Narrative and the Historical Jesus, Part 1 – Alisdair MacIntyre


There has been a great deal of ink spilled over the question, “Who was Jesus?” It is a question that still fascinates me personally, and it took me on one of the wildest intellectual journey’s of my faith, as I know it has so many others. 

I wanted to know, who was Jesus apart from the “bias of faith?” The following is a two part work on some groundwork that was especially helpful for me.

Laying some ground work

1. In the pursuit of the identity of Jesus, our primary source is the fourfold Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are other apocryphal Gospels, but none that prove as early or as reliable as these. 

2. As narrative depictions of Jesus’ identity, we as readers are required to understand the relationship between narrative and identity in order to become good students of scripture. 

3. Therefore, through an examination of Hans Frei’s Identity Description and Jesus Christ,  and Alisdair MacIntyre’s The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life, and the Concept of a Tradition, I will argue that the most appropriate approach to studying the identity of Jesus is through an engagement with the ways in which identity arises out of narrative. 

Ascribing to this narrative coherence means acknowledging our own indebtedness to the narratives and traditions that have sharped our understandings of ourselves, much less its affect on how we read scripture.

 The thesis of MacIntyre’s essay is that the modern notion of compartmentalizing one’s life is an illusion that cannot be maintained. 

The fragmentation of life in this way renders life incomprehensible when it is understood not as the flow of deeply integrated events but only as “a series of unconnected episodes” (MacIntyre 90). As a result of thinking atomistically about human action, we are unable to see the inherent unity of human life.  

The disconnected and unrelated nature of the events in human life, therefore, enable the modern human being to see his or her life in “a variety of segments, each with its own norms and modes of behavior” (MacIntyre 89). Such segments include commonly held divisions of life such as work and leisure, private and public life, and the corporate and the personal (MacIntyre 89).

 It is so difficult to see life as a whole, MacIntyre suggests, because the modern fragmentation of life is to separate childhood and old age from the rest of life. This may seem to be an obscure observation except that once childhood and old age become separate realms of life, one to grow out of and the other to be put off as long as possible, it becomes difficult to grasp the impact of the flow of life upon one’s identity. 

This fragmentation of life begins early on as children are taught to see life as a proliferation of age-appropriate roles. The child, for example, is a student, an athlete, a sibling, and a catechumen. Life quickly becomes about roles that one slips into rather than the flow of a singular unified life.[1] This mode of thinking continues into adult life with the divisions previously mentioned: one plays the role of a spouse, a parent, a professional and so on. This fragmentation of life and the shifting of roles suggests to the modern human being that somehow, behind all of these roles, there is an essential self that can be extracted from the rest of one’s life and examined in their pristine, undiluted self. 

The same goes for our actions: we must understand that “particular actions derive their character as parts of larger wholes” (MacIntyre 89-90). In other words, basic actions are meaningless and incomprehensible apart from the larger whole of our lives in which it is situated.

The term that MacIntyre employs to describe the meaning that a larger context provides for basic actions is “intelligibility” (MacIntyre 90). There are intelligible actions and unintelligible actions. An intelligible action is an action for which an adequate account of its purpose can be established by the agent who performed the action. The most important idea to grasp here is that as human beings we are authors, authors who can tell why we have spoken in a particular way or performed a particular action. 

The Analogy of the Recipe

 This concept of intelligibility is more fundamental than basic actions themselves. In such examples as a recipe, it is the context that give the individual human actions intelligibility. The context of a recipe makes it intelligible to say something such as, “break six eggs into a bowl.” Making such a comment during a philosophy lecture, would not make so much sense. 

Although intelligible actions and unintelligible actions are both actions, the concept of intelligibility is more fundamental because this distinction is more important than any commonality that might exist between two events. 

MacIntyre gives the example of the man at the bus stop who suddenly says, “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus” to make the point that even more basic to this act itself is whether or not it makes sense. This same event could take place in two different settings and yet the event would be fundamentally different if it is intelligible in one situation and not the other. 

The point that MacIntyre ultimately arrives at is that what is most fundamental to an action or an event are not the words that are said or the movements that take place, but the narrative in which the action is embedded and which makes sense of the action, that is, gives it intelligibility.

It is at this point that we are able to see why MacIntyre’s use of the term “author” is so important. The “author” is the one from whom we can request an intelligible account of an action. By default, to give an account of an action is to describe how an occurrence flows intelligibly “from a human agent’s intentions, motives, passions, and purposes” (MacIntyre 95). 

Inevitably, the attempt to give an intelligible account will result in the author telling a story. The act “becomes intelligible by finding its place in a narrative” (MacIntyre 95). Some might object and begin to argue that such elaboration as a narrative is not necessary. Instead, the only explanation required is the purpose of the action or possibly a knowledge of the relevant type of speech act. However, MacIntyre retorts, “speech acts and purposes too can be intelligible or unintelligible” (95). Simply put, even if the relevant speech act or definite purpose is established, a narrative is still required in order to make it intelligible. One must still give an account for why the presented purpose or relevant speech act makes sense.

In moving toward understanding the unity of human life we have established narrative as a fundamental means by which we give an account for our words and actions. However, I must clarify that a life is also more than just a collection of narratives. Rather, the collection of narratives is actually a deeply related and integrated development whose “unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end” (MacIntyre 91). In other words, our words and actions are embedded in the ongoing narrative of our lives where the beginning has affected the now, and the way in which we see the future influences the way we direct our lives. 

This narrative of our own lives is then also embedded on a grand scale in the ongoing narrative of history, the overarching narrative into which we have been born. The overarching narrative, however, can only be known somewhat locally as a tradition. The ways in which a particular context speaks about the world and its history are shaped by the tradition of the context into which one is born.

 Therefore, the way that history is narrated within a particular context shapes the way a person understands their own personal narrative and ultimately their own identity. 

It is at this point that we are able to see why MacIntyre’s use of the term “author” is so important. The “author” is the one from whom we can request an intelligible account of an action. By default, to give an account of an action is to describe how an occurrence flows intelligibly “from a human agent’s intentions, motives, passions, and purposes” (MacIntyre 95).  Just as each actor “does not begin where they please, they cannot go on exactly as they please either; each character is constrained by the actions of others and by social settings presupposed in his and their actions” (MacIntyre 100). 

In this way, we are always writing and rewriting our own scripts, acting and reacting in light of others. 

This has 3 implications for studying the life of Jesus:

1. We cannot dissect the author’s account of Jesus’ actions, intentions, passions, and purposes from the author’s narrative which gives them intelligibility.

2. We cannot remove the person of Jesus from his actions, behaviors and decisions, as though there were a person behind those actions that could be distinguished from them.

3. The life of Jesus, however incomprehensible to us, cannot be made more intelligible by rearranging the events of his life in ways that make more sense according to our own compartmentalization of life.

Inevitably, as MacIntyre says, the attempt to give an intelligible account of our own life or another, will result in the author telling a story.

Stay tuned for part 2 on Hans Frei!

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