Approaches to the Life of Christ

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The traditional approach

Although the available sources are insufficient to construct a biography of Jesus in the modern sense of the term, the traditional approach to the sources has always maintained that the data is adequate for some appreciation of the Jesus of history. It had always been assumed, until the rise of 18th cent. rationalism challenged it. The large amount of space devoted to the passion and resurrection narratives was no problem for those who saw no discrepancy between historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Primitive Christian belief fastened on the importance of Christ’s death and Resurrection, abundantly proved by the Acts and epistles within the NT. The apparently lopsided arrangement of material in both the synoptic gospels and in John bears witness to the major content of the early Christian faith. It was not unreasonable to suppose that if so important an element of faith was accurately reflected in the evangelist’s arrangement, the rest of the material should be regarded as equally historical.

Certain difficulties were nonetheless recognized. Some explanation had to be given of the instances where apparent disagreements occurred within the synoptic gospels or between the synoptic gospels and John. The traditional approach to such problems was harmonistic. Since it was maintained that there could be no discrepancy within the inspired records, it must be possible to reconcile apparent contradictions. Many of these harmonistic attempts were more ingenious than convincing. When, for instance, it was maintained (e.g. by Osiander) that Jairus’ daughter must have been resurrected more than once because the incident is placed in a different sequence within the synoptic gospels, the improbability of such a solution becomes at once apparent. It was the weakness of much of the traditional approach to the gospels that it tended to overstress some feature, such as the order of events, without sufficient examination of the validity of the basic assumptions. Dogmatic considerations were more important than historical, with the consequence that the older traditionalists exposed themselves to rationalistic attacks. Until that time there had been no question about the validity of the miraculous. The Christ of faith was so deeply entrenched in the religious concepts that it was perfectly reasonable to suppose that He had power over the natural world to such a degree that in His hands the abnormal became normal.

The advantage of such an approach is obvious. All the gospels may without question be treated as historical sources and the main preoccupation of any scholar producing an outline of the life of Jesus is to discover the best method of harmonizing the accounts. Since John’s account presupposes a longer period of ministry than the synoptics, it has been the usual procedure of traditionalists to fit the synoptic outlines as far as possible into the Johannine structure. This traditional approach to the sources has been attacked on several fronts during the last cent. and a half of criticism. It is essential to have some insight into the grounds for these attacks to appreciate the position of modern criticism in its approach to the historical Jesus.

The rationalistic approach

Rationalism showed its attack upon the gospel material in the deistic renunciation of miracles as support for Jesus’ claims to messiahship. This antipathy toward the miraculous has been characteristic of rationalism ever since and has affected many schools of thought which have had little in common with the basic tenets of deism. It was an attack on the supernatural element, and once the miraculous was pronounced either impossible or suspect it was essential to view with suspicion other elements in any sources which treated the miraculous as normal. This was the starting point for Ger. critical appraisals of the historical Jesus. Whatever in the gospels did not square with the assumption that the supernatural interpretation of the life of Jesus was impossible, must be excised from the records as later interpolations. Such was the rationalistic impact on the sources of the life of Jesus. It was not surprising, therefore, that the 19th cent. was to see a whole crop of unhistorical “histories” of Jesus, many of them almost wholly fictitious.

Before the dawn of the 19th cent. H. Reimarus had produced a book in which he regarded the Resurrection of Jesus as an invention of the apostles, who themselves inaugurated a community to await the return of Christ. To avoid possible exposure they stole the body of Jesus. This kind of approach won no support in Reimarus’ own time, but was a precursor of the eschatological theory of A. Schweitzer more than a cent. later. Reimarus made no attempt to come to grips with the Johannine problem. He preferred the synoptic gospels and imposed his fraud theory on them. During the 19th cent. many others were either to reject or to ignore the Johannine account.

Attempts were next made to write historical accounts of Jesus from the standpoint of the contemporary climate of opinion. There was no hesitation in making Jesus speak as nearly as possible in rationalistic forms. Modifications of both sayings and events were unrestrained. Representatives of this tendency were J. J. Hess and F. V. Reinhard. Another who illustrates the awakening of the critical faculties in relation to the sources of the life of Jesus is J. G. Herder, who considered it to be impossible to harmonize the synoptic gospels with John, and who treated the latter as something of a protest against the former.

It was H. E. G. Paulus who presented the most thorough-going rationalistic approach to the gospels, for he regarded the miracles as due to the eyewitnesses’ ignorance of the laws of nature. This left him free to explain away the miraculous. Such incidents as the raisings of the dead were described as “deliverances from primitive burial.” This is even alleged of the Resurrection of Jesus. His basic skepticism has often since been reflected in other theories.

A rather modified view of the gospel miracles is seen in the life of Jesus written by K. Hase, or he had a higher regard for the Johannine miracles than those of the synoptics. Again the impossibility of accepting both accounts is assumed. A similar position was taken by F. E. D. Schleiermacher. Although less avowedly rationalistic than Paulus, he nevertheless shows the influence of the latter upon him in his explanation of the Resurrection as recovery from a state of suspended animation. None of the synoptic gospels, in his opinion, presents historical facts. There is no doubt that his view of these gospels was governed by his preconceived idea of Christ.

The mythological approach

It was the radical criticism of David Strauss which marked a turning point in Ger. approaches to the life of Jesus. He followed Hegel’s philosophy and this governed his attitude to the sources. He was not hesitant to interpret the events mythologically. Anything inexplicable to Strauss was treated as myth. It is not surprising that the result was radical. Many of the mythical elements he traced to OT motives. John’s gospel he regarded as apologetic and therefore inferior to the others. But the latter contained much composite material due to the influence of the church upon the tradition. Although his opinions were too radical for his own age, they set the pattern for later developments, both in the views of liberal critics and in the ideas of the later form critics.

Strauss’ skepticism bore some fruit in the radical opinions of Bruno Bauer, who treated John’s gospel as an artistic product, and then transferred similar principles of criticism to the synoptic gospels. His conclusion was that the records were the conceptions of evangelists woven around the historical personality of Jesus. After an interval Bauer reached the logical conclusion of denying the historicity of Jesus.

The sentimental approach

Ernest Renan’s life may be described as imaginative rather than skeptical. It was certainly not historical, for Renan appealed to aesthetic taste rather than to fact. He treated the whole story as a dramatist would a play. The Jesus he produced was a Jesus of his own creation.

The liberal lives of Jesus

The heyday of liberal criticism produced its crop of interpretations, the purpose of which was to discover and present the historical Jesus apart from the dogmatic presentations of Christ. A typical example of this point of view may be found in H. Holtzmann’s book on the synoptic gospels. In this he propounded a theory for the life of Jesus based on Mark, in which he drew a distinction between the earlier period of success and the later period of decline. This idea exercised a strong influence on the liberal lives of Jesus during this period. Holtzmann was not adverse to drawing from both the synoptic and the Johannine traditions.

Adolf Harnack’s interpretation of Christianity was governed by his acceptance of the socalled historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth whose main function was to found the kingdom of God on earth, and whose death did no more than set the seal on this mission. The result was that the portrait of Jesus was conformed to the contemporary pattern of 19th cent. life. In spite of the attempt to arrive at a historical presentation, the principles of criticism which these liberal scholars followed did not enable them to produce an objective account. It must be recognized that these principles were affected by the earlier rationalism, the attempt to pass all the gospel material through the sieve of what is intelligible to reason. Yet, there can be no doubt that these liberal interpreters of Jesus were convinced of the historicity of their account. Christianity became a matter of conformity to the ethics of Jesus, and by that fact it had ceased to be a Gospel.

Nineteenth century British approaches

Some British scholars followed closely in the wake of Ger. criticism, of whom the most notable was perhaps F. W. Farrar, The Life of Christ (1886). There was no tendency to discriminate between the synoptics and John, as among the Germans, although the emphasis was essentially upon the Jesus of history. Among the more conservative works may be mentioned the valuable work of A. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883), which provided many insights into the Jewish background and is the ablest attempt to integrate the synoptic and Johannine traditions. He made no attempt to differentiate between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. In much the same vein may be mentioned W. Sanday’s article on Jesus Christ in Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible. These British representatives at the close of the 19th cent. show how little the Ger. movements had affected the mainstream of opinion relating to the historical Jesus, but the 20th cent. tells a rather different story.

Twentieth century viewpoints

The eschatological movement

Albert Schweitzer’s book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (1906), tr. into English under the title of The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910), created a sensation. It gave a penetrating analysis of the inadequacies of the rationalistic and liberal approaches and then presented the theory that only from an eschatological point of view could a true history of Jesus be written. Schweitzer’s eschatology was of his own making. He conceived that the dominating factor in the history of Jesus was his firm belief in the imminent establishment of the kingdom. He rejected Wilhelm Wrede’s idea of the Messianic secret (Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelein [1901]), and maintained that Jesus’ hopes were frustrated. The cross was the failure of the mission of Jesus. All that remained of the Jesus of history was the example of His noble purpose which never came to anything. Even the ethics of Jesus was only an interim measure and therefore possessed no abiding validity.

Schweitzer’s counterblast to the liberal Jesus was no less unhistorical. His strange eschatological blunderer was not the Jesus who lived and taught in Pal. The difference between Schweitzer and the liberals was that whereas the latter sought to dress Jesus in modern garb, the former sought to put Him back into a 1st cent. wholly apocalyptic milieu. Neither viewpoint came to grips with the real problem of how their interpretation of Jesus contributed to an understanding of what came to be the place of Jesus in the historic Christian faith. There is no doubt that Schweitzer’s hypothesis gained more support than it would have done because of the aridity of the previous liberal theories. As Hugh Anderson has said, “By his tremendous stress on the non-advent of the Parousia, for the inauguration of which and for nothing else Jesus died in vain, Schweitzer helped to pave the way for recent versions of the primitive Church’s Christology which left no place therein for faith in the historical Jesus as the decisive revelation of God for the past as well as for the present” (Jesus and Christian Origins [1964], 21, 22).

The dialectical approach

Another major 20th cent. trend is seen in Karl Barth’s dialectical theology. This movement was contemporary with that of Rudolf Bultmann in its origin. Both men were reared in the same theological climate, both being taught by the same liberal teachers. They both belonged to the Religionsgeschichte (History of Religions) school, which believed in the broadest basis for the study of the life of Jesus in the context of an examination of comparative religions. Those who exercised most influence upon both Barth and Bultmann were determined to eliminate from the sources of the life of Jesus whatever belonged to the dogmatic theology of the Christian Church. These liberal scholars concentrated on the immanence of God in Jesus in a way which saw in Jesus only the exaltation to the highest possible degree of what is potential in every man. There was an absence of all thought of the divine transcendence of Jesus, and it was this that challenged Barth.

In one sense, Barth has not entered into the literary problems surrounding the sources of the life of Jesus, but he strongly reacted against the liberal idea of the historical Jesus. By concentrating on the NT texts and rejecting the possibility of going behind them, Barth went some way toward counteracting the approach to the texts which characterized the earlier critics. Barth’s doctrine of the Word within Scripture allowed him freedom in his treatment of the Biblical text. What he insists upon is a theological rather than a historical exegesis. Any attempt to reconstitute the historical Jesus as the liberals had done is no part of the Christian faith as Barth understands it. Yet he does not dispute that the object of the Church’s faith must be related to the past. Jesus was distinctive as compared with other men “in His inescapability, in His critical function, in His unforgettable lordliness, in His irrevocability which bursts and transcends all the limits of His life and time” (Church Dogmatics IV, part 2, 156ff.). This is not the place to expand on the theology of Barth. It suffices to show that Barth differs from his contemporary Bultmann in by-passing the problems of literary origins, with which the latter has been so closely concerned in his reaction to the same liberalism in which both were reared. Bultmann has retained more of the essential spirit of liberalism than Barth.

The form critical approach

Bultmann’s position must be considered within the context of an examination of the whole form-critical movement, of which he is representative of that section which attaches least historical validity to the sources. Form Criticism is a movement which derived its main impulse from the failure of a rigid application of source criticism to solve the problems of the gospels. It was a method which had previously been developed to get behind the sources proposed for OT criticism.

H. Gunkel’s attempt to reduce the pre-literary oral material to some sort of classification by means of different forms in which the material was preserved provided a method which appeared serviceable for NT criticism. The most that source criticism could do was to posit sources which were no earlier than thirty years after the events related, and it was naturally considered important to attempt to fill in the gap. The main objectives were still within the field of scientific historical inquiry. Form criticism as a literary discipline belongs essentially to the period of liberal approaches to the life of Jesus, although in some of its developments, most notably in the hands of Bultmann, it became a tool to be used against the concept of the historical Jesus. This was possible because Bultmann went beyond the purely literary idea of form criticism and developed from it the form-historical method. To make clear this important distinction, the two main schools of form criticism will be considered, irrespective of the chronological development, classification being dependent on whether it is used to support historical evaluation or not.

The real focus of attention was upon Mark’s gospel. It had been assumed by the Jesus-of-history school that Mark’s account was basically historical and that whatever material could be fitted in from the other synoptic gospels was acceptable. The liberal representation of Jesus was therefore very much tied up with Mark’s gospel. When Wrede challenged the historicity of Mark by his theory of the Messianic secret, the whole hypothesis of the historical Jesus was also challenged. Wrede maintained that Mark had preserved no chronological sequence and that the material of the gospel had originally existed as unconnected units. Whatever unity there was in the record had been imposed upon it by Mark, who had made it appear that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and was recognized as such by the disciples, although in Wrede’s view this did not happen until after the Resurrection of Jesus. The stage was therefore set for a more radical re-interpretation of the gospel narratives in the light of editorial processes which were conditioned by the Easter event. This particular trend was to play an important part in Bultmann’s theory of form criticism.

The unitary view of the Markan material was further stressed by such scholars as J. Wellhausen (Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien [1905]) and K. L. Schmidt (Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu [1919]). The former contended that Mark’s gospel was overlaid by editorial additions, which it was necessary to excise if the historical material was to be laid bare. The latter maintained the unreliability of Mark’s chronological and geographical data and consequently challenged the possibility of producing a connected account of the life of Jesus.

In 1919 Martin Dibelius published a book entitled Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums in which he analyzed various forms of gospel material according to the use to which it had been put in the period of oral transmission. Since this was essentially a missionary period, Dibelius found the Sitz im Leben (the situation in the life of the Church) of the various forms in the needs of the different types of church workers &--; preachers, teachers, and narrators. Such forms as paradigms, short narratives concluding with an important saying, would be valuable for preachers, while teachers concerned with the catechizing of new converts would use sayings which were unattached to narratives and varied in subject matter, which would be matched to the practical needs of the communities. Narrators would relate tales, often of a supernatural character, which were either created by or at least embellished by the narrators. Other categories of forms proposed by Dibelius were legends and myths, the first being material about holy people paralleled in secular writings; and the second, material in which some mythological interchange took place (e.g., the Temptation and the Transfiguration). It will at once be seen that the sources for the life of Jesus have therefore been subjected to influences which have introduced many non-historical elements. Nevertheless, Dibelius did not, as Bultmann did, deny the possibility of an historical account of Jesus. At the same time, his postulation of different classes of people using different forms of material is highly unlikely and accordingly weakens his theory. Moreover, it is clear that he has done more than classify the forms; he has evaluated them and in so doing has used his own criteria. The miraculous element is not attributed to the supernatural but to the composition of the storytellers, who wished to heighten the appeal of the tales they were telling.

A more moderate approach may be seen in the work of M. Albertz, B. S. Easton, and Vincent Taylor. Albertz (Die synoptischen Streitgesprache: ein Beitrag zur Formengeschichte des Urchristentums [1921]) admitted that the Church had adapted the original traditions, but nevertheless strongly maintained the possibility of arriving at a concept of the historical Jesus. It is important to note that Ger. criticism had other voices contemporary with Bultmann which did not agree with his approach toward history in the gospels.

B. S. Easton (The Gospel Before the Gosples [1928]) treated form criticism essentially as a literary discipline. Although he admitted that the traditions had been influenced by ecclesiastical and apologetic motives, he declined to use the classification of forms in the assessment of the historicity of the material.

Vincent Taylor (The Formation of the Gospel Tradition [1935]) is a representative of that school of form criticism which sees a limited value in the discipline, but is strongly opposed to the skepticism so characteristic of Bultmann’s theories. He rightly calls attention to the existence of eyewitnesses which must have exerted a powerful restraining influence upon the creation of non-historical elements in the tradition and provided some guarantee of the historicity of the material which has been preserved. It is significant that Vincent Taylor declines to accept the right of form critics, on the basis of their method of criticism, to deny the miraculous. The determination of the validity or otherwise of the miracle stories belongs not to the literary but to the historical critic. Compared with the exponents of radical form criticism, Vincent Taylor is moderate, for he believes in the actuality of the historical Jesus. In fact, his trilogy on Christ (The Names of Jesus [1953], The Life and Ministry of Jesus [1954], and The Person of Christ in New Testament Teachings [1958]) shows an approach which seeks to combine the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith. Such moderate use of form criticism clearly puts him in a different camp from Dibelius and Bultmann.

The same may be said of some other British scholars who have partially used form critical methods, while at the same time rejecting some of its assumptions. C. H. Dodd (New Testament Studies [1953]), for instance, staunchly maintains the reliability of the chronological structure of Mark on the grounds of the evidence of Acts, which counteracts the notion of Mark as a collection of disconnected units. When using form criticism, his main interest is to discover how far the different forms can be employed in verifying the historicity of the material. Although he does not conclude for the historicity of all the material, he sees beneath the interpretive elements a substantial basis of historic fact. He seems to stand midway between the older liberalism and the newer Christ-of-faith school.

Another in the same tradition, but even more insistent on the historicity of the Markan account, was T. W. Manson (Studies in the Gospels and Epistles [1962]). He not only maintained the reliability of the Markan outline, but vigorously resisted the skepticism of the radical form critics. He correctly pointed out that there was less credibility in the form critical suppositions than in the gospel accounts. He believed that it was possible to arrive at the facts of the life of Jesus from the gospel sources and to make some kind of chronological reconstruction. He did not, however, cling to a purely historical quest, for he recognized that a historical reconstruction would be meaningless apart from the early Christian belief in Jesus as the object of faith. He was reluctant to create an antithesis between history and faith.

The existential approach

It was quite different with Bultmann, whose dissatisfaction with the liberal attempts to produce a history of Jesus turned his attention toward the Christ of faith. It will be necessary to consider his point of view in more detail since it has had a profound influence over European thought regarding Jesus Christ, and has not lacked support in British and American circles. Bultmann’s approach to the records is via the kerygma, i.e., the proclamation of the resurrected Christ. It would not be true to say that Bultmann denies the historicity of Jesus, although he comes nearer to this at times than he himself is prepared specifically to admit. He considers that all that can be asserted without question is the “thatness,” the bare fact, of the cross of Christ. It is difficult to think intelligently of a bare “thatness” which is unrelated to a historical personality of whom at least something can be historically known. In any case, this is a different kind of kerygma from what the early Christians proclaimed. Nevertheless, Bultmann has performed a valuable service in drawing attention to the problem of the connection between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, even if his own solution proves to be totally unacceptable. The Jesus of history can become a living factor in each era of the Christian Church only if it is possible to establish the connection between Him and the faith of each era. Bultmann’s probing goes deeper than that, for he maintains that since no connection is possible, there is no point in pursuing the historical Jesus at all. Cf. for Bultmann’s views, his Jesus and the Word (Eng. tr. 1926) and nodetitle (with K. Kundsin, Eng. tr. 1934).

a. Influences upon Bultmann. (1) The history of religion school. To understand Bultmann’s methods it is necessary to be aware of influences which have had a share in the molding of them. The liberal background to which he belonged was dominated by Reitzenstein’s theory that primitive Christianity drew much from the mystery cults (Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen [1927]), and by Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (3rd. ed. 1926), which maintained that Jesus was Lord, not Messiah, to Gentile Christians. While these theories had more effect on Bultmann’s appoach to Pauline theology, they are not unimportant for his theory of gospel origins, since, if true, they must find a place in his idea of the kerygma among Gentile Christians.

Acceptance of the view that mystery religions and Gnostic myths were a molding factor in early Christian doctrine disposes the exegete to search for pagan parallels to account for the form, if not the content, of some of the gospel materials. Careful examination, however, shows that most of the parallels are tenuous. Can it be accepted as a legitimate method of exegesis to attribute anything remotely resembling a pagan parallel to such a source? Reitzenstein’s evidence is drawn from a much later period, which makes it difficult to place any reliance upon it. As far as Gnosticism is concerned, when this became a powerful 2nd cent. movement, it met with strong resistance from the Christian Church. Had there been a close kinship between it and Christianity, it is impossible to see why this kinship was unrecognized.

Any presupposition of a distinction so radical between Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianity must inevitably affect assessment of historical data. The presupposition is unsupported by adequate evidence. The most damaging objection is the failure to recognize the uniqueness, not only of Christ Himself, but of the Church whose faith was based in Him. This was the ineradicable weakness of the whole religionsgechichtliche school.

(2) Existential philosophy. Another important influence upon Bultmann which has affected his approach to the history of Jesus has been the philosophy of Heidegger. It is Bultmann’s conviction that an existential encounter with Christ is of paramount importance in Christian faith, and this led him to play down the historical Jesus. Even though little of the true history of Jesus is available, this existential encounter can take place. Such a presupposition naturally conditioned Bultmann in his estimation of the gospel material. There is no doubt that his purpose was to make that material relevant to his contemporaries and this led him to exclude anything which to his mind belonged to the 1st cent., but was irrelevant or unacceptable to the 20th.

b. Some basic assumptions. Bultmann, in the treatment of his sources, proceeded on the assumption that there are definite laws governing popular narrative and tradition. He first supposed that narratives in course of oral transmission tend to become more explicit and to acquire details lacking in the most primitive form. For example, Luke’s mention of the high priest’s servant’s right ear which was struck off is said to show a development from Mark’s account (Luke 22:50; Mark 14:47). Does it necessarily follow that more detailed accounts be equally authentic? Bultmann does not consider such a possibility. Moreover, he appeals to apocryphal tradition for the tendency to attach names to peoples who were unnamed in earlier tradition. Hence Bultmann begins by being skeptical about the names used in the records (cf. Luke 22:8 where the disciples referred to in Mark 14:13 are named as Peter and John). Furthermore, there is said to be a tendency for indirect discourses to become direct discourses (cf. Mark 8:32; Matt 16:22). That it has happened in some cases that the material is preserved in both forms cannot be denied, but to deduce from this a general law of tradition may be considerably wide of the mark. An alternative explanation might be that the more direct form was nevertheless from an authentic source.

c. Classification of materials for the life of Jesus. (1) General comments. A brief reference to Bultmann’s classifications will not be amiss. (For full details see his The History of the Synoptic Tradition [Eng. tr. 1962].) The miracle stories are at once suspect. Sufficient parallels can be cited from pagan sources to show, in Bultmann’s opinion, that the gospel miracles conform to a similar pattern. Parallels of forms do not prove similarity of origin. The uniqueness of the gospel stories rests not in their form but in the uniqueness of the miracle worker. Another of Bultmann’s forms are apothegms, important sayings of Jesus for which short scenes serve as a framework. He takes the view that the saying may be authentic, while the setting is the creation of the community, although in some cases both are non-authentic. His criterion of differentiation seems to be that what can be conceived as a community product must have been a community product. Clearly, this does not follow. The probability of communities creating narratives and sayings is open to most serious challenge. The assumption appears to be that Christian groups would wish to attribute sayings to Jesus which had no basis in fact, because they were the kind of words which the Christ of faith might be expected to say. Of the biographical apothegms (e.g., as the calling of the disciples in Mark 1:16-20) Bultmann maintains that they give expression “to what Christians had experienced of their Master or what he had experienced at the hands of his people.” They become therefore symbols instead of historical events.

It is difficult to believe that any Christian author would have written what purports to be a historical narrative if his intentions were purely symbolical. Nor is it much easier to conceive that the evangelists genuinely thought that the materials used were historical, even if much of it was the symbolic creation of some community or other. Where can parallels be found for such a procedure? The apocryphal lit., which abounds in narratives regarding Jesus and the apostles, which are manifestly the creations of the apocryphal authors, cannot furnish an adequate parallel, for these are stamped so evidently with fantasy that no contemporary ever placed them on the same footing as the canonical gospels. Moreover, the majority of these productions were written in the interests of some aberration from Christian doctrine. They are too late to provide any guide to the probable procedure of the primitive Church.


He is not content to suggest modification of Jesus’ words. He considers that frequently words spoken by other Jewish teachers or words first used in the Christian community were put into the mouth of Christ. As examples he cites some of the wisdom words of Jesus which can be paralleled from Jewish sources (cf. Luke 12:16-20 and Sirach 11:18, 19). His basic assumption is that parallels point to non-authenticity. When dealing with the prophetic apocalyptic sayings, he is rather more inclined to find some authentic sayings, since the eschatological enthusiasm of the early Christians was prob. derived from the prophetic appearance of Jesus.

Another of Bultmann’s categories is law sayings. Of these he says, “Even though many of the sayings may have originated in the community, the spirit that lives in them goes back to the work of Jesus” (Form Criticism [Eng. tr. 1934], 58). The reason for this greater willingness to accept these law sayings is their fundamental disagreement with contemporary Judaism. Sayings supported by OT citations and those containing rules of discipline are suspect as community products. Sometimes Bultmann expresses his views as possibilities, but more often he makes statements dogmatically, as when he maintains that the passion predictions in Mark (8:31; 9:31; 10:33, 34) “were first created by the Christian community” (op. cit., 59).

From the above it might be supposed that Bultmann is skeptical about all the sayings of Jesus, but he does attach historical credence to some, as the following extract shows. “Though one may admit the fact that for no single word of Jesus is it possible to produce positive evidence of its authenticity, still one may point to a whole series of words found in the oldest stratum of tradition which do give a consistent representation of the historical message of Jesus” (op. cit., 61). Such are sayings which echo the prophetic calls to repentance, those which announce salvation and those which express the consciousness of the prophet. Bultmann lays great stress on the prophetic role of Jesus.

(3) The idea of legends. Another category to which he appeals is legend, which, in his view, became attached to the narratives through cultic influences. Such legends would serve the needs of the worshiping community. This applies to the passion narrative (e.g., the death of Judas and the watch at the tomb), the Resurrection narrative (“composed in the interests of faith and under the influence of devout imagination”), the Supper (which was referred back to the last meal of Jesus and was transformed into a cult legend), the baptismal narrative, the Transfiguration, the Temptation, then entry into Jerusalem, and many other narratives. When all the overgrowth of legend which Bultmann finds in the sources is removed, it will be seen that there is little life which can be considered historical. This is why he disputes the possibility of knowledge of the historical Jesus. All he will allow is some knowledge of His message, which he sums up as twofold: eschatological and ethical, both understood existentially.

From this survey of Bultmann’s position it will be apparent that his view of the sources of the life of Jesus is radically different from the traditional view of the Christian Church. Although it may be a matter of indifference to Bultmann, whether or not the historical Jesus can be traced and known, such indifference is not characteristic of NT scholars generally, and even among Bultmann’s closest disciples is being questioned to some extent. The emergence of a reaction within the Bultmann school is significant because it reflects dissatisfaction with his outright skepticism.

The new quest

The reaction has become known as “The New Quest of the Historical Jesus.” This description must be understood against the background of the older liberal quest, although its advocates vigorously reject the liberal Jesus. What they are concerned to do is in some measure to fill the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. E. Kasemann (cf. his Essays on New Testament Themes [Eng. tr. 1960]) has done this by fastening attention on the preaching of Jesus. By this means he hoped to avoid the risk of Docetism (which drew a distinction between the human Jesus and the divine Christ and which concentrated on the latter at the expense of the former) and to bridge the gap between the earthly Jesus and the Church’s proclamation of faith. Kasemann recognized, as Bultmann did not, the authority of Jesus as a preacher and as an exorciser of demons.

G. Bornkamm (Jesus of Nazareth [Eng. tr. 1960]) goes further and includes aspects of Jesus’ attitude toward people (as, for instance, His readiness to forgive sins). In this case the records have preserved certain aspects of the historical Jesus.

Another “new quester” is E. Fuchs (Studies of the Historical Jesus [Eng. tr. 1960]), whose main interest in the historical Jesus is in His determination to minister to social outcasts, like tax collectors and sinners. This is His mission and by it He reveals God’s will. His attitude to His death has been influenced by the death of John the Baptist. E. Fuchs departs from the Bultmann position by asserting some continuity between the proclamation of Jesus and the kerygma, and by focusing on some psychological aspects which Bultmann neglected.

J. M. Robinson (The Problem of History in Mark [1957]) maintains a closer relationship between the historical Jesus in the gospels and the kerygmatic Christ, to such an extent that he has been charged with reversion to the liberal quest, but he has defended his position by claiming that his quest is centered on the existential selfhood and not the personality of Jesus (A New Quest of the Historical Jesus [1959]). The difference in terminology may be noted, but Robinson’s critics are not convinced that he means anything different.

Throughout the debate which has developed among his own supporters, Bultmann has consistently denied any essential relationship between the historic Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ. His point is not so much the impossibility as the irrelevance of such a connection.

Before any effective use can be made of the gospel records in a presentation of the events in the life of Jesus, the interpreter must make clear his own position in regard to the influence of the kerygma. It cannot be assumed that the apostolic kerygma bore no relation to the proclamation of Jesus Himself. There is no proof for this, and in the absence of proof the interpreter has every right to assume that the evangelists have presented material which they believe to be historical. Since the Church accepted the records without question, all in it must equally have believed in the historicity of the events recorded. In the presence of a considerable number of eyewitnesses it is inconceivable that material which had no foundation in fact would have been created by communities. The Christ of faith becomes unintelligible apart from continuity with the historical Jesus.

The redaktionsgeschichte school

This movement has arisen out of form criticism and concentrates on the edited forms of the material; i.e., it treats the gospel rather than the units, although the units are presupposed. The evangelists are viewed as theologians who have imparted something of their own ideas to the material. In some respects this movement is derived from Wrede’s approach to Mark’s gospel. The difference is that whereas Wrede began with presuppositions regarding the Messianic secret, modern interpreters are more inclined to begin with the gospel material and work back to the writer’s theology. There is no doubt that concentration upon the importance of the evangelists is all to the good, for during the period of form criticism this had been largely overlooked. The question arises whether accounts written by authors with a specific theological approach could be considered valid sources for the life of Jesus. None of the evangelists were free from theological influences. They were all personally involved with the Christian faith. They were conscious that the Jesus they were describing in their gospels was more to them at the time of writing than He was to His contemporaries at the time of the events recorded. But it is not true to say that Mark has theologized the history. His record gives the impression of a deep interest in the facts (cf. C. F. D. Moule, “The Intention of the Evangelists,” New Testament Essays, ed. A. J. B. Higgins [1959]).

It is Bornkamm who has esp. drawn attention to Matthew’s theological interests. He deals with Matthew’s Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology (in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, with G. Barth and H. Held, [Eng. tr. 1963]). Under the first, Jesus is presented as Israel’s humiliated king and then, after the Resurrection, as a world-wide teacher. Under the second, the focus is upon the application of the Mosaic law to the new community; and under the third, upon the period of the mission of the community. A similar position is taken by G. Barth and H. Held. It is assumed that tradition and interpretation have been interwoven.

The gospel of Luke presents a different phenomenon. Hans Conzelmann (The Theology of Luke [Eng. tr. 1960]) attributes a great deal to Luke’s theological interests and correspondingly discounts him as an historian. He approaches the gospel from the standpoint of Luke’s threefold time scheme—the time of Israel, the time of Jesus, and the time of the Church. The gospel is concerned, therefore, with the middle of time. In addition to gearing his interpretation to this point of view, Conzelmann sees much more importance in Luke’s geographical references than had previously been the case, attaching to them a symbolic significance, particularly Jerusalem. Clearly the challenge of these various theories must be faced. If the evangelists were primarily theologians, could they have produced history? There seems to be no reason why not, although their purpose was at no time a bare recital of facts, but an endeavor to present the object of their faith in an enduring light.

The heilsgeschichte movement

This trend places emphasis upon the acts of God in history. The historical Jesus becomes a vital part of the revelation of God. Some who follow this movement are nearer to a conservative position than others. The nearest is perhaps Oscar Cullmann, who insists that no true Christian faith can exist apart from a belief that Jesus conceived Himself to be the Messiah (Christology of the New Testament, 2nd. ed. [1963]). To Him, revelation resides not only in the interpretation but in the event itself. Because of this he attaches importance to eyewitnesses. In these aspects he is diametrically opposed to the views of the more radical form critics. He has done much to redress the balance in showing the importance of history in the kerygma.

The foregoing survey has been necessary before outlining the sources because of the wide variety of opinions concerning them. The debate will go on, but there is no reason to withhold from the attempt to survey the data which have come down from the 1st cent. for assessing the life of Christ.