By far the most popular sentiment in historical Jesus studies is the idea that a biographer sees his own reflection at the bottom of a well. Albert Schweitzer illustrated this with a vengeance, but he’s actually not the one responsible for that metaphor — which John Dominic Crossan later associated with a Robert Frost poem:
“Always wrong to the light, so never seeing,
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths — and then I lost it.”
(For Once, then, Something)
It was George Tyrell, not Schweitzer, who used a similar metaphor soon after Schweitzer closed the curtains on the liberal quest for Jesus:
“The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” (Christianity at the Crossroads, p 49)
Schweitzer may as well have written that, but he didn’t. I didn’t know that until I read John Poirier’s essay in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, called “Seeing What is There in Spite of Ourselves” (Vol 4, No 2, pp 127-138), made freely available at the Sage Journals website. Poirier focuses on John Dominic Crossan’s misuse of the metaphor. According to Crossan:
“There is an oft-repeated and rather cheap gibe that historical Jesus researchers are simply looking down a deep well and seeing their own reflections from below. I call it cheap because those who use it against others seldom apply it to themselves. Second, it is almost impossible to imagine a reconstruction that could not be dismissed by the assertion of that gibe…What could anyone ever say that would not fall under that ban?” (The Birth of Christianity, p 41)
But I say that’s cheap postmodernism. Poirier describes the evolution of the well-gazing metaphor as follows:
“Tyrrell’s well gazer, as a figure for Harnack and company, sees nothing beyond the reflection of his own face. (That is, he sees nothing of the true historical Jesus but rather renders Jesus in his own image.) Frost’s well gazer, on the other hand, is more cautious in his claim but successful (albeit marginally) in his attempt to see ‘something more of the depths’. Yet Tyrrell and Frost share an important element that sets them apart from Crossan: they intend to limit the analogue to their well gazer to a particular person or group, while Crossan uses the well gazer to describe what he considers a universal condition.” (“Seeing What Is There In Spite of Ourselves”, p 128)
In other words, Frost held out some hope for seeing beyond one’s reflection, Tyrell not so much — though at least he saved his indictment for those who deserved it. Crossan thinks everyone is equally guilty, and as Poirier shows, this misrepresents Frost as portraying an unavoidable and universal condition. But perhaps this isn’t suprising, since Crossan is one of the worst offenders in writing autobiography. His portait of Jesus the egalitarian cynic tells plenty about himself and next-to-nothing about the historical prophet. In the above citation, Crossan tries bringing everyone under the ambit of his crime (which he sees as no crime at all), but as we should know by now, some biographers are more objective than others. E.P. Sanders is not a well-gazer, whatever his faults are. Complete objectivity is never possible, but it’s the goal to strive for as best we can.
I’m with Poirier: let’s not take Robert Frost’s name in vain. The well-gazing metaphor is a great one (and can certainly be applied to someone like Crossan) but should be used judiciously. Let’s be sure we have the right historians in our sights when we use it, and let’s recognize that it’s certainly possible to overcome our subjective inclinations in studying figures of the past.