The Quest for the Historical Jesus

By Richard Hooper, M.DIV.

The Problem of the Historical Jesus

When I entered seminary as a young man back in the 1960s, neither I nor my classmates would have ever thought to ask a question like,

“Who was the historical Jesus?”

We had been brought up in the Church to believe that the Gospels of the New Testament made it very clear who Jesus was:He was the Messiah and the Son of God.But my classmates and I were soon to discover that those two articles of faith were just that – faith, not history.

What we, as young college graduates, didn’t know yet was what New Testament scholars did know:

that there was a world of difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

Not long after the “age of enlightenment” dawned, and questioning the historical validity of the Bible was no longer a crime punishable by death, scholars began asking hard questions about the “history” of Jesus as reported by the four canonical Gospels.

In searching for the Historical Jesus, there are important questions:

Why, for instance, does the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel seem different from the Jesus of John’s Gospel?

Why is the length of Jesus’ ministry just one year in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but three years in The Gospel of John?

Why does Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple at Jerusalem take place during the last week of Jesus’ life in Matthew, Mark and Luke, while it happens toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry inJohn’s Gospel?


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Why does Matthew’s story about Jesus’ birth—and his genealogy—contradict the birth story and genealogy in Luke’s Gospel? And,

Why are there no nativity stories, and no genealogies at all in either The Gospel of Mark or The Gospel of John?

The First Quest for the Historical Jesus

New Testament Scholars Ask Questions

The questions in the article, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, are the kinds of simple questions New Testament scholars started asking themselves and each other during the nineteenth century. They realized that if one reads the Gospels objectively, without religious bias, it is more than a little

evident that the four Gospels contradict each other again and again.

They realized that unless one is committed to Biblical literalism, one has no choice but to conclude that all of the stories about Jesus in the Gospels can’t be true, if for no other reason than the fact that they are contradictory.

Giants in the field of New Testament Scholarship for the Historical Jesus

Two of the giants in the field of New Testament scholarship during the nineteenth century were David Friedrich Strauss and Albert Schweitzer.Schweitzer, building on the scholarship done before him, published his seminal book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in 1906.

His ultimate conclusion was that the historical person of Jesus was buried under so many layers of Christian myth, that he could never be recovered.

Schweitzer was so disheartened by his own conclusions that he gave up his career as a scholar and became a medical missionary, for which he was well known.

Schweitzer also concluded that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who believed that the end of the world was at hand.Part of Schweitzer’s depression was probably based on his belief that Jesus was simply wrong about the end times.


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Was Jesus an Apocalyptic Preacher?

More than a century later, there is still debate on this issue among scholars. However, more than half of today’s scholars now believe that Jesus did not believe in a coming apocalypse.

The emphasis on eschatological preaching in the Gospels, these scholars suggest, was not the result of Jesus’ preaching, but later Christian belief.My own belief is that apocalyptic thinking entered Christianity through the apostle, Paul, and also through followers of John the Baptist, who entered the Jesus movement sometime after the Baptist was killed.

The argument for rejecting Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher

Perhaps the strongest argument for rejecting Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher is the lack of evidence for this belief in the earliest source Gospels, which were collections of Jesus’ teachings and rendered into written form around 50 C.E.These sources include parts of:


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  • The Gospel of Thomas, and
  • The Gospel that scholars originally called “Q”, now more commonly referred to as the Synoptic Sayings Source.

Both of the Gospels are “source” Gospels.This means that they are collections of Jesus’ teachings, not narratives like the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.They tell us nothing about the life or ministry of Jesus; they tell us only what Jesus’ disciples believed about Jesus and what the most important teachings were.

No evidence to support apocalypticism

I discuss both of these source Gospels elsewhere, but here I simply want to mention that neither Thomas, nor the first “layer” (the original collection before it was added to) of Q, or Q1, show any evidence that the earliest followers of Jesus (or Jesus himself) believed that the world was about to end.This is especially significant because apocalypticism was a common belief of the times.

The Historical Jesus and eschatological thinking

Unfortunately, the eschatological thinking that entered Christianity at some point completely twisted Jesus’ teachings about the of God

The historical Jesus believed that the Kingdom was not something coming at
the end of time, but was already present—within us and all around us.

But only people with spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear would be able to recognize its presence.This is a mystical understanding which Christianity completely overturned.

So ended the “first quest for the historical Jesus,” and it ended in failure.

Most New Testament scholars during the early part of the twentieth simply gave up looking for the man from.But the story was far from over.


The Second Quest for the Historical Jesus

A new generation of scholars developed new research tool.

As happens regularly in most academic fields of study, a new generation of scholars comes along and questions the conclusions of its predecessors.They take the same basic evidence, but look at it in another way.Such was and is the case with Jesus scholars.After the first quest ended, a new generation of scholars developed new tools for doing research.As a consequence, they had entirely new insights.But this quest also ended in failure, and came to a close during the 1950s.

Conventional wisdom about finding the historical Jesus

When I entered seminary during the 60s, conventional wisdom among scholars and “liberal” seminary professors was that we should forget about finding the historical Jesus and just accept the Christ of faith; that is, Jesus as the mythical savior of the world which two thousand years of Christianity had affirmed.   

The “second” quest for the historical Jesus, led by Rudolf Bultmann

The leading scholar of the “second” quest was Rudolf Bultmann, a German (as most leading scholars had been for the past century) and a Lutheran like myself.But that made no difference to me, and I rejected many of Bultmann’s conclusions.  It especially rankled me that Bultmann was so arrogant in his certainty that Jesus the man could not be found.

Even though I accepted most of the conclusions of New Testament scholarship, I believed that the historical Jesus was still recognizable in the Gospels, and that Bultmann was wrong.

As it turned out, a “third” quest proved me correct.

The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus

Another generation of scholars during the late 1970’s and 80’s

During the late 1970’s and 80s, yet another generation of scholars arrived on the scene and began to search for Jesus all over again.They brought many significant changes with them.

Not only had they devised more sophisticated research tools but, for the first time,  German scholars no longer controlled this academic field, as they had for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But that was not the only significant change: women were now seminary professors and scholars, and their approach to the evidence was altogether different..

Women’s approaches to the historical Jesus quest

The practical effects of those falling dominoes can readily be seen in the seminal work done by women like Elaine Pagels of Princeton and Karen King of Harvard.Their numerous books on Gnostic Gospels such as The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), and Gnostic-Christianity in general, have helped to change how many male scholars now view the origins of Christianity.

A new mix of information –

  • new archaeological evidence,
  • research being done on formerly “lost” Gospels, and
  • a far greater grasp and understanding of the history of Judeo-Palestine during the first century, C.E.

These opened new areas for scholars to search for the historical Jesus.If some scholars today have given up looking for the historical Jesus, it is only because they believe they have, at last, found him!

Moreover, groups of scholars such as the Jesus Seminar have spent decades examining virtually every word attributed to Jesus, and feel that they have been successful in separating the authentic words of the historical Jesus from later Christian words put into his mouth by the authors of the canonical Gospels.

So the question remains, who was the historical Jesus, and how did he differ from the Christ of Christian faith?


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Who Was the Historical Jesus?

Differing theories about who the historical Jesus was

For all of the scholarship over the past three centuries, no one is ever going to answer this question definitively.Many scholars agree about many things, but there are still many issues that are hotly debated.And it is also only fair to admit that there is no single answer to this question.

Certainly, not all scholars agree about who the historical Jesus was.There may be wide agreement in several areas, while other theories and hypotheses are still being hotly debated.And as the public often points out, scholars are sometimes wrong, and often change their minds.   We might say, then, that the jury is still out.Still there is more agreement on more issues than ever before.

I remain convinced that the historical Jesus was not unlike the Jesus I first met as a child.

Whatever else he was—healer, exorcist, wisdom teacher (three attributes most scholars agree on)—I have to agree with Dr. Marcus Borg’s conclusions about Jesus.Borg is a professor of religion at Oregon State University, and has written many books on the historical Jesus.

Borg argues that:

  • Jesus’ wisdom came from a profound inner understanding of the way the universe works,
  • he experienced ultimate reality directly,
  • and that he lived his life accordingly.

The “authority” others saw in Jesus when he spoke came from a place of inner knowing, not from religious doctrine, or from intellectual reasoning.

 Plainly, Jesus was a mystic and a holy man.He was filled with spirit and wisdom, and his charisma drew others to him.

Jesus as an enlightened being

I like to believe that Jesus was an enlightened being like the Buddha.I also think of him as an avatar—or incarnation of God, like Krishna—at least in the metaphorical sense.And Jesus certainly lived his life in harmony with the Tao, like Lao Tzu.

But Jesus had another quality that—as a mystic—set him apart from every other mystic in history: he was a social and religious reformer.

He stood up to hypocrisy among his religious peers, and was not afraid to challenge the religious establishment of the day.

His demonstration in the Temple against the priest-cult practice of sacrificing animals to God angered the high priest, Caiaphas, so much that he convinced the Romans that Jesus was an insurrectionist and should be crucified.

For his honesty, for his outspokenness, for his humanity, the historical Jesus paid the ultimate price.  It is easy to see why early Christians thought of Jesus as more than just a man.


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