He told them: "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (Gospel of Luke 24: 46-48)

Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Short introduction to the Christological aspects of the Historical Jesus: To what Extent has Modern Liberal Scholarship attempted to refute these?

This is my first work ever on the Historical Jesus, an essay I completed in 2005. If you are looking for a very detailed reading, this my not be what you are looking for, yet it might be worth a read.

Two years ago I completed two very detailed essays on the Historical Jesus: a much more extensive introduction and one on the Resurrection of Jesus in response to the modern theory that Jesus' resurrection was originally viewed as mere spiritual occurance in which the soul left the body.

I will post both essays here and probably on my website when it starts running as soon as I get green light from my university to post them.


The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) proposed that a focus upon the historical Jesus confirms nothing of significance to the Christ of our faith. He maintained that the appearance of the eternal in time ascends history and becomes trivialised within the frame of history; thus Christ in history is not comprehensible and is only perceived by faith.[1]
Kiergegaard’s proposition has however failed to receive a common consent among scholars. Macquarrie points out that if Christ ‘existed only for faith’ then how would this explain the fact that knowledge toward faith is historically bound?[2] And thus, should not the historical Jesus and his ‘functional Christology’ be combined?[3]
To combine the historicity of Jesus and his Christological role, three main issues become inevitable in our assessment: the date and authorship of the Gospels, the miracles, and resurrection of Jesus!

The Gospels, their date and authorship

Regardless of, whether the original Jesus was distorted or kept intact, a reasonable assessment requires first an estimation of the origin and era of transmission, composition and compilation of the Gospel text which conveys to us the information of his historical role.
Recent manuscript discoveries have placed it within the second half of the 1st century[4] and according to Maurice Casey who otherwise proposes a critical and negative conclusion in comparison to the Bible-believing Christian, such a compilation took place within the first sixty years of Christianity.[5]

The next step is determining whether the text underwent stages of developments or remained intact.

Here Sanders, who inaugurated the third Jesus Quest, suggests that an early and oral original account of Jesus indeed existed, yet this tradition was gradually corrupted by additions.

But how and why would the early church produce these additions?

Sanders, proposes three reasons:

  • Christological elements which developed through early Jewish-Christian debating
  • Assumed Old Testament predictions to Christ
  • Mythological elements meant to attract followers[6]

Here Sanders, summarizes parts of earlier theories of the First and Second Quest, e.g. the ideas of Schweitzer and Bultmann, who both suggested scriptural fabrication.

Schweitzer had earlier postulated that Jesus’ mission failed, which forced the fabrication; hence it was a cover-up, while Bultmann who utilized existentialist methods[7] assumed the same reason but elaborated further on the extent of the corruption as a result and a means of attraction.

Bultmann claimed that Jesus had predicted eschatology but not the Christological elements; these were the additions of the early Christian community,[8] which he coined ‘kerygma’, the mythological elements plagiarised from the Old Testament or contemporary or earlier religions.

Bultmann therefore asserted that any attempt to discover the historical Jesus required total demythologizing of the text, in which Jesus’ words had to be isolated from the kerygma,[9] however, which he rendered a task impossible to achieve, as he stated: ‘The problem of the Christology of the New Testament is the problem of the New Testament’.[10]

Bultmann’s theory was however deemed too complex and too biased.[11] It was refuted by succeeding liberals, such as Kasemann and Bornkamm who inaugurated the Second Quest.
These still focused on isolation but refuted the impassibility to get beneath the kerygma.[12]

Like Bultmann, Kasemann also perceived Jesus to be a mere teacher. He objected to the rigid mythological factor of Bultmann, yet stated that the Gospels were separate compositions which indeed contained authentic sayings with fabricated mythological additions.[13]

Another faction within the Jesus Quest, was that of the Jesus Seminar. Norman Perrin (1920-76) who provided its method, singled out assumed authentic sayings based upon:

  • Multiple attestation of two gospels sayings or independent pre-Gospel traditions.
  • The criterion of coherence: that the sayings have to be consistent with subject matter and tone with those already attributed to Jesus.
  • Exclusion from Jewish and early church elements, e.g. the Eucharist and John’s Gospel.[14]

By utilizing Perrin’s method the Jesus Seminar considers only ninety of the fifteen hundred sayings as authentic and these exclude all Christological and messianic notions.[15]

The integrity of the Jesus Seminar has however been severely challenged and is an approach abandoned by the majority of scholars; it is accused of a theological agenda which avoids the fundamental questions.[16]

Why place Christ outside of Judaism and early Christianity to determine his historical reality? On which basis do we have the authority to do so? Why not rather study him within available history? Meier points out that the same method could be applied to any figure of history and result similarly; this would however mythologize both Luther and Beethoven.[17]

Getting back to Sanders’ approach, he approached this from a different angle; primarily he questions the lack of biographical characteristics in the Gospel account to present an historical account.[18] Sanders reckoned that an account could only be fully reliable if the author presented all the details of every reference to individuals and events in their context.[19] Thus, the critical perception is two-fold but united: the Gospel account lacks historical data, and contains too much mythology. Today these arguments are fairly refuted, the majority of scholars perceive the Gospels as biographies.

Sanders also pointed out a second matter, that the authenticity of the Gospels should be based upon confirmation of the actual authorship. He suggests that the Gospel account was written by the early first century church, while the names of the authors, such as Matthew or Mark, according to hearsay were added in the second century to provide them with apostolic authority.[20]

Hence, according to Sanders, the authenticity stands or falls upon the confirmation of the authorship of the four Gospels.

Sanders’ theory may however, not be fully compatible with early history. A look at early New Testament manuscripts and fragments and writings of early church fathers suggests that the four Gospels were fairly well recognised in all Christian centres by the early second century.[21] In fact, Eusebius’ (AD 260-339) reference to Papias (AD 100) in his The History of the Church, reveals that Papias referred to Matthew, Mark and John as contemporaries with those who provided him the information. He further describes Mark dictating the Gospel from Peter and Matthew writing his Gospel to the Jews in Hebrew.[22]

While full consent amongst scholars is lacking,[23] these three factors are of significance here: a) he interacts with first-century individuals who knew Matthew, Peter and John, 2) he was a disciple of Polycarp, himself a disciple of John,[24] 3) and he is supported by Justin Martyr (AD 150), who in his Dialogue 100.4 and 106.3 entitles the Gospels as the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’, to which one is dedicated Peter.[25]

Therefore asserting that the authorship of the Gospel account was not recognised in the first century is willingly neglecting basic facts, and the issue is therefore not that of authorship but that of authorial integrity!

So far we can only assume that the church within the first century believed the Historical Jesus to be the risen Christ; at least this is what first century authorship indicates. The question we need to ask is: whether the authors were portraying an honest account on the historicity of Jesus? Were they covering up failure or simply attempting to attract followers?

A deceiving activist or psychiatric moralist: his resurrection and miracles

Did Jesus rise from dead in the first place? Within the first Jesus Quest, Herman Reimarus (1694-1768) was probably the first to have a significant effect on the historical search for Jesus. His motive was however not to discover the historical Jesus, but rather to discredit supernatural religion so as to make way for natural religion.[26] He describes Jesus as a moral teacher and political activist who despised Jewish legalism and predicted the coming of a future glorious kingdom.

Reimarus elaborates on this and asserted that Jesus’ predictions failed, particularly his resurrection; his book Fragmente eines Ungenannten, even suggests an early apostolic conspiracy, in which the disciples stole Jesus’ body possibly as a cover up.[27]

Scholars, such as David Strauss (1808-74) were unconvinced by Reimarus’ proposition. Strauss stated that the resurrection in its totality was an apostolic fabrication, that Jesus never spoke to his critics about his resurrection[28] and pointed out that speeches which included any indication of the kind, such as ‘his body being the temple’ or the ‘sign of Jonah’ were symbolic and unclear.[29]

He points out three main arguments against the resurrection: 1) the ignorance of the religious leaders;[30] 2) the legendary nature of the post-resurrection appearances which occur within the inner circle only; 3) and the variant elements in the accounts of the resurrection appearance.[31]

There are however objections to Strauss’ arguments, first and most the religious leaders did perceive these speeches, which Strauss considered as unclear, as predictions of Jesus’ resurrection (Matt.27: 62-6).

Secondly, Paul’s reference to five hundred individuals who saw Jesus at the same time (1 Cor.16: 5). Here, Pannenberg points out that Paul intended to challenge his contemporary critics; that the multiple numbers of witnesses welcomed any inquiries.[32]

Hence despite Strauss’ objections being reasonable, the paradoxes remain unsolved: if the resurrection was a fraud:

1) Where was the body located?

2) What was the impetus behind?

3) How about the risk of the hoax failing and leading to further assaults

4) What was the reason behind the hoax? Was it material gain or power

5) and if so, from where would it come?

The amounts of paradoxes are most likely to be solved if the resurrection proclamation logically made sense, being based upon individuals who clearly believed it. While this may not prove the resurrection account itself, it presents the possibility that the disciples truly believed the resurrection occurrence themselves.

Here Raymond Brown points out two factors on which Christianity rests. He declares that the empty tomb would not be sufficient to inaugurate the resurrection proclamation; the Christian faith would merely build upon an empty tomb; hence the post-resurrection appearances would be a necessary confirmation to launch the proclamation.[33]

Pannenberg also pointed out that without the appearances the early Christian community would be non-existing;[34] Strauss and Bultmann themselves seemed aware of the matter and even postulated that the disciples mutually or subjectively might have hallucinated the appearances.[35]

Yet the fact that the body was missing would in itself cause complications for the first century critic, if later Jewish polemic is correct then the body of Christ was presented to the Jerusalem community by being dragged through the streets (The Toledoth Yeshu).[36] But if later Jewish polemic is correct why then, was the Gospel proclamation not discredited?

Crossan elaborates further on the missing body of Jesus, envisaging that the disciples fled Jerusalem, and that the body of Jesus according to common practice toward crucified criminals, was probably eaten up by dogs.[37]

The Jesus Seminar however, proposes that mere ignorance is the only suitable solution, that we are simply unable to draw any conclusions; that the body was probably placed in a different tomb and rotted away.[38] While these possibilities remains, they fail to explain why the body was removed or forgotten; if Jews were behind the plot, why was the proclamation not discredited? If the disciples were behind it, how do we explain the impetus of the proclamation?

This is where Matthew’s account becomes vital; in it the tomb and body are located and guarded until the resurrection occurrence (Matt.27-8). Reimarus, however questioned Matthew’s integrity; wondering why Matthew contains the only account to record the specific historical details. He suggests that Matthew fabricates a scene where the guards are not properly questioned and the incident is bribed away rather than assessed.[39] Here even Brown who critically assesses the scene, and despite considering the probability of the resurrection, perceives the Gospel account to be heavily interpolated.[40]

Yet again, even though Matthew would have fabricated his account, it does not undermine the fact that the impetus of the proclamation was somehow inaugurated, and the authors who were or knew the eyewitnesses themselves believed account! Furthermore, there were probably good reason why Mark, Luke and John did not include this incident in their writings as these being Greek writings in circulation would quickly attract the Roman interest a cause speculation of rebellion. Hence the incident only circulated in oral form and occurred in written form in the Aramaic written Matthew’s Gospel only.

How about the miracles? Do they reveal integrity or deception? While Strauss (1808-74) denied that Jesus deceived his hearers by predicting the resurrection, he did propose the possibility that Jesus in fact was a charlatan who through miraculous tricks deceived the illiterate and ignorant.[41]

Hence if Strauss and Reimarus were correct then the historical Jesus was originally a deceiver, his disciples including. But what would be the purpose behind the miraculous deception?

Within the Third Quest movement there is strong disagreement, e.g. Vermes who perceives Jesus as an extraordinary Jew, who simply followed the trend of the holy men movement;[42] or Crossan, who offers the possibility that Jesus’ miracles and predictions were fakes and means to organise the masses to political activism.[43]

Interestingly both the First and some Third Quest advocators present the possibility of Christ being merely or either a teacher, a political activist, or both. The main focus then, due to the miraculous elements is to ask whether he consciously utilized deceptive tricks or in fact performed them supernaturally.

Strauss envisaged that since Jesus purposely avoided miraculous tricks amongst the educated body of religious scholars, he revealed the risk of being exposed.[44] However, the Gospel account challenges this perspective: 1) miracles were indeed performed in front of the religious leaders (Matt.9: 1-8), 2) and the miracles of Jesus were perceived by the religious leaders not as hoaxes but as demonical (Matt.9: 34; 12: 24).

This indeed seems to be confirmed by contemporary and later Jewish writings. Talmudic writings describe him as a practitioner of magic (Sanhedrin 43),[45] while Josephus describes him as a worker of mighty deeds (Testimonium Flavianum, Ant 18.3.3, 63-4).[46] Hence deducing the Jewish material, these support the notion that Jesus’ miracles would mainly have been perceived as supernatural within the educated circles.

Concerning the integrity of the historical Jesus, another possible motive is introduced by Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), one of the originators of the first quest. He excluded the notion of deception or political activism and portrayed Christ as a moral teacher who consciously believed in his own future resurrection and exalted glory.
He describes Jesus as unique and vital for the ongoing ethics of human history but as a failure in his eschatological predictions;[47] hence Jesus was not consciously a deceiver!

However, Schweitzer leaned toward Strauss’ theory that Jesus’ high views of himself were caused by possible psychiatric and hallucinating problems,[48] and this was the problem which the disciples later had to deal with.

Yet again, while Schweitzer’s postulate needs consideration, it does not explain the resurrection account or the continuous proclamation.


The fact remains that historical Jesus Christ cannot be fully assessed from history any more than any other ancient historical figure. The only reasonable conclusions are based upon an individual’s recognition of available sources, whether the Gospel accounts or the information provided from early church fathers; hence in all fairness Jesus is historical.

So far the debate concerns the Christological functions, his miracles and resurrection and whether these were fakes or acts of the supernatural? The only evidences are the sources which have not been proven to be corruptions, and which are backed up by both the resurrection paradox and the existence of the continuous proclamation. We can only assume therefore that these are historical probabilities. Following this, since the historical Jesus is so combined with the Christological functions, they are difficult to separate.

Kierkegaard might be correct in his strong emphasis on faith; yet unless we can move beyond the philosophical and speculative propositions and present the actual evidences against Jesus as being Christ, it still remains an historical probability that the Christological functions of the historical Jesus reveal him to be the exalted Christ.


[1] Macquarrie, 1990:237
[2] ibid, 1990:240-2
[3] ibid, 1990:7
[4] Charlotte, 1998:149, 256-9
[5] Casey, 1991:97
[6] Sanders, 1993:57-63
[7] Allen, 1998:24
[8] Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, 1958:11-8
[9] ibid, 1958:18
[10] Bultmann, Faith and Understanding, 1969:262-4
[11] Meier, 1991:27
[12] Charlotte, 1998:250
[13] ibid, 1998:250-3
[14] Charlotte, 1998:263-4
[15] ibid 1998:276-7
[16] James Carleton Paget, Quests for the Historical Jesus, in the Cambridge Companion to Jesus, pp.152
[17] Meier, 1991:173
[18] Sanders, 1993:57-8
[19] ibid, 1993:76
[20] ibid, 1993:63-6
[21] Bruce, 1998:117-96
[22] Eusebius, 103-4
[23] see F.F. Bruce’s The Date and Character of Mark, in Jesus and the Politics of His Day, 69-91
[24] Eusebius, 101-3
[25] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/
[26] Charlotte, 1998:114
[27] Ladd, 1989:41
[28] Strauss, 1973:704
[29] ibid, 1973:576-80
[30] ibid, 1973:704
[31] Strauss, 1973:718-44
[32] Pannenberg, 1968:97
[33] Brown, 1973:126-8
[34] Pannenberg, 1968:91
[35] Craig, 1984:182-185, see also Ladd, 1989:188, for a reference to Bultmann
[36] Voorst, 2000:122-6
[37] Crossan, 1989:154
[38] Charlotte, 1998:277
[39] Reimarus, 1970:154-5
[40] Brown, 1973:127
[41] Strauss, 1973:414-5
[42] Vermes, 1973:33-6, 69-80
[43] Crossan, 1989:102-22; 142-58
[44] Strauss, 1973:414-5
[45] Voorst 2000:114
[46] ibid, 2000:85
[47] Schweitzer, The Quest of the historical Jesus, 2000:477-87
[48] Schweitzer, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, 1963:34-5, 40-1, 62-3, 72-3


  1. I liked this text a lot. Well focused and balanced withe inteligent focosing and annalazis. Keep up withe the good work...