|Where We Are Today
The search for a Jesus of history
has reached a critical stage (in the early years of the 21st century). The implications of the search are at last
becoming clear to a wider group of Christians than ever before.
Stephen Patterson has put the importance of this search to the life
of the Church better than I can. He writes:
Critical scholarship ... has pressed our understanding of the texts
and traditions of ancient Christianity to the point where organized
Christianity, if it were to be guided by such work, would have to
begin to rethink some of its basic theological commitments.
There can hardly be a more important point than this. For it implies
that the rethink is most emphatically not of the incidentals, but
of the basics. The vast majority of Christians worldwide are completely
unaware of the foundational changes on the doctrinal horizon. As a
result, they have been unable to meet the challenge of the historical
Jesus as posed by the findings of Christian researchers over more than
A few are aware that something is not quite right, that the present
ecclesiastical edifice may be built on sand rather than rock. Some
Western churches have attempted cosmetic changes. These may have proved
temporarily satisfying in themselves, but they have not solved the
To give a current example: The Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops
presently meeting  is discussing the place of
the Eucharist in the Church's life. Contributions to the Synod so far
show no sign of awareness that the Eucharist itself as a re-enactment of
a Last Supper may be based upon an event which did not happen. Or of it
did happen, the evidence for it is far less solid than the Church has so
This is not to say that the Eucharist is therefore invalid.
But it is to say that the rigid hierarchical control over its form and
content may not have the biblical authority claimed for it. It also
follows that tinkering with the Eucharist may never meet the hunger of
ordinary Christians for something more expressive of their daily lives.
This hunger may not yet have reached the millions of Christians in the
so-called undeveloped world. In the West, however, it is increasingly
Given that the historical foundations of the Eucharist are other than
has been assumed throughout the life of Christianity, control of the
Eucharist becomes a matter or good order, not of validity.
In other words, if the biblical account of the Last Supper isn't what
it purports to be - a sure-fire account of "what really happened" - then
the Eucharist can validly be construed as an ordinary meal with sacred
dimensions. It may be that it is who shares the meal that matters, not
what is said and done there. The passion of participants for a lifestyle
derived from and integrated with Jesus may be far more important than
any particular patterns of life legitimised by a higher authority.
If so, alternative forms of thanksgiving meal are just as valid as
the ritualised ceremonies which are the norm today. A church building,
or vestments, or set prayers and formulaic words, or enthusiasm don't
make a valid Eucharist. A passion for the words and deeds of a man who
actually lived and died like all of us does matter.
Similar radical incongruities have been opened up in all the
fundamental doctrines of all the churches - be they free church,
evangelical, traditional, protestant or whatever. More than that, Church
authorities have signally failed to integrate the findings of Christian
scholarship into the life and works of the ordinary person in the pew.
As Gregory Jenks puts it:
We have left our people functionally illiterate in using the Bible.
This is not a new problem. It emerged slowly over several hundred
years, but it has now become critical. 
What has happened over the past two or three centuries to reduce most
church-going Christians to passive receptors of theological mush?
First, perceptions of the world have changed radically. Especially in
the West, but increasingly elsewhere as well, the old reality of evil
spirits, magic, miracles and messages from God has all but disappeared.
In its place is a secular world, vibrantly aware of the way our planet
functions as a highly complex system, and disconnected from the ancient
parallel myths of heaven and hell.
Second, the Bible has been dismantled. It has been deeply and
comprehensively analysed down to its last comma. Its language and form
have been dissected until its entire anatomy now lies open for
inspection. Gone is the idea that it was somehow dictated - directly or
indirectly - by God. That sort of revelation is no longer credible to
Third, the physical sciences have been harnessed and put to plough
the biblical lands. Linguistics, archaeology, history and other
analytical disciplines have contributed to the harvest. They have
provided new perspectives on Jesus and Christianity. The shame is that
these perspectives are almost totally unknown to the average Christian.
The search for a Jesus who actually lived just like all of us, has
spanned more than two centuries. One way of summarising the search is to
break it into three parts .
The Old Quest has its roots in the European
renaissance. It began in earnest with the work of Hermann Reimarus
(1694-1768). It was concerned mainly with rebutting the "impossible"
parts of the gospels such as miracles. The structure of the gospels was
analysed and obvious contradictions pointed out. Friedrich Strauss
(1808-74) asserted that pious early Christians had put deep layers of
theology over the historical Jesus. In doing so they created myths which
later became central to the Church's teachings.
This phase continued until a decisive moment in 1906
when Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) published The Quest of the
Historical Jesus. Analysis of the Quest revealed, he thought, a
failure to uncover a Jesus of history. Jesus, said Schweitzer, believed
himself to be the Messiah who would return to bring God's righteous
kingdom to earth. Jesus was devastated when, on the cross, he realised
that God had abandoned him. In short, Jesus deceived himself about God
and what God could and would do for humanity.
The No-Quest period which followed Albert
Schweitzer's book was characterised by little or no interest in trying
to identify the Jesus of history. Schweitzer's decision that the
historical Jesus was beyond discovery was by-and-large accepted.
Typical of the No-Quest was the work of Rudolf Bultmann
(1884-1976) and other "form critics" - those who focused on the various
"forms" of written material in the gospels. Bultmann claimed that the
original words of Jesus can't be reconstructed from the texts of the
gospels. His conclusions turned out to have been over-pessimistic,
though form criticism did provide a range of criteria for assessing the
authenticity of the gospel accounts which have since been very widely
Theologians such as Karl Barth (1886-1968) were widely
thought of in the 20th century as having saved the Christian bacon from
the Form Critics by proposing that faith takes us beyond the limits of
biblical criticism. By Barth's reckoning, Bultmann's methods helped up
to a point. But beyond that point, the worthy Christian could rely on
"the eye of faith" to envision a Jesus of universal value.
Around 1960 the search for a Jesus of history was
resumed in the so-called New Quest. Its premise was that it's not
right to disconnect history from faith. Ernst Kasemann (1954) and others
held that the Christian way of life must be rooted in a real man who
actually lived and who actually said and did certain things.
In taking this line, the New Quest was re-asserting the
primacy of reason and the validity of analytical methods as the basis of
Christian faith. Like it or not, Christianity is an historical
The past 40 years of the New Quest have yielded
important insights: [a] Much of the gospel material is the construction
of the early Church, probably in close connection with early schemes of
worship; [b] we are nevertheless able to identify some actions and many
sayings of Jesus which are good history; [c] while we can't construct a
biography, we do know enough about the essentials of his ministry to
base sound, creative Christian living upon them.
Unfortunately for traditional Christianity, the New Quest has
sketched a man whose message at many points conflicts with the teachings
of the Church. For example, they conclude that
Jesus' death was that of a perceived agitator who fell foul of
the Roman authorities in first-century Palestine. His passion for the
integrity of his vision took him to the cross. The elaborate theology
of the cross is an accretion.
Jesus did not claim to be the Christ (Messiah). Nor did he
claim to be God's son. Indeed, he did not allow others to talk of him
in such terms. Elevation of Jesus to divinity and the title "Christ"
Jesus asserted vigorously that no religious ritual, teaching,
or person can come between us and our Creator. Boundary taboos of any
sort are human creations. Jesus stressed inclusion and rejected
exclusion. The Church as an institution has never served this vision -
witness its multiple exclusions of people from fellowship with Jesus.
Contrary to tradition, Jesus did not speak about the last
things and the trauma of God's terrible judgement at the end of time.
There are no sheep and no goats. Forgiveness comes to all. Damnation
is a myth. Such things were the outcome of the early Church's struggle
to make sense of Jesus.
Jesus did not condemn or vilify his fellow Jews. Nor did he
diminish the Hebrew religion as such. The virus of anti-Semitism was
caught from the earliest times by Christians who were in conflict with
the Hebrew establishment.
Jesus was not an ascetic like John the Baptist. He did not
reject any of the good things of life. At the same time, he lived
simply. We have no evidence that he was either a virgin or unmarried.
Given the norms of his time, that is unlikely. Christian rejection of
things natural is an aberration. The natural order we know is the only
one there has ever been.
These and other points could be greatly expanded. However, if they
are only partly correct, the Church at large is indeed in a difficult
position - though it only fair to say that a large majority of
Christians today debunk the truth of the above examples.
entire search for an historical Jesus has been based on textual analysis.
This kind of research appears now to have reached its limits. But the
Quest goes on. It is yielding insights into the life and sayings of Jesus
in at least three additional ways:
The rigid adherence to the traditional New Testament as the only
valid source of information about Jesus is increasingly being
abandoned. Other literary sources have been recognised as yielding
important information and background - for example, the Gospel of
Thomas, its cousin the Q-source, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Nevertheless, it may be that 250 years of relentless analysis of
written records is nearing its end - unless new sources are
It has been accepted that archaeology can give us vital slants on
the culture in which Jesus lived. Traditional meanings and
interpretations frequently fall or are modified in the light of hard
evidence from the soil and ruins of Palestine and the Near East.
This emphasis is growing fast and is attracting more and more
attention - in the early 21st century hampered only by the dangers
of working in the perilous political climate of Palestine.
A new perspective uses our knowledge of the dynamics of social
change to re-interpret the outlook of early Christians. It does not
assume that the Church is more than a human creation. On the
contrary, it assumes that the Church is subject to the same systemic
forces and processes as every other human organisation. So the more
we are aware of the social currents and forces which determined how
the early Church adapted to its environment, the more clearly we can
separate its theology from the original voiceprint of Jesus. To
sociology are now being added the considerable resources of
anthropology, comparative religion, and organisation development.
During the 20th century the age-old marriage between biblical
theology and Christian living was broken. Perhaps because they
subliminally fear loss of power and influence, Church officials have
generally hidden this fracture from lay people. In turn, the vast
majority of scholars have failed to tell the Church about their
findings. This is no doubt in part because they tend to become encased
in academia; and partly because they have little or no skill in
communicating in terms to which ordinary people can relate.
Emerging tensions between an increasing awareness of scholarly research on
one hand and traditional teachings on the other now appear to be causing
the great flow of Christian life to split.
One branch takes some
biblical research into account, but focuses more on continued theological
interpretation along ancient and traditional lines. Old themes are
reworked and given a new gloss. Considerable attention is given to
clothing an ancient world-view in new clothes "relevant" to contemporary
society and culture.
Another branch accepts the bulk of recent
theological conclusions. It does not shy away from rigorously testing
biblical and traditional material. The search for Jesus starts with
contemporary understanding of the world, not with traditional teachings.
As a result, its advocates find themselves increasingly alienated from the
A significant number of the latter group contend
that the evidence yielded about Jesus by the scholarly search of the last
250 years deserves to be widely shared among all Christians. If that were
the ways in which Christians talk about their faith would begin
to change radically. People would be free to imagine and express
that new vision of Jesus in new images and words.
The Bible would cease to be definitive in Christian theology.
Instead it would be a friend and guide, allowing all to work out and
express their Christian faith autonomously and with adult maturity.
Christian communities would begin to slough off the accretions of
past ages. And, rather than being part of the status quo with
varying degrees of affinity, they would once again begin demonstrate
to an increasingly secular culture an alternative vision of how to
live a godly life.
To sum up: Centuries of analysis of written records have failed to
give us a "real" Jesus. It is now certain that we will never know the
Jesus who walked and talked in Palestine two thousand years ago in the
way that we know Napoleon or Washington or John Lennon of The Beatles.
The available evidence will never yield us a biographical picture of
Jesus. Regardless of how much we "torture" the New Testament, we will
always know almost nothing about what Jesus did, and relatively little
about what he said.
But note well: What we do know is more than sufficient upon
which to model an ongoing and dynamic Christian way of life - even
though emerging lifestyles in the 21st century don't always seem
congruent with the teachings and priorities of the Church as it has
evolved over two thousand years.
In short, the role of the Bible in the life of Christians has changed
radically. Previously it was thought that the nature of the great river
of Christian tradition was defined by its source. That is in some sense
true. Every river derives from its source.
But it is inaccurate in many other senses. It is the lie of the land
which dictates a river's course. It flows not where it must, but where
it can. And if you wish to learn about a river, you learn from the point
at which you meet it. Though the source will tell you something, the
point at which you meet the river tells you much more. And you can only
tell where a river is heading by going with its flow.
In the case of the vast river of the Bible, the source turns out to
be extremely diverse. Its waters don't flow from a single spring but
from a myriad of tiny trickles on a number of different mountains and
hillsides. The Hebrew Scriptures are one; the four gospels are another,
written at different times in different places; Paul's letters form yet
another tributary. Smaller sources are placed in the so-called Pastoral
Letters. The Revelation to John is like a hidden spring - we know only
the general area from which it flows. And the powerful flow of Greek
culture and philosophy has immeasurably strengthened the overall flow of
Our radically changed vision of Jesus now faces Christians with two
differing ways ahead.
We can close our eyes to the conclusions of generations of dedicated
Christian scholars. If we do so, we will continue along much the same
path as Christians of the past couple of centuries. We will accept that
traditional theology carries an abiding and incontrovertible message,
reaching back through two thousand years of history. That is, we will
affirm that it preserves absolutely what the world needs to know about
Jesus and therefore about God. The findings of scholars are but a pause
in the relentless, unending flow of vibrant faith .
Alternatively, we can recognise that the traditions of our fathers
are indeed worthy of great respect and honour. They are, however, no
longer effective in imagining Jesus for our age. Nor are they
sacrosanct. We can therefore accept willingly and with joy a new and
renewed vision of Jesus, the man upon whom we base our way of life.
 The God of Jesus, Trinity Press International,
 The Second General Congregation of the Synod of Bishops, October,
 Honest to Jesus, an address to the 5th National Forum of the
Progressive Christianity, June, 2000
 Following A Survey of Historical Jesus Studies by Michael
 Dissimilarity, multiple attestation, Semitic style and background,
textual coherence and originality of
 As the 21st century progresses, there are worrying signs that the
large is hardening its position to exclude any
so-called radical approaches to
re-envisioning Jesus along the lines offered by
and other exploratory thinking. As a result, it
appears that more and more
thinking, questioning Christians are
gravitating either towards the fringes of
the Church, or completely out of its orbit.