Saturday, May 14, 2011

An overview of the Jesus quest

These are just some notes on Craig Blomberg's lecture on the historical Jesus. Blomberg in turn acknowledged he took a fair portion of his material from Ben Witherington. I used Google, Wikipedia, and the like to fill in the gaps I noticed.

I've interspersed my own comments here. Sorry they're not clearly labeled or anything. I took these notes down rather quickly and a bit haphazardly too. I didn't intend to post these notes, but just started taking notes for myself so I could better follow Blomberg's lecture. These notes are pretty rough to put it mildly.

Anyway, please feel free to make corrections if you spot mistakes, poor points, etc.

Quest for the historical Jesus
  1. What is it? The quest to find the Jesus of history as opposed to the Jesus of faith (as if one can make such a distinction in the first place).

  2. When did it begin? Origins in the Enlightenment or Age of Reason era. A period perhaps most marked by man asserting his intellectual autonomy over and above all else including the Word of God.
First Quest
  1. Three schools:

    a. Rationalists and mythologizers. Jesus was a mere human being living in first century Israel. As such, he was similar to most Jews of his day and age. He wanted to overturn Rome. He falsely believed his death would spark a Jewish revolution that would unseat Rome. Notable proponents: Hermann Reimarus, David Strauss.

    b. Romantics. Jesus meek and mild. Jesus was a gentle teacher who taught people the golden rule and so forth. That's all. Notable proponent: Ernest Renan.

    c. Old liberals. Jesus was a moral teacher who came to improve 19th century society. Social progress and moral evolution. Jesus believed in the universal fatherhood of God over the universal brotherhood of all mankind. Notable proponent: Adolf von Harnack.

  2. Albert Schweitzer.

    a. He rightly argued that these schools were just making Jesus into their own image, which in turn undermined the quest or search for the historical Jesus. In other words, what these scholars told us about Jesus told us more about them than it did Jesus. His arguments and insights effectively put an end to the First Quest for the historical Jesus.

    b. However, Schweitzer's own alternative committed the very same fallacy. Schweitzer argued each of these schools minimized or marginalized the centrality of Jesus' eschatological and apocalyptical focus, wherein Jesus believed the end of the world was nigh (within his lifetime or soon thereafter) and thus taught and lived in light of this hope. As such, he believed Jesus' ethic was an interim ethic, that is, a way to live based on the fact that Jesus thought the world would soon end. But Schweitzer said Jesus was mistaken. Jesus' ethics were irrelevant to future generations.

    c. In light of all this, Schweitzer believed the quest for the historical Jesus was at a dead end. Schweitzer quit theology, went to med school, and became a medical missionary in Africa.

  3. Martin Kahler.

    a. Kahler pointed out that it was impossible to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith because we only know the historical Jesus through the NT which chroncicles the Jesus of faith.

    b. However, Kahler went on to say the believer's faith need not be dependent on the historical record for Jesus. Rather, he argued, one can have faith in the Jesus of faith without reliance on the historical record. This in turn would prove influential for Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann.

    c. Of course, this too is heretical because it implies the historical facts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection (among other things) are irrelevant to Christianity.
No Quest
  1. Roughly 1900-1950. This is the period where no quest took place. Sure, scholars continued to write about the quest for the historical Jesus, but it was hard to escape the elephant in the room that in doing so scholars were doomed to remake Jesus in their own image.

  2. The predominant figure during this period was Bultmann.

  3. Bultmann said the only fact we can confidently know about the Jesus of history is *that* he existed.

  4. Interestingly, Bultmann was an existentialist in his philosophy. Likewise so was Bultmann's image of Jesus.
Second Quest (aka New Quest)
  1. Roughly from the 1950s to 1970s. Among other things, this was existentialist philosophy's heyday. It's no coincidence the Second Quest waned as Bultmann's influence as well as existentialist philosophy's influence waned.

  2. Pioneered by three of Bultmann's students, two German and one American: Ernst Käsemann; Gunther Bornkamm; and James Robinson.

  3. Contra Bultmann, his students argued Bultmann's skepticism about what we can confidently know about the historical Jesus was too radical and unwarranted. They believed we could know more about the historical Jesus than what Bultmann argued (e.g. they suggested Jesus could perhaps have believed he was the Messiah).

  4. A strong implication was that Jesus' teachings in the Gospels were indeed relevant to life. Although like Bultmann, his students made Jesus sound more like an existentialist philosopher than anything else.
Third Quest
  1. This began in the 1980s and continues today.

  2. Shared characteristics of the Third Quest schools excepting the Jesus Seminar include:

    a. The conviction that any convincing portrait of Jesus must be grounded in first century Israeli Judaism.

    b. Science has not disproven the miraculous in the least.

    c. The historical support for the historical Jesus is extremely strong, not only with the NT itself but also outside the NT (e.g. see Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence by Robert Van Voorst).

    d. Jesus did see himself as some sort of a Messiah or Savior sent from God which would've been perceived by those in his society as an overly exalted claim which in turn could've led to his crucifixion.

  3. Several schools in the Third Quest.

    a. Jesus Seminar. Much has been said about the absurdity of this school. No need to reproduce it.

    b. Jesus as a charismatic holy man. Someone who was outside the established Jewish religious institutions but who had a charismatic personality and taught religious truths to the masses. He eventually got into trouble with the authorities. Notable proponents: John Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack, and F. Gerald Downing.

    c. Jesus as a social reformer. He went around as an itinerant teacher who tried to bring Jews back to the Torah. Who preached love for his enemies. Non-violence. He likewise protested against the corruption and injustice in his society. Notable proponents: Gerd Theissen, Richard Horsley, and R. David Kaylor.

    d. Jesus as an eschatological prophet. An attempt to revive and revise Schweitzer's thesis about Jesus. Notable proponents: E.P. Sanders, Maurice Casey.

    e. Jesus as a wise sage. Focuses on Jesus' sayings, parables, proverbs, and so forth in the context of Jewish wisdom literature. God himself personified as wisdom rather than an abstract wisdom. This school can be further subdivided into two parts.

    First, there's a divine feminine wisdom tradition. Since wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs. Notable proponent: Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.

    Second, the Jewish precedence for how Jesus could use the language of divinity. Notable proponent: Ben Witherington.

    f. Jesus as the marginalized Messiah. Probably the most conservative of the options, according to Blomberg. Although I didn't find Wright so conservative. Maybe I misunderstood it.

    Blomberg focuses on N.T. Wright. As Blomberg sees Wright, Wright believes the Jews are God's chosen people. The people with whom God made a special covenant. If they obeyed the terms of the covenant, then they would be blessed by God. However, the Jews in the time of Jesus lived under Roman rule. So the question is, what went wrong and what can be done to reclaim the promises and blessings of the covenant. This is the problem of exile for the Diaspora Jews. And it's the problem of not being able to live in freedom for those in Israel under Roman rule. That's the framework with which Wright begins.

    Wright continues to say it's in this context that Jesus enters announcing the exile is over. According to Wright, Jesus redefined five Jewish tenents. He redefined monotheism to include Jesus himself. He redefined the doctrine of election to include the Gentiles. He redefined salvation from physical salvation under Roman rule to spiritual salvation from sin and death. He redefined the concept of the Messiah from Israel having to suffer corporately to Jesus himself having to suffer in place for the sins of his people. Finally, he redefined the Messianic Age to come in two stages rather than one wherein the Messiah will come again to restore the kingdom.

    Again, I didn't find this summation exactly conservative if by conservative we mean something like close to orthodox Christianity. If this is an accurate summation of Wright's position, then I think one problem is that Wright gives too much credence to the rabbinic Jewish interpretation of Scripture. At least from what I understand, rabbinic Judaism has its origins in the Council of Yavne with prominent Jews like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. This was where the Mishnah, Gemara, and so forth were collated into what would become the Talmud. Again, as I understand, the Talmud isn't exactly friendly to Christians (and the first Christians were predominantly Jews whom their fellow Jews rejected, which we also see in the NT). Plus, Medieval Judaism with rabbis like Rashi, Maimonides, and Nachmanides have shaped modern day rabbinic Judaism. What I'm suggesting is that I think that rabbinic Judaism originally interpreted a passage like Isaiah 53 to refer to corporate Israel rather than an individual "Suffering Servant" in reaction to the early Christians (who were Jews) interpreting it to refer to the Messiah and specifically the Messiah Jesus. After all, Acts 8:34 records the Ethiopian eunuch asking Philip: "About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this [in Isaiah 53], about himself or about someone else?" I could well be wrong about all this, but that's my understanding at this point.

    Notable proponents: John Meir, Peter Stuhlmacher, James Dunn, Marinus de Jonge, Markus Bockmuehl, and N.T. Wright.

  4. Various proponents of these schools may weave in and out of different schools. Various proponents could subscribe to more than one school. Many take a holistic and integrative approach.

  5. Not all involved are evangelical Protestants or even Christians. Notable Jewish scholars like Jacob Neusner and Geza Vermes have written about the quest for the historical Jesus.


  1. You say that Jesus as a wise sage is shown by his parables, proverbs, sayings, and so forth in the context of Jewish wisdom literature. God himself is personified as wisdom rather than abstract wisdom, so that there is Jewish precedence for how Jesus could use the language of divinity. But are there proponents of Jesus as a wise sage in the Greek tradition such as the Stoics and Cynics?

  2. That's an interesting question, Vytautas. Unfortunately, I don't know the answer. Maybe someone else does?

    Of course, Jesus was primarily a first century Jew living in Israel. Although he did live and minister in Galilee which I think had a lot of Gentiles at the time. Still my personal sense is I doubt even the most liberal scholars these days would try to place Jesus within a Greek tradition. But again I don't really know since I'm just a layman without any formal training in this area.

    BTW, sorry it's not clear, but I didn't say it. Rather I'm just summarizing what Blomberg said. In fact, most of this post is summary.

  3. FWIW, if anything, here is an old paper by C.S. Lewis titled "Fern-Seed and Elephants."

  4. Yes, but it is like Jesus saying to Pilate, you are saying I am the king of the Jews. I ask because the area around Galilee was Decapolis, which were the cities modeled on the Greek polis. If you are interested, there is a video series where I got the idea from.

  5. How much of Wright's work have you read? I've never seen him quote any rabbinical writings that post-date the earliest Christian writings and I own fourteen of his books. Wright's proposal that 1st century Jews still saw themselves as in exile is controversial but in its favor we can consider a few things.

    1) when the temple is rebuilt in Ezra/Nehemiah there is no mention of the presence of the Lord descending on the Temple and filling the Holy Place as in Kings, for instance.

    2) John's baptism "could" be seen as an alternative form of penance/propitiation to the temple customs of the day. Since there were Jewish groups that saw the temple as an extenstion of Herodian power and attempts at legitimacy some Jews decided to withdraw from the Temple cult and come up with alternative ways of being observant Jews. Wright proposes these from his reading of intertestamental literature. The various points you consider to not be Orthodox Christianity look pretty conventionally Orthodox to me, unless you're referring to Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Wright has worked with a double similarity approach in response to the double dissimilarity used by earlier quests. Whereas earlier quest evaluations held that Jesus could not have said something that sounded like early Christianity or Judaism, Wright works on the supposition that Jesus' teaching in the Gospels should be considered both as an outgrowth of Jewish thought (since Jesus was Jewish) but also as having a foundational role in shaping early Christian belief. Since many scholars worked on the assumption that early Christianity was so utterly Hellenized Jewish thought was not particularly important the third quest at least improves upon the earlier quests in attempting to account for the Jewish milleu in which early Christianity developed. The late William Lane used to say that this was at least one thing the third quest had going for it over against the previous two. In this respect the Jesus Seminar has nothing to do with the Third Quest and is more plausibly presented as the dead end of the Second Quest.

  6. Great info, Wenatchee! Much appreciated. Thanks.

    As far as this bit:

    How much of Wright's work have you read? I've never seen him quote any rabbinical writings that post-date the earliest Christian writings and I own fourteen of his books.

    1. Just to reiterate for people: this is my summary of Blomberg's summary.

    As such, it could be that I misunderstood Blomberg's summary of Wright's work. Or if I got Blomberg's summary more or less right, it could be that I misunderstood Wright himself.

    2. Unfortunately I've never read any of Wright's books. I've read a few of his articles. That's more or less the extent and depth of my familiarity with Wright. Quite superficial. Obviously it's nowhere near enough to form any sort of a fair opinion on Wright's work. At the same time I don't pretend to do so.

    3. In any case, given all this, my point about Wright giving too much credence to rabbinic interpretation of certain biblical passages may or may not apply. Again I'm just basing the point on my understanding of Blomberg's summary of Wright. But as I mentioned in the post I could well be wrong.

    4. Since you're easily and certainly far better read than I am with regard to Wright's work, I'll happily accept your conclusions about him.

    That said I'd just point out that perhaps while Wright never quotes rabbinical writings, it seems still possible that he gives too much credence to rabbinic interpretations of Scripture. Like I think it's possible, for example, that while John Smith never directly quotes Jane Doe in any of his writings, yet he has perhaps absorbed a significant aspect of her perspective on this or that topic, and made it part of his own patterns of thinking such that her ideas and thoughts and so forth come through in his writings as well, even unbeknownst to him (consciously).

    Of course, like I think you're implying, maybe this is quite doubtful.

    5. On a tangentially related note, Michael Bird is absolutely hilarious here. Among other things, he talks about the heretic Nicholas Wright in contrast to his orthodox brother Tom Wright. Bird offers more serious comments about the books which have most influenced him here.

  7. Thanks Patrick for providing this overview of the Jesus quest. It's been confusing at times and this overview is helpful.