The Historical Jesus

Paul F. M. Zahl
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

The question of who Jesus was in world history and what he was really like can be unnerving for Christians. What if the view we have of him, as all-compassionate, universally and inclusively loving, embracing of every single sort of sufferer, the epitome of kindness and gentleness, were not a true one? What if the real Jesus, the "historical Jesus"-to use the common phrase-were different from the Christ of Tiny Tim and Mary Magdalene and "Away in a Manger," that essentially Christian picture of magnitude in meekness and power in weakness? What if the Jesus who really lived were different from the Christ-Child we love and revere? Even Saddam Hussein invoked Christ's all-compassionate character the day after he was condemned to death in Baghdad. And the president of Iran has called on President Bush to get in touch with the nonviolent and gentle Jesus of the New Testament. This is the Jesus "whom the world has gone after" (John 12:19), whose perfect mercy is the core of Christianity.

No wonder the famous "quests" for the historical Jesus have felt threatening, at least to believing Christians. No wonder faith has felt vulnerable to skeptical inquiries concerning the real Jesus as he lived and taught in history's time and place. Factual investigation, especially if undertaken by skeptical atheists and critics of religion, could dig up, from the hidden strata of the past, bad news! It could turn out, for example, that Jesus did not actually rise from the dead. So much for Easter, and our personal hope of death's being not the end of life! Or it could turn out that Jesus' miracles did not take place, that they were wishful thinking on behalf of his later followers and can be explained away.

It might also turn out that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, under touching and familiar circumstances. Or it could be that Jesus was a failed prophet, a man who thought God was with him, but God wasn't. It could even turn out that he taught different things than what the Bible says he taught-for example, that he was a prophet of gloom and doom, a purveyor and abettor of God's judgment, rather than its lessener and softener. It could be, in other words, that Jesus was not who Christians believe he was, that he did not do what Christians believe he did, and that he did not teach what Christians believe he taught. All these things are possible in relation to skeptically conceived investigations of the historical facts of the matter.

This is why the quests for the historical Jesus have been threatening, at least to believing Christians. We are afraid they might bring bad and disillusioning news. The purpose of this essay is to deal with the fear. The author is one who believes that the historical Jesus is close to the Christ of Christians, to the Christ of Charles Dickens and Phillips Brooks. The historical Jesus inspires me even as a Tuebingen-trained doctor of theology. I wish to present that Jesus, the historical one even, who resembles concretely the Christ of our suffering and longings.

The First Quest for the Historical Jesus

Skepticism oddly produced a beautiful Jesus, even a quite Christian and compassionate Jesus, during the first half of the nineteenth century. Under the influence of the anticlerical French Enlightenment, European rationalism became skeptical of the miracles recorded in the New Testament. Yet the figure of Christ himself-the Christian or compassionate Jesus-still had a strong hold on European people. Two writers, both of whom were theologians but both of whom were also gifted writers, almost poets, composed books on the life of Jesus that had tremendous effect, though not so much in America. These writers were David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) and Ernest Renan (1923-1892). Strauss' The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) was translated into English by the formerly evangelical, agnostic novelist George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880); and Renan's Life of Jesus (1863), somewhat less scholarly and also more accessible, followed.

These two important books did what Thomas Jefferson had tried to do in his earlier abridgement of the New Testament (1820): write out the "subrational" miracles, and implicitly the resurrection, too, in admiring favor of the ethical Jesus, our teacher and humble carpenter. The Jesus who emerged in these books is actually not so bad! He loves people, especially sufferers, and has a lot to say in the category of universal and sublime wisdom. If you read them, these books of the "First Quest" are not as bad as traditional Christians think they are. A committed Christian can get a lot from them and their attractive hero, provided you're not worried about the loaves and the fishes or his blood-atonement, and the wounds in his side.

The Jesus of David Strauss, George Eliot, Ernest Renan, and Thomas Jefferson was the object of the so-called First Quest for the Historical Jesus. The church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) basically agreed with the portrait of Jesus found in these books. It is basically the Jesus of Warner Sallman, the American painter, who created the most famous and beloved of all pictures of Jesus. Sallman's Head of Christ (1940) is a knockout of compelling and accessible goodness, humility, and active loving.

Those men and that woman never actually called what they were doing by the name scholars now use, the so-called First Quest, but this is what it became in the hindsight of history. That is because it broke up on the rocks of three other men's work. These were Wilhelm Wrede (1859-1906), Johannes Weiss (1863-1914), and Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). What these writers did was reemphasize, or rather, rediscover, the so-called eschatological dimension in the teachings of Jesus within the New Testament. By "eschatological" I mean the prophetic warnings that occur throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in which the Lord asserts the imminent final judgment of God upon the world, in connection with his martyrdom and death.

The protagonists of the earlier First Quest had been so reflexively (and perhaps unconsciously) hostile to the eschatological Jesus of the apocalyptic discourses in Matthew 24 and 25 and Mark 13, that they had skipped over them in their readings of Jesus' life. It was an important omission, and says as much about Strauss, Eliot, Renan, and the rationalist culture of their time, as it does about the sacred subject of their investigations.

It is definitely true that Jesus' prophetic and apocalyptic side comes through loud and clear in the Gospels. The fiery side of Jesus was left out by the First Quest, or rather, neglected to the point of being expunged, just as the miracles and Easter were dropped. What Weiss and Wrede and Schweitzer did was underline passages that were embedded in the New Testament but had been previously "invisible". No one could figure out how the Jesus who prophesied the coming of the Son of Man with his holy angels (Matt. 26:64) could coexist with the Jesus whose principal identity was constituted by forgiveness and his unconditional welcome to sinners.

For this reason, the "First Quest for the Historical Jesus" became discredited. It was soon regarded as a sort of sentimental prism through which nineteenth-century middle-class Christians had domesticated the fiery Son of Man. No alternative to this breakup was offered. Until 1953.

The Second Quest for the Historical Jesus

The "Second Quest for the Historical Jesus" was inaugurated by the Tuebingen New Testament scholar Ernst Kaesemann in a lecture for alumni of Marburg University given on October 20, 1953. The background to Kaesemann's lecture was 25 years of extreme skepticism in Europe concerning the historical Jesus, which had reached a climax in 1926 with the publication of Rudolf Bultmann's Jesus. Ever since that book, which would issue five years later in an even more radical 1931 lecture entitled "The New Testament and Mythology," it had been almost taken for granted, and increasingly so among American scholars, as well, that contemporary people could know almost nothing about Jesus as he actually was and lived and taught.

The extreme skepticism of Bultmannian New Testament studies, which was accepted quite uncritically by the majority of American Protestant scholars during the 1950s and 1960s, was challenged by Bultmann's own former pupil, Ernst Kaesemann, in the 1953 lecture, entitled "The Problem of the Historical Jesus." It took years for Kaesemann's ideas to be seen for what they were: a repudiation of Bultmann's skepticism yet dressed in European contemporaneity (i.e., not pious). Kaesemann's ideas were picked up by Norman Perrin, and, from a different cultural context, by C. H. Dodd.

What did this Second Quest for the Historical Jesus teach about the Lord? The Second Quest taught that Jesus upset almost all the norms of first-century Judaism by reinterpreting the Law. Jesus, in Kaesemann's view, reinterpreted the Law of Moses on two fronts: First, Jesus regarded himself as a new Moses, with messianic authority to reinterpret the old Moses. This is most clearly seen in the "antitheses" of Matthew (5:21-22, 27-28, 43-45).

Second, Jesus welcomed sinners to his meals and to his student family. He forgave sinners and sought them out in order to forgive them. Jesus' ministry was the triumph of grace over law. Later on, within the early Christian movement, St. Paul taught theologically what Jesus had done in his life. Christianity's famous majoring on grace and compassion for sinners came naturally out of Jesus' closely observed and remembered way of living and welcoming. Thus, Kaesemann placed the historical Jesus in the framework of discontinuity with Judaism. Christianity was not Judaism. That fact was rooted in Jesus himself.

The Second Quest, which appeared at the time of its inception as a fairly minor course correction to Bultmannian skepticism (most people thought Kaesemann was just a milder Bultmann, but they were wrong) was, in retrospect, a conservative reassertion of biography and definition in relation to the historical Jesus. It might not be possible to say as much about Jesus as most Christians would like to be saying, but it was still possible to say something. It was possible to say something faith-affirming and also faith-confirming about the Jesus of history.

Unfortunately for most traditional Christians, Kaesemann's Second Quest did not carry much weight. It was overshadowed by the cultural skepticism into which Bultmann's ideas had tapped. Incidentally, Bultmann himself grew less radical about Jesus after the end of World War II. He softened, and had you actually put him and Kaesemann in the same room, the two men would have agreed about much that Kaesemann was contending for. This is partly because Bultmann was a convinced Lutheran in theology, whose faith had sustained him personally, and heroically in my opinion, when he spoke out against the persecution of the Jews from within for the confessing church. Not everyone realizes that Rudolf Bultmann actually attended church in Marburg, and served most Sundays as an usher-like C. S. Lewis in Oxford, though Lewis would not have believed it of him.

The Second Quest for the Historical Jesus was a failure internationally. But it still happened and is still worth knowing about. For myself, as an evangelical Christian, I can agree with almost everything Kaesemann (my doctoral supervisor) was attempting to say.

The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus

The three quests for the historical Jesus are only retrospective titles. When the quests were actually being undertaken, they were not self-conscious movements: Only afterward did they get the name. The First Quest was a natural tendency, under the influence of the French Enlightenment, to apply the rules of historical investigation to that most important subject of Western culture: the events of the sacred story of Jesus Christ. The Second Quest was an attempt to modify Bultmann's excessive and ideological skepticism in relation to the Gospels' and traditional Christianity's portrait of the founder. What is now viewed as a "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus" is a conglomerate of tendencies, mostly rooted in that most high-profile of all twentieth-century catastrophes, the Holocaust.

People sometimes want to consider the so-called Jesus Seminar, an eclectic group of North American co-belligerent skeptics, as being the core of the Third Quest. That is not right. The Jesus Seminar was a flash in the pan, a sort of Fox News gathering of talking heads, all of whom were united by a desire to throw stones at traditional evangelical and Roman Catholic understandings of Jesus. One member of the seminar might throw a stone by insisting that Jesus was an agrarian reformer, pure and only, while another member would see him as a traveling Cynic iconoclast; and another, a kind of magus or seer, like Apollonius of Tyana. Each stone was thrown in order to shatter the "old" Jesus, humble and meek. None of them really worked, because each was coming from a different direction. No, the Jesus Seminar is not the center of the Third Quest.

The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus is actually an attempt to substitute his discontinuity with the Judaism in which he was born by his continuity with it. Because of the Holocaust and because of its influence on Western culture as a whole, there is a strong desire within the Christian community, and especially the scholarly or theological community, to reverse and even atone for what is perceived as Christianity's tendency towards anti-semitism. The current New Testament fraternity has, since the early 1970s, when Holocaust awareness began to be big in cultural life, sought to stress Jesus' continuity with Judaism, his links to and anchors in the religious world of first-century Judaism. This tendency is especially marked in the writings of N. T. Wright.

A tendency to minimize the rough edges of Jesus' words and ministry in relation to Judaism, and magnify the lines of continuity, is almost universal now in New Testament studies. You can see it in the evangelical community and the Biblical Theology movement within that community, as the attempt is made to portray Jesus as the sum and fulfillment, in precise terms, of Old Testament prophecy and "types." This is not to mention the overwhelming support among evangelical Christians for political Israel today, as well as the recent enthusiasm for integrating into the Christian year Jewish festivals such as Tabernacles.

You can also see the trend-it has become a tidal wave-in Roman Catholicism, with the fundamental statements from the Vatican repudiating evangelism to or among the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II believed that the Jewish way to God is as valid for Israel, theologically speaking, as the Christian way, the Jesus Christ way, is for non-Jews. Liberal Christians, for their part, continue to be enthusiasts for Passover Seders, inter-faith Holocaust Remembrance Day services, and required readings of Elie Wiesel's Night.

The "Jewish Jesus" of the Third Quest is winning raves! Evangelicals love him, Roman Catholics love him, liberals have always loved him. In the world of television, he made his biggest splash with the 1999 movie Jesus with Jeremy Sisto. In that film, it was the Romans who did it; that is, who crucified Christ, and nobody else. The Jewish crowd walked out on the audience with Pontius Pilate, and the Roman executioner, faced with Christ's word from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," replied, right to the camera, "We know exactly what we are doing."

For the present, anyone who resists the Jesus of the Third Quest becomes open to the suspicion that he or she is anti-semitic. Jesus studies in university departments of religion have become politicized. If you wish to consider Jesus from the ancient perspective that he broke with Judaism or established something new, then you will probably be labeled "supercessionist," which is to accuse you of the idea that Christianity and Christians "replaced" Judaism and Jews in the eternal covenant of God. Being called "supercessionist" today is a charge that sticks. It also reflects an atmosphere in which it is assumed that Jesus was a Jewish teacher first and foremost, and that Christianity is, in its essence, a variant of Jewish monotheism but with lower requirements. In other words, Christianity is a form of Judaism-"lite" for Gentiles, Gentiles who do not care to be circumcised, abide by kosher restrictions on diet, or keep a mighty sabbatarian Sabbath.

I myself resist the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus on theological grounds. For me, Christianity is still about Christus solus (Christ alone) and is not just a form of Judaism with the entrance requirements adjusted down. Theologically speaking, Jesus was a Christian and not a Jew. He came from something, but he also founded something. What he founded was different from what he came from. Vive la difference.

What Did the Historical Jesus Teach?

Jesus taught three new ideas or novums, and specifically embodied a fourth. Each of these created opposition from almost all schools of thought within the Judaism of his time. Together, they led to his trial and death.

Jesus' first new idea was that he was a new Moses, having the authority to interpret the old Moses in a new way. This idea is expressed in the "antitheses" of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21ff), as in "Moses taught …. but I say unto you…"

Jesus' second new idea was that keeping the Sabbath, and by extension all the works of the Law, were not ends in themselves but rather means to another end: human fulfillment and joy. Thus he said, memorably, "Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27). We are not objects, in other words, but subjects; and God desires it thus. It was a breakthrough of revolutionary consequence.

The third new idea of Jesus concerned purity and the sources of a person's righteousness, or holiness. Purity, or holiness, does not come from outside-no amount of outside tinkering or tweaking (to use the contemporary word) can make a person holy or good. There must be a radical change at the core of one's existence: new birth. The problem of ethics must be engaged through the inward facts of existence and personality, and not the outward. This third new idea of the Lord's is found in Matthew 15:17-20 and Mark 7:14-23.

These three novums distinguished Jesus' teachings from the "official line" of all schools of thought within Judaism. They made it possible for Christianity to look to Christ as the new interpreter of the Law; to refashion the ideal of Law as related to human good rather than to obedience as an end in itself; and to take the spotlight off the context or environment of ethical existence and place it rather on the heart of individuals. Jesus was therefore discontinuous and not continuous with his cultural context.

The idea of God engaging sinners as opposed to righteous persons is a fundamental fourth fact of Christ's ministry. He said in three places that he came "not to call the righteous but sinners" (Matt. 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-32), and stressed this fact in several encounters along the way. This was a core difference with Judaism, which offered several ways for unrighteous sinners to get back into a relationship to God, but did not regard the unrighteous as the main object of God's connection with the world. Thus Jesus' approach to sinners was new. It won him no friends from any of the leading schools of thought within Second-Temple Judaism (as scholars have now named it).

The crucifixion of Christ was caused by his being regarded as a teacher of ethical heresy and by the seemingly blasphemous statements that his view of himself as the "new Moses" produced. For example, he believed his views concerning inwardness and purity-control opposed the splendor of the great Temple (Matt. 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 19:41-46). This belief of Christ's was later stated by one of his earliest disciples, St. Stephen, who enunciated it boldly in Acts (7:48-53), thereby causing him to become the first Christian martyr. From the very start of the movement, Jesus' novums and his direct engagement with sinners qua sinners aroused opposition. Whatever we wish to say, and whatever St. Paul said, concerning Christ's atonement on the cross, his being nailed there derived directly from his new teachings and his new approach. This is the "historical Jesus."

The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith

An essay by the New Testament theologian Martin Kaehler appeared in 1892 and was entitled "The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ." It was actually a conservative contribution intending to break the deadlock between the liberal protagonists of the First Quest for the Historical Jesus and their more liberal opponents. The essay itself, which mainly concerned preaching, is over-cited today, but its title did provide the terminology for the ongoing Jesus debate.

What had happened, and has continued to happen, was a split developed, an increasing split, between what Christian scholars thought they could say about Jesus as he really was, and the things most Christians believe concerning the Divine Person they worship on Sundays. This split was threatening, extremely so, to the everyday Christian. What if he or she were wrong about the One in whom their hopes were wholly placed in relation to life after death, not to mention in relation to their absolution from being bad in life? The so-called historical Jesus could end up wrecking the Christian religion.

The Kaehler essay, with its paradigmatic title, proved to be less important than Bultmann's 1926 book, Jesus. That book was a dirty bomb! It left little intact of the Jesus whom Christians adore. Bultmann was speaking from a spirited and very youthful place there-in an aggressive, even a condescending tone with which he would cease to speak in later years.

I hope I have presented the brief outline of an "historical Jesus," a Jesus of major novums within a cruciform life, who is more in line, say, with A Charlie Brown Christmas than with Bultmann's Jesus. My comparison is not to trivialize the scholarship. It is rather to offer a "theology of the cross" vouchsafed to Charlie Brown, a little boy in touch with his point of need, who requires that his Christ of faith line up with the Jesus of history. This, in fact, is possible to do, especially if we see that the heart of Christianity lies in its discontinuity with its surround-sound cultures, both Greco-Roman and Jewish. The object of Jesus studies needs to be the difference and not the similarity. Otherwise, why be a Christian? Why not, rather, convert to Reformed Judaism? It is an entirely live option for Christians who stress the side of continuity. Why be a Christian at all if the Third Quest is right?

"Night of the Meek" (1960)

Rod Serling had a lot of respect for Jesus. Before the rise of Holocaust awareness in the 1970s, Serling was one of several Jewish writers in Hollywood who gave assimilation a good try. Serling himself attended a Unitarian church and his wife came from a Protestant background. Nevertheless, he was one of scores of Hollywood directors and writers from Jewish backgrounds who tried to give a little to Christianity in their productions.

The memorable Christmas episode Serling wrote for Art Carney during the second season of "The Twilight Zone" was called "Night of the Meek." In it Serling caught the essence of the Christian message about grace, in his portrayal of a drunken department store Santa Claus who on Christmas Eve receives an unmerited gift and proceeds to give and give, and give again. Serling caught the essence, within his inspired script, of the compassion and the mercy that is Christ himself.

The heart of Christianity, which Rod Serling understood instinctively, is found in the portrait of Jesus the merciful offered in the Gospels. If this portrait is not essentially true-if the Jesus of history were found to be essentially different from this Christ of our faith-then we should stop being Christians. We should either become ethical monotheists, Jewish believers in the One God but without the inconveniences related to circumcision and diet; or, in the direction in which I would be tempted personally, become epicurean nihilists looking forward, at our end, to some form of painless assisted suicide. The Jesus of the Third Quest takes away "our" Jesus, the Jesus not only of Rembrandt's Prodigal Son and Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," but the Jesus of Johnny Cash and Rod Serling.

This doesn't need to happen. Jesus as he really lived was a wonderful guy, kindness itself, the kind of mensch whom Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks praise so warmly in The 2000-Year-Old Man in the Year 2000 (1997). He was God's Son in the form of a man, who showed in human form the "theology of the cross," which makes human advancement possible yet uniquely from the standpoint of suffering and sorrow.

The Jesus of History was the Christ of Christians.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology