Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Robert W. Funk

From The Fourth R
Volume 14-4
July–August 2001

The quest for the historical Jesus has been underway for more than two centuries. It was launched about 1775, the same time the United States was being founded. Its progress is marked by milestones, landmark developments that represent the transition from one stage to another. The axioms that govern the current consensus emerged over that span of time.

One can of course discern these crucial advances clearly only in retrospect. The decisive developments that are taking place in the present scholarly debate will not be known for certain until some future date. Meanwhile, we can sketch the contributions of significant precursors who contributed essential items to the current consensus. We can also risk a brief characterization of recent and current trends as we perceive them from the standpoint of the Jesus Seminar.

Pre-Critical Reading of Scripture

Imagine what it was like reading the gospels with pre-critical eyes. That should not be difficult; many still do it today. Andreas Osiander (1498–1552), a contemporary of Martin Luther, took the view that if an event is recorded more than once in the gospels and in different connections, then it happened more than once. For example, the cleansing of the temple is located by the Gospel of John near the beginning of Jesus' public ministry; in the synoptics it is placed near the end. He concluded that it must have happened twice. The daughter of Jairus must have been raised from the dead several times because it is reported several times in rather different settings.

After the rise of biblical criticism, pietists tended to harmonize the differences and discrepancies by inventing explanations to account for them. Recently, a televangelist explained to his listeners that the bible does not contradict itself. As an example, he chose the death of Judas Iscariot. According to Matthew (27:3), Judas rejected the thirty pieces of silver and hanged himself. In Acts (1:18–19), Judas bought a field with his silver coins and later swelled up and burst open so that his bowels gushed out. The televangelist took the view that hanging and evisceration are two accounts of the same event: Judas hanged himself, then swelled up as he dangled in the air; since Jews were forbidden to touch a dead body, someone had to cut the rope, at which point he dropped to the ground and burst open, his bowels pouring out on the ground. The evangelist did not explain the contradiction involved in Judas both returning the coins and buying a field with them. In television land, the defense of the bible as an infallible source of history goes on unabated, as though historical criticism were the invention of the devil.

Distinguishing the Historical Jesus from the First Disciples

Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) exhibits the first influences of the Enlightenment in an essay entitled, "The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples" (1778). The essay was part of a larger work in which Reimarus rejects outright the miraculous and the idea of revelation. Reimarus was the first to draw an absolute distinction between what the historical Jesus did and taught and the teachings and aims of Jesus' disciples. He accuses the gospel writers of conscious fraud, fanaticism, and numerous contradictions. His work was so controversial for his day that he decided not to publish it himself; seven fragments from it were published anonymously following his death. Today, very few scholars would care to endorse Reimarus' view outright, yet the distinction he drew between the historical figure of Jesus and the views of his followers as reflected in the gospels stands as a lighthouse warning against the shoals of harmonization.

Revolt against Ecclesiastical Control & the Rise of the Sciences

In the eighteenth century, church authorities became increasingly embattled as scientific knowledge challenged the bible. First astronomy and physics laid down the gauntlet, and then geology and later psychology reshaped the contours of human knowledge.

Three important steps were involved:

  1. The skies were swept clean of demons and spirits that were thought to control events and destinies.
  2. The dogmatic tyranny over the sciences came to an end, including the domination of historical research; the freedom to explore the natural universe and history without ecclesiastical censure was then greatly expanded.
  3. In the wake of these developments, the authority of scripture began to erode.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was condemned in 1616 and again in 1632 for propagating the views of Nikla Copernicus (1473–1543) that the earth revolved around the sun. Up until that time, the earth was assumed to be the center of the galaxy, indeed, of the universe, to the extent that the dimensions of the universe were known. Galileo might have been left alone had he not raised doubts about the interpretation of the mass and the doctrine of transubstantiation. This put him on a collision course with the Catholic church.

The church and the sciences continued to be at loggerheads, even war, until the latter part of the twentieth century. The condemnation of Galileo was finally lifted on 28 December 1991 by John Paul II, after a delay of 359 years. The hegemony over knowledge once the exclusive prerogative of the Church had passed over to the sciences and technology.

The Emancipation of the Natural from the Supernatural

David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) produced a truly remarkable work, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined in 1835. It was both a theological bombshell and a literary work of unparalleled excellence. The English translation by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is also a masterpiece. In his work, Strauss attempted to emancipate the natural from the supernatural. Like Reimarus, he rejected the miraculous and qualified revelation. Strauss illustrates the dictum of Albert Schweitzer that critical scholarship "turned to the historical Jesus as an ally in the struggle against the tyranny of dogma" (Quest, 4). The response to his work was immediate and violent. He lost his job as a teacher and was called anti-christ and Judas by opponents. He was hounded by his critics until his death in 1874.

The Priority of the Gospel of Mark

Christian Gottlob Wilke (1786–1854) first proposed the thesis that Mark was the first gospel in his work, The Original Evangelist (1838). His thesis later became virtually axiomatic among critical scholars. Mark composed his gospel, in the judgment of most scholars, in the decade of the 70s, forty years after the death of Jesus. Mark collected anecdotes and teachings that had circulated during the intervening years by word of mouth and arranged them sequentially in a gospel. He did not have any real knowledge of the order of events.

Accompanying this hypothesis is the view that Matthew and Luke are revisions of the Gospel of Mark. Since Matthew and Luke are basically following Mark, they provide us with no additional independent information about Jesus, beyond a few stray oral traditions. These "stray" traditions do appear to contain important information about Jesus. Matthew and Luke also incorporate another written source, the so-called Sayings Gospel Q, another important discovery, to which we now turn.

The Emergence of the Q-hypothesis

Christian Hermann Weisse (1801–1866) is the author of The Gospel History Critically and Philosophically Investigated (1838). Weisse is the author of the Q-hypothesis, which, together with the priority of Mark, became the cornerstone of the two-document explanation of gospel relationships. The two-document hypothesis holds that Matthew and Luke took Mark as the narrative basis of their revisions, to which they inserted material from Q. The verbal overlap of Matthew and Luke with both Mark and Q supplies impressive evidence to support this general theory. The priority of Mark and the existence of Q has been challenged over and over again in the history of scholarship, but they have repeatedly reasserted themselves as basic axioms in the quest of the historical Jesus.

It is remarkable in retrospect the extent to which the critical axioms of modern biblical scholarship were formed in such a brief period in the early nineteenth century. Of course, the original proposals did not achieve wide acceptance immediately and some are still being debated on the margins of current scholarship. Nevertheless, the critical landscape had already been formed by the middle of the century.

The Preference of the Synoptics over the Gospel of John 

Heinrich Julius Holtzmann (1832–1910) is responsible for recognizing the priority of Mark plus Q over against the Gospel of John. He and other critical scholars took John to lean more to the supernatural and mythical, relatively speaking. He published his views in a work called The Synoptic Gospels (1863). In addition to his defense of the two-document hypothesis, he is one of the first scholars to set the religion of Jesus and Paul into the religious world of their day. He treated Paul as the second founder of Christianity. The contours of twentieth-century gospel scholarship were now firming up. Holtzmann was a major influence in defining those contours.

The Rediscovery of Eschatology

Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) stands as a towering figure at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was extremely influential with his Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1892). Weiss reacted to the optimism of nineteenth-century theology by rediscovering Jesus as an eschatological prophet. As such, Jesus anticipated that God would intervene in history in the near future and establish the kingdom. The kingdom could not be created by human endeavor; it would come in God's good time. All humans can do is repent and prepare for it.

Weiss followed Holtzmann in setting Christianity in the context of other hellenistic religions. He was one of the founders of the history-of-religions school. He was also the teacher of Rudolf Bultmann, who would subsequently exert a powerful influence on the course of modern biblical scholarship.

The Messianic Secret in Mark

Wilhelm Wrede (1859–1906) advocated the thesis that Jesus' repeated admonition to keep his messiahship secret is a theological construction of the author of Mark. He developed that thesis in The Messianic Secret in the Gospels (1901). Accordingly, the messianic secret in Mark has nothing to do with whether Jesus regarded himself as the messiah. In fact, Wrede held, at the time Mark was written it was thought that Jesus was elevated to the rank of messiah at his resurrection/ascension. Mark conceived the messianic secret as a way to account for a life that was obviously messianic (in the portrayal of the New Testament gospels) but not recognized as such at the time. Wrede dealt a fatal blow to the view that Mark was a reliable historian of the life of Jesus. The evangelists were now to be understood as propagandists, to use the descriptive term, or theologians, reflecting the convictions of their faith communities. Subsequent work on Mark made it clear that the supernatural framework of Mark — appearance of the spirit at baptism, transfiguration, empty tomb — is largely fictional; it was borne of the faith convictions of Christian storytellers and preachers.

The First Quest Comes to an End

Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) produced one of the most admired and widely read books on the historical Jesus in his The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). Schweitzer sketches the history of the struggle to identify and isolate the historical figure of Jesus during the nineteenth century. The title of Schweitzer's German edition is: From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of Research on the Life of Jesus.

Schweitzer identified the basic either-or decisions that gospel scholars had to make. The first was posed by D. F. Strauss: the gospels are either purely supernatural or purely historical. This dilemma has to be understood against the options that were available to Strauss. The pietists insisted that the gospels were pure, unalloyed history. The rationalists gave rational explanations for the miracles thereby explaining them away. Strauss took the view that the gospels were essentially myth, which is a proper and necessary form of expression for the religious feeling. Strauss thus attempted to redeem the category of myth while separating the purely historical from myth.

Holtzmann posed the second: either the synoptics or the Gospel of John represents the historical figure. The Gospel of John began to lose out in the historical wars from an early time. It is so evidently mythical and mystical that scholars were forced to doubt that it contributed much to the history of Jesus.

The third dilemma was adopted by Schweitzer himself: Either Jesus was an eschatological prophet or he was not oriented primarily to eschatology. Schweitzer decided that the eschatological prophet was the original Jesus. But he did not understand eschatology as the supernatural — as the advent of the kingdom as the direct intervention of God. Rather, he understood the eschatological as Jesus the fanatic, as the naïve dreamer. Schweitzer's own view of Jesus was heavily influenced by the work of Johannes Weiss. However, Schweitzer was not in a position to appreciate the work of Wilhelm Wrede; he was unable to see that Mark had woven a theological perspective into his gospel. And Schweitzer did not adopt the two-document hypothesis. In fact, he based his views primarily on a straight reading of the Gospel of Matthew. In the end, Schweitzer abandoned his theological career and spent the rest of his life in Africa as a missionary doctor. While he put Jesus down as a religious fanatic, he was nevertheless fundamentally influenced by Jesus' ethical views. He was awarded the Nobel prize in 1952 as a consequence of his work for peace, for the abandonment of atomic testing and his opposition to the creation of weapons arsenals.

The Narrative Framework of the Gospels as Fiction

Karl Ludwig Schmidt is another precursor in the history of the quest. He wrote a book on The Framework of the Gospels (1919), in which he demonstrated for the first time that the reports incorporated into the first gospel, Mark, were once independent anecdotes that had been orally transmitted for several decades. He showed that their connection in the Gospel of Mark (and the other gospels) was purely arbitrary and did not reflect knowledge of the actual sequence of events.

The Oral Anecdote and the Redemption of Myth

Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) published two seminal works that have endured the test of time and heavy criticism. His History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921; 2nd ed., 1931; English translation 1963) remains the basic reference work on the history of the gospel tradition. His essay "New Testament and Mythology," in Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), follows Strauss in accepting the mythological element in the gospels as ingredient to the Christian message, while insisting at the same time that myth must be translated into modern terms.

Bultmann was one of the pioneers of form criticism, which is the study of the form of oral anecdotes and sayings that constitute the means by which the gospel traditions were transmitted from the death of Jesus to the first written gospel. His History of the Synoptic Tradition is still the basic text in the field seventy-five years after its initial publication. A new history of the complete Jesus tradition is now urgently needed.

His second contribution was his famous demythologizing essay published first in 1941. In that essay, he argued that the ancient gospel was essentially mythological and had, as a consequence, to be translated into existentialist terms in order to be properly understood. Bultmann is often said to be the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century.

The New Quest

Ernst Käsemann called for a renewal of the quest in 1953 in an article entitled "The Problem of the Historical Jesus." His point was that if we do not establish some continuity between the preaching of Jesus and the proclamations of the primitive church, the church is left with a mythological lord. But it was Günther Bornkamm (1905–1990) who resumed the quest with the publication of Jesus of Nazareth (1956; 3rd ed., 1959). The English translation appeared in 1963. It has been translated into eleven foreign languages. James M. Robinson interpreted Bornkamm's work as a renewal of the quest over the objections of Bultmann and other neo-orthodox theologians in his The New Quest of the Historical Jesus (Allenson, 1959). The orthodox theologians, such as Karl Barth and Bultmann, held that it was impossible to recover the historical figure since the gospels were not histories, and they took the view that the quest was illegitimate in any case since it was an effort to provide a factual basis for faith. The old quest had presumably ended in 1900 and the new one begun in 1956 with the first edition of Bornkamm's book on Jesus. However, the new quest died aborning because it attempted to establish some continuity between the historical Jesus and the early Christian proclamation. However, the discrepancy between the two grew greater as work on the gospels advanced.

The Third Quest

In the judgment of some scholars, a third quest was inaugurated by Geza Vermes in 1973 with his Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospel (2nd edition, 1983). Vermes concluded that Jesus was a Jewish hasid and thus belonged to the category of charismatic holy men and healers.

The label "third quest" has been applied to a group of scholars whose work gives allegiance to a certain set of generalizations about the search for the historical figure of Jesus. The first of these generalizations is that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in the train of John the Baptist and Paul of Tarsus. One can draw a straight line from John to Paul and it passes through the heart of Jesus' message. This is an extension of the thesis of Albert Schweitzer who reacted against the liberal portraits of Jesus which made Jesus out to be an ethical teacher advocating the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humankind. The second generalization, which is a twin of the first, is that there is overwhelming continuity between Jesus and the primitive church: we can trust the canonical writers (with the exception of the Fourth Gospel) because they got it right; everybody else got it wrong. The third feature of the third quest — speaking generally — is an apologetic undertow for orthodox Christianity as defined by the canonical writers. This aspect of the third quest is a rearguard action being fought against all who would distance Jesus from John the Baptist, on the one hand, and the canonical books of the New Testament, on the other. Third questers may acknowledge the Sayings Gospel Q, for example, but make little use of it; they are vigorously opposed to any regard for the Gospel of Thomas. And they tend to be apologists for the basic tenets of traditional Christianity: the true faith was defined by the "apostles" who correctly understood Jesus.

Those whose works might be categorized as belonging to the third quest include the following:

E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).

___________, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Press, 1993).

John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 1, The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

___________, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 2. Mentor, Message, and Miracles (New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, 1992).

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

___________, The Original Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996).

Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth. Millenarian Prophet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

The Renewed Quest

The renewed quest is an attempt to reinstate the original aim of the quest, which was to distinguish the aims of Jesus from the aims of the followers. Put more broadly, the renewed quest is designed to distinguish the words and deeds of Jesus from others attributed to him as his reputation grew in the faith community. After all, the two lie side by side in the gospels.

The renewal of the original aim comes to expression in two major ways. First, the renewed quest is focused on the vision of Jesus as formulated in his words and deeds rather than on the expressions of faith in him formulated by the early community. To borrow Bultmann's phrase, the renewed quest is focused on Jesus' proclamation rather than on him as proclaimer. It is a radical shift in point of view or perspective. Jesus points to the kingdom; his disciples point to him.

The second aspect of the aim follows from the first. A basic rule of evidence is to look for words and deeds in the gospels that represent his outlook rather than that of the evangelists. Jesus was not a Christian. However, the gospels are Christian through and through. The residual fragments left behind in their memories of him are the only clues we have to his own point of view.

The renewed quest got quietly underway in 1964 with Amos Wilder's The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric. Wilder dew attention to the central importance of the parables and other forms of non-literal speech. His work was followed by Robert W. Funk, who charted the history of neo-orthodoxy and analyzed two major forms of language in the New Testament, the parable and the letter. He published his studies as Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God in 1966. A year later, Dan O. Via issued The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension. A flood of articles and books followed and the renewed quest was underway. John Dominic Crossan's In Parables, published in 1973, was subtitled, The Challenge of the Historical Jesus.

There was then a hiatus of a decade before Marc Borg published his Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1984). Then Thomas Sheehan issued his trailblazing work The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity in 1986. Borg followed with Jesus: A New Vision in 1987. Crossan came along with his massive The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant in 1991. The flood of books and articles on the historical Jesus swelled to a torrent. Borg published his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, subtitled The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith in 1994, a book that set the stage for other treatments of Jesus as a contemporary. In the same year, Crossan's Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography appeared. Robert Funk published his Honest to Jesus in 1996; it contains, among other things, his profile of Jesus based on the data assembled by the Jesus Seminar.

The Jesus Seminar has produced two reports as part of the renewed quest. The first, entitled The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, appeared in 1993 under a Macmillan imprint (subsequently brought out in a paper edition at HarperSanFrancisco). The second, The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus, appeared in 1998 (HarperSanFrancisco). A collection of profiles of Jesus based on these two reports is scheduled to appear under the editorship of Roy Hoover.

Other books related to the renewed quest include the following:

John Dominic Crossan, In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).

___________, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).

Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

___________, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1993).

___________, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).

Leif E. Vaage, Galilean Upstarts: Jesus' First Followers According to Q (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994).

Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1993).

___________, The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998).

This treatment of the Third Quest and the Renewed Quest represents the perspectives of the Jesus Seminar. The Third Quest does appear in its broad outlines to be a further attempt to connect the historical figure of Jesus with the proclamation of the primitive church as reflected in the New Testament gospels. For this reason, the Third Quest tends to focus on the New Testament gospels and slight the significance of Q and the Gospel of Thomas. It is therefore apologetic in demeanor — a defense of critical orthodoxy. Critical orthodoxy is an orthodoxy but one which adopts the critical scholarly consensus on many issues. Critical orthodoxy is to be distinguished from uncritical orthodoxy and popular fundamentalism.

The Renewed Quest, on the other hand, is by and large dedicated to the separation of Jesus from the views of his early followers, and thus to the goal set by Reimarus and endorsed by D. F. Strauss. The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus have attempted to carry that task to its logical conclusion. And it has attempted to do so by rigorous adherence to the milestones sketched above. Of course, like our predecessors, the Fellows of the Seminar are acutely aware that some of their work is tentative and will require modification. At some future generation, it will be decided whether we succeeded sufficiently to be awarded a place in a new history of the milestones of the quest.

Copyright © 2001 by Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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