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James Still Jesus Search

The Search for the Historical Jesus

James Still

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Before the nineteenth century, when Christians sought to understand Jesus and the ancient world depicted in the gospels, they adhered to naturalistic literalism. Naturalistic literalism is the practice of reading the Scriptures and accepting the events that are described therein as the literal truth.

No one had ever given much thought to reading the New Testament (NT) any other way. Things have changed dramatically since then. Today, the only Christians that still hold to a natural-literal reading of the NT are Fundamentalists who believe it to be “plenary,” which is to say that every word is inspired by God. However, even a quick glance at the NT reveals inconsistencies. In Matthew, for example, the Capernaum centurion himself approaches Jesus while in Luke the centurion sends elders to speak for him (Mt.8:5; Lk.7:1). Matthew also tells us that Judas hung himself after his betrayal of Jesus, but we learn in Acts that Judas died from an accidental fall (Mt. 27:5; Acts 1:18). It is clear that the NT is not infallible. Modern biblical criticism is the attempt to study the NT’s literary, stylistic, rhetorical, and doctrinal patterns in order to understand what its human authors are expressing. Criticism is not to be confused with being “critical” or negative, but rather, criticism is the freedom to come to interpretive conclusions that do not necessarily conform to traditional religious views. If the study of the Bible must agree with doctrinal norms, then the enterprise is a mere pretense from the start. Criticism is a tool for looking at the NT from many fresh and exciting directions in order to better understand what its authors were trying to communicate.

What is a gospel?

Who was the historical Jesus?


Although we take the critical study of the NT for granted today, it was once a very dangerous practice. Ideas can challenge the imagination but they can also threaten the established authority. On his deathbed in 1768, German scholar Hermann Samuel Reimarus turned over a manuscript that was later published in 1778 under the title On the Intention of Jesus and His Teaching. Reimarus disputed the resurrection of Jesus and argued that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and fabricated the entire story. Reimarus’s work caused an uproar, but it also sparked interest in the critical study of the NT. Reimarus’s challenge to traditional dogma forced theologians to look closer at the gospel accounts. David Friedrich Strauss of Tübingen University did not wait until his death to publish The Life of Jesus in 1835. Strauss’s deconstruction of the gospel stories (in which he discarded all supernatural events and miracles) created a backlash that cost him his position at the university. Others, like Woolston and Aikenhead were imprisoned or hung for publishing controversial ideas about the NT texts. Nevertheless, the genie was out of the bottle. A contemporary of Strauss, Karl Lachmann, argued that Mark’s gospel was written earlier than Matthew and was therefore more historically reliable than the other three gospels. But how could this be? According to Church tradition, Mark was a follower of Peter in Rome long after the crucifixion, while Matthew was a disciple of Jesus. How did Peter’s interpreter come to write an earlier gospel than a disciple of Jesus? If Mark was written first (around the year 70), who wrote Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels? These questions led to still more and what is now called the “First Quest” for the historical Jesus was well underway.

Kerygmatic Sources for the Jesus Movement

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However, the first quest for the historical Jesus would end in disappointment. Many scholars recognized that all four gospels were just as much a product of theology as they were of history. Wilhelm Wrede’s The Messianic Secret showed how even Mark’s gospel was ahistorical and shaped by early Christian belief. It is now generally accepted that the gospel writers engaged in an anachronistic portrayal of Jesus, projecting back onto him a highly sophisticated and elaborate Risen Christ motif. The scholars who sought to remove this superfluous motif from the historical man soon found that, like a peeled onion, nothing was left behind once the layers of christological material were stripped away. Albert Schweitzer signaled the end of the first quest by concluding in his watershed book The Quest for the Historical Jesus that Jesus could not be found in the gospel accounts at all and that his “image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another.”

Not to be defeated, a second attempt to discover the historical Jesus within the gospel accounts was led by Rudolf Bultmann at Marburg University. Bultmann used a new scholarly tool called “form criticism” (Formgeschichte) to methodically deconstruct the gospel narratives in order to cull the authentic sayings of Jesus from later Church additions. Form criticism looks closely at small literary units (called pericopes) and asks for what “situation in life” (Sitz im Leben) or purpose the story came to be written. For example, the form critic argues that the purpose of the Syrophoenician woman story in Mark 7:25-50(and paralleled in Matthew15:21-28) was to address the extension of salvation to the Gentiles. Bultmann concluded that the early Christians had very little interest in the historical Jesus and that Jesus was forever buried under the mythology of Pauline Christianity. However, Bultmann found a silver lining in existentialism and wrote that even “mythology expresses a certain understanding of human existence.” We may not know who the historical Jesus was, Bultmann thought, but we can find meaning in the Christ of faith. This is the essence of mainstream liberal Christianity today.

Most scholars believe that a real, flesh and blood Jewish peasant whom we call Jesus lived and taught in first-century Galilee. What they disagree on is what this man was like. After his crucifixion this Jewish rabbi and teacher is spoken of by his followers as “Lord” and as someone who has transcended the grave to become a spiritual figure. This transcendence or resurrection is called the Easter event. The quest for the historical Jesus involves an attempt to separate the pre-Easter historical figure of Jesus from the post-Easter Christ of faith.

Firestorm of Controversy: The Jesus Seminar


The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are currently engaged in this quest. Critics have charged that the Seminar’s portrait of Jesus is unbiblical. Others think that to even engage in the quest for Jesus is something akin to heresy–a humanistic hubris that seeks to topple the creedal Jesus of faith.

However, there is no blasphemy or heresy involved in the search for the historical Jesus. Historians only wish to separate the pre-Easter Jesus from the post-Easter Jesus in order to give a comprehensive account of Jesus’ teachings and to explain the origins of Christian faith. The historian and theologian alike desire to get as close to the source of Christianity as possible. Thus, the quest has been embraced enthusiastically by both Christian and secular scholars.

In order to discern the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith it is necessary to use some kind of criteria with which to judge the authenticity of a given passage. Scholars generally agree upon four simple criteria to use in reconstructing the historical Jesus from within the gospel accounts. I should point out that we are dealing here with probabilities rather than absolute certainty. The first two quests for the historical Jesus ended in failure because, like an onion, once the gospel material was successively peeled away and discarded there was nothing left of Jesus. There is room for pessimism in the third quest as well. Anthropological studies of oral traditions based on eyewitness accounts have shown that such traditions are not very reliable. However, the search for the historical Jesus is hopeful in that it can at least tell us the degrees of probability for Jesus’ sayings. Using criteria for testing the gospel passages, scholars may be able to assess whether a saying is unlikely, possible, or probably unlikely. This may be the best that we can hope for. Thus, these criteria can work to include or exclude a saying of Jesus depending upon whether or not it is likely or unlikely that he would have said it. These four general criteria are typical of those that scholars use:

1. language

2. theology

3. attestation

4. distinctiveness

Let us take them one at a time. The criterion of language simply asks what language the phrase has its origin in. Since we know that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Semitic phrases are more likely to have come from Jesus than Greek constructions. The criterion of theology asks whether or not the teaching attributed to Jesus derives from Jewish theology or from Greek theology. Since Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, Jewish teachings are more likely to have come from him than Greek teachings in the Hellenistic world. The criterion of attestation asks, “where do we find the saying of Jesus?” and “how many sources tell us that Jesus said it?” We are more comfortable with multiple attestations than with a single attestation since sayings repeated by more than one source are more likely to have come from the historical Jesus. The criterion of distinctiveness asks whether or not the saying is typical or atypical of the emerging portrait of Jesus. This one is tricky because it requires us to first have a kernel of authentic material in order to know what the emerging portrait of Jesus is. However, we can tell the difference between something Jesus might say and something that the Apostle Paul said. If Jesus repeats a distinctly Pauline phrase then we must examine the passage further to see if it really did come from Jesus or was projected onto him after Paul. Generally speaking then, if a saying seems to run counter to other authentic teachings then we have reason to suspect that the statement is not original to Jesus.

Let us take an easy example in order to illustrate how these criteria work. Did Jesus use the term “son of Adam” in his teaching? We know that “son of Adam” (bar adam or “son of man”) is a Semitic phrase and since Jesus spoke Aramaic the phrase fits the criterion of language. If the phrase “son of Adam” means something like a “chosen human being” it fits Jewish theology well. On the other hand, if it means something akin to a divine god the phrase is better suited to Greek theology. Mark seems to use the phrase in a Jewish context so it seems to meet the criterion of theology. So far, so good. What about the criterion of attestation? Well,” son of Adam” is found in the early Q gospel (Lk. 7:34, 9:58, 11:30, 12:8-10,and 17:23-30),the Gospel of Thomas (86), as well as Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It seems that “son of Adam” enjoys multiple attestation and, more importantly, exists in the earliest layers of material about Jesus. Further, we find that the phrase is distinctive with Jesus and not used by others (such as Paul or James) so it fits well with other authentic sayings of Jesus. We can safely conclude that the phrase “son of Adam” is probably authentic and originates with the historical Jesus.

Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians15:3-11 As a Post-Pauline Interpolation

The Institution Narrative of Luke 22:19-20

The Syrophoenician Woman in Mk. 7:25-30/Mt. 15:21-28


As we move further in time away from the historical figure, the Christ of faith gradually becomes less and less recognizable. The first impulse of pagan converts to the new religion was to see Jesus as a virgin-born god. Speculations about Jesus’ divinity first began appearing in Christian literature about two centuries after his death. The New Testament has nothing to say about the tripartite nature of God, nevertheless, these interpretations about Jesus solidified over time in the post-Easter Church. With the Chalcedonian Definition of 451 CE, Jesus Christ was formally received into the Church as both a god and the second member of the Holy Trinity.

The claim that Jesus was an intentional founder of what would become Christianity is referred to by scholars as Jesus’ “self understanding.” In the earliest gospel traditions about Jesus (beginning with the gospels of Q at about 50 CE and Original Mark at around 70 CE) Jesus is not depicted as a supernatural god. His familiar maxims such as “do unto your neighbor as you would have them do unto you” are actually Pharisaic in origin and this particular phrase was said by the famous Rabbi Hillel about80 years prior to Christ. The early material puts Jesus squarely in the Jewish world and his background as a Jewish peasant in Galilee assures that his education as a youth must have come from the Pharisees. Later gospels, particularly the canonical Gospel of John, mythologize Jesus and portray him as a divine Logos or “mind” of God. However, these post-Easter interpretations developed later by the Church should be viewed for what they are: stories about a Risen Christ and not historical facts about the real historical Jesus. Once we sort out the historical Jesus from the Risen Christ–the facts from the myths–we can better appreciate the Jewish peasant that changed the Western world.

For Further Reading:

The Jesus Seminar

The Search for a No-Frills Jesus

Jesus, a Historical Reconstruction

Geoff Trowbridge’s NTStudies


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