Posts Tagged ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’

Just came across the following quote in JVOG

‘To equate kingdom and church is at best putting the cart before the horse, at worst a complete anachronism. Trye, there is a sense in which the community of Jesus’ people was part of the overall meaning of his announcement of the kingdom. But this idea needs checking and modifying in far too many ways for us to able to assert that when Jesus walked around the Galilean villages announcing the kingdom he was telling people about the church he was going to found. Put baldly like that, it is bound to seem as out of place as the attempt to discover what sort of Computer Paul used to type his letters’. (222)

It’s a cracking quote. However, I actually  think we can be fairly certain that the Apostle Paul used a Dell PC with Libronix software. He certainly did not use an Apple as he was filled with the Holy Spirit.


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Criteria of Dissimilarity


The criteria of dissimilarity is used by a number of scholars in a variety of different forms, from the writings of Bultmann and Kasemann to third quest scholars such as Meier1, Ludemann2 and E.P Sanders3. The criteria of dissimilarity is essentially contains two different criteria, that of the criteria of distinction from Judaism(CDJ ) and Criteria of distinction from Christianity(CDC). CDJ and CDC can be used simultaneously as the criteria of double dissimilarity (CDD).


Bultman, one of the earliest users of CDD gives us the following definition.


‘We can only count on possessing a genuine similitude of Jesus where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety[CDJ] and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterised the preaching of Jesus; and where on the other hand we find no specifically Christian features[CDC]‘. 4

Hard’ and ‘Soft’


The criterion of dissimilarity (CDD, CDJ, CDC) appear in both a hard and a soft form. The ‘hard form’ or negative application of this method seriously stunts the growth and development of a ‘bedrock’ of Jesus tradition for it only finds authentic material in that which is dissimilar.

Implied in this assumption is the view that the Gospels contain only two types of material: authentic saying of Jesus and inauthentic creations of the early church. But it would be foolish to suppose that Jesus’ views did not overlap at numerous points both with contemporary Judaism and with Christian beliefs. The amount of overlap is uncertain, but its existence seems undeniable except on dogmatic grounds.5

Norman Perrin follows the ‘hard’ approach.


‘[Authentic Jesus material will] by definition … exclude all teaching in which Jesus may have been at one with Judaism or the early church at one with him. But the brutal fact of the matter is that we have no choice. There simply is no ther starting point that takes seriously enough the radical view of the nature of the sources which results of contemporary research are forcing upon us’. 6

The soft form or ‘positive application’ of the method allows material which is not dissimilar to still be possibly authentic. Most scholars favour the ‘soft’ or positive method. Sometimes though criticisms are held of CDD which fail to distinguish ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches.


Theissen and Winter have provided the ‘historical Jesus’ community with a valuable resource in their ‘The Quest for the Plausible Jesus’. This book traces the development of the criteria of dissimilarity from Renaissance Humanism through to the third quest7 whilst simultaneously offering a 5 fold critique8 and suggesting a replacement criteria–that of the criteria of historical plausibility. The five fold critique, which I will summarise, is that of a) The term difference is not clear. B) Burdened with the idea of unique personality, c) The ‘Jesus Tradition’ is a Christian tradition therefore the CDJ cannot be made plausible’, d) Lack of Knowledge of Judaism and early Christianity. e) Conflicts with the double demand of locating ‘Jesu within the Judaism of his day and locating and for locating the effects of his life within the history of the beginning of Christianity.’


A) The term ‘difference/dissimilarity’ is not clear.


This method appears at first glance to provide a method which easily be used by one and all, which if its assumptions are correct, lead us to authentic Jesus tradition. The problem is that this method, on closer analysis, offers a number of different methods. Does dissimilarity mean

  1. That sayings of Jesus are not found in that exact form elsewhere in early Church or Judaism

  2. That sayings of Jesus are not found in similar form elsewhere in early Church or Judaism

  3. That sayings of Jesus are not derived from either a Judaic or Christian background

  4. That sayings of Jesus can be derived from Judaism and have been developed by Jesus.

  5. That sayings of Jesus are dissimilar to early church’s teaching but do represent similar ideas which are less developed than the teaching of the early Church.


Each could well be described as the ‘criteria of dissimilarity’ and its illustrates the point that ‘dissimilarity’ without further explanation/clarification is indeed a slippery methodological fish, and that what appears like an objective method for catching ‘authentic tradition’ is in fact an illusion.


‘This spectrum of variations not only reflects a divided mind with regard to form. It is also a matter of material ‘dissimilarities’ about which there is likewise considerable lack of clarity’9

This criticism does not bring the criteria crashing to the sand, but it does raise the question as to whether, unless further clarified, there has ever been scholarly consensus on either its application or results.


B) Burdened with the idea of Unique Personality10

When approaching historical research of any historical figure it is likely that we want to place that figure within existing known categories. In historical Jesus studies these categories include, although not exhaustively so, Mamzer, Scripture Prophet (McKnight), Mediterranean peasant (Crossan) and Sage (Witherington).


The criteria of dissimilarity ‘can be understood as an expression of the concept of the role of the individual in history’11. The idea of individuality suffused the historical method of the nineteenth century to such an extent that attention was turned, particularly in German scholarship, to understanding history of the world can be written as the biography of heroes12. Heroes being those who achieve through their own power, fulfil their own inner call. As Schleiermacher comments,


‘Wherever there is a new historical development, wherever a new or renewed common life is generated, there and there alone is a great man’13

In response who Schleimacher though, as sociological analysis in the last 30 years has reminded us, the role of culture, politics, industry socio-economic factors are not to be downplayed. It is reduction to see all new historical developments as revolving around a great man. A look at the development of technology which has so shifted society, or global warnings impact on history, illustrates that not all ‘new historical developments]’ are the product of a great man. If we approach the sources with a view of the ‘heroic individual’ we may be more persuaded by the CDJ. The nineteenth century saw a rise in the ‘heroic individual’ but also, and this is connected, an attraction to the role of genius. A genius can be understood as I) the creative inventive, ii) the irrelevancy of rules or superiority over being bound by rules, iii) the natural, native.14 This tendency towards the ‘heroic’ and the ‘genius’ which was characteristic of historiography at large was in turn unproblematically adopted by ‘Old Questers’ who looked for a Jesus who was a Genius (Weiss, D.F Strauss), who ‘transcends Judaism’ (Julicher) , a transitional figure (Meineke) and founder of a new religion (F.C. Baur.). In looking for appropriate criterion for historical Jesus research the philosophical-historical concept of ’heroic’ and ’genius’ feeds into the formation of the criterion of dissimilarity

I) Creative Inventive: The creative element to an individual allows the CDJ to develop. Emphasis is placed on Jesus at the inventor of new beliefs and therefore connections between Jesus and Judaism must be on the wrong path. The earliest Christians would want to revert to pre-creative days, thus the CDC is needed.


II) The genius is not bound by the rules and conventions of the day, therefore we must look at Jesus, as a genius, who was not bound by the cultural and religious norms of Judaism(CDJ). Judaism being understood as legalistic and the Hero seen as breaking with this.15 The early church take up dogma and rules which Jesus as the creative-genius would not have adopted. Therefore the CDC is needed.


III) The church has taken the natural genius of Jesus and have complicated it. The early church burdened it with dogma and it become necessary to find authentic Jesus tradition which is distinct from this later complicated development of Jesus‘ simple creative message (CDC)16The genius of Jesus is in contrasted to sterile and complicated Judaism therefore the CDJ is needed.


Jesus was no doubt a ‘unique’ and ‘heroic individual’. Yet uniqueness, in contrast to the heroic histories of the 19th century, is not to be seen as divorcing Jesus from his cultural and religious heritage as the CDJ does.


C: Anti-Judaism in Historical Jesus Research


Theological Anti-Judaism was present within the earlier quest for the historical Jesus. Theological anti-Judaism is to be distinguished from anti-Semitism as it is possible to be against Judaism theologically whilst simultaneously rejecting racial anti-Semitism.

Theological anti-Judaism gives us ‘theologically negative images of the Jewish religion (especially ancient Judaism) as legalism or as essentially a matter of rituals.’17 Early proponents on the CDJ inherited this anti-Judaism bias, and thus wanted to find a figure of Jesus who bore little resemblance to the Judaism of his day. This is illustrated in stark form by Renan.

From this time he appears no more as a Jewish reformer, but as a destroyer of Judaism….The pride of blood appeared to him the great enemy which was to be combated. In other words, Jesus was no longer a Jew. He was in the highest degree revolutionary; he called all men to a worship founded solely on the fact of their being children of God. He proclaimed the rights of man, not the rights of the Jew; the religion of man, not the religion of the Jew; the deliverance of man, not the deliverance of the Jew18

The apparent legalism of Judaism is matched, according to the protetsant myth, by the legalism of the early church. Jesus, as this theory goes, is to be found in that which distinguishes from Judaism or the early papacy Thus CDJ and CDC come together when anti-Judaism=anti-legalism=anti-papacy. Remairus makes the link between ‘papal religion’ and ‘Judaism’ for they ‘generally have the same kind of defects and abuses, so far they deviate from the religion of reason.’19

Linked in with this anti-Judaism is the Hegelian view of the development of history of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.



According to Theissen and Winter a Hegelian approach to history became prevalent amongst shcoalrs within biblical studies. They trace this development through the works of Tatke, Wellhausen and Gunkel. In Wellhausen we can observe


a strongly progessive scheme of development that results in differentiating Judaism(degeneration)[Antithesis] from Christianity (which attached itself not to Judaism but to the highest in the religion of Israel)[synthesis]’20

Thesis: Israel

Antithesis: Judaism

Synthesis: Jesus & Early Church


With this schema of history the distinction between Judaism and Jesus is exaggerated and the CDJ is eagerly embraced as a method which can bring us closer to authentic Jesus tradition.


D) Lack of Knowledge of Judaism and early Christianity


The CDJ and CDC seeks to compare the Jesus tradition with that of Judaiam and the Early Church. This rasies a number of historiographical concerns.

a) What do we mean by Judaism? What do we mean by Christianity? When looking for a disctinction between Jesus and Judaism and Christianity we need to be aware than even to use the word ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’ is to impose unity and coherence onto a range of often diverse and contradictory material.

b) Despite recent advances in access to Judaic and Christian sources we do not have a clear unified vision of what the theology and praxis of these communities were. The CDJ and CDC are in no way objective as they both proceed from an argument of silence- the problem being that so much of Judaism and Christianity remains hidden from our 21st century perspective.

Another point is that this criterion depends upon a highly, and, in fact, exhaustive detailed knowledge of both Judaism and the early Church. This is a knowledge that scholars arguably still does not possess top the degree that is required to make sure pronouncements using this criteria.’21

To put the same problem in somewhat different terms, our knowledge of Christian communities before A.D. 70-90 is severely limited. Thus even when we can affirm that a saying differs from what we know, there is no assurance that it differs from the views of a

community about which we know nothing. It may well be the case, in the words of Hooker, that “if we knew the whole truth about Judaism and the early Church, our small quantity of ‘distinctive’ teaching would wither away altogether.” 22

e) Conflicts with the double demand of locating ‘Jesus within the Judaism of his day and locating and for locating the effects of his life within the history of the beginning of Christianity.


N.T. Wright who coined the phrase ‘third quest’ states that the third quest in contrast to the new quest which ’often seemed concerned to keep Jesus at arm’s length from anything to obviously Jewish’ seeks to see the Jewish background as vital.23 Some third quest scholars reject at a basic level the criterion of dissimilarity, but this is wheras others, such as Sanders and Meier, continue to use it. in a modified ‘soft from’–for their respective portraits of Jesus are drawn on the canvas of 1st century Judaism.


Dunn and Wright, amongst others, in a recorded evening conversation at Durham university describe negatively CDJ and CDC and the rise of third quest scholarship.


Dunn: I think so. For me the key characteristic of the “third quest” is setting Jesus in the

context of Judaism rather than seeking to find that which distinguishes him from Judaism – a whole strategy, we might almost say, driven by what in effect has been the embarrassment that Jesus was too Jewish for Christians.

Wright: Yes.

Dunn: This was always a problem. The second quest didn’t really resolve that because it was

looking for a dissimilar Jesus.

Wright: That’s one of the things which I think is very interesting: The so-called “criterion of

dissimilarity” which appears so neutral and objective when you line it up – let’s see what we can find in the tradition which is different from Judaism and different from the early church, and then we’ll be quite sure that neither of them made it up – that in fact carries with it both a sense of a de-Judaized Jesus and a kind of ultra-Protestant sense that anything the church made up it also muddled up, and we’ve got to get right back to the beginning.24

Such a method—known as the criterion of dissimilarity—could hardly accommodate a portrait of Jesus that takes into account his Jewish context and the Jewish dimensions of his teaching and activities. Fortunately, this dubious criterion has received the trenchant criticism it deserves. Almost no one today is guided by it.25



1 Meier, John P.: A Marginal Jew Vol 1 171-172

2 Lüdemann, Gerd Jesus After Two Thousand Years : What He Really Said and Did 4-5

3 Sanders, E. P. ; Davies, Margaret: Studying the Synoptic Gospels. 316 -317‘Material can be safely attributed to Jesus if it agrees neither with the early church nor with the Judaism contemporary to Jesus.’

4 Bultman History of the Synoptic Tradiion page 71 also Kasemann We can only sketch in a few bold strokes the embarassment of critical research. it lies in this; while the historical credibility of the Synoptic tradition has become doubtful all along the line, yet at the same time we are still short of one essential requisite for the identification of the authentic Jesus material, namely, a conspectus of the very earliest stage of primitive Christian history; and also there is an almost complete lack of satisfactory and water tight criteria for this material. In only one case do we have more or less ground under our feet, when there are no grounds either for deriving a tradition from Judaism or for ascribing it to primitive Christianity” 72

5 The Gospels and Jesus: Some Doubts about Method John G. Gager page 258 Also Dunn Jesus Remembered 82 ‘If the criterion of dissimilarity is applied consistently , and onlt that material is added which coheres [Criteria of Coherency]with the limited findings of the first trawl through the Jesus tardition, then the historical Jesus who emerges is bound to be a strange creature, with anything which links him to the religion of his people or to the taching of his followers automatically ruled out of court, ‘a unique Jesuis in a vaccum.’’

6 Perrin, Norman: Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus 43. ‘Thus we reach the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must be buillt, which we propose to call the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. Recognising that it follows an attempt to write a history of the tradition concerned, we may formulate it as follows: the earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic it it can be shown to be dissimilar to charecterisitic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this iwll particularly be the case where Christian tradition orientated towards Judaism can be shown to have modifed the saying away from its origonal emphasis’. 39

7 pp27-71

8 This 5 fold critique is found in summary form on pages 135-136. This is turn has come from long detailed argumentation found on pages 76-136

9 Theissen, Gerd ; Winter, Dagmar: The Quest for the Plausible Jesus : The Question of Criteria 21

10 This section is in essence a summary of Theissen, Gerd ; Winter, Dagmar: The Quest for the Plausible Jesus : The Question of Criteria 44-60

11 Theissen, Gerd ; Winter, Dagmar: The Quest for the Plausible Jesus : The Question of Criteria44

12 The heroic undersatnding of history is often linked with the book Carlyle, Thomas: On Heroes, Hero-Worship the Heroic in History. London : J. Fraser, 1841 available online through project gutenburg http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1091 An example of the dominance of the heroic view of history is found in Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) which contains a plethora of biographies of ‘heroic’ men but little in the way of general or social histories. Hegel, Nietzhche and Spengler endorsed the heroic view of history. One needs only think of the concept of ‘Ubermensch’ in the works of Nietzhche. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm ; Parkes, Graham: Thus Spoke Zarathustra : A Book for Everyone and Nobody. New York : Oxford University Press, 2005A critique of heroic history/great man theory is found in Leo Tolstoy War and Peace who devotes the beginning of his third volume to critiquing it.

13 as cited in Winter Theissen 45

14 JWinter and Theissen 46-48


16 The closer we come to Jesus in the traditional material, the more everything that is dogmatic and theological recedes from view’ P. Wernle, Die Quellen des Lebens Jesu as cited in Theissen & Winter 59

17 Theissen and Winter 68 Within Pauline scholarship the issue of legalism is udner deabte in the New Perspective on Paul. Covenantal Nomism is disguised by Sanders, Wright and Dunn from medieval catholic legalism. See http://www.thepaulpage.com/Bibliography.html for bibliography

18 Renan, Ernest: The Life of Jesus. Complete ed. London : Watts, 1935 available online at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/ernest_renan/life_of_jesus.html Chapter XXIII

19 as cited in Winter&Theissen 70

20 Winter & Theissen 72

21 Porter, Stanley E.: The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research : Previous Discussion and New Proposals. 74 See also M.D. Hooker, Christology and Methodology’ NTS 17 (1970-1971) 480-487

22 The Gospels and Jesus: Some Doubts about Method John G. Gager page 259

23 Neill, Stephen ; Wright, N. T.: The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986. 397

24 Dunn, Wright An Evening Conversation on Jesus and Paul

25 Craig A. Evans Assessing Progress in the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus 38

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The end of the ‘Old Quest’: Albert Schweitzer


Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) is often portrayed as the man who put an end to the ‘old’ quest. It is certainly true that Schweitzer placed a nail in the coffin of the ‘romanticised’ portraits of Jesus but more conservative scholarship, with less tendency to either adopt a enlightenment epistemology or a romanticed sketch pad, seems to have continued unabated.1 If Schweitzer did hammer a the nail into the coffin of ‘Romanticised’ pictures of Jesus, then coffin, to continue the metaphor, was already in production as t 15 years previously when Martin Kahler rebuked the ‘entire life of Jesus movement [‘Old/First Questers’] for leading scholarship into a ‘blind alley’.2

However, the impact of Schweitzer is not to be minimised, as he sought to offer a comprehensive overview and devastating enthusiastic critique of previous attempts at ‘life of Jesus‘ scholars. Jesus, as Schweitzer saw it, was being portrayed as a preacher of ethical ideals and his Judaic eschatological message was being ignored.

           There was a danger that we should offer them a Jesus who was too small because we had forced him into conformity with our human standards and human psychology. To see that, one need only read the lives of Jesus written since the [eighteen] ‘sixties, and notice what they have made of the great imperious sayings of the Lord, how they have weakened down his imperative world-condemning demands upon individuals, that he might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals, and might tune his denial of the world to our acceptance of it. Many of the greatest sayings are found lying in a corner like explosive shells, from which the charges have been removed. No small portion of elemental religious power needed to be drawn off from his sayings to prevent them from conflicting with our system of religious world-acceptance. We have made Jesus hold another language with our time from that which he really held.3

In contrast to the ‘romanticised’ portraits of Jesus, Schweitzer sought to paint a picture of Jesus who was not acceptable to the modern world. This Jesus was a fiery eschatological prophet who was convinced that the end of the word was at hand. His message was less about ethical ideals but about the future kingdom which God would bring. Jesus goes to the cross to bring the kingdom of God, laying ‘hold of the wheel of the world to bring it to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him.’5 Schweitzer’s Jesus is a ‘stranger and enigma’6 to both modern society and Christianity.


1 See Porter The Criteria of Authenticity 37 who offers a critique of the monolithic understanding of the history of Jesus research. Also Bock Studying the Historical Jesus 144-145 ‘To call this period one of ‘no quest’ is probably an overstatement’ 144

2 Kähler, Martin: The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, trans Braaten 46-71

3 Neill, Stephen ; Wright, N. T.: The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986 215

 Eschatology for Schweitzer is

5 Schweitzer Quest for the Historical Jesus as cited in Dunn Jesus Remembered 47

6In either case, He will not be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can ascribe, according to its long-cherished custom, its own thoughts and ideas, as it did with the Jesus of its own making. Nor will He be a figure which can be made by a popular historical treatment so sympathetic and universally intelligible to the multitude. The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma.’ Schweitzer Quest for the Historical Jesus 399

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I have been doing some research on the methodology of those who are doing ‘Jesus Research’. In this posting I begin to look at the beginning of the quest for the historical Jesus attempting to pay attention to the influence of the enlightenemnt and romanticism. In future postings,  I will look at the rest of the quest and then offer an overview of ‘criteria of authenticity’ and Method by Wright, Crossan, Sanders, Meier…. and a detailed critique of criteria.  IF anyone has any thoughts, bibliographies, etc. Then please let me know.


Historical Jesus: Criteria of Authenticity



After all, whose experience of Jesus should be considered authoritative or normative for faith and piety? Should it be the Jesus of Jim Jones, the Jesus of ultra-Pentecostals, the Jesus of the Catholic Mass, the Jesus of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Jesus of American Fundamentalism, the Jesus of the Crusades? The danger is, to borrow William Lane Craig’s colourful turn of phrase, that we add a little bit of pixie dust, make a wish and believe anything we like about Jesus.1

The canonical gospels don’t simply present to the reader one perspective on the life of Jesus. Four separate canonical portraits of Jesus are given, reflecting the use of different Jesus traditions and their diverse, but overlapping, theological and literary concerns . Each gospel also contains dissenting views to the canonical norm a– Jesus who is described by some as working for Beelzebub, of betraying God’s law, and of being a drunkard.


Likewise, within the ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ various portraits emerge, with Jesus appearing simultaneously in peasants apparel, a magicians gown, in the garb of an eschatological prophet, and a host of other portraits2. Different portraits, different Jesus’- do we simply adopt the latest portrait for use in worship?, or do we reject all the images in favour of retaining our own pre-scholarship or dogmatic construction? We could also choose to take a post modern turn and adopt whichever portrait furthers own ideological standpoint, or reject all portraits as a claim to power and objectivity.


In contrast to each of these responses to the historical Jesus, I join with a host of others who want to critique certain portraits of the historical Jesus whilst putting forward, however tentatively, an authentic reconstruction.


There are a number of ways which these portraits, like a painting in an art gallery, can be assessed. A painting in an art gallery can be assessed for its ability to evoke a response to the reader, or it can be viewed from its location in the ‘history of art’ and in its specialist use of tools, textures and canvas. The paintings methodology can be assessed. Likewise in assessing a ‘portrait’ of the historical Jesus it is necessary not only to look at the overall picture which is produced but the methodology which allowed the construction to be formed. As Denton, who has a keen interest in historical Jesus methodology comments,

‘It will not do for us to compare contemporary portraits of Jesus if fundamentally different means were used to arrive at these portraits. Comparisons and contrasts on the former level will result in the portraits talking past one another, for one portrait can criticize another as historically illegitimate only on the basis of some criteria of historical legitimacy. Such criteria are found, in critical history, in the means by which the historian claims to investigate the historical object’ 3

It is the purpose of this essay to examine the methodology of a number of ‘Jesus questers‘. Before analysing specific individuals and methodologies it is necessary to comment, however briefly, onto what has become known as the ‘quest for the historical Jesus.’


The Quest for the Historical Jesus.4

Contemporary historical Jesus scholarship traditionally divides Jesus research into four distinct time periods which have become known as

1)‘The First/Old Quest’,

2) ‘The No Quest’

3)‘The New Quest’

4) ‘The Third Quest’,5

Characteristics of the ‘Old Quest’ 1778-1906

This period of the quest is traced from Herman Reimarus (1694-1768) , so the story goes, to Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).

Reimarus whose writings were published posthumously in ‘Fragments’ sought to split apart the faith of the first Christians (‘Christ of Faith‘) from the ‘Jesus of History’. As a philosophical descendant of Spinoza, reason became the litmus test for truth,. Reason, thus, being used as a critical tool which can be held up against faith beliefs. The gospels were analysed for ‘contradictions’ and consistency’. If a document is inconsistent or incoherent it cannot be used as historical testimony. James Dunn, making a link with contemporary Jesus research, summarises Reimarus’ (and Strauss’) methodological presuppositions,


”Where texts seemed to contradicts other texts or were inconsistent with the universal laws which were now known to govern the course of events, the accounts in these texts should be judged unhistorical on scientific grounds. Here scientific criticism in effect was posed from the outset as a contradiction to the traditional claims of faith, a contradiction still seen as such by most scientifically educated people today.;6

One example of contradiction in use by Strauss is found in his discussion of the resurrection narratives. He compares the accounts of the resurrection and find that contradictions abound. After discussing the guard at the Jesus’ tomb Reimarus comments,

From these many contradictions we now see that the guard whom Matthew posted before the tomb will not bear the investigation by a rational mind. Thus, these fancies that were intended to divert suspicion of fraud from Jesus’ disciples on the contrary strengthen that suspicion. The guards disappear at all events, and it is always possible and extremely probable, if one looks into the matter, that the disciples came to the tomb at night, stole the body, and afterwards said Jesus had risen.’7

The gospels are unreliable due to contradictions as, using a law court metaphor, he states

Witnesses who differ so greatly in the most important points of their testimony would not be recognised in any secular court as valid and legal.to the extent that the judge could reply upon their story and base his decision on it’.


This critical understanding of the life of Jesus continued in the writings of Strauss (1835-36). In The Life of Jesus Critically Examined he sought to present a picture of Jesus which stood against the dogmatic Christ of orthodoxy (supernaturalist) and those believers who sought a ‘rationalised’ form of the Christian faith–that is those who sought to do away with the miraculous whilst allowing for the authenticity of the gospels.


This is illustrated throughout his book, in particular Chapter IX, and I use his discussion of the multiplication of loaves an example. Strauss mentions the view of the rationalists who see the event as ‘an acceleration of the natural process’8, or that of ‘the distribution of bread by Jesus having led to a general distribution, the whole multitude were satisfied.’9 For Strauss, the attempt to rationalise the account to make it acceptable to enlightenment sensibilities is a misreading of the texts for ‘the natural expositor is put to the most extravagant contrivances in order to evade the miracle’.10

For Strauss the presence of miraculous cannot be avoided in the gospels for it cannot simply be explained away. Strauss, however is no ally to orthodoxy, for although accepting the miraculous in the canonical gospels he disassociates the miraculous from the ‘historical Jesus’. The feeding of the 5,000 ‘must be rejected, as unhistorical’11 on the basis of contradictions amongst the gospel accounts.12 The true rationalist understanding of this account is to see it as a ‘mythical derivation of this history of the miraculous feeding of the multitude’ from Old testament precedents.13



Reimarus and Strauss, whose Jesus’ stand out from the dogmatic Christ, needs to be understood in the light of an enlightenment epistemology. By enlightenment epistemology I mean a historiographical approach which works with History as a hard scientist would work with data within a lab. The historical-critical method followed an enlightenment epistemology

  1. Objectivity in History, allows history to be treated as an extension of the natural sciences, that historical facts are objects in history which can be recovered by scientific method

  2. The historian could be impartial, strictly objective in his treatment of historical facts

  3. Human reason is the sufficient measure of truth

  4. The cosmos is a single harmonious structure of forces and masses. All events are predictable, the effects of causes already observable, no room for divine intervention14


The ‘Quest’ continued in the works of Renan (1863), Weiss (1892), Harnack(1900) and Wrede (1901)15 . At risk of generalisations these scholars used the scalpel of ‘scientific-historical-enlightenment criticism’ to strip away the layers of early church mythology, and reveal the ‘real Jesus’ .


Yet the enlightenment was not the only philosophical position at work, for in response to rationalism came the arrival of ‘Romanticism’ and Kant’s stress on ‘Moral Consciousness’. This had the effect, within ’Old Quest’ Research, of stripping the supernatural from Jesus and although being sceptical about lots of the Jesus tradition, finding a Jesus who taught the romantic ideals of the fatherhood of God and infinite value of the human soul.

‘The highest consciousness of God which has existed in the bosom of humanity was that of Jesus’. Jesus’ ‘great act of originality’ was that, probably from the first, ‘he regarded his relationship with God as that , of a son with his father’. …. he established the universal fatherhood of God’. ‘The morality of the Gospels remains… the highest creation of human conscience–the most beautiful code of perfect life that nay moralist has traced’. ‘A pure worship, a religion without priests and external observances, resting entirely on the feelings of the heart, on the imitation of God, on the direct relation of the conscience with the heavenly father…”An absolutely new idea, the idea of worship founded on purity if heart, and human brotherhood, through him entered the world’16

The sketches of Jesus being offered differed from that of orthodoxy but also looked remarkably like that of post-enlightenment romanticised man. The zeitgeist became the driving force despite the objectivist claims of the authors. As Dunn observes, ‘The trouble was, we may say, it allowed the spirit of the age to dictate not simply the language but also the agenda.’17

1 Michael Bird, “Shouldn’t Evangelicals Participate in the ‘Third Quest for the Historical Jesus’?” Themelios 29.2 (Spring 2004): 11

2 A whole range of Jesus portraits have appeared in recent years. For an introduction to these portrait see see Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest : The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. At the risk of caricature we can say.

3 Denton, Donald L.: Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies 7

4 This history, which has become somewhat of a assumed meta-narrative, has been rehearsed many times before. See, amongst others, Porter, Stanley E.: The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research : 28-62,also Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered 25-135, Darrel Bock Studying the Historical Jesus 141-153

5 This meta-narrative of research has been seriously challenged by Stanley Porter in his monograph The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research . Also, and with more force in a subsequent journal article. Stanley Porter Luke 17.11-19 and the Criteria for Authenticity Revisited Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 2003; 1; 201

6 Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered. 30

7 Fragment 171-172 From pages 177-194 he highlights ‘ten such obvious contradictions’ between in resserection accounts between the canonical gospels ‘ignoring the fact that many more could be given’

8 Strauss 512

9 ibid 513

10 ibid 514

11 ibid 515

12 ibid 515

13 ibid 517-518

14 See Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered 26-29 “It is important to remember

15 This is not an exhaustive list but a list of some of the ‘key players’. For a helpful timeline Porter The Criteria for Authenticity 60-62

16 Renan, Life of Jesus (London 1864) pages 82,83,87-88,90 as with Ritschl ‘‘The Kingdom of God consists of those who belive in Christ, inasmuch as they treat one another with love without regard to differances of sex, rank or race, therby bringing about a fellowship of moral attitude and moral proprieties extending through the whole range of human life in every possible variation’.A Ritschl The Christian Doctron of Justification 285 page 45 Dunn

17 ‘Since historical knowledge and hermeneutics are also dependant on such questions, questers of the ‘Historical Jesus; and readers of the Gospels at academic level need to be aware of the deep philosophical assumptions on which particular hypotheses are based and the unresolved epistemological issues and debates continuously rumblings below the surface. In this case, the most important principal at work was in effect the conviction that Jesus, the ‘historical Jesus’, the Jesus stripped of dogmatic accretion, would/must have something to say to modern man, and the consequential desire to provide a mouthpiece for the restatement of that message.’Dunn, James D. G.: Jesus Remembered. Cambridge, U.K.; Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003 page 29


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