Welcome to a sample of lesson THREE of the Master of The Historical Jesus program. If subscribed, each week you will receive a discourse that talks about recovering information about the life of Jesus. You'll be getting lessons once a week for approx. 20 weeks.
In this lesson we are going to take a look at the different quests for the historical Jesus that have taken place over the past two hundred years. We know that history concerns itself with reconstructing the past including the lives of historical figures. The best that they can do is to gain access to their lives through written documents. They do not have a telescope into the past. They can’t step back into the past and experience what the people in ancient times experienced.
The authority belongs to the historian as to what is historical. The historian to the best of his/her ability tries to interpret what may have happened in the past with the documents that he/she has access to. History can therefore be subjective rather than objective. Historians have their own leanings. They must put that professionally aside if it is at all possible and work on an objective reconstruction of the past.
Consider that you are an attorney and you must go to court to present your case. You need good evidence. The strength of your case depends on your evidence. If you lack the necessary evidence or if the evidence seems unreliable, that will increase the chance that you will come up with a theory that will match what evidence that you have. This theory will be weak because you do not have enough evidence to even postulate your theory. Your theory of the case turns into fiction rather than fact.
A historian needs to consider the sequence of events that took place in the life of the person they are trying to reconstruct. They have to consider what this person may have been thinking. What where their innermost feelings and thoughts? According to W. Barnes Tatum, a biographer needs to “chronologize and psychologize” the life of the person they are reconstructing.
There are five periods in the quest for the historical Jesus. All use the historical critical method.
Below is a chart of the five quest periods for the historical Jesus and the historical critical methods used in each quest.
Welcome to the exciting and controversial field aptly named, “Jesus Studies.” A brief introduction to Jesus Studies. Jesus studies is an exciting new field of scholarship that aims to reconstruct the original teachings and life of Jesus Christ. Only in title is this a “new” field of study. For two hundred years scholars have been devoted finding the historical Jesus. Scholars have devised many different theories regarding the Jesus of history. They want to know about the “man” Jesus as a historical figure not a theological construct of the Christian Church. Once again, Jesus studies is strictly devoted uncovering the historical Jesus, not the Jesus of Christian theology.
As stated above, scholars have been searching for the historical Jesus for many years. Let us examine the many different “quests” as they are called that have been undertaken by Jesus scholars.
1. Historical Quest (Period 1)
a. Pre-quest (Before 1778)
b. Jesus of History = Jesus of Faith
c. Scholars had long noticed discrepancies in the gospel accounts but; considered them as “a test of faith” or allegorical.
2. Historical Quest (Period 2)
a.. Old Quest (1778-1906)
b. Hermann Samuel Reimarus’ “Concerning the Intention of Jesus and His Teaching.”
c. Postulates that Jesus never intended to suffer and die. Jesus’ cry on the cross, “my god, my god why have you forsaken me?”
d. Postulates that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and claimed he rose from the dead.
e. The Old Quest says that the quest is methodologically possible and theologically necessary.
f. Thus the rise of source criticism: What is the literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke that makes them so similar to each other and so different from John?
3. Historical Quest (Period 3) No Quest (1906-1953)
a. Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 “In Quest of the Historical Jesus.”
b. Postulated that historical methods simply reflected theological interests of 19 th century authors.
c. Jesus was expecting an end of the world that never came.
d. History not needed about Jesus as he has spiritually risen.
e. Rudolf Bultmann postulates that the gospels need to be “demythologized” to get to the existential meaning.
f. Quest is methodologically impossible and theologically unnecessary.
g. Rise of form criticism: What communities, what situations in life, gave rise to various forms such as sayings, hymns, prayers, parables, that were incorporated into the gospels?
4. (Period 4) Second Quest
1953 Kasseman and other students of Bultmann call for a new quest.
a. Gospels are primarily kerugma (statements of faith)
b. Historical method is limited to verifying the sayings of Jesus.
c. The burden of proof that something is historical is on the historian.
d. Quest is methodologically possible and theologically necessary.
e. Rise of redaction criticism: How did the gospel writers “redact” or “spin” the forms and sources found in the gospels? What editorial perspective did each gospel writer bring to the gospel?
5. (Period 5) Third Quest 1985-present
Jesus Seminar formed by Funk and Crossan in 1985.
a. Extended the method of the second quest.
b. “Q” and “Thomas” main concentration.
c. Reaction to rise of fundamentalism.
d. Methodologically possible and theologically neutral or necessary
e. Rise of narrative criticism and social scientific criticism: Narrative criticism points out that however the stories came to be (oral forms and written sources) what we now have is a literary whole that needs to be interpreted as a whole. It is the discipline that studies the formal literary dimensions of the individual gospels. Social-scientific criticism looks at the social world presupposed by the text and asks how does the text reflect or contrast with that world.
Just as there were different “quests” for the historical Jesus so it is with the historical search criteria.
1. Criterion of independent attestation
a. When saying is found in multiple sources;
b. Mark, “Q”, “M”, “L”, John and Thomas
c. E.g., Jesus know as miracle worker, worked among outcasts etc.
2. Criterion of Dissimilarity
a. When saying are dissimilar from sayings or emphasis of early church, on one hand, and Judaism
on the other.
b. E.g., Teaching in parable and referring to God as “Abba.”
3. Criterion of Coherence
a. When saying, etc., is coherent or in keeping with results of previous criteria.
b. E.g., Jesus called God, “father.”
4. Criterion of Language and Environment
a. A negative check of the results of previous findings--if a result could not fit into the language and environment of Jesus’ context, then it is rejected; if a result does fit, then it is all the more likely to be authentic
b. E.g., Jesus spoke Aramaic, possibly Greek.
5. Criterion of Embarrassment
a. If a deed or saying attributed to Jesus is such that it would be embarrassing to early church, it is all the more likely to be authentic.
b. E.g., baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
Now on to the quests!
PERIOD ONE: PRE-QUEST
Period one was the pre-quest. It was before 1778. Once the four gospels were canonized they went unquestioned. There was no substantial interest in the historical Jesus. The emphasis was on the Christ of faith. The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith were one in the same. Underlying the surface, the church leaders knew that there were obvious differences in the gospels and that they needed to find a way to harmonize the gospels.
During the middle of the second century a man by the name of Tatian from Mesopotamia took upon himself the task of harmonizing the gospels by combining them into one narrative story. His work was called “Diatessaron” meaning “Four-in-One.” It was the Syriac version (not Greek) that gained notoriety. This “Diatessaron” was introduced to the Tigers-Euphrates area before the four gospels. It is generally considered that the “Diatessaron” was widely used by the early churches in this area up until the fourth century.
ENTER MARTIN LUTHER
Along comes the Protestant Reformation. There was a revolutionary feeling in the air. The father of the Protestant Reformation or actually one could call it “revolution” was Martin Luther who was a priest who broke ranks with the Roman Catholic Church after much personal Bible study. Luther discovered what the Church taught and what was written in the scriptures did not match up. His discovered that God’s grace alone and not a person’s works was sufficient for salvation. He called the Book of James, which was written by Jesus’ brother, a “bed of straw” because James said that “faith without works is dead.” In James’ defense, he was saying that because of God’s free gift of grace the individual would produce the fruit of good works. The good works were done as a result of God’s grace. They were proof that God’s grace was at work in the individual.
So began the movement away from Papal authority to Bibliology which was the authority of the scriptures alone. This doctrine was called “Sola Scripture” which states that the Bible and the Bible alone is the source for all matters of faith and right practice, not the Pope’s decrees. The Church went from one extreme of the Pope having the authority of Christ on earth (actually the Pope is called “The Vicar of Christ” this literally means, according to Roman Catholic doctrine that the Pope is infallible) this is called the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Luther went to the other extreme and set the Bible as the object of worship (this is called Bibliology this means that the Bible is infallible). So the Roman Catholics have the Pope and the Protestants have the Bible. What about the rest of us? Where does Jesus fit into all of this? How can this split have possibly helped in the spreading Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God? We are lost in the middle. The historical Jesus didn’t fit into the equation of either the Catholics or the Protestants. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom turned into a message about Jesus as the half man/half divine being who was also GOD incarnate. So we go from the message of the Kingdom of God, God’s sovereign reign that is available immediately to anyone who has “ears to hear,” to Jesus as the Anointed Christ who was also God (Jesus was God the Son) and who came to die for the sins of the world.
If the Father is God and Jesus is God, Christianity is no longer monotheistic. At the moment that the doctrine of Jesus as God in the flesh was established, Christianity became polytheistic. They now had two gods. Later on, after Jesus breathes the Spirit into the disciples to empower them to spread the message of the Kingdom, this Spirit becomes the person (male of course) named the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is GOD too! So now Christianity has three gods!
But enter the doctrine of the Trinity and as the song goes, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” That is as far as I am going with this subject. I will refrain from any further comments for a different paper or dissertation.
On to the next quest for the historical Jesus.
ENTER THE ENLIGHTENMENT
The Enlightenment was a time when the quest for the historical Jesus started taking shape. There was a renewed interest in the literary relationship between the four gospels. The intellectual setting rather than the strictly dogmatic study of the historical Jesus and the gospels gave the scholar freedom to pursue their studies without regard to what the Church taught about Jesus. So the gospels and Jesus were viewed as different from what the church taught.
PERIOD TWO: OLD QUEST (1778-1906)
The father of this quest was Hermann Samuel Reimarus in 1778. He was from Hamburg, Germany and a professor of Oriental languages. During his lifetime, he never talked about his personal historical quest for Jesus. Even during the Enlightenment period there was still some censorship of freedom of speech by the religious hierarchy. He could have lost his academic post and perhaps been put in jail for his opinions on the historical Jesus.
In fear of retribution, Reimarus’ views, which were mostly negative toward Christianity, did not become published until after his death. Between 1774-1778 some fragments of his work began to be discovered and were published. In 1778 the seventh fragment was published entitled “On the Intention of Jesus and His Disciples.”
In this work, Reimarus distinctly drew a line between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. In his work Reimarus said that Jesus and his disciples were establishing a earthly kingdom with himself as the Messiah. Jesus’ ministry was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that was coming immediately within their lifetime. He points to when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the people wanted to crown him as king. This was in fulfillment of the prophecy:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9
Jesus was executed and the sign over the cross stated what he was charged with and subsequently executed for, “King Of The Jews.” When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34), Reimarus concludes,
“It was clearly then not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer or to die, but to build up a worldly kingdom, and to deliver the Israelites from bondage. It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated.”
As you can see, this is in direct contradiction to what the gospels teach according to Church doctrine. The gospels portray Jesus as a spiritual Messiah. Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection were to atone for the sins of mankind.
Reimarus said that the disciples invented this “suffering Messiah” concept:
“The new system of a suffering spiritual savior, which no one had ever known or thought before, was invented only because the first hopes failed.”
Reimarus said that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body to make it look like Jesus had bodily resurrected from the dead and thus he had atoned for the sins of the world. Reimarus used Matthew 28:11-15 as historical:
“Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among Jews until this day.”
Although Reimarus’ historical reconstruction of Jesus was questionable, he did make an important contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. The spiritual Messiah and the Jesus taught by the Church in the gospels were not equivalent to each other. This discontinuity between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history was a major breakthrough for the quests in the nineteenth century. It was methodologically possible and theologically necessary to recover the historical teaching of the man Jesus.
As far as the examination of the four Gospels, they were considered important in the quest for the historical Jesus. The gospel of Mark emerged as the most reliable of the gospels because it was the earliest to be written and considered highly reliable in regards to the historicity of the mission of Jesus. The gospel of John was considered practically irrelevant. The gospel of Q, an early source of Jesus’ teachings, was considered highly reliable in reconstructing the teachings of Jesus.
During this period there emerged the recognition that Jesus should be understood within the context of the first century, Second Temple Judaism in Palestinian culture. In other words, Jesus was historically embedded in the culture of his day. If you take Jesus out of his historical context of first century Judaism then you have misunderstood his message. We know that the Jewish people of the first century were expecting a Kingly messiah who would bring in the reign of God, defeat the oppressive Roman authorities and establish a Jewish nation.
Reimarus used his quest to discredit Christianity. But as a result of his work, many who believed in the doctrines of the Church sought the historical Jesus. This nineteenth century theological movement was called Protestant liberalism. It does not mean “liberalism” as is negatively referred to in modern day theological circles. These scholars wanted to establish a firm foundation for Christian belief and practice. They stressed the faith of Jesus rather than faith in Jesus. They did not look at the gospels or the creeds but at the historical personality and original teachings of Jesus. According to liberal theology, Jesus was a teacher and taught the “Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.” Liberal theology postulated that the Kingdom of God was attainable on earth by following Jesus’ commandments, to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.
H.J. Holtzmann, a German scholar, exemplifies nineteenth century Jesus scholarship, liberal theology and gospel criticism. He was the postulator of the “two-document hypothesis,” stating that Mark was the earliest gospel written.
In his study of the synoptic gospels in 1863, Holtzmann made a short description of the life of Jesus using Mark’s gospel. By arranging Jesus’ ministry into stages he showed how Jesus gradually became aware of his call by God to be the Messiah. His work of source analysis and development of the historical Jesus was highly esteemed among liberal theologians in the nineteenth century.
In conclusion, the “old quest” or the nineteenth century quest was characterized by great variety. It was also held that the search for the historical Jesus was theologically necessary. Many biographies of Jesus were written by historians, scholars, and amateurs alike. They told the story of Jesus by arranging his activities into distinct time periods and related that to how Jesus might have understood himself and his mission.
The most infamous of these writings was by German Protestant David Friedrich Strauss entitled, “ Life of Jesus Critically Examined.” 1846 (English Translation)
Another writing was by French Catholic Ernest Renan entitled, “Life of Jesus.”
Strauss ended up forfeiting his chance for academic post as a result of his work and Renan did lose his academic post. So much for the Enlightenment!
Any story of the life of Jesus or a biography of Jesus that arranges his activities chronologically and tries to understand the thought world of Jesus during his ministry is an example of the “old quest” mentality.
In our next lesson we will be looking at the work of Albert Schweitzer. But if you would like to look at a detailed account of this “old quest” that we have just studied, I would direct you to his remarkable and groundbreaking work entitled, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.” You can find it by clicking on the link below.
Do you think that Martin Luther helped in opening the door to historical Jesus studies? Why or why not?
Why was it so difficult for believers to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith?
What is your opinion of Reimarus’ theory that Christ’s body was stolen from the cross?
Since we did not go into great detail on each and every gospel, I have provided some additional information for additional study. Sometimes you will find a question that invokes some thought. Other times there may be something that you may like to comment on for your own personal enrichment and perhaps will provoke further study. This is not a graded exercise. It is for your personal reflection. Please post your thoughts on the forum.
Please post your comments in the appropriate section. I.E. POINTS TO PONDER: LESSON THREE-post your thoughts there and so forth.
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