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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The History of Jesus the Messiah

The end of the seventeenth century had witnessed the publication by the celebrated philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) of a study entitled The Reasonableness of Christianity. First published anonymously in 1695, it sought to place the Christian faith, and its affirmation concerning the person and status of Jesus, on the most basic level conformable to human reason. It regarded the oldest and most fundamental Christian confession to be that Jesus is the Messiah (= the Christ, from the Latin term for ‘Anointed One’). In spite of Locke's own denials that he was advocating a unitarian (Socinian) doctrine which denied the divinity of Jesus, the tendency was strongly in this direction. Yet if this was indeed the earliest Christian confession then the early Christian church had, during the first three centuries of its history, transformed its simplicity and recognizable Jewish origin into a far more complex metaphysical one.

The immediate consequence of Locke's claim, aimed at setting a non-controversial foundation of faith for the national church, was to engender a series of debates over the nature of prophecy and the accuracy with which the Old Testament foretellings of the coming of the Messiah could be directly matched to their New Testament fulfilments. The ‘argument from prophecy’ was clearly the primary evidence which could be used to defend the New Testament claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Yet Jewish scholars had long questioned the impartiality of the textual citations from the Old Testament psalms and prophets which pointed to a fulfilment in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

The mathematician William Whiston (1667–1752) and the philosopher-disciple of John Locke, Anthony Collins (1676–1729), had sought to deal with the issue. Where Whiston had questioned the trustworthiness of the Jewish preservation of the Hebrew text when disagreements over the interpretation of several Old Testament passages were evident, Collins had strongly favoured this Jewish tradition over the conventional Christian one. The refutation of Collins's claims was left to Richard Bentley (1662–1742), but their widely reported nature is reflected in G. F. Handel's composition of The Messiah (first performed in 1741) as a national confession of faith.

photo AKG, London.

Locke's contention that Jesus had not originally been designated Son of God, and that this marked a later Hellenized interpretation, pointed strongly to the more human aspects of the figure of the Redeemer. The issue was of considerable historical importance because it drew attention to the keenly felt gap between the simple humanity and compassion of the stories of Jesus in the gospels and the elevated status of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity worshipped in the Christian creeds. The entire seventeenth-century desire to promote a reasonable interpretatation of Christian faith had naturally looked to recover the oldest, and therefore assumed purest, form of Christian confession, as a primary goal.

Moreover, the Protestant tradition of the church had never lacked for radical thinkers and reformers, many of whom regarded the Reformation of the church as an unfulfilled goal. The monolithic development of Christian doctrine during the earliest Christian centuries, and the biblical interpretations on which it rested, were viewed with suspicion as precursors of the errors of the medieval church. The desire to return to the simplicities of the earliest Christian expressions of faith remained attractive. Accordingly, rescuing Jesus from the overweight of doctrine with which the church Fathers of the second and third centuries had burdened him appeared as reasonable a quest in eighteenth-century Europe as it had been two centuries earlier. To many the Christian church still presented itself as a powerful, enigmatic, and frequently oppressive authority.

Key figures in the first stages of this eighteenth-century search to recover the true history of Jesus were the German dramatist G. E. Lessing (1729–81) and H. S. Reimarus (1694–1768), a professor of oriental languages in a Hamburg Gymnasium. At his death Reimarus had left an unpublished work, entitled Apology for Rational Worshippers of God. This drew heavily upon the arguments of Matthew Tindal and other English Deists of the preceding century. As librarian to the Duke of Brunswick in Wolfenbüttel, Lessing published a number of fragments of Reimarus's work which raised serious questions as to how much of the gospel record offered a true and reliable account of Jesus. Could knowledge of the original Jesus be recovered at all? Lessing's piecemeal, and somewhat disingenuous, publication of these challenges under a thin veil of anonymity was in line with his own sympathies and questions about Christian claims. What was important about Reimarus's work had been the claim that it was not only the early church which had added to the portrait given in the four gospels of the New Testament, but these gospels were themselves heavily overladen with speculative and mythological features. The real historical Jesus had to be uncovered beneath the biblical tales of the oriental wonder-worker.

So by the beginning of the nineteenth century a number of different impulses combined to intensify the quest to establish a reliable and convincing portrait of the real historical Jesus. This became the cause célèbre of biblical interpretation during the following century. Historical scholarship had been given a major new task, and was rapidly sharpening new tools with which to perform it.

photo AKG, London.

By permission of the British Library.

During the Enlightenment in France such men as Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778) and Denis Diderot (1713–84) had recognized that biblical history needed to be understood by the same canons of criticism as other history. Edward Gibbon (1737–94) had followed the French lead in subjecting the decline of the Roman empire and the rise of the Christian church to a fresh, essentially critical and non-theological, scrutiny. Similarly the Scottish Jesuit Alexander Geddes (1737–1802) had sought to apply to the Bible the critical evaluation of sources that were to become hallmarks of this fresh approach to history-writing. In England the distinguished scientist and dissenting churchman Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) took up afresh the task which had remained the goal of two centuries of English dissenting scholarship. His History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ (1786) had proved something of a rallying-cry for the revival of unitarian views of the person of Jesus, and a strong insistence on his human, compassionate, and socially revolutionary mission.

photo AKG, London.

The portrait of the ‘historical’ Jesus that was drawn was still largely an impressionistic reconstruction based on the stories of the gospels and focused on the ancient titles accorded to their central figure. Yet, already by the year 1800, questions were being raised in Britain and Germany concerning the time of origin of the four surviving gospels and the possible sources upon which they had drawn. A major turning-point in the quest to recover a critical historical portrait of the figure of Jesus came through the publication by the German scholar D. F. Strauss (1808–74), of a work entitled Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet, 2 vols., 1835 (ET The Life of Jesus Critically Examined). Its early publication in English translation by the novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) in 1846 made awareness of the issues a prominent focus of international attention. Strauss had studied in Tübingen and was an eager follower of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, his primary concern being to reinterpret the central features of Christian doctrine in terms of the interactions of the divine and human Spirit which lay at the heart of Hegel's thinking. The Life of Jesus was a preparation for this larger doctrinal undertaking and Strauss's main contention was to insist on the mythological nature of the gospel testimony to Jesus. What are presented as a series of marvellous events in the Redeemer's life, fulfilling ancient prophecies, can be seen to have been shaped by the need to reveal the meeting of the divine and human Spirit in the person of Jesus. The very formulation of the gospel stories showed the artificiality of their construction. To what extent they were historically true remained clouded in doubt and uncertainty.

D. F. Strauss had raised a major issue in a fresh way, but had done little to establish any clear agenda of research into primary historical questions which could be further investigated. Too many questions were left unanswered concerning the origin of the gospels, the order of their composition, and the possible sources on which they had drawn. Had there been an earlier Aramaic gospel which they had used, as the English scholar Herbert Marsh (1757–1839) had speculated? Was St Matthew really the earliest of them? In spite of the wide publicity given to his critical views about the historical Jesus, Strauss was too committed to philosophical speculation and doctrinal reformulation to pursue such issues.

More central to biblical scholarship, and more lasting in its consequences, was the work of Strauss's contemporary, the Tübingen scholar F. C. Baur (1792–1860), who sought to reconstruct a more comprehensive picture of the historical development of early Christian doctrine. Central to this was a revised estimate of the creative role of the apostle Paul, whom Baur saw as the primary architect of Christianity as a religion of Gentiles. This entailed reconstructing a picture of a major clash between early Jewish and Gentile elements within the nascent church. He viewed the actual course of the birth of Christianity as very different from that portrayed in the book of Acts. This was essentially a work of apologetic for the Gentile church which prevailed over the Jewish sectarian group from which it had sprung.

For Baur the apostle Paul had been altogether a more controversial figure than hitherto supposed, and the major New Testament writings had been composed in circumstances of conflict and bitter argument. Only by studying the ideas and forces which shaped this formative development of the church could the groundwork be established for understanding the language and titles which had been heaped by the earliest gospel writers upon the person of the Redeemer.

These developments in Germany caused alarm and anxiety in Britain but for long gained little strong following there. However, in parallel with the German scholarship of the period there emerged a critical and strongly influential development in France. This was primarily focused on the University of Strasbourg with its strong Protestant affiliations. This combined the insights and critical methods of French historians which had begun half a century earlier and did much to focus the issues for the twentieth century. Central figures were Timothée Colani (1824–88), Eduard Reuss (1804–91), and, after 1875, H. J. Holtzmann (1832–1910). Reuss was undoubtedly one of the formative figures in introducing new methods and perspectives of biblical interpretation to both Old and New Testaments. Only the late publication of his researches into the origins of the Old Testament led to the relative neglect of recognition for their originality.

The most celebrated and widely read author of a reconstruction of the historical life of Jesus was Ernest Renan (1823–92). Briefly associated with a professorship of Hebrew in Paris, Renan attempted an imaginative work entitled La vie de Jésus, published in 1863, which proved immensely popular. It was soon translated into English and a host of other languages. Although it followed a popular critical line of argument that, behind the four written gospels there lay two main sources—an early Aramaic one which underlay the teaching of Jesus in St Matthew's Gospel and a Greek reminiscence of the deeds of Jesus recorded by St Mark, its main appeal lay in its broad philosophical attempt to modernize the biblical narrative into a more straightforward, and less theological, human story.

It was the line of research of the earliest gospel tradition by H. J. Holtzmann which marked a fresh step forward. This gave new impetus to a carefully planned enquiry into the interrelationships of the first three gospels, the order of their composition, and the possible sources which underlie them. It was the most celebrated of Holtzmann's pupils, Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), who subsequently became the best-known reviewer and judge of the course of the nineteenth-century ‘Jesus of History’ quest. This was in his study Von Reimarus zu Wrede, published in 1906 (ET The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1910).

Central to Schweitzer's conclusions, and developing claims that had been initiated earlier by Colani, was the contention that the real historical Jesus had been a fiery apocalyptic preacher, proclaiming the imminent breaking-in of the kingdom of God, who would overthrow tyrannical human powers. Only when this hope had failed to find fulfilment had Jesus tried forcibly to initiate a challenge to Judaea's ruling powers, which had ended in his death and left his followers with the necessity for rethinking and reformulating an understanding of who he really was.

By permission of the British Library.

By the time of the First World War the thesis of Schweitzer stood as both a milestone of past researches and a starting-point for fresh enquiry. Increasingly this focused on the quest to find the sources which the authors of the surviving gospels must have used. Three paths were followed up. The first of them, exemplified in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius, enquired after the oral traditions of preaching, echoes of which are still recognizable in the form of the gospel narratives. The second path followed up suggestions set out a century earlier, arguing that many of the sayings of Jesus, especially in the presumed ‘teaching source’ that lies behind the gospels of St Matthew and St Luke, showed evidence of their translation from an Aramaic, or Hebrew, original. The third path was directed towards a revised study of the overlaps and interrelationships of the narrative contents of the first three gospels, thereby carrying into new areas problems noted, and assumed to have been resolved, in the late nineteenth century. The conviction that an early written document containing much of the teaching of Jesus, which two of the gospel-writers drew upon, has remained a widely held conclusion of such research. Overall, however, the gap between a reconstruction of the actual course of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth and the presentation of the Messianic Redeemer portrayed in the gospels has proved a difficult one for biblical interpretation to cross.

Trustees of the British Museum.

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