The History of Historical Jesus Research

Written by:   Luke Muehlhauser on November 30, 2008 in Historical Jesus

Jesus of Nazareth may be the most important person in the history of Western Civilization, but we know little about him. As with most ancient persons, our sources for the life of Jesus are few, contradictory, and mixed up with myth and legend. It’s not surprising that scholars and religious groups assert radically different ideas about who Jesus was.

Another problem is that for most of history, scholars didn’t even try to use objective scientific/historical methods to find out who Jesus was. Historical Jesus research is a young, exciting field of study, with important new works being published each year.

Scholars think of historical Jesus research as having four stages:

  • No Quest: 26-1738
  • Old Quest: 1738-1940s
  • New Quest: 1950s-1970s
  • Third Quest: 1980s-today

No Quest: 26-1738

For most of history, Jesus was simply worshiped as the Christ. The historicity of the gospels was assumed, even though the contradicted each other. The historical Jesus was the Jesus of faith; Jesus was whoever your flavor of Christianity told you he was.

Old Quest: 1738-1906

Seventeen centuries passed before scholars tried to reconstruct the historical Jesus from the evidence.

Thomas Chubb (1679-1747) questioned religious morality and demanded that dogma be subject to reason. He defended Christianity and argued that Jesus’ core message was the imminent Kingdom of God and good news for the poor.

H.S. Reimarus (1694-1768) denied miracles and listed contradictions in the Old and New Testaments. For Reimarus, Jesus didn’t want to supersede Judaism with his teachings. The disciples, dismayed that Jesus’ predictions didn’t come true, stole his body and then invented stories about him to support their individual theologies.

David Strauss (1808-1874) analyzed the gospels’ miracle stories as myths. His book The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined was called “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.”

Ernest Renan (1823-1892) urged that Jesus’ life should be studied critically like that of every other man, an idea which enraged the Church. He read French Romanticism into the life of Jesus, for example suggesting that Jesus wept at Gethsemane because he imagined “the young maidens who, perhaps, would have consented to love him.”

Martin Kahler (1835-1912) drew a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith, and said we should let the Christ of faith replace the historical Jesus.

Emil Schurer (1844-1910) helped launch the study of ancient Judaism, though it was seen as merely the “background” for the New Testament.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) shook things up in 1906 with The Quest of the Historical Jesus. He showed that these scholars and more had only “discovered” a Jesus theywanted to see, and did not employ rigorous and disinterested research. Schweitzer’s own theory was that Jesus was most concerned with the coming end of the world.

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) launched Form Criticism, the study of the literary forms in the gospels. He defended the idea that Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark and a lost book called Q, now the dominant scholarly opinion. He attempted to “demythologize” the gospels, hoping to ignore superstitious claims about the virgin birth of a god-man while focusing on the symbolic truths of the gospels.

The Old Quest was heavily driven by theology, and paid little attention to archaeology or historical method. Still, it was the first attempt to understand Jesus apart from church dogma.

New Quest: 1950s-1970s

In 1953, Ernst Kasemann argued that we can discover more about Jesus than his teacher Rudolf Butlmann thought, and that the historical Jesus is crucial for authentic Christian faith.

The creation of Israel in 1948 brought renewed interest to the study of Judaism in Jesus’ time, and the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi library (1945) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) brought archaeology and textual scholars into the field of Jesus research.

Other New Quest writers include Gunther Bornkamm, W.D. Davies, John A.T. Robinson, and Edward Schillebeeckx.

Third Quest: 1980s-today

By the 1980s, something new was happening. Theological concerns diminished, and scholars used scientific historical methods to discover the Jesus who actually lived in history. New Testament scholars joined with experts in ancient Judaism, textual critics, sociologists and archaeologists.

Because Jesus research had now submitted to agreed-upon scientific and historical methods, a wider variety of scholars participated. As James Charlesworth puts it, today “it is often not asked – or even obvious – if an author is a Roman Catholic priest… a liberal Christian, a conservative Christian, a Jew, an agnostic, or an atheist.”

Major scholars of the Third Quest include David FlusserGeza VermesE.P. SandersMarcus BorgJames DunnN.T. WrightJ.P. MeierJohn Dominic CrossanGerd Theissen,Paula FredricksenGerd LudemannBruce ChiltonGary Habermas, and L.T. Johnson.

In 1985, Robert Funk founded the Jesus Seminar, a group of about 150 scholars in biblical studies and related fields. They discuss the historical Jesus and then vote on what they think is historical or not historical. Also, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion launched The Jesus Project this month, another gathering of scholars to investigate the historical Jesus.

Due to inevitable prejudice and the scarcity of good evidence from Jesus’ time, modern scholars have a wide range of opinions on who the Historical Jesus was: Jesus the Myth, Jesus the Wisdom Sage, Jesus the Social Prophet, Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Hellenistic Hero, Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet, and more.

New discoveries and perspectives are also being drawn from existing evidence. Dennis MacDonald recently found that some gospel stories emulate the Homeric epics in great detail. Next year I look forward to new books on the historical Jesus from Richard Carrier and Robert Price.

Though the scientific study of the historical Jesus has just begun,1 we should be grateful for the current state of Jesus research. By comparison, the Quest for the Historical Muhammad has only just begun, and similar quests for a historical Buddha, Abraham, Lao Tzu, or Socrates may always be impossible.