Thursday, April 9, 2009

Biblographic essay on quests for the historical Jesus

Who do men say that I am?
A bibliographical essay on the Quest for the Historical Jesus
Updated and expanded from an article published in Choice, May 2004
Dennis Ingolfsland, 2008

Jesus of Nazareth has been the center of significant media attention in recent years. In addition to articles in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and even TV Guide, Jesus has been the subject of television documentaries by PBS, A&E, TLC, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and even a full length prime time special by ABC News. A subject heading search for “Jesus Christ” on WorldCat, limiting only to books published from 1998 through 2008 produced over 18,000 hits! The last 25 years have been part of what scholars are now calling the “Third Quest for the historical Jesus,” which is generally characterized by serious scholarly attempts to understand Jesus of Nazareth in the social, religious and historical context of first century Palestine. This essay will focus primarily on the scholarly and popularized versions of these historical studies beginning with an introduction to the various “Quests” for Jesus, but focusing primarily on the “Third” Quest” which began in the mid-1980’s and continues unabated even today.

Many scholars believe the quest for Jesus as a person of history began in 1778 when the papers of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) were published posthumously. The European world of Reimarus was one in which the reliability of the Gospels and the divinity of Jesus were widely accepted, or at least not publicly challenged. The tide was turning, however, and scholars were becoming increasingly skeptical of the biblical stories of supernatural events. Reimarus believed that Jesus could be understood without appealing to the supernatural. He argued, contrary to popular belief, that Jesus was not the Son of God sent to save people from their sins, but a political revolutionary whose message had to do with deliverance from Roman oppression. After Jesus was executed his disciples were not ready to go back to the hard work of fishing, so they stole Jesus’ body and proclaimed that he had risen from the dead.

Like Reimarus, David Frederick Strauss (1808-1874) also rejected the traditional understanding of Jesus but offered a different solution. In his Life of Jesus Critically Examined Strauss proposed that the Gospels were myth, that is, ideas represented in historical form. For Strauss, it was important to get behind the mythological form of the Gospel stories to the truth these stories symbolized. Although Strauss’ idea continues to influence some scholars even today, most would deny that the Gospels fit the genre of myth. For example, after an extensive study, summarized in What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Richard Burridge concludes that the Gospels compare favorably with the ancient genre of bios or biography.

In contrast to those like Reimarus and Strauss who believed the Gospels had at least some historical value, Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), author of Christ and the Caesars, held that the Gospels were literary fictions and that Jesus did not even exist. Few in Bauer’s day were convinced by his arguments and today Jesus’ existence is acknowledged even by scholars who are otherwise highly skeptical of what can be known about him. The Historical Jesus by Gary Habermas and Jesus Outside the New Testament by Robert Van Voorst are just a couple of the books which analyze both biblical and non-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus and conclude that the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence is very strong. The Jesus Legend by Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd thoroughly examines and debunks modern versions of the Jesus myth theory.

One of the most influential works on Jesus has been The Messianic Secret by William Wrede (1859-1906). Wrede, who was highly skeptical of the historical reliability of the Gospels, insisted that Jesus did not consider himself to be a messiah; rather, it was the early church that developed this idea about him. Following Wrede, most critical Jesus scholars began to see their task as separating the core of gospel material that went back to Jesus from the “encrusted tradition” that had been created by the early church. As seen below, Wrede’s thinking proved to be strongly influential even among scholars who did not adopt his degree of skepticism.

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) dropped a bombshell on the world of critical Jesus scholarship with the publication of his book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte des Leben-Jesu-Forschung, translated into English as The Quest for the Historical Jesus. In this book Schweitzer critiqued the works of Reimarus, Strauss, Bauer, Wrede and others and concluded that they had ultimately “discovered” a Jesus they had set out to find, often one made in their own image. Contrary to Wrede, Schweitzer argued that Jesus did indeed believe that God had called him to be the Messiah, but that Jesus died in despair when he failed to bring in the kingdom.

Schweitzer and Wrede became pivotal in Jesus studies. According to noted Jesus scholar, N.T. Wright, most twentieth century scholars generally followed one of two roads, either the “Wredebahn” or the “Schweitzerbahn.” In other words, they either followed the radical skepticism of William Wrede, or they followed Albert Schweitzer’s view of Jesus as an “eschatological prophet.” An eschatological, or “end times” prophet was one who proclaimed that God was going to act in history in powerful and dramatic ways to bring about his kingdom; a common belief in first century Judaism.

The “quest” for Jesus from Reimarus to Wrede eventually became known as the “Old Quest for the Historical Jesus” after the title of Schweitzer’s book. Schweitzer’s arguments were so convincing that the “Old Quest” came to an end, leading to the famous statement by Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) in Jesus and the Word, that “we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus”.[1] Bultmann’s radical skepticism ushered in what some scholars came to call the period of “no quest” when many scholars gave up the historical quest for Jesus.

This “no quest” period, however, did not last very long because some of Bultmann’s own students thought he was perhaps a bit too skeptical. Ernst Kasemann is often credited with resuscitating the quest with a paper entitled “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (1953), but the “New Quest” actually got its name from the book A New Quest for the Historical Jesus published in 1959 by J.M. Robinson. Scholars of the New Quest generally focused on Jesus as a teacher of timeless truths. They developed a series of historical criteria used to separate the core of what could be known of Jesus’ genuine teachings from those thought to be developed by the early church. Although these criteria have been the subject of extensive discussion and revision, many of the criteria continue to be used today. For recent discussions see The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research by Stanley Porter as well as Authenticating the Words of Jesus, and also Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, both by Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans. While many of the books that characterized the First and Second Quests are now out of print, selections from the works of Reimarus, Strauss, Wrede, Schweitzer, Bultmann, Kasemann and others have been conveniently reprinted in The Historical Jesus Quest, edited by Gregory W. Dawes.

The Third Quest for the historical Jesus began in the mid-1980’s and, as mentioned above, is generally characterized by serious scholarly attempts to study Jesus of Nazareth against the political, social and religious background of first century Palestine. Things are rarely as simple as they first appear, however, and the idea of the “Third Quest” is no exception. While the term, “Third Quest” is often used of virtually all serious historical studies of Jesus written since the mid-1980’s, some scholars make a distinction between the general skepticism of Third Quest scholarship as a whole--what N.T. Wright calls, the “Schweitzerbahn”--and a relatively smaller group of more radical skeptics who tend to be more philosophically aligned with the Second Quest. While both Robert Funk and N.T. Wright call this latter movement the “Renewed Quest”, Wright also refers to it as the “Wredebahn” after the radical skepticism of William Wrede. For the purposes of organization, this essay will divide modern Jesus scholars into these two camps, and from this point on, will use the phrase “Third Quest” in the more restricted sense, distinguishing between Third Quest and Renewed Quest.

Before proceeding, however, it should be noted that although the “Third Quest” has sometimes been characterized as being the first attempt to place Jesus in the historical, cultural and religious context of first century Judaism, that characterization is not entirely correct. As early as 1883 a conservative Jewish-Christian scholar named Alfred Edersheim wrote a massive work entitled The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah in which he applied his extensive knowledge of ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish literature and history to the study of Jesus. Although now outdated, his book was a hundred years ahead of its time and contained a profound mixture of solid scholarship and deep devotion.

The Renewed Quest or “Wredebahn”
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza is one of the more skeptical Jesus scholars. In her books, In Memory of Her and Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, Schussler Fiorenza adopts a “hermeneutic of suspicion” in which the gospel writers are assumed to have covered up the contributions of women. She makes it clear that her work is not one of detached objectivity but rather involves bringing ideas about Jesus more in line with a “critical feminist theology of liberation”. Schussler Fiorenza argues that in ancient times, “Wisdom” or “Sophia” was often personified as mediator of creation, the divine savior, and was sometimes identified with the actions of God. She argues that Jesus likely thought of himself as a child of Sophia.

As controversial as Schussler Fiorenza’s work is, she is probably not as well known as former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong who gained notoriety for his strong public attacks on traditional Christianity. His books include Resurrection; Myth or Reality and Born of a Woman in which he denies the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. Since many mainline denominational scholars abandoned these doctrines long ago, the controversy may have been due to Spong’s position as head of the Episcopal Church as well as the strongly confrontational nature of his attacks. Ten scholars from Spong’s own denomination challenged his conclusions in a series of essays published in the book, Can a Bishop be Wrong? edited by Peter Moore.

Just as controversial is Robert Funk, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who met twice a year to debate what Jesus actually said and did. The Jesus Seminar used colored beads to vote on the degree to which passages in the four New Testament Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas reflected the genuine teachings and actions of Jesus. Their findings were published in two books, The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus. Funk spelled out his own personal views in his book, Honest to Jesus, in which he argued that historians are obligated to isolate and verify every scrap of information about Jesus before accepting it as factual.
According to Funk, Jesus was an irreverent, socially promiscuous deviant and secular sage who preached about God’s domain (kingdom) and who was probably eaten by dogs or crows.

In the ancient world there was a group of irreverent, secular sages known as Cynics. In Christ and the Cynics, F. Gerald Downing attempts to demonstrate parallels between the teachings of Jesus and ancient Greek Cynic sayings. He concludes that most of the genuine teachings of Jesus sound Cynic-like and that Jesus was, therefore, probably a wandering Jewish Cynic. One of the most widely publicized Jesus scholars to argue for the Jewish Cynic thesis is John Dominic Crossan. In Historical Jesus; The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, Crossan attempts to re-construct the historical Jesus using sayings attested more than once in what Crossan believes to be the earliest sources. Crossan’s Jesus is an itinerant Jewish Cynic preacher who had no pretensions about being a messiah, much less a savior or son of God. Jesus’ vision was for a radically egalitarian social movement in which he thought of himself as no better than anyone else.

Although the Cynic sage thesis and work of the Jesus Seminar have been widely popularized in the media, they have also come under heavy fire by other Jesus scholars. For example, Jesus under Fire edited by Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, is a collection of essays written specifically in response to issues raised by the Jesus Seminar. The Real Jesus by Timothy Luke Johnson critiques the work of Crossan, Spong and others, and concludes that their scholarship is in many cases, misguided and misleading. In Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way, Philip Jenkins attacks the uncritical use of unreliable sources by revisionist scholars. One of the most thorough critiques of the Cynic sage thesis is Cynic Sage or Son of God by Gregory Boyd, who evaluates the philosophical presuppositions, methodology and sources underlying the Cynic thesis. Finally, Fabricating Jesus by Craig Evans convincingly debunks not only the Cynic sage thesis, but a whole range of historical attacks against Jesus.

It is important to note that the line between Renewed Quest and Third Quest is not always absolute, as is the case with Marcus Borg. A member of the Jesus Seminar and, author of numerous books including Jesus a new Vision, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, and Jesus; Borg presents Jesus as a religious ecstatic, a social prophet and teacher of subversive wisdom who did not think of himself as a messiah, much less a son of God. While Borg does not view Jesus as a Cynic like many in the Renewed Quest, neither does he believe that Jesus was an eschatological or “end times” prophet, which tends to be characteristic of the Third Quest or “Schweitzerbahn”.

The Wredebahn is characterized by a thoroughgoing skepticism of the historical reliability of our earliest sources, i.e. the four Gospels, yet books written by Wredebahn scholars rarely, if ever, interact with scholars who demonstrate that the gospels are historically reliable. Craig Blomberg has argued convincingly for the Gospel’s reliability in his books, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels and The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. In the book entitled, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, the Greco-Roman scholar, Colin Hemer demonstrated through extensive research and documentation that there is every reason to believe that the author of Luke/Acts was a careful and reliable historian.

Although it is common for Wredebahn critics to assert that there is little or no eyewitness testimony in the Gospels, Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses has demonstrated that there is good reason to believe that the Gospels do in fact contain eyewitness testimony. Recently Bart Ehrman has challenged the reliability of the transmission of the Greek text of the Gospels but Nicholas Perrin has adequately answered his objections in his book, Lost in Translation; What we can know about the Words of Jesus.

The Third Quest or “Schweitzerbahn”
While scholars of the First and Second Quests generally rejected or downplayed the notion that Jesus was as a healer, both Renewed and Third Quest scholars now readily acknowledge the fact that Jesus was known by his contemporaries as one who performed exorcisms and healings. There is no surviving evidence that anyone in the first century denied that Jesus did signs and wonders, but there was significant disagreement by Jesus’ contemporaries on the nature of those signs. While Jesus’ followers believed them to be works of God, his enemies dismissed them as magic or works of the devil. Today there continues to be disagreements over the nature and interpretation of these signs just as there was in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus the Magician, Morton Smith[2] produced numerous parallels from magical papyri of the ancient world to show that Jesus was one of many ancient practitioners of magical arts. While appreciative of Smith’s work, Stevan Davies noted in Jesus the Healer, that most scholars were unconvinced by Smith’s parallels. Davies argues, instead, that the blindness, deafness, and demon possessions which Jesus “cured” were psychological disorders, and that Jesus’ healings and exorcisms can be largely understood under the anthropological model of “spirit-possession.”

While in a state of trance or “spirit-possession,” Jesus offers forgiveness of sins to those who believe that he is the Sprit of God. Yet another perspective, and a more thorough study of the healing aspect of Jesus’ ministry, is provided by Graham Twelftree in his books, Jesus the Exorcist and Jesus the Miracle Worker. Twelftree provides extensive analysis of signs and wonders in the ancient world and concludes that miracles were a significant part of Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the long awaited kingdom of God.

With all this focus on Jesus as a healer and exorcist it would be easy to conclude, with Marcus Borg, that Jesus was a religious ecstatic or “man of the spirit”. As Borg himself insists, however, Jesus was not just a religious ecstatic; he was also a teacher of wisdom and a social prophet. Many Third Quest scholars would agree. For example, in Jesus the Prophet, R. David Kaylor agrees that Jesus was a “person of the Spirit”, but argues that the political and social aspects of Jesus’ message were most important. Richard Horsley also emphasizes the political and social aspects of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Horsley is at the forefront of those applying the social sciences to the historical study of Jesus. For example, in Sociology and the Jesus Movement, Horsley critiques Gerd Theissen’s Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, one of the most influential books in the field, and argues that Theissen read modern social concepts back into ancient Palestine rather working from the ancient data. Horsley attempts to correct that imbalance.

In Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, Horsley provides extensive historical analysis of the oppression, violence and resistance in the world of first century Palestine and attempts to place Jesus in this setting. He concludes that Jesus shared the Jewish view that God would one day act in history to bring freedom and vindication to the Jewish people. As a result, Jesus initiated a social revolution, stirred up the people, threatened the Temple, pronounced God’s judgment against the religious leadership, and advocated a new egalitarian social group of followers as the true people of God.

Not all Third Quest scholars would agree with the degree of emphasis Kaylor and Horsley place on the overt political nature of Jesus’ message. Many scholars emphasize, instead, the idea of Jesus as an eschatological or “end-times prophet. In other words, rather than seeing Jesus as a social prophet who actively works to bring about the kingdom of God, others emphasize Jesus as an eschatological prophet who tries to prepare people for the inevitable coming of that kingdom. These are often degrees of emphasis rather than mutually exclusive categories. In the Jewish world of first century Palestine, politics and religion were inseparable so an eschatological prophet who preached the need for national repentance in preparation for the coming kingdom of God was to some extent preaching a political message with social implications. This is why many scholars who believe Jesus was an eschatological prophet also write about the social or political mission of Jesus.

For example, in A New Vision for Israel Scott McKnight presents Jesus as an eschatological and messianic prophet who had a political vision for the restoration of Israel. According to McKnight, Jesus, like other ancient Jewish prophets, was about calling the Jewish nation back to a right relationship with God, thereby restoring the nation and avoiding national disaster which Jesus predicted would come if repentance was not forthcoming. Jesus, therefore, did not send his disciples out as evangelists to save lost souls, but as couriers warning that national survival was at stake. According to McKnight, Jesus believed that God had appointed him to usher in the long awaited kingdom. When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, his intention was to offer himself as a sacrifice to God to avert national disaster.

While not denying the social aspect of Jesus’ message, other scholars tend to place more emphasis on the eschatological aspects. In Jesus of Nazareth; Millenarian Prophet, for example, Dale Alison provides a devastating critique of the non-eschatological views characteristic of the Renewed Quest, as well as a scholarly defense of Jesus as an eschatological prophet. Allison’s Jesus was a “Millenarian ascetic” who provided consolation to the oppressed, but preached judgment against the arrogant who feast while others starve. Jesus expected and proclaimed that God would judge the world, restore Israel to her rightful place, and set up God’s kingdom.

Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, by Bart Ehrman presents a similar view of Jesus, but is directed more toward a popular audience. Ehrman presents Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic or eschatological prophet who proclaimed that God would soon establish the kingdom in which the forces of evil would be overthrown and the poor and outcast would no longer be oppressed. According to Ehrman, Jesus insisted that his followers repent and live in light of the coming kingdom; to love God above all else, to love one’s neighbor and forgive one’s enemies, and to treat people with fairness and justice. Ehrman and Alison, like Schweitzer before them, believe that Jesus was wrong about his expectations of a coming kingdom and that Jesus died and remained dead. Nevertheless, Ehrman insists that it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ immediate followers were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead.

One of the most comprehensive works on the historical Jesus yet published is John Meier’s four volume set entitled A Marginal Jew. Meier provides thorough discussions of sources, methodology and criteria; and meticulously applies his criteria throughout his study. Meier’s work was intended to be historically skeptical, yet it is amazing how much material Meier finds to be historical even given his methodological skepticism. Meir concludes that Jesus was an eschatological prophet and healer who proclaimed the imminent coming of the kingdom which included the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel as symbolized by his twelve disciples. Jesus called the nation to repentance in light of this coming kingdom. At the same time, Jesus believed that the kingdom was already present in some sense in the exorcisms and healings he performed. Meier’s work is already a classic in historical Jesus’ studies.

While agreeing that Jesus was a social and/or eschatological prophet, some scholars believe that Jesus thought of himself as more than a prophet. For example, in Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown concludes that although Jesus was not called Son of God during his lifetime and probably did not claim to be the messiah since he rejected popular views about the nature of a messiah, Jesus nevertheless referred to God as his father and to himself as God’s son.

Furthermore, Jesus claimed to forgive sins and said that people would be judged by God based on their reaction to his message. As a result, his enemies charged him with blasphemy and turned him over to the Romans who crucified him as a would-be king. In Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism, Darrell Bock provides an extended study of blasphemy in ancient Judaism and concludes that Jesus was indeed charged with blasphemy for claiming to be a heavenly judge.

N.T. Wright argues that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was undertaking a highly symbolic and prophetic action in which Jesus was embodying the return of God to his people as judge and redeemer. Wright’s books, The New Testament and the People of God; Jesus and the Victory of God; and Resurrection of the Son of God are three volumes in the series Christian Origins and the Question of God. In these ground-breaking works, Wright lays a foundation for the historical study of Jesus by discussing issues of epistemology, worldview, historiography and literary theory. He proposes a historical methodology for reconstructing the historical Jesus involving hypotheses and testing by pre-selected criteria. Wright then thoroughly applies his methodology and presents a view of Jesus which not only fits well within the world of first century Judaism, but also explains the origin of Christianity. Wright’s third volume covering the resurrection of Jesus is possibly one of the most thorough historical treatments in print. Several scholars responded to Wright’s work by publishing Jesus and the Restoration of Israel edited by Carey Newman, which is a collection of essays by scholars expressing both appreciation for Wright’s work and dissent over some of his views.

James Dunn, a scholar who is no stranger to Jesus studies, contributed a thousand-page volume to the discussion. His book, Jesus Remembered provides an extensive overview of historical Jesus studies as well as a new methodology for research based on recent studies in story-telling and oral tradition. Dunn concludes that although Jesus was not comfortable with the title Messiah, since he disagreed with all the baggage that term entailed, Jesus nevertheless felt an intimate relationship with God and saw himself as one who would bring Israel’s history to a climax. Indeed, according to Dunn, Jesus probably saw himself as one who transcended the traditional category of prophet.

Brown, Wright and Dunn are just a few of the scholars who believe that Jesus was known by some of his contemporaries as more than just a prophet. Cambridge scholar Markus Bockmuehl in This Jesus; Martyr, Lord, Messiah concludes that “Jesus’ life and work almost certainly did have Messianic connotations”.[3] Marinus DeJonge, claiming to steer a middle course between undue skepticism and over-confidence in the ancient sources, concludes that Jesus thought he had a unique relationship with God. In God’s Final Envoy DeJonge argues that Jesus saw himself as God’s final envoy and probably even thought of himself as the messiah, inspired by the Sprit of God. In The Gospels and Jesus Graham Stanton points out that not long after his crucifixion the followers of Jesus began worshiping him using language that had previously been reserved for God alone. Indeed, in Jesus as God Murray Harris provides a thorough scholarly study concluding that Jesus was in fact called “God” and was described with attributes of deity in many of the very earliest sources for Jesus.

One of the most thorough defenses of the view that Jesus thought of himself as more than a prophet comes from Ben Witherington. In Jesus the Sage, Witherington traces the concept of wisdom through numerous ancient sources and concludes that Jesus was not only a Jewish sage or teacher of wisdom, but thought of himself as the very personification of the Wisdom of God. In his Christology of Jesus Witherington uses the same criteria and methodology recognized by virtually all Renewed and Third Quest scholars to demonstrate that Jesus thought of himself as an apocalyptic prophet, messiah and embodiment of divine Wisdom. Jesus believed that it was God’s will that he die as a ransom for the sins of his people and called his hearers to repentance in preparation for the coming kingdom.

With Witherington this essay comes full cycle. The Renewed/Third Quest tour began with Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one of the most skeptical Jesus scholars, and ends with Ben Witherington, one of the most conservative. While the disagreements between them are enormous, they both grounded their understanding of Jesus in the historical and religious background of first century Judaism in which Wisdom was sometimes personified as an extension of God. Both see Jesus as one who believed that he was the very embodiment of divine Wisdom, or as the writer of the Gospel of John puts it, “The Word became human and lived among us”.

Most Renewed and Third Quest scholars, however, would say that this goes too far. For example, in The Meaning of Jesus; Two Visions, Marcus Borg objects to the similar views of N.T. Wright by saying, “thinking that Jesus thought of himself in such grand terms raises serious questions about the mental health of Jesus”.[4] Borg’s point is well taken and will be considered in the conclusion to this essay, but first, it may be helpful to review non-Christian religious views of Jesus.

Jesus through the eyes of Judaism
Jacob Neusner is a world-renowned expert on ancient Judaism as well as a respected authority on Jesus. His book, A Rabbi talks with Jesus is an imaginary conversation between Neusner and Jesus in which Neusner attempts to show that Jesus was wrong in much of his interpretation of the Torah. In Jesus the Jew and Jesus and the World of Judaism, Oxford scholar Geza Vermes compares Jesus with ancient Jewish charismatics such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa. Vermes concludes that Jesus was an exorcist, healer, and teacher who fits the category of Jewish holy man.

E.P. Sanders is a prominent Third Quest scholar who is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on Jesus as well as ancient Judaism. In The Historical Figure of Jesus, Sanders provides a list what he regards as virtually certain historical facts about Jesus’ life, including his baptism by John, gathering disciples, preaching the kingdom of God, arrest, trial, execution and the fact that his disciples “saw” him after his death--though Sanders hastens to add that in what sense is not certain. According to Sanders Jesus was an eschatological prophet who thought of himself as the agent of the Spirit of God and presented his miracles as evidence that the new age was at hand. The Historical Figure of Jesus is a popularized version of Sander’s earlier and more scholarly work, Jesus and Judaism.

Paula Fredriksen, another prominent Third Quest scholar, argues in her book, Jesus of Nazareth, that by the time Jesus attended his final Passover there was widespread public belief that he was a messiah and that he was going to do something to bring in the kingdom. Although Pilate knew Jesus and his followers were harmless, he went along with the Jewish leadership and had Jesus crucified as a warning to ensure the peace. Finally, a variety of views are presented by Rabbis and Jewish laypeople in Jesus through Jewish Eyes, a collection of essays edited by Beatrice Bruteau.

Jewish authors often imagine Jesus as a good Jewish teacher whose teachings about ethics and the Kingdom of God were corrupted by the apostle Paul. In Paul; Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, however, David Wenham convincingly traces much of Paul’s teaching directly back to Jesus himself showing that there was no disagreement between Paul and Jesus.

Jesus through the Eyes of Islam
Muslims generally have a much higher view of Jesus than most Third Quest Scholars. According to the Qur’an, Jesus was the righteous son of the virgin Mary, a miracle worker, a healer, a prophet, and messiah who was inspired by Allah and aided by the Holy Spirit. The Qur’an even calls Jesus the Word of Allah and “a Spirit proceeding from him.” On the other hand, Jesus’ deity and even his crucifixion are strongly denied in the Qur’an.[5] Jesus, Prophet of Islam by Muhammad ‘Ata ur-Rahim is a popular Muslim apologetic work in which the author argues that the apostle Paul perverted the original message of Jesus into the doctrine of the crucified God of Trinitarianism. ‘Ata ur-Rahim repeatedly cites the Gospel of Barnabas which explicitly denies the deity and crucifixion of Jesus. Muslim scholar Cyril Glasse, however, says “there is no question that the Gospel of Barnabas is a medieval forgery”.[6] Glasse’s conclusion is supported by the Encyclopedia of Islam[7] and virtually all scholars of the Renewed and Third Quest would concur.

In stark contrast to this apologetic work is The Genius of Christ by ‘Abbas Mahmud Al-‘Aqqad, which is one of the few Islamic books to provide a study of the historical Jesus based primarily on ancient non-Muslim sources. Although the author died in 1964, his book was translated into English in 2001 making it potentially available to a much broader audience. The author includes discussion of first century historical and religious background, analysis of the Gospels as historical sources, and a biographical outline of Jesus’ life based on the Gospel records. The author believes that the contradictions in the Gospel stories actually support the Gospels’ general reliability because it would be unusual if careful investigations found no apparent contradictions at all. On the other hand, he dismisses the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection because of the contradictions.

Islam has much more to say about Jesus than most people realize. Tarif Khalidi collected over 300 Muslim stories about Jesus in his excellent reference source, The Muslim Jesus; Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature, which purports to be the largest collection of Islamic Jesus stories in print. Khalidi’s sources, however, range from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries (or second to twelfth centuries by Islamic reckoning), and were, therefore, written too late to be considered as evidence by most Renewed or Third Quest scholars.

Jesus through Buddhist Eyes
In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nh’at Hanh explains that while the historical Buddha got married, had a child, became enlightened, taught until he was eighty years old, and died; the living Buddha within us “transcends space and time.” Nh’at Hanh makes the same distinction between the living Christ who lives within and the historical Jesus who was born in Bethlehem as the son of a carpenter, traveled widely, became a teacher and was crucified. Nh’at Hanh believes that people can penetrate the reality of God by looking deeply into the life and teachings of Jesus who, as Son of God, was someone who was animated by the energy of the Holy Spirit. What was important to Nh’at Hanh, however, was not so much the historical Jesus, but the living Christ within.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso, Dalai Lama XIV) focused more on the teachings of Jesus in his book, Good Heart, a Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus. The book is essentially a Buddhist commentary on selected passages in the Gospels. Whereas Nh’at Hanh emphasized the oneness of Christians and Buddhists, the Dalai Lama maintained the distinctiveness of Christianity and Buddhism saying that people should not call themselves, “Buddhist-Christians.”

A variety of Buddhist perspectives is presented in the book Buddhists Talk about Jesus; Christians Talk about the Buddha. Buddhist editor Rita Gross, for example, is skeptical about how much can be known of the historical Jesus, takes great offense at Christianity’s exclusivist claims, and finds little reason to fit Jesus into her religious universe at all.

Another contributor, Jose Ignacio Cabezon accepts Jesus’ miracles and resurrection as facts of history, though he does not believe these prove Jesus was enlightened, much less God. In the view of Soho Machida, it was only on the cross that Jesus, the man of sin, finally became “truly Man and truly God”. Generally speaking while many Buddhists have respect for the “living Jesus,” they seem to place relatively little importance on the Jesus of history, which is the hallmark of the Third Quest.

Jesus through Hindu Eyes
An example of Hindu interpretation of Jesus is found in Christ and the Yogi; A Hindu Reflection on the Gospel of John, by Ravi Ravindra. Ravindra believes that Jesus was both God and man, but adds, “just like the rest of us.” Ravindra does not question Jesus’ miracles, but emphasizes the spiritual aspects rather than the physical. For example, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is primarily a story of resurrection to new life.

Another perspective comes from Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, leader of the Hare Krishna movement and author of Christ and Krishna. According to the author, Krishna is the supreme person of the godhead and the father of Jesus. Bhaktipada believes that Jesus was born of a virgin just as Shiva was born from Brahma’s forehead and as Brahma appeared as a lotus flower out of the navel of Vishnu. It probably goes without saying that Third Quest scholars would agree that these views go beyond the field of history which characterizes the Third Quest.

Reference and Resources
Introductions and Dictionaries

Any serious historical study of Jesus requires some understanding of the issues involved in the origin and interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Among the best guides for navigating these complex issues are Studying the Synoptic Gospels by E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, and Studying the Synoptic Gospels; Origin and Interpretation by Robert Stein. Other books provide an introduction to all aspects of historical Jesus studies including historical background, sources, literary theory, criteria of authenticity, and other issues. Among the best for this broad overview are The Historical Jesus by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, Jesus and the Gospels by Craig Blomberg, and Studying the Historical Jesus by Darrell Bock. Handy reference works include The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, edited by Marcus Bockmuehl , the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels edited by Joel Green, and the Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus edited by Craig Evans.

Bibliographies, reviews and critiques

The Victorian “Lives” of Jesus by Daniel Pals is a series of bibliographic essays on books about Jesus written from the reformation to the early 1900’s. Walter Weaver picks up the story in the twentieth century in his book The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century; 1900-1950. Robert Strimple’s Modern Search for the Real Jesus chronicles and critiques major players in the Old and New Quests. In The Jesus Quest, Ben Witherington provides a comparison and critique of Third Quest works up to the time of publication in 1995. For an extensive bibliography of Islamic books about Jesus see Islamic Jesus by Don Wismer. The most comprehensive bibliography in the field is the 1996 edition of Craig Evan’s Life of Jesus Research which contains over 2000 annotated sources organized into subject categories.

Dialogues and Debates

Some of the most helpful literature on Jesus is published in the form of dialogues or debates which allow the reader to see both sides of various issues. The Meaning of Jesus; Two Visions is a cordial dialog between Renewed Quest scholar, Marcus Borg and Third Quest scholar N.T. Wright, both of whom received their doctoral degrees under the same professor at the University of Oxford.

For dialogues between Jewish and Christian writers see Jesus in two Perspectives by Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide and Christian writer Ulrich Luz. The Historical Jesus through Catholic and Jewish Eyes, edited by Bryan Le Beau, et al, is a collection of papers presented at two colloquia at Creighton University. Who was Jesus? A Jewish Christian dialog, edited by Paul Copan and Craig Evans is discussion between a Christian and Jewish scholar with responses from other Christian and Jewish scholars.

In debates the interaction is, of course, usually more confrontational and the resurrection of Jesus is often a hot topic. Did Jesus Rise from the Dead contains the transcript of a debate between Evangelical scholar Gary Habermas who argues in the affirmative, and world-class philosopher Anthony Flew arguing in the negative. The book also contains helpful responses from other scholars who critique the debate.

In Jesus’ Resurrection; Fact or Figment edited by Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, prominent Renewed Quest scholar, Gerd Ludemann debates Evangelical philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. Craig also debates Jesus Seminar co-founder, John Dominic Crossan in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? Finally, The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, edited by Robert Miller, is a debate between Dale Allison who argues for an apocalyptic Jesus, and Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Stephen Patterson who argue for a non-apocalyptic Jesus.

Essays and collections

Some of the most scholarly discussions on the historical Jesus come in the form of general collections of essays. Particularly notable are the books, Studying the Historical Jesus edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans, The Historical Jesus edited by Craig Evans and Stanley Porter, and Crisis in Christology, edited by William Farmer. Other collections focus on specific topics. For example, Jesus and the Suffering Servant, edited by William Bellinger, is a series of essays addressing the question of whether Jesus based his ministry on an ancient Jewish prophecy about someone who would give his life for the sins of his people. Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, edited by Henry Wansbrough, is a collection of essays on the importance of oral tradition and memory in the ancient world, and the significance these studies have for historical research on Jesus.

The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Wolfgang Stegemann et al. is a collection of essays bringing the social sciences to bear on the historical study of Jesus. Finally, Princeton Scholar James Charlesworth is editor of several important works, one of which is Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, an example of serious scholarship in a sea of wildly speculative books about the relationship between the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus.

Conclusion: Will the real Jesus please stand up?
In the ABC News special, The Search for Jesus, Peter Jennings correctly observes that Jesus scholars often disagree even when looking at exactly the same evidence. Of course, this is also true of lawyers, economists, and even medical doctors. Still, with so many views about Jesus, how is a layperson or librarian supposed to make sense of it all? A couple observations may be helpful.

First, in Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley points out that if a book on Martin Luther King were written based solely on isolated sayings taken out their social and literary context, we would not have an adequate understanding of the great civil rights leader or know why he was important. [8] Horsley and most Third Quest scholars believe this is what the Renewed Quest does with Jesus when they pull isolated sayings out of their literary and social context and reinterpret them apart from any context. While a healthy dose of skepticism can be good, if this same degree of Renewed Quest skepticism were applied to the study of other figures in the ancient world, much of ancient history would have to be discarded. For example, virtually all of what is known about Alexander the Great was written nearly 400 years after he lived and most of that is attested in only one source. By contrast, most of what is known about Jesus of Nazareth was written between twenty and seventy years after he lived and is often attested in multiple sources.

Second, although Jesus scholars present differing views of Jesus, not all of these views are mutually exclusive. Marcus Borg, for example sees no contradiction between Jesus as a healer, a social prophet and a teacher of Jewish wisdom. Most Third Quest scholars would agree but add that Jesus fits the category of eschatological prophet as well. Some scholars go even further, saying that Jesus also made messianic claims and even presented himself as the embodiment of divine Wisdom, the Son of God who believed his mission was to die for the sins of his people. This, of course, goes well beyond what most scholars are prepared to accept. For example, Borg argues that there are “categories of psychological diagnosis” for people who claim to be messiahs or sons of God.[9] On the other hand, there is reliable evidence that Jesus was, in fact, charged with blasphemy and that some people accused him of being demon possessed or mentally unstable, which is exactly the reaction that might be expected to someone who publicly presented himself as a messiah or son of God.

Many would insist that whether Jesus actually was the Messiah or Son of God is a matter of faith which is beyond the reach of history as a discipline to determine. What seems very probable historically, however, is that Jesus’ contemporaries looked at exactly the same evidence regarding Jesus’ prophetic actions and teachings, his signs and wonders, and reports of his empty tomb and post-death appearances; and while some concluded that he was a blasphemer, insane, or even demon possessed, others were so convinced they willingly endured great suffering and gave their lives proclaiming him as Messiah, Savior, and even Son of God.

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Dennis Ingolfsland is the Director of Library Services and Associate Professor of Bible at Crown College (Minnesota). He is the author of numerous articles on the historical study of Jesus. He may be contacted at

[1] Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus and the Word. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 8.
[2] Morton Smith probably fits better in the Renewed Quest but in mentioned here for comparison purposes.
[3] Markus Bockmuehl. This Jesus; Martyr, Lord, Messiah. 164.
[4] Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus; Two Visions. 146, cf 149.
[5] See the Qur’an, Surahs 2:87, 3:45-49, 4:157, 171; 5:17, 72-73. 110, 6:84-85.
[6] Cyril Glasse. The New Encyclopedia of Islam. 78.
[7] Encyclopedia of Islam. Vol. 3: 1207. Note: There is no relation between the Encyclopedia of Islam and the New Encyclopedia cited above. One is not a later edition of the other.
[8] Horsley, Richard. Jesus and Empire; The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2003, 56-58.
[9] Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus; Two Visions. 149.