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Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part II: Background

In an earlier post ("Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus is Good for Mainline Protestant Ethics") I argued that quest for the historical Jesus was good for mainline Protestant ethics because it provided mainline Christians with a sense of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection from which they could derive an ethic that distinctly Christian. I also hinted that there were some methodological problems associated with the quest, and it is to that topic and others that I will begin to take up.  Before all of that, however, I thought it would be helpful to provide some historical background on the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus. Generally, scholars divide up the quest into three different quests, so that is how I organize this post.

The First Quest for the Historical Jesus

The first quest for the historical Jesus refers to the numerous attempts by various scholars from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth century to use modern biblical criticism to discover who Jesus was, what he said, and what he did.  Most of the early quests were attempted by deists. Most assumed that Jesus was not divine, or at least not uniquely divine, and that God does not get involved in human affairs.  From their perspective, God is like a great clock maker, someone who wound up the world and let it go.

Although Hermann Reimarus (1695 – 1768) was not the first person to quest after the historical Jesus, he is generally seen as the founder of the movement. Reimarus concluded that Jesus wasn’t divine, that the miracles of the Bible didn’t happen, and so on.  Reimarus did not publish his findings during his lifetime, probably out of fear of what the Church might do to him. Instead, his student and friend Gotthold Lessing published his study after he died.

Reimarus heavily influenced David Strauss (1808 – 1874), who argued that there should be an "unprejudiced" investigation into the life of Jesus, by which he meant an investigation that was untainted by religious convictions (he evidently believed that it was OK, though, for such an investigation to be tainted by agnostic or atheistic convictions). Strauss assumed that the Gospels were full of myth and could not be taken at face value, so to discover what Jesus actually said and who he was, we need to first peel away the Bible’s myths and the miracles, and that is what he attempted to do.

There were a number of others who attempted to uncover the historical Jesus, and most of them assumed at the outset that miracles couldn’t happen, that Jesus wasn’t divine or at a minimum, that he did not consider himself to be divine, that the Resurrection didn’t happen, etc., but then along came Albert Schweitzer.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was something of a renaissance man. He was an academic, a world-renowned organist, a medical doctor and a biblical scholar who gave up his academic career to found a mission hospital in Africa (Lambaréné Hospital – Republique du Gabon) for which in 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1906, when he was 31, Schweitzer wrote a book called the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in which he summarized the various attempts to discover who Jesus actually was, what he said, and what he did. He concluded that most of these accounts were more autobiographical than historical. He believed they reflected the biases of the scholars themselves, rather than told us much about who Jesus actually was. “These scholars looked in the mirror, saw themselves, and said, ‘That’s Jesus.’”

Schweitzer’s book essentially ended the first quest for the historical Jesus. Part of the reason was that his analysis presented a Jesus that many academics were not interested in following.  Most of the first questers assumed that central to Jesus’ teachings was what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” and that this kingdom, rather than something that would arrive in the future, was something that we can discover here and now.  Schweitzer argued that just the opposite was true. He concluded that Jesus truly believed that arrival of God’s kingdom was a future event that would occur in the near future.  Schweitzer didn’t believe in such an event, but he did believe that Jesus believed in one. In other words, Schweitzer thought that Jesus was mistaken, and because most academics concluded that Schweitzer was right, they were disheartened. They didn’t want to study, follow and worship an apocalyptic (and apparently mistaken) Jesus – so much of the motivation lying behind the first quest went away.

Schweitzer’s study also raised the question whether anyone can be objective enough to bracket out their own personal biases when studying the historical Jesus. Many concluded that it was impossible. Some went so far to argue that the historical details of Jesus’ life and ministry aren’t important for the Church. What is important, is the Christ of faith, by which they seemed to mean how Christians encounter the risen Christ in their lives.

The Second Quest for the Historical Jesus (1950 – 1970)

By the 1950s, however, scholars began to reject this position, arguing that if historical details of Jesus’ life could be uncovered, then they should be relevant for the Christian faith. Ernst Kasemann (1906-1998) helped give birth to the second quest, and he was joined by several other scholars, such as Herbert Braun (1903-1991), Ernst Fuchs (1903-1983), Gunther Bornkamm (1905-1990), Gerhard Ebeling (1912-2001), Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989), Walter Schmithals (1934- ) and James Robinson (1924- ) (Robinson is also considered as an active participant in the third quest).

The second quest viewed Jesus as completely dissimilar from the Judaism of his day and early Christian teaching, and from this perspective there developed one of the most important rules that scholars still use in identifying whether a particular saying of Jesus is genuine: namely, the principle of "discontinuity" which holds that when the Gospels report that Jesus did or said something that was different from prior Jewish tradition or later Christian teaching, then the saying or deed is probably authentic. They based this rule on the belief that that Jesus must have stood out from "human culture in order to have been memorable, compelling and original" (Catherine Murphy, The Historical Jesus for Dummies, p. 57).

While the principle of discontinuity still functions as one of the rules for identifying authentic deeds and sayings of Jesus, a lot of scholars found (and find) the rule implausible. "They wondered how anyone could have understood Jesus if he was so unusual" and "how could a tradition have developed after him that had so little continuity with his teachings?" (Murphy, p. 57). Thus, scholars started to develop new approaches to understanding the life of Jesus, one that argued that Jesus was best understood as a Jew and that his authentic teachings could be distilled from early Christian teaching, and it was these new approaches that helped set the stage for the third quest.

The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus (1980 – Present)

The 1980s mark the beginning of the third quest. Several scholars began drawing on the different critical methods of studying the Bible in an attempt to reconstruct what we know about Jesus in his historical and cultural context.
Instead of looking for Jesus' discontinuities with Judaism, early Christianity, and human culture, the third-quest scholars seek the opposite: continuities. For them, the goal is to create a plausible portrait of Jesus. In other words, they want to create a portrait that best explains all the evidence, fits Jesus into his time and place, and accounts best for what happened (Murphy, p. 59).
As Murphy points out, the final portrait that emerges from these scholars efforts depends largely on their assumptions/conclusions are about Jesus' primary activities, teachings and concerns as well as how they understands Jewish and Roman society at the time of Jesus. Consequently, in spite of determined efforts to be more objective than were the first questers, a number of different portraits of Jesus have emerged over the last 30 years (Murphy, p. 59):
  • A wandering cynic philosopher who used primarily parables and pithy sayings to communicate his vision of God's kingdom
  • An anti-Temple wisdom teacher
  • A charismatic holy man and miracle worker
  • A spirit-filled exorcist
  • An end-time prophet
  • A radical social reformer
  • A rebel and social bandit
The best known scholars include John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, Bart Ehrman, N. T. Wright, Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredricksen, Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders and John Meier. Perhaps the best known group of scholars that has pursued this topic is the Jesus Seminar, which is a group of scholars who met regularly for a number of years to vote on the authentic sayings and deeds of Jesus. The group, to say the least, is a bit controversial, and since they are a topic in their own right, the next post will be dedicated to them.


  1. A nice summary, Sean. But I wonder if it would appropriate to say an investigator who assumes his results will need to exceed a certain alpha level before he can reject the Null Hypothesis has an agnostic bias?