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The Historical Jesus Quest Revisited

An ignorance of the history of New Testament scholarship can only lead to a repetition of its mistakes.

By Gregory W. Dawes
Senior Lecture in Religious Studies
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

    Faced with yet another book about "the historical Jesus," the reader could be excused an inward groan. Can anything new be said about this most well-worn of scholarly topics? After two hundred years of discussion, with no sign of agreement in sight, should we not lay the issue to rest, as one on which no further progress is possible? Why should any new book be taken seriously? As the editor of a recently published anthology, The Historical Jesus Quest: Landmarks in the Search for the Jesus of History, I would expect to face similar questions. I was, therefore, delighted when one of the editors of this website invited me to offer an explanation. For although I am reluctant to add to the volume of literature on this topic, I believe that the publication of such an anthology is both necessary and timely.

    I would like to begin with a short story on an apparently unrelated topic. Some months ago, I was doing some research in the library of our local Medical School, investigating an issue in the history of medicine. As it happened, the books I was looking for were not new: one was published in 1950 and another in 1963. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that the main body of the library contained very few books of that age. All books more than ten or fifteen years old had been consigned to the "stack," a storage facility some blocks away from the Medical School. Although the second of the books I was looking for had been published within my own lifetime, it was thought to be already outdated. The library authorities had assumed it was not the kind of book that the medical students of today would be consulting regularly.

    In the field of medical science, of course, this is a reasonable assumption. Medicine is a field in which progress is very rapid. I myself would be dismayed if my doctor were to rely on the knowledge he was taught in medical school. I expect him to keep up to date. Even the medical knowledge of five years ago might, in some fields, be overtaken by more recent discoveries. So the medical librarians were not wrong to consign so many books to their storage facility. It would, however, be tragic if this assumption were carried over into all other fields of knowledge.

    In the humanities, in particular, we should not assume that the latest book is necessarily the best. There are many fields in which no new evidence has been unearthed: the texts we are studying today are the same as those that were being studied fifty or a hundred years ago. What makes a difference is not so much the discovery of new evidence — a rare thing in many of our fields — but the quality of mind which the scholar brings to bear on the old evidence. In a word, many of us spend our days not so much discovering new facts as reinterpreting old ones. There is no reason to assume we will do that job any better than our predecessors!

    The historical study of religions and, in particular, the study of the origins of Christianity conforms to this pattern. Here, too, the latest book does not necessarily represent an advance in our knowledge. It is true that there have been some new discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, first found in 1947, or the library of the ancient Gnostic community at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, first uncovered in 1945. While Nag Hammadi texts have been particularly important, since they include a complete text of the ancient Gospel of Thomas, their relevance to the historical Jesus debate has been hotly contested. Similar remarks may be made about the Dead Sea Scrolls. While they offer invaluable knowledge of the world in which Jesus lived, they tell us little of immediate interest for the student of Christian origins. For the most part, the evidence we have today is the same as that which our predecessors had in the nineteenth century. Even when our more recent books do offer brilliant new interpretations, even when they make use of these recent discoveries to shed light on the figure of Jesus, they rarely make the older works obsolete. The serious studies of the historical figure of Jesus which were written in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries can still be re-read with profit.

    Indeed, the older works ought to be re-read. For if we are ignorant of the history of scholarship, then we are condemned to repeat both the discoveries and the mistakes of our predecessors. There is some evidence this is occurring, certainly at a more popular level. For instance, we can be grateful for the provocative work of the Jesus Seminar, which has brought the historical Jesus debate to a general audience. But some of the depictions of Jesus which emerge from this group — a figure who preached a message of radical justice or who overturned the social and ethical conventions of his time — look suspiciously like the nineteenth-century "liberal" views of Jesus attacked by Johannes Weiss in 1892 and by Albert Schweitzer in 1901. On the other side of the debate, the criticisms of the Jesus Seminar put forward by Luke Timothy Johnson in his 1996 work The Real Jesus merely repeat in a modern context the arguments put forward more than a century earlier by the German theologian Martin Kähler.

    In fact, if we are really to understand this debate, we need to go back further still. We should begin not in the nineteenth century but in the seventeenth. For it was as a result of the intellectual changes of the seventeenth century that the historical Jesus question first emerged. It was only when the new knowledge of that age — in astronomy, history, and the natural sciences — broke apart the biblical framework that the authority of the Bible could be called into question. Only then could one begin to distinguish between what the Bible said and what (perhaps) "really happened." We can witness this process in the work of Benedict Spinoza (1632–77), whose Tractatus Theologico-Politicus first set forth the programme for a thoroughly historical form of biblical interpretation. While Spinoza wrote little about Jesus — his background was, after all, Jewish, not Christian — it was easy to see where his method would lead.

    Where Spinoza's new method of biblical interpretation led was, in the first instance, the deeply sceptical work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768). Reimarus argued that the historical figure of Jesus was perfectly comprehensible within the framework of the Jewish world out of which he came. Jesus was caught up in the Messianic expectations of his age. He hoped for a very this-worldly revolution that would put him on the throne as the ruler of a restored kingdom of Israel. While awaiting these events, Jesus preached a simple moral message that put him at odds with the Jewish authorities. When his mission ended in his tragic death, his disciples were dismayed. They feared they would now lose the position of influence which association with Jesus had brought them. They, therefore, reformulated Jesus' teaching and invented the story of his resurrection. They proclaimed Jesus to have been a suffering Messiah, whose tragic death was part of God's plan, to bring about the forgiveness of sins. That plan was confirmed, they maintained, when God raised Jesus from the dead. But this new message, which became the orthodox Christian faith, was nothing less than a fiction, a deliberate fraud perpetrated by Jesus' followers. The message of the Christian churches is, therefore, a falsehood through and through; it has no foundation in historical fact.

    There are critics in our own time whose views are almost as radical as those of Reimarus. One thinks, for instance, of recent suggestions that Jesus is an entirely mythical figure created out of Jewish messianic hopes and the pagan idea of a dying and rising god. What such critics need to realize is that such radical positions are not new and that in the past they have been severely criticized. Reimarus' successors, for example, were reluctant to accept his accusations of fraud. The great nineteenth-century scholar David Friedrich Strauss (1808–74) agreed with Reimarus that much of what we find in the Gospels was not historically accurate. But he also argued that this non-historical or (as he called it) "mythical" material could have been produced in good faith. What Reimarus failed to recognize, Strauss argued, was the creative power of the religious imagination. Even the story of Jesus' resurrection, for instance, could have been produced in good faith. It was probably rooted in hallucinatory experiences which overcome the grieving disciples after Jesus' death as they tried to understand what had happened to their master.

    While Strauss helps us to understand the origin and purpose of the mythical material in the Gospels, he offers little in the way of a reconstruction of Jesus' life. The next major step in this debate came with the work of Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) and Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965). While all scholars agreed that the core of Jesus' message was his proclamation of "the kingdom of God," it was not at all clear what this phrase meant. In a way which resembles the work of the Jesus Seminar in our own time, nineteenth-century theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89) understood this "kingdom" to be primarily a moral reality. They thought of the kingdom of God as (in Ritschl's words) "the organization of humanity through action inspired by love," an ideal which is both a gift from God and a task to be undertaken by the followers of Jesus. Both Weiss and Schweitzer argued that this way of understanding the kingdom of God is profoundly unhistorical. It takes no account of the apocalyptic worldview of late second-Temple Judaism. The apocalyptic thinkers of the age understood the kingdom of God as a radical reversal in the conditions of earthly life, to be brought about by God alone. Such thinkers, and Jesus was among them, believed that God was about to inaugurate this kingdom. The time was now short; the urgent task laid upon human beings was not that of "building the kingdom" (a task which God alone could undertake). It was that of preparing for the kingdom by living here and now a life worthy of that new age. Schweitzer argued that Jesus went to his death in an attempt "to force God's hand," as it were, confident that his death would bring about this longed-for consummation of history.

    But if this is the case, what can we make of Jesus' message today? For we now know that in a certain sense he was mistaken. The longed-for "kingdom of God" did not arrive. The apocalyptic hope lingered on, in the expectation that Jesus would return in glory to inaugurate the new age, but this was projected into an increasingly distant future. If this picture of Jesus is historically accurate, it is not very comforting to the believer. Who wants to put his faith in a figure who can only be described as a failed apocalyptic prophet? It is not surprising that even today many scholars play down this aspect of Jesus' teaching. Schweitzer himself spent much of his life attempting to develop an ethic of "reverence for life." While he believed that such an ethic would be rooted in the teaching of Jesus, he hoped it could stand independently of the discredited apocalyptic worldview out of which Jesus' teaching had come.

    Given these sceptical results, we can readily understand why the historical method soon came under fire. The criticisms began with the work of Martin Kähler (1835–1912), but they reached their high point in the work of Karl Barth (1886–1968) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). Barth and Bultmann had many famous disagreements, but they were at one in their attempt to undo the damage brought about by historical criticism. In particular, they both rejected the idea that a theology could be built on the results of historical research. Their favoured opponent in this respect was the philosopher and theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923). Troeltsch had insisted that theologians must come to terms with the historical consciousness of the modern age. Christianity could no longer claim to be an entirely unique phenomenon in the world of religions. Since the seventeenth century, Christianity could only be regarded as one religion among others, whose claims to authority needed to be demonstrated rather than taken for granted. 

    Barth and Bultmann, on the other hand, regarded Troeltsch's approach as a betrayal of the properly theological task. They also realized that it was doomed to failure: once Christianity came to be seen as merely one religion among others, its claims to authority would soon be undermined. They, therefore, opposed this development from the very outset. Theologians, they argued, were faced not with "a religion," to be understood in historical terms, but with a divine revelation. Just as there is an "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and the world, so there is an infinite distance between Christianity as a religion and the revelation of which it is a vehicle. The historian might understand the religion, but he or she has no access to the revelation. Revelation can be expressed and understood only in the terms that God himself has provided. Indeed, the revelation of God represents a condemnation of "religion," understood as the attempt by human beings to understand God and to attain union with God by their own efforts. Insofar as the apocalyptic language of the New Testament speaks of the destruction of the present world order and the creation of a new world by God, it reminds us that union with God lies entirely beyond the capacity of human beings. It can be attained only by God's gift.

    The work of Karl Barth in particular represents an extraordinary theological synthesis. But its effect on religious thought has been almost entirely pernicious. For Barthian theology has encouraged a "retreat to commitment," a style of thinking which is prepared to defy even the most minimal standards of rationality, standards on which the entire academic enterprise depends. Even on theological grounds, its defiance of historical claims seems untenable, if belief in the incarnation is to be taken seriously. The Jesus of history matters, not just to the historian, but also to the believer. It was on these grounds that Bultmann's former student, Ernst Käsemann (1906–98), re-opened the historical Jesus debate, in a speech given in 1953, in which he raised, once again, the questions which Bultmann had tried so hard to suppress.

    It is this history of scholarship of which we need to be aware if we are to avoid simply repeating the discoveries and mistakes of our predecessors. It is not at all clear that a satisfactory answer can be given to the questions they raised. (Some reflections on this topic can be found in my forthcoming book, The Historical Jesus Question: The Challenge of History to Religious Authority, to be jointly published later this year by Deo Publishing in Leiden and Westminster John Knox.) But if an answer can be given, it will only be found after a careful examination of the answers of the past.

Gregory W. Dawes is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand