I don’t believe in the historical Jesus, at least if we take that term to refer to the person of Jesus as construed by the academic discipline of history, and as that term is used in contrast to the canonical Jesus, the person who emerges from the text of the New Testament. Academic pursuit of the historical Jesus has certainly yielded useful and important insights, but I don’t share some of the foundational postulates of how the historical Jesus is constructed—most importantly, I don’t accept the basic assumptions that that Jesus was not divine, and that he did not rise from the dead—so that I keep the historical Jesus at arm’s length when it comes to questions of belief. Some Christians, both in earlier times and at the present, have been and are happy to follow Jesus as a moral exemplar or a teacher of wisdom, but history is incapable of providing the Jesus I need, the atoning deity who rose from the dead. At best, the historical Jesus can provide useful and even profound insights with devotional relevance; at worst, the historical Jesus can be a distraction, a false promise of knowing Jesus without the mediation of scriptural text or ecclesiastic structure, or an idol that alienates devotion from the true object of worship. (We can expand the binary pair of the historical Jesus and the canonical Jesus to include the traditional Jesus, informed not only by scripture but also by two millennia of Christian thinking; the prophetic Jesus, based on all the previous and on modern visionary and revelatory experiences to authorized prophets; and the experiential Jesus, Jesus as we experience him through the mediation of the holy spirit. With all of these, including the first and the last, our understanding of Jesus is informed by the texts we read and the institutions in which we participate.)
It seems to me that similar issues arise with biblical textual criticism, one of the great intellectual projects of modernity. Textual criticism has proved itself to be a regular source of interesting and useful insights and alternative readings to consider. But by the late 1980s, the critique provided by the New Philology had made clear that textual criticism could not lead to a stable text, or to the original text, or to the authors’ original intentions, let alone to the word of God. Textual criticism can enrich our scripture study, but it can also create the illusion that we can safely ignore those passage that have been sullied by human mediators (that is, all of them).
The historical Jesus and the biblical Urtext have a counterpart in the early Christian church, the ‘Jesus movement.’ As historical study of the Urkirche has progressed, the early church has come to appear increasingly less church-like. This might be matter of concern, were it not for the realization that the academic investigation of church history and the Restoration project of Joseph Smith are two very different things that do not need to overlap perfectly. What the Restoration seeks to restore is the early Christian church as it was understood by a certain strain of Christianity in the early nineteenth century. Here again, historical inquiry can offer many insights. It can comment on and argue about original doctrines. But it cannot restore the divine authorization to conduct liturgical ritual or binding sacraments in God’s name. What Mormons often see as the most important aspect of church history is thus something that is barely comprehensible to academic inquiry. This isn’t a problem, unless one insists on asking misplaced questions and interpreting incomprehension as a negative response.
It’s not that I don’t value history as an academic discipline; to the contrary, I read their books, and sometimes I publish in their journals. I’d like to think that my academic experience informs the practice of my religion, in the same way that I hope Mormonism informs the ethics of my scholarship. But it is a mistake to hold up academic history as the standard against which church history or scripture must be judged, or to regard academic scholarship as the real history while Mormonism’s understanding of its history, its texts, and its savior is treated as defective or deceptive in comparison: not only is this a category error, but the academic disciplines cannot even provide what is being demanded of them. I’m happy to talk about history; but when I talk about Mormonism (on Mormon blogs, or when teaching Sunday School, for example), I talk about it from within Mormonism. So I’m little swayed by arguments that we must understand scripture like this because of textual criticism, or that we must understand Jesus as saying that because that is what a sage in Roman Palestine must have meant; the logical conclusion of that line of thought is to reject the divinity of Jesus and the reality of the resurrection. (I’m quite happy, however, to increase the number of the possible ways we can understand scripture by considering the contexts that various accounts of the historical Jesus suggest.)
It does no good to say, Well, I just believe in Jesus as he really existed. Our access to that existence is limited to the texts we accept, other statements we accept as authoritative, or experiences we accept as inspired. The presuppositions we bring to each of these affects how we understand our reading our interpret our expiences. We’re not helpless victims of our presuppositions, but neither can we read texts or interpret experiences without any presuppositions whatsoever. We can choose our texts, and we can choose our interpretive presupposition, but we can’t escape responsibility for the consequences of our choices.