Friday, July 08, 2005


Is the New Quest Docetic?

Notes on Is the New Quest Docetic? by Paul J. Achtermeier, Theology Today, Vol. 19, No. 3, October 1962.

When the author discusses the failure of the "first quest" for the historical Jesus, he points out that scholars realized that it was not possible to go beyond the kerigma. ("It became axiomatic in New Testament circles that the task of synoptic research exhausted itself in reproducing the kerygma.")

Achtermeier then says that "This meant, in turn, that the significance of the Gospels was to be sought in the reports themselves, not in the events that lie behind the reports."

This is a part that I find troublesome to understand. I don't clearly see the logic behind this conclusion. What type of narrative flow or what literary devices do we expect before we can term a report an historical report? What parallel report can we show, in a first century Judaic framework, that passes our criteria of "historical report"? Perhaps the reports of the Gospels, as we have them, were indeed considered historical enough by their authors to portray the events in a meaningful way (for them, at least; and they do report both Jesus' actions and sayings). What ground do we have to say that the events were not significant because the Gospels do not fulfill our expectation of what is an historical report?

But let's move forward. Bultmann maintained that the true kerygma was hidden behind a mythical superstructure, which was only meaningful to men living in the first century. Therefore, demythologizing the kerygma became the order of the day. Now, this presumes that the "existential truths" of the Gospels can be expressed without recurring to "myths". Here we touch, it seems to me, a couple of interrelated problems:
  • the assumption that the Gospel can refer to these "existential truths" regardless of linkage to historical conditions (and calling these "myths" seems generic enough); this means assuming that the message of the Gospel can be expressed in abstract, philosophical ways without losing its specificity;
  • the assumption that we have clear ideas and ways on how to convey ideas pertaining to communicating trasncendental ideas in a meaningful way. This reminds me of the old debate of how one can meaningfully speak of God, without resorting to metaphores only, on the one hand, or to creatural, earthly images only, on the other.
This is different from one of the main issues mentioned in the article, namely that one of the perceived flaws of the Bultmannian process was that it would have completely lost any sense, had we discovered that there was nothing beyond the myth, i.e. had we discovered that an a-mythical kerigma did not exist at all; and that this perceived flaw was what gave rise to the second quest for the historical Jesus.

When the article says that in the New Testament the Christian faith understood itself in terms of its historical roots, it seems to state an obvious fact. But the important point, I think, is not so much the discovery of how historic Jesus was, but rather the more general question, once the historicity of the man/God Jesus is assumed, of how the Christian faith, in the first century, now, and in the future, should understand the historic event of the incarnation. In this regard, the quest for Jesus' self-understanding is tangential. It is very important, of course, but isn't it secondary to the investigation of why, as Chalcedon has it, the full God was manifested as a full man? (assuming Chalcedon is a legitimate theological understanding of the figure of Jesus - at least we can say it is the product of some 4 centuries of reflections of an actively searching community.) And has kairos (that point in history) any meaning in this manifestation?

It is indeed Chalcedon that makes me think that the author is right in saying there is something docetic in the "second quest" for the historical Jesus. On the one hand, "it is generally agreed that in order to make sense the kerygma demands as its presupposition the activity of the earthly, "pre-Easter" Jesus"; but on the other hand, it is as if this earthly Jesus is treated in this second quest as an indifferent substrate, a sort of indifferentiated matter to be informed by the divine Christ. The Kierkegaardian position of history being insignificant for faith, brought to the extreme, has the effect of denying the importance of history in the context of the Christian faith. When one says that "in faith, as contrasted to thinking, content plays no part", we are imagining an abstract faith, substantially different from the faith of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Finding "the enduring significance of Jesus of Nazareth in the preaching about him, the hearing of which opens for the hearer the possibility of authentic existence" seems very similar to Tillich's dispensability of Jesus: dispensability effected through the individual, or through a Church somewhat indipendent of the historic Jesus. I find very right then the conclusion of the article:
[T]he future of a theologically and historically legitimate quest of the historical Jesus depends upon the success with which the view of the Church inherent in the total New Testament kerygma can be delineated.

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