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The quest for the historical Jesus is the attempt to use historical rather than religious methods to construct a verifiable biography of Jesus. As originally defined by Albert Schweitzer, the quest began in the 18th century with Hermann Samuel Reimarus, up to William Wrede in the 19th century and further progressed by Friedrich Nietzsche who specifically said 'Got ist tot' (translated, "God is dead"). The quest is commonly divided into stages, and it continues today among scholars such as the fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

Reimarus composed a treatise rejecting miracles and accusing Bible authors of fraud, but he didn't publish his findings.[1] Gotthold Lessing published Reimarus's conclusions in the Wolfenbuettel fragments.[2] D.F. Strauss's biography of Jesus set Gospel criticism on its modern course.[2] Strauss explained gospel miracles as natural events misunderstood and misrepresented.[3] Ernest Renan was the first of many to portray Jesus simply as a human person.[2] Albrecht Ritschl had reservations about this project, but it became central to liberal Protestantism in Germany and to the Social Gospel movement in America.[2] Martin Kaehler protested, arguing that the true Christ is the one preached by the whole Bible, not a historical hypothesis.[2] William Wrede questioned the historical reliability of Mark.[2] Albert Schweitzer showed how histories of Jesus had reflected the historians' bias.[2] Karl Barth repudiated the quest for historical Jesus, suppressing any real interest in the topic from c 1920 to c 1970.[4] There was a brief New Quest movement in the 50s.[2] Today, historical efforts to construct a biography of Jesus are as strong as ever.[2]

The First Quest

As originally defined by Schweitzer, the quest began with Reimarus and ended with Wrede. This period saw increasing influence of historical Jesus as an academic and popular topic. Soon after Wrede's work, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann denounced the whole effort, marking the end of the so-called first quest.

These scholars of what today would be called the Quest for the Historical Jesus applied the historical methodologies of their day to distinguish the mythology from the history of Jesus. Reimarus pioneered "the search for the historical Jesus", applying the Rationalism of the Enlightenment Era to claims about Jesus. Although Schweitzer was among the greatest contributors to this quest, he also ended the quest by noting how each scholar's version of Jesus seemed little more than an idealized autobiography of the scholar himself - a criticism suggestive of Ludwig Feuerbach, and still haunts Jesus research to this day.

  • Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) - credited as the father of the Quest for the Historical Jesus
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) - a US president who considered Jesus' ethics superb and miracles ahistorical: Jefferson Bible
  • David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) - asserted that the supernatural elements of the gospels could be treated as myth.
  • Ernest Renan (1823-1892) - asserted that the biography of Jesus ought to be open to historical investigation just as is the biography of any other man.
  • William Wrede (1859-1906) - wrote on the Messianic Secret theme in the Gospel of Mark. He also wrote a crucial study of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, which argued for its inauthenticity.
  • Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) - "Schweitzer saw Jesus' ethic as only an "interim ethic" (a way of life good only for the brief period before the cataclysmic end, the eschaton). As such he found it 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 Africa where he founded the famous hospital at Lambaréné out of respect for all forms of life."[1]
  • Rudolf Bultmann - identified the Signs gospel.
  • Martin Dibelius - advocated that form criticism be applied to the New Testament.[2]

Some recent scholars have reasserted Schweitzer's eschatological view of Jesus: see Dale Allison in his 1998 work "Jesus of Nazareth, Milenarian Prophet" and Bart D. Ehrman in 1999 work Jesus, Apolocyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Conversely others, such as the Jesus Seminar, have denied the authenticity of Jesus' eschatological message, describing Jesus as a wandering sage.

The New Quest

Also called the Second Quest.
The New Quest was a brief movement in the 1950s to revive the quest for historical Jesus.[2]

These scholars emphasized the "constraints of history", so that despite uncertainties there were historical data that were usable. Moreover, they disputed claims of extreme lateness for the formation of the New Testament and generally accomplished a consensus of approximately year 70 AD, give-or-take a decade or two depending on a specific text. Likewise they emphasized how the redaction of the New Testament resulted from a process over time, so that the New Testament included early textual layers, around which later and later layers crystallized. The form of the Gospel of Thomas was often argued to corroborate the existence of the Q Gospel, whose hypothetical form would resemble it. Hypothesizing about the existence of original source texts became useful for data relevant to the Historical Jesus. These early texts continue to remain hypothetical unless future discoveries render proof of their existence.

  • Gunther Bornkamm
  • Ernst Käsemann
  • James M. Robinson
  • John A. T. Robinson
  • Edward Schillebeeckx
  • Gerhard Ebeling

Contemporary scholarship

Research into historical Jesus is strong today, especially thanks to better knowledge of first-century Judaism, a rebirth of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship, broad acceptance of historical methods, sociological insights, and literary analysis.[2]

These scholars tend to focus on the early textual layers of the New Testament for data to reconstruct a biography for the Historical Jesus. Many of these scholars rely on a redactive critique of the hypothetical Q Gospel and on a Greco-Roman "Mediterranean" milieu as opposed to a Jewish milieu and tend to view Jesus as a radical philosopher of Wisdom literature, who strives to destabilize the economic status quo. Some scholars also rely on a critique of non-canonical texts for early textual layers that possibly evidence Jesus.

  • Marcus Borg
  • John Dominic Crossan
  • Robert Funk
  • Burton Mack
  • Morton Smith

The Jewishness of Jesus is first and foremost. These scholars use the archeology of Israel and the analysis of formative Jewish literature, including the Mishna, Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament (as a Jewish text) and Josephus, to reconstruct the ancient worldviews of Jews in the 1st-century Roman provinces of Iudaea and Galilaea - and only afterward investigate how Jesus fits in. They tend to view Jesus as a proto-rabbi who announced the Kingdom of Heaven. The focus on Jesus's social environment rather than on Jesus himself is an intentional methodology to increase the influence of verifiable scientific criteria for evaluating Jesus and to reduce the influence of personal subjective criteria.

  • David Bivin
  • Roy Blizzard
  • Raymond E. Brown
  • Bruce Chilton
  • Haim Cohn
  • James H. Charlesworth
  • W.D. Davies
  • James D. G. Dunn
  • Robert Eisenman
  • Harvey Falk
  • David Flusser
  • Paula Fredriksen
  • Joachim Jeremias
  • Ray Vander Laan
  • Robert Lisle Lindsey
  • John P. Meier
  • Ron Moseley
  • Jacob Neusner
  • Peter Pokorny
  • Ray A. Pritz
  • Dwight A. Pryor
  • E.P. Sanders
  • Shmuel Safrai
  • David Stern
  • Geza Vermes
  • Marvin R. Wilson
  • Ben Witherington
  • N. T. Wright
  • Brad H. Young


  1. "Reimarus, Hermann Samuel." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 "Historical Jesus, Quest of the." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  3. "miracle." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  4. Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The five gospels. HarperSanFrancisco. 1993. Introduction, p 1-30.