The Historical Jesus: Then and Now

Adela Yarbro Collins

The “modern” problem of the historical Jesus was already raised, to some degree, by the third-century Christian theologian and philosopher Origen. He described the gospels as “histories” but also stated that they narrate certain events that could not have happened.

For most interpreters from the beginning until the modern period, however, the real world was identified with the world that was constituted by combining the biblical narratives into a chronological sequence. Thus, no distinction was made between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

By the eighteenth century, thinkers associated with the Enlightenment attempted to redefine religion and social life, responding positively to the rise of modern science and negatively to the religious wars that followed the Reformation. The radicals among them were materialists and atheists. Others, especially those closely related to Deism, attempted to reconcile faith and science. Traditional belief in God, theism, included the conviction that God actively intervenes, or at least intervened in the past, by performing miracles that suspend the ordinary processes of nature. The Deists, on the contrary, argued that God was the first cause of all things and the originator of the immutable laws of nature, but that these laws exclude the possibility of miracles or direct divine intervention. In other words, God got the universe going, but since then is letting it run its course.

Rationalism and its Discontents

The Deist who had the most influence on research on the historical Jesus was a German, Hermann Reimarus. His work was entitled Apology for the Rational Worshippers of God. Reimarus believed that only a rational religion could benefit humanity. He also believed that a good defense of rational religion involved an attack on traditional Christian faith. He argued that Jesus did not intend to found a new religion, but to present himself as a political Messiah who would liberate the Jewish people from the power of Rome and reestablish an independent, earthly, kingdom of Israel. The disciples of Jesus looked forward to sharing power and wealth with him once this kingdom was established. When Jesus was crucified, the disciples invented the idea of the atonement and falsely claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They did so, Reimarus claimed, in order to achieve for themselves the power and influence that they had been expecting Jesus to provide for them. Reimarus argued against the historicity of the resurrection on the basis of the differences among the accounts and because he took the proof from Scripture to be a circular argument.

The next scholar to have an enormous influence on research on the historical Jesus was another German, David Friedrich Strauss, who published a book called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined in 1835. Strauss agreed with Reimarus that the origins of Christianity were entirely natural, but disagreed that fraud was involved.

The problem may be illustrated with regard to the miracles of Jesus. The naturalist view forces the Christian historian and theologian to choose one of the following alternatives: one may retain the historical character of the miracles and sacrifice the divine, regarding them as commonplace deceptions or misunderstandings; or hold fast the divine and eliminate the historical, taking them as representations of certain spiritual truths. The latter is the path chosen by Strauss. With the exception of the exorcisms, the miracles attributed to Jesus did not actually happen, according to Strauss. The miracle stories are expressions and illustrations of the conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Strauss’s ideas were very controversial. He was removed almost immediately from his professorship in Zurich and given a research stipend instead.

Most theologians in the nineteenth century, however, continued to construct interpretations of Jesus from Deist, rationalist, and naturalist perspectives. Primary emphasis was laid upon Jesus’ moral teaching, whereas miracles and dogmas were downplayed or ignored. During the nineteenth century, however, new documents from the period of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity were discovered, edited, and translated. Many of these were apocalyptic works, like the canonical books of Daniel and Rev- elation. These ancient works led New Testament scholars to read the gospels in a new way.

In apocalyptic works, the present time, from the point of view of the authors, is a time in which evil forces have control of creation or “this age.” God still rules in heaven, but has allowed Satan, fallen angels, tyrants, and other opponents of God to get control of the earth and most of its people. These works look forward to a time when God will act to remove these evil forces and restore creation to its original goodness and glory or to bring in “the age to come.” The “kingdom of God” is a shorthand expression for this new age or the state of salvation, because it is the time when God will regain control over the created world.

Albert Schweitzer was an Alsatian scholar active in the early twentieth century who was familiar with the new apocalyptic works, as well as the old ones. In his books The Quest for the Historical Jesus and The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, he argued that when Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, he was not speaking about a just and moral society to be established by human beings, but about the new age described by the apocalypses.

Liberal Defeat

Schweitzer was not a supernaturalist himself, but he reminded his audience that Jesus was. Jesus was not the liberal teacher that most scholars of the nineteenth century had constructed in their own image.

Although Schweitzer had attacked the liberal portrait of Jesus as historically inaccurate, the eclipse of liberal theology was accomplished primarily by the disillusionment of the First World War. Between the world wars, neo-orthodox theology came into vogue, as well as existentialist philosophy. The well-known German New Testament scholar and theologian Rudolf Bultmann accepted Schweitzer’s historical argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. He agreed that Jesus’ point of view was mythic, and he used existentialist philosophy to “demythologize” the teaching of Jesus. He reinterpreted Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom of God to mean an entirely future power that wholly determines the present. Although modern persons no longer expect God to intervene in history and establish a new age, we each must face our own deaths, and this expectation is analogous to that of Jesus. As persons who face an inevitable death, we ought to focus on the necessity and significance of decision.

Under the influence of neo-orthodox theology, the quest for the historical Jesus was relegated to the sidelines as irrelevant for Christian theology, which, it was argued, is based on the apostolic witness, not the teaching of Jesus. But in the 1950s, Ernst Käsemann, a former student of Bultmann’s, reopened the question of the historical Jesus, arguing that it was necessary for Christian faith that continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith be established. A kind of consensus portrait of Jesus was published under the title Jesus of Nazareth in 1956 by Günther Bornkamm, another former student of Bultmann’s. The standard mid-century portrait, however, was rather bland and failed to take seriously enough the Jewishness of Jesus.

Firm Facts of History

In 1985, the American scholar E. P. Sanders published his book Jesus and Judaism, which revived and updated the interpretation of Jesus pioneered by Albert Schweitzer. Sanders argued that it is difficult to move from “Jesus the teacher” to “Jesus, a Jew who was crucified, who was the leader of a group that survived his death, which in turn was persecuted, and which formed a messianic sect that was finally successful.” Rather than make the teaching of Jesus his starting point, therefore, Sanders decided to begin with certain facts about Jesus, his career, and its consequences, which are very firm and which do point toward solutions of historical questions. These facts are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist; was a Galilean who preached and healed; called disciples and spoke about there being twelve of them; confined his activity to Israel; engaged in a controversy about the temple; was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities; and that after his death his followers continued as an identifiable movement, at least parts of which were persecuted by at least some Jews.

He concluded that Jesus should be interpreted as a prophet of the restoration of Israel. He expected God to intervene soon to establish a new and glorious age.

The work of John Dominic Crossan, an Irish scholar who has made the United States his home, contrasts sharply with Sanders’s work. His book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, published in 1991, attempts to eliminate the apocalyptic aspect of the activity and teaching of Jesus. In this respect, it is a revival of the nineteenth-century liberal view of Jesus. Crossan accomplishes this goal in two ways. He discredits apocalypticism by associating the ancient apocalypses with the militant activists in the late Second Temple period; in other words, he links the apocalyptic perspective with violence and assassination. He also claims that the sources that portray Jesus as a wisdom teacher or sage are older than those that present him and his message in prophetic and apocalyptic terms. Crossan concludes that Jesus proclaimed and founded an egalitarian kingdom of nobodies whom Jesus sent out to exchange a miracle for a meal— that is, healing for hospitality. Although Crossan portrays Jesus and his followers as rural and thus as “peasants,” he also claims that they were similar to Cynic philosophers. The Cynic movement, however, was an urban phenomenon.

Market Economy Messiahs

In the 1990s some scholars criticized the whole enterprise of research into the historical Jesus. One of these, Dieter Georgi, spent part of his professional life in the United States and part of it in his homeland, Germany. He wrote an article entitled “The Interest in Life of Jesus Theology as a Paradigm for the Social History of Biblical Criticism,” which was published in the Harvard Theological Review in 1992.

Georgi argued that the aim of Reimarus and others who took up the quest for the historical Jesus after him was not neutral, but had a clear theological purpose—to gain a verifiable reconstruction of the public career of Jesus of Nazareth and to put this reconstruction at the center of reflection on theology and faith, turning this “true” Jesus into the center of theological discourse.

He argued further that early theologies of Jesus were shaped by the cult of the extraordinary in Hellenistic-Roman society, and that such fascination was related to the market economy of the time. In the late medieval and early modern period, interest in Jesus as a superhuman individual became prominent again with the rise of a new class of burghers as an economic and social force. The extraordinarily gifted person became a relevant and formative model for society. The preference for the divine in Jesus turned out to be an enlargement of the human potential. What Georgi calls the bourgeois concept of genius began to emerge in the sixteenth century. The idea of the genius embodied the interest of the bourgeoisie in reproducing and strengthening itself. Georgi concluded: “The contemporaneity of the New Quest with the end of the New Deal and the restoration of the bourgeoisie in the United States and Germany after World War II and within the confines of a burgeoning market-oriented Atlantic community is not accidental.”

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is a German-educated scholar who has lived and worked for most of her career in the United States. She took an approach similar to Georgi’s with a feminist perspective in her article “Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation,” published in the Harvard Theological Review in 1997. She argued that the two dominant hermeneutical approaches in Jesus research are historical positivism (represented by Crossan) and canonical, theological positivism (the approach of the American scholar Luke Timothy Johnson). She proposed a reconstructive paradigm that understands history not so much as scientific proof, but in terms of memory. She claimed that the flood of allegedly new scholarly and popular books on Jesus does nothing to undermine fundamentalist desires for a reliable account of the historical Jesus or religious certainty about the meaning of his life. At best, one can glimpse the historical shadow of Jesus, but how “his picture” develops will always depend on the lens one uses—that is, on the reconstructive model adopted.

If the memory of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, understood as an instance of unjust human suffering and survival, is at the heart and center of Christian memory, then, she argues, the critical line lies between injustice and justice, between the world of domination and a world of freedom and well-being.

In 2006, emeritus Yale professor Wayne Meeks published Christ Is the Question, in which he argued that the identity of Jesus has been constructed by his followers and readers of the gospels from the time of his death until the present.

In 1991, 1994, and 2001, the American scholar John P. Meier, published three volumes on the historical Jesus under the umbrella title A Marginal Jew. A fourth volume is projected. This work is a model of secular, skeptical historiography that results in one of the more reliable portraits of the historical Jesus.

What then is the state of the question? What can be said about the historical Jesus today?

Historians have labeled Jesus as a prophet, as the Messiah, as a miracle worker, as a rabbi, or a teacher. Jesus, however, apparently did not look and behave like a prophet. John the Baptist wore what had become the typical dress of a prophet: a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt. No such attire is attributed to Jesus. John was ascetic in other ways too. He ate locusts and wild honey and was famous for fasting. In contrast, it was known that Jesus did not teach his disciples to fast. In fact, he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. This contrast suggests that Jesus’ self-understanding and message were different from John’s in important ways. Rather than emphasizing sin, punishment, and moral renewal, like John did, Jesus portrayed God as reaching out to those who had turned aside. His was a message of love and joy, and he embodied it in table fellowship, sometimes even feasting, that prefigured and symbolized the rule of God.

Teacher, Prophet, Exorcist, Risen Lord

Jesus is also presented as a teacher and interpreter of Jewish Scripture and law. According to Mark, the people of Capernaum were amazed at his teaching, because he was teaching them with authority, not as the experts in the law taught. It is likely that Jesus did claim an extraordinary authority in his teaching. It may be that he did so indirectly and with the consciousness of being a prophet. Soon, however, perhaps already during his lifetime, this authority was understood to be unique and linked to his messianic status.

According to an early, deep, and widespread tradition, Jesus performed mighty deeds or miracles. Among all the mighty deeds that Jesus is said to have done, those most likely to be historical are the exorcisms. The idea that demons could possess and torment people is a part of folk religion, but it also had a place among the learned in Jesus’ time, especially those who thought in dualistic, apoca- lyptic terms.

During his lifetime, then, Jesus attracted some followers as an authoritative teacher, others as a prophet proclaiming the kingdom of God, and others as an exorcist who had the power to overcome evil spirits. It is likely that some drew the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah during his lifetime. This response was due in part to his authoritative and charismatic activity and in part to the readiness of a segment of the people to look for an alternative to the rule of the Romans and their client-kings, the Herodians. The crowds that Jesus drew no doubt attracted the attention of the authorities. Not long after they heard some of the people proclaim him as king and saw him overturn tables in the temple, they arrested him and executed him. This event must have been a devastating shock to his followers. Some of them interpreted his execution as the typical fate of a prophet.

It is much more surprising, from a historical point of view, that other followers of Jesus interpreted his death as the preordained death of the Messiah, since this idea was not only new but against the grain of contemporary expectations about the Messiah of Israel. Instead of giving up the idea that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel because he suffered and died (rather than a Messiah who led the people to victory over the Romans), this group of followers reinterpreted the concept of the Messiah after some of their number had experienced Jesus as risen from the dead. They looked to Scripture for guidance and became convinced that the psalms of individual lament, such as Psalm 22 and 69, and the passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 showed that the suffering and death of the Messiah was part of the divine plan. They concluded that it was the risen Jesus, not the earthly one, who would rule over all creation as God’s agent. Jesus, they believed, had already been exalted to heaven and had begun to rule. His reign would be fully manifest in the future when he would be revealed as the Son of Man, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14.

It is impossible to know whether Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah. He presented him- self as a prophet, perhaps at least implicitly as the final and most authoritative prophet; as a teacher with extraordinary authority; and he was believed to have performed at least one type of mighty deed. These qualities made him stand out as a leader and a focal point for the hopes and expectations of those who were dissatisfied with the current order. Even if Jesus showed no interest in leading a revolt, his talk about the kingdom of God and his extraordinary qualities were apparently enough to lead those with high hopes for a new order to fix those hopes on him.

So how does this portrait of the historical Jesus relate to the Christ of faith? A key issue is the apocalyptic world view that defines the teaching and life of the historical Jesus. Some reconcile the two by explaining away the apocalyptic character of Jesus’ message or by ignoring it. A better way is to work with the apocalyptic language of the gospels as metaphorical or symbolic language. Such images and metaphors may be interpreted as ancient efforts to address recurrent human desires to be free from physical, moral, and political evils. Those desires can then be recognized in our own lives and addressed in the various languages and social contexts of our day.

Adela Yarbro Collins is Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School, where she has been teaching since 2000. Her recent books include Mark: A Commentary (Fortress, 2007); The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (Wipf & Stock, 2001); and Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Brill, 1996).