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Historical Jesus

Should Christians engage in the so-called, ‘Quest for the historical Jesus’?

For the purposes of this essay I am defining ‘Christian’ as ‘Evangelical Christian’. That is, someone with a high view of scripture and holding to credal beliefs, such as, the incarnation and resurrection. The intention is to provide a brief history of the quest from the Enlightenment period through to the modern day, reflecting whether Christians would answer yes or no to this question, at various points. Then to look at more recent scholarly examples, some of which produce a Jesus consistent with evangelical theology, some of which don’t.

Today the most common way to describe this ‘historical quest for Jesus’ is to refer to the ‘old’ or first quest, followed by a ‘no quest’ period, a ‘new’ or ‘second’ quest period and most recently a ‘third’ quest period.

Prior to the Enlightenment Period there was no study of Jesus as a historical figure in the way we would understand that history is done today. Faith and reason were a matter of revelation from God. This did not mean that the various differences between the four gospels were not noticed, and various attempts were made at harmonising the four gospels. For example, in the second century, a Mesopotamian Christian called Tatian produced a continuous narrative from the four gospels called the Diatessaron. John Calvin, unable to resolve the conundrum that some gospel stories produced, wrote up the gospel stories side by side in parallel columns.

During the Enlightenment studies began to be done from a more sceptical viewpoint instead of solely in the context of faith, attempting to use ’rational’ methods. This, ‘old quest’ period was characterised by the writing of biographies of Jesus. According to Powell all these biographies had three common elements. Firstly, there would be a grand scheme or hypothesis, for example, Jesus was a social reformer, then everything would be interpreted in accordance with the scheme. Secondly, any gospel material that did not accord with the scheme would be excluded and thirdly there would be reflections about Jesus not derived from the gospels to fill in biblical gaps produced from the authors own projections concerning Jesus’s motivations, goals or understandings. The first study of this type was by Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) published shortly after his death. In summary it presented Jesus as a religious zealot, who was executed for insurrection, following which his disciples invented the message of Christianity, after stealing the body of Jesus. This view was overwhelmingly rejected by scholars yet raised key questions about irreconcilable different gospel texts, such as, the resurrection narratives and suggesting that it was ‘both methodologically possible and theologically necessary to discover the historical Jesus and his message’ The nineteenth century saw the publication of many, ’lives of Jesus’, some of which were very popular. Two of the more serious critical works were by David Frederich Strauss published in 1835-36 and William Wrede in 1901. In The life of Jesus Critically Examined, Strauss rejected two current views of the time, rationalistic explanations of the gospel on the one hand and on the other what he called, ‘supernaturalism’, the conservative and early church view. Instead Strauss put forward a ‘mythic’ view, where very little of what Jesus said or did actually took place. The value of Jesus was not in the history of the gospels but in the value the church placed in him. By the nineteenth century it seemed that the answer to, ‘should Christians engage in a search for the historical Jesus?’, was a resounding, ‘yes’ from Christians and scholars of nearly all flavours and traditions. All this changed at the turn of the century, however, and became almost as an emphatic, ‘no’, not just for, ‘Christians’ but for scholars also. In The Messianic Secret Wrede cast doubt on the historical authenticity of The Gospel of Mark. Bock states that what makes this work significant is that up until that point most scholars had accepted Mark as the earliest and most historically credible gospel. And that ‘if Mark could not help us find the historical Jesus, then maybe the historical figure was lost in the theological overlay of the gospels’. The first quest was effectively put to an end with the publication of The quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of it’s Progress From Reimarus to Wrede (1906) by Albert Schweitzer and The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (1896) by Martin Kahler. Schweitzer pointed out that the many lives of Jesus published to date said more about the author’s views than reconstructing an authentic historical picture of Jesus . Kahler argued that it was impossible to distinguish the Christ of Faith from the Christ of History, believing that the Christ now worshiped and preached was the one who had influenced history and therefore the only Jesus scholars should be interested in studying and that faith is not dependant on historical research. The conclusions of Wrede and Sweitzer were very influential on such theologians as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann and until 1953 there was a dearth of historical Jesus enquiry , the so called, ‘no quest’ period.

In 1953 one of Bultman’s students Ernst Kasemann gave a famous lecture called, ‘The Problem of the historical Jesus’ claiming that Bultmann’s sceptism about what could be known about the historical Jesus had been too extreme. This inaugurated the ‘new’ or ‘second’ quest with a number of scholars producing work through to the early seventies. The first of these was by a former student of Bultmann, Gunther Bornkamm, called Jesus of Nazareth . Along with a number of scholars to follow, Bornkamm remained somewhat pessimistic about uncovering the historical Jesus, stating that, ‘No one is any longer in a position to write a life of Jesus’. Going on to say, however, that just because previous attempts have failed, this should not stop us from making a fresh attempt. Beilby and Eddy list the new developments that characterised this new or second quest. First was the rise of redaction criticism, which operated under the conviction that, ‘the authors of the gospels did not function as mere collectors of earlier tradition, but rather allowed their literary and theological tendencies to shape the gospel texts.’ Secondly the so called ‘Q document’ took on a new importance, being seen as a full blown gospel. Thirdly, various methods were more seriously assessed and used, such as the principle of ‘double dissimilarity’. This was the idea that a saying/action of Jesus was only authentic if it could be shown to be significantly different in emphasis to both ancient Judaism and the early church . The new quest is seen to have come to a slow stop around the beginning of the 1970’s for a number of reasons, such as, meagre results, and a continued Bultmann like pessimism. Perhaps most importantly, this quest, somewhat like the old quest, fell foul to reflecting into it’s work the prevailing philosophy of it’s time, namely existentialism. And so once again, though perhaps not quite so emphatically, Christians could be well justified in saying, ‘no’ or ‘no point’ to being engaged in an historical quest for Jesus.

In the early 1980’s a ‘third quest’ began, the term first being coined by N.T. Wright in a 1982 article. Whilst Wright used the term to describe a new methodological direction, most scholars now use the term in a chronological fashion which is what I will do here. Witherington lists the reasons for this third quest happening as, the discovery of some new archaeological and manuscript data, some new methodological refinements and some new enthusiasm that historical research need not lead to a dead end. Other landmarks that denote the beginning of this ‘third quest’ are the launch of the Jesus Seminar and the publication of E P Sander’s Jesus and Judaism in 1985 . The Jesus Seminar, comprised a group of scholars attempting to work together applying strict method, getting together regularly to vote on the authenticity of the sayings and actions of Jesus. Despite being criticised on a number of fronts, such as, its over use of the dissimilarity criterion which tended to produce a very non-Jewish Jesus who was merely a non-eschatological sage, Gowler believed it to have, ‘made a significant contribution to scholarly and public dialogues.’ Sanders produced a similar list to the Jesus Seminar of things we can ‘know’ about Jesus, starting with the ‘virtually certain’ and gradually moving to the ‘incredible’ Sanders conclusions were different to those of the Jesus Seminar, for example, Jesus was apocalyptic and his followers developed their idea of who Jesus was adding, ‘Lord’ to ‘Messiah, they continued to expect an eschatological miracle to bring in a new kingdom, but this was likely to be in heaven. Certainly one member of the Jesus Seminar who has continued to make significant contributions to the historical Jesus debate is J D Crossan.

J D Crossan paints a picture of Jesus largely as a ‘Wisdom Sage’ or more precisely ‘Peasant Cynic Sage’ who was never the less a Jew, who preached a radical message that the Kingdom of God was present and open to everyone, as demonstrated by Jesus sharing meals and healing the sick. Jesus’s message was so revolutionary that it led to his execution by the Romans. Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, instead Crossan postulates that that those who experienced Jesus’s divine power in his lifetime continued to do so in ways not confined by time or place . Although Crossan’s work is characterised by a serious attempt at historical method, he is criticised for his apparent willingness to abandon his own strict historical method when it does not suit. For example, Luke Timothy Johnson points this out in relation to Crossan’s portrayal of an anti-imperial Jesus and Gowler points out Crossan ignores multiply-attested apocalyptic elements from his first (earliest) strata of data, as well as other multiply attested items that would fit with a more apocalyptic portrait of Jesus

Another popular portrait of Jesus to come out of recent historical study of the life of Jesus is, Jesus as a ‘Prophet of Social Change’. Theissen and Merz conclude their work on the historical Jesus with a tentative, ‘Short Life of Jesus’. They postulate that, Jesus, ‘put the commandment to love God and neighbour at the centre of his ethic, but he radicalised it so that it became an obligation even to love enemies, strangers and the religious outcasts’ . Jesus sought to replace the temple, which could no longer bring about salvation, with the simple meal via the symbolic action of the last supper . This led to the founding of a cult, which continued after Jesus death, when the disciples, after various Jesus, ‘appearances’, became convinced he was alive. For Theissen and Merz, Christianity is a social and ethical gospel concerned with the world and society, where, ‘Historically and theologically, Jesus belongs to Judaism’.

So far we might class together this group of third questers as revisionist scholars in that they radically, ‘reduce’, the Jesus of those with a high view of scripture. However, even these scholars all tend to agree that Jesus was born, that he was baptised by John the Baptist , that the temple incident (turning over of the tables, etc) occurred, that Jesus died and that there were actions and sayings around, ‘the Kingdom of God’. Christians might also be encouraged by the fleshing out that such study can give to their own beliefs. For example, the wedding at Cana. Historical information that suggests it was a matter of honour to give a marriage party lasting several days and that should the couple run out of wine they would be forced to borrow from a money lender at extortionate rates, can help create a narrative of Jesus ushering in a new, ‘Kingdom of God’, with his first miracle. On the other hand, Christians with a high view of scripture might well be want to turn away from such historical enquiry if it does not include the bodily resurrection of Jesus and other key beliefs. Such Christians, however, can be encouraged that the Jesus they know from scripture and experience, can also be authenticated in history with greater optimism. This arises from a number of developments and we can look briefly here at two scholars and their work , namely N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham

N. T. Wright has done a great deal of work on the historical Jesus and we can focus here on one or two aspects including the resurrection. For Wright, in historical terms, Jesus was unique, being neither a, ‘quietist, nor a compromiser, nor a zealot’ but, a proclaimer of the’ Kingdom of God at hand’. Further, Jesus reconstitutes the full return from exile for Israel and the whole world, around himself. Wright introduces the idea that Jesus actions were ‘symbolic’. Firstly, that Jewish symbols such, as food, the Sabbath and the temple had been corrupted and that Jesus, was announcing a new agenda, a kingdom, whereby what these symbols represented, eg forgiveness of sins, would now come to completion through his ministry, death and resurrection. Secondly a whole new set of symbols of the Kingdom gave the same message, not from the angle of judgement, but of hope. So the symbols of land and healing point to the restoration of Israel, as do a new concept of family, ie a renewed community . As for the resurrection Wright argues that bodily resurrection was part of Jewish belief but that early Christianity modified this belief in seven important ways , that it is historically plausible that the Easter narratives are based on very early oral tradition and that the disciples encountered Jesus in bodily form, albeit, this bodily form was different. In summary, the bodily resurrection of Jesus as, ‘Lord’, (as oppose to some earthly authority), a belief for which people were willing to die, is central to answering the fascinating question of why the early church exploded into growth and, indeed, it’s continued exponential growth today.

In a landmark study , Richard Bauckham points to the gospels being written in the same style as Greco-Roman biographies of the time. The style of these biographies was to write the main sayings and actions of the hero, with those around the time of death being seen as especially significant. These biographies, to be believable, had to clearly identify eyewitnesses throughout. We see this in the gospels with the disciples and public figures as main witnesses, clearly identified where necessary, for example, ‘sons of Zebedee’ (Mark 3:17). Minor witnesses are also named, for example, ‘Blind Bartimeaus’, Simon of Cyrene and his sons and various women as key eye witnesses of the resurrection, also named. Bauckman argues that, ‘the Gospels put us in close touch with the eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus’ . These eyewitnesses were likely part of a group of key guardians of a reliable oral tradition with some alive at the time of the writing of the synoptic gospels. This dissipates the supposition of many revisionist scholars, using form criticism, that the Jesus sayings and actions were hugely modified and even invented by the gospel writers and early church communities. Christians can now have greater confidence in the gospels as a category of historiography, ie the ‘Jesus of testimony’ through which the ‘Jesus of History’ and the ‘Christ of faith’, ‘need not be at odds, but can converge’

For many the shadow of Schweitzer still hangs over us, that is, we are bound to produce histories of Jesus that only reflect our own views, but, the work of Wright, Bauckhman and others does give Christians greater confidence. However, many would argue, like Luke Timothy Johnson, that the complexity of the subject makes it inaccessible , though in Wright’s case at least, we see a good measure of success in producing popular versions of his work. Bird argues that Luke Timothy Johnson’s view brings the danger of solipsism, that is, the real Jesus is the one ‘I’ experience . My view is that this is overstated, yes there are minority fringe and cultic Christian groups, but I would argue that there is an amazing commensality across the broad sweep of the Christian world in terms of Scripture, Theology, Tradition and Experience.

If I had to say, ‘yes’, in answer to this essay question it would be from the viewpoint of contextual mission. In liberal/pluralist/post-modern societies such as the UK, much of Europe and parts of Northern America, this kind of subject can be a first point of contact, a means of building a relationship with a number of, ‘seekers’ with an interest in this kind of subject and could even be an entry point to a journey of faith. And it is this point of view, I believe, that has the strongest appeal to the evangelical Christian, for a study of the ‘historical Jesus’.

Bibliography

Powell, Mark Allan The Jesus Debate, Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ published by Lion Publishing plc, UK 1998

Gowler David B The Historical Jesus? published by Paulist Press USA 2007

Bock Darrel L Studying the Historical Jesus, A guide to Sources and Methods Published by Baker Academic USA 2002

Witherington III Ben The Jesus Quest, The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth published by IVP USA Secon Ed. 1997

Bornkamm Gunther Jesus of Nazereth translated by Irene and Fraser Mcluskey and James Robinson published by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd and Harper and Brothers USA 1960

Beilby James K and Paul Rhodes Eddy, Editors of The Historical Jesus, Five views with contributions from James D. G. Dunn, John Dominic Crossan, Darrell L. Bock, Luke Timothy Johnson and Robert M. Price Published by IVP USA 2009

Sanders E P Jesus and Judaism published by First Fortress Press USA 1985

Crossan J D The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant paperback edition published by Harper Collins USA 1992

Theissen Gerd and Merz translated by John Bowden The Historical Jesus, A Historical Guide published by SCM Press UK 1998

Meir John P A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus Volume One published by Doubleday USA 1991

Wright N T The Challenge of Jesus published by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge UK 2000

Tom Wright Surprised by Hope published by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge UK 2007

Bauckham Richard Jesus and the EyeWitnesses, The Gospels as Eye Witness Testimony published by Wm B Erdmans USA/UK 2006

Bauckham Richard The Gospels as Eye Witness Testimony published by Grove Books, UK 2008

Bird, Michael Shouldn’t Evangelicals Participate in the’Third Quest for the Historical Jesus’? Published by Themelios 29.2 Spring 2004

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