The Quest for the Historical Jesus

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2001
For the past several centuries there have been a number of attempts to identify the historical Jesus and differentiate Him from the Christ of faith. Dr. Geisler explains the different “quests” that have occurred, and what, if anything, they have added to our understanding of Jesus.

(from Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker 1999)


For over 100 years there has been a quest to identify the historical Jesus and differenti­ate this person from the Christ of Faith. Actually, there have been several quests. All but the last have rejected the historicity of the New Testament as a whole and undermined orthodox Christianity and the Christian apologetic.

The quests for the real Jesus can be divided into four time periods: (1) the first or “old” quest, 1778-1906; (2) the “no quest” period, 1906-1953; (3) the “new” quest, 1953-1970; and (4) the third quest, from 1970.

The First-Quest Period

The quest for the historical Jesus grew out of the posthumous publication by Gotthold Lessing of Hermann Reimarus’s Fragments. In the fragment “On the Intention of Jesus and His Disciples,” Reimarus separated what the apostles said about Jesus from what Jesus actually said about himself. This partition between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of history remains a core tenet of much of modern New Testament research. It is rooted in the antisupernaturalism of Benedict Spinoza, English Deism, and the fact/ value dichotomy of Immanuel Kant.

In 1835, David Strauss published his desupernaturalized work, The Life of Jesus Criti­cally Examined. Under the influence of David Hume, Strauss dismissed the reliability of historical and supernatural elements in the Gospels as “outrageous” and “myths.” This led to later attempts to demythologize the Gospel records.

Albert Schweitzer brought this period to a close in 1906 with his The Quest of the His­torical Jesus. He argued that Jesus’ message was eschatological in nature and that the supposedly objective research into the man had produced a figure molded into the biases of the researchers. “There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus,” wrote Schweitzer. “He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in historical garb” (Schweitzer, 396).

The No-Quest Period

Schweitzer severely damaged the confidence of the quest for the historical and inaugurated a time during which such research was in disrepute. Rudolph Bultmann regarded such work as methodologically impossible and theologically illegitimate. In Jesus and the Word (1958), he wrote, “I do indeed think that we can know almost noth­ing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist” (Bultmann, 8). Bultmann signaled the shift from historical quest to existential encounter. Building on Strauss, he began to demythologize the Gospels and reinterpret them in an existential way.

The New Quest

A student of Bultmann, Ernst Kasemann began the “new quest” in a 1953 lecture. He rejected Bultmann’s method as docetic, because Bultmann disregarded the humanity of Jesus. While he kept most of the presuppositions of the former quest, Kasemann’s goals differed. The old quest sought discontinuity between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of history amid assumed continuity. The new quest was concerned with the person of Christ as the preached word of God and his relation to history. The major work of the new quest is Gunther Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth (1960).

The Third Quest

The most recent research into the historical Jesus is largely a reac­tion to the “new quest.” It is multifaceted, including some from the radical tradition, a new perspective tradition, and conservatives. In the “conservative” category are I. Howard Marshall, D. F. D. Moule, and G. R. Beasley-Murray. They reject the idea that the picture of the New Testament Jesus was somehow painted by Hellenic Savior cults.

The new perspective group places Jesus in his first-century Jewish setting. This group includes E. P. Sanders, Ben F. Meyer, Geza Vermes, Bruce Chilton, and James H. Charlesworth. The radical tradition is exemplified by the Jesus Seminar and their interest in the Gospel of Thomas and the Q document. The Jesus Seminar uses many of the meth­ods of Strauss and Bultmann, but unlike the latter, the group is optimistic about recovering the historical individual. Their results to date, however, have yielded very different views, based on a small fragment of New Testament sayings they believe to be authentic.


False Assumptions about Method and Premises.

With the exception of the conser­vative resurgence, all the quests have been built on false premises and proceed with falla­cious or questionable methods. Most of these are examined in detail in Baker’s Encyclope­dia of Christian Apologetics. False premises include :

  • Antisupernaturalism. Miracle accounts and any other references to the supernatural are immediately rejected. This is unjustified.
  • Fact/value dichotomy. Kant’s assumption that one can separate fact from value is clearly false, as is evident in the impossibility of separating the fact of Christ’s death from its value. There is no spiritual significance in the virgin birth unless it is a biological fact. Nor can one separate the fact of a human life from its value; a murderer inescapably attacks the individual’s value as a human by taking the person’s life.
  • A false separation. The quests cannot substantiate the disjunction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of fact. They assume, without proof, that the Gospels are not historical and that they do not set out the historical person of Jesus.
  • Denial of Historicity. At the core of the quests is a denial of the historical nature of the Gospels. But their historicity has been substantiated beyond that of other ancient books.
  • Misunderstanding of “myth.” Most quests have not understood the nature of “myth.” Simply because an event is more than empirical does not mean it is less than historical. The miracle of the resurrection, for example, is more than a resuscitation of Jesus’ body—but it is not less than that. As C. S. Lewis noted, those who equate the New Testament with mythology have not studied too much New Testament; they have not studied enough myths.

False Assumptions about Extra-Biblical Documents

In the most recent radical quest there is a misdirected effort to date the New Testament late and to place extra-biblical documents of Q and The Gospel of Thomas. But it is well-established that there are New Testament records before 70, while contemporaries and eyewitnesses were still alive. Further, there is no proof that Q ever existed as a written document. There are no manu­scripts or citations. The Gospel of Thomas is a mid-second-century work too late to have figured in the writing of the Gospels.


C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels

G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth

G. Boyd, Jesus Under Siege

R. Funk, Five Gospels

G. Habermas, The Historical Jesus

C. J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenic History

J. Holden, An Examination of the Jesus Seminar

I. H. Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus

D. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined

A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus

H. Raimanis, Fragments, ed.

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