Seminary Ramblings

Updates from life at seminary

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

Now that I have received back my graded copy of this paper, I suppose it’s ok to blast it up to the internet machine. In any event, this is a short paper I wrote a while back for a class concerning the Quest for the Historical Jesus, a term which basically refers to trying to reconstruct Jesus’ life via critical historical methodology. If you’re interested in this “Quest” which has been engaged in by guys like N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, and Ben Witherington, then read away. If you’re not and you don’t read away, don’t worry, I won’t be offended =).

Evangelical Scholarship and the Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Question of Uses and Limitations

Introduction

Ever since the publication of Reimarus’ Fragments in 1778, the search for an “authentic” portrait of Jesus via critical historical methods has taken off.[1] Although this branch of scholarship is known most generally as the “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” there have in fact been several different quests, which have gone through periods of relative intensity as well as relative inactivity. In general though, the Quest for the Historical Jesus may be defined as “a label for the post-Enlightenment attempts to reconstruct the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth by critical historical methods.”[2] These methods serve as the fundamental shared element of unity in all of the quests, tying together what have often been quite disparate conclusions with a core approach to how research on Jesus should be done. In theory, critical historical methodology is seen as “[providing] common ground for scholars of differing viewpoints.”[3]

The Quest, while originally begun to discredit Christianity, has nevertheless also attracted the attention of many notable evangelical scholars, especially in the last forty years and in the proliferation of works in what has been labeled the Third Quest.[4] In particular, scholars such as

Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington, and Craig Blomberg have immersed themselves in the Quest, generating an extensive amount of publications in the process.[5] With the large amount of effort expended by top-notch evangelical scholars in these quests, the question must be asked if the Quest for the Historical Jesus is a worthwhile endeavor for evangelicals. Should evangelicals be invested in an enterprise which began as an attempt to discredit orthodox Christianity,[6] and which is largely continued by scholars with decidedly non-Christian beliefs and presuppositions? Such a question is worth asking, and is the one that this essay will attempt to answer. In what follows, I will attempt to persuade the reader that the Quest for the Historical Jesus is indeed a worthwhile undertaking for evangelicals, however care must be taken that it is placed in the correct context and used for the correct purposes.

A Christian Understanding of History

In considering the usefulness of the Quest for evangelicals, we must start with a Christian understanding of history. The Christian faith, as has sometimes been forgotten, is a historical religion. It is not concerned primarily with dogmatic accounts that may be divorced from actual history, but rather purports to be historically grounded and concerned with real space-time events. This historicity is everywhere assumed by the New Testament writers.[7] In the words of N.T. Wright, “history, especially the history of first-century Judaism, is the sphere where we find, at work to judge and to save, the God who made the world.”[8] Without a true grounding in actual historical events, orthodox Christianity falls and must surrender to mythologized interpretations of the biblical texts. The apostle Paul believed in a historical resurrection when he told the church at Corinth, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).[9]

This historical understanding of the faith must always be remembered, and cannot be ignored by Christians who wish to remain faithful to the biblical witness. Thus, strictly speaking, for evangelical Christians there is no divorce between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. They are one and the same person and the biblical accounts present us not only with theological interpretations of events, but also with reliable accounts of the historical events themselves. Any form of Christianity that wishes to avoid these conclusions is not the historically orthodox Christian faith and must be jettisoned by evangelicals.

Reasons for Participation in the Quest

These considerations lead us immediately into the necessity of some level of participation in the Quest for the Historical Jesus. When it comes to questions of history, evangelicals have nothing to fear, and ought to be willing to engage in deep historical discussion with scholars of all traditions. There are many reasons for this, and I will here give three of these reasons why evangelicals must be open to and engage in historical inquiry, before laying out several cautions against how this should be done and in what contexts it is most useful.

First off, the historical nature of Christianity demands an openness to historical inquiry by it’s adherents.[10] N.T. Wright goes so far as to call historical inquiry a “necessary task of discipleship.”[11] The history of God’s actions in redemption takes place in specific locations at specific times, and evangelicals have a responsibility to understand to the best of their ability the contexts in which God has acted and given his revelation.

Second, participation in the Quest for the Historical Jesus allows evangelicals to engage with critical scholarship. The gospel is a public truth and should be publicly defended as such when it comes under attack.[12] This has always been the Christian understanding from the great Apologies of Justin Martyr in the 2nd century down on to the present day. Thus, when falsehoods about Christians and Christianity were spreading in the 2nd century, Justin wrote, “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honor and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless.”[13] Evangelicals do not attempt to follow historically unwarranted traditions, but rather seek to proclaim the truth as it is in Jesus (cf. Eph 4:21). And while historical facts by themselves can make no one a Christian, it is nevertheless the place of Christians to be lovers of truth and to show the plausibility of the faith to all peoples.[14]

Thirdly, historical inquiry into the gospel accounts can also positively help Christians to interpret them correctly. This is to touch on a facet of the historical Jesus quest which is not unique to it, but which is nevertheless an important piece; the general historical inquiry into the religious, political, and social landscape of the first century. Like all literature, the gospel accounts were written in a particular historical context and assume a certain amount of historical knowledge. For example, they assume the reader knows something of the beliefs and actions of the Pharisees, as well as something of the geography of first century Palestine. While this knowledge is not absolutely necessary to read them and understand them to a degree, a greater historical knowledge of the first century nevertheless helps inform and augment one’s understanding of the context and concerns of the gospels. In turn, this aids in faithful interpretation and application to the present day, helping to avoid historically naive or anachronistic interpretations.

Some Cautions and Concerns

As has been seen, The Quest for the Historical Jesus can be useful for evangelicals as a corollary of a historical faith, in the realm of the public defense of the gospel, and as a tool for inquiry into historical context. These benefits may be said to fall primarily into the realms of historically-attuned exegesis and apologetics. However, while the quest is a worthwhile endeavor, it must nevertheless be “critically appropriated” by evangelicals,[15] particularly in terms of it’s proper use. Thus, I will argue that, when rightly understood, historical Jesus research should carry only a chastened role for the evangelical in the work of exegesis and theology.

Fundamental to this limited place for the usefulness of historical Jesus research is the nature of the enterprise. By definition, it is a task where both Christian and non-Christian scholars should be theoretically able to come to shared conclusions (despite the lack of this agreement in actuality), as it utilizes the method that C. Stephen Evans terms “methodological naturalism.”[16] Even within a methodologically naturalistic framework however, it is now widely recognized that all historians bring with them their own presuppositions and agendas.[17] For the evangelical, these presuppositions will carry a large role in determining the way in which theology is done, and thus a naturalistic methodology can never be allowed to dominate our theological method.

In particular, an evangelical theological method must account for “the noetic effects of sin [and] the need for the illumination of the Holy Spirit for a correct understanding of the Scriptures.”[18] Evangelicals “ought to allow faith an epistemological role,” however, the Quest often does not do this.[19] This is not to retreat into some sort of blind faith behind the tenuous Jericho walls of systematic theology, it is rather to recognize that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).[20] Thus, any theological method that ignores the role of the Holy Spirit in renewing our minds cannot be primary for evangelicals.

Pastorally, at least one other caution is due. While the church must insist on the necessity of history and the role of faithful teachers, it must take care to not let the historical critical scholar become in effect a “fifth evangelist,” who alone has the true interpretation of the text that all others lack.[21] This was an essential part of the well-known critique of Martin Kahler and points to a dangerous Gnostic tendency that the quest can lead to, when only one person has the “secret knowledge” needed to unlock the gospel accounts.[22] C. Stephen Evans even sees this tendency in a scholar such at N.T. Wright:

In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright sometimes writes as if the true story of Jesus is only now being discovered for the first time, using the resources of critical history. However, it seems to me that this could only be true if the story is one that has no real religious significance.[23]

Obviously there is a balance here, as the church needs knowledgeable teachers of the Scriptures, but it should nevertheless be insisted that the Bible itself contains much of the relevant first century history, and that the Scriptures are by nature fundamentally perspicuous in their central message apart from historically critical methodology (Dt. 30:11-14, Ps. 19:7-9).

Conclusion

The Quest for the Historical Jesus represents a large portion of New Testament scholarship and cannot be ignored. As has been seen, Christians should have no reasons to fear it or to shy away engaging in it, for the gospel is a public truth and we cannot remove it from the public sphere into the realm of a private and ahistorical “faith.” Christianity stands or falls with its fundamental historicity. However, the Quest also is not the only or even the primary method by which evangelicals can understand Jesus. Historical research may help to augment our understanding of the gospel accounts, but evangelical Christians must insist that these accounts themselves are trustworthy and that the Holy Spirit illumines our mind to understand them. This does not mean that this illumination happens apart from sensible history and research, but only that the critical methodology of unbelieving scholarship cannot be allowed to dominate a truly evangelical theological methodology. Overall, the vast amount of attention that has been poured into a close reading of the gospel accounts by Historical Jesus research has the potential to be an encouraging and exciting endeavor for evangelicals, however it must be engaged with and appropriated in a theologically and historically responsible manner.


[1] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, First North American ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 16ff.

[2] F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 779.

[3] Carey C. Newman, ed., Jesus & the Restoration of Israel: a Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1999), 185.

[4] For a list of these authors and their works, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 84.

[5] See for example, Ben Witherington, The Christology of Jesus (Neptune: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1990), Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: the Third Search For the Jew of Nazareth, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1997), Darrell L. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1990), Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 02 ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007).

[6] See Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 17-18.

[7] For example, Luke 1:1-4, 1 Pet 1:16-18, or Paul’s historical argument in Gal 3:15-18.

[8] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 662.

[9] ESV translation.

[10] See Michael Bird., “Shouldn’t Evangelicals Participate in the ‘Third Quest For the Historical Jesus’?” Themelios 29, no. 2 (April, 2004): 10. Cf. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 662.

[11] Quoted in Bird, “Shouldn’t Evangelicals Participate in the ’Third Quest For the Historical Jesus’?”, 11.

[12] See Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: the Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).

[13] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin, Chapter II.

[14] Prov 23:23; Eph 4:25; 1 Pet 3:15.

[15] Michael Bird,“Shouldn’t Evangelicals Participate in the ‘Third Quest For the Historical Jesus’?”, 13.

[16] See his essay in Carey C. Newman, Jesus & the Restoration of Israel, 180-205, with which I am largely in agreement. Cf. Peter Bolt, “Questing for Jesus,” Kategoria 8 (Summer 1998): 10-11.

[17] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 117-121.

[18] J.V. Fesko, “N.T. Wright On Prolegomena,” Themelios 31, no. 3 (April, 2006.): 15-16.

[19] Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, eds., Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: a Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), 50.

[20] For the pervasive effects of this on religious epistemology, see Fesko, “N.T. Wright on Prolegomena,” 15-31.

[21] Hays, Jesus, Paul, and the People of God, 57.

[22] See Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 21-22.

[23] Newman, Jesus & the Restoration of Israel, 202.

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