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The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide

The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide

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by James H. Charlesworth

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Recent years have seen an explosion of talk about the historical Jesus from scholarly settings as well as media outlets (including sensational TV documentaries and national magazines). How is the student of the Bible to assess these various claims about Jesus? And what difference does knowledge of his time and place make for Christian faith, theological


Recent years have seen an explosion of talk about the historical Jesus from scholarly settings as well as media outlets (including sensational TV documentaries and national magazines). How is the student of the Bible to assess these various claims about Jesus? And what difference does knowledge of his time and place make for Christian faith, theological thinking, and historical research? James Charlesworth presents the solid results of modern study into the life and times of Jesus, especially regarding the role of the Essenes, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the nature of messianic expectation, and much more. No one today is better equipped than James Charlesworth to lead students through the thickets of controversy that surround much of contemporary historical Jesus research.

This Abingdon Essential Guide will fulfill the need for a brief, substantive, yet highly accessible introduction to this core area of New Testament studies. Drawing on the best in current scholarship, written with the need of students foremost in mind, addressed to learners in a number of contexts, this Essential Guide will be the first choice of those who wish to acquaint themselves or their students with the broad scope of issues, perspectives, and subject matters relating to modern quests for the historical Jesus. It will also be a preferred text for those who need or want to refresh their knowledge regarding the context within which Jesus lived in preparation for leading church discussion groups in studies of the Gospels.


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The Historical Jesus

An Essential Guide
By James H. Charlesworth

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-02167-3

Chapter One

No Quest, the Old Quest, the New Quest, and Jesus Research (Third Quest)

3) When did the study of the historical Jesus begin, and what has been learned?

4) Is it important to distinguish between what Jesus said and what the Evangelists reported?

We have seen that Jesus Research is necessary, primarily because the Gospels were composed after Jesus' death and shaped by post-Easter theology and proclamation. This research does not assume that our Gospels are unreliable. It recognizes that we need to sift out Jesus' own actions and thoughts from acts and words attributed to him. No one devoted to discovering what Jesus said and did would be satisfied with what an Evangelist imagined or added. Fortunately, in the twenty-first century we can learn from scholars' past mistakes and insights. For the purpose of discerning the developments in the study of the historical Jesus, the past two thousand years may be meaningfully (if not neatly) separated into five phases (dates are approximate):

1. No Quest (worship of Jesus as the Christ): 26–1738

2. The Old Quest: 1738–1906

3. The Moratorium on the Old Quest: 1906–1953

4. The New Quest and Its Demise: 1953–ca. 1970

5. Jesus Research (Third Quest): 1980–the present

1. No Quest (worship of Jesus as the Christ): 26–1738. Interest in Jesus did not begin as scientific study; it commenced with worshiping him as the Christ, the Son of God, and God. Early Christians had no doubt that the Gospels were composed by Jesus' disciples or the followers of Peter or Paul.

The Evangelists attempted to reveal what had been promised in the Old Testament: God would send the Messiah into the world to save it. In their minds, that had been fully accomplished by Jesus Christ. Further, the differences among the four Gospels were not a problem because they could be harmonized. The productions of harmonies began about the middle of the second century C.E., and the most influential harmony of the Gospels was compiled by Tatian about 175 C.E. Although the original is lost, its significance and missionary power are evident today, since it is preserved in Old Latin, Syriac, Greek, Persian, Armenian, Arabic, Old German, as well as in other languages.

In this period, speculation and study were not focused on the historicity of the Gospels. In the earliest centuries of Christianity such historicity was assumed and affirmed. Instead, thought was focused on Christological issues, such as the relation between Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. The first council to discuss these issues was held in 325 C.E. at Nicea. It was attended by Christians who were Greeks and Romans; some were anti-Jewish.

2. The Old Quest: 1738–1906. In The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910 [German: 1906]), Albert Schweitzer attributed the origin of the "Old Quest" to H. S. Reimarus (1694–1768), and this claim is repeated in many handbooks on the historical Jesus. It is misleading. The English Deists are the real precursors of critical Jesus study. The works of John Locke, Matthew Tindal, and Thomas Chubb shaped the world's culture because they sought a "reasonable Christianity." In the year 1738, Chubb published The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted. Chubb "discovered" that Jesus' true message was the imminent coming of God's Rule (the Kingdom of God) and the true gospel was to be found in Jesus' preaching of good news to the poor.

David F. Strauss and other influential biblical scholars developed in Tübingen, a university city east of the Black Forest in Germany, a critical and scientific approach to the Bible. The Tübingen School initiated a new means of studying Christian origins, the Gospels, and the historical Jesus. The worship of Jesus was shifting to a quest for what can be known reliably about this man from Nazareth. In 1835, Strauss composed the first "life of Jesus"; it is his Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus). Strauss was the first to comprehend the importance and complexity of myth and mythological language. Stories, like the Gospels, are possible only because of mythological language. Some myths evolve from poetry, others derive from philosophical truths, and still others develop from actual historical events. The only way to communicate the memorable and eternal is via mythical language. Strauss's insights into myth are fundamental; they would be more influential today if he had not couched his Das Leben Jesu within the threefold Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. As many philosophers have indicated, Hegelianism is too simplistic; human development has not developed in a unilateral, and optimistic, direction.

The Old Quest (1738–1906) was clearly motivated by theological concerns. Martin Kähler crafted one of the most influential books, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1892; ET in 1964). There Kähler emphasized that the Gospels are post-Easter narratives. Unfortunately, he argued that our gaze should not be on the historical but only on the historic; that is, the historical Jesus should be replaced by the Christ of faith. What is important for the Christian, according to Kähler? It is the historic, biblical Christ. The denigration of historical biblical research and an emphasis on theology made sense in a world dominated and defined by the anti-Christian thoughts of Darwin and Freud, but Kähler's false dichotomy between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith would have been abhorrent to the Evangelists and to the Reformers, especially Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. Nevertheless, Kähler's dichotomy unfortunately cast a dark shadow on almost all the brilliant Christian theologians of the twentieth century, including the great "B's": Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as Paul Tillich.

After the conquests, then explorations, of the Middle East by the French and the British at the end of the nineteenth century, much had been accomplished to foster the study of the historical Jesus, especially in philology and lexicography. Indeed, some of our major lexicons originated in the second half of the nineteenth century. But in biblical studies many were creating hidden mines and placing them in the erstwhile peaceful waters of biblical theology.

Three luminaries illustrate this point: Julius Wellhausen, Emil Schürer, and Adolf von Harnack. Each of these professors taught in Germany where almost all scientific and advanced biblical research was centered.

Wellhausen (1844–1918) stressed that four sources defined the compilation of the Pentateuch: literary strata J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomic compiler), and P (the Priestly source). Yet along with virtually all biblical scholars, he was swept forward by the times, which were characterized by optimistic evolution, Christocentricity, triumphalism, and "man's invincibility" (recall the story of the "unsinkable" Titanic). No Christian scholar used terms like Hebrew Bible and Tanakh (now well-known terms in many seminaries and universities). They assumed that the Bible was the Christian canon, and that the canon was closed by the fourth century C.E. The important books prior to the New Testament were the inspired "Old Testament." Scholarship was controlled by European circles, and these were dominated by Christians.

Scholars were confident that they could arrange the books of the Christian Bible in precise chronological order, and they perceived an evolution of thought from prophecy to fulfillment. The Holy Spirit had been guiding the elect and faithful to deeper insights, and the prophets predicted the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus "was no Jew," an influential German stressed, and his life was seen not as a part of Judaism but as a dimension of Greek and Roman culture (cf. JJew) and part of the history of the church. The "intertestamental" books were mined for gems that shined light on Jesus' uniqueness and messiahship.

Under the industriousness of such masterminds as Emil Schürer (1844–1910), the study of Judaism flourished, but it was subsumed under the mantle of Christocentricity and was conceived as the "background" of the New Testament. Note in particular the title of Schürer's encyclopedic and multivolume work: The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135). Rather than celebrating the genius and integrity of Second Temple Judaism, too often Schürer denigrated Jews contemporaneous with Jesus. For example, Schürer announced that during the time of Jesus, Jewish prayer was bound in the rigors of a fettered legalism.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) was the recognized master of Christian origins and early Christian dogma. He focused on the mission and expansion of Christianity and situated Jesus within that history. Uninfluenced by Jewish apocalyptic and eschatological thought and virtually uninterested in Judaism, Harnack sought a Jesus who represented the best in German culture. He found it by positing it in the sources.

What did Harnack conclude? Stressing the essence of Christianity, Harnack claimed that Jesus was a revelatory genius who illustrated the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of all men, and the binding ethic of love. "What a discovery!" "What a brilliant insight and so clear!" Those accolades accompanied the massive research project.

But something was amiss. With such a nonthreatening philosophy it is impossible to explain why Jesus was judged and condemned to death on a cross.

In retrospect, many nineteenth-century authors assumed they could write a biography of Jesus. These authors (some were not scholars) sometimes attempted to provide such a biography for those in the pews of the church so that Christians could have reliable historical knowledge about Jesus. Some authors concluded that Jesus was the perfect propagandist (Beverbrook); others claimed that he never existed (Bruno Bauer).

Ernest Renan, a distinguished French scholar of Near Eastern culture, composed a classic "biography" of Jesus. His Vie de Jésus (1863) has been heralded for changing the world's conceptions as much as Darwin's Origin of Species and Marx's Das Kapital. At times he read French Romanticism back into the life of the Galilean. For example, Renan suggested that Jesus wept in Gethsemane because he imagined the women he could have wooed in his life: "Perhaps he began to hesitate about his work.... Did he remember the clear fountains of Galilee where he was wont to refresh himself ... and the young maidens who, perhaps, would have consented to love him?" (p. 335).

Such so-called scientific research produced too many diverse and mutually exclusive conclusions. Slowly, scholars began to realize some errors in presuppositions and methodology. Had they myopically focused on an erroneous database: a putative closed canon? Had they employed an imprecise methodology?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, times were changing. The sinking of the Titanic exposed the error of Victorian optimism. The differences among the Gospels were becoming more evident, and the rediscovery of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology signaled a need to perceive Jesus within his original Palestinian culture. Surely, a scholar would arise to point out that the liberal lives of Jesus were not the product of scientific and disinterested research.

3. The Moratorium on the Old Quest: 1906–1953. That person turned out to be Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965). In The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), Schweitzer convincingly demonstrated that those who had attempted a life of Jesus had only "discovered" an image of Jesus they wanted to see or assumed was correct. Schweitzer was the first since Reimarus (1694–1768) to perceive that Jesus' message was shaped by Jewish eschatology; that is, Jesus proclaimed the end of all time. Schweitzer argued, unconvincingly, that Jesus' message was defined by a thoroughgoing futuristic eschatology. Note the heart of Schweitzer's portrayal of Jesus:

Jesus ... in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign. (Quest, pp. 370-71)

That is severe; yet it is laudatory and appreciative. Eventually, Schweitzer explained how he felt the call of Jesus: "He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: 'Follow thou me!'" (Quest, p. 403).

Few scholars now devoted to Jesus Research and who conclude that Jesus' message was shaped by eschatology would agree with Schweitzer's thoroughgoing eschatology. The parables and the passages that stress the presence of God's Rule in Jesus' sayings and the Dead Sea Scrolls' view of time have combined to present a different concept of Jesus' eschatology (see chaps. 8 and 10).

Schweitzer's influence caused a moratorium on the Quest for Jesus in many circles for two main reasons. First, in Christian communities that hailed Jesus as divine, no preacher could proclaim belief in a man who seemed to be a deluded visionary. Second, no reputable biblical scholar could continue to be blind to the post-Easter theological interests and Christological claims that had shaped the portrayal of Jesus.

In the history of the study of the historical Jesus, the scholar who is most important and influential after Schweitzer is Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884–1976). He sought ways to find history in the pre-gospel traditions. He was also a founder of Form Criticism, which sought to study the history of the literary forms in the Gospels. In Jesus and the Word (1934), Bultmann claimed that our only sources for obtaining reliable historical information of Jesus are the Gospels, but the Evangelists do not show any interest in the development of Jesus' personality or in history. Thus, any attempt at either is misperceived. Note Bultmann's words (which are often misrepresented): "I do indeed think 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; and other sources about Jesus do not exist" (Word, p. 8).

In The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1963), Bultmann defended the Two Source Hypothesis. Matthew and Luke depended on Mark and a lost sayings source of Jesus (called Q) when they composed their Gospels. There are development and distance from Jesus' message in the twenties to the composition of the first Gospel, Mark, sometime around 70 C.E.

In his penetratingly brilliant, yet idiosyncratic, The Theology of the New Testament (1951), Bultmann emphasized that Jesus is the presupposition of New Testament theology, and that faith as a personal decision "cannot be dependent upon a historian's labor" (1:26). While this is certainly axiomatic as expressed, it implies that faith has no need of a Jesus of history, and the door is thrown wide open for the claim that Jesus never existed, historical knowledge of Jesus is irrelevant, or the Jesus of history has been replaced by the Christ of faith. None of these conclusions would have been endorsed by the Evangelists, Paul, or any New Testament author.

Bultmann sought a methodology that would enable him to remove the unattractive and dated mythological language in the Gospels. He sought to show how through "demythologization," we are no longer mired in antiquity in which the "ancients" had no difficulty of virgin births and God-men performing supernatural deeds, such as walking on the water. What is important is to perceive eternal truths.

What is an example of such truths, and how does it enable the good news in the Gospels to be heard afresh? In the preaching of the Word we are confronted by the One who calls us to authentic existence; that is, the living and resurrected Christ calls us and frees us for salvation. It becomes apparent that Bultmann has read the philosophy of Existentialism back into the Gospels.


Excerpted from The Historical Jesus by James H. Charlesworth Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Princeton Theological Seminary. Charlesworth is an international recognized expert in Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old and New Testaments, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Jesus research, and the Gospel of John. As director of Princeton's Dead Sea Scrolls Project, Dr. Charlesworth has worked on the computer-enhanced photographing and translating of the Qumran scrolls in order to make available for the first time both an accurate text and an English translation of these documents. He is the author or editor of nearly 50 books on the New Testament and its history.

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Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Tsunami767 More than 1 year ago
Author  spends waaaaaay too  much time in his methodology.   Explains his explanations.    The 5 different periods of historical review of  Christ.  It could have  been an interesting book to read, consider the subject matter,  he jus killed this books with justifications and how  ‘research works’.  Could  barely finish it, and I skipped lot’s of  it.