Modernism and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (1)

By Daniel H. King

The Nature of Contemporary Opinion

In order to dramatize the nature of the question with which we will be wrestling in the present article, at least for the sake of those who are uninitiated with regard to contemporary New Testament theology, we would like to quote from three thinkers who have been prominent in formulating the current debate:

Albert Schweitzer. “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and died to give his work its final consecration never had any existence …. He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside He came to those men who knew him not.”

Rudolf Bultmann: “It seems then that the form of the earthly no less than the heavenly Christ is for the most part hidden from us. For all the inestimable value of the gospels they yield us little more than a whisper of his voice: We trace in them but the outskirts of his ways.”

R. H. Lightfoot: “I do indeed think that we can now know nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary, and other sources about Jesus do not exist.”

Doubtless the foregoing statements are shocking to you, if (as I am sure is the case with the bulk of our readership) you have not kept up with the writings of modern New Testament scholarship. Yet, they do not flow from the pens of avowed infidels or atheists as you might have thought but rather from professed “Christian” thinkers. What is more, their thinking represents the thinking of men who hold the most important posts in some of the most prestigious universities, colleges, and seminaries the world over. There is little wonder, therefore, that theological schools have generally come to be dubbed “theological cemeteries,” since “the faith once delivered” is now long dead and buried insofar as they are concerned. Theological study increasingly has taken on a resemblance to an autopsy performed on a corpse.

Bible scholars once read and devoutly analyzed the text of Scripture, asking, “What did it mean then and how does this apply to us today?” But contemporary writers and teachers spend their time asking “What did they (the early church) believe?” and see no connection whatever between this and the question, “What shall we believe?” The issue has come to be one of historical interest entirely. It has no relevance for us today.

But what brought about this change in terms of relevance? Naturally there are many factors that could be explored, as there are many streams that flow into the sea, howbeit the primacy of one in particular stands out above the rest. That is the so-called “Quest of the Historical Jesus.” And we would like to begin by attempting to trace out its origins.

History of the “Quest”

As Joachim Jeremias has said, “No one in the early church, no one in the Reformation and the two succeeding centuries thought of asking the question whether the historical Jesus and His message had any relevance for the Christian.” Whence then, did this problem arise? Well, as a matter of fact, the date of its birth can be precisely fixed at 1778. The question was a child of the Enlightenment. The earlier ages held fast to the position that the. Gospels give us absolutely reliable information about Jesus; they saw no problem here.

However, Herman Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), professor of Oriental Languages in Germany, left a manuscript which after his death was published by G. E. Lessing. The last excerpt (of seven) was entitled – Concerning the Aim of Jesus and His Disciples. In it Reimarus distinguished between the aim of Jesus, which he claimed was to set up an earthly kingdom and deliver the Jews from the yoke of the Romans, and that of the disciples. Reimarus alleged that the purpose of Jesus had been thwarted and that the disciples (too lazy to go back to their jobs) stole the body of Jesus and invented the message of His resurrection. Hence, it was the disciples who invented the Jesus of the Gospels. This was the significant aspect of the thesis put forward by Reimarus, i.e. that the Jesus of history and the Christ preached by the church were not the same. Now, the representation of the historical Jesus as constructed by the eighteenth-century professor is seen today by all as absurd and amateurish. Jesus was no political revolutionary. Moreover, the sources bear unambiguous and trustworthy testimony that He was strongly opposed to the nationalistic zealot leanings of His environment. Additionally, Reimarus’ work was obviously an anti-Christian diatribe or hate-pamphlet and deserved little attention for that reason. Nevertheless he must be credited with the first attempt at distinguishing between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith.”

After Reimarus several rationalistic “lives of Jesus” were written, most of which to a greater or lesser extent denied the miraculous incidents in the Gospels. Usually they attempted to explain the accounts as having resulted from natural causes, Johann Hess (1741-1828) of Zurich, Franz Reinhard (1753-1812) of Wittenberg, Johann Jakobi of Walterhausen (1816), Johannes Herder (1744-1803) of Weimar, Heinrich Paulus (1761-1851) of Heidelberg, Karl Hase (1800-1890) of Jena, and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) of Berlin. As an example of this tendency, we might offer the method of handling the resurrection in the case of both Hase and Schleiermacher. Both men said that he was raised but that it could have been a return to consciousness from a trance instead of an actual resurrection from death. He merely “swooned” for a time and awoke.

David Strauss (1808-1874) shocked the world in 1835 with his Life of Jesus which was even more radical still. Strauss said that the church created the miracles of the Gospel through its “legend-creating faith.” But he stopped at the miracles and accepted the fact that Jesus had lived and that the Gospels told his story in a general way. However, Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) of Berlin and Bonn, went so far as to assert that everything that is known about Jesus is a product of the imagination of the early church, and as a consequence the conception that developed had no connection with any concrete personality called Jesus in the history of the world. Or to put it more succinctly, the historical Jesus never existed. This period came to be known as that of the “Christ-myth.”

Following up on the researches of Bauer, Arthur Drews in The Christ Myth and J. M. Robertson in Pagan Christs and Christianity and Mythology both argued that there was no historical proof whatever that the Jesus of the Gospels ever lived. The studies in comparative religion by Frazier, Gunkel, and Pfeiderer were drawn upon by them, especially with reference to Vegetation and Solar Myths, which formed the basis of the religions prevalent in the first century. This was surely the lowest ebb of the discussion and only a few were drawn into this radical position.

The next important era in the “quest” was the period which covers the first third of the twentieth century. This was the period of the “liberal lives of Jesus.” At this point the geographical picture changes slightly. For, up to this point all of the writers were from Germany. And, although German writers would still be the “cutting edge” in the debate, yet the scope became more international. Adolf Harnack (1901) the German, presented the most important and influential volume of this time. What is Christianity? — was its title and between its covers appeared the classic statement of the liberal theological position as to the significance of Jesus. For him, Jesus’ primary importance is seen in his message as it is included in his teaching: “If, however, we take a general view of Jesus’ teaching, we shall see that it may be grouped under three heads. They are each of such a nature as to contain the whole, and hence it can be exhibited in its entirety under any one of them. Firstly, the kingdom of God and its coming. Secondly, God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul. Thirdly, the higher righteousness and the commandment of love.” You will note that this liberal credo is singularly silent with reference to the miraculous, the deity of Christ, and matters of dogma or doctrine. This was intentional since all of such particulars had been abandoned by liberalism at this juncture. Other writers of this time who made their mark were Goguel of France, Mackinnon of Great Britain, Case of America, and the Jewish scholar Klausner. All of them denied that Jesus was the metaphysical Son of God; all agreed that a resurrection did not occur; all assumed the miraculous to be impossible; and furthermore, they all denied the possibility of writing a biography or history of the real Jesus by examining our Gospels.

As so often happens in critical scholarship, however, the entire nature of this debate changed with the entrance of a new generation of scholars upon the scene. Three names are connected with the downfall of the old liberal school: William Wrede who in 1901 published The Messianic Secret in the Gospels; Albert Schweitzer, whose work Quest of the Historical Jesus appeared in 1906; and Martin Kahler who authored The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, which came off the presses in 1892 but did not have its effect until much later. Wrede argued that it was no longer possible to obtain from the Gospels a real picture of the historical Jesus. Schweitzer made the same point, then constructed his own portrait of Christ. He said Jesus of Nazareth was a fanatical futurist who died in vain for his hope in the Second coming. Kahler on the other hand, distinguished between “Jesus” and “Christ”, intending by “Jesus” to describe the man of Nazareth; by “Christ” he understood the Savior proclaimed by the church. The two words for `historical’ also brought about a second distinction in the original German edition. For the term historisch meant for him the bare facts of the past, while geschichtlich meant that which possesses permanent significance. So, he placed in opposition to one another the so-called `historical Jesus’, as the lives of Jesus had sought to reconstruct him, and the geschichtlich, Biblical Christ, as the apostles proclaimed Him. This last figure was the one who concerned Kahler the most in terms of an existential appreciation of him. At first, however, Kahlar’s thesis went unheard; only in our time, when Rudolf Bultmann took it up, did it receive attention.

A single quotation from one of the scholarly journals of that day will reflect the condition of the Gospels in the minds of scholars as the result of the theories they had spun:

“As a result of the work of the Higher criticism the Four Gospels are a complete wreck as historical records . . . It can never be proved that an historical person uttered the great teachings of the Fourth Gospel . . . . As authorities for a life of Jesus they (the Synoptic Gospels) are hopelessly shattered by the assaults of the Higher Criticism. How little they tell us of an historic Jesus” (Hibbert Journal, Jan., 1911, pp. 346-347).

The introduction of form-critical techniques into this discussion gave the venture a slightly different twist, although writers were still dependent upon what had gone before. Hermann Gunkel, an Old Testament critic, first authored the method in that area, but it was left to Martin Dibelius to apply this system to New Testament literary documents. Rudolf Bultmann followed upon the heels of these men with a form-critical analysis which offered a fully developed existentialist philosophical approach. The History of the Synoptic Tradition was the title of the first of many books by him. His studies promoted the view that a quest for the historical Jesus is an impossible assignment, and his existential theology carried through the thesis that such a quest is illegitimate. He held that only a minimal knowledge about the earthly Jesus is necessary for faith: the fact of his existence and his death. Christian faith requires no historical foundation beyond the mere “thatness” of Jesus’ existence. Further, he claimed that Christian relevance and acceptance in the modern scientific age require reinterpretation of the New Testament in terms of an “existentialist non-miraculous prephilosophy.” In other words, the New Testament must be “demythologized” of its miraculous content. It is not hard to see in Bultmann the influence of M. Heidegger, an avowed atheist who said that Bultmann was “making theology out of my philosophy.” Two of his most influential disciples are Hans Conzelmann and Erich Dinkler of Gottingen and Heidelberg respectively.

After Bultmann it was left for others to justify a “quest” at all, since he had denied the need. The apology for the “New Quest” came originally from James M. Robinson in an article in The Christian Century. But it was followed by numerous efforts: Ernst Kasemann, Gunther Bornkamm, Ernst Fuchs, and Gerhard Ebeling, have all attempted to argue the validity of the historical element for faith. And this is fundamentally the way that things stand at this point in the discussion. There has been a movement away .from the thinking of Bultmann on the part of three schools of thought in scholarship: the post-Bultmannians, the “Heilsgeschichte” scholars, and the Pannenberg school. Conservative scholars have never shared his convictions, but they along with the aforementioned three groups are demanding a starting-point in the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.

Truth Magazine XXII: 40, pp. 649-651
October 12, 1978