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.”
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” (link downloads the 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:
This is just not true. Anyone can properly assess this claim by walking into a decent theological library and looking at the shelves. If the expectation is that, after Schweitzer and before Käsemann, New Testament scholars gave up questing for Jesus, one will be dumbfounded. As a sample of what one might find in such a library I subjoin at the end of this essay a list of some of the relevant books that appeared between 1906 and 1953. With the understandable exception of a couple of years during WWI (1914, 1915), only one year (1919) did not, according to my cursory researches, witness a new book on Jesus by an academic. Moreover, very few of the names on my list will be unfamiliar to anyone who has done serious work on the New Testament, so it was scarcely only marginal scholars who were engaged in the quest for Jesus: we are not talking about second stringers on the sidelines of New Testament studies. It was, on the contrary, not only a rather large but more importantly a fairly august body of scholars that was unaware of the supposed moratorium upon questing for Jesus. (Allison, p. 2, emphasis mine)
A bumbling oaf like me would have merely appended such a list of books. Allison, the scholar, subjoined it. Yes, and he subjoined the hell out of his essay with a solid page of titles from 1907 to 1953.
Steph steps in
Similar harumphing can be found in non-conservative quarters. Any web search of the “No Quest” period will likely take you to at least one blog discussion with Stephanie Fisher’s promotion of an article by the recently departed Maurice Casey entitled: “Who’s Afraid of Jesus Christ? Some Comments on Attempts to Write a Life of Jesus.” (You can read this essay in Chapter 8 (p. 129) of Crossley and Karner’s Writing History, Constructing Religion. No eBook is worth $95.96, so find it in a library if you can.) Back in 2007, when Mark Goodacre mentioned the “No Quest” over on the NT Blog, she chimed in. Scot McKnight’s post about Rudolf Bultmann, which elicited Goodacre’s “No Quest” post, triggered this response from Steph. She mentioned it again on the Remnant of Giants blog. She even brought it up here at Vridar. And she was still at it last year (warning: white text on red background).
On the NT Blog, Steph wrote:
Repeating the “period of no quest” mistake?! As well as Jeremias’ contributions to the continuing traditional quest and Bultmann, there is the Anglican Bishop A C Hedlam in 1923, the French scholars Guingenebert in 1933 and then Maurice Goguel. What about the Nazi influence and the Aryan Jesus: Chamberlain, Fiebig and Grundmann? See Casey “Who’s Afraid of Jesus Christ?” in Crossley and Karner.
Not seriously different?
So I finally read Casey’s chapter. It is a troubling piece of work, for reasons I will elaborate on later in this post, but for now I’ll focus on what he wrote about the “No Quest” period.
Throughout this period, conventional lives of Jesus, not seriously different from liberal lives in the nineteenth century, continued to be written . . . I must draw attention to one book, the 1959 work of J. M. Robinson, published under the title A New Quest of the Historical Jesus. The title of this book recognizes the new start made by Käsemann. In this light, the whole book is entirely devoted to justifying the basic idea of having a quest for the historical Jesus. It moves entirely within a Christian frame of reference, especially one which reflects German concerns. Robinson correctly believed that the French and Anglo-Saxon quests were an untroubled continuation of the nineteenth century quest. He noted, for example, Guignebert’s Jésus, published in 1933 and Vincent Taylor’s 1954 book, The Life and Ministry of Jesus. (Casey, p. 134, emphasis mine)
Both of the titles Casey mentioned above are worth reading — Guignebert, more than once. I’m no fan of Vincent Taylor, since he completely misunderstood and misrepresented William Wrede in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, a blunder that he repeats in The Life and Ministry of Jesus (see p. 89). He had a naive, Sunday-School view of Jesus, but I’m willing to read anything if it helps us understand the history of the Quest.
A mere trickle
Taylor starts The Life and Ministry of Jesus with the following caveat:
Many scholars believe that the attempt to write a life of Christ is so difficult as to be almost impossible. This opinion has steadily grown since the publication of Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus (Eng. tr. 1910) and still more since the rise of form criticism a generation ago. In consequence, the earlier veritable flood of historical studies has given place to a slow stream and recently to a mere trickle. (Taylor, p. 13, emphasis mine)
Well, now that’s odd. Here’s the very first sentence of the Prolegomena to Taylor’s opus on Jesus, and already we see material that most certainly is “seriously different from liberal lives in the nineteenth century,” in that he recognizes how much has changed in NT scholarship since Schweitzer. In fact, already in the preface Taylor tempered our expectations:
Anyone who attempts to write a life of Christ must recognize from the outset that his task will end in failure, greater or less as the case may be, and that he must be ready to face failure in his endeavor to see the historic Jesus more clearly. In part the difficulty of the task is due to the fragmentary character of the sources. Apart from isolated notices in Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius, and late traditions in the Talmud, the available evidence is limited to the four Gospels and the Epistles. (Taylor, p. 5)
Taylor was unable to separate the life of Jesus from the life of Christ — i.e., his Lord and Savior — but even Taylor acknowledged what Casey could not.
Taylor’s words are not those of a self-assured biographer of the 19th century, certain of his ability to write a “life” of Jesus, complete with an accurate chronology, geographic itinerary, and psychological character study. No, a great deal had changed. In fact, reading Taylor carefully reveals that he viewed his work as something other than “an untroubled continuation of the nineteenth century quest.” He was, for example, well aware of the form critics and how their understanding of the gospels “made a deep impression upon the minds of New Testament scholars.” He writes:
One cannot be surprised that a kind of intellectual paralysis fell upon attempts to record the story. When, for example, S. J. Case wrote his Jesus — A New Biography (1927), he renounced the attempt to give a detailed sketch of events, and concentrated his attention on the task and the religion of Jesus, judging every statement in the records by the degree of its suitableness to his distinctive environment and to that of those who framed the Gospel tradition in the history of Christianity. (Taylor, p. 15, emphasis mine)
Note well what Taylor said here. A sort of “intellectual paralysis fell upon attempts” to write a life of Jesus. Shirley Jackson Case, he reminds us, gave up on creating a chronology, topological path, or psychological portrait of Jesus — all features that were hallmarks of the First Quest.
The careful reader will note that Allison had mentioned S. J. Case’s book in his list of works that were written during the “No Quest” period, and he even took the trouble to quote him on p. 2 of his essay. But it turns out Allison’s aim is to play a shell game with the facts. His definition of the Quest has to do with questing for Jesus, not for a life of the historical Jesus. And so he can write the following sentence as if it conveys some deep insight:
So the first half of our century was not the period of “no quest” but of “no biography.” (Allison, p. 4)
I smell the unmistakable aroma of an apologist’s semantic tomfoolery. What else is the quest for the historical Jesus if not a search for a figure in history with the aim of writing a biography (life history) of that figure?
Taylor candidly admitted that the effects of Schweitzer’s analysis combined with the impact of form criticism did slow the output of lives of Jesus, reducing them to “a mere trickle.” So we may be forgiven if we somehow got the idea that the first half of the last century represented a kind of “No Quest” period. Scholars of the period were aware that life-of-Jesus research had been fundamentally altered and they talked about it openly.
Much less reliable and much more corrupt
Charles Guignebert was even less confident about writing a life of Jesus. See if this sounds like an “untroubled continuation of the nineteenth century quest”:
This book does not claim to be a Life of Jesus. It aims only at presenting to the reader a critical study of the problems which historical research concerning the existence, the activity, and the teaching of the Nazarene, offers for our study. (Guignebert, p. 11, bold emphasis mine)
It is impossible to argue that Guignebert’s Jesus was a “conventional” life of Jesus when he himself declared the opposite. In fact, the French scholar (who was no mythicist) took Arthur Drews‘ criticisms seriously. After laying out the familiar arguments for supposing that “the figure of the Nazarene and the essence of his teaching are almost completely known to us,” he throws cold water on the entire process.
It is not to be denied that these arguments contain some truth, but, plausible as they appear, a close examination of the texts that are supposed to justify them reveals their illusory character. It is remarkable, for instance, that men possessing such powers of memory [referring to the disciples’ supposed memorization of tradition] have not even accurately retained the names of the Twelve Apostles, or the letter of the Paternoster. On the other hand, as we have tried to show, it seems evident that Urmarcus and Q, the sole bases of the gospel edifice, embody a tradition much less reliable and much more corrupt than is realized by the opponents of Drews. (Guignebert, p. 56, bold emphasis mine)
As a result, we cannot hope to form any sort of coherent psychological picture of Jesus the man.
We may concede that the breath of life is still discernible in our Synoptics, and that the outline of a man and the traces of an individual activity are still to be distinguished, but that falls far short of what we need to know in order to form any clear and certain conception of the person of Jesus. (Guignebert, p. 56, bold emphasis mine)
Allison begs to differ
It’s clear that critical scholars for the most part did, contra Casey, stop writing full-blown biographies after Schweitzer. Casey was simply wrong, as are his students who apparently do not have the time to read the books they quote-mine.
Allison, on the other hand, wants to split hairs.
Perhaps some have misunderstood the circumstance that academics quit writing biographies of Jesus to mean that they had given up writing about his life and teaching. But the two are hardly the same thing. The dearth of traditional lives, the abandoning of the Markan framework, and the refusal to map the development of Jesus’ self-consciousness cannot be equated with a dearth of studies on the historical Jesus. (Allison, p 4.)
Using Allison’s definition, Bultmann himself was engaged in some sort of “quest.” But these word games do little more than muddy the waters for no good purpose. The “No Quest” period is an important stage in the history of the Quest, and to pretend it didn’t exist and to further pretend to be upset about people getting it wrong is simply bizarre.
Unfortunately, this silliness continues to spread, and threatens to become the “new normal.” Over on Keith and Le Donne’s blog, Anthony Le Donne writes (to Larry Hurtado):
I don’t go in for the “Quests” paradigm, but I think I take your meaning well enough. My opinion is that there never was a “No Quest”, unless one confines the scope to Germany during the rise of national socialism. Dale Allison has suggested the phrase “no biography” for these years.
And Hurtado responds:
Agreed strongly, Bultmann’s program was a type of quest.
You’ve just witnessed a form of NT scholarly hipsterism. They were cool before it was cool to be cool.
Yes, you could say that Bultmann was on a quest — to discover the original teaching of Jesus. But surely the definition of the Quest of the Historical Jesus must contain within it the idea of creating a historical portrait of Jesus. Otherwise, everyone has been on the quest, even the evangelists themselves. What is the point of stripping all meaning from a term only to complain that it now has no meaning?
What brought about the “No Quest” period?
So what were the root causes of the diminution in the number of biographical works about the historical Jesus during the first half of the last century? Again, conventional wisdom points to Schweitzer, not because today’s scholars actually read him, of course, but because they recognize the name. Bultmann’s name comes up, too, in such discussions. All the really cool kids now talk disapprovingly about form criticism.
It’s actually worth reading the updated editions of The Quest of the Historical Jesus to find out what Schweitzer himself wrote.
Fewer lives of Jesus were published during the years 1907-1912 than during the previous period. This is primarily because the criticism of Wrede [what Schweitzer called “thoroughgoing skepticism”] and of thoroughgoing eschatology [i.e., Schweitzer’s thesis] had dampened the desire for fresh portrayal, but also because the controversy over whether Jesus was historical had come to absorb the general interest. (Quest, p. 439)
Naturally, you should not expect anyone nowadays to remember let alone acknowledge that “the controversy over whether Jesus was historical” had any bearing on the Quest. Such things are not worthy of scholarly attention.
Quite annihilating criticism
Bultmann also gave a great deal of credit to Wrede for discrediting the notion that Mark’s gospel was a simple retelling of Jesus’ life.
It was Wrede’s work on the Messianic Secret which did most to call into question this traditional attitude which went far beyond what could be established by a cautious analysis of Mark . . . Wrede’s work constituted a quite annihilating criticism of a seemingly clear picture of historical development in Mark. This picture is an illusion; Mark is the work of an author who is steeped in the theology of the early Church, and who ordered and arranged the traditional material that he received in the light of the faith of the early Church — that was the result; and the task which follows for historical research is this: to separate the various strata in Mark and to determine which belonged to the original historical tradition and which derived from the work of the author. (Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 1, emphasis mine)
Bultmann further credits Julius Wellhausen and K.L. Schmidt for describing the Markan framework and explaining how the evangelist placed the individual stories within that literary (not historical) framework.
Fishing for quotes
You will rarely see Bultmann’s full explanation, starting with Wrede, in modern works of NT scholarship. You are far more likely to see this one from Jesus and the Word:
I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist. (p. 8)
It’s provocative, and it gets the job done. Better than that, it minimizes the Wrede problem (if they’re even aware of it). Do you seriously think that most people who quote Bultmann here have actually read Jesus and the Word?
Theissen and Merz succinctly and correctly lay out the three main reasons for the “collapse of the quest.”
1. A. Schweitzer’s book The Quest of the Historical Jesus showed that the images in the lives of Jesus were projections. Schweitzer demonstrated that each of the liberal pictures of Jesus displayed the personality structure which, in the eyes of its author, was the ethical ideal most worth striving for.
2. W. Wrede in 1901 demonstrated the tendentious character of the earliest extant sources for the life of Jesus. He argued that the Gospel of Mark is an expression of community dogma. The post-Easter faith in the messiahship of Jesus is here projected on to the intrinsically unmessianic life of Jesus. Wrede claimed that the unhistorical ‘messianic secret theory’ shaped the whole of the Gospel of Mark. This destroyed the confidence that it was possible to distinguish between the history of Jesus and the image of Christ after Easter by recourse to two ancient sources.
3. The fragmentary character of the Gospels was demonstrated by K.L. Schmidt. He showed that the Jesus tradition consists of ‘small units’ and that the chronological and geographical ‘framework of the story of Jesus’, to quote the title of his book, was created secondarily by the evangelist Mark. This destroyed the possibility of reading a development in the personality of needs and only secondarily by historical reminiscence — the kerygmatic character of the Jesus tradition governs even the smallest pericope (Dibelius, [From Tradition to Gospel]; Bultmann, [History of the Synoptic Tradition]). (Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, a Comprehensive Guide, p. 5-6, emphasis mine)
Let’s recapitulate what we’ve learned.
- After Schweitzer, Wrede, and Schmidt, the number of Jesus biographies written by scholars dropped precipitously.
- The “mere trickle” of biographies was apparent to scholars at the time, as we noted with quotes by Guignebert, Taylor, and Schweitzer himself.
- The term “No Quest,” while perhaps hyperbolic, describes a real phenomenon.
- The two major works that Casey referred to as evidence that scholars were writing lives of Jesus “not seriously different” from 19th-century biographies proved just the opposite, which is a useful object lesson in how we can reach far different conclusions if we read books rather than skim titles.
- Dale Allison and other conservative scholars would like us to believe that “the Quest” is not about the quest for the historical lives of Jesus, but rather the quest for Jesus. We have to wonder if Allison has forgotten that the title of Schweitzer’s book in German was Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung — that is, History of Life-of-Jesus Research.
- The contributions of Wrede and Schmidt to the emergence of the “No Quest” period are often forgotten. Their inconvenient conclusions don’t sit well with conservative scholars, so they’re best avoided. Of course, we shouldn’t assume they’re even aware of the issues at hand. Why would they read a couple of old skeptics when they can get the sanitized story from books about Wrede and Schmidt by scholars they trust?
I have left one bit of unpleasantness out of our discussion until now. Casey offered some unsettling insinuations about Bultmann in his essay. It all stems from Casey’s complete rejection of form criticism. Not satisfied with merely disagreeing with methods and conclusions, Casey had to look for underlying sinister reasons. At the end of a brief exegesis on a Q passage (Matt. 5:31-32/Luke 16:18), he wrote:
[Bultmann’s] conclusion is clean contrary to the teaching of Jesus. It was, however, just what German Christians needed from the Christ of their faith, for it bluntly contradicts the centre of Judaism. It was, moreover, produced by means of detailed exegesis of selected texts. It also illustrates the centrality of anti-Judaism in the work of a distinguished member of the Confessing Church, the opposite wing of the German churches from the Deutsche Christen movement. Bultmann’s general cultural environment led him to write Judaism out of the teaching of Jesus, using spurious intellectual arguments which wrote most of Jesus of Nazareth out of history altogether. He was left with the Christ of his faith in the guise of an historical figure about whom little can be known. (Casey, pp. 133-144, emphasis mine)
I find it repulsive that anyone would accuse Bultmann of anti-Judaism and unforgivable that anyone should hint that he countenanced anti-Semitism. Casey also wrote:
It is at this point that the work of Grundmann [whom Casey correctly labels a “committed anti-Semitic Nazi”] and others is so illuminating, because it enables us to home in on the social function of the work of Bultmann and others. The effect of their radical criticism was to ensure that out from under the synoptic Gospels there could never crawl a Jewish man. (Casey, p. 133)
If you’re acquainted with the life story of Bultmann you should be feeling a little bile rising up in your gut right now. Besides helping his Jewish friends during the Nazi period, we should remember his decidedly non-anti-Semitic, sympathetic works on Old Testament theology and especially his nuanced understanding of “the Jews” in the Gospel of John. I highly recommend Konrad Hamman’s Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography, especially chapter V, “Time of Testing (1933-1945).”
People who follow the form critical approach are not automatically guilty of anti-Judaism. Those of us who are troubled by the policies of Israel’s government are not, by definition, anti-Semitic. Minimalists are not, ipso facto, nihilist Marxists. And the vast majority of Jesus mythicists are not out to erase history or destroy Christianity.
Can we at long last stop calling other people evil just because they disagree with us?
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!