A Public Jesus?

Ed Knudson (eknudson@casconn.com)
Thu, 14 Mar 1996 17:34:42 -0800

I have a question to address to Borg, Crossan, and Johnson, and all the
conversation partners on CrossTalk. To what degree was Jesus a public figure
pre-Easter and post-Easter? That is, is there continuity between a public
historical Jesus and a public Christ of faith and if so, what are the
elements of that publicness?

I ask the question because of Borg's comments (copied below) in his last
post concerning Johnson's statements about the public aspects of the Jesus
Seminar's efforts. How we view what it means to be "public" today may
influence how we would view what it meant to be "public" in the early days
of Jesus and the church. I am not quite sure of the connections, but I
wonder if there is not something important here.

If Borg is right about Johnson's use of sarcasm in public conversation, I
would agree with Borg. However, it is also true that a distinction needs to
be made between professional and public discourse. I have myself asked the
question (in an article in my series of web pages) of why the Jesus scholars
have felt a need to "go public" with their scholarly findings. Scholars do
not generally put together a whole process for getting the public's
attention about their intellectual work. But the Jesus scholars have done
this. Why?

I wonder if it is not that they have had poor students. That is, books by
the Jesus scholars are read in seminaries, yet when it comes to actually
using the results of historical-critical inquiry in pastoral ministry, many
pastors retreat from implications of this method in the faith formation of
children or adults in local parishes. The Jesus scholars are left without an
audience, so to speak. So they have created one for themselves.

The problem with this is that they then must reckon with the way the secular
press is able to receive their work. It is not just the intentions of the
scholars that count, it is the framework within which their material can be
received in public. In an article in the local paper in my state, Oregon,
where the Jesus Symposium was held, Borg is quoted as saying that the "Jesus
wars" are intensifying. The article pits the results of the Jesus seminar
over-against the fundamentalist view of the bible. This is the nature of the
"public" debate in the mental categories of contemporary journalists. And
this just keeps the old modernist-fundamentalist debate raging. I think the
Jesus scholars somehow need to be responsible for how the results of their
work will be received in public, and how those results will be used by the
press. They will be used according to a narrow historical reading, "Jesus
really didn't say those things." Their historical knowledge as scholars is
what counts, not their reconstructions based on their own faith commitments.
Somehow we need to get a third voice into this debate, the voice of those of
us who represent communities of faith who neither are fundamentalist nor
narrowly historical in perspective. But this third "public Jesus" cannot
seem to get a very good reading in today's contemporary debates. Is there
anything about the publicness of Jesus before and after Easter that would
give us any hints about these matters? Ed K.

Borg's Comment:
2. I want to raise a question about Johnson's rhetoric. In his
response to me last week, he justified his rhetoric with two
statements: its SHARPNESS is justified by intellectual responsibility
(O.K.); its "sarcastic edge" is a function of the PUBLIC rather than
professional character of the conversation. What does this second
justification mean? That the public can only understand sarcasm, or
wouldn't get the point if it weren't made sarcastically? (Sounds a
bit condescending to me). Or that sarcasm creates more public
interest and more public market? (And Johnson accuses the Jesus
Seminar of being publicity-seeking and market-driven). And what do
you think of the implicit claim that it's O.K. to be sarcastic about
your colleagues because the conversation is a public one? Many of us
write for a public conversation without sarcasm. Or am I missing
something here?

L. Edward Knudson eknudson@casconn.com
FaithNet Publications
Voice/Fax: 503-282-8303