Worst. Quest. Ever.
Church History Minute: The Quest for the Historical Jesus
What was/is it? The quest for the historical Jesus is something of a misnomer. There were actually three different “quests” for the historical Jesus (one of the going on today), and even they are somewhat loosely defined. However, the “first” quest for the historical Jesus began in the eighteenth century and dominated much biblical study in the nineteenth century. The goal in it, as in all the quests, was to find out who the actual person Jesus was. The assumption, however, was that the Jesus seen in the bible could not be the historic Jesus. Motivated out of deism (which believed there was a God, but did not believe he intervened in the world today, much less became a person), it’s advocates eventually decided to focus on Jesus as a moral and ethical teacher. From this a number of “biographies” of Jesus came about. Although many figures featured into it, the most well known was D. F. Strauss (pictured). After it fell apart, in the early twentieth century, there was a brief attempt at revival (a rather uninteresting “second quest”) and then nothing until the third quest. The third quest can be divided, roughly, into 2 camps. Those who are decidedly more liberal, such as those who favored the now ridiculed “Jesus Seminar”, and those who are more conservative, but think it helpful to think of Jesus as a historical person in addition to the witness in Scripture. It is marked by an emphasis on the “Jewishness” of Jesus. On the left it would include those like John Dominic Crossan, and on the (mostly) right N. T. Wright. Really it’s more of a scholarship endeavor than an actual quest, though, so don’t expect any King Arthur type things going on here.
Why was/is it important? It spawned a number of reactions (positive and negative) and led to some interesting interpretive insights. For instance: the idea of “The Markan Secret” (where Jesus tells everyone not to spread the word about him in Mark) wasn’t really noticed in detail until the quest. Also spawned reactions to it in neo-orthodoxy, kerygmatic theology, and others.Fun Fact: Not only didn’t the quest go anywhere, they rarely involved any actual historians. Actually that’s not very fun at all.Where might I have heard of it? Around Christmas or Easter, usually one of the major networks runs some kind of special about “Who was Jesus?” If they don’t, try Discovery, History or National Geographic. Usually they tend to be slightly weighted to the more liberal side (and sometimes more than “slightly”).