Jesus, the Great Man

A long-standing and dominant feature of the quest for the historical Jesus is the idea of Jesus as Great Man. This form of individualism works in harmony with a dominant capitalist understanding of causality, particularly the importance of a freely acting autonomous individual who functions as a historical mover not only avoids a more totalized view of history and explanations of historical change, but implicitly justifies the normality of capitalism as part of the mysterious or eternal laws of nature. One of the more remarkable examples of this sentiment has to be Margaret Thatcher’s infamous claim (or at least the reception of the claim) that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ The view of the individual or the Great Individual is very common.

Jesus and Che are Great Men

Thinking of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq particularly, the importance of great leaders and figures being required, from endless references to Churchill and the need to avoid changing a Commander-in-Chief during a time of war to the negatives such as the sentiments that it is nothing more than a few bad apples responsible for rotten corporations or torture in Abu Ghraib. We might also make dishonourable mention of the increasing obsession with celebrity and rich lists (‘the top 50- most powerful women’, ‘the top ten most influential…’)

Jesus the Great Man has a long history in the discipline and in many ways characterises much about the discipline from its origins to the present. Yet while individualism and the cult of the individual have faced some resistance in the historical reconstructions by historians in history departments, such resistance has not had a major impact on contemporary mainstream historical Jesus studies. In terms of biography, lives of Jesus are, obviously, about one man and so emphasis is on the words and deeds of this man. In terms of faith, Jesus is the central figure in the Christian faith and in theology and the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars are practising, or at least lapsed, Christians. Unsurprisingly, the words and deeds of the individual Jesus are analysed heavily. And what marks out contemporary scholarship? Perhaps countless stereotypical figures: the Cynic-like figure, the revolutionary, the charismatic, the eschatological prophet, the sage, the rabbi, the social critic and so on.

The ‘facts’ become very important. E. P. Sanders’ work on Jesus is remembered in part for establishing basic facts about Jesus (baptized by John the Baptist, preached the kingdom of God, executed under Pilate etc.). Despite trying to move away from theological concerns and interpret as a conventional historian, Sanders locates himself in the tradition of historical biography in order to analyse what the subjects thought. This is typical enough of the agendas of many reconstructions of Jesus’ life. Often characterised differently to Sanders, the American Jesus Seminar are still with the facts about Jesus and what Jesus thought or believed (as the famous colour coding suggests). Or again we might choose Meier who is interested in the more sober, hard facts. Perhaps less concerned with establishing facts in Meier’s sense is Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus. But in many ways Chilton’s book actually reads more like traditional narrative biography than any other recent scholarly work on Jesus and with an intense focus on a portrait of his life.

Typical of such works is that there is little concern for questions such as why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and why this movement subsequently led to a new ‘religion’, aside from Jesus having great ideas which made a new ‘religion’ come to pass. In terms of historical explanation, such detail in itself must at least imply that the individual Jesus of Nazareth is thought to be the most significant figure (and factor?) in the emergence of subsequent Christianity. Indeed, several historical Jesus scholars are keen to show the connections between Jesus and the Christian movement that followed, even as a methodological necessity (cf. Sanders and Wright). But here again we remain in the realm of description, without any serious discussion of social and economic trends that are invariably present in historical change and developments and that may have aided and abetted the shift from Jesus to early Christianity. And when Wright does look beyond the surface level events and stories he bypasses the route of social and historical causes by going for an intensified individualism or supernatural individualism to explain the ‘blind forces’ of historical change, i.e. by ‘proving’ that Jesus was really resurrected from the dead. We might say that where a classic individualist history can give the impression of free-floating actors, certain histories of Christian origins have the invisible supernatural or theological hand guiding the apparent chaos of activity. It is perhaps no surprise that apocalypticism and eschatology have been dominant contexts in which Jesus has been analysed.

But what about the popular use of social sciences? Much use of the social sciences has been either descriptive or feeds into the idea of individual influence. The idea of Jesus as charismatic leader – the social scientific model of the individual par excellence – highlights Jesus as notably different from his social context, not to mention the model’s descriptive importance by placing Jesus as a ‘type’.

There have been historical Jesus studies grounded in social and economic histories that have the potential for wide-ranging, causally based explanations for the emergence of the Jesus movement but ultimately the reception of such works tends to involve discussions of theology and description. Much of the high profile discussion about Horsely or Crossan tends to be about the scholarly Jesus produced (including the sources used).

As it happens modern biography does not have to be the way of the typical historical Jesus book either.  There is a long tradition of biographers looking at how the individual illuminates broader historical trends, how successfully the individual reacted to historical conditions in the broader sweep of historical change, and how ideas are intermingled with socio-economic context.

Yet the fairly recent re-emergence of narrative histories and micro-histories have meant that the history of the good and the great remain, but these kinds of history have also welcomed histories from below and sought out forgotten and marginalized individuals. So this might mean that NT studies can now bypass an era of history writing and embrace another! While Jesus and Paul can be, and sometimes are, seen as figures from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, at the same time they will still play a structurally similar role to the good and the great in history, even if in a potentially romanticized form. This may mean that history grounded in the role of the individual has a long shelf-life in the historical study of Christian origins. Jesus as Great Man, genius, or even enlightened Beckett-like sage, is not only deeply embedded in the discipline but he may also be here to stay for some time, perhaps with the God of the gaps sometimes on hand to guide the path of history.

And as the idea of individualism has, of course, been widely highlighted as typical of capitalist thought, not least because it has the positive (and convenient) connotations of ‘freedom’, though it can also (just as conveniently) blame the individual for their plight rather than any deeper rooted societal issues (see now Robert Myles’ work on homelessness and the Gospel tradition). But this merely establishes a general context of individualism as dominant in Jesus studies; it is to specific manifestations of capitalist individualism that now needs to be established…


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