Nuechterlein on John 8 and the Historical Jesus Movement

A Girardian Take on the Historical Jesus Movement
Paul Nuechterlein — March 26, 20011

This paper is written in response to a fine presentation of the historical Jesus movement, by Prof. Stephen Patterson, and the ensuing discussion. I found myself troubled by what I feel as an inconsistency between professed goals and the fruits of the method.

Here is what I mean. Prof. Patterson spoke eloquently yesterday about letting the voice of Jesus challenge us. Yet, from my viewpoint, this call seems inconsistent with the results of the historical Jesus movement to the extent that it so commonly allows its adherents, in the name of being historical, to discount what might be many of Jesus’ most challenging words and deeds which come to us through the apostolic witness. More simply stated, our definitions of what it means to be historical allow us to cut out the stuff that most rubs us the wrong way. Are we really letting the voice of Jesus challenge us when our method lets us off the hook so often? Our definition of historical allows us to choose which passages are ‘properly’ challenging to us, as opposed to those which may be ‘improperly’ challenging to us. If we find that something Jesus says or does makes us too uncomfortable, then by this method we have the option of simply deeming it unhistorical. The so-called historical Jesus can thus only challenge us in the ways that our definitions of being historical allow him.

The largest portion of this response will consider a specific example that came up during the discussion that I think illustrates a case of the historical Jesus movement not letting itself be challenged by some difficult words from Jesus (albeit through the evangelist John) in the name of its being deemed unhistorical. First, some background to my viewpoint.

In recent years, I have discovered another vehicle of interpretation that I feel is more adequate to the task. It takes the apostolic witness as being basically faithful in conveying the challenges of the historical Jesus to us.2 It is the evangelical anthropology of René Girard, and I will need a few minutes to outline what that is, before explaining why the historical Jesus movement seems so unfruitful to me in light of it.

First of all, what do we mean by an “evangelical anthropology.” At this point in history, says Girard, we are able to speak many of the insights of the Gospel in the terms of a scientific anthropology. That his theory is not scientific is a favorite criticism against Girard, trying to discount his work. But I don’t think that others can in good faith dispute the fact that he has put forward an hypothesis which is at least as scientific as Sir James Frazer or Durkheim or Lévi-Strauss or Eliade, to name a few. Lévi-Strauss is one of Girard’s favorite ‘dialogue’ partners — that is, Girard makes a serious, scholarly effort at showing how his anthropological hypothesis explains more data than does Lévi-Strauss’ theories. It’s an anthropology in the modern sense of offering an hypothesis which gives explanatory structure to the data, such that we better understand who we are as human beings.

O.K. If we grant that it is an “anthropology,” how is it “evangelical?” Answer: It is part of the revelation in Jesus Christ. Prof. Patterson said something interesting yesterday that I never heard him develop much further. He said, ‘Resurrection proclamation claims, but not proves, that Jesus was right about God.’ If Jesus was both truly human and truly divine, as the resurrection Christian faith has come to claim, then we also believe that Jesus was right about us. In other words, Jesus not only gives us a revealed theology but a revealed anthropology. He shows us things about ourselves that we could never hope to see. Without the Messiah, as Isaiah prophesied, we hopelessly continue to sit in the darkness.

Prof. Patterson says we can claim but not prove Jesus’ rightness. Girard would ask: Have we now come to the point of at least approaching the matter of proof when it comes to these things that Christians have claimed about Jesus’ rightness? “Proof” is, of course, an anachronistic term, in the first place. It is a word that comes out of our own scientific method. So, no, the anthropology as it was revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ, and then subsequently revealed in the faithful witness of the apostles, was not yet at the point of being able to be posed in terms of our modern standards of meeting burdens of proof. And, even today, anthropology is not the same kind of science as, say, physics; its attempts at proof will always be more hypothetical. But Girard believes that the anthropology which he offers to the scientific community is the same one present in the New Testament. He learned it from the New Testament writers and from certain other great writers like William Shakespeare. But, finally, in this scientific age, it is one that can be posed in the scientific language of our time, and so can come into dialogue with other anthropological theories, testing its explanatory power against the broad spectrum of data.

I find this to be useful, then, in interfaith dialogue, too — which we touched on briefly yesterday. We can offer what Jesus says and does as a better understanding of what it means to be human and have real dialogue about this with people of other faiths. Is Buddha’s analysis of human desire more adequate to the data than Jesus’, or vice versa? Hopefully, we can have meaningful dialogue over such questions.

So what is the gist of Girard’s evangelical anthropology, and why does the historical Jesus movement seem so unfruitful to me in light of it? I began by saying that I find that the historical Jesus movement too easily dismisses many of the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels. Under the guise of being historical, we are able to choose which words and deeds we want to be challenged by.

Here’s my case in point. And it’s either a really dangerous example, liable to get me expelled before I hardly get started, or it’s a highly instructive example because it goes to the heart of our differences. (I truly hope it’s the latter!) But it’s a dangerous example because it involves a text which most everyone present yesterday seemed quite willing — and relieved! — to discount as unhistorical. I’m referring to the John 8 text in which Jesus scandalously (from our modern point of view) challenges his audience that their desires are line with those of the devil, not of God, and that the devil is the father of all lies and a murderer from the beginning. To the extent that the evangelist John may be using the term “Jews” anti-Semitically, that is worthwhile for us to know. But Girard believes that it is not nearly as important as the incredible anthropology that Jesus offers us in this dense Johannine passage. Jesus was not trying to be anti-Semitic. He was revealing to all of us, of every time and place, that our desires and actions are more in line with the devil’s.

If we take the fact that Jesus was himself a Jew and quite naturally speaking to a Jewish audience as our excuse to be anti-Semitic and wreak some sort of latter day vengeance on the Jews, then that responsibility is ours and not Jesus’ — especially since the core of what Jesus is trying to reveal to us is that we human beings have fallen into a rut, under the influence of the devil, to solve all our problems by focusing our rivalries, resentments, and escalating hatreds against scapegoats. In other words, if this kind of passage is subsequently used anti-Semitically by Christian descendants as a justification to kill Jews, then it tragically proves the point that Jesus is making here. We have from the beginning relied on such murder, and such lies about it, as our primary means of keeping the peace. Our human way of keeping the peace has always been at the expense of unifying ourselves around our scapegoated victims. But, if such passages as John 8 have been unconscionably used to justify horrific acts of anti-Semitism, neither should our subsequent embarrassment, shame, and pain lead us into too easily dismissing such words from Jesus as unhistorical. For they contain the wisdom that we desperately need to avoid such horrific acts of scapegoating others.

When Girard gets to this passage of John 8 in his latest book,3 he has already taken 2½ chapters to unpack the biblical language of anthropology, and he admits that this passage in John 8 is among the most highly condensed statements and thus easily misunderstood. But unpack it he does. I obviously don’t have time to undertake the more adequate job of unpacking 2½ chapters worth of material, but this example of John 8 will be a dangerous one to my point if I don’t at least take a moment.

When Jesus says that our desires are more in line with the devil’s, for example, is he saying something too terribly different than what Genesis 3 is trying to tell us about ourselves? It seems to me the point of the Genesis story is that, from the very beginning, our desires have fallen in line with other creatures rather than with God our creator. The serpent tells a lie about God’s desire and so is able to influence the woman’s desire, and then the man’s desire through the woman. One of the great anthropological insights of the Bible, according to Girard, is that our desires are always mediated through others. When that Other is not the Creator who loves all of us, then we follow each other’s lesser desires and fall into rivalry. The Genesis story compacts this whole insight into a desire which expresses an immediate rivalry with God: we can know what God knows. Such rivalry at the core of who we are leads to endless rivalries and conflicts and eventually into violence. The first son kills his brother. Under the devil’s powerful influence, we are murderers from the beginning.

Admittedly, there is a difference in language here: Genesis 3 poses the figure of the serpent, while the New Testament uses language about the devil or Satan. Girard suggests, though, that while we are to interpret neither of these figures, neither the serpent nor the devil, as literally having personal being, they do nevertheless represent real transcendental powers of seduction and temptation. The power of compelling us to model one another’s desires instead of God’s loving desire for the whole Creation, and so to fall into rivalries and conflicts, is a power beyond our individual powers. And so the language of our tradition — until we moderns defined the historical — has been to find some meaningful way to name those real powers that enslave us.

With this seemingly bleak picture of humankind, we might ask: How is it that we ever manage to be peaceful? This is Satan’s greatest trick, the one which it takes the cross and resurrection of Christ to reveal. Girard says that what the Bible shows us, especially the Gospels, is the mechanism that saves us from such endless rivalry and violence — namely, that when our resentments and hatreds mimetically come to swarm around a single target, the rest of us gain peace at the expense of our expelled or murdered victim. This is what the sagas of Joseph and his brothers already show us, for example. In a situation of intense rivalry among brothers, they latch onto Joseph their scapegoat and expel him, giving him up as good as dead. It is what the whole scriptural struggle against ritual sacrifice is about. Ritual blood sacrifice is the ritual reenactment of the collective murders that help us to keep the peace. Jesus comes to put an end to that kind of sacrifice, to be God’s lamb offered to our sacrificial machinery in order that we might finally give it up and find God’s way of keeping peace among us.

Moses had reluctantly set up an elaborate cult of ritual blood sacrifice, and then all the later prophets say that that is not what the living God truly wants. God wants justice. God wants us to see that these sacrificial rituals get woven into the fabric of all our institutions such that, in the terms of the biblical prophets, we as good as sacrifice poor widows and children through our neglect.

In our day, we have more clearly begun to see the sacrificial structures woven into our institutions, even though we have long ago given up ritual sacrifice. We have come to see, for example, that we sacrifice women and people of color and Jews and people with disabilities and people with different sexual preferences. At times in our history, we have collectively murdered such folks, the kinds of collective murders that the ritual sacrifices are designed to make substitution for. We have burned witches, we have lynched African-Americans, we have committed unimaginable holocausts against whole peoples such as the Jews or Native Americans. And even when we haven’t done such terrible things, we’ve begun to more clearly see the ways in which we ask these ‘minorities’ to sacrifice portions of who they are in order to fit the reigning order of those in charge — white males, in our day.

But the cross and resurrection graciously reveal these things to us as they are forgiving us for them. Unconditional forgiveness from God is the key to begin to see any of these things, because we could not hope to see something so dark about ourselves if we weren’t already forgiven for it, and if we weren’t already offered another way of peace through Jesus Christ.

This is the kind of anthropology that Girard claims to be packed into a small package like those few verses in John 8. But we will once again miss what we most need to see if we too easily dismiss such challenges from Jesus (via the evangelist) in the name of being historical.

Prof. Koester eloquently called for us yesterday to heed Ernst Käsemann’s warning — namely, that the Church not miss opportunities to hear the challenges of Jesus as the churches of Germany did in fact miss, manifested through its failing to speak out against Nazism.  The latter is perhaps the most poignant and tragic example of missing out on Jesus’ challenge about who we are as human beings, such that we could have a murder so hideous lurking at the foundations of a culture so advanced as was Germany’s.  My thesis here tonight is that it takes an “evangelical anthropology” in order for us to understand the magnitude of such an evil in the midst of humanity and that it will, in the long run, prove to be more adequate to such a task than the historical Jesus movement, which tends to give away too many of Jesus’ most important challenges through its apparent mistrust of the apostolic witness.


1. This essay was written as a response in the context of a series of lectures under the banner of “Ancient Gospels and the Modern Church,” held March 25-27, 2001, in Milwaukee & Kenosha, WI. The main presenters were Prof. Stephen Patterson, Eden Theological Seminary; Prof. J. Andrew Overman, Macalester College; and Prof. Helmut Koester, Harvard University.

2. A basic trust in the reliability of the apostolic witness also speaks to a difference in method, which would take another paper (or book) to adequately work out. Short of that, allow me several paragraphs to briefly make a case that the method of the historical Jesus movement strikes me as manifesting a basic mistrust in the reliability of the apostolic witness, and that that is a misplaced distrust. I think it has to do with the way in which the historical Jesus scholars begin by disassembling the Gospels, both canonical and non-canonical, into a whole bunch of discrete parts, grouping them by sayings, deeds, and stories about Jesus. Then, it appears that they believe that a plethora of rules for historical accuracy gives them a better basis for constructing a more reliable interpretation of Jesus. I would argue that the relationship between discrete data and a well-formed interpretation is much more complex than what a bunch of rules for historical accuracy can account for, especially when the interpreter is standing two thousand years distant from the data. I would much rather trust the evangelists’ interpretation, which is both formed around the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and stands much closer in time to those history-making events.

Girard trusts the apostolic interpretation and lines up his elaborate anthropological interpretation next to the evangelical interpretations to find that there are many points of contact. In fact, he came to believe (after he had initially begun to form his theory) that he never could have stumbled upon his anthropological hypothesis if it wasn’t for that same Passion and Resurrection of Christ which inspired the evangelists’ interpretations of Jesus and his message.

What does it mean to say Girard’s anthropological interpretation lines up with the evangelists’ interpretation? Precisely the sort of thing at issue in this paper, i.e., how many elements of the Gospels make sense within Girard’s framework without his having to expel many. The Gospel writers clearly have well-worked-out structures of interpretation such that they didn’t have to include many materials of which they couldn’t make sense. In other words, what’s there in each Gospel seems to be there for a good reason. Girard’s interpretation of the same elements helps us modern persons to also make sense out of a vast number of those elements that the evangelists chose to include.

The historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, regularly fail to make sense out of many of the elements, which they thus throw out in the name of not fitting an historically accurate picture of Jesus. What’s not adequate, in my opinion, is their interpretive framework. Interpretation can’t be done by rule book. It takes much more imagination and creativity than that, while also needing to remain anchored in (1) the data and (2) a wider, shared community experience. An overemphasis on the data, as opposed to a shared community experience, leads, I think, to a false sense of “objectivity.” Our personal interpretative frameworks can never be completely suspended in order to obtain an objectivity in the sense of an uncontaminated work from data. The more realistic route to “objectivity” is to locate one’s subjectivity within a shared community of experience, so that it might at least be a more adequate group subjectivity — quite different, obviously, than the modern ideal of individualism.

In the case of the historical Jesus movement, I believe that the rule book for historical accuracy ends up being a smoke-screen for importing one’s own picture of Christ in through the backdoor — which, since modern individualism is a false ideal anyway, ends up being a person’s unacknowledged shared community experience — that of a 1960’s coffee house perhaps.

I would prefer trusting, along with Girard, that the evangelists’ pictures of Jesus are more firmly rooted in a shared community experience of the extraordinary history-making events of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. I believe these events to have been “history-making” because of my faith that they are revelations of God’s quite different community (“kingdom”) breaking into our usual forms of human community, and that a community’s closeness to these events are thus a more reliable source for conveying to us the historical Jesus. And I believe that the anthropology of René Girard offers us a contemporary theory that helps us to better align our modern shared community experiences with that of the apostolic community’s experience. As such, his theories can help us to more adequately recapture the vital differences between our usual human communities, founded in the kind of scapegoating murder which the Cross and Resurrection reveal, and the inbreaking of God’s community in Jesus Christ.

3. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

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