Monday, 12 December 2005

Paul Althaus and the historical Jesus

It does not seem to be very well known that the prominent German theologian Paul Althaus (1888-1966) wrote a little book on the historical Jesus back in 1958. It was translated into English as The So-Called Kerygma and the Historical Jesus (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1959). As you might guess from the title, the book is a polemic against Rudolf Bultmann, and more particularly against Friedrich Gogarten, who had recently written Demythologizing and History (1955) in defence of Bultmann.

As an admirer of Bultmann, I disagree with much of what Althaus says in this book; and at times I find Althaus’s angry polemics a little distasteful (his remarks about Gogarten are especially bitter). But I do think he makes a valuable point about the search for historical authenticity in the traditions about Jesus.

Althaus notes the complex problems which surround the Jesus tradition, and the difficulty of achieving historical certainty about Jesus. He notes that the Jesus tradition “has been shaped by apologetic and dogmatic considerations” so that it has “legendary features”; that the boundary between “genuine” and “fictitious” words of Jesus is uncertain and fluid; that the primitive Christians not only modified Jesus’ words but also “added alien elements to them” and sometimes even “transformed them” altogether (p. 72).

In spite of all these ambiguities and complexities, and in spite of our lack of historical certainty, Althaus offers this crucial observation: “And yet all [these] results and undecided questions of the researches of the historical critics have in no way blurred the characteristic features of the person and the story of Jesus. We must not let our gaze be confused by the dust which research has raised in the foreground, but we must attempt to see through it” (p. 72).

In fact, Althaus says, the fundamental features of Jesus’ outlook and message “have been preserved through every layer of the tradition,” and these fundamental features “make [Jesus] everywhere recognisable” in the tradition (pp. 73-74). Althaus thus concludes that “the boundary between what is supposed to be historically genuine and original, and secondary and later, and the impossibility of everywhere drawing a clear line of demarcation between them, becomes here relatively unimportant. Jesus and His character have left their stamp deeply on the secondary, even the legendary material” (p. 74).

Althaus thus argues that in our search for historical authenticity we should distinguish between “the exact authenticity of the narratives” and the “authenticity of content”—and, he suggests, “that which is inauthentic in the first sense often turns out to be authentic in the second” (p. 74).

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