The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” is a phrase that commonly refers to scholarship devoted to determining what may be said about Jesus of Nazareth from a purely historical standpoint. It began with the Enlightenment and scholars’ realization that the depiction of Jesus in the Christian Gospels as a divine human being was inconsistent with the newly emerging view of the world as governed by natural laws and understandable through reason. The quest subjects the Gospels and other sources to historical critical analysis in an attempt to arrive at a more historically defensible portrait of Jesus.


The quest was launched in the private notebooks of an otherwise obscure professor of Oriental languages in the German city of Hamburg. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) believed that the supernatural portrait of Jesus in the Gospels was created by his disciples. It was they who invented the virgin birth, the nature miracles, the resurrection, and the idea of the second coming of Jesus. The historical Jesus was a Jewish messianic figure, who preached the arrival of the kingdom of God, but failed to win a following and so was eventually captured and executed. Reimarus was a Deist, who saw in the Gospels the beginnings of a church characterized by superstition and presided over by a parasitic clergy—a church he believed had plagued the world of Christendom to his day. Deism inspired many early proponents of the rationalist historical approach to Jesus, including America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, who created the so-called Jefferson Bible, a collection of Jesus’s moral teachings cut and pasted (literally) into a notebook of his own. The Deist-inspired works of Jefferson and Reimarus were published only posthumously. Reimarus’s notes on Jesus were issued anonymously by the German philosopher G. E. Lessing in 1778 under the title, Von den Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger. Noch ein Fragment des Wolfenbüttelschen Ungenannten (Concerning the Aims of Jesus and His Disciples. Another Fragment of the Anonymous Wolfenbüttel Author).

In nineteenth century Germany the critical study of the Bible took root in an academic system steeped in the Enlightenment ethos of rigorous investigation of every question. In the great centers of learning, like Berlin, Jena, and Leipzig, a new liberal theology emerged that sought to free the church from traditional dogma and reground it in historically revealed moral truths. Much of this work proceeded along strictly rationalistic lines. The miracles, the resurrection, and twists and turns in the Gospel narratives themselves, were explained as rationally as possible. Jesus did not walk on water, but on the nearby shore, obscured by fog or dark of night. He did not actually multiply loaves and fishes, but inspired people to share out of their secreted abundance. These things were, in any event, extraneous to the real point of Jesus’s life: the way he embodied the love of God and neighbor.

Among the most prominent early proponents of the quest was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), whose Berlin lectures on Jesus in the 1820s and 1830s enjoyed wide popularity. Schleiermacher, like most critical theologians of his day, had come to assume that the Bible could not be taken as historical without qualification. His interest, however, was not simply in sketching out Jesus’s life in more rational strokes. Nor was it to replace Christian dogma with Christlike moral teaching. His interest was in a theologically relevant historical Jesus. The heart of Christianity, for Schleiermacher, was the experience of an immediate relation to the divine, the infinite, God. Jesus’s importance lay in his own embodiment of that experience. Jesus is the heart of Christianity because in him the Christian experience of absolute dependence on God finds its fullest expression. The historical Jesus, he thought, need not unseat the Christ of Christian faith. He was, in a sense, the first Christian.

As influential as Schleiermacher was among theologians, in the wider culture his ideas were overshadowed by those of his younger, more radical contemporary, David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874). Strauss also favored the quest, but less for what it revealed about Jesus than for what it said about the sources, the Gospels. In contrast to Schleiermacher, Strauss took the position that the Gospels are not to be construed as history in any way. In his two-volume massive, fifteen-hundred-page Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined), published in 1835–1836, Strauss argued that the Gospels are to be understood as myth, not history. By myth he did not mean a fairy story or tall tale, but the narrative embodiment of an eternal idea. The idea conveyed in the Gospels, he believed, was one then championed by Hegel, that God is incarnate in humanity.

Strauss’s work met with strong resistance from conservative church leaders and politicians in Germany who had grown wary of what they regarded as the radical element in the universities. This prevented Strauss from ever holding an academic position, and he was forced to live off his considerable celebrity. But opposition to Strauss also came from critical scholars influenced by Schleiermacher, who began in earnest to subject the Gospels to more rigorous critical analysis in the hope of recovering a historically defensible account of Jesus’s life and teachings. The search for the earliest Gospel account led to the theory of Markan Priority and the discovery of Q, the lost source thought to have been used by Matthew and Luke. The result was a number of historical treatments of the life of Jesus, like that of Heinrich Julius Holzmann (1832–1910), which made use of the latest insights in the burgeoning new method of studying scripture historically and critically.

Albert Schweitzer.

Perhaps the most famous of the early questers was Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965). His 1906 book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede, was translated in 1910 under the popular title, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In it, Schweitzer chronicled the quest through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its high point, in his view, came near the end of the nineteenth century with the work of Johannes Weiss and William Wrede. Weiss argued that Jesus’s preaching was utterly grounded in the early Jewish conviction of an approaching apocalyptic reckoning. The kingdom of God was not simply a way of speaking about the moral life, as many Liberal theologians had thought, but a thoroughly eschatological concept rooted in contemporary Jewish apocalypticism. If Weiss was right, said Schweitzer, the nineteenth-century quest had completely misunderstood the heart of Jesus’s preaching. For his part, Wrede showed that the earliest Gospel, Mark, upon which virtually all of the questers were now relying for their reconstructions, was governed not by historical interests, but a theological interest in projecting back into the life of Jesus a developing messianic consciousness. If this is true, then even the most rigorous historical critical methods could not hope to reveal any more than a faint shadow of the historical figure standing behind the Gospels.

It is often said that Schweitzer’s work brought the quest to a halt. He had shown that a century’s work had revealed only that when scholars gaze into the well of history they are capable only of seeing their own reflection staring back. But this is mistaken. True, the twenty-six-year-old Schweitzer had concluded that the whole collective effort of the nineteenth century had all been for naught. But he was himself in no way discouraged about the possibility of recovering something of the life and teachings of Jesus. As much as Schweitzer admired Wrede’s historical skepticism, he did not in fact buy it. He preferred instead to assume that the Gospels present a cogent historical view of Jesus if one interprets them in light of Weiss’s thoroughgoing eschatology. In the final chapter of his book, Schweitzer offers his own critical reading of Mark, supplemented with material from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, to reconstruct a portrait of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, who believed himself to be the Messiah. When Jesus’s own expectations of the coming apocalypse failed to materialize, he decided to sacrifice himself in the hope that by his own resolve and dedication he could bend the will of God to his own. But he was wrong. Christians, however, have at least the by-product of his great personality: his passionate contempt for the conventional life and a utopian urgency that demanded a response. For his part, Schweitzer accepted the challenge of his Jesus, took up medicine, moved to Africa, and made his mark on history as a humanitarian.

The Quest in the Twentieth Century.

Although the quest would soon come to an end in Germany, it did not end in Great Britain or the United States, where, it was just getting started. Among the British questers in the early twentieth century, one may count the great Cambridge Classical scholar and historian T. R. Glover (1869–1943), whose book, The Jesus of History, went through sixty-eight editions between 1916 and 2004. Glover accepted the results of critical scholarship—Markan priority, the existence of a second, lost source (Q), the fundamentally unhistorical nature of John, and the problematic historicity of the Synoptics. Still, if the Gospels do not permit a biography of Jesus, they do nonetheless communicate much about the ways and words of Jesus. He was clever, compassionate, and charismatic. He proclaimed a new kingdom of God that was, in a sense, a new way of understanding God. Jesus’s God was tender and loving, especially to women and children, and called all to lives of meaning and worth. He condemned sin and wasted living but did not share John the Baptist’s apocalyptic message. It is easy to see why Glover’s book was popular among progressives and young people (a special Student Christian Movement edition was published in 1917).

Through the first half of the twentieth century British scholarship continued to work at the Jesus question within the constraints imposed by a critical understanding of the sources. Among them one might count the works of F. C. Burkitt, T. W. Manson, and C. J. Cadoux. All of these scholars embraced more or less the higher criticism of the Germans, but with moderation. The Synoptic Gospels, while not biographies, could nonetheless offer a reliable picture of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God manifest in his exorcisms, healings, and teaching. Cadoux (1883–1947), in his 1943 book The Historic Mission of Jesus, stressed Jesus’s personal moral and religious qualities, especially the command to love even enemies and to accept sinners. He was not an apocalyptic seer, as Schweitzer had thought. But he believed himself to be the Jewish Messiah, through whom God’s kingdom would be established on earth.

The American Quest.

In the United States biblical scholarship was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, still in its infancy. The First and Second Great Awakenings had already by then given American Christianity its characteristic evangelical flavor, and Scottish fundamentalism had found its academic home in Princeton Seminary. But higher criticism had taken root at Harvard, Yale, Union Seminary in New York, and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Historical Jesus scholarship flourished in these places.

At Yale, the German tradition of rigorous criticism found an advocate in Benjamin Bacon (1860–1932). He, too, understood that the Gospels are not history but a mix of history and interpretation. But unlike the nineteenth-century German questers, he did not elevate history over interpretation. The task, he thought, was to show historically how the gospel of Jesus could have lead to the gospel about Jesus. His The Story of Jesus and the Beginnings of the Church (1927) was an attempt to do this. Methodologically, Bacon anticipated the so-called New Quest on American soil, which asked not about the break between Jesus and the church, but about the continuity. His theory that Jesus aimed at the restoration of Israel is more or less consistent with the more contemporary American view associated with E. P. Sanders and others today.

The most distinctive American contribution to the quest in this period came from the Chicago School—the ideas associated with the University of Chicago Divinity School from the turn of the century to the 1930s. Shirley Jackson Case (1872–1947) was a student of Bacon at Yale and had studied in Germany. But at Chicago he transformed the historical critical method of the Germans into the socio-historical method that would become the hallmark of the Chicago school. It was important, Case believed, to establish as precisely as possible the social context for Jesus and his followers in Galilee, as well as the various social contexts that have left their mark on each of the Gospels. The influence of form criticism and the History of Religions School is apparent, as is the newly emerging discipline of Sociology. Shailer Mathews (1863–1941), Case’s colleague in Chicago, was a founding figure in the discipline of Sociology and also wrote his own treatment of Jesus, The Social Teaching of Jesus (1897), long a staple of the Social Gospel movement in the United States. In Jesus: A New Biography (1927), Case offered what was then a state of the art description of the social and political conditions prevailing in the world that gave birth to Christianity. He believed that consistency with known Galilean social conditions was as reliable an indicator of authenticity as any literary judgment about the texts. But while his methods were distinctive, his results were not. The Jesus who came from that world was a prophet, not a messiah (Jesus rejected the title), who believed that God’s rule would soon commence.

German Scholarship without the Quest.

Meanwhile in Germany, the home of higher criticism, the quest for the historical Jesus was reaching as impasse. Alongside the work of Wrede, that of Carl Ludwig Schmidt (Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu [The Framework of the Story of Jesus] [1919]), served to further the conviction that Mark’s narrative is not historical. It reads not like a modern biography but like so many oral stories joined together like beads on a string. In the 1920s Julius Wellhausen, Rudolf Bultmann, and Martin Dibelius introduced form criticism—the study of oral tradition. Their discovery that oral tradition tends to adapt itself to the ever changing life setting in which it is cultivated further undermined the confidence of historians in the biblical narrative. Bultmann (1884–1976), however, was himself less skeptical on this point than he is often thought to have been. In 1926 he wrote a very popular book titled Jesus, later rendered for English-speaking audiences as Jesus and the Word (1934), in which he embraced the view of Johannes Weiss—that Jesus belonged fundamentally to the world of Jewish apocalypticism. He therefore famously remarked that Jesus is to be regarded as one of the precursors to Christian theology, not its first and most important voice.

Perhaps the most important figure in the turn away from the historical Jesus was Martin Kähler (1835–1912). In his 1896 book, Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus (The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ), Kähler argued that the subjective work of the historian can never offer a reliable foundation for Christian theology. What the church possesses is the Bible and its witness to the significance of Jesus. This is what the church needs: witness, not history. This would pave the way for Karl Barth’s return to the Bible as the Word of God and the foundation for neoorthodox dogmatics.

The New Quest.

The German hiatus in the quest was lifted, at least for a season, in the 1950s among the students of Bultmann. In 1953 Ernst Käsemann (1906–1998) offered a paper to an annual gathering of Bultmann’s former students in Jugenheim, West Germany, titled “Das Problem der historischen Jesus” (“The Problem of the Historical Jesus”). Käsemann argued that the gospel, properly understood, is always involved in a war on two fronts: Jesus cannot be understood apart from the early Christian preaching about him; but that preaching cannot be understood apart from the Jesus of history, if it is not to become a kind of new, biblical Docetism. Christian theology cannot simply be biblical theology; it must also have a place for Jesus. In this essay Käsemann had opened what would become known as the New Quest. It was a post-Bultmannian enterprise, which would presuppose the results of form criticism and the literary studies of Wrede and Schmidt—there would be no naïve rationalistic historicizing of the Gospel narratives. Methods and criteria would have to be developed by which to identify authentic materials embedded in the texts. These Käsemann derived from the earlier work of Bultmann, his teacher. From form criticism Käsemann drew one negative criterion: one should question the historicity of traditions for which there is a clear life setting within the early Christian community. From Bultmann’s Jesus and the Word Käsemann drew his second, positive criterion: dissimilarity—one may credit those things that could not be imagined as deriving from the common stock of ancient Jewish or Hellenistic religious lore, or from the dogmatic interests of the early church. Käsemann was especially interested in sayings where the church seems to have modified the received tradition, “having found it too bold for its taste” (“The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” p. 37).

The New Quest thrived in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, along with a renewed interest in critical biblical scholarship. Its best-known proponent was the Heidelberg scholar, Günther Bornkamm (1905–1990), whose 1956 book, Jesus of Nazareth, was translated into English and remained a staple of German and American seminary classrooms for many years. Willi Marxsen (1919–1993) produced a series of provocative essays around the concept of the Sache Jesu (the Jesus business), meaning the substance of Jesus’s preaching and how it was carried into the New Testament. His critical treatment of the resurrection—which would not have raised an eyebrow 100 years earlier—landed him in hot water in 1960s Germany, where in 1966 a mock trial was convened in Dortmund to condemn him and his fellow Bultmannians of heresy.

In the United States the New Quest was translated and interpreted by James M. Robinson, whose 1959 book, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, chronicled what had been happening in Germany but also added a theoretical framework to the quest. Robinson argued that a new philosophy of history made it possible to approach the Gospels historically, problematic though they may be. History, after all, asks not about the past as it really was, but the past in its significance for human self-understanding. This is what the Gospels convey—not the historical Jesus, but the historic Jesus. This at least creates the possibility of a new quest, where form criticism seemed to have closed the door.

One of the questions raised by the New Quest was the old question of eschatology. Schweitzer had insisted on an apocalyptic reading of Jesus, but not everyone had embraced his view. Bultmann had assumed it in Jesus and the Word, but many of the American and British scholars of the early twentieth century had not been convinced. Now, several of the leading post-Bultmannians doubted it: Philipp Vielhauer, Hans Conzelmann, and Käsemann himself. Käsemann argued that while Jesus certainly began as a follower of John the Baptist, “his own preaching was not stamped by apocalyptic but proclaimed the immediate nearness of God” (“The Beginnings of Christian Theology,” Journal for Theology and the Church 6 [1969]: 40). This aspect of the New Quest was planted in American soil by Norman Perrin (1920–1976). In Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (1967) he argued that Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” as a “tensive symbol,” referring to no particular apocalyptic scenario but to the activity of God present more subtly in the midst of human life. Important in Perrin’s assessment was the saying found in Luke 17:20–21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is! Or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” In Luke the saying is followed, paradoxically, by an apocalyptic scenario complete with “things that can be observed.” Little wonder that scholars have been divided so severely over this issue. Is the kingdom of God an apocalyptic concept or present reality? The tradition itself is profoundly divided about it, and scholarship remains so today.

One result of the New Quest was a fresh focus on the question of historical criteria. In the wake of German higher criticism and Bultmann’s form criticism, scholars now had to approach the texts very differently from their nineteenth-century predecessors. In the first quest, scholars had assumed that the Gospels were more or less historical, but written by ancients who were unable to tell rational fact from superstitious fairy tale. So they concentrated on finding rational explanations for the irrational things they were reading in the Gospels. This was true of German scholarship up through Schweitzer, as well as much early twentieth-century British and American scholarship. But after Wrede demonstrated the fictive nature of the Gospels and Bultmann the malleability of oral tradition, this could no longer be assumed. Scholars of the New Quest began rather with the opposite view: the Gospels are not historical. They may contain historical material, but this must be demonstrated in the case of individual traditions, never assumed. But what arguments, what critieria might one use to establish the historicity of individual sayings of or stories about Jesus? I have already mentioned Käsemann’s criteria for attempting to disentangle historical material from the Gospels: a certain distinctiveness over against Judaism on the one hand and primitive Christianity on the other. But Käsemann himself acknowledged the real drawback of this approach: “we shall not, from this angle of vision, gain any clear view of the connecting link between Jesus, his Palestinian environment and his later community.” He simply believed that it is more important “to gain some insight into what separated him from friends and foes alike” (Käsemann, p. 37).

The Continuing Quest.

The New Quest did not last long among the German post-Bultmannians, but it set the stage for the resurgence of interest in historical Jesus research in English-speaking lands. But unlike the New Quest, which emphasized Jesus’s distinctiveness, much of this new work emphasized his more typical Jewishness. Among the most important of these new studies were Gesa Vermes’s Jesus the Jew (1973), E. P. Sanders’s Jesus and Judaism (1985), and Sean Freyne’s Galilee, Jesus, and the Gospels (1988). These scholars were less interested in solving the historical problems posed by Gospel criticism and more in reaching a more accurate view of first-century Judaism, Jesus’s cultural home. If one’s historical Jesus did not make sense in a first-century Jewish—or Galilean—context, then he was probably not very historical. This new generation of scholars also found it necessary to expand the conversation about Jesus to more than just the Synoptic Gospels. Paula Fredrikson ( From Jesus to Christ, 1988) offered a view of Jesus predicated as much on the Gospel of John as the Synoptics. John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus, 1991) made use of the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas to establish a set of early, multiply attested (primarily synoptic) sayings upon which to build his portrait of Jesus, that of “a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.” In addition to Jewish history under Roman rule, Crossan also drew upon anthropological modeling to understand the lives of peasants living in ancient agrarian empires like that of the Romans.

In 1985 Robert Funk convened the Jesus Seminar and invited John Dominic Crossan to co-chair it with him. Funk and Crossan had met two decades earlier in a seminar headed by Perrin’s Chicago colleague Amos Wilder, which revolutionized the study of parables. Parables were not, as Joachim Jeremias (1900–1979) thought, metaphors for the coming judgment, but Jesus’s attempt to bring narrative life to an immediate experience of the kingdom of God unfolding among his followers. When Funk and Crossan convened the Jesus Seminar to examine systematically everything attributed to Jesus in the literature of the first three centuries C.E., among the first topics they took up were the parables and the nature of the kingdom of God. If the parables were not to be seen as allegories for the coming judgment, but narrative metaphors for life in the (present) kingdom, then Jesus must not have been the apocalyptic seer he appears to be in the Synoptic Gospels. Within the Jesus Seminar, which met from 1985 to the late 1990s, the focus soon fell on the countercultural parables and aphorisms of Jesus, many of which were found not only in the Synoptic Gospels but also in the Gospel of Thomas. Among the more than one hundred or so scholars who participated in the Jesus Seminar, Crossan and Burton Mack urged an understanding of Jesus on analogy to first-century Cynic philosophy. Stephen Patterson argued for a Jesus rooted in a countercultural version of Jewish wisdom theology. Marcus Borg added the category of “holy man” to that of sage. Borg may also be credited with raising new doubts about the apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus, a position for which the Jesus Seminar became well known, even though participants actually remained quite divided about the issue. What was perhaps most characteristic of the Jesus Seminar was its tendency to favor those sayings, parables, and acts of a transgressive and provocative nature. Funk himself summarizes the gist of this line of thought in his 1996 book, Honest to Jesus: “God has a preference for the lowly, the poor and undeserving, the sinner, the social misfits, the marginalized, the humble. I doubt if there is any typification, any generalization, about the words and acts of Jesus in which we can have more confidence” (p. 196).

This newer period of research was characterized by much greater attention to method and the criteria by which one might identify historically relevant material in the Gospels. First, the New Quest’s criterion of dissimilarity is no longer decisive. These scholars simply have not valued as much the things that made Jesus distinctive. They are more interested, for example, in how Jesus reflects his Jewish culture rather than how he stands out from it. Second, critical scholars generally remain skeptical of the historicity of the Gospels, but there is limited agreement on how to glean historically relevant information from them. Many (Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, for example) have embraced the advantage of multiple independent attestation for the leverage it affords in both isolating a saying from its secondary narrative context and in establishing a plausible tradition history for a saying, including its earliest verifiable form. For these scholars, new texts like the Gospel of Thomas have become very important. Others, however, have been skeptical of multiple attestation and tradition history (Sanders and Dale Allison, for example), and prefer to work in broad strokes with points of general historical agreement. Third, scholars of this generation have generally embraced the view that religion is complexly embedded in culture and that Jesus cannot be understood apart from a thorough and nuanced description of his culture. Never before have scholars known so much about ancient history, the social and political world of the Galilee, Second Temple Judaism, and the daily lives of peasants. Archaeology is prominent in this work, and culture has become an important tool.

The Evangelical Quest.

The provocative work of the Jesus Seminar emerged just as American evangelical scholarship was coming to maturity in countless seminaries and Bible colleges throughout North America. The Jesus Seminar had aimed its sights at 1980s fundamentalist televangelists, for whom scholarship was as foreign as the European soil from which it had come. But what fired back was a very different opposition. Learned evangelical scholars, skilled in the ancient languages and arcane methods of biblical scholarship and well educated in the finest European academies, began to produce their own scholarship on Jesus, much of it intended to counter that of the Jesus Seminar. For leadership they looked to prominent British scholars, like N. T. Wright, whose three-volume study is perhaps the most extensive work ever undertaken on Jesus. Wright makes an elaborate case for the basic historicity of the Gospels, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Whether such things can happen, he argues, depends upon the worldview one chooses to embrace. This appealed to evangelical scholars who could now turn the methods of historical Jesus research onto topics that were seldom discussed among critical scholars: the nature miracles, healings, the virgin birth, and especially the resurrection. Among the British they also found in James Dunn a learned advocate for a greater degree of historicity in the canonical Gospels, built, in his view, upon reliable memories encoded in oral tradition. Richard Bauckham has even argued in a new way for the traditional view that the Gospels offer eyewitness testimony to the events they purport to describe. Since the 1980s, hundreds of books and thousands of essays have been published in this tradition, each arguing for the historicity of this or that aspect of the biblical account. In the twenty-first century, the emergence of American evangelical scholarship is by far the most important development in the quest. It has challenged the very nature and assumptions of modern biblical scholarship.

A Catholic Quest?

For most of its history the quest has been the province of Protestant biblical scholarship. Roman Catholic scholars played a smaller role, due in part to the differing structure of Roman Catholic thought, which places greater stress on the teachings of the magisterium than the findings of historians, and in part to greater restrictions on the extent to which critical biblical scholarship was sanctioned by the Church. That changed in 1943 with Pope Pius XII’s historic encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, which effectively opened the doors of critical biblical scholarship to Catholic scholars. Vatican II embraced the idea that the Gospels are interpretive works, not reports of what Jesus actually said and did. Among the first to pursue the quest for the historical Jesus were Roman Catholic Latin American Liberation theologians, like Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, who saw in Jesus a model for the human struggle for liberation from structures of oppression. In South Asia, Tissa Balasuriya made a similar appeal during the war-ravaged 1970s in Sri Lanka. All three, however, have run afoul of the magisterium. So has Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a leading feminist critic of the quest, as well as a participant. She has criticized the quest for its failure to account for its own social location among elite, white men in Europe and North America. Among current Catholic scholars in good standing with the Pontifical Biblical Commission, John Meier has written the most comprehensive study of Jesus perhaps in the history of Catholic scholarship, a four-volume work titled A Marginal Jew (1991–2009). More recently Pope Benedict XVI took the unusual step of laying aside his papal identity to add his own voice and scholarship to the discussion as Joseph Raztinger (Jesus of Nazareth, 2007).

The State of the Quest Today.

Today the quest is as vigorous a scholarly enterprise as it ever has been. It continues to drive discussion about the methods and assumptions of biblical scholarship and to expose the fissures present in a vast and expanding field of study. Among critical scholars there is broad agreement that Jesus can be understood historically only when his time and place—first-century Galilee—has first been understood. He was Jewish, a handworker in an eastern province of the Roman Empire, which was undergoing colonial transformation, including the urbanization of the landscape, the commercialization of agriculture, and the monetizing of the economy. In this process, many local villagers, like Jesus, found themselves to be expendable. Jesus’s words and deeds—however one might identify them—reveal a careful observer of local life, one who criticized the rich and powerful and favored the poor and marginal. Many would also agree that he engaged in activities that drew to himself negative attention, including exorcism, keeping company with questionable figures like prostitutes and tax collectors, and speaking openly about a new empire of God. But critical scholars still do not agree about Jesus’s central theme, the kingdom of God. Did he have in mind a future moment of apocalyptic judgment, or was this a way of living to be embraced by people already in the present time, or something else entirely? Critical scholars generally agree that the Gospels do not offer a biography of Jesus, but not on how much detail they reveal or how to identify the historical memory behind or embedded in the texts.

Over against this centuries-long critical conversation there now stands an evangelical conversation that begins and ends in a very different place. It begins with the proposition that the Gospel texts are reports that more or less get the history right. It ends with a description of Jesus that is consistent with the biblical portrait: he was a divine human being, who performed miracles, spoke of his own messianic calling, and was raised from the dead after his execution at the hands Pilate and a Jewish mob.

The historical Jesus, then, still lies at the center of the most critical and contentious fault lines of modern biblical scholarship. Is the Bible reliable, historically speaking? And if it is not, what would this mean? Through the more than two centuries of its unfolding, the quest for the historical Jesus has become more than the pursuit of a simple historical question. Whether to quest, how to quest, and what might lie at the end of the quest have become questions through which the very meaning of the Christian tradition is contested. Because of this, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the quest is flourishing.



  • Allison, Dale. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998. Rejects the tradition-historical approach to the quest and works with broad areas of historical agreement to argue for a more apocalyptic understanding of the historical Jesus.
  • Balasurya, Tissa. Jesus Christ and Human Liberation. Quest Series 48. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Centre for Society and Religion, 1976. An important contribution to historical Jesus studies from South Asia and global Liberation Theology.
  • Bock, Darrell, and Webb, Robert L. Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchengen zum Neuen Testament 247. Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2009. A collection of studies by prominent American and British scholars representative of the recent wave of evangelical scholarship on the historical Jesus and a measure of the extent to which this scholarship has become mainstream.
  • Borg, Marcus. “A Temperate Case for a Non-Eschatological Jesus.” Foundations and Facets Forum 2 (1986): 81–102. This essay effectively launched a new phase in the debate about Jesus and apocalyptic.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus and the Word. Translated by Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress. New York: Scribner/London: Collins, 1934. Translation of the German original, Jesus, first published in 1926. Bultmann’s historic work on Jesus.
  • Case, Shirley Jackson. Jesus: A New Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927. An important example of American historical Jesus scholarship in the early twentieth century and representative of the Chicago School and the sociohistorical method.
  • Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. New York: HarperCollins (HarperSanFrancisco), 1991. The most innovative approach to the historical Jesus in more than a century, both for its method and its results, and the most important constructive statement to emerge from out of the Jesus Seminar.
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered. Vol. 1, Christianity in the Making. Grand Rapids, Mich. and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2003. An important recent British contribution arguing that the Synoptic Gospels preserve a reliable historical memory of Jesus.
  • Fredrikson, Paula. From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. A novel treatment of Jesus and his relationship to the Jewish authorities that draws more upon the Gospel of John than is conventional.
  • Funk, Robert W. Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millenium. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996.
  • Funk, Robert W., Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993. The first report of the Jesus Seminar, which sparked much public controversy in the United States and gave the quest new impetus among American scholars.
  • Glover, T. R. The Jesus of History. London: Student Christian Movement, 1917. An important representative of British historical Jesus research in the early twentieth century.
  • Käsemann, Ernst. “The Problem of the Historical Jesus.” In Essays on New Testament Themes, 15–47. Translated by W. J. Montague. Studies in Biblical Theology 41. London: SCM, 1964. Translation of the German original, “Das Problem des historishen Jesus,” published originally in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 51 (1954): 125–153. Käsemann’s historic essay that launched the so-called New Quest.
  • Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 4 vols. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991–2009. The most important recent Roman Catholic treatment bearing the Papal Imprimatur and representative of the state of Catholic historical criticism at the end of the twentieth century.
  • Perrin, Norman. Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. New York: Harper and Row/London: SCM, 1967. An important translation of the New Quest onto North American soil when interest in the historical Jesus was low.
  • Reimarus, Hermann Samuel. Fragments. Translated by Ralph Fraser. Edited by Charles Talbert. Life of Jesus Series, Leander Keck, General Editor. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970. English translation of a portion of Reimarus’s unpublished Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verherer Gottes, “Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Junger” (“The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples”), published anonymously and posthumously by G. E. Lessing in 1778. Reimarus’s historic notes on Jesus.
  • Robinson, James M. A New Quest of the Historical Jesus. Studies in Biblical Theology 25. Naperville: Allenson/London: SCM, 1959. Robinson’s historic work chronicling the New Quest.
  • Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985. A study that begins with several broad areas of historical agreement and argues that Jesus was a Jewish prophet who proclaimed the restoration of Israel.
  • Schleiermacher, David Freidrich. The Life of Jesus. Translated by S. MacLean Gilmour. Edited by Jack Verheyden. Life of Jesus Series, Leander Keck, General Editor. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975. English translation of Das Leben Jesu: Vorlesungen an der Universität Berlin im Jahr 1832, published posthumously by K. A. Rutenik in 1864. Schleiermacher’s historic lectures, reconstructed and edited by his student Rutenik.
  • Schuessler Fiorenza, Elizabeth. Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation. New York: Continuum, 2000. An important feminist critique of a discussion that has taken place for two centuries almost entirely among men.
  • Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Translated by W. Montgomery. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1910. English translation of Von Reimarus zu Wrede, first published in 1906. Still one of the best and most readily available accounts of historical Jesus scholarship from Reimarus (late eighteenth century) to Wrede (end of the nineteenth century).
  • Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. 3 vols. Translated by George Eliot. Continuum Classic Texts. London and New York: Continuum, 2005. Reprint of the 1846 edition. English translation of Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet, first published in 1835–1836. Strauss’s historic work on Jesus.
  • Vermes, Gesa. Jesus the Jew: An Historian’s reading of the Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973. A pioneering effort to locate Jesus within the words of first-century Judaism.
  • Wright, N. T. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Vol. 1, The New Testament and the People of God (1992); Vol. 2, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996); and Vol. 3, The Resurrection and the Son of God (2003). 4 vols. London: SPCK/Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992–2003. Perhaps the most extensive work ever undertaken to establish the historical reliability of the Gospels as a witness to the historical Jesus.

Stephen J. Patterson