The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The quest for the historical Jesus

Is Jesus Christ best understood as a prophet of the apocalypse?  Yes, argued Albert Schweitzer in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Moderns, said Schweitzer, tend to miss this reality, turning Jesus into a wise and pacific God-man.  Schweitzer’s claim has been renewed and popularized by Bart Ehrman in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.*  

It’s a strong argument, though a complicated one, for there exists no history of Jesus without its own theological agenda.  The first Gospel, Mark, as well as the hypothetical source called Q, are filled with apocalyptic sayings of Jesus, many emphasizing that the end of the age would fall within the lifetime of his followers. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mark 9:1).

The problem, of course, is that Jesus was wrong.  The Kingdom did not come within the lifetime of his followers.  It has yet to arrive.  Though the revision of the message is present in all the Gospels after Mark, it was most clearly changed in John.  The Kingdom was in heaven.  It was not coming to earth, at least not for some time.  Jesus was telling us how to live now, not how to prepare for the apocalypse.

“Already but not yet” makes it complicated

The complexity is best captured by what is called inaugurated eschatology, and reflected in the phrase already but not yet.”  There is much in the New Testament, virtually our only historical source, that says that the Kingdom of Heaven is already at work among the followers of Jesus.  The Beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit . . . ) or the antitheses, also in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (5:21–48), are exemplary.**  There is virtually no way to read them but as advice for how to live in this world now.  It is a stretch to argue that the Beatitudes are a statement about the reversal that will occur when God’s Kingdom is realized on earth.  About the antitheses, Ehrman argues simply that they are not independently attested, an especially weak argument about a Gospel he relies on heavily (p 171).

Consider the love commandment: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31).  It’s good advice, but why does it become the sum of all the law and the prophets when the arrival of God’s Kingdom will render it moot?  In God’s Kingdom, people will no longer choose to love their neighbor.  They will simply love.  The love commandment seems rather to have been a statement of how Christians should choose to live now. 

Not peace but the sword

On the other hand, Jesus’ claim that he has come not to unite families but to divide them fits the thesis that he is an apocalyptic prophet.  He brings not love but the sword.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother . . . a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matthew 10: 34-39; cf Luke 12:51-53)

Jesus’ statement is not only compatible with but is best explained by an apocalyptic interpretation of his mission.  If the goal is to prepare for the apocalypse, then human love relations are an obstacle, and certainly of relatively little importance compared to the coming Kingdom.

Does the order of composition reconcile the two Jesuses?

It’s evidently not so simple as Jesus as prophet of the apocalypse or Jesus as preacher of the “already but not yet.” The latter is easily read as rendering the Kingdom as metaphor, a way of thinking about ideal human relationships in this world.  How could Jesus be both?  Apocalypse now or Kingdom as metaphor are not just different, but incompatible.  Can they be squared?

One way they cannot be reconciled is the strategy of Ehrman, which is to say that the apocalyptic Jesus is the early Jesus, closer to the real historical man. Only the late Jesus, further removed from history in the later gospels, is a wise prophet of peace. 

Matthew was written about fifteen years after Mark, while Luke, the next to last Gospel, was written about five years later.  Luke contains a statement much like that in Matthew, in which Jesus comes not to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51-53). In some respects, Jesus becomes more apocalyptic as the Gospels progress.  Even the Gospel of John contains apocalyptic themes, as a number of authors have argued (Williams and Rowland, 2014).***  The Gospels simply do not follow the progression posited by Ehrman, from the early (and presumably more historical) apocalyptic Gospel of Mark to the increasingly less apocalyptic Gospels that follow. 

The Jesus we want

The Jesus so many of us want, the Jesus that so many have wanted for hundreds of years, is Jesus the teacher of a wise and caring ethic.  This Jesus is not merely a wise man, but identical with God.  This is the Jesus of the Apostles Creed (120-250 CE) and Nicene Creed (381 CE), which, together with popular culture interpret Jesus as the good, wise, and pacific God-man.  In 1906 Schweitzer put the issue sharply.

A time will come when our theology, with its pride in its historical character, will get rid of its rationalistic bias. This bias leads it to project back into history what belongs to our own time . . . . The consequence is that it creates the historical Jesus in its own image, so that it is not the modern spirit influenced by the Spirit of Jesus, but the Jesus of Nazareth constructed by modern historical theology, that is set to work upon our race. (p 446, Quest) ****

When Jesus is finally encountered on his own terms, he will be more alien than we can imagine. 

He will not be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can ascribe, according to its long-cherished custom, its own thoughts and ideas, as it did with the Jesus of its own making. Nor will He be a figure which can be made by a popular historical treatment so sympathetic and universally intelligible to the multitude. The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma. (Quest, p 566)

How alien is the historical Jesus?

Christianity states that Jesus died to save us from the wages of sin, and his resurrection is the proof.  One-third of Mark (11-16), one-third of Matthew (21-28), a quarter of Luke (19-24), and nearly half of John (12-20) are concerned exclusively with the last week of Christ’s life.  The parables, the sayings, the miracles, are all preludes to Christ’s passion.

This is not, however, the religion that Jesus himself preached. To use an old saying among religious scholars, Christianity is not so much the religion of Jesus (the religion he proclaimed) as it is a religion about Jesus.  That is, a religion based on his death and resurrection.  The historical Jesus may have had no inkling of his resurrection (Ehrman, p 230).

About the details Schweitzer and Ehrman differ.  Schweitzer’s argument is that Jesus knew himself to be the Son of God (“the Messianic secret” he calls it), and when the Kingdom did not come, he set off for Jerusalem to bring it about through his death.  He fails.

In the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man [Jesus] lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. (Quest, p 527)

Ehrman argues that Jesus never believed he was the “Son of Man,” who would usher in the Kingdom on golden clouds.  He was only its prophet.  Schweitzer’s dissertation on The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, written while he was in medical school, explains the difference.  Schweitzer was interested in the mind of a man who falsely believed he was the Messiah.  Uninterested in the psychology of Jesus, Ehrman is interested in only the apocalyptic prophet. *****

Is the kingdom of Heaven a metaphor?

While the difference between Schweitzer and Ehrman is fascinating, it does not answer the fundamental question.  Is the “already but not yet” view of the Kingdom (inaugurated eschatology) a view that renders the Kingdom a metaphor for how we should live now?  Luke implies the metaphor view when he has Jesus say “The Kingdom of God is among you,” which could as easily be translated as “The Kingdom is within you.” (17:21).

The Lord’s Prayer says simply “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) This seems to support the “already but not yet” view, for immediately thereafter one prays for bread and asks for forgiveness for our trespasses against others.  One asks for these things now, in this world.  

It certainly seems that Jesus is concerned with how we live out the ideals of the Kingdom now.  The alternative is to read Jesus’ parables, sayings, and miracles, such as healing the sick and raising the dead, as a way of demonstrating that the Kingdom is about to intrude among you, ready or not.

The only answer that makes sense to me is that Jesus acted as though both were true at different, and often adjacent, points in his ministry.  While there is no need to assume that Jesus secretly believed he was the Son of Man, what Schweitzer calls the “Messianic mystery,” certain statements of his, particularly his devaluation of earthly relationships are more consistent with Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.  Other statements, such as those in the Sermon on the Mount, are more consistent with a prophet who would teach us to love one another in this world now. 

If we are to approach Jesus as a psychiatric problem (and I don’t believe this is the best approach), then he is at best deeply schizoid, divided against himself.  Better to recognize that we know almost nothing about the historical Jesus, and understand that the apparent schizoid quality of the man is an artifact of the history and theological tendency of those who wrote the Gospels.  Ehrman finds an at first plausible answer: those who wrote the earliest Gospels, including the hypothetical sayings Gospel Q, understood him as an apocalyptist; later writers didn’t.  Unfortunately, the Gospels do not divide so easily. 

Redaction critics, who pay attention to the theological tendency of an author as it is revealed in the editing of a Biblical text, are in a better position to address this issue but any answer would be far from complete (Perrin).  The most reasonable conclusion seems to be that while the “already but not yet” view of the Kingdom predominates, apocalyptic elements are not absent, and should not all be assimilated into figurative speech. 

Conclusion

If we are to take the historical Jesus seriously, then he will remain a mystery, his teachings not readily explained either by his psychology or the categorization of the Gospels into early and late. But why shouldn’t Jesus remain a mystery?  The real problem is our demand for clarity about a man who will not be captured by our categories.

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Notes

* The search for the historical Jesus began with the Enlightenment.  It has come in three waves, laid out by Ben Witherington in The Jesus Quest.  Schweitzer’s Quest is organized as a critique of previous attempts by German scholars to uncover the historical Jesus.  Schweitzer represents the first wave, and for a while seemed to be the last word on the search. 

** Matthew 5: 21-48.  The antitheses are statements in which Christ demands more than the old law (Mosaic law).  For example, the old law says do not commit adultery; Christ says do not even look at a woman with lust in your heart.

*** There is some debate over whether Paul, whose letters precede the first Gospel (1 Thessalonians was written around 50 CE), identified Jesus with God.  Unless one goes beyond the 7 undisputed letters, one has to read tendentiously to believe that he did.  John, written almost fifty years later, is the only Gospel to make this equation explicit, Jesus = God. 

**** With the term “race” Schweitzer is referring to the German intellectual tradition. 

***** Ehrman briefly states that if Jesus thought he would be made the Messiah in the future Kingdom that makes him no crazier than lots of other Jews at the time with “visions of grandeur.”  https://ehrmanblog.org/were-jesus-followers-crazy-was-he-mailbag-june-4-2016/

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References

Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.  Oxford University Press, 1999.

Norman Perrin, What is Redaction Criticism?  Fortress Press, 1969.

Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus.  True Sign Publishing House, 2023, Kindle edition.  [original 1906]

Albert Schweitzer, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism.  Barakaldo Books, 2020, Kindle Edition.  [original 1913]

Catrin H. Williams and Christopher Rowland, editors.  John’s Gospel and Intimations of the Apocalyptic.  T&T Clark, 2014.  

Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth.  InterVersity Press, 1997 (second expanded edition).

 

2 thoughts on “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”

  1. I’m struck by the current implications of the ambiguous Jesus. Fundamentalist Christians, and some of the Catholic hierarchy, probably in part because of a need for certainty, seem mostly interested in the apocalyptic, violent Christ. I have more than a passing interest in this because both me and my family have been threatened by the current focus on the violence of that side of Jesus. I wish that there would be a more prevalent understanding of his teaching “love thy neighbor.”

  2. I would agree with you Marc. I even think that
    it is much more important than going to church is.
    God does not wait anxiously to see whether people are going to church.
    Why we’re on the earth and while we’re on earth we are involved with others. Often evil is being done by men like Putin. But there are many people who are doing small and important acts of love and kindness to others.
    I may have said before that loving our neighbour helps thr neighbour but it helps us as well. Sometimes it can be difficult even extremely difficult but what is the answer to that?

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