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…

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