More passion informs your letter to my English brother and colleague than we are accustomed from your scholarly pen. Your topic is, after all, a religious theme, the passion of our Lord, and you are not, after all, a professional theologian. Cobbler, that ancient painter might say, stick to your last; or professor, mount your tame literary hobby horse. As for me, I do not thus censure you. I myself make no clear distinction between religion and poesy. You are quite right to stress that both depend on documents. Documentation is the primary concern for the student of any civilized institution--or as your Mr. Popper might say, of World III.
By the same token, any bright line between history and poetry is an unwarranted presumption. History is about the past, but it is in the present--only in God's eyes can all things be present. And how comes the past to us mortals, except as a narrative? A prudent listener or reader knows that history tells us first of all about some historian or other, about his passion and prejudice, and then only secondarily about the characters in his tale, their circumstances, and their condition. So you are quite right to ask just who it is telling about Jesus, where, and when. Our point of view as listeners becomes, of necessity, the point of view of that teller of tales. He, in turn, has his poetic duty to cozen us into seeing through the eyes of the characters in his story.
"The historical Jesus" (it is not my term, but I must suppose it means some non-deity) could see the world only the way other men do, namely prospectively. We know something of the past and we look toward the future. --Well, not quite: a "historical Jesus" is at the same time a character created by the historians, and they write retrospectively, they know many events which transpired in Jesus's future. They regard the Roman Empire, for example, and seek causes for its fate in what a "historical" Jesus perceived in his unpredictable future. History is, in short, an etiological myth. In offering a cause (aitia) for the demise of oppressive Romans, the historian sighs with Emperor Julian: vicisti, Galilaee, "thou hast conquered, o man of Galilee."
I hope I am making myself clear. By "etiological myth," I mean a story, set in the past, which makes some present practice or circumstance plausible. When these South Germans of mine call our Christmas tree and the presents under it "the Christ Child," why, are they not providing a proper Christian explanation for their old heathen practice? Take the story of Jephtha's daughter in the Book of Judges. Some theologians say it was written to account for a pre-existing ritual of maidens in Gilead, at a certain time each year "to go down upon the mountains and bewail their virginity," an ancient rite in honor of some long forgotten goddess. I, as Christian pastor, must recognize that the Gospels were written to explain, in retrospect, the deity of Jesus. Etiology, the quest for a cause, is of course an entirely rational undertaking, and history is, after all, the hobbyhorse of your faithful
Johann Gottfried Herder
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