The Quest for the Historical Jesus

Did Jesus exist? Yes. That Jesus existed as an historical figure appears to be beyond dispute. It appears certain that Jesus lived in Palestine at around the time ascribed to him in the New Testament, c.4BC-33AD; and that he was baptized by John the Baptist, carried out healings and exorcisms, offered teachings, attracted a small group of disciples, came into conflict with the Jewish establishment, and was crucified by the Roman authorities. As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman concludes in Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012, pp.4-5), “the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet”.

Ehrman himself is a lapsed Christian fundamentalist, with “atheist leanings [who has] no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda”, and is a bête noire of mainstream Christians because of his relentless attacks on key components of their faith. Despite his iconoclastic commitments, Ehrman found the assertion that Jesus did not exist ridiculous, and was moved to declare in Did Jesus Exist? that those who insist otherwise “rival the Da Vinci Code in their passion for conspiracy and the shallowness of their historical knowledge” (p.3). About the central issue Ehrman is adamant: “The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist”.

On the other hand, what scholars think about Jesus now varies immensely. This situation arises from the crucial distinction between the ‘Christ of Faith’ and the ‘Jesus of History’ that emerged after the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason impacted on traditional theology and Biblical Studies. In the space created by this distinction all sorts of images of Jesus have taken shape as the theological constraints on speculation were relaxed or ignored.

Leaving aside the theological Christ of Faith, seen as the Son of God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who died upon the Cross for the sins of humanity, the Jesus of History now has many guises. He is variously seen as a would-be Jewish Messiah; a failed apocalyptic prophet; a charismatic holy man or mystic; a tragic existential or Nietzschean hero; a wandering cynic philosopher; a sage or rabbi; a Gnostic emissary from the One; the Teacher of Righteousness or Wicked Priest from the Dead Sea Scrolls; a social revolutionary; a feminist; a promiscuous gay shaman; and even an hallucinogenic mushroom! Although Jesus may well have existed, the exact form that existence took has become increasingly unfocused, indefinite, and contested.

This outcome may seem paradoxical, as the application of scientific and rationalist principles in Biblical Studies was supposed to produce high levels of certainty about the historical Jesus. It drove the development of the historical-critical method, which transformed the field, and led to the generally accepted resolution to the ‘Synoptic Problem’ concerned with the inter-relationship of the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus provided by the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to this, Mark was the earliest account and was used by the redactors (editors) of Matthew and Luke as their principle source, along with another, a ‘Sayings of Jesus’ document called Q (from the German Quelle for ‘source’), which is postulated but no longer extant. To these two main sources Matthew and Luke added their own distinctive theologically orientated contributions to produce their own versions of the life of Jesus.

Subsequently, many portraits have emerged from the three separate ‘Quests for the Historical Jesus’ that have been undertaken over the past two centuries. These have been shaped by the desire to claim Jesus for, successively, liberal or modernist theology; existentialism and the theology of crisis; and postmodern religio-political eclecticism.

The First Quest arose out of the Enlightenment, occupied most of the 19th century, and ran parallel to the rise of theological modernism with its insistence that Christianity must accommodate itself to modernity, dump archaic creeds and adhere to the principles of science and rationalism. Modernism favoured an immanent concept of God, was dismissive of ideas about transcendence and the supernatural, and insisted that the ‘Kingdom of God’ could be accomplished in the here-and-now through political and social reform. Inevitably, this approach discounted the transcendent Christ of Faith, with its archaic supernatural theology, and emphasized the immanent Jesus of History. The latter was felt to be accessible to science and reason and to exhibit the character, conduct, teachings, and capacity for self-sacrifice that modernists believed could be retrieved from the Gospel accounts through historical scholarship and made the exemplar for a full Christian life.

The quest was defined and explored by the German theologian and medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), in his landmark book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). This surveyed the relevant scholarship, beginning with the radical skepticism of Hermann Reimarus (1694–1768), who left his anti-Christian polemic unpublished at his death and known to only a few friends. Of Reimarius’ attitude to Christianity, Schweitzer observed: “Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent”.

Amongst the other scholars he reviewed, Schweitzer included the Young Hegelian David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874), whose massive (and career-destroying) Life of Jesus (1835) became “the most translated, discussed, and debated book about Jesus of the entire 19th century”, as Charlotte Allen observes in her own survey, The Human Christ (1998, p.150). Strauss’s move was emblematic of the First Quest. Whereas Hegel, as a philosophical Idealist, was indifferent to the historicity of the Gospels and was concerned only with the contribution their ethical and intellectual content made to the realization of the Absolute, Strauss explored how much of the New Testament narratives could be accepted as concrete history. Similarly, while Hegel viewed Jesus abstractly as the incarnation of the divine, Strauss sought out the actual living person.  And then, when his researches revealed only hazy images of early Christianity and the historical Jesus, Strauss insisted that the Gospel narratives were best seen as mythologized expressions of the collective desires and aspirations of the early Christians, and re-asserted the Hegelian notion that Jesus was the Absolute immanent in the world, “leaving the reader with a skeletal outline of the life of a fanatical Jewish preacher who had mistakenly believed he was the Messiah” (p.153).

Another Hegelian who followed a similar path was Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose paper on “The Christ Party in the Corinthian Community” became “the single most famous essay in all of New Testament scholarship” (p.147). Inspired by Hegel’s theory of the dialectic nature of history, Baur introduced the notion that an intense conflict between Judaic and Hellenistic forces dominated early Christian communities. This had profound implications for the identity of Jesus: were he, his teachings and his fate, to be understood primarily against a Judaic background, or within a Hellenistic context? Baur argued that the early Christians were divided between a Judaic tendency aligned with St Peter and a non-Judaic or Hellenistic tendency aligned with St Paul. The Petrine faction adhered to traditional Judaic legalism and the doctrine of justification by works, but differed from other Jews in accepting Jesus as the Messiah. The Pauline faction viewed Jesus as the divine saviour of all humanity, rejected legalism, reached out beyond the Jews to Gentiles, and embraced the new theology of justification through faith in Jesus.

“Here we have the thesis and antithesis”, as Stephen Neil and Tom Wright observed about Baur’s argument in The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (1988, p.25). In Hegelian fashion, “the synthesis is to follow. It was impossible that two groups, both bearing the name of Christ, should forever remain in separation”, and reconciliation eventually occurred during the second century AD in the face of the Gnostic challenge for control of the new religion. Both factions made concessions about the nature and role of Jesus, but left intractable contradictions embedded in the Christian tradition.

The quest was taken in yet another direction by the German theologian, Johannes Weiss (1863-1914). His Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1892) emphasized the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus. According to Weiss, the core of Jesus’ teaching was the coming Kingdom of God, understood as the imminent eschatological end to history. Consequently, Jesus’ ethical teachings (central to modernism) were viewed as later additions to the Gospel made by the early Christian movement after the Apocalypse failed to occur. The implications of this were twofold: the actual historical Jesus, with his misguided apocalyptic thinking, was of marginal relevance to the modern world; and his alleged teachings were inauthentic. Weiss’ findings undermined the optimism associated with modernist theology and the social gospel movement, which believed that the Kingdom could be realized on earth through political activism and philanthropy, modeled on Jesus as the exemplary ethical teacher and social reformer.

Schweitzer’s survey concluded with William Wrede (1859–1906), who followed yet another path. Wrede published The Messianic Secret in the Gospels in 1901, and its title refers to the pivotal moment, recorded in Mark (8:27-30; cf. Matt16:13-16; Luke 9:18-20), where Jesus first confirms his identity as the Messiah and then commands his followers to be silent about his Messianic mission, before going on to predict his death. Wrede argued that this passage did not record an actual event but was a later invention of the early Christians as they reflected upon Jesus’ death and apparent resurrection and looked for the reason why his Messianic role, which they now accepted, had not initially been recognized. Wrede’s argument undermined Mark as a credible source and indicated that the events depicted in the Gospels were coloured by this post-resurrection imperative to make sense of Jesus’ otherwise inexplicable fate.

Schweitzer’s own view of the historical Jesus echoes that of Weiss. Jesus was an “eschatology-obsessed first-century Jew [who] believed that he could change the course of history”; a “heroic, almost Nietzschean figure … whose death did not trigger the coming of God’s Kingdom as he had envisioned”; but who was nevertheless “a failure of dazzling proportions” (The Human Christ, pp.237-8). In Schweitzer’s own words, Jesus sought to “lay hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it. Then it does turn; and it crushes him”; the wheel of history rolled on, with the mangled body of Jesus hanging upon it. In the context of such images, Allen observes that “like many of the Biblical scholars he criticized, Schweitzer himself wanted to be Jesus, in making an existential sacrifice on behalf of others”, spending the rest of his life running a jungle hospital in Africa (p.238).

The First Quest ended with the outbreak of the Great War and the discrediting of theological modernism, with its misplaced optimism and faith in humanity. Existentialism and the theology of crisis moved to centre stage, as scholars crossed what conservative evangelical, Francis Schaeffer, called the ‘line of despair’, finally giving up on theological realism, according to which God actually exists and Jesus actually died upon the Cross for the sins of humanity, and embracing a fictive theology which uses speculations about the historical Jesus as an opportunity to promote philosophical ideas.

Pivotal to this was Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), whose presence was so dominating that the quest for the historical Jesus stalled for several decades as scholars and lay people grappled with the implications of his work. These were rather paradoxical. On one hand, Bultmann applied historical-critical methods with such rigor that most of the New Testament material about Jesus was stripped away or compromised by his ‘demythologizing’ approach. Essentially, the only datum that Bultmann retained about Jesus from the biblical sea of myth was the brutal existential reality – the Dass or ‘thatness’ – of Jesus’s agonizing death upon a cross

On the other hand, it was clear to Bultmann’s readers that he had himself constructed a clear and philosophically powerful image of Jesus, albeit one profoundly influenced by the existentialism of his friend Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Bultmann started with a vision of Jesus similar to that of Weiss and Schweitzer: as a sectarian Jew and apocalyptic prophet. However, he transformed the eschatological dimension of Jesus’ teachings from a first century concern with the imminence of the Eschaton understood as an in-breaking of God into human history, into an ever-present call for an existential decision by the individual Christian. Instead of a historically specific and once-and-for-all ‘End Time’, which failed to materialize for Jesus, there is an on-going existential ‘end-time’ confronting all human beings as they are called to make a decision in favour of a fully authentic life, as exemplified by Jesus and conceptualized in the 20th century by Heidegger.

In fact, Heidegger’s influence on Bultmann exemplifies the familiar pattern where theologians and New Testament scholars adopt the dominant philosophy of their time and reinterpret Christianity in terms of it. This famously occurred when Aquinas re-conceptualized medieval theology in terms of the newly discovered works of Aristotle, and happened again in Germany under the influence of Kant and Hegel. It has also occurred more recently with the influence of Marxism, postmodernism, and feminism on theology.

The second, or ‘New Quest’, began amongst former followers of Bultmann, who felt the need to assert their independence as scholars over their mentor. A key figure was Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), who presented a paper in 1953 on “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” in which he advocated a retreat from Bultmann’s extreme skepticism about the accessibility of the Jesus to historical scholarship, and moved away from Bultmann’s existential emphasis in favour of an image of Jesus as an ethical genius of relevance for political activism. He and his compatriot, Günther Bornkamm (1905-1990), followed Bultmann in using historical-critical methods to excavate down to what they claimed to be the earliest stratum of the New Testament materials to isolate those teachings that indubitably originated with Jesus. Ultimately however, “in defining Jesus exclusively in terms of his sayings, the new-questers deemed nearly all his actions … as purely mythical” (The Human Christ, p.252).

The ‘New Quest’ was formally announced by James M. Robinson (1924-) in The New Quest of the Historical Jesus (1959), his survey of post-Bultmann scholarship, which introduced it to an American audience. Robinson’s own work bridges the generations between the second and third quests, while also illuminating the historical and theological significance of the Q Document and the trove of Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 and known as the Nag Hammadi Library, a complete copy of which he was able to persuade the Egyptian government to release for publication, thus initiating one of the most important research projects in contemporary religious research.

Robinson and his close colleague, Helmut Koester (1926- ), who was a student of both Bultmann and Bornkamm, published Trajectories through Early Christianity (1971) and many other works, especially on Gnosticism, an area which Koester’s student, Elaine Pagels, popularized with her prize-winning book, The Gnostic Gospels (1979). They and their followers proceed on the basis that the Gospels are merely one set of many historical sources (along with, e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi texts), and that these all can be drawn upon to construct portraits of Jesus and early Christianity, which consequently can be almost infinitely diverse.

This intellectual licence fitted perfectly with the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties, after which many biblical scholars felt free to wander off the academic reservation and into popular notoriety. S. G. F. Brandon reflected the rebellious mood of the times with Jesus and the Zealots (1967), which portrayed him as a violent revolutionary, whose followers whitewashed his memory to avoid further antagonizing the Romans. However, the most radical departure by a previously reputable scholar was that of John Allegro (1923-1988), an expert on Semitic languages who was the British representative on the international team working on the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947. Unlike the other team members he met his deadlines and published The Dead Sea Scrolls (1956), and The Treasure of the Copper Scroll (1960). Then in 1970 he published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, detailing his argument that Jesus was a mushroom.

In reaching this conclusion Allegro was radically extending the work of R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986), a  vice president of J.P. Morgan and pioneering ethnomycologist, who had explored the interrelationship of culture, religion and the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms for some decades. His most famous book was Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1967), which argued that Soma, a ritual potion celebrated in the Hindu Rig-Veda hymns but whose identity has been lost, was made from the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), the striking red and white mushroom that features in much folklore.

According to Allegro the material collected in the Bible and discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls is encoded evidence of an ancient fertility cult, which just needs to be deciphered to reveal the true nature of early Christianity. ‘Jesus’ and the tales that surround him were originally fictionalized accounts of the drug-fuelled orgiastic activities of the cult, designed to deceive the Romans and other non-initiates, but, like the identity of Soma, this was forgotten and the fiction came to be treated as fact. Allegro thoughtfully reconstructed the original cultic activities in his book.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provided Australian academic Barbara Thiering with a similar opportunity to decode the truth about Jesus. In Jesus the Man: New Interpretations from the Dead Sea Scrolls (1993) and several other books, she applied her own ‘pesher’ interpretative technique to reveal an unprecedented amount of detail about Jesus (e.g., he was a bastard, born in Qumran in March, 7 BC.; his great grandfather was Hillel the Great; he married Mary Magdalene and had a family but then divorced; he was the leader of a radical faction of the  Essene movement and was a pacifist who looked to a Jewish victory over Rome; he wasn’t crucified but died sometime after AD 64, etc.). Her books were popular although they were ridiculed by scholars.

Another novel departure in the quest purports to show that Jesus was engaged in homosexual activity with a young man in the moments before his arrest and that “Jesus had been the leader of a gay Judean underground” (The Human Christ, p.266).  Evidence for this is detailed in Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (1973) by Morton Smith (1915-1991), a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, who built his career on the exposition of a passage he allegedly found written inside an old book in a monastery library. This purports to be secret material excised from the original Gospel of Mark (between Mark 10:34 and 10:35) that describes Jesus raising a young man from the dead, who then beseeches Jesus “that he might be with him … And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God”. A further (disputed) passage refers to “a naked man on a naked man”. All this then links up with the mysterious passage in Mark 14:51-52 that describes how, at Jesus’ arrest, “a young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind”.

Scholars remain divided on the authenticity of this secret material and on its implications, being studiously politically correct in ignoring Smith’s homosexuality and sexual libertinism, and his claim in Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? (1978) that Jesus was a pagan magician or shaman who initiated his followers into mysterious rites. Resolution of the matter is unlikely as no scholar other than Smith has ever seen the secret passages in the book, and both it and the pages have disappeared. All that remains are two sets of photographs that are useless for the purposes of dating or detecting other evidence of forgery.

As these examples illustrate, an increasing openness to non-canonical texts and other material became a defining characteristic of the quest for the historical Jesus. This encouraged the promotion of various ideological and idiosyncratic agendas, irrespective of their implications for the Christian faith. As Allen observes, professional scholars have usurped “the right to tell Christians what to believe”, thus fulfilling theologian Carl Braaten’s 1964 prediction that “if faith is made dependent upon the methods or results of historical scholarship, then the historian becomes the priest” (The Human Christ, pp. 263, 228).

In fact it was the social scientist who became the new priest as the Third Quest got underway in the 1980s, and the focus shifted away from Jesus as an individual and onto his social context, of which he was seen as merely an expression. This context encompassed not only Judaism and the civilization of first century Israel, but also the Mediterranean world, and the Roman Empire as a whole. The aim was to draw on ancient history, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, etc., to construct a detailed picture of the world in which Jesus lived and which was believed to have manifested itself through him. Jesus was to be seen not as an individual but as a social type determined by his milieu. Unfortunately, this strategy allowed pre-existing ideas about who Jesus must have been to be interpolated into the research at an early stage, ensuring that predictable images of Jesus later emerge amongst the findings.

A representative example of this tendency is John Dominic Crossan (1934- ), whose postmodern anthropological approach amounts to a form of creative non-fiction, not unlike Gerd Theissen’s sociological novel, The Shadow of the Galilean (1986). Crossan rose to prominence in the media in the 1990s, largely on the back of the notorious Jesus Seminar, of which he was co-chairman, and which conducted highly publicized ballots of its membership on the reliability of New Testament passages, concluding, for example, that only 18 percent of Jesus’ sayings were actually spoken by him. Crossan has published many books on Jesus, including The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991); and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994), making the case that Jesus was a cynic philosopher, working in the tradition of Diogenes of Sinope, whose studiously outrageous behavior (including urinating on his critics, and defecating and masturbating in public) gave the tradition its name, with the term ‘Cynic’ being derived from the Greek for ‘dog-like’. Perhaps predictably, Crossan explained the disappearance of Jesus’ body by arguing that it would have been left in a ditch and eaten by dogs.

In his books, Crossan combines free-form anthropology with various historical-critical methods to conjure up a vision of Jesus and the people of Galilee that echoes Eric Hobsbawm’s Marxist theory of Primitive Rebels (1971), and evokes Emiliano Zapata and Revolutionary Mexico, and Che Guevara and the Latin American peasantry. As Allen describes Crossan’s imaginative reconstruction of ancient Israel: “Far up the social ziggurat, bosses feast and count their gold, pan-Mediterranean ‘patrons’ dispense favours, and Romans crack the whip. Into this grim agrarian vista … walks Jesus, a dirt-poor, illiterate social reformer”. As an itinerant cynic philosopher, Jesus utters witty and pointed epigrams, preaches tolerance, inclusiveness, and liberation, and denounces the establishment, inequality and patriarchy, while his entourage of disciples appear as first century ‘hippies’ to be contrasted with the pampered ‘yuppies’ who exploit the people. The death of Jesus fulfills no prophecy or destiny, according to Crossan. It was instead “a ghastly accident: he had ventured into Judea for Passover, where his unusual style alarmed the Romans, and they dispatched him as they did other public nuisances” (The Human Christ, p.279).

Recently, in God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (2007) Crossan sought to appropriate the Bible for political purposes, asserting that its central concern is not with God and his people, but rather the political demand that people commit their lives to anti-imperialist struggle against evil superpowers, such as Rome (which actually has a minimal biblical presence), and America, and that throughout the Bible there is a focus on contemporary issues like social justice, peace, and reconciliation. He insists that Roman military forces executed Jesus because he was a nonviolent revolutionary preaching a kingdom based on such principles and therefore threatened their Empire, which ruled solely through violence, force, and fear (ignoring the Pax Romana, which sustained Classical Civilization amidst a world of warfare). He then draws a parallel between this situation and the actions of America and its wars in the Middle East, concluding with a condemnation of mainstream Christianity for instigating imperialist violence designed to make America the New Roman Empire.

A less ideologically inflamed but similarly iconoclastic member of the third quest is Bart Ehrman. In Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (2001) he follows Schweitzer, in asserting that Jesus was a first-century Jewish Apocalypticist: “Jesus fully expected that the history of the world … was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human political and religious institutions [as] a prelude to the arrival of a new order on earth, the Kingdom of God”. Obviously, Ehrman believes Jesus got it tragically wrong.

Ehrman also insists that institutional Christianity has no unique access to the truth about either the Christ of Faith or the Jesus of History, but is merely the descendent of the victorious faction that prevailed in a great centuries-long ideological battle for control of the new religion. In this he takes his inspiration from the German scholar, Walter Bauer (1877-1960), who published his revolutionary theories in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity in 1934, although it was not until 1964, when it was republished during the Second Quest, that it found a receptive audience.   

In Ehrman’s view, “Bauer’s analysis has changed forever how we look at the theological controversies prior to the fourth century” (Lost Christianities, 2003, p.173). Bauer challenged the received wisdom that early Christianity had emerged as a new religion unified around a set of generally accepted doctrines about Jesus Christ, but had then suffered various heretical break-away movements. Instead, Bauer argued, diversity reigned at the beginning: “earliest Christianity, as far back as we can trace our sources, could be found in a number of divergent forms [and] in some regions of ancient Christendom, what later came to be labeled ‘heresy’ was in fact the earliest and principal form of Christianity. Beliefs that later came to be accepted as orthodox or heretical were [simply] competing interpretations of Christianity” (p.173). These were neither right nor wrong in themselves because ultimately there is no divine truth underpinning Christianity.

Eventually, in Ehrman’s view, one exclusivist interpretation eventually established itself as dominant, declared itself orthodox and its competitors heretical, campaigned successfully against them, drove them from the field, and evolved into institutional Christianity as we now know it. Subsequently, the historical accounts of the struggle were shaped by the victors, both positively in terms of authorized history, and negatively in terms of the suppression and destruction of all contrary evidence. The result is a dominant mainstream Christian orthodoxy, and vague historical traces of many shadowy ‘lost Christianities’ that can now never fully be known.

Ehrman laments this lack of diversity, which the Third Quest seeks to rectify, but at the cost of a coherent image of the historical Jesus of History. Indeed, even leading proponents of the quest like Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter (The Quest for the Plausible Jesus, 2002) have lamented the fragmentation that has resulted, and the consequent failure to produce a unified, consistent and consensus view of Jesus.  In his survey The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (1997, p.77), Ben Witherington observed that “there are now as many portraits of the historical Jesus as there are scholarly painters”, an assessment echoed a decade later by Amy-Jill Levine in another survey, The Historical Jesus in Context (2006).

Fortunately, there are some outstanding scholars associated with the Third Quest, including some who have maintained a strong connection with the traditional Christian view of Jesus. These include Witherington, and N. T. (Tom) Wright, who also views Jesus in eschatological terms. An extremely prolific author, Wright’s most important work is a six-volume series on ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’, including The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), and The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003).

Overall however, looking back over the past 200 years, it is difficult not to detect an consistent tendency towards a sort of exegetical nihilism running through the various quests for the historical Jesus, as he has been systematically stripped of virtually all the elements that made him central to the Christian faith, leaving behind only a shadowy figure, a religious eccentric, or a proxy for a political cause.

Indeed, this nihilism seems to be an explicit mission for some of the scholars concerned. For example, in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (2009) Ehrman describes how he takes pride in demolishing the faith of young seminary students, of “challenging students’ cherished beliefs … that the Bible is a wonderful guide to faith and practice, to be treated with reverence and piety”. Quite the contrary, Ehrman assures his students, the Bible is riddled with myths, inconsistencies, paradoxes, and inaccuracies, along with hatred and hideous violence endorsed by the biblical God of vengeance.

Ultimately, it is not clear what is achieved by this destructive application of scholarly firepower to the central tenets of a major world religion, or that the world needs fewer people with faith in a loving God and more secularized cannon fodder for misguided and manipulated political activism. Originating in the separation of the Christ of Faith from the Jesus of History, and meant to anchor faith in historical conviction, the quest for Jesus seems instead to have devolved into iconoclasm and uncertainty. At such times, Christians can simply draw upon their faith with the confidence that it’s far stronger than the iconoclastic nihilism that has overwhelmed our culture and leads nowhere. In this connection, it is interesting that Ehrman has just published Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (2020), in which he frets about what may lie beyond, including for atheists like himself.

6 thoughts on “The Quest for the Historical Jesus

  • mgldunn says:

    Thanks for this very useful survey. There seem to be two assumptions that drive a lot of this ‘historical’ stuff: that the earliest source must be the most accurate, and that the canonical New Testament may be relied upon only when it states things that appear to be at odds with orthodoxy. In truth, a slightly later source may much more accurate — take political biographies for example; and the orthodox version may have become canonical simply because it was true.

  • Stephen Due says:

    This is an interesting and complex topic. As a Christian it rather reminds one of an assembly of computer models of the coronavirus pandemic. Through the centuries, powerful Enlightenment intellects, contemplating the biblical Jesus, have labored to construct a computer model of the historical person. The attraction of this enterprise I must say is completely lost on me. As many have noted, the project inevitably involves the scholar disconnecting himself and his computer model from the evangelical Christian religion. His personal pilgrimage is no longer to walk the Emmaus Road with the Christ of the gospels. Rather it is to walk with an ‘historical’ Jesus of his own making. From the Christian perspective this is a descent into idolatry. It is very similar to what one often sees in churches and seminaries, namely an idolatrous intellectual obsession with theology.
    Of the great scholars of the Quest, the most inspiring to me personally is the medical missionary Albert Schweitzer. His towering intellect stands above all who went before and all who came afterwards. His interest in the life of Jesus ran parallel with his interest in the life of J. S. Bach. There is a sense in which Schweitzer sought to preach the Christian gospel as Bach had done, through his life’s work. It is not entirely fanciful to describe Bach as “the fifth Evangelist” and Schweitzer as a kind of successor. Again like Bach, Schweitzer was a celebrated organist. Part of his life’s work was to study, interpret, promote and perform the music of Bach, which to him marked the culmination of the Christian musical tradition, indeed the high point of a civilization. There is s depth of spiritual insight in Schweitzer far greater than that of the others associated with the Quest.
    PS: An entirely separate tradition of lives of Christ, by scholars who “came not to destroy” but to build up the evangelical faith reached maturity in the nineteenth century. One of the greatest of those scholars was Frederick William Farrar D.D. F.R.S. dean of Canterbury, whose magnificent Life of Christ (1874) was published in many editions, often lavishly illustrated, and translated into many languages.

  • pgang says:

    A good, well rounded survey. It’s perhaps worth noting that in reaction to the existentialists there has arisen a strong, theologically-based apologetics discipline represented by the likes of Scott Oliphint and JP Holding; and of course Biblical creationists within the scientific disciplines.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Schweitzer was one of the heroes of my youth. Sadly, one rarely hears his name mentioned in these parlous times. Thanks for the memories, Stephen.

  • padmmdpat says:

    Concerning the young man in Mark’s gospel wearing nothing but a linen sheet who flees naked when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane – perhaps it’s possible to understand that passage in the context of the situation of Mark’s original audience and community? Written around the late 60’s and early 70’s Mark’s gospel was aimed at a weak and dispirited community of Christians in Rome suffering persecution. Some of them had apostatised. It’s likely most were frightened. A theme in Mark’s gospel is fear and desertion. When Jesus is arrested they ALL deserted him and fled. And the original ending of the Gospel has the women running from the empty tomb and saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid – even though they were told to proclaim the resurrection by the – there he is again – a man sitting outside the tomb clothed in white. What’s going on here? Is it possible that the author of Mark’s gospel has written himself into the narrative. He clearly was not a member of Jesus close associates nor had contact with Jesus during his life and ministry. Perhaps the author of Marks gospel also lost faith through fear of Roman persecution and himself apostatised. That him – the young man in a linen sheet in the garden who runs away naked – he abandoned his faith in Jesus during the later persecution to save his skin. But he has repented – and now will boldly proclaim the resurrection – hence his own appearance at the empty tomb. Unhistorical but theological. He’s saying to the frightened Christians in Rome – It’s OK. I too abandoned the Lord but He has understood my weakness and fear and called me back to life. Take heart. Don’t be afraid. That’s one of the central messages of Mark’s Gospel. As for all the scholarly interpretations and judgements on the historical Jesus? I think a lot of those scholars were looking in mirrors when they wrote their stuff. I think they are ultimately guilty of false familiarity.

  • talldad says:

    In this connection, it is interesting that Ehrman has just published Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (2020), in which he frets about what may lie beyond, including for atheists like himself.

    Having sawn off the branch upon which he was sitting, he ponders his future as it carries him towards the ground.

    mgldunn – 7th October 2020

    Thanks for this very useful survey. There seem to be two assumptions that drive a lot of this ‘historical’ stuff: that the earliest source must be the most accurate, and that the canonical New Testament may be relied upon only when it states things that appear to be at odds with orthodoxy.

    I likewise read this survey with interest.
    Indeed, these quests all seem to commence with the assumption (whether stated or not) that the NT texts are not canonical in any absolute sense, but only in a “victors write the history” sense.

    Therefore I am happy to ignore these authors and their output in favour of the various modern translations of the Bible which are readily available in so many languages and versions.

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