Historical Jesus Puzzle
William R G Loader
this paper I shall address three main questions:
Why ask about
the historical Jesus?
What new data do
we have to warrant more research? and
What, if any,
findings can we identify in current research?
1. Why ask about the
The first is a serious question. Why enquire about the historical Jesus?
One might counter: Why not? There are many reasons why some would
consider the pursuit as only marginally relevant if not useless. From
the perspective of Christian faith, is it not a living Jesus who
concerns us? Does concern with the historical Jesus not reflect a
failure to take resurrection faith seriously? Others might point to the
message of Christ's death for us on the cross and his resurrection as
the core of the Christian message.
What more can detailed
information about Jesus' life offer us ?
Is Paul not an impressive example of someone who could set forth the
heart of the Christian message without apparently having much knowledge
of the early ministry of Jesus and, at least in his letters, showing
next to no interest in such detail? From a literary point of view we
might argue that the attempt to use gospel texts as windows through
which to imagine that we can peer across 30-50 years to the historical
Jesus is to misuse the texts. They are their own reality and in
themselves contain a world where we meet our Jesus, the Jesus of faith.
responses are serious theological issues which have dogged attempts to
pursue the historical questions. Martin Kohler was one of the first to
expose the fragility of faith founded on the historical enterprise
It found its echo in Bultmann, who faced with realism (and today we
would say with the pessimism characteristic of the early part of the
century) the attempt to recover the words and deeds of the historical
The issues he raised about the propensity of authors to fashion Jesus
according to the presuppositions of their age are just as pertinent at
this end of the century.
are as much likely to fashion their Jesus as a warrant for their own
ideology as they were then, some with more, some with less
sophistication. Jesus is a likely candidate where people seek an
authoritative basis for their views. Christians of all kinds will want
to find justification in Jesus for cherished values. Sometimes this will
be as part of a serious attempt to counter other moods and movements
kingdom" which Crossan sees at the heart of Jesus' message stands in
contrast to the brokering institutional authority which the Church has
become for many  .
It has been long
popular to play off Jesus against Paul, usually on the basis of false
assumptions about Paul, often as the creator of atonement theory. An
Australian variant is the extraordinary enterprise upon which Barbara
Thiering has embarked in developing a new Jesus story borne of
speculation about Qumran connections and secret gospel codes
Growing appreciation of the complexity
of the gospel traditions and their development has led to attempts
favour one or the other early stream, if not to side with the historical
Jesus against all or much of what emerged in the development of
Christology. Burton Mack has isolated the lost gospel of Q, giving prior
weighting to its earliest sapiential layer (according to Kloppenborg's
analysis) and its close relative, Thomas, and disenfranchising Mark as
an imaginative construction .
The Jesus Seminar has decided for a non eschatological Jesus who emerges
as a more comfortable stirrer in an age of stirring and questioning
Pulpits and pressure groups have
witnessed a wide range of Jesus figures. More than once I remember
hearing Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 held up as
modelling the counselling interview: Jesus, the counsellor (an absurdity
at many levels). More recently there have been serious appeals to Jesus
as a liberation theologian, feminist, radical egalitarian, liberal
humanist, champion of social justice.
There is some justification for each
of these, although it is anachronistic to impose on Jesus the
sophisticated social analysis which they presuppose. The temptation is
then for these pieties to cover over the huge gaps and explain away the
silences to preserve a Jesus who could make it with the sophisticated
ideologues of the movement. This is a form of Docetism which too often
fails to let Jesus be a first century human being. It is no better than
more traditional efforts to find the Chalcedonian Christ on the streets
of Capernaum in some literal sense.
It would be easy for any or all of the
above reasons to abandon the search. In response to Bultmann, Kasemann
reasserted the legitimacy of the historical question in 1953, but did
so, fully in touch with the extraordinary historical difficulties and
potential self deception for faith .
There is value in examining the connection between the historical Jesus
and what subsequently emerged. Some things are unlikely to be invented,
like Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. Kasemann's first tentative use
of the criterion of dissimilarity which identified what appeared
distinctive of Jesus prized open the door. As a principle applied more
generally it had severe limitations; identifying what is distinctive is
far from identifying what is characteristic about a person
At a broader theological level, people
were also acknowledging that faith cannot be satisfied with making
historical claims and then surrendering them to uncertainty. It became a
matter of how much is claimed. For Bultmann the simple fact of the
Christ event, that God acted, sufficed. Paul needed little more. But
such a stance crumbled on a number of sides. Paul's understanding of the
cross event, especially as a model of vicarious suffering, faces major
hurdles. Sometimes one could get the impression that Jesus himself was
only a saviour once he died and was raised.
It has become increasingly clear that
this was not a view shared by gospel writers. At least the year or so of
Jesus' ministry was to be seen as a momentous event. John's gospel
fitted Bultmann's model best, since it consists of variations on the
theme that, in Christ, God encountered us, but this was still bound up
with a Christology of pre-existence which many (including the other
evangelists) did not share .
Substance mattered as much as
honorific titles. There had to be content to the Christ event beyond the
mere fact of its happening. Early forms of this development focused on
Christ as the suffering servant [14 .
Luke's version of what early preachers might have proclaimed indicates
that this was only half true. Easter meant the vindication of Jesus'
message which therefore remained the central content of the message.
In particular many features of the
early church, whether reconstructed on the basis of gospel or Pauline
traditions, revealed a continuity between pre-Easter and post-Easter
expectations which made sense against the background of eschatological
expectation: in particular, resurrection, the gift of the Spirit (meals,
baptism), and the continuing expectations of God's imminent intervention
2. So what is new?
At one level we have to say: very little. The primary sources are still
the four gospels. Despite some healthy and vocal dissent (espoused now
at a popular level by Selby Spong) 
there is still a broad consensus that the hypothesis which makes best
sense of the relations among the gospels is that Matthew and Luke have
independently used Mark as a sources and also another source Q and,
beyond that, had their distinctive sources and redactional interests
which account for the way the gospels have come down to us. John is seen
either as independent of the others or acquainted at some distance, but
with some early elements of historical worth now overlaid with creative
reworking in symbolic mode which renders much inaccessible.
The new element in
gospel research comes partly from continuing research on Q and from the
Gospel of Thomas. While many still see the latter as dependent on the
Synoptic Gospels ,
there is an increasing number of scholars who see the Gospel of Thomas
as containing at least some traditions which are earlier
This comes at a time when one influential study of Q, that of
Kloppenborg, has proposed that the earliest layer of Q consisted of a
collection of wisdom sayings, expanded secondarily by material with a
stronger eschatological flavour .
does not argue that the earlier layer necessarily existed in isolation
from other traditions of the kind later introduced into Q
but this has been the conclusion of some scholars, notably Mack
There is a fascinating similarity between the kind of early collection
people posit in Thomas and the one believed to be at the basis of the Q
tradition. If these are seen as the most authentic traditions and others
are discounted as secondarily rationalising myths, a very different kind
of Jesus emerges - one who is only just Jewish, and certainly not
focused on eschatological hope.
Crossan seeks to grapple with the
methodological issues which face the historian in using gospel sources
by crediting with considerable historical worth what are widely held to
be later gospels. Gospels of Peter, Hebrews, Egyptians, Nazoreans,
Ebionites, (Secret) Mark, various fragments, dialogue and apocryphon
writings, now stand beside the four canonical writings and Thomas
The matter becomes problematic when all such gospels count more or less
equally as sources. Crossan's attempt to make the passion narrative of
the Gospel of Peter the source of the passion narratives in the
canonical gospels has won little support .
It has yet to be demonstrated that these later gospels should be
accorded such historical worth.
Beside developments in gospel research
and the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, the major event affecting
historical research in the field has been the discovery of the Dead Sea
Scrolls and, more particularly, their final release for full publication
in 1991. The major sectarian documents had already been made public in
the 1950s, but it took another 40 years before their full release. Apart
from excesses of a few journalists and somewhat extreme speculation
about Christian connections on the part of Thiering and Eisenman
, the chief impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls has
been to transform our understanding of Judaism.
It was not just what the Scrolls
themselves revealed of a diverse Judaism which freely employed dualism
more familiar to us from the language of later gnosticism. They not only
alerted us to diversities in understanding Torah, but also led to a
rediscovery of the rich sources which Jewish literature of the period
offered. As a result there has been an explosion of interest in the
apocalypses, testament, histories, legends, midrashic compilations,
wisdom collections, and liturgical collections of Judaism. At
the same time there has been much increased attention given to the
extensive works of Josephus and Philo.
This has occurred at a time when in
rabbinic studies there has emerged a much more critical assessment of
the value of traditions alleged to be early. It has become very
complicated to assess the degree to which material now preserved in the
Mishnah, Tosefta and Targums, reflects traditions and practices in the
period before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Doubtless many do,
but how do we measure this? 
New documents and renewed attention
both to the content of and the complex methodological questions posed by
the extant Jewish sources has had the effect of enhancing a sense of
diversity within pre-70 CE Judaism. It is no longer meaningful to speak
of Jesus just in relation to Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and,
perhaps, Zealots, discussions which often came down to Jesus and the
Pharisees. Even within Pharisaism there appears to have been
considerable diversity. One of the effects of the more differentiated
understanding of Judaism and the pervasive nature of Jewishness has been
that it has become much more natural to seek to understand Jesus as a
Jew and to see Jesus as fitting within the diverse spectrum that was
In a socio-religious perspective it is
hard to imagine a Jesus who would not have conformed to the broad
expectations of Jewish life which included tithing, observance of
domestic purity requirements, and the like, without which he would have
set him himself up for ostracism and offered his opponents an easy
target. Nor are scholars as willing as they once were to speak of Jesus
acting against Torah .
Scholars like Sanders make the point convincingly that much of Jesus'
teaching makes the Law stricter and that he was not alone in doing so
and that other comments should be seen as well within the range of
interpretation of the day .
Our Jewish sources also offer examples of the kind of emphasis on
attitude in relation to sexual behaviour and anger which characterised
Jesus' teaching .
The socio-political dimension has also
received much attention through the work of scholars like Hengel, Freyne
and Horsley ..
The first half of Crossan's major work
The Historical Jesus provides an excellent survey of the
socio-political context. In addition he draws attention to the use of
generic models from social anthropology, such as the likely structure
and dynamics of peasant economies (though "peasant" seems hardly to fit
Jesus and his group, who appear to be a step higher on the scale) and
the Mediterranean honour-shame culture. Such models will always require
reality testing against the data available.
Archaeology has also
made its contribution, not least in confirming the theses of Hengel and
others, based on literary sources, that Hellenisation was widespread in
Palestine from the third century BCE onwards and certainly made its mark
in the large cities of lower Galilee and the neighbouring Decapolis
. The rejection of Hellenistic syncretism in
the early second century CE associated with the tensions which led to
the Maccabean crisis by no means stemmed the tide. The rich and the
rulers, including the high priestly rulers, adopted the fashions, even
though selectively. Galilee, on a major trade route, would have had some
exposure to the ways of the Greeks.
Some have drawn
parallels between Jesus as popular sage and the popular sages of the
Hellenistic Roman world, commonly identified as Cynics, though usually
reflecting a mixture of Stoic and Cynic values
3. What then emerges
from current studies?
In seeking to offer an overview, I will inevitably not do justice to the
distinctiveness of the contributions of those mentioned and none at all
to those whom space prevents me from discussing. In general I believe
there are two main trends:
The Jesus Seminar established by
Robert Funk belongs more within the first trend. It appears to have been
persuaded by Mack and others to esteem Q and Thomas highly and Mark less
highly. It also (accordingly, perhaps, since there are inevitable
circularities) tends to espouse a non-eschatological model of Jesus.
Mack's position is extreme in focusing almost entirely on the earliest
layer of Q. The Jesus who emerges is a witty Cynic confronting the
established values of society, with scarcely a trace of Jewishness. It
is an image which will have contemporary appeal in the corridors of
academia. That correspondence in itself may arouse our suspicion, but
should no more count against the construct than any other such
The weakness of
Mack's position is that he has to explain away too much of the rest of
the Jesus tradition. Crossan is more tentative about the Cynic analogy,
but employs the socio-economic model, along with equal votes for all
gospel sources, to produce a non-eschatological Jesus, arguing for a
brokerless kingdom; an immediacy of access to God beyond and outside of
the institution; and seeking to transform society accordingly. Borg's
Jesus has more Jewish traits but strongly emphasises the model of sage,
Spirit person, which allows Borg wide scope in popularising his work and
connecting Jesus to popular religious models of our day
All are members of
the Jesus Seminar. One of the major weaknesses in all three is the
attempted elimination of material which preserves Jesus' eschatological
focus. As a result we are asked to imagine a Jesus who began with an
eschatological John the Baptist and was followed by an eschatological
Church, but himself had no interest in such matters. It is scarcely
convincing to explain the disparity with theories of a split with John
(or that the link with John was secondary) and of a Jesus group all but
swamped by others who espoused the different eschatological agenda.
The other major trend has been to
emphasise Jesus' Jewishness. The Jewish scholar, Vermes, acclaimed
Jesus' Jewishness, proposing that he should be seen as a holy man, (hasid)
after the model of Honi the circle maker and Hanina ben Dosa
. The proposal has had some impact on Borg's
construct. The problem has been that Vermes's rabbinic sources are late.
More significant has been the work of Sanders who brought to focus the
need for a reassessment of Judaism within New Testament scholarship.