Just finished The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (1996) by Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic scholar (and previously a Benedictine monk and priest). This is a must-read book for anyone who has delved into the "historical Jesus" literature. Johnson targets the book at the Jesus Seminar, its leading scholars, and their claims to have arrived at a (reduced) set of historical facts and teachings related to Jesus. I won't try to recapitulate every argument in the book against exclusive reliance on history and the historical method (as practiced by the Seminar) — you can certainly get a copy of the book and do this yourself. I'll just give a sentence or two on each chapter of this short book of only 177 pages.
In Chapter 1, Johnson criticizes both the seminar and its fundamentalist critics for an overreliance on history: "Fundamentalists wrongly stake all Christian faith on the literal historical accuracy of the Bible. ... The Seminar's obsessive concern with historicity and its extreme literalism merely represents the opposite side of fundamentalism" (p. 26-27).
In Chapter 2, "History Challenging Faith," Johnson criticizes several scholars (including Bishop John Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and Burton Mack) for placing too much weight on non-canonical gospels and ignoring other Christian writings (such as the letters of Paul) to construct a historical Jesus "in terms of a social or cultural critique rather than in terms of religious or spiritual realities" (p. 54-55). More directly, Johnson rejects the shared views of these and similar-thinking scholars that "historical knowledge is normative for faith, and therefore for theology" (p. 55; italics in original). The idea that the development (either natural or providential) of a doctrine or belief within a living faith community such as the early Church could be in any sense legitimate or valid — obviously a formulation Johnson takes seriously — is simply not given any credence by these scholars.
In Chapter 3, Johnson reviews the two sides of this religious culture war. For traditional Christians (and traditional scholars), Jesus is defined "above all and essentially by the mystery of his death and resurrection. ... [T]he risen Lord still powerfully alive is the 'real Jesus.' (p. 57). For the historicizing scholars, "the resurrection is reduced to a series of visionary experiences of certain followers, and the significance of Jesus is to be assessed entirely from the period of his ministry" (p. 57). More simply, is Jesus properly viewed as Messiah and Christ, or merely as some sort of literary character or religious symbol? The split here is not simply between liberal scholars and conservative believers: the fault lines run through the middle of denominations and through scholarly communities themselves.
In Chapter 4, "The Limitations of History," the author summarizes the limitations on historical inquiry. One can't appeal to "history" as ultimate underlying events anymore than one can appeal to science as establishing knowledge of real objects in themselves (as opposed to our perceptions of them or the models we make of them). On this view, history becomes the written record we make (selective, based on available evidence rather than an omnipotent knowledge of all past events), not the underlying events themselves. But historical narratives are "the product of human intelligence and imagination" (p. 82). History is "a mode of human knowing" and "an interpretive activity" that (like other forms of human knowing) is subject to "intrinsic limitations" (p. 82). This chapter is really the heart of Johnson's critique of the scholarly overrreliance on the historical critical method, including his view that, in fact, these scholars covertly import subjective judgments and presuppositions into their arguments without acknowledging this is being done.
In Chapter 5, "What's Historical About Jesus?", he reviews external evidence (non-Biblical sources) and non-narrative evidence (from Paul's letters) regarding Jesus. There's more about Jesus hidden in Paul's letters than I would have thought. Johnson uses these and other sources to support the idea that one can't simply read the resurrection out of the account and still have a coherent or satisfactory explanation of the growth and development of the early Church. This is a key point in his critique:
Insistence on reducing the resurrection to something "historical" amounts to a form of epistemological imperialism, an effort to deny a realm of reality beyond the critic's control. ... It is instead an ideological commitment to a view of the world that insists on material explanations being the only reasonable explanations .... Such an ideological commitment begins with the assumption that Christianity cannot have anything distinctive about it. (p. 140; italics in original)
In Chapter 6, "The Real Jesus and the Gospels," he brings things together. You might have to chew on this quote awhile before you swallow it:
Christians direct their faith not to this historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus. Yes, they assert continuity between that Jesus and this. But their faith is confirmed, not by the establishment of facts about the past, but by the reality of Christ's power in the present. Christian faith is not directed to a human construction about the past; that would be a form of idolatry. Authentic Christian faith is a response to the living God, whom Christians declare is powerfully at work among them through the resurrected Jesus. (p. 142-43)
The Mo App is so obvious I really don't even need to even state it. A conversation similar to that between Johnson and the Jesus Seminar scholars has raged for almost two generations in LDS journals, books, and conferences. It continues to pit revisionists wielding historical-critical tools against orthodox scholars defending traditional faith claims by critiquing historical-critical methods. Maybe you can't have it both ways, but you should nevertheless read from both sides of the debate. Whatever side (if any) you're on**, you'll enjoy The Real Jesus.
** Side? I am on nobody's side because nobody's on my side. Nobody cares for the woods anymore. --Treebeard the Ent.