Historical Jesus

DPC LogoSmallIs the Historical Jesus Relevant to the Parish Council?

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Jesus Never Sought Consensus,” Today’s Parish (March, 1993): 23-26.

When I was a graduate student taking Christology, the historical Jesus was presented to us as the model of authentic humanity. The Jesus of history took the side of the poor and despised. He spoke with authority on the basis of his direct relationship with his heavenly Father. He proclaimed the imminence of the Kingdom, a proclamation that relativized all other concerns, including that of community and family. The implicit message of the course was that the historical Jesus is eminently worth imitating, even if doing so alienates one from the mainstream.

Not until several years later, as a Church employee committed to building pastoral councils, did I begin to question such a naive imitation of the historical Jesus. If I, following Jesus, were to speak with authority on the basis of a direct relationship with God, I could well be unwilling to hear my fellow councilors. If I preferred the company of public sinners to those who support the parish’s mission, I might alienate the leaders of the parish. If I focused on the kingdom of God at the expense of the community, I could destroy my link to the very people who are to usher in that kingdom. Uncritically imitating the historical Jesus can be a problem indeed.

In this essay, I will argue against such an uncritical imitation. A narrowly-conceived portrait of the historical Jesus as an unyielding and iconoclastic individual is no model for the parish council. But eventually I want to present a sound application to councils of historical Jesus research.

Why? Because I believe the question of the historical Jesus is worth the attention of parish councils for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, an understanding of Jesus supported by a scientific and historical-critical method can clarify our faith. However distinct the methods of historical criticism are from the faith of the Church, writes John P. Meier in his 1991 A Marginal Jew, historical Jesus research enables believers to enrich their understanding of Jesus with the austere picture which scholarship supplies. Instead of invoking the name of Christ without reflection on the results of historical research, councils can dwell profitably on the one who was like us in all ways but sin (Heb. 4:15)–sinless, that is, but not perfect in knowledge.

Secondly, the reflection on the Jesus of history can help councils purify their mission. The disturbing figure who springs to life from a book such as John Dominic Crossan’s 1991 The Historical Jesus–subtitled “The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant”–leaves no one content with simply maintaining the parish’s status quo. The Jesus of history challenges councils who find themselves performing an all-too-comfortable “maintenance ministry.”

Yet many aspects of the historical Jesus are irrelevant and even downright harmful if councils imitate them uncritically. What do I mean by an uncritical imitation? That is the first part of my essay.

Jesus No Consensus-Seeker

The portrait of Jesus sketched by historical criticism seems irrelevant, if not downright antithetical, to what councils want from their members. First of all, the Jesus of history was no consensus-seeker. He was apparently uninterested in gradually developing a common vision. On the contrary, his preaching had the marks of Old Testament prophecy. “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk. 1:22). Instead of seeking the wisdom of the group, he authoritatively proclaimed the nearness of God and the kingdom. This has been emphasized as a hallmark of the historical Jesus at least since the 1956 publication of Günther Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth, and such “speaking with authority” hardly seems compatible with the search for group consensus.

Indeed, the Jesus of history identified God’s will with his own. Jesus came “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law and prophets (Mt. 5: 18), and to do so in his own person. He seemed to ask that his followers identify with his own vision and to obey it, never mind the traditional understanding of first-century Judaism. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you . . .” (Mt. 5: 38-39). In Jesus, the old law is both fulfilled and surpassed. Scholars such as Gerhard Ebeling, noting the dissimilarity between this teaching and that of Jesus’ contemporaries, state that an identification of his own will with the Father’s must have been characteristic of the historical Jesus. But it is not the kind of identification which anyone would encourage a parish council member to adopt.

Nor would anyone encourage councilors to disregard recognized parish leaders and instead cultivate those who showed utter contempt for the parish’s mission. And yet this is what the Jesus of history seemed to do. He ate “with sinners and tax collectors” (Mk. 2:16). Older historical Jesus scholars such as Ernst Fuchs remarked that Jesus’ association with sinners was an actual living-out of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed. In him, God’s mercy was being extended to the most despised members of society. But Jesus’ rejection of the acknowledged leaders, his preferred association with those least committed to Israel’s mission, is no modus operandi for the parish council.

Utterly Irrelevant?

In truth, the historical Jesus seems after some examination to be utterly irrelevant to parish councils. His uncompromising proclamation of the kingdom–the kingdom which he himself was ushering in–did not hinge upon a consensus which he was trying to win with his followers. The authority of his teaching did not encourage the emergence of shared wisdom. His disregard for local leaders created divisions, even chasms, of opinion. To recommend that council members follow in these footsteps and slight parish leaders would seem to be a recipe for parish council failure.

And these traits of the historical Jesus are in one sense unmollified by other dimensions of the New Testament tradition which are central to parish councils. Why? Because the other dimensions do not represent what modern scholarship defines as the Jesus of history. The sharing of mission, a sharing implicit in the instruction to go and make disciples of all (Mt. 28:19), is marked by an interest in baptism which emerged after Jesus’ death. The farewell discourses in John’s gospel, in which Jesus prays for unity (13:34) and identifies his mission with those of his followers (17:18), are likewise part of a later tradition. And of course the teaching about the many gifts and the one Spirit (Rm. 12:3-8) has its origin in Paul, not in the historical Jesus. A focus on the Jesus of history, from this viewpoint, seems of questionable value to parish councils.

Noting this, however, I must go on to say that some of the central concerns of the council ministry have a definite relation to the historical Jesus. I am speaking of the missionary impulse toward pastoral planning, the need for authoritative leadership, and the sensitive discernment of personal gifts. In what follows, I would like to suggest how parish councils can focus their task and improve their practice by paying attention to what critical scholarship has to say about the Jesus of history. In particular, Jesus’ emphasis on the kingdom of God, his use of parables, and his direct relationship to his family, to his immediate circle, and to those he healed, all have important lessons for the council.

Missionary Impulse and the Kingdom

Let us begin with the proclamation of the kingdom of God. This proclamation–“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15)–suggests the nearness of God and the need to conform our lives with God’s will. It is the “central theme” of the historical Jesus, according to Joachim Jeremias, and an invitation to experience the dawn of salvation with him.

Two aspects of this proclamation have overarching importance for the pastoral council, whose main task is to clarify the parish’s mission and recommend plans for achieving it. I am speaking of the imminence of the kingdom and the response to it which the historical Jesus invited. He saw that the kingdom was at hand, breaking in as he spoke, becoming apparent as the sprouting of seeds, as wheat growing in the fields, as yeast leavening the dough. Furthermore, the historical Jesus invited a response to this event: repent and believe. His hearers were summoned to play a role in the kingdom’s arrival.

They had a role to play because the experience of the kingdom is to be found in community. “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mk. 9:1). This passage is one which historical Jesus scholars believe to be authentic because the first generation did in fact die. If the words were not Jesus’ own, they would not have been recorded. The kingdom, wrongly understood as the apocalyptic end of the world, did not come to pass. But these words of Jesus, however embarassing to those who view him as perfect in knowledge, convey a strong conviction that the kingdom would be experienced by Jesus’ immediate circle.

For the parish council, the kingdom would be a powerful spur to reflection and pastoral planning. The council which takes seriously this proclamation of the historical Jesus–namely, that God’s kingdom is breaking in, even in the parish of today, and that the council’s task is to respond to it–will be filled with urgency. Such a council will look to what is really central to parish life. Instead of being preoccupied with maintaining the parish’s business as usual, the council will constantly seek to purify the parish mission. If the time is fulfilled and the kingdom is near, repentance means withdrawing parish energy from whatever is unessential and investing it in the gospel.

Authoritative Leadership

A second aspect of the historical Jesus which is relevant to the parish council is his authority. His words suggest an immediate relation to his Father in heaven, a relation which enabled Jesus to speak authoritatively, act decisively and to supersede the Jewish law as taught by the leaders of his time. I have already said that Jesus’ authority is a problem for parish councils. No one recommends that pastors or councils should act as if they have an immediate relation to God. And yet Jesus’ reinterpretation of authority and his use of parables are of particular value for councils.

Historical Jesus scholars tell us that the title of “messiah”–Christos, in the language of the New Testament–is the title most frequently applied to Jesus. It is the title by which Peter acknowledged Jesus (Mk. 8:29) and which Jesus apparently accepted for himself. Most of Jesus’ contemporaries would have interpreted the title as an image of the return in power of the kings of ancient Israel. But the historical Jesus apparently reinterpreted messiahship along the lines of humble kingship, referring to a king who rides on a mere donkey, and along the lines of a suffering servant. This kind of authority is not exercised imperially, but in service. In that sense, Jesus’ “authority” can be readily applied to leadership in the council.

Another dimension of Jesus’ authority is his public preaching, especially his use of parables. The parables of Jesus are rooted in daily life and comprehensible to all. Everyone can envision how precious is the pearl, how miraculous the catch of fish, how joyous the wedding feast. The parables do not teach about sophisticated technical matters, but about the cares and concerns of ordinary people. Yet the parables, at the same time, are not self-explanatory. Who or what are the sower, the seed, and the good ground? What is meant by putting a lamp on a stand or under the bed? The parables demand interpretation. They do not always yield a ready explanation.

For the parish council, Jesus’ use of parables is a lesson about the matter of the parish council and about the role of the pastor or chairperson. First, about the matter: leaders should not bring to the parish council scientific matters for discussion, matters which belong in the province of experts. Technical matters should be solved by technicians. The pastoral council, however, can shed light on the contingent truths about what is right for the parish at this time and place. The parables of the kingdom are a model subject matter for councils. They are not about what is always and everywhere true, regardless of who hears them. No, they are about the event of the kingdom. They ask us: what does the gospel demand that we do here and now?

The parables are also a model for the form of council discussions. Pastors and chairpersons should not put before the council matters about which their minds are already made up, matters which do not call for discussion. Rather, the good council leader poses a question which is open and to which all can make a contribution. The parables are a good example of such questions. The leader who guides the discussion by posing the questions of genuine evangelical relevance is exercising the authority modeled by the historical Jesus. It is the authority of one who asks his hearers to commit themselves to what is urgent and important.

Discernment of Relationships

A final aspect of the Jesus of history from which pastoral councils can learn is what I call Jesus’ sensitivity to people and to situations. This is apparent in his relations to his family and in his miracles of healing. It would be easy to conclude from the portrait of Jesus’ immediate family–the group which was “anxious” (Mt. 12:46) about Jesus and which he spurned in favor of his “true mother and brothers,” namely, the ones who do God’s will (Mk. 3:35)–that Jesus had scant regard for his blood relatives. They thought him deranged, one might conclude, and he lost no love for them.

But perhaps it would be truer to see the historical Jesus as a part of communal life, including family life, and to interpret the strong words about his family not as a rejection of them but as an affirmation of the faith of his disciples. Meier’s A Marginal Jew, which is overly concerned with the question of whether Jesus did or did not have blood brothers, does suggest that Jesus and his family remained connected, despite the tensions which the family experienced. The presence of Jesus’ “brother” James in the Pauline letters and the Acts supports the view that there was no final rupture between Jesus and his family. Information from outside the main historical Jesus sources (e.g., the wedding feast at Cana, Jn. 2:1-10) is a further confirmation.

So the Jesus of history did not assume for himself an institutional role which so formalized his relations with others that it deprived him of intimacy with them. On the contrary, Jesus was a close observer of human nature. The calling of the Twelve testifies to that, although the institution of twelve disciples may reflect a concern with number symbolism which does not date back to the historical Jesus. Further testimony emerges from an examination of the healing miracles. Historical scholars note that the miracles are not just an expression of supernatural powers, but of Jesus’ relation to those whom he cured. He engaged them in dialogue, he touched them, he discerned their faith.

The obvious lesson for parish councils is to avoid the kind of institutionalization which isolates the council from the parish. Such institutionalization can begin with the very election of the council. Elections can degenerate into a pro forma exercise or even a popularity contest. The historical Jesus provides a better model: genuine dialogue, the knowledge that flows from intimacy, and the discernment of faith and gifts.


In summary, the relevance of the historical Jesus to the pastoral council, a relevance which most take for granted, is not as self-evident as it seems. Councilors who take as their model the Jesus of immediate connection to the Father, the Jesus of unyielding prophesy, or the Jesus who disregarded local leaders, will be problem councilors. These aspects of the historical Jesus are not very helpful for those who seek to build community.

But councils can gain much from Jesus’ proclamation of an immediate kingdom, a proclamation which can clarify the concept of mission. The models of servant leadership and of parables, models of leadership which call forth the best efforts of followers, are invaluable to the council. And Jesus’ intimacy with family, disciples, and those he cured, can help parishioners see who would be good councilors and help councilors bring their discussions down to earth.

Take time in prayer, during your next council meeting, to ask the members who Jesus is. After everyone has spoken, let somebody summarize the portrait of the historical Jesus in, for example, John Meier’s article on “Jesus” in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Then compare what people have said with what the scholars say. You may be surprised at the effect this has on your understanding of the parish’s mission.