Every couple of years, I get asked to talk about the historical Jesus. While this falls toward the ragged fringes of my expertise, in most communities where I have lived, there simply aren't very many historians who think about the pre-modern Mediterranean. Consequently, for some folks, the 5th century AD (or so) looks about a good as 1st century BC/AD. Today, I am talking in the Joint Campus Ministry Association's Theology for Lunch series. Apparently, there will a free lunch (soup!!) on offer.
I'll have 20 minutes to present something, and after that there will be about 20 minutes for conversation. Since I don't know the group, I am going to try to present a fairly broad perspective on the topic hoping that the discussion will lead to specific areas of interest to the group. The basic argument that I'll make is that the "historical" Jesus has meant different things to different people through time. In fact, the historical Jesus could as easily mean the view of Jesus using any number of historical methods and epistemological perspectives as the view of Jesus as a unified "historical" artifact with well-defined features derived from some kind of "scientific" study. This will lead me to focus, then, on the key role of context -- both ancient and modern -- in understanding how various historical (and other interpretive) regimes generated a Jesus who was meaningful to specific groups, situations, and individuals, but nevertheless sufficiently coherent to be enduring and recognizable.
To reinforce this somewhat, I'll spend the second 10 minutes of the talk preparing a (very) basic sketch of the cultural, political, and religious life Roman Mediterranean in order to provide at least one perspective on the context for the New Testament texts. But I will emphasize that simply placing Jesus in his ancient context does not necessarily produce a more "historically accurate" depiction of Jesus "the man". In fact, placing Jesus in an ancient context runs the risk of impoverishing the great diversity and brilliance of the Christian traditions which created meaningful images of Jesus throughout the ages. Just as the ancient writers created a Jesus that was meaningful in their context, subsequent generations have contributed their own perspectives on the founder of Christianity.
If post-modern approaches to the past have taught us anything, it is to celebrate the plurality of meaning in the historical record. In the context of the historical Jesus, this opens the door to finding significance in a aspects of the historical figure of Jesus that might have been obscured by accretions of time, scholarly or popular neglect, or the overwhelming pressure of contemporary approaches and concerns. In fact, Christians often observe that Jesus is a figure who transcends time and context. By looking at Jesus historically -- that is through the eyes of history as a dynamic discipline as well as through time -- we have the chance to recognize Jesus in ways that destabilize our expectations, challenge our assumptions, and renews faith.
But I am an amateur. For a professional, check out Phil Harland's awesome blog: Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. It's the Bentley of Ancient Christianity Blogs with a spec-ta-cu-lar series of podcasts on The Historical Jesus in Context.