Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus Puzzle
William R G Loader

In 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]

1. Why ask about the historical Jesus?
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 [2]? 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.[3]

Behind such 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 [4]. 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 Jesus [5].[6]. 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. 

Sectional interests 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 within Christianity. 

The "brokerless 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 [7] [8]

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 [9].

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 [10]. The Jesus Seminar has decided for a non eschatological Jesus who emerges as a more comfortable stirrer in an age of stirring and questioning established structures.

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 [11]. 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 [12].

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 [13].

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 [15]. 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 [16].

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)
[17] 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 [18], there is an increasing number of scholars who see the Gospel of Thomas as containing at least some traditions which are earlier [19]. 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 [20].

Kloppenborg himself does not argue that the earlier layer necessarily existed in isolation from other traditions of the kind later introduced into Q [21], but this has been the conclusion of some scholars, notably Mack [22]. 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 [23]. 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 [24]. 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 [25], 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? [26]

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 Judaism.

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 [27]. 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 [28]. Our Jewish sources also offer examples of the kind of emphasis on attitude in relation to sexual behaviour and anger which characterised Jesus' teaching [29].

The socio-political dimension has also received much attention through the work of scholars like Hengel, Freyne and Horsley [30].[31]

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 [32]. 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 [33].[34].[35].[36].

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 Cynic-sage non-eschatological model 

  • and the Jewish eschatological model. There are also a number who share aspects of both.

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 correspondence.

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 [37].

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 [38]. 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. 

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