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More about the theory

From “A New Introduction to the Continuum Approach”:

1. What is the ‘Continuum Approach’

For some considerable time, the phrase ‘Jesus within Judaism’ has both epitomized and determined the basic starting and vantage point of all historical Jesus research: Jesus should be studied and understood as within Judaism, not in contrast with it.[1] Jesus was a Jew, and any valid scholarly portrait of him should manifest him plausibly as a Jewish inhabitant of first-century CE Palestine. Therefore, any serious historical account of Jesus should also properly account for the relationship between Jesus and Judaism.

The phrase ‘Jesus within Judaism’ has served well. In all its succinctness – forming a slogan, sometimes almost a mantra – it has proposed a constructive approach to Jesus as a historical phenomenon, worked flexibly enough, yet also had clear enough implications as to what belongs and what does not belong. For a number of reasons, however, I am now proposing that it be abandoned and replaced by another, namely by ‘Jesus in continuum’, standing for the continuum approach or perspective to the historical Jesus. What does ‘continuum’ mean in this connection?

First, ‘continuum’ encompasses a period in history stretching from the Judaism relevant to Jesus’ life and time to the Christianity that bears marks of Jesuanic influence and reception (Wirkungsgeschichte) – in short, a perspective from early Judaism to early Christianity.[2] As denoting the specific approach discussed here, ‘continuum’ always means viewing Jesus in the perspective of this whole period. It is of course possible to regard Jesus only in relation to, on the one hand, early Judaism or, on the other, early Christianity. The whole continuum can be split into two dimensions, early Judaism–Jesus and Jesus–early Christianity, which can be taken and studied one at the time. The study of one dimension must, however, always be coupled with that of the other so that the full continuum early Judaism–Jesus–early Christianity emerges. In this way, the continuum approach maintains that a phenomenon is seriously determinable only in the light of both its anterior and posterior history, antecedents and consequences, context and ‘post context’.

Secondly, ‘continuum’ should not be understood as dealing with continuity alone. On the contrary, both continuity and discontinuity are involved as modes of historical transition. On various issues Jesus may have adhered to or departed from early Judaism, and again, early Christianity may have adhered to or departed from the Jesuanic proclamation. In each case, however, scholarship is obliged to account for the elements of both continuity and discontinuity. The continuum approach thus challenges scholars to explain ‘why,’ and besides each dimension, whether the early Judaism–Jesus or the Jesus–early Christianity relationship, this also applies to both the continuity and discontinuity modes of transition. In this way, the continuum approach allows for the width and depth embedded in the interaction and interdependences of the various phenomena of history.

Thirdly, there are thus two dimensions of continuum that need to be taken into account and accounted for. These two dimensions, however, entail three different tasks: we need to unearth a Jesus plausible within his context in early Judaism (task a), and we need to unearth a Jesus plausible with respect to his ‘post context’ in early Christianity (task b). But most importantly, we finally need to unearth only one Jesus (task c). The one and the same Jesus which we deem understandable and plausible in relation to early Judaism should also be found understandable and plausible in relation to early Christianity. That is, we, in a way, need to be on our guard and make it so that those ‘Jesuses’ we obtain by observing the two dimensions also match with each other.[3] Having accomplished this, we have achieved a continuum perspective to Jesus. In this way, the continuum approach should take its place as the basic starting and vantage point to studying Jesus as a historical phenomenon.

‘Jesus in continuum’ thus means more than ‘Jesus within Judaism’. We are moving from ‘within Judaism’ (alone) to ‘in continuum’ (from early Judaism to early Christianity) so adding to the scholarly purview something very essential: any serious historical account of Jesus should also properly account for the relationship between Jesus and early Christianity. As a consequence, the continuum approach means that extra attention is paid to nascent Christianity.[4] In a continuum perspective to the historical Jesus, early Christianity and its writings do much more than merely provide the material for ascertaining historically reliable information about Jesus. Like early Judaism, early Christianity, too, is now considered on its own terms. So even the relation between Jesus and Christianity is paid a conscious and systematic attention.

Early Christian views about Jesus or about anything at all cannot naturally have worked backwards and exercised an effect on Jesus during his lifetime (which is quite different from how we depict the effect of the Jewish context on Jesus)[5]. However, interpretations of Jesus put forward in scholarly discussion are endlessly adjustable; the linearity of events does not prevent scholars from acknowledging new data and insights gained from observing Jesus’ Wirkungsgeschichte. In other words, it is historical reconstruction we are dealing with here, and, for that reconstruction, the matching of the contextually plausible picture of Jesus to the Jesuanic reception history in early Christianity,[6] the ‘post context’, is both feasible and very much requisite.

The continuum approach thus seeks an understanding of the historical Jesus by means of studying him in relation to both his antecedents and consequences, i.e., his early Jewish context and early Christian ‘post context’. Jesus is placed in that totality, conceived as one continuum, by depicting him so that those relations, involving both continuity and discontinuity, can be plausibly accounted for.

2. Relation to Common Historical Thinking

[1] See, for example, G. Theissen and A. Merz, Der historische Jesus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996), p. 29; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), pp. 119–20; T. Holmén, ‘The Jewishness of Jesus in the “Third Quest”’, in M. Labahn and A. Schmidt (eds.), Jesus, Mark and Q. The Teaching of Jesus and Its Earliest Records (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp. 143–62. Cf. also the titles of, for instance, J. H. Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism. New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries (New York: Doubleday, 1988); C. A. Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries. Comparative Studies (Leiden: Brill, 1995); B. Chilton, ‘Jesus within Judaism’, in B. Chilton and C. A. Evans (eds.), Jesus in Context. Temple, Purity, and Restoration (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 179–201.

[2] For an analysis and itemization of these generalizing concepts, see section 4.1. in my other essay in the present volume.

[3] By calling ‘matching the Jesuses’ a third task I thus wish to emphasize its importance.

[4] That is, compared to what is usually done in scholarship today.

[5] The contemporary world naturally formed an immediate and immanent frame of references for Jesus.

[6] That is, task c. Cf. above.