33. Life of Jesus: Quest for the Historical Jesus

Course: New Testament Survey - Gospels

Lecture: Life of Jesus: Quest for the Historical Jesus


All right, we want to talk about the quest for the historical Jesus, and you have that material on the very last page of your notes. Now, the quest of the historical Jesus began with a man named Hermann Samuel Reimarus. A lot of good things came out of Germany. A lot of lousy things came out of Germany, and the quest for the historical Jesus for good or for bad came out of Germany.

Now, Reimarus was born in 1694, and died in 1768, and he never published his thoughts about the historical Jesus, and he probably did this knowing that it would raise a great storm of protest. He also probably did it because he was married to the daughter of a very conservative church leader in Germany. And when he died, his notes, probably given by a son to the librarian of the library at Wolfenbuettel, a man by the name of Lessing, a very famous German poet, received them, and he began to publish them under the title the Wolfenbuettel Fragments, and in this material, which was later traced to Hermann Samuel Reimarus, there was a critical attack on the traditional picture of Jesus. These fragments argued that Jesus never made any messianic claims in our Christological sense — that he was the son of God, that he would die for the sins of the word, or anything like that. He never instituted any sacraments. He never predicted his death. He never rose from the dead, and that the story of Jesus was, in fact, a deliberate fraud created by the disciples.

Now, let me just read to you a few comments from Reimarus that the, uh – gives you an understanding of what came out at that time. "It was not until 30 to 60 years after the death of Jesus that people began to write an account of the performance of these miracles in a language which the Jews and Palestine did not understand. It was Greek, not in Aramaic, and this was at the time when the Jewish nation was in a state of greatest disquietude and confusion, and when very few of those who had known Jesus were still alive.

Nothing then was easier than to invent as many miracles as they pleased without fear of their writing being readily understood of refuted. It had been repressed upon all converts from the beginning that is was both advantageous and soul saving to believe and to put the mind captive under the obedience of faith, and, consequently, there was as much credulity among them as there were pious frauds or deceptions from good motives among their teachers, and both of these, as is well known, prevailed in the highest degree in the early Christian church. Other religions indeed are quite as full of miracles. The heathen boasts of many. So does the Turk. No religion is without them, and that is what also makes the Christian miracle so doubtful and provokes us to ask, 'Did the events really happen? Were the attendant circumstances such as are stated? Did they come to pass naturally or by craft or by chance,'" and now the question arises – well, here we have the stories of Jesus – what was the real Jesus like, and you have now this quest to find out the real Jesus.

Elsewhere, he says, "We are justified in drawing an absolute distinction between the teaching of the apostles and their writings, and what Jesus himself, in his own lifetime, proclaimed and taught." For instance, he says, "When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he did so in order to have the people flock to him and support him as the messiah. He did so in open defiance of the authorities. The people, however, refused to rise and support him. As a result, on the cross when he cried, 'My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me,’ this avowal cannot without violence be interpreted otherwise than as meaning that God had not aided him in aim and purpose as he had hoped. That shows that he had not been his purpose to suffer and die but to establish an earthly kingdom and deliver the Jews from political oppression, and in that, God's help had failed him."

Now, people are saying, "Well, what was Jesus really like?" If you say he's not like what Reimarus says, then you have to argue against that, and you try to prove that Jesus was really like the New Testament portrait. Before, you didn't bother proving that. You simply believed it, and now as Schweitzer states, "Before Reimarus, no one had attempted to form a historical conception of the life of Jesus, and now both advocates and opponents of the Jesus of the gospels try to do so, and that's the starting point of the quest for the historical Jesus. There were some others like some of the deists in England, Tolland and others who argued against certain miracles, but here is whole complete portrait of Jesus as a historical figure that is radically different than the gospels. What was Jesus really, therefore, like?

Now, the first major movement that takes place after this is what we call rationalism where people now try to take the biblical text and rationalize what Jesus must have really been like, and we talk about uh, a kind of bell curve in the early attempts to do so, then rationalism at its peak, and then the questioning of how successful this ultimately is, and let me read to you, uh – I'm sorry I'm going to read so much, but I don't know how else to get this out to you, but let me read to you some of these rationalistic attempts – early rationalism – a man by the name of Franz Volkmar Reinhard – there's no question his nationality. "All that which we call miraculous and supernatural is to be understood as only relatively so. It implies nothing further than an obvious exception to what can be brought about by natural causes so far as we know them and have experience of their capacity. A cautious thinker will not venture in any single instance to pronounce an event to be so extraordinary that God could not have brought it about by the use of secondary causes but must have intervened directly." So, now the whole question of all miracles comes into existence.

Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, the Feeding of the 5000, "It is more reasonable here to think of a thousand ways by which Jesus might have had sufficient supplies of bread at hand and by the distribution of it, have shamed the disciples lack of courage than to believe in a miracle." This is the anti-supernatural uh, movement of what we call the enlightenment. His own explanation is that the disciples had collected supplies of bread in a cave and this was gradually handed out to Jesus who stood at a concealed entrance to the cave and that uh, the people who didn't know this thought that they – he was actually multiplying the bread. So, there was a storehouse of World War II surplus bread and fish and things like that, and that's how it all took place.

Walking upon the sea, he explains, "Jesus walked toward the disciples over the surface of a great floating raft. While the disciples were not able to see the raft, believed that he actually was walking on the water."

The Resurrection, "Jesus, by uttering a loud cry and immediately bowing his head, appeared to have died a sudden death. The soldiers were bribed not to break his legs. Luke had previously given Jesus special medicines to prepare him for the crucifixion, and in the cave, the medicines were successful in restoring Jesus to health. His followers opened the cave and as Jesus began to descend the hill, the guards awakened and fled in fright at the sight. Jesus then appeared at intervals to his disciples from a special place of concealment. He finally bade a farewell to his disciples and ascended the Mount of Olives into a low-hanging cloud. From there he went into hiding only to appear on rare instances, such as DePaul on the way to Damascus until eventually he died.

Now, it's fascinating about this rationalism is that a lot of details are taken very seriously. Jesus descends the Mount of Olives into a cloud. So, these – they believe that behind these is a real event that has been misunderstood, so rationalism tries to reinterpret in a non-supernatural way what really took place.

Karl Heinrich Venturini – his title [foreign] from Nazareth – a non-supernatural history of the great prophet of Nazareth – isn't it nice to have a title in which you already know what the thesis is rather than have a uh, an ambiguous title, and after you read the book, you still don't know what it's all about, but you can just say the title is – I know what it – wh – what it's all about.

The Miracle at Kaynah, "Jesus had brought with him a – as a wedding gift, some jars of good wine and had put them aside in another room. When the wine ran out, Jesus allowed the guests to wait a little until the stone vessels for purification had been filled with water. After this had been done, Jesus told some of the servants to pour out some of the wine but did not tell anyone where it came from. Later on, they assumed that it came from the stone vessels."

The Resurrection, "Jesus truly expected to die but when he died so quickly, Joseph of Arimathea was moved by some premonition to ask quickly for the body of Jesus. He sought to bribe Pontius Pilot with the gift of money, but Pilot replied to him, 'Do you also misunderstand me? Am I such an insatiable miser? Still you are a Jew. How could you as a people do me justice? Know then that a Roman can honor true nobility wherever he may find it,' and so he sat down and wrote some words on a strip of parchment. 'Give this to the captain of the guard. You'll be permitted to remove the body. I ask nothing for this. It is granted to you freely.' After receiving the body, he and Nicadeemas washed it, anointed it with spices and laid it on a bed of moss in the tomb. Seeing that the blood was still flowing, they hoped that this was a good sign, so they called the Essene brethren together. They promised to watch over the body.

There was no movement during the first during the first 24 hours, but then an earthquake came and as one of the Essene's dressed in white approached the cave by a secret path, he was illuminated by a flash of lightening. This caused the guard to panic and flee. In the morning, the brethren heard Jesus moving in the tomb. Finding him alive, they moved him to their – to their lodge. Two of the brethren remained behind in their white garments and where mistaken for angels. Jesus then appeared at intervals to his disciples for 40 days. At that point, he bed farewells to his disciples." Uh, i – it's fictional. How da – How in the world does he obtain this scholarly evidence of what Pontius Pilot and Joseph of Arimathea were talking about but this was an age of rationalism, and at some times rationalism tends to be very, very fictional apparently.

Yeah. Uh, now in the middle period, you have Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus – again, a – a German of course – concerning the walking on the water, "It was an illusion of the disciples. Jesus walked along the shore and, in the midst, was taken for a ghost by his followers. Peter, however, tried to walk on the water and was only saved because Jesus dragged him onto the shore." I mean he – he didn't realize. He's just walking on the shore and he says, "I can try it," but he walked on the water and [inaudible] people [inaudible] walk on water so he almost drowned, but Jesus grabbed him on shore.

The Feeding of the 5000 – "When Jesus saw the hungry multitudes, he said to his disciples, "We will set the rich among them a good example that they may share their supplies with the others, and when he began to distribute his own previsions and those of the disciples, the others followed their example. Concerning the transfiguration, Jesus was on the top of a mountain. He had an interview with two dignified men whom the disciples mistook for Moses and Elijah. These unknown persons informed Jesus of the fate waiting him in Jerusalem. In the morning as the sun was rising, the three disciples being half asleep looked upward from the hollow where they had been sleeping and saw Jesus with the two strangers illuminated by the beams of the rising sun and overheard them speak of the fate that awaited Jesus in Jerusalem."

All right, that is enough, I think of giving you some examples of rationalism. Uh, today, no one would follow that kind of radical thinking uh, and the result is that there was another person who comes along – a man by the name of David Strauss and David F. Strauss is understood as bringing about the mythical interpretation of the gospel sayings and of the life of Jesus, and let me read to you some comments from Strauss, who is far more influential today than the rationalists.

After looking at the various explanations of the transfiguration, he says – the rationalist explanation – "Taking all this in consideration, little any longer stands in the way of the assumption of myths in all parts of the gospel narratives. Furthermore, the term myths itself should not give an intelligent person any offense other than a mere word should give a person at any time. For everything of the doubt – of double meaning that clings to that word because of recollation – recollection of paganess, this appears as a result of the argument to this point. That is, that by the New Testament myths, nothing else is to be understood than the expression of primitive Christian ideas formulated in unintentionally poeticizing sagas and looking very much like history." 

In other words, in the subconsciousness of the church, these myths arise. I – i – it's not intentional. It is quite unintentional. Thus here, in the story of the transfiguration, as in every former instance, after having run through the circle of natural explanations, we are led back to the supernatural. In other words, you try all these rational explanations. You cannot get away from it. The story talks about miracles. Superna – in that sense that, uh the conservatives have more going for them than the, uh – the rationalists because the rationalists totally lose sight of the fact that this story is about miracles. So, he says, "After you try all these rationalist explanations, it'd come back and you still have – led back to the supernatural. In which, however, we are precluded from resting by di – difficulties equally decisive. Why? You have difficulties, and the difficulties are what? What are the difficulties that you can't accept the supernatural?

Audience Member: You can't see it.

Dr. Robert Stein: Yeah, bu – but philosophically, what are you presuppositions?

Dr. Robert Stein:  You start out – say, "There are no such things as miracles," right? So, you can't accept that. So, you go through the rational explanations. You can't – they're all silly. Y – y – y – a lot of them, you – you were polite. You didn't laugh out loud but some of them are really laughable. So, you come back and you say – well, now you look at them. Uh, you can't explain this but then you come back to the miracle, but you can't accept these. So, what do you do? Since then, the text forbids a natural interpretation. You can't – rationalists – that their explanations are not possible. While it is impossible to maintain his historical the supernatural interpretation which it sanctions, we must apply ourselves to a critical examination of its statements.

Finally, this example – "The transfiguration may serve to show with peculiar clarity, how the natural system of interpretation, while it seeks to preserve the historical continuity of the narratives, loses the ideal truth, sacrifices the essence of the form. Whereas, the mythical interpretation, by renouncing the historical body of such narratives, recues and preserves the idea" – that subconscious idea that gave birth to it – uh, let’s see – "which resides in them, in which alone constitutes their validity in spirit. Thus, if as the natural explanation would have it, the splendor around Jesus was an accidental optical phenomena, and the two appearances, either images of a dream or unknown men." Where is the significance of the incident? Where is the motive for preserving in the memory of the church? "An anecdote so void of ideas and so barren of inference r – resting on a common delusion and superstition." On the other hand, well, according the mythical interpretation – his – "I do not, it is true, see in the evangelical narrative, any actual occurrence. I yet retain a sense and a purpose in the narrative. I know that the first Christian community – I know what the first Christian community thought it meant and why the authors of the gospels included so important a passage in their memoirs."

Uh, Strauss ultimately brings about the death of the rationalistic approach because there's nothing – there's nothing to preach on it. Whereas, if you deal with his approach, he says, "There is a spiritual truth, an un – uh, something from the subconsciousness that has broken through into reality, and this idea is worth preaching and proclaiming." For instance can you teach in class some of the stories from Homer's Odyssey and Iliad? You can. You – there can be a spiritual idea there, but it's nonsense to try to talk about it historically and try from – from it being a historical narrative getting such a truth, and for Strauss, the gospels are on the same level as Homer's Odyssey and Iliad or something like that.

Now, there came after Strauss, Bruno Bauer, who actually went and said, "Jesus never lived," which is about as far as you can go. I don't know if you can get any more radical than that unless you say, "I don't live." Then it gets even more r – r – radical than that.

At the end of the 19th century, up to World War I there was a movement called Liberalism. As a theological movement, that movement ended in World War I. What we mean by liberalism is something much broader than this, and that is a radical approach – a non-supernatural approach – a disbelief in the supernatural but Strauss was not a liberal and he could believe those things. So, liberalism a – as a system is – comes to the end in World War I, and I give here to you something of what liberalism essentially had as its heart – The kingdom of God and its coming, the kingdom of God in the human heart, not as an ecological end of the world kind of thing – that God was the father of all humanity, that the soul had infinite value and that Jesus' ethical teaching about this higher ethic of the commandment to love God and to one's neighbor, that's the essence of the Christian faith.

Uh, however when you look at that, how can Jesus be relevant for us today? Well, at best, he can be relevant as our example, and so, it's at this point, that liberalism emphasizes what is called the Imitation of Christ. Now, there were people who wrote the Imitation of Christ. Was that Merton – Thomas Merton? Uh, he believed these things and argued Jesus as our example and we should imitate him, but generally, in liberalism, the imitation of Christ was imitate this Jesus who was of – the most loving of people, who had the greatest sense of the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the infinite value of the human soul and so forth.

Now, this movement came to an end,  and the early request for the historical Jesus – what Jesus was really like – died a death due to – I list here – four reasons. The first of them is that – Albert Schweitzer wrote a book, the Quest of the Historical Jesus – the German title was from Reimarus to Wrede. Reimarus who starts the quest – Wrede who was the contemporary of Schweitzer when he wrote – and Schweitzer's comments on this, I need to read to you because once you read it, you understand how that m – movement for the historical Jesus had to die. Quote – "Those who are fond of talking about negative theology can find their account here. There's nothing more negative than the result of a critical study of the life of Jesus. When you look at what people did, nothing i – is more negative. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of God upon earth and died to give his work its final consecration never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism endowed with life by liberalism and clothed by modern theology in a historical garb. In either case, he will not be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can ascribe" – we Germans can't ascribe to something like that – "as it did with the Jesus of its own making."

The real Jesus, we can't – we won't be able to believe it, he says. Whereas the one we made and created on our uh – with own hands and stuff, that we could, but he goes on – he says, "Nor will the real Jesus be a figure which could be made, by popular historical treatments, so thi – sympathetic and" use it – "and universally intelligible to the multitude. The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma. The study of the life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus believing that when it had found him, it could bring him straight into our time as a teacher and savior. It loosed the bands by which it had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine."

He does write well. You have to admit that. "And rejoice to see life and movement coming into the figure once more and the historical Jesus advancing as it seemed to meet it." So, in other words, here you have the church's Jesus. You know, you go to the art of the church, the crucified Jesus, the anemic Jesus on the cross and so forth you have this Jesus who is as a little child um, very God very God, knows all things, and uh, is doing Einsteinium geometry while he is nursing on his mother's breast.

That – that kind of understanding is dominant in the church – and finally, they say, "No, t – he was a real man. He bled. He – he had compassion," and people began to get excited. The Jesus from the church's doctrine was disappearing and you get the feeling of a real Jesus who was attractive, and – and they – the liberals and all these people, they – they reached out. They said, "Jesus is coming. We're getting him," and all of a sudden, he just goes right by, and he goes back to the first century, and when they turn around, they see the Jesus of the first century and he's carrying a sign – repent, the world's coming to an end, and they're absolutely horrified by this, and he's repugnant to everything they believe, and so they say, "Well, if that's the Jesus that's gonna result, who wants him," and so they give up on him.

Let me continue, however, reading here. Uh, "It loosed the bands by which he had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing as it seemed to meet it, but he does not stay. He passes by our time and returns to his own. What surprised and dismayed the theology of the last 40 years" – this quest of the historical Jesus – "despite all forced and arbitrary interpretations, it could not keep him in our time but had to let him go. He returned to his own time not owing to the application of any historical ingenuity but by the same inevitable necessity by which the liberated pendulum returns to its original position. We are experiencing what Paul experienced. In the very moment when we were coming nearer to the historical Jesus than men had overcome before and were already stretching out our hands to draw him into our own time, we have been obliged to give up the attempt and acknowledge our failure, and further, we must be prepared to find that the historical knowledge of the personality and the life of Jesus will not be a help but perhaps, even an offense to religion."

All right, the quest dies because Schweitzer points out, you are not going to arrive at a German theologian educated in Berlin or Tubingen or Heidelberg in the 19th century. No, he's a first century Jew, and his whole belief system is so contrary to our renaissance naturalistic thinking that he's an offense to us, and people said, "Who cares? I don't. If that's the result of my labor, who's going to want to find that kind of a Jesus," and the questers just give up. They become so disillusioned. They are no longer interested. He draw – he destroys any motivation for the quest of historical Jesus. Jesus is an enigma to the liberal, therefore, liberals are not interested anymore.

Another reason for the death of the historical Jesus is that of William Wrede. We talked about the – the synoptic problem. Much of what drove the desire to know what the earliest gospel is was the desire to find the original earliest historical source. Now they have Mark, and now when they have Mark, they will get to a source that is not theological but is purely historical and objective, and we can mind Mark now as the gospel to find out about the historical Jesus.

Well, in 1901 this Messias [foreign] the messianic secret in the gospels was published, and what Wrede pointed out was that Mark is not a disinterested objective historical source. Mark is propaganda for the Christian movement. Now, propaganda can be true. It propagandizes it, argues for the Christian faith and so, they thought when they eventually got to Mark, they'd peeled away all that stuff, and they could just take Mark, remove some of the miracles and so forth, and have a real historical uh, gospel, but now, all of a sudden, the question comes up, "Well, where – where can we really arrive at an objective understanding of Jesus?"

All the sources – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are theological works written by Christians, and so that raises questions as to whether the quest is possible at all, and then you have after Wrede, the form critics coming in and saying that our gospels are not objective historical biographies, and we described that earlier and I don't want that to be misunderstood. Not objective – of course they're not – they're written by Christians. Historical in the sense that they have miracles – if you define historical as being non-supernatural, the gospels are not historical, and they're not biographies in the normal sense because you don't begin a biography like Mark does – "Thirty-three years after his birth" – so, how can we really know about Jesus, and they begin to wonder and say, uh - i – "It's not possible."

A third work that comes along is that of Martin Kähler, the So-Called Historical Jesus and Historic Biblical Christ. Uh, what he destroys is the motivation for the quest. W – what – I wish I had brought Kähler because he reads beautifully and he has some good things to say. I just have one quo – quotation from him. "The real Christ, that is, the Christ who has exercised an influence in history, with whom millions have communed in childlike faith, and with whom the great witnesses of faith have been in communion – while striving, apprehending, triumphing, and proclaiming – the real Christ is the Christ who is preached. The Christ who is preached, however, is precisely the Christ of faith."

The liberal Jesus never did anybody any – people are not – unbelievers are never converted to liberalism. That Jesus doesn't convert anybody. Liberalism converts evangelical Christians to it. That's the only way i – it can exist, but the gospel Jesus has changed the lives of people for centuries and that's precisely the Jesus that is proclaimed – not this historical Jesus but the Jesus of faith – that’s the life-changing Jesus, and Kähler pointed out, the other Jesus is irrelevant. No one cares about that Jesus. The only Jesus that affects people's lives is the Jesus of faith, and, therefore, the whole quest for what a historical Jesus was like is illegitimate for faith. It's irrelevant.

Finally, the last person I can mention who had a – a – an important influence is William Dilthey, who, as a historian, argued that the whole idea that you can be objective and arrive at an objective Jesus is nonsense. All history starts with presuppositions that already prejudice the case. Uh, so, where you start is predetermined by you with your ideas and desires and it predetermines where you're going to come out. Uh, for instance think o – of various people doing a paper on the charismatic movement, and one person says, "I'm going to investigate similar psychological phenomena in the world." Well, you're gonna come out exactly where you started – or someone says, "No, I wanna – I want to investigate other present-day-miracle events."

Well, okay, I see where you're coming from – or, I want to understand where li – similar linguistic phenomena occurs. It does not, to a certain extent, what your investigating, already determine where you're gonna come out – or you say, "Well, I want to do uh, a study of the – the Russian revolution." You say, "All right, okay, that's fine. Uh, what are you gonna investigate?" "Well, I'm going to investigate the movement from various forms of production and see how that may have influenced the revolution." Okay a good Marxian approach. You say, "Well, no, I'm gonna look at the rat population that existed in St. Petersburg at the time." Why not? Who knows? May – maybe the whole revolution started because they were so tired of rats there, they said, "Let's revolt. We have nothing better to do." You say, "Well – well, wait a minute." You say, "That's absurd." How do you prove something like that? You – you can't spend all your life investigating every absurd possibility.

Maybe it was some – it had something to do with the length of robes by the orthodox priests that caused the revolution. You say, "That's stupid." Well, it may be, but can you rule it out? You say, "Well, no – okay, we have to inve" – well, you can’t investigate everything.  So what he's saying is historians by their very investigation of things, have already a predisposition. They're not neutral in those matters. Well, the result of this was the death of quest of the historical Jesus. There later arose a new quest which we're not going to be able to talk about, and I just need to bring some sort of a conclusion here to this very, very superficial overview, but may – maybe something like this – can you see that?

Uh, thank you – a do-it-yourself Jesus. Have you ever wondered why, for certain Christians, Jesus essentially is understood as going to Jerusalem with his stock portfolio to see him broker, and to see about his investi – investment strategy, or that during the Jesus movement of the 70s that the Jesus that was being portrayed by certain was one who would dr – break into the o – offices of uh, the government and pour blood on records, or that he was a Jesus that had nothing to do with society but withdrew and formed his own communal group? How do people come out with Jesus like that? And that raises a serious question. Is the Jesus you and I believe in an idol that we have made or is he the real Jesus? Can we be the only group in this world that's never succumbed to making Jesus in our own image? How do you know if you're making Jesus in your own image?

I leave you with one bit of advice. When you become comfortable with Jesus, then you know you've made him in your own image because the Jesus of the gospel, if he never causes us to kick against the pricks and be shocked, if he doesn't shake us up and cause us to repent, if – if our Jesus never does that, he's not the real Jesus because, you see, none of us are so much like God or of the Lord Jesus himself, that we don't find that we have sinned and need to repent. When that Jesus comes and, time and time again, causes us to see that we made him in our own image and we need to ask forgiveness, then I think we're on the track of the real Jesus.

Thank you for the privilege of teaching you this semester.