The "historical" Jesus has been interpreted in many different ways through the centuries. Generally speaking, we can talk of five major schools of interpretation:
- (1) The neo-orthodox (or 'fundamentalist") Christian school views the (canonical) Gospels as reliable historical documents, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Once the gospels are properly "harmonized," they provide a consistent view of the life of Jesus, as the divine Messiah coming from heaven. There is a perfect correspondence between the Historical Jesus and the Christian Jesus. Jesus was not a Jew, but the first Christian.
- (2) The skeptical school views Jesus as a historical figure. Yet, his biography cannot be reconstructed and is theologically irrelevant as the Christian faith is not based on the Historical (or Jewish) Jesus but on the Risen Christ.
- (3) The "mythical" school denies the very existence of Jesus as an historical character. Jesus never existed; he is a fictional, composite figure, whose biography was fabricated by early Christians, by adopting popular myths and legends of the time.
- (4) The "liberal" school views Jesus as a non-apocalyptic teacher of righteousness, and philosopher. The moral teachings of Jesus are in discontinuity with both his "Jewish" environment and the later "Christian" theological interpretations. Not a "typical" Jew, Jesus was definitively not a Christian.
- (5) The "Jewish apocalyptic" school sees Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, perhaps a messianic claimant. There is a development of ideas from Jewish apocalyptic speculations to later Christian messianic interpretations of the character. Jesus the Jew fully belongs to the diversity of the Jewish world of his time and was the founder of a new Jewish messianic movement, which would gradually become what we now call "Christianity."
Major Stages in the History of Research on the Historical Jesus
The earliest Lives of Jesus of the Renaissance were theological or poetical harmonies of the four Gospels, authored by humanists like Antonio Cornazzano and Pietro Aretino and offered to the imitation of the pious. And yet, in the Humanist movement we already see the first attempts at a reconstruction of a portrait of Jesus independently from the theological interpretations of the Church, with the emphasis on reading texts in their original languages and understanding them in their original context.
A more critical approach emerged with the Reformation, with its emphasis on the discontinuity between the tradition of the Church and Christian origins. Martin Luther would discuss the Jewishness of Jesus as a forgotten issue in Christian theology. By contrast, the Catholic tradition affirmed the assumption of a perfect continuity between the the Old and the New Testament, Jesus, christian origins and the Catholic tradition of the Church. The Life of Jesus belongs to both the "biblical" history (Bartolomeo Dionigi, 1586) and the "ecclesiastical" history (Carlo Baronio, 1588).
At the beginning of the 17th century the tale of the "Wandering Jew" spread into Europe. The anti-Semitic implications of the myth of the impious Jew cursed by Jesus and condemned to wander until the end of time would greatly affect even the scholarly and fictional narratives of the life of Jesus based on canonical sources.
The most popular Lives of Jesus of the century were those authored by French Jesuit Bernardin de Montereul and Nicola Avancini, in 1637 and 1666 respectively. They were harmonies of the four gospels.
Fictional works were popular representations of the events surrounding the birth and passion of Christ.
In his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), Baruch Spinoch for the first time made the claim that Jesus had to be interpreted as any other historical personalities, in connection with his own time, place and culture. Spinoza saw Jesus as the bearer of a non-political, non-eschatological, rational message that did not need any foundation in the supernatural. This interpretation would have a profound impact in the subsequent research on the Historical Jesus.
Jesus remained an important subject in the arts, as attested especially by the production of numerous oratorios, including Bach's Matthäuspassion, Haendel's Messiah, and the many based on Metastasio's libretto, The Passion of Jesus Christ. In 1768 Scottish preacher John Cameron published what is regarded as the first modern novel on Jesus
The Enlightenment brought about a more rationalistic approach to scriptures. The historical investigation of the origins of Christianity began with the British deists (John Locke, John Toland, Thomas Chubb, Thomas Morgan, Thomas Woolston, Peter Annet). By the end of the century the idea emerged that the gospels might not have told the "true" story of Jesus. Maybe Jesus was a Jewish religious leader (Voltaire) or a political revolutionary, whose failure prompted his reinterpretation as a religious figure (Hermann Samuel Reimarus), or maybe Jesus did not even exist and his biography was a completely mythological construct (Constantin-François Volney). Especially the work of Reimarus had a monumental impact as for the first time he made a clear distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of of the Christian faith.
The unpublished work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in 1795 shows how in light of Emanuel Kant's thought Jesus had become to be interpreted in German philosophical circles as a teacher of a morality founded on reason.
At the beginning of the 19th century the first critical approaches to the Life of Jesus were characterized by the attempt either to "eliminate" the supernatural elements in the Gospel narratives (Jefferson) or to "explain" them in rationalistic terms (Paulus). The breakthrough came with the work of David Friedrich Strauss (1835) who showed that the Gospel narratives ought not to be taken as "objective" reports but as "mythological" retelling of historical events. Strauss also argued that the Gospel of John was later and historically much less reliable than the Synoptics.
Strauss defined what would become the "scholarly" approach; the success of his work marked the beginning of contemporary research on the Historical Jesus. The Emancipation of the Jews in Western Europe led to the emergence of Jewish scholarship and Joseph Salvador was in 1838 the first Jewish scholar to deal with the historical Jesus.
The Liberal school" became dominant in the 19th century, focusing on the study of the Synoptics and the rediscovered Q Gospel as the common source used by Matthew and Luke. Liberal theologians argued that Jesus’ life should be studied critically like that of every other man. Their conclusion was that Jesus was neither as an apocalyptic prophet nor as a divine revealer. Instead they saw him as a teacher of wisdom and morality, downplaying the apocalyptic and supernatural elements of Gospels narratives. In particular, Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus had a sensational impact in mid-19th century.
The interest in Jesus' Jewish background was fostered by the scholarly work of Alfred Edersheim and by the extraordinary success of the novel Ben Hur by Wallace.
Against the "Liberal Theology," Johannes Weiss argued that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God by Jesus should be interpreted in light of Jewish apocalypticism.
More conservative theologians, like Martin Kähler, argued that the "real" Jesus was not the so-called "Historical Jesus" but the Christ proclaimed by the Christian faith.
In 1901 William Wrede drew attention to the motif of the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark. He proposed that the author of Mark invented the notion of secrecy to reduce the tension between early Christian beliefs about Jesus being the Messiah, and the non-Messianic nature of his ministry.
In 1903 Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet directed the first feature film covering the entire life of Jesus, from his birth and ministry to his death and resurrection. The movie was inspired by tradition Catholic iconography and had no ambitions of historical authenticity.
The work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 marked a turning point in the history of research on the historical Jesus. Not only he surveyed the results of earlier scholarship but also submitted them to critical analysis. His conclusion was that by eradicating the (Jewish) eschatological elements modern (Christian) scholars had made a Jesus at their own image and likeness.
The work of Albert Schweitzer continued to dominate the scholarly debate, with the publication of the English tr. in 1910 and the second ed. in 1913. New voices enriched the international landscape. Jewish scholarship emerged in England with Claude G. Montefiore, Gerald Friedlander, and Israel Abrahams. Italian scholars also joined the debate with Baldassarre Labanca, Felice Momigliano, and Pietro Chiminelli.
Movies began having a huge impact on the popular understanding of the figure of Jesus. Three films on Jesus (From the Manger to the Cross, Christus, and Intolerance) generated much interest and were influenced by the most recent developments in critical research, seeking "historical accuracy" in their "Oriental" settings and customs.
The Jesus Survival Theory was revived in fictional (George Moore) and esoteric circles.
The 1920s were characterized by the success of some very popular fictional works on Jesus--La storia di Cristo (1921 Papini), novel; The King of Kings (1927 DeMille), film, Jesus, the Son of Man (1928 Gibran), poetry, and The Escaped Cock (1928 Lawrence), novel. There was now a global market that included authors of different countries, serving an international audience.
Among scholarly works, the most significant contribution was that offered by Joseph Klausner. His Life of Jesus, published in 1922 in Hebrew and translated in 1925 into English by Herbert Danby, was the first consistent attempt to reclaim Jesus from the perspective of the Jewish orthodox tradition. However, a general skepticism about the possibility and even the theological significance of the search for the Historical Jesus became dominant, supported by the authority of Rudolf Bultmann, who in his 1926 book on Jesus concluded that the only Jesus we can know is the risen Christ of the Christian faith. Besides his historical existence, virtually nothing can be recovered of the historical Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus had therefore to be abandoned as both historically impossible and theologically superfluous.
In a long essay published in 1929 in the Harvard Theological Review, Luigi Salvatorelli offered a most detailed survey of "The Historical Investigation of the Origins of Christianity ... from Locke to Reitzenstein."
Rampant anti-Semitism and Christian theological skepticism about the Historical (Jewish) Jesus led to the decline of Jesus research in the 1930s. The burden of proving the relevance of the historical Jesus was left almost entirely on the shoulders of Jewish scholars and authors and of a few Christian scholars (mostly French and British), who struggled to keep alive the interest in the subject and in the close historical (and religious) relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
As part of the "final solution," Nazi Germany sponsored at Jena the activities of the Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben / Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life (1939-1945), directed by respected German theologian Walter Grundmann. The notion of the "Aryan Jesus" was promoted in Nazi propaganda (notably, Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew / 1940 Hippler), arch-fi documentary), but was not foreign elsewhere, even in democratic Great Britain or America, where anti-Judaism (if not anti-Semitism) had also strong roots.
In difficult wartimes, religious retelling of the life of Jesus offered some consolation and hope to suffering (Christian) people on both sides. The Life of Jesus by Catholic priest Giuseppe Ricciotti in Italy and the radio-play The Man Born to Be King by playwright Dorothy L. Sayers in England played such role in those years.
After the war, fiction regained its freedom to surprise and scandalize with King Jesus by Robert Graves. Scholarly activity resumed with the seminal work of Joachim Jeremias on the "lost" sayings of Jesus; see Unbekannte Jesusworte (Unknown Sayings of Jesus / 1948 Jeremias), book. It couldn't be, however, as if nothing had happened. French scholar Jules Isaac not only denounced the influence of Christian anti-Judaism on scholarly research but also exposed the direct responsibilities of the Christian teaching of contempt for the spread of Nazi anti-Semitism and the tragedy of the Holocaust; see Jésus et Israël (Jesus and Israel / 1948 Isaac), book.
Time was ripe for a new beginning. The first step was to reissue the works of French scholars Maurice Goguel and Charles Guignebert, which had been overlooked in the 1930s.
The lecture Ernst Käsemann delivered on October 20, 1953 to an annual gathering of alumni from the University of Marburg, is commonly regarded as the beginning of the Second Quest for the Historical Jesus. Departing from the teachings of his former professor Rudolf Bultmann, Käsemann argued that although the gospels were theological works, they nonetheless may contain some reliable historical memories. A distinction between the historical Jesus and the risen Christ does not make sense as the gospels themselves implies a continuity between these two figures.
The enormous success of Günther Bornkamm's 1956 book Jesus of Nazareth gave momentum for the second quest. The discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls offered promising contributions to the understanding of ancient Jewish messianism and even to some difficulties in the chronology of the gospels.
By the end of the decade scholars were persuaded that a new Quest had started (see James M. Robinson).
In the 1960s we see, on one hand, the first signs of a rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus and, on the other, a stronger emphasis on his humanity and his involvement in political and social issues.
The success of the works of Robert Aron and Nikos Kazantzakis relied exactly on their attempt to explore some "hidden" aspects of Jesus as a human being. In the movies, Jesus became younger, more approachable and more engaged in the social life of his own time. In 1964 Pier Paolo Pasolini earned international acclaim with his sensitive portrait of a very human Jesus as the champion of the poor and the destitute. On the scholarly level, Samuel G.F. Brandon drew attention to the affinities of the Jesus movement with the revolutionary party of the Zealots and to the strong social and political implications of Jesus's preaching.
Jewish scholars, like Robert Aron and Schalom Ben-Chorin showed how the figure of Jesus fully "belonged" to first-century Judaism, and should no longer considered a taboo in Jewish studies. David Flusser in particular emphasized the great diversity of the Jewish experience in the Second Temple period and located Jesus "on the periphery of the Essenes."
In the movies (Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell) Jesus and his disciples now sing, dance and behave as an anti-conformist company of young men and women challenging the established rules of their society.
Jesus was definitively a Jew and after David Flusser, the problem was now what kind of Jew he was. Geza Vermes suggested that he should be viewed as a "charismatic" leader, preacher and healer in the style of a few figures appearing in rabbinic literature.
In 1985, E.P. Sanders revived the interpretation of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, emphasizing the similarities between Jesus and Second Temple Judaism. The same year, Robert Funk founded the Jesus Seminar, a group of about 150 scholars in biblical studies and related fields, who saw Jesus as teacher of wisdom and rejected his interpretation as an apocalyptic leader. A gulf began to deepen between these two schools of interpretation. While the historicity of Jesus and of the major events of his life were now undisputed, skepticism arose on the possibility of reaching any consensus about the precise meaning of his preaching.
Even the movies of the period now express more doubts that certainties.
The 2000s were dominated by the debate over two radically opposed (yet both unhistorical) interpretations of Jesus--the new-age novel The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown, and the Christian-fundamentalist movie The Passion of the Christ (2004) by Mel Gibson.
The emphasis of scholarly research shifted from the Historical Jesus to the way in which his figure was "remembered" or "re-imagined" or even "misunderstood" by his disciples.
Enochic Studies highilightd the apocalyptic roots of the Jesus movement; see Enoch and the Synoptic Gospels: Reminiscences, Allusions, Intertextuality (2016 Stuckenbruck, Boccaccini), edited volume.
@2015 Gabriele Boccaccini, University of Michigan