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«Allison, The Historical Jesus, IBS 18, October 1996 THE CONTEMPORARY QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS Dale C. Allison, Jr. At the moment many voices ...»

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Allison, The Historical Jesus, IBS 18, October 1996



Dale C. Allison, Jr.

At the moment many voices are trying to tell who Jesus of

Nazareth really was. For the first time in my memory even small

local bookstores in the States feature several scholarly books on the

historical Jesus. They are selling well. John Dominic Crossan's The

Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasanr and

Burton Mack's The Lost Gospel: The Book ofQ3have together now sold somewhere in the neighbourhood of 125,000 copies. Those who have written academic books will know this is a very large number.

So many books claiming to unveil the real Jesus have appeared of late that some say we are seeing the third quest for the historical Jesus. The first quest was the nineteenth century German endeavour so memorably reported by Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus.4 The second was the so-called new quest, inaugurated by Emst Kasemann's famous 1953 lecture in Marburg and then carried on by some of Rudolf Bultmann's students. 5 The third-- well, that is the subject of this lecture. I should like to offer some scattered observations about what is going on right now.

To begin with one should be unhappy \vith the typology which is quickly becoming the common wisdom: first quest, new quest, third quest. 6 This triad raises at least two questions. First, This is an abbreviated version of the Alexander Robertson lecture, delivered in March of 1996 at the University of Glasgow.

I have preserved the informality of the original address. It is reproduced here in honour of Professor Russell on his eightieth birthday.

San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991.

San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993 New York: Macmillan, 1961, trans. of vcm Reimarus zu Wrede, 1906.

See 'The Problem of the Historical Jesus,' in Essays on New Testament Themes, SBT 41 (London: SCM, 1964) pp. 15-47.

The typology appears to have been first used by N. T. Wright: see Stephen Neil and N. T. Wright The Interpretation of the.Yew Testament 1861-1986 (New York: Oxford 1988), pp. 397-98.

Allison, The Historical Jesus, IBS 18, October 1996 what about the many who laboured between Schweitzer and Kasemann, that is, in the fifty year period between the so-called old quest and the so- called new quest? Secondly, what about those who wrote after Kasemann and before the so-called third quest but were not Bultmannians, not really new questers? 7 Concern here is not unfounded. I recently read a book which, although it is all about the current quest for Jesus, opens by offering See also Wright's article, 'Jesus, Quest for the Historical,' in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume 3 H-J, · ed. David Noel Freedman et al. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 796-802. Cf.

Marcus J. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. ix ('A third quest is under way'); C.E. Braaten, 'Jesus and the Church: An Essay on Ecclesial Hermeneutics,' Ex Audiu 10 (1994), pp. 59-71; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San

Franscisco: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 4; David Wenham, Paul:

Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids:

Erdmans, 1995), pp.17, 21 ('We do believe that the extreme skepticism of some scholars.. has rightly been rejected by many recent scholars, including several of those in the so-called "third quest"').

Wright, 'Jesus, Quest for the Historical,' strangely locates his discussion of Joachim Jeremias, Edward Schillebeekx, the Jesus Seminar, Burton Mack and F. Gerald Downing under the heading of the new quest. This reveals the artificiality of the scheme. Jeremias who was already writing books and articles on Jesus in the 20s and 30s and 40s, is much more plausibly thought of as continuing the old quest than as taking up the new quest.

And the relevant works of the Jesus Seminar, Mack, and Downing all appeared after the publication of the books that Wright assigns to the third quest (E.g. Ben F. Meyers, the Aims of Jesus (1979) and John Riches, Jesus and the Transformation of Judaism (1980). Obviously Wright's taxonomy is not chronological. It would indeed seem to follow, since the Jesus Seminar, Mack and Downing are still turning out works on Jesus, that the new quest is continuing at the same time as the third quest. Does this make sense? It is interesting that Johnson, The R,eal Jesus, p. 4 can declare that 'The Jesus Seminar thinks of itself as the vanguard of the "Third Quest"' Alliso11, The Historical Jesus, JBS 18, October 1996 a history of what has gone on over the last two hundred years. The author reviews the first quest, the new quest, the third quest. What about the period between the first quest and the new quest? He calls this--as have some others recently-the period of no quest. He says that, between 1906 and 1953, a new-found awareness that Christians typically look down the well of history only to see their own reflected faces, combined with scepticism about Mark's historicity, the acids of form criticism, and a new theology which isolated faith from history, created "a period where the general optimism of discovering a relevant historical Jesus behind the portraits of the Gospels, an optimism which fuelled the 'Old Quest,' was lost."8 The author then moves on to the New Quest.

What does one say to this? The words are a fair generalisation about Bultmann and some of his students. But Bultmann did not rule the theological world, only parts of it. This was when C. H. Dodd and Vincent Taylor and T. W. Manson--all British questers--were living forces to be reckoned with, and when Joachim Jeremias was turning out study after study on the Jesus of history. Certainly scholars in the first half of our century did not share their predecessors' confidence in our ability to write fullbodied biographies of Jesus; and, just like the behaviourists of that time, who refrained from speaking of the consciousness of their subjects, many grew uneasy with talk about Jesus' so-called "messianic consciousness." There was further in many quarters-particularly German quarters--doubt as to the theological relevance of the historical Jesus. But many continued to quest nonetheless.

Eight feet from my desk there is a little bookshelf whose occupants tell me that this was the time of Joseph Klausner's Jesus: His Life, Times and Teaching (1922), of A. C. Headlam's The Life and Teachin8 ofJesus Christ (1923), of Shirley Jackson Case's Jesus: A.

New Biography (1927), ofT. W. Manson's The Teaching of Jesus· (1931) and The Sayings of Jesus (1937/1949), ofRudolfOtto's The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man (1934), of Martin Dibelius' Jesus (1939), of C. J. Cadoux's The Historic Mission of Jesus Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God? (Wheaton: Victor.


Allison, The Historical Jesus, IBS 18, October 1996 (1941), of Williarn Manson's Jesus the Messiah (1943), and of R.

H. Fuller's The Mission and Achievement qfJesus (1953).

Now these were not insignificant contributions. Everybody in my field read these books, whose authors were not second stringers on the sidelines of NT studies. No quest? Maybe reduced quest, but certainly not no quest. The time between Schweitzer and Kasemann was also when so many divinity students throughout Britain and North America were learning about Jesus from the first edition of A. M. Hunter's The Work and Words of Jesus (1950), a popular digest of the allegedly non-existent quest..

If the typology I am criticising falsely characterises the first half of the twentieth century and may mislead people into believing that during that period scholars did not produce instructive books on Jesus, it also distorts the facts for the period between 1950 and 1980, the latter being the date one chronicler gives for the approximate beginning of the so-called third quest. This is the period in which the new quest ofBultmann's students is located. But much else--I would say much else of more importance--must also be located here.

Concurrent with and subsequent to the opening of the much ballyhooed but disappointing new quest, and preceding the so-called third quest, publishers gave us the following--again I just have to look at one of my own bookcases: Vincent Taylor's The Lift and Ministry of Jesus (1954), Ethelbert Stauffer's Jesus and His Story (German edition, 1957), Morton Scott Enslin's The Prophet from Nazareth (1961), Otto Betz's What Do We Know About Jesus?

(German edition, 1965), C. K. Barrett's Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (1967), Xavier Leon-Dufour's The Gospels and the Jesus of History (French edition, 1967), Norman Perrin's Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (1967), Eduard Schweizer's Jesus (German edition, 1968)_, C. H. podd's The Founder of Christianity (1970), Etienne Trocme's Jesus as seen by his Contemporaries (French cf. Jarnes H. Charlesworth, 'Christian Origins and Jesus

Research,' in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus' Jewishness:

Exploring Jesus' Place in Early Judaism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), p. 78: 'Jesus Research' -- Charlesworth's name for what has gone on since the waning of the new quest -- 'commenced around 1980.' Allison, The Historical Jesus, IBS 18, October 1996 edition, 1971), and Geza Vermes' Jesus the Jew (1973). The 1950's, 60's, and 70's also saw the publication of important New Testament Christologies which had much to say about Jesus--those of Oscar Cullmann (1957), Ferdinand Hahn (1963), and R. H. Fuller (1965) come to mind-as well as three significant German theologies of the New Testament which open with substantial accounts of the historical Jesus-those of Wemer Kiimmel (1969) and Leonard Goppelt (1975) and the unfinished work of Jeremias (1971). Gustav Aulen, writing in 1973, observed that "literature on Jesus is now experiencing prosperity." 10 That was over twenty years ago, and almost a decade before some now tell us the third quest started.

Aulen was correct, and I have been scratching my head trying to figure out what is truly different about the last two or three decades. What is this so-called third quest? The attention to extracanonical sources--so important for some current queSt:ers - is no good reason for positing something new. For many contemporary questers--for example, E. P. Sanders and John Meier--stick to the canonical sources; and in any case the purported discovery of authentic sayings of Jesus in extra-biblical materials was long ago the subject of Jerernias' Unknown Sayings of Jesus ( 1951 ), and before that of Alfred Resch's massive 1906 tome, Agrapha. The struggle against apocalyptic eschatology, against the belief that Jesus thought the eschatological consummation to be at hand, a struggle which characterises the work of Crossan and Marcus Borg and Mack, is also nothing new. They have just taken the baton from earlier scholars such as C. H. Dodd and T. Francis Glasson and John A T. Robinson. Nor can one find anything too much original in the way of method. N. T. Wright has indeed urged on the contrary that the third quest sets itself apart by an emphasis upon Jesus' Jewish context and Jewi.sh c~acter. But Rudolf Otto, William Manson, and Jeremias were all, in their own ways, trying to find Jesus by looking for Judaism. We may regard their use of Jewish sources as less sophisticated than our own; and we may see more continuity with Judaism whereas they saw less. And yet we continue to walk in the direction they were headed.

Jesus in Contemporary Historical Research (Philadelphia:

Fortress. 1976) -- trans of the 2nd Swedish edition. 197--'.

Allison, The Historical Jesus, IBS 18, October 1996 Birger Pearson has offered that the alleged third quest is "distinguishable from the first two quests _in claiming to lack any theological agenda."u One can concur that E. P. Sanders does not wear a theological agenda on his sleeve, but then he is in this respect hardly typical. Are we to say that Ben F. Meyer, A. E. Harvey, John Meier, N. T. Wright, and anyone else who does write with significant theological interest cannot be third questers? Moreover, one wonders how to classify participants who appear to have an anti-theological agenda. I shall return to the Jesus Seminar below, but here it may be noted that, in Pearson's words, this group is "driven by an ideology of secularisation, and a process of colouring the historical evidence to fit a secular ideal. " 12 Theology is hardly the only ideological agenda one can bring to the task of interpreting Jesus. It may in fact be that none of us is altogether free of theological or anti-theological interests, so the presence or lack thereof seems a questionable criterion for classifying scholars who quest for Jesus.

Sometimes history naturally suggests we divide it in a particular way. Judaism was truly different after 70 C.E. than before, just as the American South was truly different after the Civil War than before. But sometimes the lines we write upon history for our own practical ends are misleading. One can, for instance, say that Gnosticism did not exist before Christianity because it was a Christian heresy; but this is an explanation which leaves too much unexplained.

Maybe the term, 'lhird quest," is a phantasm conjured by a desire to bring order out of the chaos of our discipline. What if there is no convenient order to be discerned? What if our divisions between

quests are lines drawn in the water? Blake says somewhere:

"Education teaches straight lines but life is fuzzy." That there is indeed a ~ontemporary quest for Jesus is manifest. Tha~ there is really much new about it is not. Certainly the current search is not a thing easily fenced off from its predecessors. It has no characteristic method. It has no body of shared conclusions. It has no common set of historiographical or theological presuppositions. And trying to 'The Gospel according to the Jesus Seminar,' Religion 25 (1995), p. 320.

Ibid., p. 334.

Allison, The Historical Jesus, JBS 18, October 1996 locate its beginning is like tr)ing to find the origins of modem science: the ever-present continuity with and debt to the past make convenient divisions into neat periods suspect.

One is not even sure the so-called third quest's volume of production means much. Books on Paul have also multiplied of late.

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