We can distinguish between nine different and irreconcilable approaches to the subject of Christian origins, characterized by the amount of intrinsic weight given to the two main sources of ideas that could guide and limit the multiplication of hypotheses: (1) statements of tradition and (2) critical reasoning.
|Minimal Regard for Tradition
|Moderate Regard for Tradition
|Maximal Regard for Tradition
|Minimal Regard for Critical Reasoning
|Moderate Regard for Critical Reasoning
|Theories about no-HJ
|Theories about the HJ
|Maximal Regard for Critical Reasoning
|Bare Historicity of Jesus
To be clear, hypotheses derived from critical reasoning could include information derived from reading Christian sources and the tradition therein. It is privileging these sources that characterizes the regard for tradition. However, someone could also argue that “minimal regard” actually means antipathy, and I have left some room for that interpretation in the table above and in the discussion below.
Largely depending on what they find important or where they want their studies to end up, different people take different approaches to the importance of critical reasoning and of tradition. This is an element of human subjectivity that arises especially from the contemporary importance attached to the investigation and the result.
It is my contention that a low-to-moderate view of tradition combined with a moderate-to-high view of critical reasoning is largely the area of attraction for serious secular academics, but as a whole this subject includes other, less academic approaches.
Even if we limit ourselves to the square of secular academics – theories about no-HJ, theories about the HJ, minimalist history, and bare historicity – only the approach of maximal regard for critical reasoning combined with indifference to the claims of tradition offers the glimmer of hope that we might be able to hammer out a consensus document of what we know and what cannot be said. But who can draw the line as to which people are introducing special respect or disrespect for tradition and which people have instead achieved a zen-like state of indifference to such things? (The evidence should be able to speak for itself, but, in practice, people need to evaluate the evidence and speak for it.)
As soon as anybody starts privileging ideas or disposing of them simply because they are found in tradition, there is a multiplication of views because people disagree about what parts of tradition to give extra respect (or to disparage) and because there is no reasonable way to arbitrate what is inherently not based on reason. Once we further loosen up the requirement of holding a high view of the importance of critical reasoning as the basis of conclusions and allow ambiguous evidence to be considered, mutually exclusive hypotheses abound (Historical Jesus Theories).
However, there are not enough people working in the field of the minimalist history of Christian origins to allow them ever to claim enough adherents to represent a consensus. There is something that is deeply unsatisfying (at least, at this time and for most people interested in Christian origins) to the idea that we could learn several things about Christian origins but that “the stuff that matters” about whether Jesus existed and who he was doesn’t fall into that category.
Because we need to know more than we can actually know, there is not now (and may never be) a consensus about Christian origins.