And on the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” (Mark 8:27)
Who was Jesus? This seems like such a simple question. The answer also seems fairly simple. If we want to know what Jesus said or did, we only have to read the four gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. To understand Jesus' purpose or mission we have only to read the epistles of Saint Paul. Paul gives ample testimony to the nature and purpose of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
Incredibly, after nearly 2,000 years of reflection and debate there are still significant disagreements about who Jesus was. These alternative images exist primarily among people who have closely read and analyzed the gospel texts. But even among average churchgoers (who by-and-large are biblically illiterate), a variety of images exist.
Jesus was the first one to raise the echoing question “Who do people say I am?” The question is at the center of bitter disputes among scholars concerning the life of Jesus and what can accurately be said about it.
the search for the historical Jesus
Most people have some experience with what the church believes about the identity and mission of Jesus. But what really happened in the first century CE? What did Jesus and those who first experienced his deeds and words believe at the time? Was he a purely spiritual teacher or did he advocate some form of social and economic revolution? Did he view himself as the promised messiah? Did he look for heavenly intervention to bring about a new world? Did he understand himself to be both God and man?
Historians have attempted to sift through the little evidence that remains to determine the earliest layer of information about Jesus. By uncovering the oldest stratum they hoped to understand what Jesus himself thought about his identity and purpose.
peeling back the layers
Since the late 1700s, biblical scholars have attempted to uncover the real, historical Jesus of Nazareth from the embellished accounts in the gospels. Scholars now believe the gospels are a result of several layers of experience, teaching, and tradition in the early church. Each successive layer is slightly different from the preceding layer because of changes in the beliefs of the community or communities that produced it.
The first layer, and the most difficult to uncover, consists of what the historical Jesus of Nazareth actually did and said. The second layer is what was preached and proclaimed about Jesus after his death. It includes Old Testament prophecies about the messiah, collections of Jesus' sayings, and compilations of miracle stories. The third layer is what various New Testament writers, using these and other sources, decided to put in writing concerning Jesus. The New Testament record appears to be several layers removed from the Jesus of history.
As biblical scholars looked for the Jesus of history amid the layers of the New Testament record, new ideas about his identity, mission and message emerged. In contrast to the orthodox image of Jesus, a variety of new images have been proposed during the last 200 years. Most of these interpretations downplay the idea that Jesus was God, let alone a member of a complex theological partnership called the Trinity. They emphasize the human qualities of Jesus.
the first quest (1760-1920)
During the eighteenth century, scholars of the Enlightenment began to question the whole substance of revealed religion. They stated that the scriptures should be subjected to the same rigorous scientific scrutiny as the laws of nature, and that nothing should be taken on faith. The rational minds of the Enlightenment found two significant issues in the gospels—first, that the four gospel accounts did not agree in detail, and second, that the miracles performed by Jesus defied rational explanation, and therefore were probably the product of myths or legends, or perhaps they were metaphorical stories that reveal what early Christian communities thought about him.
To Enlightenment scholars the question became whether Jesus could be viewed through the new lens of historical reason and research rather than through the perspective of theology and traditional creedal formulations. Was it possible to find the real Jesus of history hidden behind the fanciful stories of first-century believers? A handful of scholars began a quest to discover what really could be known about the historical Jesus.
Protestant scholars in Germany took the lead in the early nineteenth century, looking for the authentic nature of Jesus in the gospel accounts. They began to sift the New Testament for evidence of the flesh-and-blood Jesus beneath what they called the “myths.” By this they primarily referred to the miracles of Jesus, his miraculous birth, and the resurrection—events that a nineteenth century naturalistic view of history could not accept as a historical reality.
This scholarly curiosity inaugurated the quest for the historical Jesus by digging into the development of the New Testament writings using a variety of tools of biblical analysis. The process known as the historical-critical method or “higher criticism” rocked the foundations of Christian orthodoxy.
Hermann Samuel Reimarus
The search for the Jesus of history began in earnest with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a professor of Oriental languages in Hamburg, Germany. After a close study of the gospels, Reimarus became convinced that what the gospel writers said about Jesus could be distinguished and separated from what Jesus himself actually said. It was with this basic distinction between the Christ of faith and Jesus as a real person that the quest of the historical Jesus began.
On his deathbed in 1768, Reimarus turned over a manuscript that was later published in 1778 under the title On the Intention of Jesus and His Teaching (Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger).
Reimarus saw Jesus as a political claimant for the throne of Israel who anticipated a worldly kingdom and was executed as a political revolutionary. Jesus expected God to help him achieve political authority, and cried out in desolation on the cross when it became clear God was not going to help him.
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 New Testament.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the great American leader, also explored the issue of the historical Jesus. After leaving the presidency in 1809, Jefferson, an ardent student of the bible, compiled a version of the gospels that included only what he considered the authentic accounts and sayings of Jesus. He discarded numerous gospel passages that in his judgment could not have been authentic. Jefferson snipped passages out of his King James Bible and pasted them on the pages of a blank book, blending the gospels in more-or-less chronological order. In parallel columns he pasted the Greek text, along with Latin and French translations. He entitled the resulting book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1814:
David Friedrich Strauss
In 1835, another German Protestant scholar, David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) wrote The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Das Leben Jesu, Kritisch Bearbeitet), a two-volume work of over 1,400 densely written pages, when he was just 27 years old. His deconstruction of the gospel stories (in which he discarded all supernatural events and miracles) created a backlash that cost him his position at Tübingen University.
Strauss advocated an unbiased study of the New Testament, and suggested that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were the most historical gospels. In his analysis, Strauss questioned the credibility and genuineness of John's gospel due to its significant differences from the synoptic gospels—a view still held today by the majority of scholars.
Strauss distinguished what he called the 'mythical' (defined as anything legendary or supernatural) from the 'historical' in the gospels. He argued that the miracles of Jesus should be classified as myths, and proposed that the actual career of Jesus could be reconstructed without using these mythical elements.
He believed the gospels were based on Old Testament stories, not facts from Jesus' life. Strauss rejected the birth narratives in the gospel accounts as mythical accounts created to satisfy Old Testament prophecies regarding the birth of the messiah. He proposed that prior to Jesus' baptism, nothing in the gospels of Matthew and Luke could be taken as historically accurate.
Strauss believed that although Jesus' ability to heal is clearly historical, the form in which his healings are preserved in the gospel tradition is not. He further believed that the nature miracles, which he put under the heading of "Sea-Stories and Fish-Stories," were mythical. Finally, he rejected the accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances in Jerusalem and Galilee and of Jesus' ascension as pure myth.
The choice Strauss posed in his assessment of the gospels was between the supernatural Jesus—the Christ of faith—and the historical Jesus.
Adolf von Harnack
In 1880, by reading between the lines of Mark's gospel, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) reconstructed Jesus as an entirely human prophet whose message was remarkably similar to the philosophy of human self-improvement embraced by nineteenth-century liberal humanists.
Harnack believed that the doctrine of Jesus as the divine savior was an invention of the early church. He saw Jesus instead as the ideal ethical humanist. The essence of Christianity, according to Harnack, lay in a few timeless spiritual principles that Jesus taught: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul. Jesus' primary message was to individuals and their inward spirituality. The kingdom of God was an invisible spiritual kingdom in the hearts of well-mannered men and women which would gradually grow in the world through human efforts of personal morality and civic duty.
Around the turn of the twentieth century Albert Schweitzer, the brilliant German biblical scholar, theologian and musician who became a medical missionary in Africa, developed an analysis of Jesus and the kingdom of God. He drew a conclusion about the person and goals of Jesus which remained more or less unchallenged as the standard scholarly understanding until recent years.
Schwietzer wrote The Quest for the Historical Jesus (Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung) in 1906. He noted that people who search for the historical Jesus usually find a Jesus they agree with. All previous scholars had sought to 'modernize' Jesus, to make him relevant to their particular time, rather than looking at him in his own time. He also noted that they practically ignored the fact that Jesus was Jewish.
He reviewed the work of the first quest and concluded that Jesus was an eschatological prophet—a radical visionary of the cataclysmic end of the world. Schweitzer argued that Jesus held the same expectations as many Jewish apocalyptic writers of his day. He suggested that Jesus believed God was about to intervene immediately and dramatically in the affairs of humanity, and that his own life's work was to be the decisive climax of history—a climax that would therefore come within Jesus' own lifetime.
According to Schweitzer Jesus expected a "son of man" to be sent by God to bring this end upon them. When this figure did not appear, Jesus then thought he must be the son of man, and expected his death on the cross to bring about the end of the world.
This, said Schweitzer, is what Jesus meant when he declared that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus pictured himself as “the Messiah designate,” who would assume a position of full authority once the kingdom had actually arrived.
Schweitzer had emphasized that Jesus announced the coming of God's kingdom in the very near future, after a short period of distress; his disciples would not even have time to reach all the cities in Israel with this message. When this apocalyptic prediction did not come true, Jesus recognized that it was his duty to suffer and die for others so as to make it possible for the kingdom to come. The disciples then moved the end of the world to some unspecified future time.
Schweitzer's work effectively stopped all the quests for the historical Jesus for the next fifty years.
an early twentieth-century consensus
After two hundred years of biblical research a consensus was more or less reached among biblical scholars.
The historical Jesus who emerges in this image was obviously wrong in his beliefs. The final kingdom did not come in his lifetime. History did not end. If Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, he was wrong, he was under an illusion, he was obviously mistaken.
The result of the first quest was a portrait of a historical Jesus who is irrelevant and of no real significance for us today. On the other hand, the popular image of Jesus—that of the creeds—is a Christ of faith who is the evolutionary creation of a myth-making process in the first and second centuries and is so entirely different from the historical person at the root of the myth that any real connection is almost impossible. So what does that leave us?
forget the quest (1920s)
In the 1920s, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a Lutheran professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg in Germany, made a renewed attempt to discover the historical Jesus within the gospel accounts.
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 why each one was written and preserved by the early church. It asks what purpose or "situation in life" (Sitz im Leben) the story served for the evolving Jesus movement.
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."
Bultmann described Jesus as an existentialist. He recognized that early Christians were heavily influenced by the world of the first century and expressed themselves in terms of its mythologies. He believed that the essential message of the New Testament was expressed in mythical terms which could be interpreted according to the concepts of modern existentialist philosophy. If properly understood, the meanings of the myths could then be restated in language that was not mythological. Bultmann thought that existentialism was capable of handling such a translation. He believed that the core of the gospels was a pronouncement of freedom from one's past and a call to be radically open to one's future—an invitation to decide in favor of "authentic human existence.”
In 1926, Bultmann concluded that the quest for the historical Jesus was fruitless. He contended that the gospels were so much an article of faith, so laden with unprovable events and legends, that we can know nothing of the historic Jesus. We may not know who the historical Jesus was, Bultmann thought, but we can find meaning in the Christ of faith.
the second quest (1950-1970)
The second quest began in 1953 with a speech at the University of Marburg by one of Bultmann's pupils—Ernst Kasemann. In The Problem of the Historical Jesus (later published in the book Essays on New Testament Themes), Kasemann argued that something could be known about the historical Jesus. He explained that the gospels are interpreted traditions but they do record historical information and memory.
The main scholars of the second quest were were Kasemann, Gunther Bornkamm and Norman Perrin. They utilized an increasing knowledge of Jewish life and culture in the first century which was then emerging due to the discovery of the library at Nag Hamadi in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. They attempted to locate Jesus within the religious and social world of first-century Judaism, which was a major step forward.
These scholars determined what could historically be said about Jesus, such as that he was Jewish and lower-class, for example. They then tried to determine whether Jesus had actually said the things the gospels assert that he said. They believed that many sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels, were in fact later inventions. Norman Perrin utilized two main criteria for determining authenticity—the criterion of dissimilarity and the criterion of multiple attestation.
The criterion of dissimilarity rejects sayings of Jesus that could have been created by the early church or that could be general rabbinic teachings of the time. The idea is that we can only be sure of those sayings of Jesus that would fit with neither the early church nor first-century Judaism. If the saying stands out as unusual for the time and context, it marks it as distinctively that of Jesus.
The criterion of multiple attestation means that the text has more plausibility if it has some similarity to a saying in another gospel or a pre-gospel tradition. If found in two or more sources it suggests that the words of Jesus were familiar to several communities and not just the creation of one.
the third quest (1970-2000s)
The second quest flowed into the third and latest quest which began in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to the present. The third quest has focused on increased understanding of Jesus in his Jewish context. The German scholars who led the original quest for the historical Jesus often neglected the influence of Jewish culture on Jesus, perhaps due to the historic prejudicial bias of Germans toward Jews.
Recent scholars have tried to see Jesus from a distinctively Jewish point of view. If Jesus belongs anywhere, it is within the turbulent and politically charged atmosphere of first century Palestine with its revolutionary movements, its Roman repression, its high taxation, its fervent hope for everything to be made new when God finally acted. Unless we place Jesus in that context, we are apt to imagine him in our own, modern image.
In 1985, Robert Funk (1926-2005) founded the controversial Jesus Seminar with biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan. An academic, Funk sought to promote research and education on what he called biblical literacy. His approach was historical and critical, with a strongly skeptical view of traditional Christian belief, particularly about the historical Jesus.
Funk taught at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, was chairman of the graduate department of religion at Vanderbilt University, and served as executive secretary of the Society of Biblical Literature. He is the author of Honest to Jesus (1996), and A Credible Jesus (2002).
John Dominic Crossan
John Dominic Crossan (b.1934) is an Irish American biblical scholar who was the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar for its first decade. Crossan is also a former chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at De Paul University in Chicago.
He has written twenty books on the historical Jesus, four of which have become national religious bestsellers: The Historical Jesus (1991), Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994), Who Killed Jesus (1995), and The Birth of Christianity (1998).
The Jesus Seminar was a project of Funk's Westar Institute, founded to foster collaborative research in religious studies and to communicate the results of the scholarship of religion to a wide audience.
Some of the principles guiding the work of Westar are:
The Jesus Seminar was the first project of the institute, organized to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to a wide public audience. The seminar's purpose is to determine what Jesus, as a historic figure, may or may not have said or done. They examine Jesus, not from the lens of faith, but with the eyes of a historian.
At the first meeting of the Jesus Seminar in March 1985, Robert Funk told the thirty assembled scholars, "We are about to embark on a momentous enterprise. We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said."
Eventually more than two hundred professionally-trained biblical scholars, called Fellows, joined the group. They have advanced degrees in biblical studies, religion or related fields and teach in colleges, universities or theological seminaries.
In addition to the Jesus Seminar, Westar projects include the Paul Seminar, the Canon Seminar and the Acts Seminar.
the Jesus Seminar
The scholars of the Jesus Seminar have attempted to reconstruct the life of Jesus. They ask who he was, what he did, what he said, and what his sayings meant. They have used all of the available evidence from the first two centuries after Jesus.
Their reconstruction is based on the triple pillars of social anthropology, history and textual analysis. They use cross-cultural anthropological studies to set the general background, narrow in on the history and society of first-century Roman Palestine, and use textual analysis (along with more anthropology and history) to focus on Jesus himself.
They use a combination of primary sources (original texts and archaeological evidence) and secondary sources (anthropological and historical studies). Their methodology involves canvassing the records of the first four centuries for traditions about Jesus and sifting them by criteria such as multiple attestation, distinctiveness, and orality.
The Fellows of the seminar gathered all the recorded sayings of Jesus up until 325 CE from canonical and non-canonical sources. All twenty-two known gospels were used. Their goal was to review each of the fifteen hundred versions of five hundred sayings and determine which of them could be ascribed with a high degree of probability to Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar then began by producing their own translation of the gospels called the Scholars Version. It freely uses updated colloquialisms and contemporary phrasing that attempts to match the original author's style, so that one can hear the message as a first-century listener might have.
The Fellows of the Seminar meet twice a year to debate technical papers that have been prepared and circulated in advance. At the close of debate on each agenda item, Fellows vote, using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus' words or deeds. Dropping colored beads into a box has become a trademark of the Seminar.
Voting does not, of course, determine the truth. Voting only indicates what the best judgment is of a significant number of scholars sitting around the table.
The colors were given a numeric value: red - 3, pink - 2, gray - 1, black - 0. This allowed for the computation of a weighted average. A statement or event was given a final color code based on the following percentages:
The tabulated votes would be reflected in the published results, in which sayings attributed to Jesus would be color-coded, in a kind of "red-letter edition" of the gospels.
After six years of work, the Jesus Seminar found that only 18% of the words attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of Thomas had a high probability of actually being spoken by him (RED and PINK).
The Five Gospels
The first findings of the Jesus Seminar were published in 1993 as The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. The five gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas) are printed in the Scholars Version with an extensive introduction. The text is color coded (red, pink, gray and black) to reflect the voting results. Commentary is included to explain the reasoning for the results.
Only 15 sayings were considered RED (Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it).
The Acts of Jesus
In 1998 the Seminar published The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. They continued to use color coding to indicate the authenticity of the acts of Jesus reported in the gospels, but with different definitions.
In summary, here is what they believe to be the probable historical facts (RED and PINK) that can be determined about Jesus' life and death :
© 2007 Kurt Struckmeyer