I have been giving this blog a hard think. I’ve received positive critical reaction to this blog, but I have not received as much reaction as I had hoped for. I’ve heard from some that this blog is too intellectual, too hard to follow, and perhaps not personal enough. I’m thinking about what to do to make this site a friendlier place for people to speak their minds.
In the meantime, on the Earliest Christianity site, I’ve had on and off discussions with Bgglencoeok, a man of considerable intellect and great passion. Our discussions there have focused on the “Quest for the Historical Jesus”. At my invitation, Bgglencoeok has posted a comment here, and I promised to write a post to go with his comment. You’ll (soon) find his comment below. Perhaps this is a metaphor for how to build a blog audience! First you comment, then I post.
So here goes. What follows is a summary of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus.”
I think this will take at least three posts. In this first post, I’ll describe the history of the Quest up to about 1953, when Ernst Kasemann first introduced the idea of “criteria of authenticity” to determine what materials in the Gospels are historical fact. This sets up a good context for Bgglencoeok’s comment, which introduces a possible alternative to these criteria. In my second post in this series, I’ll describe problems with the criteria of authenticity and with the works of history that have used these criteria. In my final post in this series, I’ll explore how we might approach the Quest from an interfaith perspective.
I’ll begin with a few caveats. In order to keep this discussion as brief as I can, I will need to make some gross overgeneralizations and gloss over significant points – if there’s anything you’d like me to cover in greater depth, just ask me. In this post, I’m relying heavily on the chapter “The Historical Jesus” in Raymond Brown’s important book, “An Introduction to the New Testament” as well as on lectures given by Amy-Jill Levine for The Teaching Company. Please forgive me if I don’t cite these scholars as often as I should. Finally, for those of you wondering what happened to my discussion about religious asymmetry and the invitation to fellowship from Kurt Cardinal Koch … well, we will get back to that. I promise
The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” refers to the 200+ year effort to determine what can be known about Jesus of Nazareth by using the conventional methods of the historian. For most of its history, Christianity took for granted that the New Testament portrayal of Jesus was literally true. But by the 18th century, certain scholars began to apply to the Bible the historical-critical approach then being used to study other ancient works. Naturally, this approach has changed over the years, as the “First Quest” (which lasted until about 1900) was followed by a period of “No Quest” (until around 1953), a “Second Quest” (until around 1970) and a “Third Quest” (ongoing today).
The scholarship of the First Quest is not taken seriously today. For example, the earliest recognized First Quest scholar, H.S. Raimarus, argued that Jesus was a failed revolutionary, and that following Jesus’ crucifixion his followers stole his body and fabricated the story of Jesus’ resurrection. You won’t find many scholars today who view Jesus in this way. But many of the critical assumptions used by the First Questers remain in current use. Key among these assumptions is that the Gospel accounts contain a mix of good historical information along with stories that were adapted and expanded (or simply made up) to meet the needs of the early Church. Thus the job of the Quest historians was (and remains) to sift the valid historic information in the Gospels from the legendary/traditional/redactional material created by the Church.
The “First Quest” proceeded apace until 1906, when the famous theologian (and later, medical missionary) Albert Schweitzer wrote a book titled “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”. In this book, Schweizer reviewed the work of Raimarus and other important early questers, arguing that each of these works sets forth a skewed and arbitrary portrait of Jesus in line with the scholar’s preexisting presuppositions about who Jesus was. As Schweitzer put it, “each individual [scholar] created [Jesus] in accordance with [the scholar’s] own character.” Or as Amy-Jill Levine put it, each First Quest scholar was”hoping to look through a window into history but in fact they were just looking into a well or a mirror … reflecting back their own concerns.”
In his book, Schweitzer offered his own picture of the historical Jesus, one that is still influential today. According to Schweitzer, Jesus was a first century Jewish apocalypticist, an eschatological prophet who predicted the imminent destruction of the world as it then existed. First century Jewish apocalypticists believed that the world was under the control of a cosmic evil force, but that God would soon intervene in history to conquer this force and establish a divine kingdom on Earth. Perhaps Jesus saw himself as a herald for this new age, or perhaps (as Schweitzer believed) Jesus believed that he could force the hand of God to bring in the divine kingdom. Schweitzer put it this way:
[Jesus] lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.
Schweitzer’s picture of Jesus raised two problems for his readers. Schweitzer painted Jesus as a man of his time and place, preoccupied with a first century Jewish point of view that few shared in Schweiter’s day (and few believe today). Second, while Schweitzer describes Jesus as victorious, this “victory” may not have been the one Schweitzer’s audience was hoping to read about. In “An Introduction to the New Testament”, Raymond Brown bluntly describes Schweitzer’s Jesus as a “noble failure”.
The common view today is that Schweitzer effectively “killed” the First Quest for the historical Jesus, and ushered in the period of “No Quest”. The “No Quest” period was exactly what it sounds like: the leading scholars of the day abandoned the Quest to understand the historical Jesus. One important “No Quest” figure, Martin Kahler, argued that the Jesus of history does not matter to Christianity, in part because he saw the New Testament as focused only on the Christ of faith. In this, Kahler views are similar to those of two of the most important Christian theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. My oversimplified take on Barth is this: he argued that the humanity of Jesus cannot be understood apart from the divinity of Jesus – so any neutral, secular, historical-critical study of Jesus must prove to be misleading and illegitimate. An equally oversimplified take on Bultmann is this: little can be known about Jesus as an historic figure, so the focus of Christianity should be on Jesus’ message.
The “No Quest” period ended with a strong counter-reaction, provided in 1953 by one of Bultmann’s students, Ernst Kasemann. Kasemann argued that Christianity needs the historical Jesus – otherwise, Christianity is based on nothing more than a myth. In Kasemann’s view, “the life history of Jesus was constitutive for faith, because the earthly and exalted Lord are identical.”
To ground Christianity in fact and not in myth, Kasemann advocated a renewed Quest for the historical Jesus. But in order to inaugurate a new Quest, Kasemann had to address the problems with the old Quest. To combat the subjectivity exhibited by the old Quest scholars, Kasemann proposed a set of objective criteria by which to judge the historical accuracy of the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels. Kasemann’s criteria have been modified over the years, but they are very much with us today. (The criteria described below are taken from the ones discussed in volume 1 of John Meier’s “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus”, though I’ve also taken material from Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium”.)
- The Criterion of Embarrassment confers authenticity on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulties for the early Church. This criterion is based on the old assumption that certain materials in the Gospels were inventions (or adaptations, or redactions) of the Gospel authors. According to this criterion, the Jesus materials most likely to be authentic are the ones that the Church would have had the least interest in making up. A good example of an “embarrassing” Gospel story is the account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. As the thinking goes, it was “embarrassing” for Jesus (who was understood as being free from sin) to have been baptized for remission of sin, or to have submitted to the authority of an ordinary human being.
- The Criterion of Multiple Attestation is easy to understand: material about Jesus is more likely to be true if it appears in multiple independent sources. An obvious example is Jesus’ crucifixion, which is mentioned in the letters of the Apostle Paul, all of the Gospels and the work of the 1st century historian Josephus.
- The Criterion of Discontinuity is trickier – it confers authenticity on sayings or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from the Judaism of his day or from the early Church. Again, the idea is to think about what materials in the Gospels might have been invented — the thinking here being that the Gospel writers would have created stories that were representative of the mixed Jewish-early Christian context of the early Church. So if a story pointed out Jesus’ idiosyncrasies, or even his eccentricities, the story was likely to be true. In some ways, the criterion of discontinuity is similar to the criterion of embarrassment (and some scholars combine these two criteria into one). Material validated by the criterion of discontinuity may include Jesus’ prohibition of all oaths and his rejection of voluntary fasting for his disciples.
- The Criterion of Contextual Credibility is in certain ways the opposite of the criterion of discontinuity. According to this criterion, Jesus’ sayings and actions should conform to the historical and social context of the world where he lived. This criterion can be applied to certain sayings of Jesus found in Gospels outside of the New Testament. For example, Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas that “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.” Scholars see this saying as fitting into a 2nd Century gnostic context, but not the context of Jesus’ 1st century Palestine.
- The Criterion of Coherence is one that can be brought into play after a certain amount of Jesus material has been validated with other criteria. This criterion looks to see whether a particular Jesus saying or story fits in well with other facts about Jesus that have already been accepted as valid.
- The Criterion of Rejection and Execution favors stories that show Jesus doing things that might have led to his execution. If Jesus is shown doing nothing more than preaching love of neighbor, it’s hard to imagine why the Romans would have crucified him, but it is a different matter if Jesus is shown threatening the status quo and infuriating powerful people. In a sense, this criterion focuses not on validating individual gospel sayings and stories, but instead on the totality of an historian’s portrayal of Jesus.
There are obvious problems with these criteria, problems that are recognized even by the modern historians that use these criteria. Take for example the criterion of multiple attestation – how do we know which Gospel sources are independent of the others? Scholars believe that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are dependent to an extent on the Gospel of Mark, but disagree on whether the Gospel of John is independent of the other Gospels. But who is to say that all of these Gospels are not dependent on some earlier (now lost) source? We can make similar complaints about each of the other criteria. Who is to say what would have embarrassed the early Church, or that any amount of embarrassment would have caused the Gospel writers to change the Gospel stories? How certain can we be about Jesus’ historical context, particularly in light of our understanding that first century Judaism was sectarian in nature and possibly contained multiple and overlapping contexts?
No responsible historian uses the criteria of authenticity without pause. John Meier describes the use of these criteria as “more an art than a science, requiring sensitivity to the individual case rather than mechanical implementation.” But a more thoroughgoing critique of these criteria may be in order. In fact, such a critique is underway in certain circles. In my next post, we’ll look at this critique and we’ll consider whether it’s possible to improve on the existing criteria.