THE SEARCH FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS:
History of the search/quest
The term "historical Jesus" refers to events in the life of
Yeshua of Nazareth, from his birth in Palestine to his execution in
Starting in the early 18th century, liberal theologians and other
scholars began to interpret the Bible as a historical document, rather
than as an inerrant document whose authors were
inspired by God. They
concluded the Gospels were not really a biography of Jesus; they were
actually theological documents which contained a large amount of fictional
material. They which were intended to
promote the rapidly developing Christian faith. Thus began the search for
the historical Jesus: the story of the real Jesus hidden in the Gospels
under an overlay of theological writing.
The "search" or "quest" for the historical
Jesus can be divided into three periods:
||The Old Quest: from the early 18th century to about 1906.
||The New Quest: (a.k.a. Second Quest) from about 1953 to 1980.
||The Third Quest: from 1980 to the present time, and
The Old Quest:
This was pioneered by German and French theologians and scholars. In
those days, promoting the analysis of the Bible as a historical document
and promoting the search for the historical Jesus generally led to
dismissal from the author's employment and occasionally excommunication from the
||Herman Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was a professor of Hebrew and
oriental languages in Germany. He was the first scholar to make a major contribution to
the quest for Jesus. He had abandoned Christianity in his personal life and been
strongly influenced by Deism.
In his writings, he differentiated between what Jesus taught and what the
gospel writers said about him. He concluded that "Christianity was a
fabrication created out of the conniving minds of Jesus' followers."
In one essay, "Concerning the Goal of Jesus and his Disciples,"
he suggested that Jesus had seen himself as the Messiah, but failed at the
his death, his followers wrote fictional gospels to promote their own
beliefs. Reimarus had the intelligence to not circulate his writings widely
during his own lifetime. They were published anonymously circa 1778 -- after
his death -- and
caused a sensation.
||Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) published Reimarus' writings
along with some of his
own on the same topic. He "was plunged into the most sustained and
most acrimonious dispute of his life." 2
||David Fredrich Strauss (1808-1874), another German professor, published
his book "The life of Christ critically examined" in 1835.
He rejected the divinity of Christ. He felt that it would be impossible to
write a biography of Jesus, because the gospels only contain unconnected
fragments of his life. Strauss lost his university job because of his writings.
||American public, circa 1840-1870: During this interval, the American public
largely rejected the concept of of slavery as a morally defensible
institution. In doing so, they were forced to reject the many passages
in the Bible which appeared to accept, condone and regulate slavery.
This caused a spiritual crisis in many Christians because they
realized that the Bible accepted what was to them a morally
indefensible practice. This had no direct influence over the
quest for the historical Jesus. But it did weaken the hold that
inerrancy had had over the public and religious leaders.
||Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his "Origin of
Species" in 1859. This promoted the concept of evolution of
the species, and gave an alternative explanations for origins than
that given by creationism. Again, this book had no direct influence on
the search for the historical Jesus. But it did convince many
theologians and other scientists that the creation stories in Genesis
are religious myths: passages of immense spiritual value but not literally true. This made it easier for them to approach the
Bible as a historical document, rather than as the inerrant
Word of God.
||H.J. Holzmann (1832-1910) a professor at Heidelberg, promoted
the "Two Source" theory, starting in 1963. This
speculates that the authors of Matthew and Luke based their writings
largely on the Gospel of Mark and a lost Gospel
of Q. This theory was largely adopted by subsequent theologians
searching for the historical Jesus.
||Ernest Renan (1832-1892), a French professor, accompanied
Napoleon III in the invasion of Lebanon. After completing brief
excavations in the area, he wrote a series of books called "History
of the Origins of Christianity," starting in 1863. He "stripped Christianity of its supernatural trappings and
presented Jesus as a man, albeit an incomparable man." 3
He lost his professorship as a result of the controversy that
his books created.
||Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) published a series of books,
starting with "The gospel and the church" in 1902. He
suggested that the Christian church was not actually founded by Jesus
in the form that it later assumed. He "disassociated the
historical Jesus, unconscious of his divinity, and the Christ of
faith, and sees the early Christian community as a screen between
believer and event." 4
||William Wrede (1859-1906) wrote "The Messianic Secret"
in 1901, suggesting that the Gospel of Mark was not a reliable source
of historical information about Jesus. He concluded that the early Christian movement
created the concept of Jesus as the Messiah after his execution, and
that Mark simply reported on this belief.
||Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote "The Mystery of
the Kingdom of God" in 1901 and "The Quest of the
Historical Jesus" in 1906. 5 He theorized that the central
theme of Jesus' ministry was the anticipated imminent end of the world
and arrival of the Kingdom of God. He said that previous theologians
who were involved in the Search were like people peering into a
deep well and seeing their own reflections; their Jesus was almost a
copy of themselves. His writings had a dampening effect
on the quest for the historical Jesus. He concluded that Jesus was mistaken
about his future , and that he will forever remain a mystery and a
stranger to humanity.
Schweitzer almost single-handedly terminated the Old Quest. For almost
five decades theologians accepted his conclusions that the gospels are
theological, not historical, documents. They contained no reliable information
about the beliefs, statements, acts, or philosophy of Jesus. The highly
respected German New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) reinforced
Schweitzer's conclusions. He concluded that the primitive Christian movement was
not concerned about creating biographies of Jesus; they were motivated by the
need to create
"propaganda." He concluded that the "Christ who is preached is
not the historic Jesus, but the Christ of faith." 6 Thus
began the "No Quest" period of 1906 to 1953.
The New Quest:
||Ernst Käsemann, a German professor, kick-started this quest during
a lecture in 1953. He taught that it will never be possible to write a
modern-styled biography of the life of Jesus. However, he felt that there is
a "continuity" between the Jesus of history and the Christ
of faith that might be used to catch glimpses of the historical Jesus. He
introduced the concept of "dissimilarity" as a technique
for isolating information about the historical Jesus from later
accretions that were unrelated to Jesus' life and teachings. These are
elements in the New Testament which come from the very early Christian
movement and from Jewish tradition, but which Christians had largely
rejected by the time the books of the Christian Scriptures were written. The
use by Jesus of "Abba" to address God is one example of
||Günthur Bornkamm wrote "Jesus of Nazareth"
during this period. He interpreted the miracle stories in the gospels as
inventions of the early church, without a historical foundation. He felt
that Jesus and his followers did not view him as the Messiah; that idea also was
a creation of the early Christian movement.
Bornkamm's book inspired other researchers to write material that modeled
Jesus as a 1st century CE Jewish prophet, a
Pharisee, rabbi, zealot, Essene, etc. The New Quest eventually fizzled
out about 1980.
The Third Quest:
This started in the 1980's, became a major area of theological and historical
study, and continues today. The Jesus Seminar and
other academic organizations have been created to further the Quest. The Third
Quest has a number of novel features:
||Earlier work had been done largely by French and German Protestant
scholars. Now, English speaking scholars predominate, and Roman Catholics
play a major role.
||Major discoveries have been unearthed by archaeologists in Galilee
which date to the time of Jesus' ministry. They help theologians
understand the culture where Jesus taught.
||An amazing diversity of concepts about Jesus' life have been proposed.
||The Quest now involves scholars in additional disciplines:
historians, archaeologists, and others.
||A partial consensus has been reached that Jesus did not expect the end of the
world within the lifetime of his followers. That, also, was an invention of
the early Christian movement.
||In recent years, there is a growing interest in viewing Jesus' Jewishness
as being of prime importance in his teachings. Other scholars in the Quest
emphasize the Greek influence on Galilean culture during the 1st
Some of the leaders in the Third Quest are:
||Marcus Borg views Jesus as a charismatic leader, the head of a reform
movement within Judaism. Jesus called for the tearing down of walls separating
various classes in Jewish society.
||Bruce Chilton sees Jesus as a wandering rabbi who promoted social
change among Jews and anticipated the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
||Dominic Crossan views Jesus as a Mediterranean peasant who views
the Kingdom of God as already arriving during his ministry. It took the form of a
radical egalitarianism. He promotes the analysis of early Christian
literature that never made it into the Bible.
||Burton Mack sees Jesus as a cynic philosopher. In today's
context, he might be described as a combination of
stand-up comic and editorial writer. They led simple
lives in poverty, and engaged the public in discussions about the reform of social and
||John Meier views Jesus as an end-of-time Jewish prophet. He views
the four gospels as the main source of information about Jesus.
||E.P. Sanders sees Jesus as a prophet who expected God to establish
a new order in Palestine in which Jesus and his followers would play major
||Geza Vermes views Jesus as a Jewish charismatic preacher and
M.R. McAteer & M.G. Steinhauser, "The man in the scarlet robe:
Two thousand years of searching for Jesus," United Church Publishing
House, (1996), Page 79. Read
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- Ibid, Page 86.
- Ibid, Page 88.
Kselman, "Modern New Testament Criticism," cited in
Albert Schweitzer, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus : A Critical Study of Its
Progress from Reimarus to Wrede," Johns Hopkins Univ, (Reprint:
reviews or order this book
Rudolf Bultmann, "The History of the Synoptic Tradition,"
Oxford, (1963) Page 370. Cited in
Günthur Bornkamm, "Jesus of Nazareth," Fortress Press (Reprinted 1995) Read
reviews or order this book
Copyright © 2000 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-MAY-28
Latest update: 2004-NOV-03
Author: B.A. Robinson