The title of Albert Schweitzer's work (ET 1910 and 2000) which traced the course of investigation by (mostly) German scholars into the presentation of Jesus in the gospels. The starting-point was in the late 18th cent. and ended with an account of William Wrede's argument (1901) that Mark's gospel was not an objective report of historical facts but a theological narrative with a particular theory—that the people failed to recognize Jesus as Messiah because he kept it a secret; the Church came to accept the belief only after the resurrection. Schweitzer challenged this view, and all those which preceded it in his chronicle, and instead posited an eschatological Jesus, one who believed himself to be the future Son of Man—Messiah—who would descend on the clouds as judge.
The quest continued after Schweitzer with the Form Critics, who maintained that the Christ who was preached in the early (Gentile) Church was not the historical Jesus but the Christ of faith. For the traditions encapsulated in the gospels had been shaped by the Church, and sayings attributed to Jesus were the utterances of Christian prophets. After the Form Critics, however, a ‘New Quest’ was prepared to find authentic words and deeds of Jesus, and this line was reinforced by much new work on the Jewishness of Jesus and the appropriateness of such titles as Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ to the Jesus of history.
The continuing quest has been developed by scholars with a special interest in sociology, and much greater knowledge of the social environment of Jesus and its various renewal movements has to some extent undermined previous historical scepticism. It is possible to compare Jesus with other Jewish teachers of his time. He differed from contemporaries (such as Hanina ben Dosa) by virtue of his combination of ‘new teaching’ (Mark 1: 27; 2: 12) and actions that were a threat to the authorities (such as the cleansing of the Temple) and by his miracles of healing and exorcisms. Controversy surrounded the issue whether Jesus' works were wrought by someone possessed by Beelzebul (Mark 3: 22) or by the Spirit (Mark 3: 29–30), and the survival of this unattractive story would appear to be authentic historical reminiscence. Thus, there is some confidence in the achievements and methods of the historical-critical approach, though no consensus of results can be affirmed.