Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory

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Recent scholarship on the historical Jesus has rightly focused upon how Jesus understood his own mission. But no scholarly effort to understand the mission of Jesus can rest content without exploring the historical possibility that Jesus envisioned his own death. In this careful and far-reaching study, Scot McKnight contends that Jesus did in fact anticipate his own death, that Jesus understood his death as an atoning sacrifice, and that his death as an atoning sacrifice stood at the heart of Jesus’ own mission to protect his own followers from the judgment of God.
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Editorial Reviews

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Recent books on the historical Jesus illustrate how compelling scholars and general readers alike find the topic of Jesus' death. But these books also illustrate a major problem-some studies depend upon some grand interpretive theory, while others rivet their attention on exegetical details and disregard developmental questions. Widely read, Scot McKnight does both. He moves back and forth with careful transitions between contemporary hermeneutics and the ancient texts. As he does so, he also provides a rich and often entertaining account of the secondary literature. The volume can be read both as an address of its central questions and as a well-informed introduction to New Testament theology.

--Bruce Chilton, Bard College

This is a brave book. With due awareness of the historical traps and with a mastery of the recent relevant literature, McKnight here asks the crucial question, How did Jesus interpret his own death? His answer, which hearkens back to Albert Schweitzer, does full justice to Jesus' eschatological outlook and makes good sense within a first-century Jewish context. Even those who see things differently-I do not-will enjoy how the detailed and rigorous argument develops and will find themselves learning a great deal.

--Dale C. Allison, Jr., Errett M. Grabe Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Scot McKnight is fully aware that making claims about the historical Jesus is like entering a minefield. But he combines wide-ranging knowledge of and a willingness to interact with the extensive literature to build a careful, brick-by-brick argument. The sheer breadth of issues covered separates this work from what might otherwise have been its competitors. In ways reminiscent of Stephen Neil, McKnight also has written a book that is never dry or dull.

--Joel B. Green, Dean and Professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781932792294
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2006
  • Pages: 590
  • Sales rank: 1,332,768
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Scot McKnight (Ph.D. University Nottingham) is Profesor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and author or editor of twelve books, including The Historical Jesus (2005), Turning to Jesus (2002), and Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (1992).
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Read an Excerpt

Jesus and His Death
Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory
By Scot Mcknight
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2005 Baylor University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932792-29-4

Chapter One
The Historical Jesus, the Death of Jesus, Historiography, and Theology

In history, as elsewhere, fools rush in, and the angels may perhaps be forgiven if rather than tread in those treacherous paths they tread upon the fools instead. ~G.R. Elton

When academics stand before an audience and explain a view of the historical Jesus-in this case how Jesus understood his own death-and when the historical Jesus case is made in the context of a theological discipline and education, the scholar may think he or she is walking on water, but the voices of truth are calling out to the scholar to watch each step. The waters tend to swallow.

Shorn of metaphor, we might say these voices of truth ask three questions: What is history? What is a historical Jesus? What role is that historical Jesus to play in the theological curriculum? Each question needs to be answered, but particularly the third because very few historical Jesus scholars operate in a vacuum. Each makes meaning on the basis of the historical reconstruction. In the context of this monograph the questions are more focused: How did Jesus understand his own death? And, while not the specific focus of this monograph, What role is a reconstruction of how Jesus thought about his death to play in the theological curriculum and, in particular, in how one understands atonement?

Various answers might be proposed now in a preliminary and imaginative way. One might say that Jesus did not think about his death in any profound sense and that, therefore, it was the early Christians who narrated a story that imputed meaning to that death. For some, such a chasm between Christian faith and what Jesus actually thought would jar the foundations of faith; for others, the chasm might provide space for free thinking. One might, alternatively, argue that Jesus thought of his death in profoundly soteriological terms, even if undeveloped, and that the early Christians unfolded the theology Jesus gave to his impending death. And, however one answers these questions, many think that whatever answer one comes to ought to shape one's theology, and some are bold enough to think that the church, or at least the enlightened within the church, ought to revise its understanding of faith accordingly.

As I said, to come to terms with how Jesus understood his own death means we have to come to terms with three questions-about history, about the historical Jesus, and about the role of historical reconstruction in theological meaning- making. We begin with the first question: what is history?

Modern Historiography: A Brief Taxonomy

Historical Jesus scholars appropriate a historiography, though very few of them spell their historiography out. Those historiographies can be conveniently labeled postmodernist and modernist, with all sorts of shades within each label as well as a spectrum of how those historiographies have been used by historical Jesus scholars. The most complete historiographies by historical Jesus scholars are those of N.T. Wright in the first two volumes of his multivolume series Christian Origins and the Question of God, and the recent introduction by James D.G. Dunn in his Jesus Remembered. While other studies are intensely informed at the level of philosophical discussion and technical method-one thinks of B.F. Meyer, J.P. Meier, J.D. Crossan, and Dale Allison,-few are actually proposing a historiography as have Wright and Dunn. The reason I say this about Wright and Dunn (with reservations, of course), will become clear in our survey of postmodernist and modernist historiography, but in brief it is this: Wright proposes a plausible Jewish context and a plausible story for what Jesus was all about, while Dunn proposes a plausible method (oral traditioning) as the most likely process out of which the Jesus traditions grew and, thereby, Dunn is redefining what "authentic" means. Both Wright and Dunn have put forth theories that are and will continue to reshape studies in the historical Jesus.

Postmodernist Historiography

Whatever postmodernism has going for it or against it, it has the confidence that when it comes to the matter of historiography it alone has the goose by the neck. Take, for example, Keith Jenkins, the United Kingdom's most confident postmodernist historiographer and (as is sometimes said of the radicals) "boadeconstructor." Jenkins defines postmodernism as the "era of the aporia"; that postmodernism is a stance taken by le tout intelligentsia. That is,

By aporia I mean that this is an era when all the decisions we take-political, ethical, moral, interpretive, representational, etc., are ultimately undecidable (aporetic). That our chosen ways of seeing things lack foundations and that, as far as a discourse like history is concerned, it is essentially to be thought of as an aesthetic-a shaping, figuring discourse- and not as an objective, true, or foundational epistemology.


There are not-and nor have there ever been-any "real" foundations of the kind alleged to underpin the experiment of the modern; that we now just have to understand that we live amidst social formations which have no legitimising ontological or epistemological or ethical grounds for our beliefs or actions beyond the status of an ultimately self-referencing (rhetorical) conversation.

Jenkins at times fawns over the earlier Hayden White, even though White isn't so antifoundationalist. White, America's leading postmodernist (or, more accurately, structuralist) historiographer, essentially claims that all history writing is a narrative created in the head of the historian out of discrete facts from the past. His fundamental work Metahistory provided a taxonomy of the sorts of narrative games historians play. As a result, scholars today often speak of the linguistic turn in historiography, a radical reshaping of the discipline developed by postmodernists under the influence of the logocentrism of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty.

Everything a historian writes, it is claimed (rather objectively) by those like White and Jenkins, is emplotted in a narrative-and it is the narrative that matters in that it shapes the content. There is in that narrative, as White expresses it, "an inexpungeable relativity in every representation of historical phenomena." The narrative one historian tells differs from the narrative another historian tells because they are telling different stories-as opposed to one story being less accurate as it corresponds to, or better yet coheres with, the "facts." Therefore, history is all rhetoric, all discourse, all language, and in effect all autobiography. History is, after all, nothing but historiography, the history of histories and the history of historians.

The impact of this theory is at times quixotic. History, the postmodernist says, is the study of ancient texts, not the ancient past; it is, in other terms, phenomenalism (rather than critical realism, about which we will have more to say below). In effect, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Jaroslav Pelikan's Christianity and Classical Culture (to pick an egregious example) are simply different readings of phenomena, but neither is right, neither is wrong. Any search for the "best explanation" is removed from the map.

Of a less extreme nature and whose work will not be explored in detail here, F.R. Ankersmit's recent study Historical Representation marks a singular advance on Hayden White in underscoring and developing what it means to provide a narrative about the past. Recognizing the inevitability of the historian's need to turn discoveries into narrative, Ankersmit finds representation to be the most plausible term for what is done, and he explores the significance of that term as the key factor involved in historical undertakings. Representations are linguistic "things" and they do not "refer to" so much as they are "about" the past. A representation offers to the reading public a metaphor. The discipline of history writing, of providing a re-presentation, is about subjectivity and aesthetics. Whatever representation a historian puts forward is a proposal, and little more than that. It is not that historians build upon one another to construct an edifice of certain knowledge.

Hence, history as a cathedral to which each historian contributes a few bricks for the greater glory of common effort has given way to history as a metropolis in which everybody goes their own way and minds their own business without caring much about what others do.

Inevitably, postmodernist historians like Jenkins and Ankersmit have their share of critics.

A leading historiography all dressed up in the attire of a previous generation and who calls out from the starboard side of this debate, Sir Geoffrey Elton, calls the postmodernist approach to history the "ultimate heresy" and "frivolous nihilism." A modernist historiographer like Elton, Jenkins says in his accusing manner, thinks he is getting at the "facts" and "finding the truth," but in effect that sort of history can be turned on its head, as deconstructionists gleefully do, to see little but the historian's own narrative tale. As Richard Evans, who stands near on the starboard side Elton, sums it up:

The implication is that the historian does not in fact capture the past in faithful fashion but rather, like the novelist, only gives the appearance of doing so.

Jenkins throws down the gauntlet more than once: when speaking of (upper case) History, he says, "I mean, nobody really believes in that particular fantasy any more" and when he speaks of (lower case) history, he says that view "is now unsustainable." St. Paul had his thorn in the flesh and we, I'm prone to say, have the postmodernists. They keep us on our knees. Or, on our heels.

Roughly speaking, "History" pertains to macroscopic visions of history-like the Bible, like Augustine, Hegel, and Marx (an odd box of chocolates, to be sure), while "history" pertains to the microscopic attempts to shed light on smaller corners of real people in the real past. Except that there are some who believe the former, including many historical Jesus scholars-who have the confidence (and this is no strike against him), like Marcus Borg, to think that what they find in the past about Jesus has historic significance for understanding both history and life. In fact, nearly every historical Jesus scholar operates at least with a lower-case history, and many with an upper-case sense of History.

We must be careful at this point because postmodernism is often inaccurately caricatured. It is not that there is no past and no attempt at description of that past. For postmodernist historiographers like Jenkins, there is indeed a past, a present, and a future. That past can be characterized as containing "facts," that is existential facts or better yet discrete facts. And, in contrast to what some Gospel Jesus scholars now claim, the historian can at times determine those facts or find them in spite of their present location within narratives (like the Gospels). However, those facts are discrete, according to the postmodernist, in that they are unrelated, uninterpreted, and meaningless in and of themselves. The facts are a proliferated, disparate lot.

Which means that whenever such a proliferation and dispersal is disciplined into some specific unity, into some specific sort of significance [that is a historical narrative] ... then that unity is not, and cannot be, one which has arisen from the dispersed facts themselves; is not one which has arisen from the sources, but is a unity which is and can only be logically derived from outside these things-from theory; only theory can give history any unity of significance ... theory ultimately reasserts itself as the inescapable determinant of meaning.

Historians can make statements about these dispersed (or discrete, or existential, or proliferated) facts, and they can also connect them chronologically to form a chronicle, but that is not what history really is. History is the spinning of a narrative out of discrete facts in order to ascertain meaning. Importantly for the postmodernist historian, to discover facts is not to discover meaning. Meaning is created by the historian, who tells a narrative as a piece of aesthetics. Hayden White, who can be called back to the deck on this very question, sees history as a form of literature and not a form of science.

Thus, Jenkins claims,

we [all of us, so it seems] recognise that there never has been, and there never will be, any such thing as a past which is expressive of some sort of essence, whilst the idea that the proper study of history is actually "own-sakism" is recognised as just the mystifying way in which a bourgeoisie conveniently articulates its own interests as if they belonged to the past itself.... Consequently the whole "modernist" History/history ensemble now appears as a self-referential, problematic expression of "interests," an ideological-interpretive discourse without any "real" access to the past as such; unable to engage in any dialogue with "reality." In fact, "history" now appears to be just one more "expression" in a world of postmodern expressions: which of course is what it is.

... modernist renditions are now naïve: their historical moment has passed.

Saying true things about the past at the level of the statement is easy-anybody can do that-but saying the right things, getting the picture straight, that is not only another story but an impossible one: you can always get another picture, you can always get another context.

... then precisely insofar as the narrative endows real events with the kind of meaning found otherwise only in myth and literature, we are justified in regarding such a construct as an allegory.

In other words, history as a discourse is not an epistemology.

Bingo! There you have it: a postmodernist understanding (with neo-Marxism as its tarragon) of what historical Jesus scholars are actually-unbeknownst to them-doing: they are simply asserting their power and ideology through an aesthetic presentation about Jesus. Since postmodernism is the only game in town, it is the game historical Jesus scholars are playing. It would not be unfair, though it would be edgy, to describe postmodernist historiography as semiotic fascism. Words, and only words, rule-totally. Their own game of words is itself, ironically, a metanarrative.

Which view shows us that just about anything is possible in the world of scholarship.

Historical Jesus scholarship becomes, in Jenkins' categories, bourgeoisie-and it is the proletariat (read: postmodernist historiographers) that now runs the game. The classical studies of Joachim Jeremias, Geza Vermes, Ben Meyer, E.P. Sanders, M. Borg, J.P. Meier, J.D. Crossan, N.T. Wright, B.D. Chilton, and James D.G. Dunn turn out, in this neo-Marxist and linguistic turn, to be nothing but ideologies, nothing but personal expressions of power. They simply emplot the events or existential facts about Jesus in a narrative, and it is the narrative that determines which facts are to be emplotted. Each narrative is a game of power, played by the author and his intended audience. And, what makes one presentation of Jesus "true" and another "not true" or "less than true" is that the true one is connected to persons in power while the not true or less than true ones are not. Truth, then, is little more than the voice of privilege. It might be easy for one historical Jesus scholar to make this accusation against another, but it is harder to admit that one's accusation itself is only the same game of power.

As Jenkins puts it in a way that "goes all the way down" to the bottom of the soul,

Postmodern historians think that human beings can live ironic, reflexive, historicised lives, without the magic, incantations, mythologisations and mystifications spun by certaintist historians from across the board in both upper and lower cases. Postmodern historians see their own histories as being made not for "the past itself" but for themselves and for people whom they like (for when, they ask, was that ever not the case?).

This is a bitter pill to swallow for most of us, and it is not the sort of thing often heard in historical Jesus scholarship, though some theologians have banged this drum for a few decades. Are they not, as the philosopher Bernard Williams suggests, "pecking into dust the only tree that will support them" when they abandon any goal of objectivity, any sense of truth having some sense of correspondence or coherence, and of texts having the intention of communicating? In the coherency theory of truth, one could say that one's "re-presentation" characterizes truth even if it does not constitute that truth. But, as Jenkins counsels us, because we can't get to the truth, sometimes we just have to take our medicine, or swallow the dust, and hope to get better-which would mean we would need to stop thinking that what we are doing is what we are really doing, and start recognizing that we are nothing but ideologues. (Continues...)

Excerpted from Jesus and His Death by Scot Mcknight Copyright © 2005 by Baylor University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The historical Jesus, the death of Jesus, historiography, and theology 3
2 Jesus' death in scholarship 47
3 Re-enter Jesus' death 77
4 The leading foot in the dance of atonement 105
5 A temporary presence in God's providence 121
6 Jesus and the prophetic fate 139
7 The authenticity of the ransom saying 159
Excursus : the son of man 171
8 Jesus and the scripture prophets 177
9 The script for Jesus 189
10 Jesus and the servant 207
11 The passion predictions 225
12 Pesah in Jewish history 243
13 Pesah and the last supper 259
14 This bread and this cup 275
15 Jesus and the covenant 293
16 "Poured out" and eschatology 323
17 Conclusions 335
Excursus : chasing down Paul's theological ship 372
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