The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: a review of the quests for the historical Jesus

by Stanley Pearson

© Stanley Pearson 2020. All rights reserved.


It is generally accepted that the person of Jesus was an historical reality but following his crucifixion the early Church wrestled with how to interpret his life, death and resurrection. Different views arose in different church communities and the gospels as we have them reflect this. Furthermore, there was much disagreement about the nature of Christ, his humanity and divinity, for example, whether he had one nature or two, and this continued for several centuries with various Church Councils seeking to draw the boundaries of belief and determine which views of Christ should be deemed heretical. Schism between Eastern and Western Churches and the Churches of Africa was one result.

The debates have continued to the present time and in this essay the attempts to examine relate the historical Jesus to the Christ of the Church in western thought over the last 200 years are reviewed.

The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: a review of the quests for the historical Jesus

Before discussing the Second and Third Quests for the Historical Jesus, I will first spend a little time outlining the earlier work of the First Quest which sets the background to the later studies. It is important to do this for two reasons. First, because different lines of enquiry established in earlier work can be traced into the later Quests and, secondly, it is relevant to ask why so much time and effort has been expended in looking for the Historical Jesus over the last 200 years or more and what it is that drives the continuing enquiry. There is general agreement that the person of Jesus was an historical reality and so, in answer to the second point at its simplest level, it is natural that there should be some interest in how this person relates to the beliefs of the subsequent religion founded in his name. Paget (2001: 139 – 140) makes the point that as early as second century CE people were interested in the extent to which the gospels were a true record of the life of Jesus and were sceptical as to how reliable they were as accounts of his birth, baptism, death, resurrection, teaching and miracles. Wright (1996:5) expresses the view that the boundaries of the debate about Jesus are pre-Christian Judaism at one end and the second century Christian Church at the other. The First Quest ignored the Jewish context of Jesus, ‘The Jews had the wrong sort of religion; Jesus came to bring the right sort’ (Wright, 1996:6). The later Quests have tried to redress the balance in differing ways. The debate is about the vision of Jesus that might be formed on the basis of objectively assessable historical research on the one hand and that which results from the received image of Jesus within the church, the so-called Jesus of Faith, on the other. Käsemann, who is generally regarded as having initiated the Second Quest, makes the point ‘Mere history only takes on genuine historical interest in so far as it can address both a question and an answer to our contemporary situation’ (Käsemann,1964:21) and so history becomes significant history only through interpretation. In other words, history is not value free.

The First Quest is regarded as having occurred between 1778 and 1906, beginning with Reimarus (1694 – 1786) who began from the viewpoint that the faith of the Church could not be based on the real Jesus of Nazareth, who he regarded as a failed Messiah. Strauss (1972 [1835]) tried to bring Christianity into line with the rationalism of the Enlightenment using the tools of source criticism, textual analysis and his knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and he also came to the conclusion that the Gospel writers were concerned more with the Christ of Faith than the Jesus of History. He was the first person to reflect seriously on the criteria necessary to establish something as historical. This is something that came to prominence and was further developed in the Second Quest. Other significant contributors to the First Quest included Weiss and Wrede, but the quest was brought to an end by Schweitzer who reviewed critically the earlier work and concluded that no useful knowledge of the historical Jesus was possible. ‘There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus’ (Schweitzer 2000 [1913]: 478). However, according to Wright (1996:36) the First Quest gave rise to two distinct strands that can be traced into the later Quests, one which follows Wrede (1971[1901]) in regarding Mark’s gospel as a fiction of the early Church and which is seen later in the ideas of Mack, Crossan and Downing (see below) and the other, which follows the line of Schweitzer, seeing Jesus in the context of Jewish eschatology as seen in the writings of N.T. Wright and E.P. Sanders (for example, Sanders, 1993).

Following the publication of Schweitzer’s work there followed a period referred to as ‘No Quest’ where further textual analysis using the methods of source and form criticism by, in particular, Bultmann (1958[1926]) was prominent. Source criticism examines the age and nature of the sources, their relationship to one another and the purposes for which they were written. An example of such work is the views on the relationship between the different gospels and their relationship to earlier oral sources. Form criticism is concerned with the community that produced the documents. Thus, Bultmann suggested that as traditions are passed down they are modified to suit different contexts and, of course, between the words of Jesus and the writing of the gospels there interposed the crucifixion and the events of Easter. Furthermore, the language of the gospels is Greek whereas Jesus lived in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. Bultmann concluded that probably no more than one third of the recorded sayings of Jesus could actually be ascribed to him, making any historical reconstruction impossible. Nevertheless, it was pupils of Bultmann such as Käsemann (1964) and Bornkamm (1973[1956]) who reinvigorated the study and who started what has now come to be called the Second Quest. They were convinced that, although a study of the Christ of Faith, which had become prominent since the end of the First Quest, was important, unless we can rely on at least some historical content in the gospels then there can be no Christianity. As a revealed religion, Christianity came through the life and teaching of Jesus. The Second Quest, like the first, was also concerned mainly with the analysis of texts and sources, concentrating on individual sayings or small units of gospel tradition, but it differed in its conclusion from that of Bultmann. The Second Quest concluded that the majority of the teaching and sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels, as distinct from the narrative passages, could be regarded as authentic.

To help with the analysis undertaken in the Second Quest the tools of source and form criticism used by Bultmann were supplemented by a set of criteria which have come to be called the Criteria of Authenticity. Various lists of criteria have been produced, several of which overlap, but there are certain criteria which are recognised by most scholars. One such criterion is the Criterion of Multiple Attestation. The principle here is that if a particular saying or teaching of Jesus, or a piece of narrative or a particular activity is found in different types of content or in different sources then it is likely to be historical. It is important that it appears in independent strands of the tradition so the fact that something appears in all three synoptic gospels, for example, may not be important since the synoptic gospels are interdependent, but if the occurrence is both in Mark and in the Q tradition in Matthew and Luke then that is more relevant since Mark and Q are believed to represent different sources (see, for example, Marsh and Moyise, 2006: 71-72). Similarly, it is relevant if the same themes appear in different types of content. Thus, there are a number of parables about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom Heaven (for example, Mark 4:26 and 4:30) and there are also sayings of Jesus which refer to the Kingdom of God (Luke 11:20) which makes it highly likely that this was an important part of his teaching. Jesus is portrayed as having a concern for tax collectors and sinners which is likely to be genuine because it is supported by parables about forgiveness (Luke 7:41 - 47 and Luke 18: 9-14), sayings about the same situation (Mark 2: 15-17) and narrative on the same theme (the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10). However, it is important to recognise that just because something is not multiply attested it does not mean it cannot be authentic. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan appears only in Luke’s gospel but is felt by most scholars to have a high claim to authenticity.

Another criterion is that of Dissimilarity. This states that if a tradition is dissimilar to the views of Judaism and to the views of the early Church, then it can be ascribed to the historical Jesus. In fact, there are really two criteria; dissimilarity from Judaism and dissimilarity from the early Church (see Tuckett, 2001:133). There are problems with this criterion, however. The first is the incompleteness of our knowledge both about first century Judaism and the early Church. Secondly, the fact that something has been preserved means that it was felt to be important by at least someone in the early Church. Finally, there is a danger that it denies to Jesus his Jewish roots. The criterion isolates Jesus both from his society and from the movement which continued after him and this is a problem in trying to get a full picture of Jesus, which is the point made by Wright (1996:36) (see above).

The criterion of Linguistic and Environmental Assonance says that if a saying fits with the context of Jesus’ own day then it should be given credibility. For example, does the saying or details of the parable fit with what we know of social conditions in first century Palestine? Does the saying show evidence of Aramaic as opposed to Greek influences? In many ways this is the antithesis of the Criterion of Dissimilarity and again it presupposes that the investigator knows what would fit, that is, it is dependent of our knowledge of the context of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus was presumably out of step with his context to some extent since his message let to his execution.

The Criterion of Coherence proposes that when all the authentic teachings and sayings of Jesus are considered then there should be a common thread of purpose, a consistent message. It is, to some extent, subjective, however, and suffers from the weakness that it is dependent to a degree on the findings of other criteria such as Dissimilarity and Multiple Attestation.

A further criterion, the Criterion of Plausibility, has been added more recently, particularly by the scholars involved in the Third Quest. As an example, we can take Mark 1:44 where Jesus, having healed the leper, tells him to go and show himself to the priest and offer the appropriate sacrifice for his cleansing. This is plausible because it fits with what we know about the ritual requirements of Judaism at the time. The principle states that any historical reconstruction of Jesus has to be plausible in the widest sense, that is, it needs to make sense in the context of what we know about 1st Century Judaism in Galilee and in Jerusalem, it needs to explain how the accounts of his teaching emerged and it needs to explain why he was rejected and crucified. The importance of this last point has been emphasised by Sanders (1993), namely, that whatever view is reached about the Jesus of History, it has to provide an explanation as to why he was crucified because, whatever else we say about Jesus, it is clear that he upset at least some of his contemporaries and was rejected by them.

The Second Quest, using the methods and tools outlined above concentrated, like the earlier Quests, on an analysis of the written sources of the synoptic gospels and the teaching of Jesus. However, its conclusion was a much more positive one than that reached by scholars such as Schweitzer and Bultmann because it concluded that the majority of the recorded teachings of Jesus could be regarded as authentic and that they provide a sound basis for thinking about the meaning of his life and death. The Third Quest has evolved from the second and claims to be looking at things from a wider perspective. It is currently ongoing and a final view as to its contribution is not yet possible, but the intention is to provide as full a context for Jesus as possible using recently available information such as the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was completed in the 1980s, recent archaeological discoveries and writings such as Jewish apocalypses and wisdom collections and secular papyri. In general, there is an attempt at a more multidisciplinary approach. It also places more emphasis on certain non-canonical Christian sources such as the Gospel of Thomas and reconstructions of the Q material as being early authentic records. Like the quests before it, it tries to remain historical rather than theological. The result is that there have been a number of attempts to understand Jesus in terms of known categories in the world of the 1st Century.

There is some disagreement as to which scholars should be included in the Third Quest. The American scholars of the Jesus Seminar such as Crossan and Mack (and also the English scholar Downing) are regarded by Wright as a continuation of the Second Quest (or what Wright calls the ‘New Quest’) and he labels them as a ‘new New Quest’. His basis for this seems to be that he believes they concentrate on specific hypotheses rather than a larger picture as to how everything fits together (Wright, 1996: 79). This does not seem to be the general view, however, which would include these scholars as part of the Third Quest, but it does seem to me that one of the failings of some of the writers is that they ignore the fact that the early Church was itself part of the 1st Century context, particularly in its early Jewish phase, and there is also a tendency to read the evidence in the light of the theory, for example when portraying Jesus as a Cynic philosopher.

The Third Quest has gone in a number of different directions and it is not possible to do anything other than give a general account of these. As already mentioned, Wright (1996) distinguishes two main directions, both of which trace their roots back to the First Quest. The first views Jesus as being in the tradition of the Jewish prophets preaching about the coming kingdom of God (an eschatological prophet). This tradition has its roots in the views of Schweitzer (2000 [1913]) and Weiss (1985 [1892]) and has been continued into the Third Quest by scholars such as Sanders (1993) and Wright (1996). Both emphasise the Jewish context of Jesus within the Second Temple Judaism of the 1st Century. Sanders put emphasis on the actions of Jesus as well as his sayings and teachings as being of importance in reaching his conclusion. (see, for example, Sanders 1993: 253 et seq.) His view was that Jesus expected the Kingdom of God to be realised in the near future. However, his understanding of the crucifixion, unlike that of Schweitzer, is that the death of Jesus was brought about for political rather than theological reasons to preserve the peace and prevent riots and bloodshed and he suggests that it was precipitated by Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the time of the Passover and his action in challenging the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals in the Temple (Sanders, 1993: 273). Wright emphasizes the meaning of apocalypse in first century Judaism as something occurring in this world and forms a view of Jesus as an eschatological figure with whom the end has come.

The other main direction of the Third Quest derives, according to Wright, from figures such as Wrede (1971 [1901]) who questioned that the gospels were in any sense a reliable source for an understanding of Jesus. Wrede rejected any eschatological or messianic role for Jesus. In the Third Quest a number of scholars have followed this route. Vermes (1973: 223) rejects the idea of Jesus as Messiah and regards him as being one of the Hasidim, one of the holy miracle-workers of Galilee. Mack (1988) believes that early accounts of Jesus’ teaching appearing in the Gospel of Thomas and in Q have been altered by Mark in response to the views of the early Christian Church. He is of the opinion that Jesus belonged to a largely gentile environment in Galilee, influenced by the nearby Greek speaking city of Sepphoris. Crossan (1991) has the view that Jesus belonged to the environment of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, that he started as a follower of John the Baptist but then developed his own direction. Both Mack and Crossan believe that Jesus, exposed to influences from Sepphoris, belonged to the Cynic school of Greek philosophy. This is also the view of the English scholar, Downing (1992). Borg (1987) views Jesus as a prophet in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, someone who is a messenger from God, but believes that his message was concerned with the present rather than the future (cf Sanders and Wright). He also sees Jesus in the role of a sage or teacher of Wisdom. As already mentioned, the apocryphal gospels are regarded as important sources by these authors.

To the above views of Jesus as eschatological prophet and Cynic philosopher others can be added. Fiorenza  (1983) stresses the socially subversive aspects of Jesus’ teaching and practice and the concept of the community of the rejected and ostracised. Sobrino (1978) interprets Jesus as a political liberator in relation to the Liberation Theology of South America.

It can be seen from this that the Third Quest has become a diverse enterprise moving in several different directions and it remains to be seen what the final outcome is likely to be, but Wright has suggested that there are five major questions that need to be answered by any study if it is to make a lasting contribution to our understanding of Jesus. The first is ‘How does Jesus fit into Judaism’? The second is ‘What were Jesus’ aims’? The third is ‘Why did Jesus die’? The fourth is ‘How and why did the early Church begin’? and the fifth ‘Why are the Gospels what they are’? (Wright 1996: 91-112). If the Quest is to be successful it needs to relate Jesus to the contemporary Church and the World (see again Käsemann, 1964:21). The failure of the First Quest was because of the belief that historical research would be of no theological use. The success or otherwise of the Third Quest remains to be established.


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Copyright © JStanley Pearsonl 2020. All rights reserved.