The Quest for the Historical Jesus is a topic that I am both intrigued and frustrated by. You may dismiss this reaction up to my evangelical background but I am like a teenager in the midst of drama. 

“They drive me nuts, I hate listening to them talk! … What did they say? Tell me everything.”

I am both attracted to and repelled by the work and findings of this movement. I am leery of their process, confused by their conclusions, while simultaneously fascinated their scholarship and insight.

Before we go any further, lets see how Justo L. González introduces it:

Historical Jesus: Often contrasted with “the Christ of faith,” the phrase “historical Jesus” is somewhat ambiguous, for sometimes it refers to those things about Jesus that can be proved through rigorous historical research, and sometimes it simply means the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The phrase itself, “historical Jesus,” was popularized by the title of the English translation of a hook by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910). In this book, Schweitzer reviewed a process, begun by Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768), which sought to discover the Jesus behind the Gospels by means of the newly developed tools of historical research. After reviewing this quest of almost two centuries, Schweitzer concluded that what each of the scholars involved had discovered was not in fact Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the first century, but rather a modern image of Jesus, as much informed by modern bourgeois perspectives as by historical research itself.

Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1905-1916).

González goes on to explain that much of the quest was abandoned after Schweitzer’s findings but has recently reappeared in a minimalist expression (what are the bare facts that can be validated?).

Another person that I trust, Stan Grenz, is clear about this historical quest – that its proponents think Jesus:

  • never made any messianic claim
  • never predicted his death or resurrection
  • never instituted the sacraments now followed by the church.

All of this was “projected onto him by his disciples, the Gospel writers and the early church. The true historical Jesus, in contrast, preached a simple, largely ethical message as capsulized in the dictum of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of humankind.”

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1089-1093).

A modern manifestation of this quest is seen in the Jesus Seminar.

I am deeply indebted to those in Historical Jesus research. I never knew any of this stuff (like Empire[1]) as an evangelical pastor. It has been both eye-opening and disorienting (not to mention the spiritual whiplash).

I have problems with so many of the conclusions reached but am at the same time grateful for the depth of engagement and sincerity of scholarship. My faith has been enriched and informed in ways I could never have imagined.

There is just something about the whole enterprise that gets under my skin and rubs me the wrong way. It is possible to be grateful for a pebble in your shoe as you journey?

Even as I write this I am thinking, “I don’t like where y’all  take this… but I need to know what you know. I just want to draw different conclusions than you do.”

This, of course, is the danger of venturing outside your comfort zone.

Why does it get under my skin so much? My agitation stems from three areas:

  1. The reductive maneuver of enlightenment rationale.
  2. The arrogance of assuming that we know more.
  3. The molding of Jesus into our image.

First, the reductive move within enlightment rationale is pervasive in our time. You know that this mentality is being employed when the phrase “nothing but” is used. Emotion and feeling are explained away as nothing more synapsis in our brain. Sexuality is nothing more than hormones and chemicals. Religion is just the projection of our greatest hopes and fears onto the screen of the heavens.

Biology, psychology, sociology, religion and so many other fields are reduced down to their lowest common denominator and summarily dismissed and explained away. I object to this reductive dismissal in favor of a more complicated, nuanced, and emergent exploration of areas of concern by examining the ways that the phenomenon we see are expressions of a complex set of interactions and overlapping manifestations that are mutually impacted by each other.

There is just something suspicious about trying to get behind the text in order to distill the real Jesus away from the presentation (re-presentation) of Jesus in the text of scripture. Which brings me to the second objection.

There is an odd arrogance present in historical Jesus scholarship that dismisses or explains away what we see and hear in the gospel texts. How do we know that Jesus never really said that? I am leery of importing and imposing our modern expectations on an ancient figure. Admittedly, however, the minute I start looking at the four gospels we have in the cannon of scripture I begin to see clearly that the synoptic authors (communities) had different agendas and that John’s gospel is almost entirely novel in many of its aspects. Perhaps my hesitation is because I was raised with a harmonized presentation of the gospel where they were all made to be unified and coherent as one gospel and all differences were dismissed and explained away. I have become very clear that Luke had a very different take on Jesus than Mark – whose text he certainly had and was working off of. The result is that I begin talking of ‘Luke’s Jesus’ which is very different than the image of the cosmic Christ that John is picturing.

Third, it is undeniable that the end product of historical Jesus research often creates a Jesus that is remarkably similar to us. Apparently Jesus is highly moldable depending on which threads in the tapestry of the gospels you choose to highlight and trace. You can get an imperial Jesus, a revolutionary, a capitalist, and even a Marxist one. There is a hallmark version of Jesus who told little boys and girls to be nice to each other and sage-shaman who tapped into the supernatural realm that manifested in miracles from healings to multiplying food to commanding the forces of nature.

In conclusion, work behind the text is difficult but probably necessary. We just want to do it with some humility (especially epistemic agnosticism) and we need to be careful that we don’t make Jesus in our image which seems to dabble in a form of idolatry that should be avoided. Once those three cautions are in place, we begin to engage in a vital and furtive work of excavating and renovating a powerful and important figure of history who has been buried under layers of dirt throughout history.

[1] Beyond the Spirit of Empire – Rieger, Sung, Miguez;  Arrogance of Nations: Paul and Empire ; God and Empire – Crossan , Jesus and Empire – Horsley, New Testament and Empire – Carter