Sunday, Nov 03, 2002: “Three Quests for the Historical Jesus”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”  a reflection of God’s Work on Salvation in Jesus Christ

“Three Quests for the Historical Jesus”

Sunday, November 3, 2002


One of the most important and hotly contested topics of discussion for Christians is the person of Jesus Christ.  For more than 100 years, Christian scholars have attempted in various ways to conduct a “Search for the Historical Jesus.”  Theologians today are proposing new approaches, yet approaches that are still based on Scripture and tradition, of answering Jesus’ ancient question to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”  Over the course of six weeks Mike Kreutzer will lead us in trying to ask the right questions and help us to offer possible approaches to answer it.  Following are Mike’s notes on the discussion from the second session.

Sunday, November 3:  “Three Quests for the Historical Jesus”   For over a century, scholars have been searching for “the historical Jesus.”  What do we mean by that?  Why three quests?

Prior to the “First Quest”:  At the time of the Enlightenment, some began to question the stories of the gospels, seeking to find “the real Jesus.”  They tried to apply to the gospels the same principles that were being used to examine other ancient works (e.g. R. Simon, a Catholic priest, in 1690, and J.D. Micaelis, a Protestant scholar, in 1750.)

Hermann Samuel Reimarus, in a work published posthumously in 1778, described Jesus as “a Jewish revolutionary who attempted unsuccessfully to establish a messianic kingdom on earth”; and Christ as “the fictional projection of those who stole his body and pretended he had risen from the dead.” (Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, page 817)  These and other similar writers worked under alleged scientific principles; in reality, they imposed their own predispositions and prejudices on their work.  David Friedrich Strauss in 1850 said that the picture of Jesus had been so distorted by the early Church that an historical sketch of Jesus’ life was impossible.  Bruno Bauer (1877) claimed that Jesus and Paul never existed. Ernest Renan (1863) portrayed a strictly human Jesus.

Many “Life of Jesus” books appeared in the 19th century, attempting to reconcile the four versions of the Gospel.  Much of 20th century popular devotion came to be based on this approach.

“The Quest for the Historical Jesus”  

Nietzsche:  “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), in The Quest for the Historical Jesus (pub. In German in 1906; Eng. 1910), reviewed the previous century of work and asserted that these studies told us more about the authors than about the subject.  He said that these works had neglected the apocalyptic elements of Jesus’ teaching, in which Jesus thought that his death would bring about the end of the world..  He thought of Jesus as “a noble failure.” (Brown, op. cit.)

Martin Kähler asserted that it was impossible to describe accurately the Jesus of history, but that the Christ of faith was the only one who really mattered.

Rudolf Bultmann used form criticism to examine the gospels and to determine their historicity.  He attributed most of the NT to the creativity of the early Church.  The quest, therefore, was a virtual impossibility.

“Sitz im Leben” (“Setting in Life”):  of Jesus, of the Church, of the Gospel (Evangelist)

The Second Quest

Ernst Käseman (1953) gave a lecture, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” in which he asserted that, if the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith could not be closed, then Christianity became a myth.  Faith requires an identity between the earthly Jesus and the exalted Lord. He and other “post-Bulmannians” worked to determine the historical elements behind the gospels and to establish the principles by which these could be identified.  Others prominent figures in the Second Quest are Günter Bornkamm, Hans Conzelmann and Willi Marxsen.


This work involved examining the gospels with new tools, such as form criticism, redaction criticism, and literary criticism.

Form criticism:  examines small individual sections or “pericopes” in order to attempt to determine the original form and context of the event and/or saying

[Example, Mark 8:27-33 —  27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”£ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” ]

Redaction criticism:  looks at the four gospels from the point of view of the redactor or editor, and seeks    to determine his particular theology and how that theology is reflected in individual events and sayings, as well as in the gospel as a whole

            [ Example, Mark 8:34 — 34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

                              Luke 9:23 — 23Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” ]

The Third Quest

The Jesus Seminar:  Founded in 1985 by Robert Funk and J.D. Crossan; 50-75 scholars, meeting regularly, writing papers, and voting on the likely historicity of the actions and sayings attributed to Jesus; they draw heavily on non-canonical sources

            According to Brown (op. cit.), the Seminar’s work is

1)      dependent on several a priori assumptions (e.g. a denial of the possibility of anything “supernatural,” such as the resurrection, taking place, the denial that Jesus could have predicted his impending death, the denial of the eschatological character of his teaching)

2)      the results have been exceptionally skeptical

3)      from the beginning, the Seminar has put exceptional emphasis on media coverage

Prominent scholars have criticized the Seminar as: “methodologically misguided:, no significant advance in the study of the historical Jesus; only a small ripple in NT scholarship; results representing the Jesus the researchers wanted to find; the pursuit of a specific confessional agenda; and dangerous in giving a false impression.” (Brown, op. cit. page 821-822))

Other Contemporary Scholars:

            E.P. Sanders:  Jesus as a Jewish teacher; downplays conflict with the Pharisees; see “miracles” as natural events

            Gerd Theissen:  emphasizes the antiquity of the gospel material

            Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza portrays Jesus in terms of divine Wisdom (Sophia)

            John P Meier, A Marginal Jew; uses same basic principles as the Jesus Seminar but, acc. to Brown, op. cit., page 826), but clarifying their limits

            These scholars are attempting to view Jesus within his historical and religious context, and then to examine the early Church’s understanding of him within the early Church’s historical and religious context.  They give more credence to the gospels as sources than do the members of the Jesus Seminar, and view them as expressions of the early Christian’s understanding of the meaning of the Christ event.