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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

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The Life and Teaching of Jesus and the Rise of Christianity

Graig A. Evans

The beginning of critical research into the life of Jesus is traditionally traced to the posthumous publication of seven fragments of a lengthy manuscript on ‘reasonable religion’ by Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) (see Reimarus 1970). These fragments were edited by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81). It was fragment 7, entitled Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger (‘On the Aim of Jesus and his Disciples’) and published in 1778, that gained most of the attention. Reimarus believed that Jesus had not anticipated his death, but had hoped to become Israel's earthly Messiah. After the crucifixion, his disciples stole his corpse, reformulated his teachings, and proclaimed his resurrection and return as triumphant King Messiah. This critical assessment of the Gospel story of Jesus inaugurated the scholarly quest of the historical Jesus.

The nineteenth-century ‘Old Quest’ of the historical Jesus represents the first major phase of this scholarly quest. In his Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (‘The Life of Jesus Critically Examined’) (2 vols., 1835–6: see Strauss 1846) David Friedrich Strauss (1808–74) argued that the Gospels do not present us with history, whether embellished with supernatural elements (so the liberal rationalists), or not (so the conservatives), but present us with myth. Liberal and conservative scholars alike opposed this radical scepticism, and searched for what was then regarded as ‘historical’ material. For a short time the Gospel of John was viewed as the most promising source, because it lacked some of the miraculous features characteristic of the synoptics (e.g. the virgin birth, demonic exorcisms), which many scholars viewed as mythological. Ferdinand Christian Baur, however, concluded that John was written late in the second century, and brought an end to this thinking (1847), and it was then concluded that the historical Jesus would have to be found in the synoptic gospels after all. In Die synoptischen Evangelien: Ihr Ursprung und geschichtlicher Charakter, a study of the origin and historical character of the synoptic gospels, Heinrich Julius Holtzmann (1832–1920) showed that a version of Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke used it and another source of sayings (later called ‘Q’). Mark and Q became the sources from which a historical Jesus might be reconstructed (1863). Most scholars assumed that these sources were relatively free from mythological embellishment.

With the appearance of certain publications at the turn of the century, it became evident that the old quest had not been successful. In 1892 Martin Kähler (1835–1912) published a brief essay, ‘The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ’, in which he argued that the historical Jesus of the nineteenth-century quest bore little resemblance to, or had little significance for, the Christ of Christian faith (1964). That same year Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) argued that Jesus was not a social reformer, but an apocalyptic prophet who summoned people to repent because judgement was near (see Wrede 1971). In 1901 William Wrede (1859–1906) published Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (‘The Messianic Secret in the Gospels’), in which he argued that far from being a simple historical account, Mark's Gospel was a theologically oriented document comparable to John's Gospel (1971). Finally, the appearance in 1906 of Von Reimarus zu Wrede (see Schweitzer 2000), in which Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) concluded that Jesus had died a deluded apocalyptic fanatic, led many scholars and theologians to believe that the quest of the historical Jesus was impossible (so the form critics) and perhaps even illegitimate (so many neo-orthodox theologians). Speaking as a form critic, Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) once stated that ‘we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus’ (1926: 8). The popular neo-orthodox theologian Emil Brunner (1889–1966) claimed that ‘the Christian faith does not arise out of the picture of the historical Jesus’, and that ‘the Jesus of history is not the same as the Christ of faith’ (1934:159). Moreover, the recognition, thanks largely to Schweitzer, that the lives of Jesus of the old quest reflected the issues and emphases of each generation of scholars (the major error of the old quest) led many to suppose that the objectivity necessary for a truly fair portrait of Jesus simply could not be had. Therefore, in many circles the scholarly quest was abandoned.

It was during this time that Palestinian archaeology developed. Edward Robinson (1794–1863), Charles Gordon (1833–85), Charles Clermont-Ganneau (1846–1923), Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855–1938), Franz Cumont (1868–1947), Raymond Weill (1874–1950), and others were among the early pioneers. Excavations in and around Jerusalem and other sites began clarifying aspects of the itinerary and activities of Jesus and his followers. Although this work had little impact on Bultmann and his students, it did plant seeds that would later bear fruit.

In 1953 Ernst Käsemann (1906–98) read a paper entitled ‘Das Problem des historischen Jesus’ (‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’), which inaugurated a new quest of the historical Jesus among Bultmannian scholars. Käsemann argued that a new quest, one that was careful to avoid the errors of the old quest, was historically possible and theologically necessary. A link between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history was necessary if Christianity were to avoid lapsing into a form of docetic Gnosticism. While Käsemann emphasized the recovery of certain authentic sayings of Jesus, Ernst Fuchs (1903–83) argued for the presence of certain authentic actions or attitudes.

In its time the new quest generated a great deal of excitement. The theological and apologetic orientation of most of this work, however, is quite apparent. To what extent it can even be described as ‘historical’ is an open question. Its failure to take into account the land of Israel, the remains of material culture, and much of the Judaic literature of late antiquity probably accounts for the minimal contribution made by this phase of research.

In the 1960s and 1970s life of Jesus research was continued, but often the emphasis was placed on Jesus as a social or political figure, rather than as one relevant for faith (as the emphasis had been during the new quest). To mention one example, Jesus became the champion of the poor and the oppressed, and as such became the inspiration for liberation theologies. Although the legitimacy of some of this work cannot be denied, one cannot help but wonder if the basic error of the old quest was recurring.

Some of the studies that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, however, seem to represent a quest not governed primarily by theological or political agendas. Jewish scholars are now active participants in the discussion. The emphasis is on seeing Jesus against the background of first-century Palestinian Judaism. Unlike the ‘new quest’, which had emphasized discontinuity between Jesus and his contemporaries, the more recent studies tend to emphasize continuity and context. Scholars now speak of a ‘third quest’. Others recommend eschewing ‘quest’ language altogether and speaking, instead, of ‘Jesus research’. This phase of research has been marked by significant progress, thanks to the recent publication of many writings from late antiquity (e.g. rabbinic, targumic, and the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the investigation of Palestine (e.g. from the point of view of archaeology, history, and sociology).

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