The cover article of this month's Christianity Today deals with the question of the historical Jesus. Can we know him and should we try? Scot McKnight takes the line that we can't and we shouldn't. McKnight's main concern seems to be that what historical Jesus studies end up doing is creating a fifth gospel, which selectively draws upon and trumps the four canonical ones. The strong danger is that the historian creates Jesus in their own image. They find precisely the pieces they like to be the authentic ones and the ones they don't like to be inauthentic. The canonical gospels get relegated to a role of less authority, as what really matters is what happened in history. McKnight, correctly sees that this is a major mistake, since the canonical gospels are, after all, the word of God and our scholarly reconstructions aren't.
Another issue that McKnight brings up that's very important follows Dale Allison in, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, which is an excellent book that all Christians who seriously study the Bible need to wrestle with, even if you disagree with him fundamentally (and I don't agree with him on several points). One thing that Allison shows in is that, using historical methods, it's really hard to penetrate the gospel traditions and know which specific stories are authentic. We can know the types of things that Jesus did and said, but we cannot know exactly what he did and said. It seems to me that there is something additional that is driving McKnight to say that we don't need historical Jesus studies anymore: Historical Jesus studies can't produce much of anything concrete. All we get are general impressions of who he was and what he did (e.g., Jesus performed miracles and had clashes with the Pharisees over a range of issues), with only a few exceptions like the crucifixion and resurrection.
I strongly agree with the points McKnight makes above; the question is, however, is his conclusion, that we should then abandon historical Jesus studies, warranted? N.T. Wright answers with a resounding no. I agree with him, but I want to clarify what the goals of the study of the historical Jesus should be. As Wright points out, historical studies can be rightly used in an attempt to understand the Jesus of the four canonical gospels better. We can analyze him within the framework of contemporary Jewish and early Christian thought. This is a very different type of historical Jesus study than that mentioned by McKnight (as Wright points out). Any historical study of Jesus must be done with the intention of working within the framework provided by 1st century Judaism and the early church, focused on the canonical gospels, trying to maximize our understanding of the four portraits provided there. In my opinion, any goals larger than that are unattainable and are potentially in tension with a high view of Scripture. For it is the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels that really matters for the Christian faith, as they contain the truth about Jesus that God wants us to know.
In closing I think that I should make one very important clarification. Above I state that we can't know much of anything with certainty, historically, about Jesus, and I say that this is ok, because I don't think that it undermines the truth of God's word. This does not imply that I believe the gospels to be fictitious and the creations of the early church. I do believe that they are firmly rooted in history, and I think that there are solid arguments to support that conclusion. The decision to trust the gospels, though, is still a move of faith. As Christians we need to approach the Scriptures with what Richard Hays terms, 'a hermeneutic of trust.' My points above are expressions of the conclusions arrived at by the usual methods of historical inquiry.