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The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity

(1986-electronic edition 2000)


How Christianity Came Into Crisis

Today at the dawn ofher third millennium, the Christian church is undergoing a theological crisis in what she thinks and believes about Jesus of Nazareth.

The crisis grows out of a fact now freely admitted by both Protestant and Catholic theologians and exegetes: that as far as can be discerned from the available historical data, Jesus of Nazareth did not think he was divine, did not assert any of the messianic claims that the New Testament attributes to him, and went to his death without intending to found a new religion called “Christianity.” That is, the theological crisis has to do with the prima facie discrepancy between what Jesus of Nazareth apparently thought he was (a special but very human prophet) and what mainline Christian believers now take him to be (the divine Son of God, consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit).[1]

The apparent difference between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” is not a new problem in Christianity. Since the last century liberal Protestant scholars like Adolf von Harnack and agnostics like Ernest Renan have tried to strip away what they thought were


the church’s divinizing embellishments of Jesus of Nazareth so as to arrive at the “real” (that is, the human) prophet of Nazareth.

More recently Roman Catholic exegetes and theologians have joined the discussion.[2] With the encouragement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Catholic scholars now teach that the Gospels are not accurate “histories” of Jesus but religious testimonies produced by the second and third generations of Christians, whose faith that Jesus was their savior colored their memory of his days on earth.[3] Thus, even though all Catholic biblical scholars believe that Jesus is God, they do not necessarily maintain that Jesus himself thought he was the divine Son of God, who had existed from all eternity as the Second Person of the Trinity.[4]

Just as the question of discontinuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is not a new problem, so too solutions to it have long been available in Christian teaching. Today, however, those solutions and the presuppositions on which they rest are being called into question.

Did Jesus actually think that he was the divine Son of God? Christian theologians have traditionally answered this question by asserting that their savior, insofar as he was both God and man, was quite literally of two minds about himself. Relying on a complex distinction that ancient Hellenistic philosophy made between “nature” and “person” (or “rational hypostasis”), these theologians claim that Jesus, even though he was only one person, did have both a human and a divine nature, joined in “hypostatic union.” Each of the two natures, they say, had a corresponding intellect, finite in the one case, infinite in the other. And therefore, even if in his human self-understanding Jesus was not aware of his own nature as God, in his divine mind he did know who and what he really was. And he chose to reveal his identity gradually and indirectly, in ways that believers came to fully comprehend only after Jesus’ death and resurrection.[5]

How, then, do believers know that the Jesus of history is Christ and God? Some Christians assert that faith is a higher form of cognition than empirical, historical knowledge and therefore that Christian believers have a deeper insight into who Jesus really was than do nonbelievers. According to this thesis, historical research gives us only the “historiographical Jesus”-that is, only those aspects of him that are


available via historico-critical method-but it cannot show us the authentic, divine Jesus of history, who actually lived and preached two millennia ago. To arrive at that real Jesus, so the theory goes, one must have faith; and unlike the scientific historian, the believing Christian supposedly knows that Jesus really was the Son of God, even if the historical evidence does not show that.

But this solution does not work. Faith provides the believer with no more data about who Jesus of Nazareth “really” was than does normal historical experience. There exists no revealed body of supernatural information that is given over to the Christian faithful while being kept hidden from nonbelievers. Christians have at their disposal only the same public evidence about Jesus that everyone else has-but they interpret the data differently. That is, Christianity is a “hermeneusis,” or interpretation. Its beliefs and doctrines are but one of many possible and equally valid ways of understanding the universally available empirical data about Jesus of Nazareth. Christians may claim that their faith is based on revelation, but as far as one can tell empirically, such revelation is a name for the historically relative and culturally determined hermeneutical process in which Christians, confronting the humanly available information about Jesus of Nazareth, choose to interpret him as their savior, who reigns with God in heaven.

Despite these attempts at solving the problem, the critical fact remains: At the root of Christianity there lies the difference between how Jesus apparently understood himself while he was alive-as the eschatological prophet-and how the church came to interpret him within a half century of his death: as the divine Son of God.

Does this difference constitute a discrepancy, an incompatibility between the evidence of history and the claims of faith? On the one hand, no one can scientifically prove (and no believer would want to) that Jesus actually was the divine savior that Christianity eventually took him to be. On the other hand, it can be established with a high degree of historical certitude that the early church did not create her christological understanding of Jesus out of absolutely nothing, but rather based it on the earliest believers’ firsthand impressions of Jesus’ dramatically prophetic comportment. That is, Jesus spoke and acted with an extraordinary authority that he attributed to God, who was working through him. His disciples interpreted this authority as evidence


that Jesus was God’s final prophet, sent to prepare Israel for the end of time. Thus early christologies, which interpreted Jesus first as the Son of Man and eventually as Christ and God (see [Part Three]), were an extension and enhancement of what Simon Peter and the original disciples believed that Jesus had been, whether or not that belief corresponded to what Jesus actually thought of himself and (if this were knowable) who he ontologically was.

It is perhaps impossible and arguably unnecessary for Christianity to show any inevitable connection between Jesus’ evaluation of himself when he was alive and Simon Peter’s evaluation of Jesus both before and after the prophet’s death. Christianity begins not with Jesus but with Simon Peter, and it maintains itself throughout history by staying in continuity with that first believer. Christianity essentially is its sense of history, its unique claim of historical continuity-but the continuum is with Peter and the first disciples rather than directly with Jesus. That is the meaning of the Catholic dictum Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia: Christianity is present wherever someone traces his or her faith back to that of Simon and the first believers. Those who choose to preserve continuity, in one way or another, with Simon Peter’s evaluation of the prophet from Galilee can rightly lay claim to the title “Christian.” Ultimately, Jesus’ understanding of himself is not essential to Christianity. But Peter’s is.

The gap that contemporary Christian exegetes have confirmed between the historical evidence about Jesus and the claims of faith about him is potentially salutary and illuminating. For one thing, this difference, once it is acknowledged, offers believers and nonbelievers alike an opportunity to reevaluate Christianity at its roots, not so as to destroy it out of hand or to salvage it at all costs, but in order to discover what Christianity intends to be about, to probe what it may have missed about Jesus, and to ask what kind of future lies ahead for it.

The present book is that kind of investigation, carried out along the border between the findings of empirical history and the questions that inspire faith. Working along that border, I take the devil’s part, the role of advocatus diaboli; that is, I adopt the viewpoint of the historian, not that of the believer. I take the word “history” in the context of


the original Greek verb that underlies it: historein, to search and inquire, using only the light of natural, empirical reason. My purpose is to bring the findings of modern historical and biblical research to bear on three questions that are central to the theological crisis in contemporary Christianity:

[PART ONE] What Jesus preached about the kingdom of God.

[PART TWO] How belief in his resurrection evolved

[PART THREE] How the earliest christologies developed in the first half century after Jesus’ death

At the heart of this theological crisis there lies a revolution in biblical studies-specifically, the emergence of historical-critical method-that began over a century ago and now dominates both Catholic and Protestant exegesis. The employment of the historical-critical method in scriptural research has often led to extraordinary shifts in the church’s understanding of biblical texts; and since the testimony of the Bible is a major stone in the foundation of Christian faith, such shifts are bound to have repercussions in the theological edifice built on that foundation.

Therefore, we must preface our threefold study of Jesus, the resurrection, and the origins of christology with an overview of how the revolution in New Testament exegesis came about and what its major conclusions are. That is the task of the sections that immediately follow. Then, throughout the remainder of the book, I shall be drawing upon those conclusions-the results of contemporary (and quite orthodox) Christian exegesis-even though I shall be offering my own fundamentally variant interpretations of those conclusions. That is, I depend upon (and hope to show that I am faithful to) the scientifically controllable results of modern biblical scholarship; but then I go beyond that scholarship, by using its scientific results as data for my own theories.

Although Catholic scholars are relative latecomers to the revolution in biblical exegesis (their Protestant counterparts have been at it for almost 150 years), higher criticism of the New Testament is now the common activity and common property of both Protestants and Catholics. We turn now to the origins and development of that revolution.


1. Liberal Protestantism and the Jesus of History (1800-1900)

The Beginnings of modern biblical exegesis go back to the birth of “historical consciousness” at the dawn of the nineteenth century; and the first stage in the Protestant development of that exegesis is roughly coextensive with what George Steiner has called “the summer of 1815-1915”-the century of bourgeois liberalism.[6]

Just as Newton’s revolution in physics and Kant’s in philosophy helped the eighteenth century to invent “nature” as the correlate of Enlightenment reason, so likewise the political revolutions in America and France and the enthronement of Hegelian philosophy in Germany contributed to the nineteenth century’s invention of “history” as the correlate of bourgeois will. The more the world and events became transparent to human intellect and manageable by human praxis, the more the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie saw nature as a possible mirror of itself-as raw material to be shaped in its own image-and understood history as the medium of this self-making. As Marx noted in the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie, in transforming the world, broke down the solid forms of unchanging substantiality and dissolved them into the fluidity of historical and social self-creation.


All fixed and frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.[7]

The rise of historical consciousness gave birth to a new approach to humanistic studies (Geisteswissenschaften). The notions that truth is concrete and incarnate rather than abstract, that it develops in history rather than being eternally given, and that each stage of its development reflects changing human needs and aspirations-these were some of the presuppositions underlying the historical-critical method adumbrated by Johann Gottfried von Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt, instituted by Leopold von Ranke, and adopted by biblical scholars. After centuries of philosophical fascination with static being, the nineteenth century turned its attention to the adventure of historical becoming, where, by the nature of the case, research had to focus on the interrelations of concrete events rather than on universal essences and could aspire only to probability rather than to necessarily certain truth. Above all, against the Enlightenment’s idea that historiography established typical and recurring patterns of human character and action, the passwords of historical studies now became the inevitability of change and development.

Thus, historians or exegetes who wanted to get the meaning of a text from the past had to forgo the desire to find in it a supposedly eternal truth and restrain the urge to project their values into the past. Instead, after scientifically establishing the primary evidence of the text, they must devote themselves, first, to rigorously reconstructing what the document meant to its author and original audience, and second, to tracing how that meaning developed as it came into contact with new communities. Only thereafter could they enter upon the task of hermeneutics, that is, the interpretation of its possible meaning for a reader today.

These presuppositions of historical consciousness and critical method formed the background of the nineteenth century’s revolution in biblical studies. Whether in the Hegelian orientation of the Tübingen


school or in the more empirical and philological work of the Cambridge school, the program with regard to the New Testament was the same: to investigate the Christian Scriptures as historical documents that bore witness not to eternal truths so much as to the religious beliefs of certain eastern Mediterranean communities in the first few decades after Jesus’ death. This program entailed (1) the philological task of establishing the correct text of the New Testament; (2) the critical task of isolating the original sources of the Gospels; (3) the historical task of reconstructing the environments of the first Christian communities; and (4) the exegetical task of tracing the development of christology in the early church. This scientific work served as the foundation for (5) the theological-hermeneutical task of interpreting the relevance (or irrelevance) of early Christian beliefs for men and women of today.[8]

The current upheaval in Christian theology goes back to this project of constructing a scientific foundation of empirical, historical evidence for the edifice of theology. The two moments of the revolution-the scientific and the theological-are distinct but not totally separable. Tremors in the historical foundations often send shock waves through the upper stories of theology. Already in the nineteenth century some large cracks were beginning to show in the traditional doctrines about Jesus.

By the second half of the nineteenth century critical exegetes were virtually in agreement that, contrary to the traditional view, the Gospels were not written as neutral historical records of Jesus’ words and deeds and that they offered no access to his inner thoughts or psychology. Rather, even if they preserve some historical recollection of Jesus, they more directly reflect the highly developed beliefs of Christian communities forty to sixty years after his death. Often enough, the critics showed, sentences that the Gospels put in Jesus’ mouth (such as his claims to be Christ or the divine Son of God) had never been spoken by him but were invented by later believers.

Over the years New Testament critics have managed to identify at least three types of early Christian communities-two of them made up of Jews and one of Gentiles-each of which had its relatively distinct christology.[9] First came the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jews who were the earliest “Christians” (we should say more accurately: adherents of the “Jesus-movement” within Judaism). They took Jesus


to be the eschatological prophet, God’s final and authoritative spokesman, who (1) had proclaimed the dawning kingdom of God, (2) had been vindicated by God after he died by being miraculously taken to heaven, and (3) had been designated to be the future apocalyptic judge who would appear at the imminent end of the world. Although these Aramaic-speaking Jewish believers saw Jesus as the prophet of God, they did not consider him to be ontologically divine. Nor did they think that he already was the messiah (Christ). Rather, they thought that he was only the messiah-designate and that he would come into his full power only at the end of time.

Secondly, there were the Greek-speaking Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora (for example, Syria) who had come to believe in Jesus and who were the first to be actually called “Christians” (Acts 6:1, 8:1, 11:26). As the parousia (Jesus’ return to earth from heaven) continued to be delayed, these Hellenistic Jewish Christians began to stress not that Jesus would become the Christ at the end of time but that he already was the Christ and was currently reigning in heaven.

Thirdly, Greek-speaking Gentiles eventually converted to Christianity, beginning around 40 C.E., and they held that Jesus was the Son of God in the full divine sense: He had preexisted as God before his human incarnation, had been the true, if concealed, God-man during his life on earth, and after his death had been exalted to heaven and was currently reigning there.

The tremors that these discoveries sent through traditional theology took the form of a concatenation of questions: If Jesus did not declare he was Christ and God, and if such christology was a creation of later believers, what did the real, historical Jesus actually teach? What did he think about himself? Do his teachings have anything in common with traditional christology and, above all, do they have any relevance today? The nineteenth-century attempt to answer these questions generally took the form of “the quest for the historical Jesus.” In various ways, from Hermann Samuel Reimarus in the eighteenth century through David Strauss, Ernest Renan, and a score of others in the nineteenth century, this quest for the historical Jesus undertook the common task of searching for the “Jesus of history,” who was concealed by and behind the “Christ of dogma.”[10]

A classical statement of the liberal Protestant view of the Jesus of


history can be found in the immensely popular lectures that Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) delivered at the University of Berlin during the winter semester of 1899-1900 and published immediately thereafter as Das Wesen des Christentums (in English: What is Christianity?). For Harnack, Jesus was the ideal ethical humanist, and the essence of Christianity lay in a few timeless spiritual principles he had taught: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and “the infinite value of the human soul.” Above all, Jesus’ message was meant for the interior man; it was, as Harnack put it, a question “of God and the soul, the soul and its God.” He wrote:

The kingdom of God comes … to the individual, by entering into his soul and laying hold of it. True, the kingdom of God is the rule of God; but it is the rule of the holy God in the hearts of individuals … [11]

Looking back from the enlightened nineteenth century, Harnack saw christology, the doctrine that Jesus was the divine savior, as an invention of the early church, a crutch that weaker, more benighted generations had needed in order to hobble through their lives. Nonetheless, this christology had been a felicitous invention, Harnack thought, insofar as it had preserved the memory of Jesus for this more surefooted age; and now one could throw away the crutch and walk upright, shoulder to shoulder, with the Rotarian Jesus of history.

Twenty-five centuries earlier the Greek philosopher Xenophanes had observed that human beings, in depicting their gods, describe themselves (fragments 15 and 16). After reading Harnack’s book, George Tyrell, the English Catholic modernist theologian, suggested that the liberal Protestant quest for the historical Jesus was comparable to looking down a well: Harnack and the others thought they had sighted Jesus, but they were seeing nothing but their own bourgeois reflection staring back up at them.

Harnack’s book relied on the biblical scholarship of his day. In the nineteenth century exegetes had developed the science of “source


criticism,” the study of the literary relation between the relatively similar Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “synoptic” Gospels). As the name suggests, source criticism attempted to ferret out the literary origins of the Gospels, and by the 1860s it had succeeded in determining two things.[12]

First, by isolating the gospel verses that Matthew and Luke had borrowed from Mark (and by finding none that Mark had borrowed from them), source critics were able to establish that Mark’s Gospel was the first one to be written (it is currently dated at ca. 70 C.E.) and that Matthew and Luke had used it as the principal written source of their own Gospels, which appeared about fifteen years later. Second, by isolating gospel verses that were common to Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark, the exegetes proposed the “two-source” hypothesis: that besides Mark there had been another, earlier source of gospel material, a collection composed mostly of sayings attributed to Jesus, which went back to the early Aramaic-speaking Christian communities of Palestine. This second source came to be known as “Q,” which abbreviates the German word Quelle (“source”). Today, despite some disagreement about the exact contents of the Q-document, virtually all New Testament scholars accept the Q-hypothesis. However, the nineteenth-century theory of two sources-Q and Mark-has since been refined and expanded into the “four-source” theory (see accompanying chart), which postulates two other oral sources to account for materials that are unique to Matthew and to Luke.[13]



Harnack and other liberal Protestants thought that source criticism had established that Mark and Q were the earliest historical records of Jesus’ life and preaching and therefore that exegetes could now peer through the christological embellishments of the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke and see in Mark and Q a more human Jesus-the real “Jesus of history.” For example, Matthew and Luke assert that Jesus was conceived and born as the Christ, and John’s Gospel, written around 100 C.E., goes even further and maintains that Jesus had preexisted as God before he was born. But source criticism had shown that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke developed out of Mark’s earlier and more modest position, according to which Jesus was merely adopted as the Christ, indeed only when he had become an adult. By reading between the lines of Mark’s Gospel, Harnack found-or reconstructed-an even simpler Jesus, an entirely human prophet whose message, as luck would have it, was entirely consonant with the religious sentiments of nineteenth-century liberal humanism.

Thus Christianity could finally bid adieu not only to the early church’s divinization of Jesus but also, as Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) had earlier argued, even to the misguided doctrine of eschatology that Jesus himself had preached.[14] All that messy business about the imminent end of the world and God’s unannounced (and frankly impolite) irruption into the tidy world of human self-improvement could be done away with. Christianity had at last found a place in sophisticated late-nineteenth-century society, even if it was a quiet and somewhat harmless place. For liberal Protestants, the contemporary meaning of Jesus’ doctrine of the kingdom of God was not that some mythical apocalyptic judge was going to break in from the Beyond and take humanity to task for its sins. Rather, the kingdom of God was the result of human endeavor, “the corporate product of [the Christian] community,” “a human product, springing out of an individual activity called forth by the divine ‘seed.'”[15] In Ritschl’s interpretation, Christianity became a purely interior community, an invisible, spiritual kingdom in the hearts of well-mannered men and women. Ritschl wrote:

Those who believe in Christ … constitute the Kingdom of God in so far as, forgetting distinctions of sex, rank, or nationality, they


act reciprocally from love, and thus call into existence that fellowship of moral disposition and moral blessings which extends, through all possible gradations, to the limits of the human race.[16]

The historical Jesus came out of the pages of Scripture as a good bourgeois liberal, devoted to the preachment of self-improvement, love of one’s neighbor, and religious freedom from ecclesiastical dogmatism. For Ritschl the kingdom of God was not an eschatological but an ethical and social affair: “the organization of humanity through action inspired by love.”[17]


2. Rudolf Bultmann and the Christ of Faith (1920-1950)

By the end of World War I the liberals’ reconstruction of Jesus, which for some years had been on shaky theological and exegetical grounds, came entirely unglued. As bourgeois optimism about the ethical improvability of mankind collapsed in the carnage of the war, a new generation of Protestant theologians came into their own, and they had little patience with the socially acceptable but innocuous Jesus who had been invented by their liberal forebears.

Already in 1892the young scholar Johannes Weiss, who in fact was the son-in-law of Albrecht Ritschl, had profoundly shaken the liberal Protestant dogma that Jesus was merely an ethical teacher of the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the gradual growth of the kingdom of God in this world. His Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes (Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God) burst on the scene, arguing that Jesus’ teaching was entirely focused on the imminent arrival of God from outside the world and that Jesus had proclaimed not a bourgeois ethics of personal morality and civic duty but a radical “interim ethics” of preparation for the coming of the kingdom. For example, noting the distance between Jesus’ passionate eschatological


ethics and liberal Protestantism’s accommodation to the world, Weiss declared that

despite the explicit and earnest warning of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, and although Jesus declared, “with men it is impossible,” many rich Christians, indeed many rich churches have dared to remain rich. … It would be more truthful to take one’s stand historically with respect to these matters, and to understand them from the perspective of Jesus’ eschatological and dualistic viewpoint.[18]

This reassertion of the eschatological character of Jesus’ message began to resonate strongly in Protestant circles after World War I. Karl Barth’s powerful Epistle to the Romans, published in German in 1919 captured the religious imagination of the new generation by reproposing the traditional themes of man’s sinfulness, God’s transcendence, and the need for redemption from beyond, under the rubric “What was of grave importance [in Paul’s time] is still so today.”[19] Soren Kierkegaard, recently translated into German, began to make more sense with his call for an absurd “leap of faith” than did Ritschl and Harnack with their offer of a benign and well-mannered Jesus. The old Lutheran call for faith alone-without foundations in nature or history-found a resonance in those who were disillusioned with the March of Progress. While, of course, the worldwide Marxist revolution prompted many to look deeper within history for a solution to the social and political catastrophes of the age, others, like Rudolf Bultmann, found inspiration in Martin Heidegger’s quasi-Lutheran turn to the individual and in his antihistoricist stress on the repeatability of the essential (die Wiederholung des Gewesenen). If liberal Protestants had abandoned the divine God-man of traditional doctrine in order to invent the humanitarian Jesus of history, Bultmann and others abandoned the liberal Jesus of history in order to invent the existential Christ of faith.[20]

After the war Protestant scholars began inventing sharper exegetical tools for probing the historical development of the Christian Scriptures and, in the eyes of many, for whittling away at the divinity of Jesus.


In the area of New Testament research, the watershed between liberal Protestant exegesis and what came after it can be dated to 1919-1921, the years in which Karl Ludwig Schmidt (1891-1956), Martin Dibelius (1883-1947), and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) published groundbreaking works in the new area of biblical science called “form criticism.”[21]

The source critics of the previous century had focused only on the written sources of the Gospels; and in postulating the Q-document and establishing the historical priority of Mark’s Gospel among the Synoptics, they had gone as far back into early Christian history as they could. But with “form criticism” the focus shifted from the literary relationships among the Synoptic Gospels to the preliterary history of the material upon which those Gospels drew. Whereas source criticism goes back only to the period around 50C.E., when the oral Aramaic Q was presumably written out in a Greek translation, form criticism traces the verses of the Gospels and of the hypothetical Q-document back to the period of their oral genesis and transmission between 30 and 50 C.E. (see chart).

One of the presuppositions of form criticism is that each Synoptic Gospel is like a mosaic composed of individual tesserae or a necklace made up of separate pearls strung together. Each Gospel is a creative compilation of earlier units of material (called “pericopes”) which the church generated after Jesus died. These pericopes circulated in oral form as independent and self-contained sayings and stories before they were committed to writing (some of them in the Greek Q) and eventually organized into the Gospels. Form critics study the origins and development of the individual units, and they attempt to identify the particular forms those units take: for example, polemical or didactic sayings, proverbs, apocalyptic prophesies, community regulations, parables, miracle stories, and the like.[22] Some pericopes may well embody historical recollections of what Jesus said and did, whereas others contain words and deeds that the church, in retrospect, invented and attributed to him. In any case, at each stage of their reception and transmission these pericopes, according to the form critics, were freely adapted and creatively shaped by the Christian communities to fit their own particular needs, such as catechetics, liturgy, apologetics, and controversy with outsiders.[23]



Therefore, the pericopes do not have an unadulterated historical value as neutral accounts of what Jesus said and did, but they do reveal in each case the particular life-situation (Sitz im Leben) of the communities that shaped them. And most important of all, they tell us how those communities understood the meaning of Jesus. The pericopes are not disinterested records of the life of Jesus but early testimonies of the community’s faith in Jesus as the Christ.[24] In other words, form criticism takes the exegete further back into early Christianity than source criticism does, insofar as it sheds scientific light on the otherwise dark years between the death of Jesus (30 C.E.) and the emergence of the first written testimonies of faith (Paul’s epistles and the Q-document, ca. 50 C.E., and the Gospels, ca. 70-95 C.E.). However, form criticism offers no direct access to the Jesus of history and his psychology-and least of all access to Harnack’s humanitarian Jesus. Form criticism can get back only to the early oral traditions in which the first Christian generations passed down their faith in the prophet.

Form critics in general and Rudolf Bultmann in particular have


traditionally maintained that the materials that went to make up the Gospels tell us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus except that he was a prophet and an ethical teacher who preached the dawning of God’s eschatological kingdom, called for radical faith and charity, and made no messianic or divine claims about himself. Bultmann goes further and asserts that even this minimum of historical information that leaks through into the pericopes has no religious significance for Christian faith. For Bultmann there is an absolute discontinuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

In this sense, Bultmann’s work represents the triumph of the Lutheran doctrine of “faith alone” over the liberals’ doctrine of “history alone.” For Bultmann the paradox of faith is that the life of Jesus ultimately has no real importance for Christianity. Faith consists in leaping from the bare historical fact that Jesus lived and died to an affirmation that Jesus is the Christ. Even the value of the New Testament testimonies of faith is called into question insofar as these texts are fraught with first-century apocalyptic myths that risk obscuring the existential meaning of faith. These myths must be radically reinterpreted (“demythologized”) in order to bring out the call to personal authenticity that they embody. In all this, however, Bultmann insists that Christianity (which in his hands looks more and more like a religious version of Heidegger’s early philosophy) cannot dispense with christology, as the liberals thought it could, if only because, Bultmann claims, one needs christology (properly demythologized) for the existential challenge to authenticity that it conveys.


3. The New Quest for the Historical Jesus (1950 to Today)

Since the end of World War II New Testament scholarship has undergone important developments both in critical method and in theological reflection. For one thing, while the method of form criticism continues to be used with some revisions by contemporary exegetes, it has been complemented since the late forties by “redaction criticism” (in German, Redaktionsgeschichte, “redaction history”), which attempts to sort out the differing theological conceptions that guided the four evangelists in reshaping earlier oral material into their written Gospels.[25]

But more important, some of the theological conclusions that Bultmann built upon form criticism have been called into question since World War II. In the early fifties a number of Protestant exegetes (among them, Ernst Käsemann, Günter Bornkamm, Hans Conzelmann, Gerhard Ebeling, and Ernst Fuchs, some of whom are former students of Bultmann’s) argued that it was indeed possible, with the aid of exegetical criticism, to get behind the christological proclamations of the early church and to catch a glimpse not only of the actual words and deeds of the historical Jesus but also of the way he understood


himself during his lifetime. With claims such as these it seemed that New Testament exegetes were coming around full circle. First, nineteenth-century liberalism had destroyed the divine Christ of faith and invented a humanitarian Jesus of history; then Bultmann virtually destroyed the Jesus of history and invented an existential Christ of faith; and now the “Post-Bultmannians” were advocating a “new quest for the historical Jesus.” But the “new” quest has almost nothing in common with the nineteenth-century one. The Post-Bultmannians, for example, agree with Bultmann on a number of points: that there is no possibility of discovering an “uninterpreted Jesus of Nazareth,” a Jesus untouched by Christian faith; that we cannot reconstruct Jesus’ inner psychology and thoughts; that Christianity cannot do away with christology; that the post-Easter Christian community is (in large measure, at least) the seedbed of the Jesus-tradition; that faith cannot be reduced to history or reason and that sola historia cannot replace the Lutheran position of sola fide. [26]

But on the other hand, these new exegetes also take their distance from Bultmann. They point out that the historical recollections of Jesus found in the pericopes offer much more historical information about the prophet than Bultmann admits and that this information does have some significance for faith. They argue, for example, that the authority that Jesus demonstrated in his words and deeds reveals, if not Jesus’ inner psychology, at least his publicly enacted understanding of himself as a prophet.

Most important of all, the Post-Bultmannians deny that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Or, to put the matter positively and more accurately, they hold that there is a continuity between the meaning that the disciples attributed to Jesus during his life and the meaning they attributed to him after his death. In other words, the Post-Bultmannians do not see New Testament christology as a post-Easter invention on the part of the church but as a spelling out of the implicit christological claims that the disciples discerned in the authoritative words and deeds of Jesus during his lifetime. These exegetes point out that, after Easter, the disciples believed that it was Jesus-not some “X” but the Jesus they had known-who was the Christ. They claim that to deny this continuity of meaning, as Bultmann does, is to risk reducing Christianity to a modern myth with some generalized existential import.


Underlying and supporting these new theological positions are new, or at least revised, methods of scientific exegesis. Within form criticism, the Post-Bultmannians make use of at least four criteria for determining whether elements of the gospel material are authentically historical, that is, traceable to Jesus himself. First, the criterion of dissimilarity allows the exegete to attribute to Jesus at least those sayings which can be shown to be probably unique to him insofar as they are notably dissimilar from sayings that are provably typical of either the early church or ancient Judaism. Secondly, the criterion of coherence allows these exegetes to attribute to Jesus those sayings that are coherent with the material that has already been established to be “unique because dissimilar.” Thirdly, the criterion of multiple attestation permits the exegete, within limits, to attribute to Jesus those deeds or kinds of behavior which are attested in all or many of the distinct gospel sources (for example, Mark and Q). Finally, according to the criterion of language and environment, any authentic saying of Jesus would have to reflect Aramaic speech and, in general, the cultural patterns of early Palestine-although it is possible that such characteristics might reflect only the earliest Palestinian churches.[27]

What, then, have the post-Bultmannian exegetes discovered about the historical Jesus by applying these criteria to the gospel material? Negatively, they have established that Jesus did not express his self-understanding in any christological titles-certainly not in the so-called higher titles (such as “God,” or “Lord” in the full divine sense) and not even in the so-called lower titles (for example, “messiah,” “[messianic eschatological] prophet,” and “Son of Man”). On the positive side, what Jesus thought of himself can be seen indirectly and implicitly in the authoritative way he spoke and acted-for example, the way he bent the Law by eating with sinners and outcasts, or the way he declared that the kingdom of God was dawning in his words and deeds. In Jesus’ assertion of his authority the scholars find the attitude of a prophet who seemed convinced that his word was God’s word and that his will was at one with his Father’s. They interpret this as an implicit claim to a unique relation with God-but only that and no more.

In other words, the “new quest” for the historical Jesus has discovered something more than Bultmann thought could be found, and something different from what the liberal quest thought it had discovered.


It has found a Jesus who acts like an eschatological prophet with a sense of authority derived from his special relation to God. No doubt he did preach (to put it minimally) “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” as the liberals thought, but he did so in a number of ways the liberals overlooked. For one thing, there is an irreducible eschatological element to his preaching about the kingdom of God; for another, he preached the kingdom in a uniquely self-referential way: by acting as if he himself were the locus (if not the focus) of the dawning of that reign of God.

But, for all that, the question remains: What difference does this make? Even if we could establish (and we cannot) that Jesus actually thought he was God’s eschatological prophet-or for that matter, God’s divine Son-Jesus’ opinion of himself would have no binding power on anyone else and so would make no real difference for faith. Jesus could have thought he was any number of things and still have been deluded. Regardless of what they have established about the Jesus of history, the Post-Bultmannians have not rendered the leap of faith any easier or more reasonable. Nor did they intend to do so. But neither, as it seems, have they raised the degree of Jesus’ importance much higher than the liberals did. In fact, what real difference is there between Harnack’s mild-mannered Jesus and the Post-Bultmannians’ more self-assured and authoritative prophet? Have all three-Harnack, Bultmann, the Post-Bultmannians-been looking, with different exegetical spectacles, down the very same well and seeing only their own reflection?

We have seen how the revolution in New Testament exegesis has contributed to the theological crisis in Christianity. The rest of this book is an investigation of three major elements in that crisis: the content of Jesus’ preaching, the doctrine of the resurrection, and the development of the first christologies. In what follows I shall be drawing upon the gains of contemporary exegesis that we have just studied. For example, I shall be employing the results of post-Bultmannian research into the authentic sayings of Jesus as I attempt to reconstruct the life and teachings of Jesus. But my purpose is to surpass rather than to repeat the mainline Christian interpretation of Jesus, both in


its traditional and in its more modern “liberal” form. In appropriating and expropriating the best of modern liberal exegesis of the New Testament, my goal is to contribute to the shaping of a postmodern and postliberal interpretation of the meaning of Jesus.

Fifteen hundred years ago the Christian philosopher Boethius described the perennial ideal of Christian thought and existence as a yoking together of faith and reason: Fidem, si poteris, rationemque coniuge.[28] Today we might paraphrase his dictum as follows: Faith, if it is possible and if it is to be responsible, can never escape from history or ignore the evidence that history provides. That very evidence is what has brought Christianity to the foundational crisis it is now living through. The time is ripe to muster the results of New Testament historians and exegetes, to use those findings in order to reread the origins of Christianity, and to see what this tradition can still say-or perhaps only whisper-on the other side of liberal Christianity.

Go to Part One

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[1] The question of how Jesus understood himself and whether he asserted messianic or divine claims is treated in [Part One] as well as later in this introduction. The question of the difference/ discontinuity-or the identity and continuity-between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” is the subject of the entire book.

Concerning whether or not Jesus intended to found a new religion, see Lohfink, “Hat Jesus eine Kirche gestiftet?” Compare Küng, On Being a Christian: “Jesus did not found a Church during his lifetime. Today this is no longer a matter of dispute between the denominations” (285 and 648, n. 42, with bibliography). A brief introduction to the question of the “primacy” of Peter and the problem of papal succession in New Testament times is given in Pesch, Simon-Petrus, 163-170.

[2] For general introductions to contemporary Catholic theology see McCool, Catholic Theology; Schoof, A Survey of Catholic Theology; on Catholic exegesis, Brown, Biblical Reflections, 3-19, and The Critical Meaning of the Bible, 45-95; Crehan, “The Bible in the Roman Catholic Church from Trent to the Present Day.”

[3] See Brown, Biblical Reflections, 110-118. Concerning recent Vatican statements on exegesis see Thomas Aquinas Collins and Raymond E. Brown, “Church Pronouncements,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary II, 624-632.

[4] Moreover, some Catholic theologians consider it discussable whether Jesus’ mother, Mary, remained a virgin in the act of conceiving him, or whether Jesus was begotten by a natural father like everyone else. The question of the virginal conception of Jesus is treated in Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 517-533, and more fully [continued…]


in his The Virginal Conception, 21-68. (Brown, let it be noted, emphatically maintains that the Catholic Church teaches infallibly that Mary conceived as a virgin.) The Lutheran-Catholic study Mary in the New Testament, edited by Brown and others, concludes that in the questions of both the virginal conception and the perpetual virginity of Mary, “church tradition will be the determining factor in the view that one takes, with the important difference that while the tradition of the virginal conception is based on N[ew] T[estament] evidence, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity goes beyond anything said of her in the Scriptures” (292).

[5] See Ott, Fundamentals, 143-161 and 69. On Jesus’ knowledge, see Brown, Jesus, God and Man, esp. 79-102, and Biblical Reflections, 35, n. 27.

[6] Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 9. (Compare 7: “the long liberal summer.”)

[7] Marx and Engels, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party,” translation here slightly modified, in Marx and Engels, Collected works VI (1976), 487.

[8] See Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1-103; Kümmel The New Testament, 62-205; Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method.

[9] The threefold distinction of early Christian communities was long in developing and continues to undergo refinements. Heitmüller’s article “Zum Problem Paulus und Jesus” (1912) marked a major breakthrough in identifying Hellenistic Christians as the first group “to grasp the kernel of universalism that lay in Jesus’ preaching” (329) and “to break through the particularist and nationalistic limitations connected with it” (332). Hahn, The Titles of Jesus in Christology, has made a major contribution to the study of early Palestinian Christianity and Hellenistic Jewish Christianity, in part by showing the overlapping between the two groups. See also Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, 32-44, as well as the further specifications in Pesch, Gerhart, and Schilling, ” ‘Hellenisten’ und Hebräer: Zu Apg 9,29 und 6,1.” (See Riches’s suggestion that the “enthusiastic church” of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians “[preserved] the more radical teaching of Jesus and arguably [was] more receptive to it than the Jerusalem community itself,” Jesus and the Transformation of Judaism, 60.) On the overlapping of Hellenistic and Palestinian culture before Jesus, see Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees.

In Brown and Meier, Antioch and Rome, 1-9, Brown distinguishes four groups of Jewish Christians and their Gentile converts: (1) strongly conservative: those (of the Pharisee sect) who insisted on full compliance with Mosaic Law, including circumcision; (2) moderately conservative: those, like James and the early Peter, who insisted that their Gentile converts observe some Jewish laws but need not be circumcised; (3) liberals: those, like Paul, who required of their converts neither circumcision nor observance of Jewish food laws; and (4) radicals: those who not only did not require circumcision or observance of food laws but also “saw no abiding significance in Jewish cult and feasts” (6).

[10] See, for example, Reimarus, The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples, 35-143 = Reimarus: Fragments, 61-269. See also the editor’s notes in Lessing, Gesammelte Werke VII, 871-872, VIII, 640-641, and X, 327-336; also Talbert’s essay in Reimarus: Fragments, 18-57, and Buchanan’s in The Goal of Jesus, 10-11. Also Schleiermacher, Das Leben Jesu: Vorlesungen an der Universität zu Berlin [May 14-August 29] im Jahr 1832, edited posthumously by K. A. Rütenik, Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1862 (English translation, The Life of Jesus, 1975); Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet, 2 vols., Tübingen: C. F. Osiander, 1835-1836 (English translation, The Life of Jesus, Critically [continued…]


Examined, 1846); Renan, Vie de Jésu, Paris: Michel Levy, 1863 (English translation, The Life of Jesus, 1864). The classical text on the nineteenth-century “quest for the historical Jesus,” with the relevant literature cited at the beginning of each chapter, is Schweitzer’s Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1906 (English translation, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 1910). On Strauss, see Barth, From Rousseau to Ritschl, 362-389.

[11] Adolf von Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums, Leipzig: C. J. Hinrichs, 1900 (What Is Christianity?, 1901). The citations in this paragraph are from the second, revised, English edition (1902), 56, 60, and 61. See Alfred Loisy’s controversial response to Harnack: L’Évangile et L’Église, Paris: A. Picard, 1902 (English translation, The Gospel and the Church, London: Isbister, 1903).

[12] On source criticism see Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 104-136; Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, 69-81; Frederick Gast, “Synoptic Problem,” Jerome Biblical Commentary II, 1-6; and John S. Kselman, S.S., “Modern New Testament Criticism,” Jerome Biblical Commentary II, 11; and [n. 13], below. A helpful popular introduction to New Testament criticism can be found in Harrington, Interpreting the New Testament.

[13] The chronological priority of Mark, which had been suggested since the late eighteenth century, was systematically argued by Karl Lachmann in his “De ordine narrationum in evangeliis synopticis” in Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 8 (1835), 570-590. The hypothesis of the “Q-document” (although without that name) apparently was first postulated either by Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) in Introduction to the New Testament, 1793-1801, or by Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Über die drey ersten Evangelien, in Allgemeine Bibliothek der biblischen Literatur, Leipzig, (1794), 5:759-996. (See M. Devisch, “La source dite des Logia et ses problèmes.”) The Q-hypothesis was strongly advanced in terms of verbal concordances, doublets, and common sequences of pericopes by Christian Hermann Weiss, Die evangelische Geschichte kritisch und philosophisch bearbeitet, two volumes, Leipzig: Breitkopf and Harrel, 1838. Twenty-five years later Heinrich Julius Holtzmann carefully verified the two-source theory in Die synoptischen Evangelien: Ihr Ursprung und geschichtlicher Charakter, Leipzig: Engemann, 1863. (See Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 88, 121-136, 203ff.) The four-source theory was advanced in its first and imperfect form by B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, in 1924.

T. W. Manson notably advanced the research on the Q-material (without, however, sufficient attention to form criticism) in Major, Manson, and Wright, The Mission and Message of Jesus, 1937, Part II of which Manson republished as The Sayings of Jesus, 1949; see also Manson, The Teaching of Jesus. In 1959 Heinz-Eduard Tödt (The Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition) showed that the Q-document was not a mere “manual of instruction in the Christian life” (thus T. W. Manson) but a collection of texts with strong theological and christological preoccupations. On Q, see also James M. Robinson, “LOGOI SOPHON: On the Gattung of Q,” in Robinson and Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity, 71-113, and Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 100-102. Farmer has challenged both the Q-hypothesis and the priority of Mark and has reproposed the priority of Matthew (The Synoptic Problem, 1963). Some of the documents of the (continuing) debate for and against the Q-hypothesis and the priority of Mark are found in Bellinzoni, The Two-Source Hypothesis. Bellinzoni, while not necessarily endorsing the two-source hypothesis, [continued…]


calls it “the status quo in synoptic studies” (7) and notes that “most contemporary New Testament scholarship continues to assume the theory” (11); Joseph B. Tyson concludes (ibid., 438, 452) that serious questions raised against the hypothesis have not succeeded in completely dislodging it.

[14] See Ritschl, Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung, 3 vols., Berlin: Marcus, 1870-1874 (English translation of Volume III: The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, 1900). On Ritschl, see Philip Hefner, “Albrecht Ritschl: An Introduction,” in Ritschl, Three Essays, 1-50.

[15] Ritschl, Unterricht in der christlichen Religion (first edition), 15 = Three Essays, 265, n. 5; and n. 8. (The translation of Unterricht that appears in Three Essays is made from the third edition [1886] of the German, but the variant readings of the first edition [1875] are reflected in the footnotes.)

[16] Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification, 285. This attitude is reflected to some degree in Ritschl’s student Nietzsche: “The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart (-it is said of children ‘for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’): Not something ‘above the earth.’ The Kingdom of God does not ‘come’ chronologically-historically, on a certain day in the calendar, something that might be here one day but not the day before: it is an ‘inward change in the individual,’ something that comes at every moment and at every moment has not yet arrived-“: The Will to Power, No. 161, 98-99.

[17] Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification, 12.

[18] Weiss, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892 (English translation, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, 197 1). The citation here is from the English edition, 108. On Weiss see: the editor-translators’ introduction to the English edition, 1-54; David Lattimore Holland, “History, Theology and the Kingdom of God,” 54-66 and bibliography at 54, n. 3; Kümmel, The New Testament, 236-240; Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 238-241.

[19] Barth, Der Römerbrief, Bern: Bäschlin, 1919 (reworked, second edition, 1922); the citation here is from the English translation Epistle to the Romans, “The Preface to the First Edition,” I.

[20] In this regard Bultmann was influenced by the distinction that Martin Kibler had drawn between Historie and Geschichte in Der sogennante historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus, second, expanded and clarified, edition, Leipzig: Deichert, 1896 (English translation: The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, 1964). The first edition of Kähler’s book, published by the same press in 1892, ran to only forty-seven pages and bore the subtitle Vortrag auf der Wupperthaler Pastoralkonferenz.

[21] Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu: Literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung; Dibelius, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1919 (English translation, From Tradition to Gospel, 1935); Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1921 (English translation, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 1963).

For a virtually complete bibliography of works by and about Bultmann, see Kwiran, Index, Section III. A bibliography on demythologizing is found in Ming, On Being a Christian, 637, n. 32; for works against Bultmann, see ibid., 627, n. 17. Bultmann’s interpretation of Jesus is presented in Jesus and the Word, 27-219, and Theology of the New Testament 1, 3-32.


[22] For a list of gospel texts under the categories of pronouncement stories (and apothegms), miracle stories, and “stories about Jesus” (Bornkamm’s Christusgeschichten), see Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, 85-89.

[23] The literature on form criticism is vast; see, for example, Kwiran, Section III, s.v. “Form Criticism”; Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, 81-94; McKnight, What Is Form Criticism?; and the literature listed in Jerome Biblical Commentary II, 7.

[24] At the turn of the century William Wrede, in his Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien: Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangeliums, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901 (English translation, The Messianic Secret, 1971), had already challenged one of the presuppositions of the source criticism (and liberal theology) of the time, according to which Mark’s Gospel was in effect a factual history of Jesus without dogmatic christological embellishments. Wrede showed that from the very opening of his Gospel Mark was reflecting the Christian community’s belief in the messiahship and divinity of Jesus. On Wrede, see Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 330-348.

[25] On redaction criticism, see Rohde, Rediscovering the Teaching of the Evangelists, 9-30; Perrin, What Is Redaction Criticism?; and the bibliography listed in Tatum, In Quest of Jesus, 177, n. 13.

[26] From among the immense literature on the “new quest,” see: Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus; Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study, 25-53; Braaten and Harrisville, editors, The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ; and the works listed in Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 262-265, and in Küng, On Being a Christian, 626, n. 16.

[27] On the criteria for authentic sayings, see Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, 94-98; Hahn, Historical Investigation and New Testament Faith, 52-54; and Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 81-100.

[28] Boethius, The Theological Tractates (Loeb No. 74), 36, 37, translated by H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand, revised by S. J. Tester, 1978. The text is in the last sentence of the letter introducing the Second Theological Tractate, “Utrum pater et filius et spiritus sanctus de divinitate substantialiter praedicentur,” addressed to the future Pope John I. The text is cited correctly (poteris, not poterit) in Patrologia Latina LXIII (1847), 1302.

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