The Jesus of History: The 2nd & 3rd Quest (part 3)

The Period of No Quest

The first half of the twentieth century saw the rise of the dialectical and existential schools of theology represented by Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann. For these men the quest for the historical Jesus was well over. Barth ignored the New Testament criticism of Jesus, for what mattered to him was the Christ of Faith proclaimed by the Church. The historical Jesus was, besides being inaccessible to investigation, theologically irrelevant and distracting. Bultmann’s project of demythologization was characteristic of those who preceded him, but this time with surprisingly transparent naturalistic presuppositions.[1] For this project he developed the “form critical” method, to uncover the oral traditions that lay behind the earliest scriptural writing. To him the hope was to show that the gospel’s picture of Jesus was largely an invention of the early church. Of the historical Jesus he wrote “In my opinion, of the life of and personality of Jesus we can now know as good as nothing.”[2] It did not matter to him though, for what was important was the truth expressed by the Christ-myth in the kerygma.[3]

The Second Quest

A new quest began with the disciples of Bultmann who were not content with the mere fact of Jesus’ existence as a ground for the Christian faith. The launch of the quest was a lecture delivered in 1953 by Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998) to his fellow students in Göttingen. There he selected sayings of Jesus he believed to be assuredly authentic and asked the question what impression do we get of Jesus’ proclamation and character. Redaction-criticism was born: its aim to discover the theological and literary tendencies of the authors of scripture. Others soon joined him in the quest.[4]

James Robinson (1924-) distinguished between the Jesus of history and the historical Jesus. The first was the actual person who lived, and the second was the person who could be proved. The new quest, he says, was only concerned with the historical Jesus. Because of the presence of theology in the gospels, Robinson believed the burden of proof belonged to the one who would ascribe some attribute to Jesus, and not the one who denied it. Thus, if some feature of the historical Jesus could not be proved to be authentic, we should regard it as inauthentic. This presumption has been sharply criticized[5] but lies behind much of New Testament scholarship today. More will latter be said on Robinson’s presumption and its effect on the criteria for authenticity.

John Meier, professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, and author of the massive and ongoing series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, makes a distinction similar to Robinson. To him the Jesus of history or the historical Jesus is a modern abstraction and construct of what can be recovered and examined using ‘the scientific tools of modern historical research.’[6] He uses those terms interchangeably, and contrasts them with what he calls the real Jesus, which is “a reasonably complete record of [his] public words and deeds.”[7] On final analysis however, this is just another modern abstraction and construct: not a living, breathing person that is the subject of historical research, but a list of propositions. Craig notes a “third abstraction in the wings” [8] which Meier calls the total reality of Jesus. This is “everything he . . . ever thought, felt, experienced, did and said.”[9] He concludes that assigning Jesus’ proper name to lists of propositions only leads to confusion, and muses that “one cannot help but wonder what has happened to the actual person Jesus of Nazareth.”[10]

The Third Quest

The energy with which the second quest was taken up had deflated by the seventies. But not for long. Jesus scholarship in the eighties and nineties received a burst of new life. A convergence of factors is thought to be responsible for the growing confidence that the historical Jesus can be known. In part this is due to the application of new methodologies from other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and linguistics. It is also due in part to the inclusion of non-canonical literature as evidence,[11] a relaxing of the prohibition to mix theology and history,[12] and scholarly renderings of historical portraits of Jesus being made accessible to the general public. Beyond these generalizations, Martin notes, it is difficult to identify which schools of thought individual scholars belong, so diverse and popular is historical Jesus scholarship.[13]

Distinctive features of the Third Quest have been to place Jesus in a Jewish context, and the jettisoning of the gospels as mythology: an idea that waxed so large from Strauss through to Bultmann.[14] Since the release of Richard A. Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco- Roman Biography in 1992, somewhat of a consensus among scholars has emerged, such that the gospel’s literary genre is thought to be that of ancient biography. Many Jewish scholars have made their mark by interpreting Jesus as fitting within the first century Israeli cultural-milieu,[15] particularly as a teacher of ethics, an eschatological prophet, miracle worker and exorcist.[16]

Today, the quest for the Jesus of history is alive and well; a marked contrast to the miserable state of historical Jesus research at the opening of the twentieth century. From here we will leave our survey of the historical background and go on to examine some of the philosophical dilemmas that have surrounded this search.


[1] In his essay entitles “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” he argued that while scholars should not presuppose their results, there is nevertheless “one presupposition that cannot be dismissed” – that “history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects.” Bultmann explained that, “this closed-ness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers and that therefore there is no ‘miracle’ in this sense of the word.” R. Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” Existence and Faith: Short Writings of Rudolph Bultmann, ed. and trans. S. M. M. Ogden (New York: World, 1966), pp. 289-291. Cited in The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 42.

[2] Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1951), p. 11.

[3] Kerygma: The proclamation on the church.

[4] G. Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth (1960), J. Jeremias, Jesus’ Promise to the Nation (1958), The Proclaimation of Jesus (1971), E. Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1979).

[5] See Morna Hooker, “On Using the Wrong Tool,” Theology 75 (1972): 570-81.

[6] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 25.

[7] Ibid., 1:22.

[8] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 291.

[9] A Marginal Jew: vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, p. 21.

[10] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 292.

[11] Such as the Gospel of Thomas

[12] Martin describes it as a “a reluctant admission that theology and history are not mutually exclusive categories” The Elusive Messiah, p. 45

[13] The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 45, 209.

[14] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 294.

[15] Spearheaded by C. G. Montefiore (The Synoptic Gospels, 1909), Israel Abrams (Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1917, 1929) Joseph Klausner (Jesus of Nazereth: His life Times, and Teaching, 1922), and contemporary scholars such as Samuel Sandmel (We Jews and Jesus, 1965), Schalom Ben-Chorin (Bruder Jesus: Der Nazarener in Jüdischer Sicht, 1967), David Flusser (Jesus, 1969, Pinchas Lapide (Der Rabbi von Nazereth, 1974), Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew, 1973; The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 1993). Non-jewish scholars with similar projects are E. P. Sanders (Jews and Judaism, 1985), Birger Gerhardsson (Memory and Manuscript, 1961) and Rainer Riesner (Jesus als Lehrer, 1981).

[16] Leaving aside the question of the miracles supernatural character, it is now generally regarded as acceptable for the historical portrait of Jesus to include miracle working and exorcisms. See Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 295.

4 replies
  1. Anders Branderud
    Anders Branderud says:

    "Historical J….."!?!The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: <a href="http://www.netzarim.co.il” target=”_blank”>www.netzarim.co.il (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period… in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

  2. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    Does this series follow a course that you are doing at theology college, Stuart?

  3. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    No. This series is based upon an oversized draft of an assignment for one of my papers.

  4. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    No. This series is based upon an oversized draft of an assignment for one of my papers.

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