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In Quest of the Historical Jesus


For almost one hundred years scholars have used the term “the quest of the historical Jesus” to refer to the academic effort to recover what can be known of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in Jewish Palestine approximately between 4 BCE and 30 CE. The quest itself is more than two hundred years old, and it continues today as one of the main topics of New Testament research. Its basic assumption is that the Jesus of history, as a result of theological development, became the Christ of faith, the second person of the Trinity, but that an unadorned Jesus may be found behind or beneath early Christian literature.

The principal sources for information about the historical Jesus are the first three gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—which are called “synoptic” because they can be studied in parallel columns in a book called a “synopsis.” John, the fourth gospel, is important theologically but contributes less to knowledge of the Jesus of history. Gospels outside the New Testament, some of which, especially the Gospel of Thomas, have recently attracted attention, are more remote from first-century Jewish Palestine and consequently are of little use in the study of the historical Jesus.1

The four gospels share common features, but each is quite distinctive. When, around 150 CE, the idea arose that Christians should have their own sacred literature in addition to the Scripture that they inherited from Judaism (which therefore had to become the “Old Testament”), there was con-siderable debate about the gospels. Many of the competing Christian groups were characterized by the number of gospels that they accepted. Irenaeus, the chief early spokesman for the party that won, emphasized that there must be four and only four true gospels. He noted that there were substantial differences. John teaches Jesus’ heavenly origin; Luke demonstrates his priestly character; Matthew is the gospel of his humanity; Mark’s cursory narrative emphasizes Jesus’ prophetic nature.2 Instead of inspiring a search for the most accurate account of Jesus the man, the differences among the gospels led Irenaeus to insist that all four had to be read together in order to obtain a true picture of Jesus as man, prophet, priest, and Son of God. The Church canonized as sacred Scripture four somewhat different books, but it did not agree on a single portrait of the man who taught in Galilee and who was executed outside the walls of Jerusalem.

During the first centuries of the Church’s existence, in addition to forming a new canon of sacred books, its leaders produced creeds, which presented summaries of what Christians should believe. The decisive statement about Jesus was the formulation of the council that took place in 451 CE at Chalcedon outside Constantinople. It decreed that Christians should believe that he was truly human (“like us in all respects, apart from sin”) and truly divine (“of one essence with the Father”). Moreover, each of the two essences was entirely true to its own character; neither altered the other. The winning party at the council intended to exclude several alternative positions that had become popular: that Jesus was not really human, that he was not really divine, and that he was half-and-half. The approved doctrine (100 percent human and 100 percent divine), which eventually became orthodox in the West and in most churches in the East, established official “Christology,” the way in which the person of Jesus should be regarded.

In the text of the Chalcedonian definition, two phrases are based on the Gospel of John, but the language otherwise corresponds to the desire to work out Christology on the basis of late Greek philosophy and does not directly rest on a study of the gospels. After the creeds established a body of correct beliefs, Christians read the New Testament through the lens of those beliefs, and so they often thought that the creed was simply a reflection of what is in the gospels and the letters of Paul. But were that the case, the Church would not have required 420 or so years to arrive at the Chalcedonian definition. When the New Testament is read with eyes that are, as Paula Fredriksen puts it in her new book, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, those “innocent of the future”—that is, in pretended ignorance of later beliefs—the reader sees that the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament neither require nor directly create Christian doctrine.

By 1800, many Christian thinkers had become impatient with and often hostile to creedal dogma as a whole. In 1906, looking back on almost 130 years of scholarly efforts to find the historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer wrote that academic research had loosened the bonds by which he had been riveted to “the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine.” For many Christians, the historical Jesus—a great and good man—emerged as a fresh and vital alternative to traditional Christianity. The creeds were stuffy, ponderous, and so burdened with metaphysical issues that they obscured the living voice of the Man from Galilee. The historical Jesus would give them someone to follow—if only they could get a firm grip on him.

Once the matter is put this way, it becomes clear that it would be tempting to describe a Jesus who is a suitable person to follow, someone who represents the right ideas and ideals. But, of course, people disagree about what these are. The result is that the selection of evidence often reflects the scholar’s own estimate of what is worthy of emulation. As Fredriksen puts it, far too many portrayals of Jesus yield to “the dark angels of Relevance and Anachronism.” They correspond too closely to the author’s concerns, not enough to those of first-century Judaism.

This is not to say that all scholars are equally guilty of yielding to the temptation to make Jesus fit their own day and its needs. Albert Schweitzer was a notable exception to the rule. He described the historical Jesus as an apocalyptic visionary who incorrectly expected the Kingdom of God to arrive in his own lifetime. Schweitzer then concluded that the historical figure is useless for modern, early-twentieth-century Christianity. But he thought that the Spirit of Jesus nevertheless mysteriously comes down the ages; following this Spirit—not the historical Jesus—Schweitzer began work as a medical missionary in Lambaréné (in Gabon, at that time French Equatorial Africa). Since Schweitzer, tension between a relevant, inspiring Jesus and a Jesus who was an ancient and possibly irrelevant Jew has continued. Few, however, have adopted Schweitzer’s radical solution. Most New Testament scholars want Jesus to address modern questions more or less directly.


The contemporary American reader who innocently goes into a bookstore or library to find books about Jesus walks into a morass of competing views and can only come away more puzzled than before. The distinction between an ancient Jewish Jesus (who may be partly or even largely irrelevant to modern problems) and a Jesus who speaks directly to us may help sort out the confusion. It may further help to know that there is a “mainstream” collection of views about him. The mainstream consists of agreement on major points about the life and character of Jesus, with considerable allowance for significant disagreement on lesser issues. Among the contributors to this approach have been both Geza Vermes and Paula Fredriksen in works written before those under review.

The main components of the mainstream view are these:

(1) Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, with excellent knowledge of Hebrew Scripture, and he was immersed in the issues that arise from that Scripture as well as engaged with at least some of the issues of the day. Scripture seems to have been more important to his outlook than current affairs. That is, he thought much more about how the people of Israel should behave and how and when God would redeem them from their current plight than about the details of local self-government.

(2) He did not deliberately oppose the Law of Moses; nor did he reject the view that the God of Israel is the one God of the world, who had chosen the Israelites to be his special people. Jesus accepted the fundamental Jewish view of the Covenant and the Law, though he may have had debates and disagreements over aspects of the Law, which in fact were rife in his day.

(3) Jesus was a prophet who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. This expectation of a dramatic end of the current age is called “eschatological” or “apocalyptic.” “The End” in first-century Judaism was not the dissolution of the universe but a decisive change in the world, ushering in a new era and establishing God’s reign throughout the world, peace on earth, and plenty of food and drink for all.

(4) Jesus taught ethical perfectionism, that is, behavior that is appropriate to the Kingdom of God.

(5) He did not teach about himself, his titles, and his relationship with the Father, as he does in John. (The effect of points 3, 4, and 5 is that scholars attribute to Jesus much of the material in the synoptic gospels but exclude the teaching material that appears only in John.)

(6) In style, he made use of aphorisms (“turn the other cheek”), parables, and parable-like similes (the Kingdom of God is like…). This characteristic is also at odds with John’s long metaphorical discourses.

(7) He was a healer and miracle-worker of a sort well known in Ju-daism (and related to performers of wondrous deeds in other cultures). The commonest type of healing attrib-uted to Jesus is exorcism; John lacks exorcisms.

(8) In the way common to many prophets, he employed not only words but also symbolic gestures to convey his meaning. One of these was turning over tables in the temple complex, which is frequently taken to be a prediction of its coming destruction, perhaps preparatory to its rebuilding by God.

(9) He was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, shortly after Passover (though John, who puts the crucifixion one day earlier, has some support from scholars).

(10) Jesus’ disciples and others believed that God raised him from the dead, and they started a new Jewish movement, based on the expectation of his return, which eventually spread to Gentiles.

The first point above, Jesus’ Jewishness, deserves special attention, since opinions that Jesus was either anti-Jewish or non-Jewish have been very widespread. Both Geza Vermes and Paula Fredriksen argue strongly that Jesus was completely Jewish in outlook and culture. Apart from the issue of Christian anti-Judaism, the question of Jesus’ Jewishness is crucial because scholars desperately need some sort of setting within which the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus make sense. Long usage of individual selections from this material in the teachings of the Church—which rearranged them and often provided new introductions and conclusions—led to the loss of the original immediate context of each saying or deed, and consequently it is imperative to find a broader context.

  1. 1

    There is a recent account of this issue in Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford University Press, 2001).

  2. 2

    Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 111.11.8.

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