Tag Archives: Quest of the Historical Jesus

What Do They Mean by “No Quest”?

Albert Schweitzer, 1952

Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dazed and confused

As you no doubt recall, scholars frequently divide the quest for the historical Jesus into phases or periods. The first period, following Albert Schweitzer‘s analysis, began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus and ended with William Wrede and Schweitzer himself. Conventional wisdom holds that the quest took a breather at that point, with scholars somewhat shell-shocked by the implications of the works by Wrede, Schweitzer, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt.

This same conventional wisdom marks the beginning of the “Second Quest” (or, at the time, “New Quest”) in the early 1950s with Ernst Käsemann’s lecture, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (published in Essays on the New Testament). The supposed hiatus between Schweitzer and Käsemann is sometimes called the period of “No Quest.”

Miffed scholars

Recently, just out of curiosity, I was Googling “no quest”, and I found several references to indignant conservative and not-so-conservative biblical scholars. They just don’t like that term. It’s dishonest, they insist, and if it’s one thing they can’t stand, it’s dishonesty.

Are they right? And if the pause or moratorium in the first half of the 20th century is a myth, then where did the idea come from and why does it persist?

A “No Quest” period?

First of all, here’s the typical description we get from survey courses and books on the Quest. The front matter for the Fortress Press “First Complete Edition” of The Quest of the Historical Jesus contains Marcus Borg’s “An Appreciation of Albert Schweitzer,” which ends with the following paragraph:

[Schweitzer’s] claim that historical Jesus scholarship has no theological significance has been very influential, contributing to a relative lack of scholarly interest in the historical Jesus for a major portion of this [i.e., the 20th] century. His work was thus not only the highwater mark of the “old quest” for the historical Jesus, but brought the quest to a temporary close. Only in the past few decades — with the “new quest” of the 1950s and 1960s and the “third quest” of the 1980s — has substantial interest in the historical Jesus revived. (Quest, p. ix, emphasis mine)

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz (The Historical Jesus, A Comprehensive Guide) divide the quest into five phases in which two phases comprise the First Quest. Hence for them “No Quest” is the Third Phase, which they describe as “the collapse of the quest of the historical Jesus.” (Theissen and Merz, p. 9)

“Just not true”

Next, here’s a response from an offended, “anti-no-quest” scholar. In his essay, “The Secularizing of the Historical Jesus” (downloadable PDF), Dale Allison complains about N.T. Wright’s characterization of the first half of the last century as experiencing a “moratorium” on the quest:

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Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 2 (Staying Christian With a Symbolic Jesus)

The times, they are changing

The times, they are changing (Photo credit: riacale)

Come writers and critics
who cauterize with your pen . . .
You’ve spoken too soon,
the wheel’s still in spin . . .

. . . Mythicism is compatible with Christian faith.

That is certainly the argument of Fr Thomas L. Brodie in chapter 20 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.

As Brodie was becoming increasingly aware of the extent of the debt the Gospels owed to the Old Testament narratives, his faith did not waver:

In September 1972, when I was first struck by the deep similarities between the Gospels and the Old Testament, I immediately had two responses: ‘This is strange stuff that may have radical implications’; and, ‘It’s OK’. Rightly or wrongly, my sense of God’s presence at the time reassured me that whatever was happening would be alright (sic). (p. 197)

It was within two years that Brodie finally saw the way 1 Corinthians had synthesized various sources in order to “[compose] the very figure of Christ and [lay] that figure down as a foundation for others” and it was only then that the foundations of his belief-system were fully impacted.

Still it seemed that, in some way I did not understand, things would be OK. God was still God, and eventually things would work out, they would become clear. However, while I kept trying, as usual, to be faithful to the practices of the Catholic faith, I often wondered what that faith really meant. (p. 198)

Coincidentally, a Westar Fellow of the Jesus Seminar I met a few years ago acknowledged the theoretical possibility of Brodie’s conclusion here when I asked him what it might mean for Christianity if it were learned that there had been no historical Jesus. His reply as I recall it, “Well I suppose if Judaism can get by without a literal Abraham . . .”

Some time in the 1980s as Brodie was continuing to ponder what he truly believed he concluded that he “was really sure of the Abraham story, not of its history, but of its meaning.” It turned out that this belief in the meaning (as opposed to the literal history) of a biblical narrative would point the way forward to a Christian faith without a literal, historical Jesus.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...

Bishop John Shelby Spong, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brodie calls upon imagination and mysticism. I am reminded of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels. By the time I finish reading the main text I am wondering why Spong believes in Jesus at all. Then I read the epilogue only to find he speaks of being “overwhelmed” by his “God consciousness” and the “mystical presence” of God. He calls for a new way of looking at Christianity, a non-literal way of reading the Gospels. (Spong emphatically does believe there was a historical Jesus who was crucified, however.)

Albert Schweitzer, 1952

Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am also reminded of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my bolding):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

Schweitzer, of course, did believe there was such a historical figure and he argued against Christ-myth theorists of his day. That’s what makes the above passage all the more significant. He seems to be approving of a view of Christianity that transcends faith in literal interpretations and historical events. (Please Stephanie F., do not come back here with your undergrad essays on some tangential argument about another and quite unrelated aspect of Schweitzer’s faith.)

By “imagination and mysticism” Brodie means read more »