The so-called ‘quest for an historical Jesus‘ seeks to identify an ‘historical Jesus’ distinct from the ‘mythological Christ’ presented in the canonical Gospels.

This in not an endeavour I’m much convinced by, because it demands a hermeneutic of suspicion which is not consonant with the Catholic tradition of scriptural study. I’m not sure what Professor Levine makes of it. Perhaps I should ask her.

On the one hand, she does make allusions to the Jesus Seminar, which purports to identify the Lord’s authentic sayings in contrast to other sayings the evangelists put on his lips. That’s not dissimilar to the quest for an historical Jesus.

But on the other hand, she very clearly endorses a hermeneutic of suspicion not towards the scriptural texts, but towards the common interpretations we place on the text. She insists, in the best Jewish tradition, that the Scripture should speak for itself, and we need to at least be conscious when we embellish or read into the text.

So, for example, we should question why we refer to ‘the Parable of the Prodigal Son.’ Jesus doesn’t use this title. He introduces his story with: “There was a man who had two sons.” (Lk 15:11) So on our Lord’s own terms, maybe we’re better off referring to ‘the Parable of the Man With Two Sons.’

The choice of title is not trivial. It frames the parable and guides the reader (or listener) towards a certain interpretation. ‘The Prodigal Son’ encourages us to focus on the younger son. But Professor Levine argues that Jesus (and Luke) intend for us to focus on someone else. This is the third of three parables told in succession:

  • The first: a sheep-owner counts 99 sheep, realises he has lost one sheep, frantically seeks out the sheep, and celebrates its return.
  • The second: a woman counts her money, realises she has lost a coin, frantically seeks out the coin, and celebrates its discovery.
  • The third: a man has two sons. He loses one son. The son returns. He celebrates his return. But does he lose another son in the process?

If we heed the context of the parable, it makes even more sense to describe the story in the same terms Jesus introduces it. ‘The Parable of the Man With Two Sons.’

The same goes for Gospel narratives. A few weeks ago, I preached at Mass, and I wrote on this blog, about “the unnamed woman” who washed the Lord’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair before anointing them. ‘The unnamed woman’ is a generous label. Many commentators refer to ‘the sinful woman,’ or ‘the repentant woman.’ But Jesus doesn’t refer to her in any of these ways. When he speaks of her in his talk with Simon, he describes a woman who has loved much. (Lk 7:46)

So why didn’t I co-opt the Lord’s own words? Why do I settle for alternative titles and labels, which are actually foreign to the text? This is the hermeneutic of suspicion Prof Levine endorses. I think she’s right.