The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus has a history and scholarship of its own. The figure of Jesus has stimulated a fascination in the question of the historicity of the figure Jesus. This arises from a fundamental question – were the New Testament statements about Jesus actually true? If the figure of Jesus is historically reliable, is the portrait of Jesus in our traditions singular and settled? How can we understand the experience of Jesus that many people have that suggest quite different perspectives – the Lord, the Rabbi, the Son of Man, the Son of God.

There are several phases of the quest for the historical Jesus:

Towards the question:

From the 17th Century onwards, the question of the historicity of Jesus began to emerge. Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) distinguishes between the preaching of Jesus and the faith of Christ. Reimarus identifies the importance of understanding the Jewishness of Jesus, and the fact that this dimension needed to be understood to make sense of what Jesus did and said. He also identifies the political interpretation of Jesus’ message apart from the apostles’ proclamation of Christ. In the 19th Century David Strauss (1808-1874) published his Life of Jesus applied the concept of myth to the Jesus tradition and he sees this in the supernatural miracles which he saw as the overlaying of myth.

The liberal quest:

Scholars tried to reconstruct the historical account of Jesus. F C Baur identifies that the Synoptic Gospels had priority over John and others established the two source theory: Mark and Q, a source reconstructed by scholars. These were considered the more reliable historical accounts. There was also the development of the idea that Jesus’ personality developed over time.


Three conclusions at the end of the 19th Century undermined the historical quest. First was the conclusion that the images of the lives of Jesus were projections from the authors. Second was the conclusion that the Gospels were expressions of the community. Thirdly was a literary conclusion that the gospel authors constructed the framework of the narratives, and therefore any attempt at understanding the development of Jesus’ personality was misplaced. Alongside these trends were theological developments, such as a focus on God rather than Jesus in some work, the Pauline comment that to know the historical Jesus was not necessary (2 Cor 5.16) and the idea that Jesus belongs theologically to Judaism, while Christianity began at Easter.

The New Quest

This begins with the idea of the kerygmatic Christ, the Christ proclaimed to others in the New Testament for the purpose of conversion. This refers to an earthly figure and an exalted Christ present in all the earliest writings of Christians. There is a call decision by Jesus in the face of the presence of God, the Jesus faith, the call to freedom and the forgiveness of sins. These things are present in the New Testament and point to the kerygmatic Christ.

The third phase

The new quest began to be seen as a theological quest for Christian identity but a further sociological quest began which looked to the social history of first century society, the place of Jesus in Judaism and the non-canonical sources, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

These quests establish several things. Firstly the issue of the quest for the historical Jesus is firmly on the theological map, although there is no definitive answer. To ignore this question would seem unwise and some suggest it is vital, if difficult to actually do. There continues to be new research into the question, especially when new sources are discovered.

Further reading:

Theissen, G and Merz, A (1998) The Historical Jesus. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht: Gottingen, Chapter 1, pp.1-15.

Wright, N T (1996) Jesus and the Victory of God. SPCK: London. Chapter 1, pp.3-25

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