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Who is Jesus?: Disputed Questions and Answers

Who is Jesus?: Disputed Questions and Answers

by Carl E. Braaten

New Testament scholars have long debated the historical identity of Jesus and the development of Christology within the church's history. In Who Is Jesus? Carl Braaten reviews the various historical Jesus quests, arguing that it is time for the current ("third") quest to admit failure. Against the implication that "the real Jesus has been lost and needs to


New Testament scholars have long debated the historical identity of Jesus and the development of Christology within the church's history. In Who Is Jesus? Carl Braaten reviews the various historical Jesus quests, arguing that it is time for the current ("third") quest to admit failure. Against the implication that "the real Jesus has been lost and needs to be found," Braaten maintains that the only real Jesus is the One presented in the canonical Gospels and that "any other Jesus is irrelevant to Christian faith." He draws on a wealth of historical resources to address such contentious questions as these:

  • What can we actually know about Jesus of Nazareth?
  • Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
  • Is Jesus unique — the one and only way of salvation?
  • Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?
  • Was Jesus the founder of the Christian church?
  • What does Jesus have to do with politics?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
J. Daryl Charles
— Bryan Institute for Critical Thought & Practice
"Few are more highly qualified than Carl Braaten to offer commentary — and enduring perspectives — on the so-called 'quest for the historical Jesus.' As Braaten argues, the sundry 'makeovers' of Jesus constitute our own attempts to fashion — and reduce — Jesus to our own image rather than to remain in continuity with Scripture and with the historic Christian tradition. Braaten's conclusion is emphatic: Jesus Christ can never be the end-product of a scholarly 'quest'; rather, the necessary eyewitness accounts have already been entrusted to Christ's church through divine revelation. Whether or not we have the fortitude to embrace that witness is another matter."

Lutheran Quarterly 
“This is a timely book, accessible to both clergy and laity, and a strong restatement of Christological orthodoxy in view of its most recent critics.”
Reviews in Religion and Theology 
“This book is an excellent read. . . . It presents a clear picture of the logic of orthodox Church teachings from one of the Lutheran Church’s leading theologians. At the conclusion of each chapter, a list of questions for discussion is offered. This makes the book a practical and excellent resource for church study groups.”
Living Church 
“In this tidy volume, designed for adult education in local parishes, Braaten presents a user-friendly introduction to the theology of the person and work of Jesus in light of the challenges presented by the popular work of new questers for the historical Jesus. . . . An excellent resource for people and pastors.”
“Not only an elegant little primer on Christology, but also a current review of the field by a senior scholar, concerned to transmit historical orthodoxy.”

Product Details

Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.39(d)

Read an Excerpt

Who Is Jesus?

Disputed Questions and Answers
By Carl E. Braaten

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Carl E. Braaten
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6668-4

Chapter One

What Can We Know about Jesus of Nazareth?

Christianity stands or falls with what it knows about Jesus of Nazareth. If, for example, it could be proved that Jesus never existed, that would presumably spell the end of the Christian faith. For there can be no Christianity without Jesus. Similarly, if the leading scholars of the "Jesus Seminar" were correct in claiming that the first evangelists and apostles produced a false picture of Jesus, that would discredit the church's appeal to the New Testament. Many critical historians are convinced that the first Christians misinterpreted the intentions of Jesus and that now for the first time it is possible, by virtue of new sources and methods, to discover who Jesus really was and what he actually said and did. Such a reconstructed image of Jesus, it is imagined, should give rise to a new Christianity for these modern times. I refer to such scholars as negative critics.

On the other hand, many of the best biblical scholars are convinced that the picture of Jesus that we have in the Gospels, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is quite reliable, based on eyewitness reports, and thus true to the way he was remembered by his earliest followers. They see no need to call for a revision of historic Christianity, its fundamental beliefs and creeds. I refer to such scholars as positive critics.

The negative and positive critics are both engaged in a new quest of the historical Jesus. They agree that the modern quest for the real Jesus of history is historically possible, religiously important, and even theologically necessary. Their motives are decidedly different and they reach quite opposite conclusions. But both sides aim to discover who Jesus really was by using the modern critical methods of historical research. The negative critics believe that the results will pull the rug out from under traditional Christianity. The positive critics believe that the results will rather support the mainstream of the Christian tradition. Liberals and radicals tend to favor the first option, conservatives and traditionalists more naturally the second. N. T. Wright, a prominent British New Testament theologian and Anglican bishop, calls the new quest the "third quest." The new questers address the question: "Is the Jesus of history also the Christ of faith, and is the Christ of faith also the Jesus of history?" The negative critics say "no," appealing to the results of modern historical science. The positive critics say "yes," and aim to prove it by using the same methods. If the same question can be answered in a positive sense by better historico-scientific research, then faith and knowledge can be reconciled in our time. N. T. Wright, one of the positive critics and one of the leaders of the new quest, writes,

The church has no vested interest in preventing people coming up with new ideas about Jesus. Indeed, I shall myself be arguing that ... the real, historical Jesus still has many surprises in store for institutional Christianity.... It is possible to take current questions seriously and still emerge with a way of understanding Jesus that does justice both to history and to mainstream Christian belief.... It is certainly not true that I have "found" a "Jesus" who has merely reinforced the belief-system I had before the process began. The closer I get to Jesus within his historical context, the more I find my previous ideas, and indeed my previous self, radically subverted.

This to and fro of scholarly opinion about Jesus has a long history that goes back to the eighteenth century. Then for the first time biblical scholars dared to break free of the dogmatic controls applied during the heyday of Protestant Orthodoxy. As long as the traditional belief in the plenary inspiration of the Bible and its verbal inerrancy held sway, scholars did not question the historical trustworthiness of the Bible. The idea that the Bible contained any inaccuracies or contradictions was simply unthinkable, given the belief that the Holy Spirit dictated the very words of the Bible. To clinch the point, it was said, "the Holy Spirit does not contradict himself."

The First Quest of the Historical Jesus

An uncritical attitude toward the Bible changed with the rise of rationalism among the free-thinkers of the Enlightenment. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a professor of ancient Semitic languages at Hamburg University, was credited by Albert Schweitzer with having begun the modern "quest of the historical Jesus." Reimarus drove a wedge between Jesus and Christianity, portraying Jesus as a failed revolutionary and Christianity as a hoax founded on a mistaken belief in his resurrection. Not wishing to return to fishing, Jesus' disciples stole his body and then circulated stories that he was alive. Once the cork was out of the bottle, rationalistic historians invented a slew of naturalistic theories to account for everything supernatural in the Gospel reports about Jesus.

Another rationalist, Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus (1761-1851), wrote a biography of Jesus in which he explained (away) all the miracles in a way that conforms to the laws of nature. For Paulus the feeding of the five thousand was a matter of Jesus and his disciples sharing their lunch with those who had none, inspiring others to do the same, until all were fed. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) invented amythological explanation of the miracles. The miracle stories were myths narrated as historical events. Strauss left little of the historical content in the Gospels. Instead, what counted was the eternally valid idea of "God-manhood" expressed in the story of Jesus; whether as myth or history makes no difference.

When Schweitzer wrote his classic account of the quest of the historical Jesus early in the twentieth century, he had no idea that he was planting the seeds of skepticism regarding the entire project. Schweitzer charged that all the biographers of Jesus put their own thoughts into the mouth of Jesus, touting their findings as the result of pure historical research. They painted a picture of Jesus that matched their own ideas about religion and morality. In short, they modernized Jesus. Not much has changed since Schweitzer's negative verdict. The quest of the historical Jesus is back in full swing. Its practitioners are making the same claim to objectivity. And the rediscovered Jesus often becomes a function of artful ventriloquism. But with this remark we are getting ahead of our story.

Writing at about the same time, Martin Kähler (1835-1912) reached the same conclusion as Schweitzer. Kähler rejected the Enlightenment project to discover the real Jesus of history from behind the Gospel texts. He said, "The historical Jesus of modern authors conceals from us the living Christ.... I regard the entire Life-of-Jesus movement as a blind alley." In the judgment of both Schweitzer and Kähler, the Jesus scholars found in the personality of Jesus the reflections of their own ideas and ideals. Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), a great church historian and a contemporary of Schweitzer and Kähler, created a picture of Jesus in harmony with modern liberal Protestantism, whose cardinal beliefs were the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of each individual soul. To that George Tyrell (1861-1909) responded: "The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.... Whatever Jesus was, he was in no sense a Liberal Protestant."

Protestant theologians who cared about the integrity of the Christian message capitalized on the growing mood of historical skepticism. Around 1920, members of the school of dialectical theology — Karl Barth (1886-1968), Emil Brunner (1889-1966), Friedrich Gogarten (1887-1968), Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich (1886-1965) — disclaimed the "historical Jesus" of modern scholarship. They found support for their rejection in the statement of the apostle Paul, "Even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view (kata sarka), we regard him thus no longer" (2 Cor. 5:16). The Jesus-questers can at best lay claim to some always debatable knowledge of the Christ according to the flesh (kata sarka). But that is not the living Christ of the missionary proclamation of Paul and the other apostles. The dialectical theologians agreed that the historical Jesus of the modern biographers is not the biblical Christ; he is not the Christ of faith. In the early 1920s Emil Brunner wrote: "The question whether Jesus ever existed will always hover upon the margin of history as a possibility, in spite of the protest of theologians, and of the liberal theologians in particular. Even the bare fact of the existence of Christ as an historical person is not assured." Hardly less severe was Paul Tillich's judgment that "seen in the light of its basic intention, the attempt of historical criticism to find the empirical truth about Jesus of Nazareth was a failure. The historical Jesus, namely, the Jesus behind the symbols of his reception as the Christ, not only did not appear but receded farther and farther with every new step." Karl Barth stated that the "life of Jesus" research, whether conducted by liberal or conservative biblical critics, is not worthy of theological consideration. He said, "There is no reason why historical-critical Bible research should be ... chasing the ghost of an historical Jesus in the vacuum behind the New Testament."

The dialectical theologians were influenced not only by the combined judgments of Schweitzer and Kähler but also by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Kierkegaard approached the problem of the historical Jesus from the standpoint of faith. Kierkegaard asked, "Can there be an historical point of departure for a consciousness that is eternal in quality? How can such a point of departure be more than of historical interest? Can eternal salvation be built on historical knowledge?" Kierkegaard argued that historical knowledge never yields anything more than approximate certainty and that a person's eternal destiny must not be based on a mere probability. Kähler also questioned whether the assurance of faith can be made dependent on the always oscillating results of historical research. This was his question: How can the results of scholarly inquiry into the life of the historical Jesus create the basis and contents of the Christian faith? Paul Tillich wrote: "I do not believe that Kähler's answer to the question of the historical Jesus is sufficient for our situation today, especially in view of the problem of demythologization and the ensuing discussions. But I do believe that one emphasis in Kähler's answer is decisive for our present situation, namely, the necessity to make the certainty of faith independent of the unavoidable uncertainties of historical research. Finding the way in which this can be done for our time is one of the main tasks of contemporary theology." This chapter on our knowledge of the historical Jesus is an attempt to undertake this unfinished task.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a man much revered as the author of the Declaration of Independence. He has been hailed as a great Christian patriot. One of his biographers wrote that he was perhaps the most self-consciously theological of all American presidents. He was born an Anglican, but even as a boy he began to doubt fundamental Anglican beliefs, like the Trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, original sin, and salvation by faith, as well as all the miracles of Jesus. But he liked Jesus, that is, the picture of Jesus produced by the rationalistic historians of the Enlightenment. He agreed that to get back to the real Jesus and his true teachings it is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. Jefferson re-wrote the Gospels, anticipating the approach of the scholars of the fashionable "Jesus Seminar." The chaff was all the unbelievable supernatural stuff and the wheat was the common-sensical moral teachings of Jesus. Jefferson called his bowdlerized edition of the Gospels, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," picturing Jesus in line with New England transcendental deism. He used the cut-and-paste method, excising the passages that he regarded as vulgar ignorance, superstition, fanaticism, and fabrication. Yet, Jefferson professed that he was a Christian, in the only way that it made sense to an enlightened person, and that is to accept the religion of Jesus and not the religion about Jesus. Jefferson did not draw the only possible logical inference that such a view would at best make him some kind of a Jew rather than a believer in Christ.

Theological Criticism of the Quest

Abusus non tollit usum. Kähler and the dialectical theologians were not expressing disinterest in Jesus of Nazareth as he was remembered and portrayed by the New Testament evangelists and apostles. They were calling into question the attempt to discover the real historical Jesus behind the Gospel texts. Everything depends on what counts as really "historical." Martin Kähler played on two different German words for history, Historie and Geschichte. The two words were used in the title of his book, Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche biblische Christus. Kähler intended to distinguish between the historical (historische) Jesus of the critical historiographers and the historic (geschichtliche) Jesus who is the Christ of the Bible. The historische Jesus was the reconstructed Jesus of the critics; the geshichtliche Christus was Jesus seen in terms of his historic significance.

Kähler asked, "What is actually a real historical event?" The real Jesus of history is not the excavated bones of a dead man lying in the rubble of history, often re-presented by critical historians as mis-taken, misquoted, and mis-understood. Kähler dismissed the "so-called historical Jesus" as having no real significance for Christian faith. On the contrary, the real Jesus of history is the Man of Nazareth who initiated a chain reaction of events, whose words and deeds were remembered and celebrated within a living stream of tradition that lasts to this day.

The whole Christ of the whole Bible is none other than Jesus of Nazareth who lived, preached, died, and rose from the grave, anticipated as the coming Messiah in the Old Testament and experienced as the living Word in the New Testament church. For Kähler and the dialectical theologians, the real Jesus "was crucified, died, and was buried," and he is now alive in the Word of preaching, as kerygma. Kerygma is the Greek New Testament word for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the apostles. Kähler appropriated this word to make his point that the real Jesus is the Christ of apostolic preaching. The kerygmatic Christ is Jesus of Nazareth under a new mode of existence. The risen Jesus is Christ proclaimed. For Kähler the real Jesus is the One who meets us as the Word of God, through the Scriptures and the kerygma of the church. Jesus can be encountered now as the living Christ of faith, and not as a figure of history reconstructed by scholars who imagine ever new hypotheses to explain what really happened, in contrast to what the Gospel texts report.

To be clear, Kähler did not separate the early Christian kerygma from the historic (geschichtliche) figure of Jesus. The Christ of faith and the real Jesus of history are one and the same, so that it is equally appropriate to speak of the Jesus of faith and the Christ of history. Faith is not interested in a Christ-kerygma identifiable without reference to Jesus of Nazareth. But could it not happen that a new school of theology might arise that separates Jesus and the kerygma? Some of Rudolf Bultmann's critics accused him of doing just that. Bultmann started his theological career as a dialectical theologian and ally of Karl Barth. Later came a parting of their ways. However, before Bultmann initiated his program of "demythologizing" the New Testament, he seemed to be on the right track. He took up Kähler's insight that the real Christ is the preached (kerygmatic) Christ. Bultmann wrote:

The crucified and resurrected Christ encounters us in the Word of preaching, and never in any other way. It would surely be a mistake if one here wanted to inquire back into the historical origin of preaching, as if this could demonstrate its rightness. That would mean to want to establish faith in the Word of God by historical inquiry. The Word of preaching encounters us here as the Word of God over against which we cannot put the question of legitimation, but it asks us whether or not we will believe it.


Excerpted from Who Is Jesus? by Carl E. Braaten Copyright © 2011 by Carl E. Braaten. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 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

Carl E. Braaten is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and former executive director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.

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