Preface (from pages viii + ix)
Books on the historical Jesus abound in both the scholarly market and the popular press. After the old quest for the historical Jesus of the nineteenth century and the short-lived new quest of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a third quest of the historical Jesus is on the way. Like the first two quests, it, too, is a quest pursued mainly by scholars teaching not in denominational seminaries or renowned graduate schools but in the departments of religious studies of secular universities. It comes then as no surprise that the interdisciplinary quest for the historical Jesus using insights from the history of religions, cultural anthropology, and the social sciences is gaining increasing attention. This also means that the old consensus that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world is rapidly disappearing. In its place a new Jesus emerges, a teacher of subversive wisdom, a charismatic "holy man," or even a Jewish Cynic peasant. Yet what does this mean for the Christ of faith in whom Christians believe and whom the church proclaims as Lord and Savior? Does not such scholarship pull away the rock on which the Christian faith rests? Do we have to admit that the Jesus whom we adore and to whom we pray is a pious construct?
Of course, we can simply ignore contemporary scholarship and brush it off as the result of godless secular education or as the attempt of the left-wing popular press to throw mud on decent people. Indeed, some of the questions asked in religious studies departments concerning Jesus would rarely be on the agenda in a mainline denominational seminary. Some publishing houses know how to drum up sensationalism. The best thing is to bring out a provocative title and—simultaneously—a rejoinder, in order to cash in on both sides of the argument. Yet all things considered, it would be ill-fitting for Christians to bury their heads in the sand like ostriches. As early Christian history has shown us, Christians did not shun the world but asserted their faith in the midst of it, venturing from Palestine through the bustling and booming cities around the Mediterranean all the way to the capital of the Roman Empire and far beyond. Following the Pauline admonition "Test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21), we cannot ignore contemporary Jesus research and its possible effects on the Christian faith. Yet being heirs of a nearly two-thousand-year-old history, just speaking of the Christian era, and another one thousand plus years taking into account the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, it would be unreasonable simply to concentrate on the last ten or fifteen years, exciting and thought provoking as they may be. Putting contemporary issues into a larger perspective not only relativizes them but also shows us that some ideas claimed as novel are in fact resurgences of earlier themes. For instance, the recent debate about Jesus' resurrection reminds us of the claims made by Reimarus at the height of the Enlightenment era. Therefore we cannot cling to the Christ of faith unless we are informed by history: the history of Jesus that is discernible in the New Testament documents, the history of christological reflection based on these documents, and the history of research leading us from the christological assertions back to their foundations in Scripture. Of course, access to the Christian faith is possible without the encumbrance of historical reflection. The Christian faith, however, is not an ideology, holding on to its tenets stubbornly and defiantly without listening to anything or anybody, but a discerning and thinking faith. It is good practice to give good reasons why one believes what one believes. While historical reflections on the search for the historical Jesus and on the biblical testimony in its assessment through history must necessarily concentrate on the essentials, the main points and persons, they should not be abbreviated to such an extent that their significance is hardly discernible. Moreover, they cannot be a pursuit in themselves but must lead up to the all-decisive question of what the relevance of Jesus Christ is for today. Pursuit of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith can never be an endeavor for its own sake if it is not to lose its significance as theology, that is, as a word of and about God. It is my hope that I have tried to steer this middle course by presenting a solid historical and biblical introduction to the Christ of faith and an exposition of the relevance of this faith for today.
Introduction (from pages 1-3)
Who was and who is Jesus of Nazareth? Questions like these have been posed since the beginning of the Christian faith, because none of the founders of the major world religions has been as much contested in his message and person as Jesus of Nazareth. There is little debate about whether Mohammed ever lived or what he taught. It is commonly accepted that he regarded himself as Allah's prophet and that he made known to the people Allah's revelation, which, he claimed, was given to him through an angel. We also know approximately when Buddha lived, who his parents were, and what the major tenets of his teaching were. But with Jesus the story is different. Occasionally some people still claim that he never lived and that the New Testament is a fictitious composition. But even among the vast majority of scholars who agree on Jesus' historicity there is no consensus on the significance of Jesus or on the content of his teaching.
The reason for this dilemma is twofold: First, while the Muslim religion stresses obedience and Buddhism emphasizes contemplation, the Christian faith invites understanding. When Philip was summoned to join a court official of Queen Candace and heard the official reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he did not ask him in Buddhist fashion whether he had the right insight nor in the vein of a good Muslim whether he had obeyed all the precepts of the prophet. His question instead was "Do you understand what you are reading?" (Acts 8:30). The Christian faith invites discerning reflection. Yet this reflection can be carried so far that the object of reflection disintegrates.
The second reason for our dilemma is that Jesus can be regarded as the founder of the Christian faith only in a very limited sense. While during his lifetime he had only a modest following, after his death a rapidly growing community emerged that considered him, in one sense or another, to be the Christ. Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) rightly claimed: "He who formerly had been the bearer of the message was drawn into it and became its essential content. The proclaimer became the proclaimed—but the central question is: In what sense?"
The question then arises whether Jesus is actually part of the Christian faith or only its presupposition. Again, Bultmann was right when he asserted that "the message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself." Without the message of Jesus, there would be no New Testament theology, and, conversely, New Testament theology is a reflection upon Jesus rather than just a collection of his sayings. Even the Gospels do not present a strict biographical account of his life and teachings. How history and theological reflection are intertwined becomes immediately evident when we look at the beginning of the Gospels. Mark, for instance, opens his account with the sentence: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Similarly, Matthew starts with the announcement: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah" (Matt. 1:1). Only Luke seems to take a different path when he claims that he attempted "to write an orderly account" (Luke 1:3). Yet the intention of his account is neither biographical nor historical but seeks rather "to know the truth [of the faith]" (1:4). We have no document that exists exclusively for the purpose of narrating the story of Jesus.
Skeptical minds might conclude that the reason for the lack of biographical interest is that the mission of Jesus ended in failure. At the end of Jesus' life stood the cross. Why should anybody want to tell about a person who did not succeed unless one has a morbid fascination with negativity and failure? Such reasoning, however, finds no backing in the biblical sources. We remember that two of the Synoptic writers introduce their Gospel as that of Jesus Christ or of Jesus the Messiah. The recognition of Jesus as the Christ led to a neglect of the human person of Jesus and an attempt to demonstrate his Christ-like attributes. Skeptics could object that the move to recognize Jesus as the Christ was the great cover-up by which his early followers sought to ignore the fact that his mission had failed. Confronted with this situation there are two possibilities.
In the first place we could simply ignore this objection and continue to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, a claim the church has made for nearly two thousand years. Such an approach would ignore the charge of the skeptic and erect a sign of faith in a doubting world. But it would neither attempt to persuade the growing number of skeptics nor endeavor to engage them in dialogue. Moreover, our unwillingness to listen to their charges could be interpreted as a sign of acquiescence. The other avenue open to us, and the one which is pursued in the following pages, is to ascertain, as far as this is still possible, whether the confession of Jesus as Christ rests on the proclamation, person, and destiny of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, we want to show that faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior is not a deception; and if faith is not a logical consequence, at least it is a legitimate possibility based upon the Christ event.
The second option which confronts us deals with the issue of continuity. To what extent is there continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ who is portrayed in the biblical documents, and further to what extent is there continuity between the biblical Christ and the Christ of the dogma of the church, such as the trinitarian and christological dogma? Once we have ascertained this kind of continuity, at least in outline, provided it ever existed, we can move on to ask what significance Christ has for us today.
In all these pursuits we must keep in mind that our purpose is not to produce an exegetical or historical study. Though we must delve into both areas, detailed knowledge of them cannot be reproduced here. Yet before we venture into our project, we must at least briefly review the main results of the search already completed. After all, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) claimed that the search for Jesus ended with a big question mark. Perhaps he was correct that we cannot establish any continuity between Jesus Christ, the focus of the Christian faith, and the Jesus of history. Therefore it is even more necessary to give careful attention both to the results of the search for the Jesus of history and its presuppositions.