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The historical Jesus: Meier and Sobrino revisited

February 21, 2010 3 comments

In June 1988, at a conference of the Catholic Theological Society of America on the “Sources of Theology,” biblical scholar John Meier critiqued liberation theologian Jon Sobrino for his inadequate treatment of the historical Jesus (he also considered Juan Luis Segundo, but I’ll focus on Sobrino here). In short, Meier contended that Sobrino has not demonstrated the historical veracity of the claims that he makes about the historical Jesus. The problem with this criticism is that it depends on a fundamental equivocation. Is the “historical Jesus” equivalent to that construct of probable facts about Jesus which any reasonable community of scholars, regardless of confession, would hold to be true in light of the evidence (i.e., the historico-critical Jesus of Meier’s A Marginal Jew)?  Or is the “historical Jesus” the Word incarnate in a particular historical context in the past (first century Palestine) and sacramentally mediated in the liberating praxis of the church in analogous contexts in the present (e.g., late twentieth century El Salvador) (i.e., the historico-theologal Jesus of Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator)? 

Both ways of seeking the historical Jesus risk sacrificing Jesus’ reality–that is, who he actually was and what he actually did: Meier by restricting his gaze to the demonstrably probable, Sobrino by pursuing a theological interpretation which is not pinned down on every point by demonstrable probability.  Sobrino, it should be noted, does cite historico-critical scholarship in defense of many claims.  Moreover, there is room to question the objectivity of any historical report–especially if it is about a religious figure such as Jesus–even if there are scholarly arguments, such as Meier’s, in place.

But the point I want to make here–and it is in some ways a point against Meier and in favor of Sobrino–is that reason has no absolute dominion over history.  What is most true historically is not necessarily what will convince a neutrally disposed committee of experts.  I don’t doubt that Meier’s meticulous work is of great value.  Certainly it is!  I do claim, however, that Sobrino’s reflection on the historical Jesus engages reality in a way which may be unavailable to those concerned primarily with academic consensus.  Understanding Jesus, for Sobrino, implies discipleship in history.  This, it seems to me, has more to do with who Jesus actually was than does any text which one might produce as a disinterested observer.

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