The gospels give us the most detailed descriptions of Jesus’ life and ministry we have. They’re believed to have been written by eyewitnesses (or at least based on eyewitness accounts), and they all clearly claim that Jesus Christ is the son of God.
If you believe the gospels are historically accurate accounts of the things Jesus said and did, there’s little room for interpretation about who he really was. C.S. Lewis made famous the Lord, liar, lunatic trilemma to explain the challenge of dismissing Jesus’ divinity.
But those aren’t the only three options. The fourth option is much more appealing to skeptics: the gospels are unreliable, non-historical representations of a man known as Jesus.
The quests for the “historical Jesus”
Over the centuries, numerous Bible scholars have suggested that the gospel accounts can’t be trusted. These scholars argue that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written too long after the life of Jesus, and they came from communities of later Christians, not eyewitnesses.
According to these scholars, the gospels turned a real man into a false god. The Jesus portrayed in the gospels is not the “historical Jesus” but the “Christ of faith,” exalted and deified by later Christians.
This argument launched a series of “quests” to identify the “real,” historical Jesus—which to some, were quests to explain away his divinity.
The debate has evolved over time, and the movement contains four main phases driven by numerous scholars and works. In his course, Four Portraits, One Jesus, Dr. Mark Strauss explores each of these phases, examining their arguments and the people who proposed them. We’ve adapted the following article from Dr. Strauss’ work.
The nineteenth-century quest for the historical Jesus
During the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, rationalism attempted to undermine the supernatural nature of the gospels. Where believers were comfortable attributing Jesus’ miracles to his divinity, rationalists demanded a logical explanation for these supernatural events.
According to the rationalists, if the accounts of Christ could not be explained through logic—the sole test of truth—then they were not true.
The first quest for the historical Jesus attempted to discredit the gospels as either intentionally false or accidentally false, and claimed that Jesus was simply a moral, mortal teacher. At the end of the eighteenth century, a posthumously published article by Herman Samuel Reimarus claimed that Jesus considered himself a human messiah, destined to save his people from Rome, and that when Jesus failed, his disciples stole Jesus’ body.
Essentially, Reimarus suggested that the lie proposed by the chief priests in Matthew 28:12–13 was the truth:
“When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.”’” (NIV)
Almost all scholars reject this view. But this controversial paper sparked a new wave of research into the historical Jesus, using rationalism to explain away the gospels’ supernatural elements.
In the nineteenth century, H.E.G. Paulus, claimed that most of Jesus’ miracles could be explained by mistaken observations and unrecognized causes. Here’s how he reconstructed several miracles:
- The feeding of the five thousand involved more than five loaves of bread and two fish. Rich people present were encouraged by the little boy’s unselfish example, and they shared their own lunches. The boy’s lunch was multiplied figuratively.
- Jesus only appeared to walk on water. He was actually walking near shore with a mist covering his feet.
- Lazarus was buried alive, not raised from the dead. Jesus rescued his friend from a premature burial—which likely happened because he was in a comatose state.
- Jesus only appeared to be dead on the cross. He was unconscious, and so near death that it fooled everyone into believing he was dead. Later, the coolness of the tomb brought him back to consciousness. (Paulus proposed a similar “swoon theory” for Jesus’ resurrection.)
These were common explanations of Jesus’ life in the nineteenth-century, and some of these arguments were widely publicized. In 1863, Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus sold sixty thousand copies during its first six months in print.
The first quest for the historical Jesus was marked with attempts to salvage Christ’s teachings while tossing out his miracles. It was argued that Jesus was a man, not the Son of God—by that, he simply meant that we are all the children of God—and he only proclaimed the love of God and the brotherhood of all human beings.
By the twentieth century, the first quest for the historical Jesus was coming to an end (and coming up short). Scholars had begun to recognize that rationalistic explanations couldn’t adequately account for the miracle stories which permeated the gospel tradition.
The watered-down Jesus that emerged was almost completely detached from his first-century context. In The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer criticized nineteenth-century researchers, saying they re-created Jesus in their own image. Their version of the historical Jesus was a modern philanthropist preaching an inoffensive message of love and brotherhood.
In the years to come, the rationalism of the first quest would evolve into new forms of skepticism.
No quest: Rudolf Bultmann and the end of the first quest
Many scholars began to adopt a pessimistic attitude toward Jesus studies, claiming that almost nothing could be known about the historical Jesus. Gospel studies entered what is sometimes called the period of “no quest,” when radical skepticism dominated the discussion.
Several major developments occurred during this period, which laid the foundation for the next quest:
1. All historical judgments are statements of probability and relative truth, open to later correction or revision. This is known as the principle of methodological doubt, and it denies the validity of absolute statements of religious dogma.
2. All historical events are similar in quality and should be understood with reference to our common experience. This is the principle of analogy, and it argues that if fish and loaves cannot multiply today, they couldn’t multiply in the first century, either.
3. The miracles in the gospels were the result of myths, not misunderstandings. Since the gospels were written years after the death of Christ, and they are technically anonymous, the supernatural events could have developed over time as the historical account was passed down the line, like a game of telephone.
4. The gospels were written for theological, not historical purposes. William Wrede proposed that Mark rewrote the gospel story to accommodate the growing belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Wrede argued that Mark added a motif he dubbed “the messianic secret,” which conveniently explained why Jesus led an “unmessianic life.” This, he claimed, is why Jesus repeatedly silences demons (1:24, 34; 3:11–12; 5:7), insists that miracles be kept quiet (1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), and warns his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah (8:30; 9:9).
As a result, the gospels were increasingly viewed not as historical documents but as apologetically motivated propaganda, intended to promote the theological perspectives of the communities which produced them.
5. It’s impossible, through historical means, to reconstruct a biography of Jesus. This is because the kerygma, the Christian preaching about the exalted Christ, is so interwoven into the gospel narratives that there is no non-supernatural “Jesus of history.” Martin Kähler intended this argument to recover the significance of Jesus for the church, but ironically, it was used by others to draw a strict dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, cutting off Christianity from its historical roots.
Rudolf Bultmann built on each of these observations about the historical Jesus, becoming the key figure of the “no quest” period and the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century.
Bultmann believed that the supernatural events of the gospels were the creation of a prescientific worldview, and that the early church had little interest in preserving the historical Jesus.
But to Bultmann, the lack of historical reliability didn’t render the Christian faith completely false. Following the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Bultmann claimed that human beings continually live with the dreadful prospect of death and nothingness, seeking to escape this dread by living “inauthentically”—by becoming absorbed in life’s pursuits.
Bultmann claimed that Heidegger and the New Testament had the same basic understanding of humanity’s plight, except that the New Testament provided the answer. Unfortunately, the mythological worldview of first century Christians obscured the New Testament’s solution.
By “demythologizing” the New Testament, Bultmann believed we could reach the true existentialist message of Jesus: to live a life of “authentic existence.”
The new (second) quest and the post-Bultmannians
In the wake of Bultmann’s influential work, Christianity was severed from its historical roots. Some of his students felt he’d gone too far, and believed that the existentialist message Bultmann identified in the New Testament could be linked to the historical Jesus. At a reunion of Bultmann’s students in 1953, Ernst Käsemann delivered a lecture called “The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” calling for a second quest for the historical Jesus to see if this connection existed.
Günther Bornkamm’s classic volume, Jesus of Nazareth, is arguably the most influential work to arise from this period, but Ernst Füchs, Gerhard Ebeling made important contributions as well. While rejecting Bultmann’s extreme skepticism, these scholars started with the same basic premises:
- An existentialist worldview
- Rejection of the supernatural
- The “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” are completely different
- The gospels are theological, not historical documents
- The gospel writers were not eyewitnesses
Most of the gospel tradition was created and embellished by the early Christian communities.
Since they started with so many of Bultmann’s assumptions, it’s not surprising that they didn’t get very far beyond his skepticism. They determined that what can be known about Jesus can be summarized in a few short statements:
- He came from Nazareth
- He was baptized by John
- He preached and told parables about the kingdom of God
- He viewed this kingdom as coming in the near future and (perhaps) as already present in some sense
- He performed, or was believed to have performed, exorcisms and healings
- He gathered a group of disciples around him
- He associated with outcasts and sinners
- He challenged the Jewish leaders of his day
- He was arrested and charged with blasphemy and sedition
- He was crucified by the Romans
Scholars of the second quest generally denied that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, that he predicted his own death, or that he rose from the dead.
The contemporary scene: a third quest?
After gaining such little ground, the so-called “new quest” had mostly died down by the 1970s. Since then, advances in biblical and archeological studies, new methodologies, and a group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar have sparked a flurry of new research to uncover “the real Jesus.”
While the second quest for the historical Jesus gained little ground, it did provide scholars with the foundation they needed to develop a criteria of authenticity, which many scholars use today.
Criteria of authenticity
To examine the claims of the gospels, scholars have assembled six criterion which can help determine if the event or teaching is authentic. None of them guarantees authenticity, but each one provides scholars with a backdrop for studying the historical Jesus.
1. The criterion of dissimilarity. A saying or an action of Jesus could be authentic if it’s dissimilar to the characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and the early church. For example, when Jesus identifies himself as the “Son of Man,” we might be able to call it authentic since it wasn’t a common messianic title in first-century Judaism, nor was it used in early church confessions of Jesus.
One problem with this criterion is that it assumes we know enough about both Judaism and early Christianity to make the call. What we consider to be unique to Jesus could actually a part of first-century Judaism.
2. The criterion of coherence. Once the criterion of dissimilarity gives us the characteristics of Jesus’ teachings, we might be able to use these to substantiate similar sayings.
3. The criterion of multiple attestation. A saying or story could be authentic if it appears in most of the sources behind the gospels. Results here depend on your conclusion concerning the synoptic problem. A scholar who accepts the four-source theory would say that a teaching which appears in Mark, Q, and L or M is likely to be authentic. For example, Jesus’ practice of eating with sinners appears in all strands of gospel tradition (Mark 2:15–17; Q: Matt. 11:18–19; L: Luke 15:1–2; M: Matt. 21:28–32).
(You can learn more about Dr. Strauss’ views on Mark, Q, L, M, and the synoptic problem here.)
4. The criterion of embarrassment. Statements that would have produced theological difficulties or embarrassment in the church could be authentic—because otherwise they wouldn’t have been included, right? For example, Jesus’ statement that no one knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:32) could be considered authentic since the church wouldn’t have created a saying which attributed ignorance to the Son.
One problem with this criterion is that things that seem embarrassing to us may not have been embarrassing to the early church.
5. The criterion of Semitic flavor. If sayings have Jewish or Palestinian origins, then this criterion claims it’s more likely to be authentic. This would include sayings which contain Aramaic words or which envisage Palestinian social conditions. For example, Jesus’ use of the Aramaic word abba (father) in Mark 14:36 would be viewed as most likely authentic.
This criterion also has problems. While an Aramaic word suggests that a saying came from a Semitic context, an authentic saying could have lost its Semitic flavor through translation into Greek. Nor can this criterion prove authenticity, since the saying could be traced to the Aramaic-speaking church, rather than to Jesus himself.
6. The criterion of divergent traditions. When an author preserves traditions which do not serve his purpose, this criterion claims they are probably authentic. For example, Jesus’ statement “Do not go to the Gentiles” in Matthew 10:5–6 appears to be at odds with the Great Commission to go to all nations in Matthew 28:16–20. To some this would suggest it is pre-Matthean, and so probably authentic.
The problem with this criterion is it assumes we know an author’s purpose. Matthew 10:5–6 wouldn’t contradict Matthew’s theology if it is part of his purpose to show that Jesus’ first mission was to the Jews and he turned to the Gentiles after the Jews rejected his message. Events which seem to conflict with the narrative may actually be an important part of it.
Taken together, the criteria of authenticity have other problems, too. They can be used to contradict each other, and it’s easy for investigators to abuse criterion to fit their needs with subjective reasoning. Still, they can help us piece together a portrait of the historical Jesus.
Who is the “real Jesus”?
While we can’t learn everything about the real Jesus through historical investigation, historical-Jesus research is still useful. The historical Jesus—what we know about him through historical research—is only part of the real Jesus. It can’t give us a complete picture about who Jesus was. While conclusions about the historical Jesus are always partial and incomplete, this doesn’t mean they’re invalid or false. We can know much about the person of Jesus without knowing everything.
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Image by Edal Anton Lefterov, used under Creative Commons License.
This post is adapted from material found in Four Portraits, One Jesus, an online course on Jesus and the Gospels taught by Mark Strauss.