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History of the search/quest  

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The term "historical Jesus" refers to events in the life of Yeshua of Nazareth, from his birth in Palestine to his execution in Jerusalem. 

Starting in the early 18th century, liberal theologians and other scholars began to interpret the Bible as a historical document, rather than as an inerrant document whose authors were inspired by God.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: 

bulletThe Old Quest: from the early 18th century to about 1906.
bulletThe New Quest: (a.k.a. Second Quest) from about 1953 to 1980.
bulletThe Third Quest: from 1980 to the present time, and continuing. 1

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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 In those days, promoting the analysis of the Bible as a historical document and promoting the search for the historical Jesus generally led to dismissal from the author's employment and occasionally excommunication from the church:

bulletHerman 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 task. After 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.
bulletGotthold 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
bulletDavid 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.
bulletAmerican 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.
bulletCharles 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.
bulletH.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.
bulletErnest 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.
bulletAlfred 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
bulletWilliam 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.
bulletAlbert 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.

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The New Quest:

bulletErnst 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 this continuity.
bulletGünthur 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.

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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:

bulletEarlier work had been done largely by French and German Protestant scholars. Now, English speaking scholars predominate, and Roman Catholics play a major role.
bulletMajor 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.
bulletAn amazing diversity of concepts about Jesus' life have been proposed.
bulletThe Quest now involves scholars in additional disciplines: historians, archaeologists, and others.
bulletA 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.
bulletIn 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 Century CE. 

Some of the leaders in the Third Quest are:

bulletMarcus 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.
bulletBruce Chilton sees Jesus as a wandering rabbi who promoted social change among Jews and anticipated the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
bulletDominic 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.
bulletBurton 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 religious institutions.
bulletJohn Meier views Jesus as an end-of-time Jewish prophet. He views the four gospels as the main source of information about Jesus.
bulletE.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 roles.
bulletGeza Vermes views Jesus as a Jewish charismatic preacher and miracle worker.

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  1. 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 reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Ibid, Page 86.
  3. Ibid, Page 88.
  4. Kselman, "Modern New Testament Criticism," cited in Reference 1
  5. Albert Schweitzer, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus : A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede," Johns Hopkins Univ, (Reprint: 1998). Read reviews or order this book
  6. Rudolf Bultmann, "The History of the Synoptic Tradition," Oxford, (1963) Page 370. Cited in Reference 1. 
  7. Günthur Bornkamm, "Jesus of Nazareth," Fortress Press (Reprinted 1995) Read reviews or order this book

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Copyright © 2000 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-MAY-28
Latest update: 2004-NOV-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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