The Quest for the Historical Jesus
Who is Jesus?
When we think about who Jesus is, do we use the looking glass of faith or do we put on the spectacles of history? Our faith proclaims Jesus as the Son of God. Whereas history tells us he was a man, a historical person and a Jew! So, who is Jesus and how do we reconcile the Church’s teaching that the Lord is both 100% divine and 100% human?
What Does the Bible Say?
Okay, that is a big question! Let us only look at one aspect alone. And let me just briefly sketch it out, so you may develop a taste for scriptural study and Christology.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus
The task of separating historical facts about Jesus from faith claims, and religious interpretations concerning him, has been tagged: The Quest for the Historical Jesus.
In the beginning of John’s Gospel, we learn that Jesus pre-existed the creation of the world and was with God, as God, for all eternity. From this belief we can make all sorts of assumptions about Jesus. For example, as divine Jesus must be all-knowing. Yet we hear in other Gospels there are some things that only the Father knows. That is only natural, as human beings are limited in their knowledge. And Luke specifically says Jesus grew in wisdom and understanding. So which claim is correct? The Jesus of history, being a man, could never have known all the things that we say God knows!
Compounding these sorts of problems are discrepancies in the portraits of Jesus that we call Gospels. Did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the beginning of his ministry (as in the John) or was it the reason his ministry, and life, came to an end (synoptic Gospels)?
As theologians grew more discerning of these matters, they started to challenge many of the long-held assumptions of the faith. One path was that of the quest for the historical Jesus. Below are some notes (check their reliability) concerning the main proponents of the various quests!
The Quest began in 18th Century with the release of the writings of Reimarus because of his portrayal of Jesus.
HERMANN SAMUEL REIMARUS (1694 – 1768)
- Claimed that there was no supernatural character in Jesus ministry
- Interpreted it entirely in terms of nationalistic hope and political ambition
- Argued that Christianity was not based in divine revelation but in human failure and fraud.
- Depicted Jesus as a Jewish prophet whose proclamation of the Kingdom of God was not intended to be the beginning of a new religion but the reform of the old
David Strauss (1808 -1874) pioneered the search for the "Historical Jesus" by rejecting all supernatural events as mythical elaboration
ALBERT SCHWEITZER (1875–1965)
- Showed that a great many (and there were many) of the writings about Jesus was simply imaginative fantasy
- Built up his own sketch of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet
- Jesus expected the coming of the Kingdom of God – that is, the end of the world – within a very short time.
- Believed that Jesus was the Messiah (but not that he was divine) who told his disciples to keep this a secret.
- Also believed that Jesus died a failure
- The work did not come to an end
- The Kingdom did not come
Reliable Historical Biographies of Jesus
More recently, a number of scholars have attempted to provide the modern world with what the Gospels do not offer: “reliable” historical biographies of Jesus:
- Jesus is a Jewish mystic
- Subversive sage
- Social prophet for the historical Jesus compassion “was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centred in God.” (from: Meeting Jesus for the First Time, p 46)
John D Crossan
- Jesus as a radical peasant
- Displaced Galilean peasant artisan
- Itinerant Jewish cynic sage
- Preaches an egalitarian vision of the Kingdom of God present on earth and available to all as manifested in the acts of Jesus in healing the sick and practicing an open commensality in which all were invited to share.
John P Meier
- Jesus is a Marginal Jew
- Jewish teacher who by circumstance and choice lived on the margins of his own society, speaking and acting in ways that made him appear ‘obnoxious’, ‘dangerous,’ or ‘suspicious to everyone.’
- Jesus preached the Kingdom with a future sense, not just a present sense. “Jesus not only presented himself as the eschatalogical prophet of the coming Kingdom of God, not only presented himself as the Elijah-like miracle-worker who made the future kingdom already effective and palpable to his followers, but at the same time presented himself as a teacher who could tell Israelites how to observed the Law of Moses – indeed, who could even tell Israelites what they should or should not observe in the Law.”
E P Sanders
- Jesus as an eschatalogical prophet
- Essential vision was to announce a great future event that was about to occur
- Opposition to temple system that led Jesus to his death
N. T. Wright
- Describes Jesus as one who believed his vocation was to enact what Scripture said God would do.
- Jesus is both prophet and Messiah
- Understands his destiny as symbolizing that of Israel
I hope this has whet your appetite. Do not take the information as Gospel truth, do your own research. I have just marked out a path for you.
Just remember, although there are discrepancies about historical and other facts in the Gospels, what is revealed is God’s saving Truth – Jesus Christ 😊 Jesus Christ is the Son of God, born of the virgin Mary and who lived among us. He regained for us the status of children of God because of his unfathomable merciful love. Through his death, Resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit we have truly been set free by the Son of God!
That is our faith, and no amount of scrutiny will detract from that, quite the opposite in fact. Bring on the quest as the Lord of heaven and earth will be shown for who he truly is. Amen