One of the perennial criticisms made against historical Jesus scholars is that they inevitably “create Jesus in their own image.” (I’ve seen the same criticism made of “liberals” in general.) There is some truth to this, I suppose. But it seems to me that every Christian does this, to some extent or another. Our image of Jesus is necessarily a reconstruction.1 This is no more true of scholars than it is of regular people sitting in the pew.
So I think this following observation by Walter Wink applies not only to scholars but to everyone else as well:
I am beginning to understand that no scholar can construct a picture of Jesus beyond the level of spiritual awareness that she or he has attained. No reconstruction outstrips its reconstructor. We cannot explain truths we have not yet understood. We cannot present insights that we have not yet fathomed. Our picture of Jesus reflects, not only Jesus, but the person portraying Jesus, and if we are spiritual infants or adolescents, there are whole realms of human reality that will simply escape us. In Revelation 1:19, the seer John is ordered, “Now write what you see.” The problem lies precisely there, in sight: we can only describe what we see, and if we haven’t seen it, we may miss the revelation entirely. It is my spiritual blindness that is the greatest impediment to my scholarship.
I’ll have more to say later about Wink, who has in recent months become one of my favourite writers. The source for this quotation is here.
1. John Dominic Crossan makes this point very nicely in the epilogue to The Historical Jesus, 424-426.