The Quest for the Historical (Mormon) Jesus

In the last three centuries of Jesus research, an important and powerful idea emerged that helped to frame the goals and limitations of the debate: the Jesus of “history” and the Christ of “faith” were not, and need not be, the same thing. The theological claims made about Jesus, like the idea that he atoned for the sins of the world, are simply outside the scope of historical analysis. Historical claims are bound by the rules of modern historiography, while theological claims operate by different rules altogether. The inevitable tension between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith has been addressed by a number of subtle thinkers, though the issue remains controversial. I am interested in a distinctive problem for Mormons who wish to engage in historical Jesus research. The problem fixes itself on three nodes. First, Mormonism attests to additional sources about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Second, if historically reliable, these sources make it impossible to separate out the claims of faith from the claims of history. Third, these sources do not confirm the character of an eschatological Jesus that has emerged from historical studies. The additional sources about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection include the Book of Mormon, as well as some revelations of Joseph Smith and others. In most cases, these sources contain depictions of Jesus that represent an amalgamation of the different perspectives of the canonical gospels and Christian theology.  The Book of Mormon appears to be a harmonization of these different traditions about Jesus. Second, if historically reliable, these additional sources make claims about Jesus that break the neat separation between historical and theological approaches. For instance, the Book of Mormon claims that Jesus appeared on the American continent after his resurrection appearances (the gospels themselves do not agree on these). It is impossible to resolve the problem of the resurrection appearance of the Book of Mormon in historical analysis in the way that scholars of the historical Jesus have done for biblical resurrection appearances. The knowledge of Nephites about Jesus does not follow the rules of historiography, not even the rules of historiography for religious phenomena. Third, the image of Jesus that appears in these texts, who is giving a Sermon on the Mount, or thinking about the atonement, or talking about eschatology in the distant future, among other things, resembles very little any of the major camps’ of historical Jesus scholars. Less generously, even accounting for the dependence of the Jesus in Mormon sources on the Bible, the teachings and actions of the Mormon Jesus diverge from the gospels in a number of important ways. While the Jesus in Mormon sources remains dependent on a harmonization of the gospels, such a harmonization is idiosyncratic and develops those traditions in ways that depart from the biblical sources. In light of these issues, it seems that the quest for a historical Mormon Jesus is, strictly speaking, impossible. The historical sources of the Mormon Jesus are too dependent on claims that lie outside of the rules of historiography. Only one option remains for the Mormon who wishes to engage in historical Jesus research: they may treat the Mormon sources about Jesus as products of the environment in which they first appear. This historiographical claim is not a theological claim, it is simply following the rules of historiographical analysis. The distinctive problem in the question for the Mormon historical Jesus is not then a historiographical one, it remains theological. How does one reconcile the Jesus of history with the Christ of [Mormon] faith? The relationship between Mormon theology and the historiography of ancient scripture remains an unanswered question for me.

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