In search of Jesus
In the field of academic study of theology the past one hundred years or so have seen three notable attempts to pursue the so-called 'Quest' for the historical Jesus[i].
To understand the significance of these attempts it is necessary to recognise the underlying fact that we do not have anything like a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. What we do have is that corpus of writing which we call the scriptures of the New Testament and in particular the four canonical gospels.
We have the accounts of various followers of the Nazarene. Some may be memories passed on by word of mouth. Others may be collected stories of questionable reliability. Some may be creative attempts to contextualize various sayings and teachings attributed to Jesus.
So what are we to make of these writings? How much of the data – scant though it is – may be accepted as accurate ? Do the gospels as we now have them even begin to give us reliable snapshots of the origins, life and nature of the man Jesus? And anyway, does it matter that we do not possess detailed knowledge of Jesus? After all, we have the Church with its traditions rooted in the firm belief that Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of God are one and the same.
Here, in a sense, is the heart of the problem. Should the Church adhere to the traditional approach of preaching the kerygma or Word of God as offering salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and does this message of redemption for the human condition ring true in the modern age?
The alternative is to reconstruct the gospel 'message' by going back beyond the Church to the enigmatic person of Jesus himself insofar as this is possible. It is precisely here that division occurs.
There are those who would make no distinction between the preaching of the Palestinian Jesus and the proclamation by the Church of the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. In practical terms, for most preachers, this most commonly results in interpreting the stories and sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, taking them more or less at face value.
Others will see things very differently, and would view the sayings attributed to Jesus as having been doctored and re-presented in the interests of pushing a particular viewpoint; they would describe the stories about Jesus as being in large measure mythological, albeit of great importance in understanding the will and purposes of God.
This opens the door to the whole modern science of hermeneutics – the critical examination of the scriptural texts in terms of their origins, authorship, their cultural context and not least their primary intent. This in turn invites detailed scrutiny of the figure of Jesus.
Who was he? Indeed, who is he? Such questions as these have led to various attempts to understand the historical Jesus. None has succeeded in capturing in detail the person of Jesus and it is almost certainly the case that such approaches were bound to fail.
Nevertheless, significant progress has been made in other ways. For example, through more sophisticated research methods we can now refer to ancient stories and sayings and get a sense of the mind and purpose of Jesus. All the big themes are there about the human condition such as peace and justice and hope and compassion. All the big ideas are there about God and his purposes of love and reconciliation.
The question is: will this suffice? Can we live with the mysteries of new life centred on Jesus without adhering to literalistic interpretations of miracles?
In a time when Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, 'The world has come of age' and called for a new expression of 'religionless Christianity' we are beckoned at the very least to address these questions and in faith to allow them to lead us forward.
[i] The First Quest in the late nineteenth century focused on attempts to write so-called Lives of Jesus, epitomised by the work of David Friedrich Strauss. These were discredited after the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s celebrated book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The Second Quest may be dated from the early nineteen fifties following a lecture given by Ernst Kasemann, a former student of Rudolph Bultmann, which argued more optimistically that, by employing new techniques in biblical exegesis, it was possible to recover significant data about Jesus. This movement culminated in James M Robinson’s 1959 book, The New Quest for the Historical Jesus but this approach had lost its potency by the early nineteen seventies. The Third Quest arose in the 1980s and followed an interdisciplinary approach involving a diffuse range of scholars using newly developed technical criteria for the examination of the texts but without achieving any real consensus in constructing a convincing portrait of the Jesus of history.
David G Hamilton is a retired parish minister of the Church of Scotland who for many years served as Deputy Director of the Board of Parish Education of that denomination.