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Quest for the Historical Jesus: Surprising Conclusions

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

The Judean desert - looking toward the Dead Sea

During the recent Bible and Beyond focus on the surprising things about Jesus, a lot of what we’ve been writing and thinking about has to do with understanding the historical details of Jesus’s human life.  We’ve asked you, our readers, to drop some preconceived notions, to open your minds to new information — promising that doing so will expand the meaning of Jesus for you. We appear to be on a path similar to the centuries-old scholarly “quest for the historical Jesus.”

I thought it might be interesting to look into what started this scholarly quest and see if there are any conclusions to be drawn from what’s been discovered.

The quest for the historical Jesus began in the late eighteenth century and took on three basic phases, with a call for another one.

The first quest for the historical Jesus

The first historical quest started with scholars attempting to develop gospel harmonies, trying to find the one single story about Jesus that was right. In doing so, they sought to distinguish between the real historical Jesus and what they termed the ‘Christ of faith.’ But this never proved very satisfactory to anyone! As rationalists searched for a logical explanation for supernatural events, their quest only served to drive a wedge between history and faith.

The second quest for the historical Jesus

The second quest began in earnest in the middle of the twentieth century, following a half-century period of experimentation with no conclusion. Scholars tried innovative ways to make use of the little information they had available. Their goal was to sort out the ‘historical facts’ from the ‘questionable stories’ handed down through history. For instance, with ‘form criticism’ they would classify units of texts into literary patterns that could lead them back to an original oral tradition.

Another method, the ‘criterion of dissimilarity,’ compared a gospel passage to the Jewish context of the time, and if they were found dissimilar, it would more likely be true. Bart Ehrman explains in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999) that “there is at least a theoretical possibility that these sayings and deeds [of Jesus] were made up precisely in order to advance the views that some Christians held dear,” so the things that are most difficult to explain would more likely be historical (p. 91).

These techniques could offer a clearer picture of historical realities.

The third quest for the historical Jesus

The third quest picked up momentum in the latter part of the twentieth century and turned more attention to the fact that all the information we have about Jesus was handed down through history by the emerging church. Authenticity, then, became the measurement of historical accuracy. Are we learning what the early church wanted us to think, or are we hearing ideas that originated from Jesus?

Newly discovered texts, such as those found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, along with newly evolving methodologies helped answer these questions. Social science inquiries, political and economic analyses, and religious anthropological studies provided new criteria for the quest, and these helped us envision Jesus more clearly as a Jew living under Roman occupation and immersed in Jewish attempts to gain liberation.

A potential fourth quest for the historical Jesus

In our most recent Bible and Beyond Discussion, another piece in our focus on the surprising things about Jesus, we heard from a Johannine scholar, Dr. Paul Anderson, who explained why a fourth quest, one that includes the Gospel of John, could contribute additional and important perspectives on the historical Jesus. He notes that the evolution of the first three quests veered away from the fourth gospel, but the fact that John is included as one of the four gospels in the New Testament means that it could broaden and strengthen the objective of all the quests, to find the historicity that fits the life of Jesus.

How little we know!

Realizing what historians have done with these quests for Jesus, I have marveled at how little we actually know about this historically important person. There were other prominent historical figures alive during Jesus’s time and even earlier. We know much more about these other people, such as when they were born or died, where they lived, what their families were like, and in some cases, even what they looked like. It seems odd that we know so little about Jesus. Why would that be?

Was Jesus simply unimportant during the time of his ministry? Did artists, writers, and historians not recognize the importance of what he was doing? Why does it appear that it took at least a generation before any records of Jesus were created? Why is it that there are so few (if any) first-hand witness accounts of the life of Jesus in the records of the New Testament or anywhere else?

How did Jesus leave such an impact on the world?

My questions do seem to lead to a bigger one: How is it that Jesus has had such a profound and enduring impact on the world over the two millennia since his birth? This may well be the question that prompted the scholarly quests in the first place. If we know enough about the historical Jesus, will we be able to understand how and why he made the impact he did?

James Dunn, in Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003), suggests scholars should look at “the broad picture, focusing on the characteristic motifs and emphases of the Jesus tradition, rather than making findings overly dependent on individual items of the tradition” (p. 882). In other words, we can learn about Jesus by studying how his teaching shaped the memories of the people who passed along the oral traditions that formed the foundation of the texts which remain. In Dunn’s view, this will be more useful than simple historical inquiry in shedding light on both the person and the impact of Jesus.

But where does this leave us?

The quest for the historical Jesus has been enormously helpful in sorting out fact from fiction, but I wonder how much it really helps us understand the impact of Jesus in our lives.

These two facts work together in response to this question. The first, that we actually know very little about Jesus. The second, that Jesus did make an enormous impact on the world. These, taken together, suggest that clear knowledge of the historical Jesus is, in the long run, not as important as we might first suppose. Possibly, a thirst for factual information can even distract us from the more important consideration of his spiritual impact.

Jesus taught and pointed toward a lasting spiritual reality that transcended the time and space he occupied. He touched the human condition in ways that not only healed bodies but changed hearts and minds. Jesus gave us a way to understand and experience the presence of the divine in our own humanity.

Maybe the surprise is that historical knowledge about Jesus doesn’t matter nearly as much as the spiritual knowledge of his enduring message.

This post is part of our May – July 2023 focus on the “Surprising Things about Jesus.”  Click here to see more content from the series.