Birger A. Pearson

2. Quests of the Historical Jesus

Historical investigation of the Jesus tradition untrammelled by theological agendas is the product of the 18th-century Enlightenment. One of the first to undertake such an investigation was the orientalist Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), with whose work Albert Schweitzer begins his classic work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. [6] Reimarus saw in Jesus of Nazareth a Jewish messianic revolutionary whose failure led his followers to steal his body and create a new story of Jesus based on aspects of Jewish messianism. The Christian religion did not grow out of the teaching of Jesus; it is a new creation which gradually unfolded out of a series of failed expectations. [7]
The story of the "Quest of the Historical Jesus," as told by Schweitzer, includes not only rationalist attempts at discrediting traditional Christian teaching, but also attempts by Christian theologians to fend off such critiques by creating an edifice of critical theological scholarship by which a believable "real Jesus" might emerge to view. The result, often enough, was a "modernized" Jesus, one whose ethical genius and message of a "spiritual kingdom" brought him close to the liberal ideas of 19th-century German Protestantism.
Schweitzer's own position on the historical Jesus, present from beginning to end in his famous book but developed especially at the end, is represented by what he calls "thoroughgoing eschatology." This is Schweitzer's lasting contribution to scholarship, even though his own reconstruction of Jesus' short career is open to considerable criticism. [8] 19th-century research had opened up new insights into the study of Palestinian Judaism, on the basis of research into the so-called "Pseudepigrapha" of the Hebrew Bible, [9] that identified a prominent trend in that Judaism called "Jewish apocalyptic." It was inevitable that the teachings and activity of Jesus would be examined in terms of its relationship to Jewish eschatology and the apocalyptic worldview prominent in first-century Jewish Palestine. [10] Schweitzer's discussion of "the eschatological question" in his Quest (pp. 223-41) culminates with his treatment of Johannes Weiss' epoch-making work on "The Preaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God." [11] Weiss had demonstrated unassailably that "the preaching of Jesus was purely eschatological" (241).
Eschatology as such, involving ideas of the last judgment, resurrection, and supernatural deliverance of the elect from temporal earthly existence, is quite foreign to modern (or "post-modern") ways of thinking, and it was inevitable that a scholarly struggle would be mounted against it as holding the key to Jesus' teachings. [12] Eschatology was equally distasteful to Albert Schweitzer himself, and herein lies his greatness as a scholar: As a critical historian Schweitzer was constrained by the evidence to situate the historical Jesus squarely within his own temporal-geographic context in first-century Judaism. This Jesus is a foreigner to us: "the historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma." [13]
Ever since Schweitzer the eschatological paradigm has, at least until recently, been dominant in critical scholarship. But in our century theologians learned how to deal "hermeneutically" with an eschatological Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann, the preeminent New Testament scholar of the first half of our century, is a case in point. He could resolve in his own work the "either-or" proposition of Schweitzer: either "thoroughgoing scepticism" or "thoroughgoing eschatology." [14] In his classic treatment of the historical Jesus, Jesus and the Word, [15] Bultmann asserted that "we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary." [16] What can be discovered, on the basis of critical assessment of the earliest Palestinian level of tradition, is the essentials of Jesus' message, his "word." This "word" has to do with the coming of the Kingdom of God, a "miraculous eschatological event," but one that has to be interpreted existentially: "the Kingdom of God is a power which, although it is entirely future, wholly determines the present . . . because it now compels man to decision."[17] For Bultmann, a scholarly "quest of the historical Jesus" is not only impossible, but theologically illegitimate because it substitutes worldly proof for faith.
This was the dominant position of the Bultmann school until 1953, when one of Bultmann's students, Ernst Käsemann, in a famous address to the annual gathering of the "old Marburgers" (i.e. fellow Bultmannians), proposed that some interest in the historical Jesus is theologically valid since the Lord of the Church cannot be viewed completely as a mythological being, unconnected to his historical existence. Käsemann's statement set in motion what came to be called the "New Quest of the Historical Jesus." [18] This quest was "new" in the sense that scholarly interest in the historical Jesus, eschewed by Bultmann, was coupled with Bultmann's existentialist hermeneutics. In this view there is, after all, a connection between the eschatological message of Jesus and the christological kerygma ("proclamation") of the church. [19]
It is to be noted that the "New Quest," though not lacking interest in key events of Jesus' life, was, like Bultmann himself, primarily interested in the message of Jesus and the essentials of his teaching. In order to get at this teaching, critical study of the gospel traditions is required, with the application of form criticism [20] and other critical tools. Criteria also have to be devised for determining the authenticity of individual sayings of Jesus. The most important of these criteria, already used by Bultmann, was dubbed by Norman Perrin "the criterion of dissimilarity": "the earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church." [21] Though it is not denied that Jesus' teaching consisted of "variations on themes from the religious life of ancient Judaism," nevertheless, "if we are to seek that which is most characteristic of Jesus," it will be found in the things wherein he differs from Judaism, such things as would be "new and startling to Jewish ears." [22] An unstated premise here, of course, is that Jesus was unique among his contemporaries.
While the "New Quest" was dominating German scholarship and American scholarship influenced by it, the "Old Quest" was proceeding as usual in places like Great Britain and North America. More recently there has developed what is sometimes referred to as the "Third Quest," [23] exemplified by a spate of books continuing unabated. This "Third Quest," unlike the "New" one, lacks a unifying theological agenda, but it is also distinguishable from the first two quests in claiming to lack any theological agenda. The unifying factor in such works is the claim that critical historical research, involving careful sifting of the sources, can lead to positive knowledge about who Jesus was. The most important feature of much of the current work is the attempt to situate Jesus squarely within the context of first-century Palestine and Second Temple Judaism. [24]
Another interesting aspect of some of the current research is the use of theoretical models drawn from the social sciences to shed light on the socio-political context in which Jesus operated. Gerd Theissen, for example, sees Jesus as the founder of a "renewal movement within Judaism," and proceeds to subject this "Jesus Movement" (active 30-70 CE) to a functional sociological analysis. [25] Jesus and some of his followers are depicted as "wandering charismatics," dependent on sympathizers in the local villages. At one point in his discussion he cites an interesting analogy in the larger Gentile world:

The wandering Cynic philosophers are in some way analogous to the earliest Christian wandering charismatics. They too seem to have led a vagabond existence and also to have renounced home, families, and possessions. [26]
The Cynics, it will be recalled, were itinerant preachers of a philosophy of freedom from every constraint and a life lived with minimal requirements "according to nature." Flouting social convention, they derived their name (kynikoi,"dog-like") from an epithet applied to one of their founders, "the Dog" Diogenes (of Sinope, 4th-cent. BCE), who went about Athens doing in public everything that a dog might do, all the while hurling insults on his contemporaries. The following chreia, [27] among many preserved by Diogenes Laertius, is typical:

One time while masturbating in the market place he said, 'Would that it were possible to relieve hunger simply by rubbing the belly.' [28]
Since virtually anything is possible nowadays in New Testament scholarship, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Gerd Theissen's throw-away analogy would issue in a number of books and articles depicting Jesus as a Cynic. F. Gerald Downing set about assembling what he took to be "parallels" from the Cynic (but also Stoic!) tradition to items in the Jesus tradition, [29] and argues in a more recent work [30] that Cynics could have been active in Galilee in Jesus' day because the example of Jesus proves it!
This brings us to the recent work of John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, [31] whose dust jacket advertises it as "the first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said"! According to Crossan, the eschatological Jesus was foisted on the tradition by the early church. Jesus himself rejected the eschatological message of John the Baptist and adopted an "egalitarian" and "sapiential" teaching and demeanor appropriate to his peasant background. Crossan's handling of his sources produces an astonishing conclusion, in what most people would regard as an oxymoron: "The historical Jesus was, then, a peasant Jewish Cynic." [32]
One can only wonder how Crossan could reach this conclusion, and at least part of the answer is conveniently found in Appendix 1, "An Inventory of the Jesus Tradition by Chronological Stratification and Independent Attestation." [33] Trickster-like, Crossan deftly sets standard critical scholarship on its head by assigning to the earliest stratum (30-60 CE) such sources as the Gospel of Thomas (i.e. a supposed "first layer"), Papyrus Egerton 2 and other papyrus fragments, and the Gospel of the Hebrews, writings usually assigned to the second century. [34] He even invents a new gospel of his own which he assigns to this period, the "Cross Gospel," which he reconstructs out of the second-century Gospel of Peter. [35] To the "second stratum" of tradition (60-80 CE) he assigns the Gospel of the Egyptians, his "second layer" of the Gospel of Thomas, and a hypothetical "Dialogue Collection" embedded in the Dialogue of the Savior, one of the Coptic texts of the Nag Hammadi corpus (NHC III,5). [36] Thus, items in early Christian literature that betray a de-eschatologization of tradition are now taken as evidence for a "pre-apocalyptic" Jesus.
I bring up the work of Crossan here because he is Co-Chair of the Jesus Seminar, and has obviously played a prominent role in the making of The Five Gospels, to which we now return. [37]

Next: Methodology of the Jesus Seminar


6. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Introduction by James M. Robinson (New York: Macmillan, 1968), translated by W. Montgomery from the first German edition, Von Reimarus zur Wrede, 1906; the English translation was first published in 1910.

7. Summarized in Schweitzer, pp. 13-26. Reimarus' work, Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger, was published anonymously after Reimarus' death by Gotthold Lessing in 1778. There is now an English translation of this historic work: The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples, introduced and translated by George W. Buchanan (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970).

8. See esp. Schweitzer, 330-97. Cf. idem, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus' Messiahship and Passion (New York: Macmillan, 1914), translated by Walter Lowrie from the original German, Das Messianitäts und Leidensgeheimnis: Eine Skizze des Lebens Jesu, 1901. For a critical appraisal of Schweitzer's reconstruction see Robinson's Introduction in Schweitzer, Quest, xi-xxxiii. Robinson's critique is theologically oriented, and presented from the vantage point of the "New Quest of the Historical Jesus" grounded in existentialist hermeneutics (on which see below). Robinson does not (in 1968) take issue with Schweitzer's insistence on the eschatological nature of Jesus' ministry: "Schweitzer was correct on the issue of historical criticism, in affirming the eschatological nature of Jesus' ministry" (p. xx). Robinson is now more inclined to opt for a "paradigm shift," a non-apocalyptic Jesus derived from an alleged "preapocalyptic layer lying behind Q" (i.e. the hypothetical sayings source "Q" shared in common by the gospels of Matthew and Luke). See Robinson, "The Q Trajectory: Between John and Matthew via Jesus," in Birger A. Pearson (ed.), The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) 173-94, quotation on p. 189. For a critique of this now popular attempt at finding "layers" in "Q" see Richard Horsley, "Logoi Propheton: Reflections on the Genre of Q," in Pearson, 195-209.

9. See the two volumes edited by James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983, 1985), esp. vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. One of the most important of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha for New Testament study is 1 Enoch, part of the OT canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

10. On "apocalypse" as a literary genre and "apocalyptic" or "apocalypticism" as a worldview see e.g. the articles by Paul D. Hanson and John J. Collins on "Apocalypses and Apocalypticism" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 1: 279-92, with extensive bibliography. The only "apocalypse" in the Hebrew Bible is Daniel (ca. 164 BCE). The Book of Revelation is the only "apocalypse" as such in the New Testament (cf. the "Little Apocalypse" in Mark 13 and parallels), but much of the NT reflects the apocalyptic worldview.

11. Johannes Weiss, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892, 3rd ed. by Ferdinand Hahn, 1964). An English translation is available: Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, translated by Richard H. Hiers and David L. Holland (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971, repr. Chico: Scholars Press, 1985).

12. See chapter 16 of Schweitzer, Quest, "The Struggle Against Eschatology," pp. 242-69.

13. Schweitzer, Quest, p. 399. Albert Schweitzer nevertheless heard this stranger's call, "Follow me!" (p. 403). From 1913 on, practicing medicine in French Equatorial Africa, he spent the rest of his life (until 1965) testing the truth of the final words in his book: "to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is" (p. 403). Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

14. See chapter 19 of Schweitzer, Quest, 330-97.

15. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934, translated by Louise P. Smith and Erminie H. Lantero from the original German, Jesus, 1926.

16. Bultmann, p. 8.

17. Bultmann, pp. 45, 51.

18. See esp. James M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (Studies in Biblical Theology 25; London: SCM, 1959). The first book on the historical Jesus produced in the Bultmann school since Bultmann's own Jesus and the Word was Günther Bornkamm, Jesus von Nazareth (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1956), translated as Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960).

19. Robinson, New Quest, esp. 122-23.

20. The classic book on the form criticism of the gospels is Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell/New York: Harper & Row, 2nd ed. 1968), translated by John Marsh from the 2nd edition of Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958), first published in 1921.

21. Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) 39.

22. Perrin, 39-40. Perrin goes on to discuss other criteria, subsidiary to that of "dissimilarity": "coherence" and "multiple attestation" (ibid., pp. 43-47).

23. See e.g. N. T. Wright's article, "Quest for the Historical Jesus," part of a larger entry on "Jesus Christ," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 3: 796-802.

24. It is not feasible to try to list here all of the relevant works, but I cannot refrain from citing the most ambitious and meticulous of the current works representing the "Third Quest": John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991-). Two volumes have been published (1991, 1994), and a third is forthcoming.
For a good survey of recent work see Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (New Testament Tools and Studies 19; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994).

25. Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), translated from the German Soziologie der Jesusbewegung (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1977).

26. Theissen, 14-15.

27. A chreia ("anecdotal maxim") is a literary or rhetorical form, consisting of a pregnant saying provided with a brief narrative context. The form occurs widely in Hellenistic and Jewish literature, including the New Testament gospels. Rudolph Bultmann referred to this form as an "apophthegm." See his History of the Synoptic Tradition, 11-69.

28. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 6.46, my translation. Hicks' translation in the Loeb Classical Library edition translates ceirourgw'n (lit. "working by hand") more demurely as "behaving indecently."

29. F. Gerald Downing, Christ and the Cynics (Sheffield: JSOT, 1988). One might just as easily cull the Epicurean tradition in the same fashion for evidence that Jesus was really an Epicurean. That Jesus' teaching "closely resembles the real teaching of Epicurus" was the view of Wolfgang Kirchbach (Was lehrte Jesus? Zwei Urevangelien, Berlin, 1897) according to Schweitzer's account (Quest, 324). Anyone wanting to update Kirchbach's work will be glad to know about Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson (eds.), The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing, 1991).

30. Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1992).

31. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

32. Crossan, p. 421 (italics his).

33. Crossan, 427-50.

34. See Wilhelm Schneemelcher (ed.), New Testament Apocrypha, revised ed. trans. by R. McL. Wilson (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings. For the items cited here see pp. 110-33; 96-99; 172-78; 216-27.

35. He makes his case for the "Cross Gospel" in another ponderous tome, The Cross that Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). I know of no one who accepts Crossan's reconstruction.

36. See New Testament Apocrypha, 1:209-15; 300-11. In the case of the Dialogue of the Savior, the existence of an earlier dialogue source is plausible. See esp. the Introduction by Helmut Koester and Elaine Pagels in Stephen Emmel (ed.), Nag Hammadi Codex III,5: The Dialogue of the Savior (Nag Hammadi Studies 26; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984) 1-17. They assign a late-first century date to the dialogue source and a date in the early second century to the tractate as a whole.

37. Page references in parentheses in what follows are to this book.