How Did Scholars View the Gospels During the “First Quest”? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

I received an email a few weeks ago [4 Jan. edit: make that a few months ago], in which the sender asked some questions that deserve an extended response. If and when I have the time, I will add more to this post, but I at least would like to start with a broad outline of my understanding of the history of life-of-Jesus research — both in the ways it was actually conducted and in the ways it is currently “remembered.”

Here’s the text of the email:

Hello, I am a fan of Vridar, and I found a comment that you posted in an article that you wrote. The article is at https://vridar.org/2014/05/14/what-do-they-mean-by-no-quest/.

The comment that you made is “One thing that struck me recently while reading and re-reading material related to the Quest, including books from the 19th and early 20th century, is how often authors will state matter-of-factly that “of course” the gospels aren’t biographies. This whole gospels == biographies debate seems rather new and not well argued. But since believing that they are biographies is useful for their narrow purposes, it has become the consensus position among today’s scholars.”

I have a few questions regarding this comment.

1. What books from the first Quest, say plainly that the gospels aren’t biographies?
2. Do they know of Greco-Roman biographies?
3. Do they list reasons why they aren’t biographies?
4. How is the current understanding not well argued?

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am eagerly anticipating your response.

Before continuing, I just want to say I’m stunned that nine years have passed since I wrote that post. Where does the time go?

What Biography?

First of all, the general consensus in the 19th century held that the canonical gospels contained biographical material, but were obviously not like modern biographies. Many modern scholars who write on this subject annoyingly imply that this assessment is somehow new. Nobody thought that was the case, and nobody confused popular biography or hagiography or legendary biography with modern biography.

The question was simply: Can we use the materials at hand — namely, the aforementioned biographical material — to create a broad historical outline of Jesus’ life. In some cases, they referred to such a sketch as a “historical biography” or “scientific biography.” However, as we know from reading Albert Schweitzer and William Wrede, the authors of these “lives of Jesus” made two fatal errors: (1) assuming that Mark, as the first written gospel, could be trusted as an unbiased historical account, and (2) psychologizing Jesus far beyond the limits of reasonable conjecture.

What Quest?

Holy Grail Tapestry

Second, the somewhat sensational title of the English translation of Schweitzer’s A History of Life-of-Jesus Research, (Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung), colors the way we perceive the task at hand. You may suspect that I’m overstating the case, but I think this change of focus is crucial. In the original German, the title — and in fact, the entire work — centers on the scholars and their research. Schweitzer had intended the original title, Von Reimarus zu Wrede, as the attention grabber, but in subsequent editions it was dropped in favor of the subtitle, and in the German world is referred to as History of Life-of-Jesus Research (without the indefinite article).

In English, the very word “quest” evokes a kind of mystic medieval landscape — a verdant, rolling countryside populated with devout knights-errant finding venerated objects, killing mythical beasts, fighting rivals, and saving damsels in distress. In this case, the aim of our quest is not piety or glory, but instead the Jesus of history. Schweitzer’s survey of scholarly research has thus become a romantic historical mission.

I took this little side trip, because the matter-of-fact way in which we say “First Quest” colors everything that follows and leads us away from Schweitzer’s original conception. It also tempts us into thinking that these aspiring writers were all doing pretty much the same thing — i.e., attempting to write a sketch of the life of Jesus by sifting through the legendary scree in the canonical gospels to find historically reliable nuggets. But even a brief survey of 19th-century life-of-Jesus works reveals a wide variety of goals and methods. While some scholars may have had a genuine interest in Jesus of Nazareth as a human figure in history, with a healthy skepticism regarding our scant evidence; others simply started from the assumptions that Jesus was (and is) the Christ of faith and that the gospels are entirely trustworthy.

The conclusion is clear: Not all “Lives of Jesus” are created equal. Some authors really did attempt to find the historical Jesus, but a great many merely wanted to prop up the Christ of Faith with a hastily constructed pseudo-historical framework. (Please note that I’m casting my net wider than Schweitzer. Many of these biographical reconstructions escaped his notice, and for good reason. They are every bit as terrible as Schmidt and Wrede said they were.)

What Purpose?

Their purpose, then, was not to write a biography of Jesus, but to present a collection of sayings, deeds, and other events necessary for their faith.

It may seem at times to the uninitiated that we are splitting hairs. Obviously, in a casual setting we could refer to the gospels as biographies. Many scholars have done so. But I think William Mitchell Ramsay expresses well the general understanding of his day — namely that we have to characterize the gospels by their intent. Specifically, for what reasons and for whom were they written?

But a remarkable feature in the Gospels, at least of Matthew, Luke and John, is that they assume in their readers such a background of knowledge about the life of the Saviour. They are written for the use of persons who were already Christians, and who already had the life of Jesus in their minds as the foundation of their faith. None of the Gospels is intended to be a formal biography: “their completeness is moral and spiritual and not historical: ” [Westcott, Gospel of St. John, p. lxxviii] they are, in reality, Gospels. But the facts of the life of Jesus were fundamental in the Gospel, and from that point of view each Gospel had to present a record of facts, actions and words sufficient to bear the structure of faith which had to rest upon it. (Ramsay 1898, pp. 97-98, emphasis mine)

No one at the time would have regarded this conclusion from Ramsay as controversial. The canonical gospels are statements of faith written for believers. They may contain biographical information, but their purpose is something else. He quoted from B. F. Westcott who stated quite emphatically:

The Gospel of St John forms, as we have seen, a complete whole in relation to “its purpose;” but as an external history it is obviously most incomplete  It is a Gospel and not a Biography, an account of facts and words which have a permanent and decisive bearing upon the salvation of the world, and not a representation of a life simply from a human point of sight. The other Gospels, as based upon the popular teaching of the Apostles, include more details of directly human interest, but these also are Gospels and not Biographies. All the Gospels are alike in this: they contain in different shapes what was necessary to convey the message of redemption to the first age and to all ages in the unchangeable record of facts. Their completeness is moral and spiritual and not historical. (Westcott 1889, lxxvii-lxxviii, emphasis mine)

At first glance, you might think that Westcott and Ramsay argued that gospels are not biographies, simply because they are incomplete, or that ancient “formal” biographies by definition must be complete. The focus here is not so much the defining characteristics of biographies, but of gospels. The canonical gospels, according to Westcott and others contain only the kerygmatic material the evangelist (or his community) deemed necessary. Their purpose, then, was not to write a biography of Jesus, but to present a collection of sayings, deeds, and other events necessary for their faith. These scholars point to the assertion by the author of John’s gospel that Jesus said and did many other things:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31, ESV)

A great many scholars of the time zeroed in on the fact that when determining the genre of a work, the form, method, and structure must take a subordinate role to authorial intent. Hence, Schweitzer said nothing out of the ordinary when he wrote:

Primitive Christianity was therefore right to live wholly in the future with the Christ who was to come, and to preserve of the historical Jesus only detached sayings, a few miracles, his death and resurrection. By abolishing both the world and the historical Jesus it escaped the inner split described above, and remained consistent in its point of view. We, on our part, have reason to be grateful to primitive Christianity that in consequence of this attitude it has handed down to us only Gospels, not biographies of Jesus; and that therefore we possess the idea and the person with the minimum of historical and contemporary limitations. (Schweitzer 2001, p. 4, emphasis mine)

For Schweitzer, the fact that we have only gospels from the apostolic era and not biographies should not be considered a hindrance, but a blessing. Christ transcends the material world and is not shackled by the mundane observations of a primitive, imperfect biographer.

What Now?

I suppose I’ll try to answer the fourth question in my next post.

Ramsay, Sir William Mitchell. 1898. Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? A Study on the Credibility of St. Luke. N.Y: Putnam’s Sons.

Schweitzer Albert and John Bowden. 2001. The Quest of the Historical Jesus: First Complete Edition. Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press.

Westcott, Brooke Foss. 1889. The Gospel According to St. John : The Authorised Version. London: J. Murray.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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5 thoughts on “How Did Scholars View the Gospels During the “First Quest”? (Part 1)”

  1. Try this experiment: Ignore the four Gospels and book of Acts completely. Read only the Epistles.
    Then you can see for yourself that NONE of the authors of the Epistles [including the letters of John and the book of Revelation] EVER mention the Gospel’s Jesus’ hometown, place of birth, members of his family [including his mother and brothers], there are no travels in Galilee or Judea, no temptation in the wilderness, no John the Baptist, no baptism of Jesus, no teaching or preaching, no “disciples”, no triumphant entry into Jerusalem, no “cleansing of the Temple”, no trials before the Sanhedrin or Herod or Pilate, no disputes with Pharisees, no anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemani, no scourging, no carrying his own cross to Calvary, no “saying of Jesus from the Cross”, Etc,. Etc, Etc. In other words, NO biographical details AT ALL.
    This is not just “strange”. It’s monumental. The authors of the Epistles appear to know NOTHING of the incarnate Jesus Christ of the Gospels and “His Story”. Could there have been a viable “Christian movement” in the 1st Century CE without an “historical Jesus”? The authors of the Epistles seemed to think so.
    BTW, I am convinced “The Church” put the Gospels and Acts [which were written LAST] in front of the Epistles to “muddy the water”.

  2. I think it’s possible to view Mark this way, as just a ‘gospel.’ And if the proto-Luke/proto-Mark folks are right, that one as well, and if Collins, etc, are right, the passion narrative itself, even.

    The ones that follow are something else, gospel+, gospel 2.0, much more concerned with biographical details and what happened in specific places and times and in what order and how it is to be received and understood.

    But they don’t need to fit into a single fixed ‘box’. They can be more than one thing.

  3. Well, not so remarkable that there was no biography. The New Testament writers wanted grandiose, the son of the actual God of the universe! They were clever businessmen. And they wanted God worshipers. Ding ding ding $$$. This was a man whose name was made from vowels!! Think of this…they would have used his real name if he was a real person. Don’t you think? Anyhow, now I think we should look for somebody who was a real person, and who was close to the vowel man. John the Baptist?

  4. Hi Tim, tell me if I’ve got this wrong! 1. There is NO definitive external evidence for the identity of the authors or the actual dates of composition of the gospels, epistles or acts. 2. There is NO definitive external evidence for the existence or otherwise of the ‘Jesus Christ’ character, the ‘apostles’, or the Baptist character, (Josephan and other early references being, at minimum, under suspicion of interference, and 3. There IS definitive external and internal evidence of tampering, fraud and errors in all early examples of these texts, perpetrated by multiple editors over many centuries. That’s my take so far anyway, I’d be pleased if someone could show me where I’ve erred. Thanks for the interesting post, love Vridar!

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