Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Quests for the Historical Jesus

Here's a very brief overview of the quests for the historical Jesus.  Some "questers" have recently balked at the idea of three quests as an artificial imposition on history. No doubt there is some truth to their push back, but here is the standard schtick.

The (First) Quest for the Historical Jesus
With the Enlightenment and the rise of historical consciousness in the 1800s, the gospels were looked at in a new way by some. For example, someone who didn't believe in miracles in the 1700s or early 1800s might accept the basics of a biblical story but reinterpret it. One person suggested that it wasn't that Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes but that when the crowds saw the generosity of the little boy, they decided to share their food as well. Someone else suggested that Jesus was only mostly dead after the crucifixion, thus trying to explain his resurrection appearances.

David Strauss changed the rules of the game (1835). He categorized these Jesus stories as "myths" and suggested the feeding of the 5000 never happened at all and that the resurrection didn't happen at all. In effect, this launched a "quest for the historical Jesus," an attempt to determine what really happened and what didn't. Since John was so different from the Synoptics, it was quickly thought not to offer much to the quest. Then in the late 1800s when it became accepted that Matthew and Luke drew on Mark, they were thought not to offer much to the quest except for their "Q" material. Then when William Wrede suggested that even Mark invented parts of the story (1901)--like demons talking--the quest seemed to hit a dead end.

The first quest is usually said to have ended with Albert Schweitzer who wrote up all the material above (1906). Schweitzer's portrait of Jesus was that of an apocalyptic prophet whom, he thought, ended feeling like God had failed him.

No Quest
The first half of the twentieth century is often described as a time of no quest for the historical Jesus. Usually Rudolph Bultmann is pointed to, along with Karl Barth, as individuals who shifted the question away from the historical Jesus and toward the theological Jesus. For Bultmann, the Christ of faith was valid even if the Jesus of history didn't match (and Bultmann thought it was obvious that he didn't). Of course for Barth the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith were more or less the same, although he had no time for those preoccupied with proving it (he rejected the entire line of thought). Martin Kähler also wrote a famous book denying that there was any difference between the "so called historical Jesus" and the "historic, biblical Christ."

New Quest
In the late 1950s, one of Bultmann's students, Ernst Käsemann, opened the door for a "new quest for the historical Jesus." Over the next few years, some very minimalistic criteria developed.
  • The criterion of dissimilarity--if something Jesus said is not something that either a Jew or a Christian would say, Jesus probably said it.
  • The criterion of multiple attestation--if some saying appears in multiple layers of Jesus tradition (e.g., Mark, Q, John, the Gospel of Thomas) then it is more likely historical.
  • The criterion of coherence--if a saying fits with things you derived from the above, Jesus might have said it.
  • The criterion of embarrassment--the followers of Jesus would not have invented something they would have found embarrassing
  • The Aramaic criterion--if a saying is easily translatable back into Aramaic, it enhances the likelihood that Jesus said it.
These criteria didn't cull much fruit. Edward Schillebeeckx wrote a 700 page book with very little he could say was clearly historical.

Third Quest
In 1977, E. P. Sanders' study, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, came out. It surveyed all the Jewish literature from around the time of Christ and showed that the stereotypes of Judaism passed down from Luther and the Reformers through the time of the Holocaust had given us a significantly skewed view of Judaism. The Jewishness not only of Paul but of Jesus himself began to be taken seriously by scholars. By the 80s, all sorts of common sense observations were emerging.

For example, why had the "new quest" focused almost entirely on Jesus' sayings? After all, you can make a saying mean a whole lot of things. Events were surely more helpful to focus on, what A. E. Harvey called the "constraints" of history. The dissimilarity argument also made little sense. Jesus was a Jew and Christianity came from him. You would expect most of what he said to fit on a trajectory from Judaism to Christianity (what N. T. Wright calls "double similarity").

Almost every one of the new quest criteria has a major flaw or qualification to be made. Basically, the historical study of Jesus has been a lot more faith-friendly in the last couple decades. John Meier's multi-volume study, James Dunn's Jesus Remembered, N. T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, are all magisterial studies from individuals of faith.

Dunn has argued that oral traditions about Jesus would have started long before he was even crucified, an obvious model that surprisingly had eluded earlier questers. Dale Allison's Constructing Jesus has again common sensically argued that those who focused on specific sayings were missing the obvious--if there are a lot of instances of Jesus doing or saying similar types of things, those likely indicate that Jesus was remembered as doing and saying those sorts of things.

After a slough of Jesus books in the 90s, the field is probably pretty tired of questing. Nevertheless, you can be sure that in a few years, there will be some new angle and yet another quest...


John C. Gardner said...

The various quests for the "historical Jesus" must be fitted together with the theological Jesus of Scripture. Christianity makes historical claims which are not necessarily matched by other religions such as Hinduism. An additional question for me is how we fit together history, the Bible and science. Some particularly helpful writers are the physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne and the scientist theologian Alister McGrath. These individuals along with Ben Witherington, Tom Wright and others have helped me find the intellectual, historical and spiritual sustenance I lacked while attending a Southern Baptist college. May God bless all of them. I also thank you for your writings-especially the series on Paul.

John C. Gardner said...

Are you working on some books about Jesus for laity? If so, when will they be published?

Ken Schenck said...

Amazon says June 1 :-)

Jesus-the Mission

Jesus-Portraits from the Gospels