The “quest for the historical Jesus” finds its beginnings as “an internal Jewish controversy.” (DJG, 719) Early divisions over Jesus’s credibility arose out of the derogation hurled at him by the religious aristocrats that he was “possessed by Beelzebul.” (Mark 3:22–27) “The scribes who had come down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and, ‘He drives out demons by the ruler of the demons.’” (Mark 3:22) The claim that he was consumed by a Satanic entity completely eradicated Jesus’s other claims and charitable deeds, thereby expunging him from the acceptable roll of prophets that should be heeded and regarded. This dispute over Jesus’s “Jewishness” helped spark the endeavor to reclaim “the historicity” of Jesus himself.
Early church fathers and councils debated over Jesus’s two natures, his deity and humanity, and his authoritative testimony in miracles. From the Council of Nicea (in 325) to Calvin’s day (1509–1564) and onward, there existed unbridled dissension regarding Christ’s healings and exorcisms. The rise of scholastic skepticism only exacerbated the conflict, most notably in Scottish philosopher David Hume’s essay “Of Miracles,” which was published in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Throughout, Hume does not argue against the veracity of miracles themselves, rather, against their ability to establish credible foundations upon which to build systems of belief. “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature,” Hume declares, concluding that “no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.” (114, 127)
This conviction is largely a derivation of deism, the school of thought that accepts a divine Creator but categorically denies a divine Messiah. Jesus might have been a great orator and stirrer of the people, but he was no god. Such inclinations are fanciful and false. English philosopher Anthony Collins asserted that the Old Testament texts that prophesied of a divine Messiah “had been misapplied to Jesus.” Instead, they were merely “instances of rabbinic allegorical interpretation, demonstrating that Christianity was based on irrational fantasy.” (DJG, 723) German writer Gotthold Ephraïm Lessing would similarly claim that Jesus was among the the most distinguished lecturers in humanity’s history, being “the first reliable, practical teacher of the immortality of the soul” (DJG, 725) — but, again, no god. Rather, he was merely a defeated and disillusioned teacher, brutally dying in isolation after his followers deserted him.
Such assertions are what stirred Alsatian theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer to write The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1911), in which a recovery of Jesus’s “historicity” was earnestly sought after. Scouring the works of his contemporaries, Schweitzer posited that the colloquial outlook on Jesus himself changed within each era and with each author’s own bias. Therefore, to truly understand Jesus, one must interpret him within the context of Jesus’s own convictions. Thus, for Schweitzer, Jesus was a “desupernaturalized” and “demythologized” teacher whose reputation for miracles and messiahship was found solely in the “myth-making tendencies of religion.” In his mind, “the historical Jesus was turned into the mythical Messiah.” (DJG, 726)
The irony of Schweitzer’s “quest” is that in its very execution all biblical historicity is lost. Instead, liberal and critical scholasticism seems to have supplanted the scriptural data that evidences both Jesus’s historicity and deity. Schweitzer’s appetite for critical research seems to have “totally demolished the orthodox picture of Jesus” for him. He was no longer the “founder of the kingdom of God who died for the sin of the world”; instead, he was a disabused and disenchanted preacher whose own God had forsaken him and followers betrayed him. His eschatological dreams ended up crushing him.
This same pitiful irony persists to this day with academics falling into all manner of deep pools of criticism of Jesus’s life, with none of them being either very biblical or historical. Later in the 19th century, Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner would surmise that Jesus was “the most Jewish of the Jews,” while German theologian Walter Grundmann would posit that Jesus wasn’t Jewish at all, allowing for (tenuous, at best) theological underpinnings for the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and 40s. In 1985, Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan would found the “Jesus Seminar,” a coalition of biblical scholars, critics, and lecturers whose outspoken quest was “for reliable, recoverable data as a basis for understanding Jesus as he really was.” (DJG, 739) While noble, the “Jesus Seminar” has deduced nothing wholly original or biblical, reasoning that Jesus was simply “a Mediterranean peasant philosopher, dedicated to . . . social-political liberation through subversive parables, aphorisms, and praxis.” (DJG, 739)
In the end, as in Schweitzer’s case, by engaging these radical deconstructionist notions, one is in jeopardy of losing the faith entirely. And so it is that as sola fide was the bedrock of the Protestant Reformation and the recovering of the gospel, sola fide remains the bedrock of the Christian life, especially as it pertains to interpreting and applying Jesus’s life and message. The Christian is endeared to return to the apostle Paul’s assumption when he states in his letter to the Romans that, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16–17) A measure of faith is necessitated when endeavoring to grab hold of the “historical Jesus.” He is both Lord and Creator, capable of speaking worlds into existence and yet deferential enough to take on the ignobility of the cross. One might be inclined to remember the “trilemma” of Scottish preacher John Duncan — which was later brought into the limelight by British author and professor C. S. Lewis — that Christ was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. In his Colloquia Peripatetica, Duncan writes (109):
“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or he was himself deluded and self-deceived, or he was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.”
For the evangelical Christian, the pitfalls of radical biblical criticism are apparent. One must rely not on his astute research but on the Holy Spirit’s superintendence when endeavoring to produce a biblical hermeneutic of Jesus’s life and ministry. As Christ himself states, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” (John 14:26) It is thus that any quest for the “historical Jesus” must proceed from faith in the gospel of Jesus, from which flows both the knowledge and the faith to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ himself as the one who was both Creator and Savior, God and man.
John Duncan, with William Knight Colloquia Peripatetica (Deep-Sea Soundings): Being Notes of Conversations (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1871).
Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, editors, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding, and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894).