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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.

The Jesus of History: The First Quest (Part 2)

Historical Background

Most historians credit Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) as the person to initiate the quest for the Historical Jesus.[1] He was a German historian who sought to re-write the story of Jesus’ life in a naturalistic framework rather than the prevalent super-naturalistic one. Reimarus, however, was not without predecessors to lay the groundwork.

Before the Quest

Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) argued against miracles to lay the foundations of a thoroughly naturalistic approach to the study of history. In his view, the historian bought to the study of history the certain knowledge that no miracles have ever occurred, rather than it being his/her task to discover if there has been a miracle. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), the French philosopher and critic was renowned for his skepticism of historical religious claims. English Deism was also making its mark through such people as Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), John Tolland (1670-1720), Anthony Collins (1676-1729) – who was a friend and disciple of John Locke, and others whose influence extended into France and Germany in particular.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish philosopher and historian, was composing his arguments against miracles about the same time as Reimarus. He conceded that miracles could occur, but argued that even if one had occurred we should never be entitled to conclude one had. As the Humean in-principle argument “has left an indelible impression on modern biblical scholarship”[2] we shall have to return to discuss further Hume’s arguments. For now it enough to note that as a result of his writing, it is believed that no one is entitled to conclude that a genuine miracle (including fulfilled prophesy) has occurred on the basis of the evidence alone.[3]

The milieu of the Enlightenment conspired to create a situation where a Reimarus was the natural consequence.

The First Quest

Reimarus’ “Fragments” were published posthumously by G. E. Lessing from 1774-8. In them he sharply distinguished between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.[4] For him the Jesus of history was a real person, who lived in Palestine as a teacher of rational, practical religion. This Jesus did not think of himself as divine, but may have thought of himself as a political messiah, teaching the coming of the kingdom of God and Jewish liberation from Roman rule. The Christ of faith on the other hand was an “intentional, deliberate fabrication”[5] created by the disciples who were motivated primarily by financial gain. His hypothesis was that the disciples stole the body of Jesus away from the tomb, invented stories of the resurrection and his imminent return, and attributed to Christ a theological significance Jesus never once claimed for himself. Much later they made Christ the Savior of the world.

The main thrust of this quest was to uncover whom Jesus supposedly really was, without the supernatural legendary accretion that supposedly developed after his death. Many different lives of Jesus were discovered in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, including; the eleven volume work of Karl F. Bahrdt’s Ausfuhrung des Plan und Zwecks Jesu (1784-1792), [6] the four volume work of Karl H. Venturini’s Naturliche Greshichte des grossen Propheten von Nazareth (1800-1802),[7] the two volume work of H. E. G. Paulus’s Das Leban Jesu (1828).[8] Each to varying degrees sought to explain away Jesus’ miracles with clever naturalistic explanations, such as he was a medicinal healer, Lazarus was actually in a coma, and the disciples mistakenly thought Jesus was walking on water when he was actually only walking on a sandbank in the shallows.

It was D. F. Strauss that ended this school of thought with his book Das Laben Jesus, kritishe bearbeitet (1835).[9] He dismissed the miraculous accounts as non-historical on the basis that they were inconsistent internally or else with other equally credible accounts, or contradicted by known natural laws. He went one step further however by rejecting the naturalistic explanations offered for them as well. For him, the shear number of miracles and the contrived explanations given to them, as well as the irreconcilable contradictions and unhamonizable chronologies, could best be explained with the idea that the gospels were never intended to be historical accounts. Rather they were sacred history that were meant to convey deep spiritual truths. The miracles were mythological, developed by Jewish messianic expectation and applied to Jesus for theological reasons. There was a virulent response to Strauss’s views in Germany at the time, but despite this the miracle-working Jesus of history was largely abandoned in academia.

Liberal theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century turned Jesus into merely a great moral teacher who was the model for humanity. Optimism that the man behind the myth could be found persisted until William Wrede published The Messianic Secret (1901). New Testament criticism had developed the two-source hypothesis, and by the turn of the century most scholars accepted the priority of Mark. Wrede succeeding in convincing others that even Mark, the earliest source where the historical Jesus was supposed to be found, was coloured with theological concerns. Thus, a biography of the historical Jesus was deemed futile.

Albert Schweitzer, the historiographer of this interesting period, says historians set out to find the historical Jesus believing they could bring him into our time as Teacher and Savior. He concluded, “He does not stay; he passes by our time and returns to his own.”[10] William Lane Craig writes,

“. . . apparently unaware of the personal element they all brought to their research, each writer reconstructed a historical Jesus after his own image. There was Strauss’s Hegelian Jesus, Renan’s sentimental Jesus,[11] Bauer’s non-existent Jesus,[12] Ritschl’s liberal Jesus, and so forth. To paraphrase George Tyrell, each one looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom.”[13]


[1] Raymond Martin, The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000) p. 29.

[2] Charles Sanders Peirce, Values in a Universe of Chance: Selected Writings of Charles S. Peirce. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958) p. 293. Cited by Timothy McGrew in “Miracles,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, forthcoming Spring 2010.

[3] And even if it could be, no one can establish if it was truly a result of super-natural agency. In many circles the miraculous is considered to be outside the domain of historical investigation.

[4] Reimarus: Framents, ed. C. H. Talbert, trans. R. S. Frazer (Philadelphia: Fortress Ress, 1970), See also Reimarus, “The Intention of Jesus and His Disciples” 1788

[5] Ibid., p. 151.

[6] An Explanation of the plans and aims of Jesus

[7] A Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth

[8] The life of Jesus as the Basis of a Purely Historical Account of Early Christianity

[9] The Life of Jesus Critically Examined

[10] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Strudy of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1957 [1906]), p. 26.

[11] E. Renan, The History of the Origins of Christianity (1863)

[12] Bruno Bauer, Criticism of the Gospels and the History of Their Origin (1850-1851)

[13] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003) p. 218 See also, George Tyrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: Longman, Green, 1910) p. 44

Metastasizing the Christ Myth

What is the relationship between ‘myth’ and the art of following Jesus? Ought we to treat the reports we have in the canonical gospels in the same way as we may treat the tales of Thor, Osiris or Hercules?

This question intrigued Clive Staples Lewis, a professor at the Oxford University and an expert in the elaborate myths of Scandinavia; the ancient tales of gods and men, Yggdrasil and Asgard. For much of his adulthood, Lewis was a spiritual skeptic, but eventually became captured by the claims of Christianity. He came to view the ‘good news’, centered on the person of Jesus and clearly rooted in the time and space of first century dusty Palestinian villages as a true fulfillment of the stories found in so many human cultures. He concluded that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

To many readers, Lewis is famous (and in some circles infamous)  for incorporating numerous aspects of the Christian story into works of fantasy for children; the Chronicles of Narnia. I read them often as a child and near-completely missed the religious references. Now, of course, these stories make more sense. It was, however, in the process of making sense of them that I was able to understand the brilliant Oxford scholar’s understandings of God’s story and, through his insight, make more sense of the world.

That, of course, is one of the benefits of art. Myths, poetry and art are able to speak to the core of a human person in a way which cold equations and data tables seldom do. Does this mean we should reject rationality and objectivity? I do not believe so. Most people would accept the legitimacy of using a metaphor to add depth to a description and most would acknowledge the need for art and poetry. Eric Metaxas has rather delightfully written:

“For me, the main purpose of art is transportation. I’m not talking about murals on the sides of buses. I’m talking about the singular ability of art to pull us, Alice-like, through the Looking Glass and into other realms.”

In considering Christianity and myth, it is worth explaining a well-known and slightly blurry distinction between myths and legends. Myths are cultural stories unconnected with history, while legends have some kernel of truth concerning distant events buried within them. Perhaps the figure of Jesus, so clearly located within our own world, should not be treated as myth but instead regarded as a legend? Could the details of his exploits simply be clever stories devised with dodgy motives and no more historical than the stories of, say, Maui or King Arthur? This is, perhaps surprisingly, not a difficult question to answer. In a world befuddled by and besotted with claims of subjectivity and religious inclusivism, we can forget that when we turn to the New Testament we are dealing with historical writings which make historical claims of a factual nature. Yes, many claims are difficult to substantiate from outside these pages, but some key ones are not. Was Luke, for instance, the careful historian that he claims (Luke 1:3) – when he talks about historical people, places and happenings? The answer, from various archaeologists and experts on the Roman world, appears to be yes. If Luke, for instance, can be trusted in the small things of geography and government, we are not justified in simply dismissing his claims concerning God and His specific actions in history.

There are of course other objections. Some claim that the details of Jesus’ life sketched in the gospels are clearly derived from earlier pagan sources; a couple of Egyptian gods are prominent, as is Buddhism and other eastern religions. It is argued that the resurrection and accompanying details can be derived from the Mystery Cults widespread in the first century of the common era. There is a quite a bit of scholarship on the topic; for ease of access, there is a good digest of the different arguments on this page at Tekton. To summarise: many of the claims are bogus; a few are most likely a result of Christian influence on other religions; the primary sources for the more-impressive claims are not recorded and there is often a reliance on superficial appearances of etymological similarity without any reason for supposing a real causal link between certain names or themes.

If we are to treat the gospels not as myth or legend but as rooted in history, we should ask how the gospels compare in the essentials with other historical works of the time? Even a cursory look into Classical Studies will show that the records of great leaders such as Alexander the Great are beset by many problems resulting from widely differing sources – yet they are still deemed essentially historical. The broad lines of Jesus’ life have attestation from numerous accounts including many secular references. In the Gospel and other New Testament records we have an embarrassment of riches[1] compared to any comparable secular writings. For the majority of ancient historical works there is a massive gap between the earliest manuscript copies we have available and the original written text. The NT radically breaks this pattern with numerous fragments and even whole manuscript-books from the second and third centuries AD. The once-popular claim that various items in the canon were written in the late second century have fallen foul of papyriological and other evidence. The gospels were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses – period.

If we return to Lewis’ claim: how could a man, a mere human being, be the fulfillment of the inherently nonsensical genre of myth? Skeptics may even find the question nonsensical. But laying the issue of begging the naturalistic question aside, this could only be the case, it seems to me, if this man was in fact something more than legend or myth (empiricists take note: this is what the evidence suggests). In fact, the classical Christian defence, which still has worth today, has from the beginning been eager to refute the claim that the gospel has any association with fable, as Peter wrote: “For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.” (2 Peter 1:16)

If we can admit where the evidence leads, we will see that the story of Jesus is not too good to be true. And neither is it too true to be any good. Novelist Dorothy Sayers reminds us of the awesome dramatic reality of this story:

“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like other men He had made, and the men He made killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), p. 15).

It is good news: the Creator God is not indifferent to the human condition and has entered into the storybook of history. And he waits, ready to enter into the story of our own lives.

Notes

1. “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material… Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 51, 126.