (naugurated !y ?rnst 9@@semann in a lecture
resented in +3AB$ the )ne# %uest) %uic*ly roduced t#o

282 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
!oo*&length studies" =Cnther Born*amm's Jesus of &azareth 2+3A;6 and James Ro!inson's % &ew )uest of the "istorical Jesus 2+3A36.
:
(mortant as
the ne# %uest #as$ it continued to share the central. characteristics of the )no %uest) eriod" a minimalist ortrait of the message of Jesus conceived
in eschatological terms$ couled #ith$ e'istentialist interretation. (ts methods and results remained largely the same. 8hat made it )ne#) #as a
theological concern" the %uestion of the degree of continuity !et#een the message of Jesus and the reaching of the early church. Det$ even this
%uestion #as ursued #ithin an e'istentialist frame#or* #hich made it seem %uite esoteric" #hether the understanding of e'istence mediated !y the
message of Jesus #as the same as the understanding of e'istence mediated !y the *erygma. This$ it #as affirmed$ #as the roer su!ject matter of
the %uest for the historical Jesus.
The central convictions of the )no %uest) eriod converged in an overarching conclusion that historical Jesus scholarshi #as an area of study that did
not matter very much. (ts fruits #ere meager and largely inedi!le. Not much could !e *no#n a!out Jesus$ and #hat little could !e seemed unrelated to
theology and the ractical needs of >hristian reaching and teaching. The figure of Jesus seemed !oth remote and irrelevant.
((
Against this !ac*ground$ the resurgence in contemorary Jesus scholarshi is remar*a!le. -ating the !eginning of a renaissance is difficult$ for a
renaissance is never ex nihilo* it al#ays has antecedent. causes. But develoments in the ast decade clearly indicate that one is under#ay.
There has !een a !urst of u!lishing. Some of this$ dating !ac* to the +37<s$ rovides a more richly detailed icture of the !ac*ground for
understanding the ministry of Jesus.
B
Ne# translations of rimary te'ts have aeared.
5
A !i!liograhy of recent scholarly !oo*s a!out Jesus lists
over fifty titles$ forty&t#o since +34<.
A
(n the ast three years alone$ five major #or*s centering on the historical Jesus have !een u!lished"
:
Eu!lished as )The Ero!lem of the 0istorical Jesus$) 9@semann's lecture is availa!le in his +ssays on &ew Testament Themes 21ondon" S>M$ +3;56$
. +A&57.
B
(ndividual studies are too numerous to mention. Multi&volume reference #or*s include the revision of ?mil SchCrer's The "istory of the Jewish #eople
in the %ge of Jesus !hrist, ed. !y =eza Fermes et al. 2?din!urgh" >lar*$ +37B and continuing6G S. Safrai and M. Stern$ ed.$ The Jewish #eople in the
,irst !entury$ !ompendia -erum (udaicarum ad &ovum Testamentum 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +375$ +37;6G J. Neusner$ ed.$ !hristianity, Judaism,
and .ther /reco0-oman !ults 21eiden" Brill$ +37A6.
5
James Ro!inson$ The &ag "ammadi 1ibrary in +nglish 2San ,rancisco" 0arer and Ro#$ +3776G James 0. >harles#orth$ The .ld Testament
#seudepigrapha 2=arden >ity" -ou!leday$ +34B$ +34A6.
A
James 0. >harles#orth$ ),rom Barren Mazes to =entle Raings" The ?mergence of' Jesus Research$) #rinceton Seminary 2ulletin 7 2+34;6$ .
::+&B<. At the !eginning of' his essay$ >harles#orth states$ )Jesus research commenced around +34<.) The statement is literally #rong 2even
outrageously so6$ of courseG !ut it dramatically ma*es the oint. that something ne# is haening.

283 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
?. E. Sanders' Jesus and Judaism 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +34A6$ -onald =oergen's The 3ission and 3inistry of Jesus 28ilmington" Michael =lazier$
+34;6$ Richard 0orsley's Jesus and the Spiral of 'iolence 2San ,rancisco" 0arer and Ro#$ +3476$ Burton Mac*'s % 3yth of (nnocence$ 3ar and
!hristian .rigins 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +3446$ and my o#n Jesus$ % &ew 'ision 2San ,rancisco" 0arer and Ro#$ +3476. T#o more !y major Jesus
scholars are *no#n to !e under#ay.
;

Det another sign of the renaissance is the creation of t#o ne# rofessional organizations. ,or the first time in the history of the Society of Bi!lical
1iterature$ a su!&grou devoted to historical Jesus research came into e'istence. Beginning as an e'erimental )consultation) in +34+ and !ecoming
a ermanent grou in +34B$ the 0istorical Jesus Section of SB1 no# attracts over one hundred articiants to its meetings.
7

(n +34A$ a second scholarly organization #as !orn$ the )Jesus Seminar.) ,ounded !y Ro!ert ,un*$ its +:A ,ello#s have underta*en a five&year
roject of discussing and voting uon the historical authenticity of all of the sayings attri!uted to Jesus in the =osels and other early >hristian
sources. Not only are its results interesting$ !ut its t#ice a year multi&day meetings rovide an e'traordinary stimulus to scholarshi. Though !est
*no#n for its controversial rocedure of voting on the sayings of Jesus and for its lans to u!lish the results of the voting in The &ew -ed 1etter
+dition of the ,ive /ospels, the Seminar's rimary significance lies else#here. (t is the first collaborative systematic e'amination of the entire Jesus
tradition ever underta*en$ unrecedented in the history of scholarshi.
4

A third sign of the renaissance is the emergence of distinctively ne# %uestions and methods. ,or much of its history$ the agenda of Jesus scholarshi
has !een set$ consciously or unconsciously$ !y theological %uestions. This is not surrising$ given that >hristianity #as until recently the dominant
cultural consciousness of the 8est. Thus$ the %uestions !rought to the te'ts$ #hether for the sa*e of undermining or suorting >hristian convictions$
have commonly had those convictions in mind. 8hat is the relationshi !et#een >hristian doctrines and #hat can !e *no#n historicallyH >an any of
the christological )titles) of Jesus
;
James 0. >harles#orth's Jesus 4ithin Judaism is forthcoming from -ou!ledayG John -ominic >rossan is #riting a major treatment of Jesus that
!uilds on his revious !oo*s on more secialized toics 2esecially ara!les and ahorisms6.
7
(t #as organized !y Eaul 0ollen!ach of (o#a State /niversity and John Miller of 8aterloo /niversity$ #ho continued as co&chairs through +347.
4
,or more information a!out the Jesus Seminar$ see its journal$ ,oundations and ,acets ,orum* or #rite to the 8estar (nstitute$ Bo' +A:;$ Sonoma$
>A 3A57;. The &ew -ed01etter +dition of the ,ive /ospels, scheduled for u!lication in +33<$ #ill rint the #ords of Jesus in four colors$
corresonding to the votes of the Seminar" red$ in*$ gray$ and !lac*. The colors reresent a descending degree of historical authenticity" red means$
in the judgment of the Seminar$ )Jesus almost certainly said this)G !lac*$ )Jesus almost certainly did not)G in* and gray are intermediate judgments.
Foting$ of course$ cannot settle %uestions of historical fact$ !ut it does disclose resent scholarly oinion.

284 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
!e traced !ac* to JesusH ?ven the central focus of the )ne# %uest) #as set !y a manifestly theological concern" the %uestion of continuity or
discontinuity !et#een the historical Jesus and the reaching of the early church.
(n the recent ast$ the frame#or* for formulating the %uestions !rought to the te'ts has !ecome less secifically >hristian. >hanges in cultural
consciousness and in the institutional settings #here Jesus scholarshi is done are largely resonsi!le. Though imortant #or* continues in seminary
and divinity school settings$ a large majority of !i!lical scholars no# teach in u!lic universities or secularized rivate colleges. Not only #ould an
e'licitly >hristian agenda !e inaroriate in such settings$ !ut$ for the most art$ our students no longer !ring secifically >hristian concerns to the
te'ts. (nstead$ the %uestions have !ecome more )glo!al$) that is$ related to the !road s#ee of human history and e'erience. 0o# is the figure of
Jesus similar or dissimilar to religious figures in other traditionsH 0o# is his teaching li*e or unli*e the teaching of other great sages such as 1ao Tzu
or the BuddhaH 0o# is the Jesus movement similar or dissimilar to other sectarian or revitalization movementsH 0o# do studies of re&industrial
societies illuminate the #orld of JesusH 8hat understandings of reality and #hat *inds of religious consciousness are reflected in the te'tsH
The ne# %uestions have !een accomanied !y ne# methods. ,or most of its history$ the rimary methods used !y Ne# Testament scholarshi have
!een literary and historical$ #ith the latter understood in a fairly narro# sense. 1ately$ largely in the last ten years$ Jesus scholars 2and !i!lical
scholars generally6 have !egun systematically to use insights and models gleaned from the history of religions$ cultural anthroology$ and the social
sciences. These not only rovide comarative material and theoretical understandings$ !ut also models constructed from either emirical or historical
data #hich can then !e used to illuminate historical eriods for #hich #e have only fairly scanty data. The ne# %uestions and ne# methods have
roduced ne# #ays of seeing familar material" #e are a!le to re&vie# the data #ith ne# lenses.
This use of ne# )discilinary allies) is one of the most stri*ing features of the renaissance. (t has roduced a massive amount of u!lishing. A recent
!i!liograhy on the use of the social sciences in Ne# Testament studies lists over :A< items$ most u!lished since +34<.
3
(t has also generated t#o
ne# organizations" the Social Science and Ne# Testament (nterretation section in the Society of Bi!lical 1iterature$ and the Social ,acets Seminar$
#hich came into e'istence alongside the Jesus Seminar. As one scholar ut it in +345$ )the historical %uest for the historical Jesus has endedG the
interdiscilinary %uest for the historical Jesus has just !egun.)
+<

3
-aniel 0arrington$ )Second Testament ?'egesis and the Social Sciences" A Bi!liograhy$) 2iblical Theology 2ulletin +4 2Aril$ +3446$ . 77&4A. ,or
another useful !i!liograhy$ see John ?lliott$ Semeia BA$ . :7&BB.
+<
A remar* made !y Bernard Brandon Scott at the annual meeting of the 0istorical Jesus Section of the Society of Bi!lical 1iterature in >hicago in
-ecem!er$ +345.

285 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
(((
The renaissance is mar*ed not only !y ne# methods$ !ut also !y ne# results. 1i*e all scholarly results$ they are tentative and not final$ the roduct of
a articular intellectual history$ radically conditioned in the #ay that all human *no#ledge is. Nevertheless$ they sharly transform the image of Jesus
#hich has dominated much of this century's scholarshi. Three emergent trends might fairly !e considered as elements of a ne# consensus.
,irst, the old consensus that Jesus #as an eschatological rohet #ho roclaimed the imminent end of the #orld has disaeared. Though some still
affirm it$ the central conviction that mar*ed the )no %uest) and )ne# %uest) eriods is no longer held !y the majority of North American scholars
actively engaged in Jesus research. (ts disaearance as a consensus is indicated !y olls ta*en of t#o major grous of historical Jesus scholars"
three&fifths to three&fourths of them no longer accet it.
++

The erosion of the dominant consensus #as gradual$ even though the realization that it had haened seemed %uite sudden. The old consensus #as
!ased on four main elements" the atmoshere of crisis in the =oselsG the sayings #hich so*e of the imminent coming of the Son of ManG the
9ingdom of =od sayingsG and the fact that some #ithin the early church e'ected the final eschatological events 2second coming$ end of the #orld$
last judgment6 in their lifetimes.
.f these elements$ the )coming Son of Man) sayings #ere most foundational. Some of them e'licitly so*e of the end of the #orld and the last
judgment coming uon the generation then alive" )This generation #ill not ass a#ay !efore all these things ta*e lace.)
+:
The imminent coming of the
Son of Man #as then connected to the coming of the 9ingdom of =od$ and !oth #ere used to account for the element of urgency and crisis in the
=osels" there is no time to #aste$ for the end is at hand. ,inally$ the eschatological e'ectation of the early church #as e'lained as a continuation
of the eschatological message of Jesus. The #hole #as an imressively coherent ictureG indeed$ the image of Jesus as an eschatological rohet
#as ersuasive to a large e'tent !ecause of its great e'lanatory o#er.
But its foundation #as #ea*. By the late +3;<s$ the te'ts that had served as its !asis #ere !eing undermined. (t !ecame increasingly acceted that
the coming Son of Man sayings #ere not authentic$ !ut
++
(n the sring of +34;$ ( conducted a mail oll of the thirty charter fello#s of the Jesus Seminar and forty&t#o articiants of the 0istorical Jesus
Section of SB1. >om!ining the t#o grous$ A3I said they did not thin* that Jesus e'ected the imminent end of the #orld in his generation. The oll
#as reeated at the Notre -ame meeting of the Jesus Seminar in the fall of +34;. .f the thirty&nine fello#s in attendance$ thirty 277<J<6 said they did
not thin* so.
+:
Mar* +B"B<$ art of Mar*'s )little aocalyse$) and clearly referring !ac* to the dar*ening of the sun and moon$ the failing of the stars$ the coming of
the Son of Man$ and the gathering of the elect descri!ed in +B":5&:7.

286 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
#ere created !y Jesus' follo#ers in the decades after ?aster as )second coming) te'ts$ e'ressing the early church's conviction that the crucified and
e'alted one #ould return as vindicator and judge.
+B
But if these te'ts are seen as inauthentic$ then the central reason for thin*ing that Jesus e'ected
the imminent end of the #orld vanishes.
(n the same eriod$ a num!er of scholars argued that Jesus' )eschatology) #as not to !e understood in a chronological temoral sense$ that is$ not as
referring to an end of actual time.
+5
More recently$ the centrality given to the 9ingdom of =od as the rimary motif of Jesus' message has !een
ersuasively challenged. Though Jesus certainly did sea* of the 9ingdom of =od$ our imression that it #as the central element in his message is
clearly due to Marcan redaction.
+A
Moreover$ #ithout the coming Son of Man sayings$ there is no good reason to identify the coming of the 9ingdom of
=od #ith the end of the #orld. ,inally$ it is no# a commonlace to locate the origin of the church's eschatological e'ectation in the ?aster event. (t
#as the conviction that Jesus had !een raised from the dead 2for resurrection #as an event associated #ith the end of time6 that led some in the early
church to !elieve that they #ere living in the )end times.)
+;

>om!ined$ these factors have roduced a gro#ing conviction" the mission and message of Jesus #ere )non&eschatological.)
+7
That is erhas too
simle a #ay to ut it$ given the long history of the #ords )eschatology) and )aocalytic) in !i!lical scholarshi and theology. Both #ere initially used
in Jesus studies to refer to the end of the #orld of ordinary history. But su!se%uent scholarshi in this century has given the terms many different
senses. )?schatological) can !e used metahorically
+B
See esecially Norman Eerrin's influential -ediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, u!lished in +3;7 2Ne# Dor*" 0arer and Ro#6$ . +;5&:<;. This
vie# of the coming Son of Man sayings is a near consensus #ithin the Jesus Seminar. At its sring +344 meeting in Sonoma$ >alifornia$ the coming
Son of Man sayings consistently received eighty ercent gray or !lac* 2that is$ negative6 votes. Recent redactional #or* on K also suorts this claim.
According to John 9loen!org$ The ,ormation of )$ Tra5ectories in %ncient 4isdom !ollections 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +3476$ the earliest stratum of
K is non&aocalytic$ #ith aocalytic elements aearing only in the latest stratum$ suggesting that the teaching of Jesus #as )aocalyticized) !y
some in the early church.
+5
See$ for e'amle$ John -ominic >rossan$ (n #arables$ The !hallenge of the "istorical Jesus 2San ,rancisco" 0arer and Ro#$ +37B6. Eerrin also
dre# this conclusion in his -ediscovering the Teaching of Jesus.
+A
(t is Mar* +"+A that resents the 9ingdom of =od as the central element of Jesus' message. Det$ scholars have regularly recognized this as Marcan
redaction #ithout raising the further %uestion #hether it is an at condensation of Jesus' reaching. See esecially Burton Mac*$ )The 9ingdom
Sayings in Mar*$) ,oundations and ,acets ,orum B.+$ . B&57.
+;
See$ for e'amle$ ?d#ard Schille!eec*'$ Jesus$ %n +xperiment in !hristology 2Ne# Dor*" >rossroad$ +373G u!lished in -utch in +3756$ . +A:$
5<+&:BG and John >ollins$ The %pocalyptic (magination 2Ne# Dor*" >rossroad$ +3456$ . : +<.
+7
,or more comlete treatment of this section$ see my )An .rthodo'y Reconsidered" The'?nd&of&the&8orld' Jesus$) in The /lory of !hrist in the &ew
Testament, ed. !y 1. -. 0urst and N. T. 8right 2.'ford" >larendon Eress$ +3476$ . :<7&+7G and )A Temerate >ase for a Non&?schatological
Jesus$) Society of 2iblical 1iterature$ 6789 Seminar #apers 2Atlanta" Scholars Eress$ +34;6$ . A:+&BA Lalso u!lished in ,oundations and ,acets
,orum, :.B$ . 4+&+<:M.

287 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
in a non&end&of&the&#orld sense" as a nuanced synonym for )decisive$) or as )#orld&shattering$) or to oint to the telos of history entering history !ut
not in such a #ay as to end history. ?ven )aocalytic$) #e are discovering$ need not refer to the end of the #orldG some aocalytic literature
descri!es e'eriences of another #orld 2visions or other&#orldy journeys6 and does not refer to the imminent end of the #orld of ordinary history.
+4

Thus$ there is considera!le terminological confusion in the disciline. ,or e'amle$ ( have heard one scholar argue that Jesus' message #as
eschatological !ut not aocalyticG that is$ concerned #ith a decisive change in history$ !ut not #ith the end of the #orld. ( have heard another scholar
argue that Jesus' message #as aocalytic !ut not eschatologicalG that is$ grounded in the e'erience of another #orld$ !ut not concerned #ith the
end of this #orld. -esite the directly contrasting language$ at a fundamental level !oth scholars meant the same thing" Jesus did not roclaim the
imminent end of the #orld of ordinary history. (t is !est$ therefore$ to secify #hat is meant !y the hrase )non&eschatological Jesus.) The contrast is
secifically to the image of Jesus as one #ho roclaimed the imminent coming of the 9ingdom of =od and the Son of Man$ understood as involving
the last judgment and the end of human history as #e *no# it. That$ according to the emergent consensus$ #as neither Jesus' e'ectation nor
message.
The collase of the old consensus creates e'citing %uestions for re&vie#ing the =osel te'ts. (f the roclamation of the imminent coming of the
9ingdom of =od #as not the heart of Jesus' message$ #hat #asH Moreover$ if the crisis ermeating his message and ministry #as not the imminent
arrival of the last hour$ #hat #as itH 8as it simly the crisis of individual decision or resonseH .r is it to !e understood in another #ayH
A second consensus element of the renaissance is a ne# understanding of Jesus as teacher$ esecially as a teacher of subversive wisdom. There is
a near chorus #ithin the disciline a!out this$ flo#ing out of recent studies of the forms of Jesus' teaching$ esecially the #isdom forms of rover!$
ara!le$ ahorism$ and nature saying.
+3

Jesus' teaching as involving a )su!version of #orld) is seen most easily in contrast to the notion of conventional #isdom. ?very culture has its
conventional #isdom. (t is the dominant consciousness of a
+4
See >ollins$ The %pocalyptic (magination, . A&4$ #here he distinguishes !et#een the t#o main tyes$ )historical) and )other&#orldy journey)
aocalysesG the latter slightly outnum!er the former.
+3
?secially imortant illustrative studies include John -ominic >rossan$ (n #arables, op. cit., and (n ,ragments$ The %phorisms of Jesus 2San
,rancisco" 0arer and Ro#$ +34B6G Bernard Brandon Scott$ Jesus$ Symbol03aer for the :ingdom 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +34+6$ and "ear Then the
#arable 2forthcoming from ,ortress$ +3446. See also earlier #or*s !y Ro!ert Tannehill$ The Sword of "is 3outh 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +37A6G and !y
Ro!ert ,un*" 1anguage, "ermeneutic and 4ord of /od 2Ne# Dor*" 0arer and Ro#$ +3;;6$ . +BB&;:G Jesus as #recursor 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$
+37A6G and #arables and #resence 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +34:6.

288 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
culture$ )#hat every!ody *no#s$) the ta*en&for&granted assumtions that comrise the )#orld) #ithin #hich eole live. >omosed of t#o elements$
#orldvie# and ethos$ an understanding of reality and a #ay of life$ it constitutes the heart of culture.
Though the secific content of conventional #isdom is articular to each culture$ it has a num!er of common characteristics across cultures. See*ing
to !e ractical$ it rovides concrete guidance a!out ho# to live$ ranging from matters of eti%uette to overarching values. (t orders life on the !asis of
re#ards and unishments$ #hether e'ressed in religious notions a!out *arma or a last judgment$ or in more secularized form li*e success as the
re#ard for hard #or*. (t is thus not only ractical !ut rudent" ),ollo# this #ay and all #ill go #ell) and )Dou rea #hat you so#) are its common
themes. (t also confers identity and creates hierarchies. The canons of conventional #isdom teach a erson #ho one is. (n traditional societies$ such
as first&century Ealestine$ some of these identities and the status accorded to them are$ in a sense$ )given)" manJ#oman$ oldest sonJyounger son$
Je#J=entile$ aristocratJeasant$ richJoor. Some are contingent uon measuring u to the standards of conventional #isdom" righteousJsinner$
successJfailure. >onventional #isdom thus creates a )#orld) in #hich one lives$ roviding guidance$ sanctions$ identity$ and status.
(t is this #orld of conventional #isdom that Jesus su!verts in his teaching. 0is rover!s and ahorisms are crystallizations of insight #hich$ either
radical in themselves or radical in their alication$ fre%uently em!ody the theme of #orld&reversal. So also #ith the ara!les and nature sayingsG they
are invitations to see differently$ !ringing a!out a shattering of #orld. >onsistently$ Jesus undermined the #orld of conventional #isdom #ith its safe
and rudent ethos$ its notion of reality organized on the !asis of re#ards and unishments$ its oressive hierarchies$ its categories of righteous and
sinners. As a teacher$ Jesus #as a su!versive sage$ not only su!verting conventional #isdom$ !ut inviting his hearers to ground their lives in the Sirit
of =od rather than in the securities and identities offered !y culture.
,inally$ a third feature mar*ing the renaissance is not so much a consensus result as a consensus focus" studies of the social #orld of Jesus have
!ecome central. To some e'tent$ this emhasis is the result of ne# information. Archaeological e'cavations continue$ highly secialized studies of
e'tent materials roliferate$ and ongoing analyses of recently discovered documents such as the -ead Sea Scrolls and the Nag 0ammadi te'ts add to
our understanding. 8e simly *no# more a!out the #orld of first&century Ealestine than earlier generations of scholars did.
But the surge of interest in Jesus' social #orld is not due rimarily to the accumulation of additional information. Rather$ it flo#s from ne# #ays of
construing that information$ made ossi!le !y the interdiscilinary !orro#ings descri!ed earlier. >entral among these is the notion of

289 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
)social #orld) itself$ #hich entered Ne# Testament scholarshi only recently. (t refers to the total social environment of a eole$ including esecially
the socially&constructed reality of a eole$ that non&material )canoy) of shared ideas that ma*es each culture #hat it is.
:<
Though it includes
conventional #isdom$ it is even more comrehensive$ consisting of the !eliefs$ values$ la#s$ customs$ institutions$ rituals$ and so forth$ !y #hich the
grou orders and maintains its #orld.
,undamental to the emhasis uon social #orld is the recognition of ho# radically different the social #orld of first&century Ealestinian Judaism #as
from our o#n .
:+
Because meanings are em!edded in a social #orld$ understanding the shae of a articular social #orld ena!les us to construe the
meaning of things said and done in that social #orld. 8ords and actions that seem trivial or inconse%uential in one culture can !e of the greatest
imort in another. But they need to !e located in the social #orld #ithin #hich they occur.
,or e'amle$ the attention given to urity issues in many =osel te'ts seems uzzling to modern ears. 8hat could it matter #hether one ate #ith
unclean hands or #ith imure eoleH To us$ it seems the reoccuation of a righteous iety tilted to#ard e'cessive scruulosity. Moreover$ the
gathering of more information&of more te'ts sho#ing the concern #ith urity&&does not really enhance understanding. (t is one thing to see that Jesus'
contemoraries #ere concerned a!out issues of urityG it is another thing to see why urity #as such an issue.
The notion of social #orld ena!les us to see #hy. The olarity of ure and imure$ clean and unclean$ #as a fundamental olitical structure of the first&
century Je#ish social #orld. Moreover$ it #as correlated #ith a num!er of other olarities$ all of #hich esta!lished !oundaries" righteous and sinner$
Je# and =entile$ to some e'tent even male and female$ rich and oor. These !oundaries #ere art of a olitics of urity$ #hich dominated the ethos
of that social #orld$ its #ay of life as #ell as the cultural dynamic shaing its historical develoment. Thus$ disutes a!out clean and unclean #ere not
trivial$ !ut concerned the fundamental %uestion of ho# society #as to !e structured. -isagreements a!out urity #ere otentially #orld&shattering and
#orld&transforming.
The interretive o#er of the notion of social #orld is further illustrated !y a num!er of studies of articular features of the social #orld of Jesus. (t #as
a social #orld in crisis$ and a num!er of revitalization or rene#al movements oerated$ each #ith its o#n
:<
The use of the #ord )canoy) alludes to Eeter Berger's imortant study of the relationshi !et#een religion and culture$ The Sacred !anopy 2=arden
>ity" -ou!leday$ +3;76. ?ach articular culture constitutes a )social #orld$) an invisi!le canoy under #hich its mem!ers live. .ther foundational
studies #hich have !een imortant in Ne# Testament circles include >lifford =eertz$ The (nterpretation of !ultures 2Ne# Dor*" Basic Boo*s$ +37B6$
and 0ans Mol$ (dentity and the Sacred 2Ne# Dor*" ,ree Eress$ +37;6.
:+
Bruce Malina's #or* ma*es this oint #ith articular emhasis and effectiveness. See esecially his The &ew Testament 4orld$ (nsights from
!ultural %nthropology 2Atlanta" John 9no'$ +34+6.

290 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
rogram or set of strategies for creating a transformed social #orld. 8ithin this frame#or*$ the grou that formed around Jesus can !e seen clearly as
such a movement$ cometing #ith other Je#ish rene#al movements in the social #orld of first&century Ealestine.
::
Studies of the dynamics of easant
societies rovide a clearer !asis for understanding oular and anti&esta!lishment movements in the time of Jesus.
:B
Studies of the cosmology and
social dynamics of #itchcraft societies illuminate the rivalry !et#een Jesus and his oonents.
:5
An understanding of the ivotal role layed !y issues
of honor and shame in that social #orld ena!les us to understand much that #ould other#ise !e o!scure.
:A

Because of the great cultural distance searating us from the social #orld of Jesus$ reconstructing and entering it re%uires a discilined act of
historical imagination. Such reconstruction$ aided !y the study of the dynamics of social #orlds very different from our o#n$ ena!les us more and more
to see the rootedness of Jesus' mission and message. The almost discarnate icture of the teaching of Jesus$ floating a!ove the articularities of his
time and lace$ #hich dominated much of the %uest for the historical Jesus in all of its eriods$ is !eing relaced !y one that locates his #ords and
deeds rigorously #ithin the social #orld of his time.
(F
No# ( #ish to move !eyond reorting consensus elements of the renaissance to sharing some concluding ercetions flo#ing from my o#n #or*.
.ne of these is a methodological o!servation. There remains a #idesread sentiment among many colleagues in Ne# Testament studies and in the
!roader field of religious studies that it is e'tremely difficult to *no# anything a!out Jesus #ith any degree of ro!a!ility. As noted earlier$ this
sentiment #as one of the central tenets of the )no %uest) and )ne# %uest) eriods$ and is the direct conse%uence of the scholarly reoccuation #ith
the words of Jesus. (f one !egins #ith the #ords of Jesus$ and develos one's methodology rimarily !y #or*ing #ith his #ords$ radical historical
s*eticism is the inevita!le result. Seldom if ever do #e have direct %uotationG the transmission of tradition did not #or* that #ay.
::
See esecially =erd Theissen$ The Sociology of +arly #alestinian !hristianity 2Ehiladelhia" ,ortress$ +3746. ,or a critical and yet areciative
analysis of Theissen's #or*$ see John ?lliott$ )Social&Scientific >riticism of the Ne# Testament and (ts Social 8orld" More on Methods and Models$)
Semeia BA 2+34;6$ . +&BB.
:B
See Richard 0orsley and John 0anson$ 2andits, #rophets, and 3essiahs$ #opular 3ovements in the Time of Jesus 2Minneaolis" 8inston$ +34A6.
:5
See$ for e'amle$ Bruce Malina. and Jerome Neyrey$ !alling Jesus' &ames 2Sonoma" Eole!ridge Eress$ forthcoming6$ es. ch. +.
:A
See esecially Malina$ The &ew Testament 4orld$ (nsights from !ultural %nthropology.

291 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
But there is another starting lace for the study of Jesus. ,amiliarity #ith a tyology of religious figures 2derived from the history of religions$
anthroology$ and the sychology of religion6 rovides an illuminating vantage oint. ,our tyes of religious ersonalities$ *no#n crossculturally as
#ell as in the Je#ish tradition$ are articularly relevant" the charismatic )holy man) 2a erson vividly in touch #ith another reality #ho tyically functions
as a healer6$ the sage 2teacher of #isdom6$ the rohet 2in the sense of the classical rohets of (srael6$ and the revitalization movement founder.
8hen the te'ts of the =osels are aroached from this ersective$ !road stro*es of a credi!le historical ortrait emerge. (t is another instance of re&
vie#ing the =osel data #ith fresh lenses. That Jesus #as each of these is attested !y recurring motifs and themes that ermeate the =osel
narratives$ found in multile sources and forms. That is to say$ the model is esta!lished !y a cross&cultural tyologyG it is then validated !y #hat #e
find in the =osel te'ts themselves. This frame#or* then rovides a gestalt for locating and understanding the traditions ascri!ed to JesusG or$ to
change the metahor$ it rovides a s*eleton #hich can then !e enfleshed.
This aroach in no #ay denies that the traditions a!out Jesus develoed. (t accets that in all li*elihood #e never have direct %uotation. (t
ac*no#ledges that secifically >hristian affirmations cannot !e attri!uted to Jesus. The latter include$ !ut are not restricted to$ christological
affirmations$ te'ts sea*ing a!out the social formation of the early church 2including alications of Jesus' teaching as )church rules)6$ reflections
a!out the meaning of Jesus' death$ and$ in my judgment$ te'ts that refer to a second coming. This aroach seems to me to rovide a romising
means for !rea*ing the methodological imasse that has mar*ed much of Jesus scholarshi. 8e may !e more historically certain of the larger icture
than #e are of the historical e'actness of any articular tradition.
:;

Secondly$ the increasingly clear icture #e have of Jesus' social #orld and his relationshi to it$ along #ith the collase of the eschatological Jesus$
seem to me to suggest that his mission #as much more concerned #ith that social #orld than this century's scholarshi has tyically affirmed. The
element of crisis then aears in a ne# light. Rather than !eing the e'ected imminent end of the #orld or the crisis of individual decision$ it #as a
crisis in the social #orld itself that called for a radical change. (n short$ the more clearly #e are a!le to imagine the dynamics of Jesus' social #orld$
the more o!vious it seems that his mission and message #ere intensely and intimately involved #ith changing it. As a charismatic #ho #as also a
su!versive sage$ rohet$ and rene#al
:;
,or this aroach$ see my Jesus$ % &ew 'ision, and the concluding chater of my !onflict, "oliness and #olitics in the Teaching of Jesus 2Ne#
Dor*" ?d#in Mellen$ +3456.

292 - A Renaissance in Jesus Studies
movement founder$ Jesus sought a transformation in the historical shae and direction of his social #orld.
:7

,inally$ it seems to me that much of the scholarly renaissance has imortant relevance for the life of the church. (ronically$ in a time #hen secifically
>hristian %uestions are no longer the starting oint for aroaching the te'ts$ #hat emerges seems more rather than less relevant. Eerhas this is not
so surrisingG the earlier aroach to the te'ts$ #ith the conscious or unconscious agenda of confirming or disconfirming continuity #ith >hristian
teachings$ tended to focus the %uestions on the most ro!lematic areas. -id Jesus thin* of himself as the MessiahH -id he thin* of his o#n death as
salvificH -id he )institute) the 1ord's Suer$ or intend to found a )church)H To these %uestions$ uncertain ans#ers at !est could !e given. Moreover$
such %uestions tended to give the %uest an an'ious flavor$ an e'ercise in de!un*ing or defending. No #onder the %uest for the historical Jesus
seemed to flounder in a sea of uncertainty.
The as*ing of non&>hristian %uestions seems to !e roducing results that are !oth more certain and more interesting. (n my o#n #or*$ the icture of
Jesus as a charismatic or )holy man) vividly in touch #ith #hat the te'ts call )Sirit) radically challenges the flattened sense of reality ervading the
modern #orldvie# and much of the mainline church$ and suggests that reality might indeed !e far more mysterious than #e suose. (t invites us to
consider seriously the central claim of the Je#ish&>hristian tradition 2and most religious traditions6" that #e are surrounded !y an actual$ even though
non&material$ reality charged #ith energy and o#er #ith #hich it is ossi!le to !e in relationshi. Similarly$ the icture of Jesus as a su!versive sage
undermining his culture's conventional assumtions$ as a rohet calling it to change its historical direction$ and as a revitalization movement founder
see*ing to create an alternative culture$ all oint to a dee involvement in the life of history. The historical Jesus may #ell have !een more historical
than #e suosed.
The image of Jesus as a erson of Sirit #hose mission focused on the transformation of his social #orld can rovide significant content for the
meaning of discileshi. -iscileshi means )to follo# after.) ),ollo#ing after) Jesus means to ta*e seriously #hat he too* seriously" life in the Sirit$
and life in history.
:4

:7
Jesus' concern #ith the transformation of his social #orld in a time of historical crisis is develoed in !oth of my !oo*s referred to in the revious
footnote.
:4
,or the develoment of these themes$ see my Jesus$ % &ew 'ision, the su!title of #hich is Spirit, !ulture and the 1ife of ;iscipleship, esecially the
concluding chater.