Joseph O’Hanlon

Historical Jesus – The impossible quest.

(A Review by Christopher Laurence)

Two people must have been especially delighted with the third lecture of the Lincoln Theological Society: its founders, Wendy Lloyd and the Chancellor, who had the satisfaction of seeing the largest attendance so far – well over 100 – for the Revd Joseph O’Hanlon’s lecture on “The Historical Jesus”. He wasted no time on preliminary explanations, but pitched straight into his argument that the quest for a purely “historical Jesus” is bound to fail. There is a Jesus of history but he can only be discerned in the Christ of faith. The man Jesus cannot be filleted from the faith that has enshrined his story from the very beginning. O’Hanlon observed that every attempt to create an “independent” portrait of Jesus has come up with a strange likeness to the author. (An account of the attempts by liberal protestantism suggested that, “Peering down the well of history in search of ‘the real Jesus’ they see the reflected back to them the face of a liberal protestant”).

The speaker examined a recent book: “Jesus of Nazareth” by Maurice Casey who describes himself as an “independent” historian. Though this author has contributed greatly to our understanding of Jesus as an Aramaic-speaking Jew, essentially, O’Hanlon argues, the book is Christology, not history and, far from being independent, the author is heavily dependent on the ideas of the Enlightenment. The speaker compared this “independent” historian with the latest work of Pope Benedict on the same subject, showing how here history has been bent to fit the needs of a Roman Catholic theology. “ So here we have an independent historian who is less than independent, and a papal theologian who is less than infallible”.

O’Hanlon’s lecture was peppered with witty one-liners which seasoned the rather heavy philosophical argument . We came away more aware that the quest for the historical Jesus is contemporary , ongoing and necessary because ours is a historical religion; but that it is possible to “know Jesus” without reading all the latest books. Many excellent examples, incidentally, were on display outside the lecture hall, by courtesy of the Christian Bookshop in Lincoln’s Market Place. Worth a visit.

Christopher Lunnon