The term "historical Jesus" refers to Jesus of Nazareth in so far as the course of his earthly life can be reconstructed by historical critical methods. The use of historical critical methods has led biblical scholars to recognize the character of the Gospels as theological interpretations of Jesus' religious significance. Directly, then, the Gospels document the beliefs of the 1st-century Christian communities for which they were composed; they are not historical biographies in the modern sense of the term. Thus a question arises: what can be known, by historical means, about the one whose religious significance the Gospels proclaim?
The "Old Quest" for the Historical Jesus. The discipline of critical history itself emerged within the context of the Enlightenment, and those who first urged the distinction between the Gospels as articulations of Christian belief and what can be known about Jesus on historical grounds exploited that difference in the service of various agendas. Albert Schweitzer conducted a magisterial survey of the first phase of historical Jesus research in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). Among the writings he reviewed, three tendencies were operative.
At one extreme were authors who, representing an emerging fundamentalist rejection of modernity, persisted in reading the Scriptures as simply true in every respect. Opposite them were writers like H. S. reimarus,D. F. strauss, and B. bauer, who seized upon historical research as a weapon to wield against the Christian church. On their respective accounts, Jesus was either (1) a failed messianic revolutionary whose followers spiritualized his message, clumsily concocted the story of the
resurrection, and on this fraudulent basis kept his movement alive (Reimarus); (2) the human being whose personality inspired the myth of God-manhood recounted in the Gospels (Strauss); or (3) an hypothesis rendered superfluous to explain the origin of Christianity, since the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, can be accounted for as the result of the confluence of Jewish and Hellenistic religious streams (Bauer).
Between these two extremes were Protestant liberals like A. von Harnack, who played their version of the historical Jesus and his simple message off against traditional doctrine in order to render Christianity appealing to their contemporaries. Schweitzer's own account built on the work of Johannes Weiss, according to which Jesus conceived his central theme, the coming of the kingdom of god, in apocalyptic terms: at the Kingdom's approach the righteous would suffer; a final conflict, both cosmic and earthly, would erupt; and God's victory would bring the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead. For Schweitzer, Jesus believed that all this was imminent and that he himself had a role in its occurrence. Indeed, Jesus entered upon his passion and death in order to force God's hand, but as the continuing course of history demonstrates, this was a mistake; the Kingdom failed to come. Schweitzer's work marked the close of the socalled old quest; the apparent outcome was a gulf expressed in the title of a book by M. Kähler, The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (Leipzig 1892) or, as an earlier work by Strauss had more simply put it, The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith (Berlin 1865).
The Decline of Historical Jesus Research. There followed a hiatus in historical Jesus research that lasted until 1953. The interim period saw, theologically, the dominance of the neo-orthodox theology introduced by Karl barth in 1919, and, with respect to historical method, the introduction of form criticism into NT studies with the practically simultaneous publication in 1919 and 1920 of works by Rudolf bultmann, M. dibelius, and K.-L. Schmidt. These two developments conspired to reinforce the skepticism regarding the possibility of knowledge of Jesus by historical means already articulated in W. Wrede's The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark (1910). Wrede had argued that the notion of the messianic secret around which the Gospel of Mark is organized was an apologetic device invented by the author, so that even Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, offers data not on Jesus but on the community for which it was written. Wrede thus challenged the common-sense assumption that because Mark was the earliest Gospel, it must be closest to the facts and thus historically most reliable.
Skepticism like Wrede's was reinforced in the next generation when Bultmann, for example, argued theologically that any attempt to ascertain historically whether the biblical call to faith had a historical basis in Jesus and his ministry amounted to an effort to win salvation by intellectual works, while as a form critic Bultmann also judged the attempt to reconstruct Jesus' ministry practically impossible because of the nature of the sources. On this view the religious beliefs animating the Gospels formed an impenetrable barrier blocking any attempt at historical reconstruction of Jesus and his ministry.
The "New Quest." The quest for the Jesus of history took a new turn in 1953. Ernst Käsemann delivered a paper at a gathering of Bultmann's former students in which he argued that a "new quest" for the historical Jesus was legitimate, necessary, and possible: legitimate, because it cohered with the evangelists' intention to inform us about Jesus; necessary, because otherwise Christians would have no response to those who charged their religion with being simply a myth bereft of any demonstrable relation to the historic personage of Jesus; possible, because of the availability of a method, form criticism, fostered by Bultmann himself. Even Bultmann's analysis of The History of the Synoptic Tradition, Käsemann could point out, not infrequently traced some saying or deed found in the Gospels back to Jesus himself.
The "new quest" differed from its predecessor in two major respects. On the one hand, it had a positive goal, namely, to ascertain what continuity might be found to underlie the discontinuity, so stressed by participants in the "old quest," between Jesus as viewed through a historian's lens and the Christ portraits of the NT. This goal was by no means a matter of proving the validity of the latter, but it did involve an effort to show that the Christian faith expressed in the Gospels was at least one possible response to Jesus' earthly career. But if the goal was more positive, the "new quest" also assumed a far more critical attitude toward its sources than did its predecessor. From the vantage point of form criticism, nothing in the Gospels is to be acknowledged as historical simply by its presence in the texts. Rather, only those sayings and deeds ascribed to Jesus that meet a set of stringent criteria are to be accorded historical probability. The "new quest" makes no promise of achieving a full-blown biography of Jesus, but it does claim with some confidence that Jesus' characteristic manners of speaking and acting can be recovered.
Three years after Käsemann delivered his paper, another member of the Bultmannian circle, Günther Bornkamm, published Jesus of Nazareth. This first major contribution to the "new quest" established the contours of an historical image of Jesus that would enjoy consensus status for almost three decades. On Bornkamm's account, Jesus' contemporaries might have perceived him as a prophet because of his message about the Kingdom of God, or as a rabbi, because he expounded God's will. In each case, however, there was something unique about Jesus' exercise of the role. Whereas prophets spoke a word of the Lord that came to them, Jesus spoke on his own authority: "Amen, I say to you." In Bornkamm's reconstruction, by announcing the imminence of the Kingdom, Jesus also claimed that people's response to his ministry in the present would be decisive for their status when the son of man, a figure whom Jesus regarded as other than himself, came as eschatological judge.
The rabbis, for their part, expounded God's will through casuistic commentary on the text of Scripture, a role they assumed only after years of study as disciple to another rabbi to whom they presented themselves. Jesus, however, possesses no scholarly credentials, he chooses his disciples, not they him, and there is no notion that they might someday equal, much less surpass, him. In contrast to the rabbis, his style of teaching is direct and almost secular, presuming no prior knowledge of learned debates but appealing, in parables, directly to his hearers' experience. In the content of his teaching, Jesus contradicts the normative interpretation of the Law, making light, for example, of the Sabbath obligation to abstain from work. Even more audaciously, he proceeds to contradict the letter of the Law itself, abrogating the dietary regulations in favor of interior purity. Exercising the power to forgive sin, as both prophet and rabbi Jesus arrogates to himself an authority greater than Moses' and thus sets himself beyond the pale of Judaism. Unique in addressing God with filial tenderness and familiarity as abba, Jesus stands in sharp contrast to the casuistic legalism and ritualistic formalism of his contemporaries. Implicit in Jesus' speech and actions was a claim to authority that rendered him a blasphemer liable to death in the eyes of his fellow Jews. That same implicit claim was, Christians believe, vindicated when God raised Jesus from the dead, and its meaning becomes explicit when they resort to titles like messiah, son of god, Son of Man, or lord to articulate his significance. Thus for Bornkamm and the many authors who followed him, the implicit claim operative in Jesus' uniquely authoritative manner of speaking and acting and vindicated by the resurrection provides the continuity between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith."
Critique and Revision of the New Quest. In time this image of Jesus became the object of severe critique and ongoing revision. The critique, laid out by scholars like E. P. Sanders in Jesus and Judaism (1985) and Paula Fredriksen in From Jesus to Christ (1988), uncovered first of all a theological bias operative in the historical portrait of Jesus that draws his features into focus by heightening the contrast between him and the Judaism of his day. The unrelieved legalism and formalism of that Judaism stem more from the confessional heritage of Bornkamm and his fellow post-Bultmannians than from the historical reality of Jesus' time. Bornkamm's Jesus emerges from a line of German Protestant scholarship that consistently historicized Luther's Law/Gospel dialectic. Scholars in this line, extending back at least as far as Bultmann's teacher, Wilhelm bousset, portray a Judaism which, as a religion of works and ritual, comes to resemble the Catholicism Luther opposed and against which Jesus could be claimed as a champion of the gospel of free grace. This negative image of Judaism, the distorted result of projecting a theological a priori onto an historical situation, has traveled beyond its originally Protestant context, being put to use by European Catholics critical of their church's central administration (H. Küng) and by Latin American liberation theologians eager to parallel their context with that of Jesus. That negative stereotype of Judaism unfortunately contributes to the continuance of anti-Semitism.
Beyond this critique of the theological bias operative in the "new quest," several sources fed an ongoing process of revision of the historical image of Jesus. Archeological investigations combined with literary findings like the dead sea scrolls to yield a considerably nuanced picture of Second Temple Judaism. In light of the pluralism extant among the Jews of Jesus' day, the notion of a monolithic, "official," normative Judaism to which Jesus can be contrasted has lost plausibility. Geographical differences also now assumed significance: Jesus was born to and exercised his ministry among Galilean villagers remote from the influence of both Temple and pharisees and not kindly disposed to an urban center that imposed and benefitted from a crushing burden of taxation.
Jewish scholars like David Flusser and Geza Vermes responded to the "new quest" by advancing the recovery of Jesus' own Jewishness. They highlighted his affinities with Pharisaism, denied the uniqueness of his Abbausage, and argued that his intensification of the demands of Torah and declarations of the forgiveness of sin lie well within the parameters of Judaism. Vermes, in a series of studies beginning with his Jesus the Jew (1973), located Jesus within the tradition of Galilean wonder-working Hasidim or holy men whose model was the prophet Elijah; this Jesus was a wandering charismatic who, taking his place among the poor and outcasts, healed and cast out demons in enthusiastic expectation of the imminent arrival of God's Kingdom. Vermes used a social scientific category when he focused on Jesus as a charismatic, and thus he reflects the interdisciplinary turn biblical studies took with the addition of sociology and anthropology to their resources. That turn favored a retrieval of the full dimensions of Jesus' activity, rescuing him from the Enlightenment's relegation of religion to the private and individual sphere and allowing consideration of the social and political ramifications of his ministry as exercised concretely in the context of Roman-dominated Palestine.
Recent Approaches. Much of the ferment fostered by these developments came to a head in the work of the Jesus Seminar organized within the Society of Biblical Literature in 1985. The novel approach taken by this group of scholars to determine the historicity of sayings attributed to Jesus in the NT and other early Christian documents has received notoriety. They voted on each saying, casting colored beads coded according to degree of probability. They published the results, again colorcoded: sayings in red are most probably those of Jesus, sayings in black are least probable. The Jesus Seminar also takes a novel approach to historical Jesus research by expanding the core of what it takes as basic data. In addition to the four canonical gospels, members of the Jesus Seminar argue, some of the gnostic material discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 ought also to be taken into account. Maintaining that documents like the Gospel of Peter, the Apocryphon of James, and especially the collection of sayings known as the Gospel of Thomas enshrine early and independent data on the formation of the Christian tradition, seminar members particularly prize the latter document as preserving authentic sayings of Jesus. Some of these sayings are unknown to the gospels while, for others, the Gospel of Thomas provides the more original version. Seminar members also greatly expand the significance of the Q-source, the hypothetical collection of sayings of Jesus, the existence of which is deduced from the occurrence of these sayings in both Matthew and Luke but not Mark. This hypothetical collection is promoted to become the Sayings Gospel Q, and stages in its composition are discerned to yield an earliest layer which, like the Thomas material, says nothing of Jesus' death or resurrection, betrays no tincture of apocalyptic eschatology, but rather resonates with wisdom movements within and outside Israel. Indeed, the wisdom sayings of Q-source are found to bear marked similarities to contemporary traditions of Greco-Roman Cynicism.
John Dominic Crossan draws these threads together in The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), subsequently popularized in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. In Crossan's account, Jesus changed his mind about John the Baptist's message of the imminence of an apocalyptically conceived kingdom, rejecting the apocalyptic in favor of the immediate, unbrokered accessibility of God which, shattering a social hierarchy based on honor and shame, called for a radically egalitarian way of life. This was the Kingdom of God, which Jesus acted out in an itinerant ministry to the villages of Galilee. His journeys were similar to the counter-cultural wanderings of the Cynics, whom Crossan likens to the hippies of the Greco-Roman world. What Jesus offered was healing, and, in a context where much illness both physical and mental was attributable to the poverty and systemic violence imposed to maintain the hegemony of the Temple and the Romans, such healing had political significance. In the eyes of the Jerusalem establishment, whose control over the definition of illness and over the means of relief Jesus challenged, his healings and exorcisms cast him in the role of magician or sorcerer. On one point Jesus differs from the Cynics: while they supported themselves by begging, Jesus deliberately sent his followers out without a bag for provisions. By this stratagem Jesus ensured the dependence of his itinerant ministry on the hospitality of those who would receive him. Offering healing, he sought the practice of open-table fellowship, by which he again subverted the social rankings of the day and acted out the egalitarianism consonant with the presence of the Kingdom. All of this set Jesus and his socially revolutionary movement on a collision course with the power structure of the day, centered in the Temple. Thus, Jesus' actions, symbolic of the destruction of the Temple, happening at Passover, could easily have brought about his arrest and execution. Regarding the details of Jesus' last days, Crossan invokes the Gospel of Peter to mount an argument that the passion narratives are spun for the most part from a Christian reading of the OT.
Far less iconoclastic than the work of Crossan and the Jesus Seminar is John P. Meier's multi-volume study A Marginal Jew. Meier's first volume, appearing in 1991, set the stage by considering sources, method, Jesus' background and education, and the chronology of Jesus' life. Notably, he concurs with Joseph Fitzmyer in rejecting the Jesus Seminar's claims for the early and independent provenance of material preserved in the Gnostic writings from Nag Hammadi and thus sweeps aside Crossan's strictly sapiential, non-eschatological reading of Jesus' message. Rather, in his second volume, Meier emphasizes John the Baptist's perduring influence as Jesus' mentor. While Jesus may have shifted his emphasis away from John's prospect of imminent fiery judgment to stress the glad news of the nearness of a saving God, undertones of judgment were never totally absent from his preaching, which, like John's preaching, proclaimed the imminence of God's decisive act. Centering his message on the symbol of Kingdom of God, Jesus both announced the futurity of the coming of the Kingdom and also claimed that it was in some sense already present in his own ministry, a claim that he acted out by performing not magic but miracles, especially healings and exorcisms. From this consideration of Jesus' mentor, message, and miracles, the figure of Jesus emerges as an Elijah-like eschatological prophet of a Kingdom both future and yet already in some fashion present, especially in Jesus' miracles. Meier proposes in his third volume to reconstruct Jesus' authoritative interpretation of the Law and guidance for concrete behavior, as well as the individuals and groups with whom he interacted: the Twelve and other disciples, tax collectors and sinners, Sadducees and Pharisees.
By 2000, the lines of division among those pursuing the question of the historical Jesus corresponded roughly to earlier positions on Jesus' eschatology. Weiss' and Schweitzer's construct of a Jesus for whom the coming of an apocalyptically envisaged Kingdom lay wholly in the future met its counterpoint in C. H. Dodd's assertion that for Jesus the Kingdom was wholly present in his own ministry, to which J. Jeremias responded with a Kingdom which was for Jesus both already and not-yet. In similar fashion, E. P. Sanders more recently emphasized the futurity of Jesus' expectation, while Crossan's and Marcus Borg's sapiential Jesus knows only a present Kingdom, to which Meier responded with a Jesus for whom the Kingdom is both outstanding and yet proleptically present. On all their accounts, however, Jesus is to be understood historically as a 1st-century Jew concerned in some fashion with the renewal of his people, and none would deny that such renewal involved more than a purely religious realm; for Jesus, as for the ancient world generally, religion, society, and politics formed a seamless garment.
Theological Significance. Beyond the question of the historical Jesus lies the further question of the theological significance of the results of historical Jesus research. The very nature of that research sheds some light on the issue. Inquiry into Jesus by historical means involves the historian in a subtle interplay between initial interpretive hypothesis and data, the factual status of which is to be determined; the outcome will be a set of more or less probable facts rendered coherent and intelligible by some more or less comprehensive master image or hypothesis. Historical constructs of Jesus thus involve both degrees of probability in their various components and perspectival definition of their unifying hypotheses; hence, such constructs are in principle always subject to revision. Negatively, this would preclude according foundational significance for Christian faith to anyone's particular version of the historical Jesus. It would rule out as naive and simplistic moves like Harnack's, common though such maneuvers have again become, whereby one appeals to a historical construct as the "real Jesus" who ought to take precedence over the interpretive products of Scripture and tradition. On the other hand, the limits intrinsic to the practice of history do not render that discipline's results merely arbitrary or purely subjective.
The results of historical Jesus research become significant for Christian faith in at least two ways. Most generally, they counter recurring temptations to docetism by presenting Christians with images of Jesus as fully human and historically situated. Second, when the perspectives from which historical data on Jesus are evaluated and interpreted includes Christian faith, that faith may, among other things, illumine the significance those data hold for the present. From this enlarged perspective an interpreter may move beyond a strictly historical account to produce a historically informed theological narrative. Such theological readings of historical interpretations of Jesus are distinctively modern artifacts that continue the christological process from which the Gospels emerged; they may function for contemporary Christians much as the gospels did for their original addressees, even while they serve the ongoing proclamation of those same gospels.
See Also: jesus christ, biographical studies of; jesus christ and world religions; jesus christ (theology).
Bibliography: m. borg, Jesus, A New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco, Calif. 1987); Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (San Francisco, Calif. 1994). g. bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (Eng. trans.; New York 1960). j. d. crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (San Francisco, Calif. 1991). r. a. horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco, Calif. 1987). j. p. meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York 1991). e. p. sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia, Pa. 1985). a. schweitzer, A Quest of the Historical Jesus (Eng. trans.; New York 1968). j. sobrino, Jesus The Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth (Eng. trans.; Maryknoll, N.Y. 1993). g. vermes, The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Minneapolis, Minn. 1993).
[w. p. loewe]
"Historical Jesus." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/historical-jesus
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