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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

The Jesus of History: An Introduction (Part 1)

An Introduction

The scandal of Christianity is that it is a religion grounded in historical events, which if they can be demonstrated to be false, would empty it of meaning and all power. Chief among those historical events is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle Paul declares, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”[1] Michael Green was right when he wrote, “Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards.”[2] If Christians are to maintain that faith is reasonable, it will be crucial to establish that not only the events of history in general can be known, but also specific events of the past are true.

Most people when they come to Christ do not do historical research or consider things like the problem of historical knowledge. Rather, they come to know the great truths of the gospel, such as Christ’s atoning life and death, and his resurrection from the dead on the basis of their experience of the Spirit of God. This experience I take as veridical, and a fully legitimate grounding of knowledge.[3] So although the Christian is warranted in believing what happened 2000 years ago without studying history or philosophy, the following entries in this series will concern themselves with exactly that. I will be summarizing the search for the historical Jesus, then assess some of the search’s surrounding dilemmas. It will not be a thorough treatment. Whole books have been written, and still could be, on any one of these issues. I seek only to summarize, explain and briefly offer what refutation can be given. Included will be an assessment of Historical Relativism, the Problem of Miracles, imposing Methodological Naturalism in the study of history, and three methods for establishing historical descriptions.

I begin this journey with a goal in mind: to establish the description of the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel narratives as truly historical. The pen of John Stuart Mill eloquently expresses the same conviction.

“It is of no use to say that Christ as exhibited in the gospels is not historical . . . Who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee, still less the early Christian writers.”[4]


[1] 1 Cor 15:17 (NASB)

[2] Michael Green, Runaway World (London: Inter-Varsity, 1968), p. 2.

[3] Philosophers call these beliefs properly basic. They need not have arguments to support them, for they are bedrock beliefs that are wholly sensible in and of themselves, from which we argue to other things.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Essays on Nature, the Utility of Religion and Theism (London: Longmans, 1874).