Student Zone
Religious texts »  New Testament » Historical Jesus

Quest for the historical Jesus

The study of the New Testament progressed at the time of the European Enlightenment when French and German scholars began to apply scientific rational historical techniques to the study of the texts to discover what they could about the authorship, date and theological bias of the Gospels and to highlight which bits of the text got closest to the words and actions of "the historical Jesus", enabling them to reconstruct what the real Jesus would have been like without later layers of mythology, theology and reinterpretation.

The techniques of what Rudolf Bultmann referred to as "demythologisation" developed into the different schools of biblical criticism described on the previous page. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) first coined the term "The quest for the historical Jesus" in his 1906 book of the same title, but it described a movement which began in the eighteenth century with the work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus and Thomas Jefferson and continued in the nineteenth through the seminal works of Strauss, Renan, Wrede, Schweitzer, Bultmann and Dibelius; the scholars of what became known as "the first quest". The quest demonstrated that most of the New Testament is more properly understood as myth than history – the "historical Jesus" remained a shadowy and indistinct figure.

In The quest for the historical Jesus Schweitzer concluded that the quest was largely futile and that scholars' reconstructions of the historical Jesus were subject to Feuerbach's comment in The essence of Christianity (1841) "Man ... objectifies his being and then again makes himself an object to the objectivised image of himself thus converted into a subject" (GW 5:71; EC 29f). In other words, "what man wishes to be, he makes his God"; the historical Jesus became a projection of what the scholars questing after him wanted him to be.

The great Victorian novelist George Eliot, real name Marian Evans, worked as a translator and was the first to render the works of Strauss into English (in 1846) and then turned her attention to Feuerbach in 1854. Her work, along with the writings of S T Coleridge, made the business of applying historical criticism to the Bible, and its apparent limitations, widely known.

From the earliest days of the quest, doubt had been cast on the credibility and indeed the possibility of trying to find a historical Jesus. In the early nineteenth century, Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard wrote "It is infinitely beyond history's capacity to demonstrate that God, the omnipresent One, lived here on earth as an individual human being. History can indeed richly communicate knowledge, but such knowledge annihilates Jesus Christ" (Provocations: spiritual writings of Soren Kierkegaard 2005, Orbis). The doubt could be interpreted in two ways: either to suggest that the business of analysing texts was futile, that knowledge of Jesus is best left to faith and revelation; or to suggest that there is no historical support for faith and therefore that maintaining belief without evidence is irrational – superstition rather than sense.

Evans and Coleridge, along with the majority of nineteenth-century intellectuals, concluded the latter and either lost or adapted their faith, feeling that they could no longer believe in the historicity of the incarnation, miracles, the resurrection and so on.


Schweitzer concluded that Jesus was simply a product of his time, dominated by the belief that he lived at the end of time. Given that the eschaton (Greek for "end of the world") had not happened as predicted, he saw Jesus' ethic as "interim ethic" which was no longer relevant or valid. Acting on his own conclusion, in 1913 Schweitzer abandoned a brilliant career in theology, turned to medicine, and went out to French Equatorial Africa (now west central Africa), where he founded in Lambaréné, the capital of today's Gabon, a hospital which gained world renown. Bultmann and Karl Barth also scorned the quest and later the theologian and apologist William Lane Craig wrote of it, "apparently unaware of the personal element they all brought to their research, each writer reconstructed a historical Jesus after his own image. There was Strauss's Hegelian Jesus, Renan's sentimental Jesus, Bauer's non-existent Jesus, Ritschl's liberal Jesus, and so forth. To paraphrase George Tyrell, each one looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom" (Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed., 2003, Crossway). See also George Tyrrell's Christianity at the crossroads, Longman, Green, 1910, page 44.

There followed a period in which making attempts to examine the New Testament for history was deeply unfashionable. The rise of form criticism suggested that the process of the stories and sayings of Jesus being transmitted through the early Church had distorted them to such a degree that the original had been totally lost. Demythologisation is like stripping the layers from an onion; eventually there is nothing left but the layers. Scholars became less interested in the Jesus of history than in the Christ of faith.

Bultmann was intensely sceptical regarding the historical Jesus, and argued that the only thing we can know about Jesus is the mere fact or "that-ness" (German dass) of his historical existence. Bultmann was influenced by the existential philosophy of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. He played down the significance of Jesus as a historical figure, focusing instead on the importance of how we respond to the Christ of faith. Through this period, British scholars such as CK Barrett in Durham, tended to retain some confidence in the possibility of reaching knowledge of the historical personality of Jesus.

The second quest

In the 1950s there was a brief revival of the quest. Scholars such as Günther Bornkamm, Ernst Käsemann, Edward Robinson and Jennie Ebeling challenged the prevailing wisdom that the New Testament was a late and unreliable compilation of myths and theological propaganda and, while acknowledging the difficulties in extracting history from the Gospels, argued that it could still be done. At this stage the consensus of opinion began to be that the Gospels began to exist, much in their current form, around the year 70AD and that they depended on proto-gospel sources (which do not now exist but which may be reconstructed from the gospels) which may have dated back to the fourth decade AD. This hypothesis in fact dated back to the nineteenth century, but was refined in 1924 by British scholar BH Streeter (1874-1937), who developed what is called the "four-document hypothesis". JAT Robinson was a dissenting voice, arguing for the priority of John's Gospel (ie that John was the first gospel to be written) and a very early dating for the New Testament, but his arguments have never met with much acceptance.

The second quest met with as much criticism as the first. Again it was noted that scholars brought their own theological bias to bear in interpreting the texts and tended to be rather selective in their choice of sources and their account of Jesus' connections.

The third quest

Today, interest in reconstructing the historical Jesus is still strong, but tends to focus on putting Jesus into the context of first-century Judaism, a context which is understood in more detail than in the past thanks to the application of sociological, historical, literary and even archaeological techniques. In this the third quest builds on the work of Jewish scholars such as Frederick Dale Brunner and Joseph Gedaliah Klausner whose work in the 1920s broke new ground in showing the relevance of social history, restoration eschatology and non-canonical sources. The third quest is split between those scholars who advocate a return to a non-eschatological picture of Jesus (ie a Jesus who was a Jewish leader, not dominated by thoughts of the end of the world) and those who see him as leading a eschatological restoration movement (ie seeing Jesus as a prophet intent on restoring the covenant in advance of the end of time).

Click here for more information about the quests for the historical Jesus