Narrative and the Historical Jesus, Part 2 – Hans Frei

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Read Part One of this series HERE.

In light of MacIntyre’s work on narrative and intelligibility, we are now prepared to speak specifically about matters of identity with respect to narrative (In particular, Hans Frei’s work The Identity of Jesus Christ).

Frei begins by critiquing ways in which the pursuit of Jesus’ identity in the gospels have gone wrong. His greatest concern is the frequency with which theories external to scripture shape the way we read scripture and in turn inhibit our ability to read scripture well.

Frei offers a vivid example for how this pursuit has gone wrong in the past, and how he proposes moving forward. Frei suggests that reading a story, such as the Gospels 

“has been rightly compared to understanding a work of visual art, such as a piece of sculpture: we do not try to imagine the inside of it, but let our eyes wander over its surface and its mass, so that we may grasp its form, its proportions and its balances. What it says is expressed in any and all these things, and only by grasping them do we grasp its “meaning” (Frei 133). 

Frei is cutting against the type of scholarship who’s goal is to understand  the Jesus inside of, or more accurately, behind the gospels. Frei states explicitly concerning this: “our task is, rather, to observe the story itself—its structure, the shape of its movement, and its crucial transitions” (Frei 133). In other words, the identity of Jesus is not uncovered by busting up the Gospels to see what can be found inside of the fragments. Jesus’ identity is found in following the flow of the text, paying attention to the way in which the identity of Jesus arises out of the narrative as its movement and form expresses it.

In the attempts to uncover Jesus’ true identity, Frei believes that scholars are asking some of the right questions; they just go about answering them in the wrong ways. 

One infamous example is how scholars have notoriously mapped their own personal modern existential crises of identity onto seeking the identity of Jesus. In past attempts to understand the unity of Jesus’ presence and his identity, scholars have begun by asking “how is Christ present?” and then asking “who is he?” But can you know how Christ is present without first knowing his identity? 

On this approach we discover two problematic outcomes:

1. Without going into great detail, this method results almost inevitably in a mysterious sort of dissolution of Christ into the church, thus leaving Christ with no identity of his own except what can be present in humanity. Our own human flesh becomes the only abiding presence we ourselves have and thus, Christ’s identity becomes subject to the limited understanding we have of our own identity. 

2. Christ then, is no more that the projection of our own hopes and dreams, an image cast off of the back of our own minds. In the attempt to establish authentic existence in the world and escape the dilemma of the “’self-alienated’ quest of the self,” the endeavor to understand the identity of Jesus was motivated by the hope that it would offer solution to this existential crisis within the human being as well (Frei 142-143).

In response, Frei offers two important corrections to reading scripture well:

1. Knowing the identity of a person involves understanding the continuity of the person as they are observed over a period of time, not in anecdotal instances (Frei 133).

This first statement challenges our temptation to read a single story such as Mark’s account of the feeding the five thousand and deducing that Jesus’ essential characteristic is compassion (Mk. 6:34) without holding it in tension with Mark’s account in the very next chapter of Jesus’ hard condemnation of the Pharisee’s hypocrisy. Furthermore, if identity requires describing the continuity of a person over time, we cannot read “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12.17) as a justification of the empire without taking seriously Jesus’ recent entry into the city as an opposing power to Rome (Mk. 11). 

In her commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Pheme Perkins states that Mark “has avoided any suggestion of triumphal entry by confining the demonstration to the road leading up to the city. [But] on the other hand, Mark’s first century reader’s were certainly familiar with certain triumphal entries crucial to the fate of Jerusalem” (659). 

Reading scripture well, therefore, is exercising the discipline of close reading while chastening the temptation to jump to hasty conclusions before reaching the end of the narrative. The gospels as narratives require good readers of the text to hold all sorts of ideas in tension until one has arrived at the end. Even then, the text may—and in fact will—require re-reading. A true and intelligible reading of the end will require more than an attentive reading of the last few chapters, it will require a mindful reading all the way back to the very beginning (Thanks, Kavin Rowe, for this discipline).

 2. A full and adequate depiction of one’s identity forces us to pay close attention to the appropriate technical and formal categories which describe identity. (Frei 134). 

This statement quoted from Frei concerns matters related to theories that we implicitly bring to the texts. Paying “close heed to the appropriate technical and formal categories with which to describe identity” means being aware of the ways in which we often think about identity and the notions of identity that we take for granted (Frei 134) . 

Formal categories are the sorts of ideas that may influence our reading when we ask questions such as “who is he?” and “what is he like?” The problem is not that these questions are the wrong questions. The problem is that answering these questions becomes more important than listening to the story. 

In such cases, “the question rather than the story becomes the governing context with which the person is identified” (Frei 135). The question becomes more determinative of the identity of the person than the story of which the question is asked. 

These Formal categories interfere with proper identity description by devolving into problematic question such as, “who is this person essentially?” This approach attempts to get at one’s identity apart from all other variables in one’s life, namely, apart from one’s relationships, ways of making a living, and where one comes from socially, ethnically and/or economically. “This procedure,” Frei states, “enables us to write something like the story behind the story so that we can, for example, explain the consistency of his inner disposition” (Frei 135). 

Already we are beginning to see the implications of MacIntyre’s work on narrative in helping us to better study the identity of Jesus. Essentially, Frei is suggesting that you cannot remove someone from the relationships, daily events, economic position, ethnic realities and so on and still expect to arrive at someone’s essential, pristine identity. To extract someone in this way is to remove them from the very context that gives their identity intelligibility. In the end, the attempt to deduce a “Jesus” from the stories which give his life intelligibility renders our reconstruction groundless and unintelligible. We are divorcing Jesus from the Gospels which paint the intelligible portrait of his life for us in the first place.

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