from jesus to christ - the first christians

"Ths Historical Jesus"

A lecture by L. Michael White
May 30, 1998, Harvard University

 

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

No one is any longer in the position to write a life of Jesus. This is the scarcely questioned and scarcely surprising result today [in 1954] of an inquiry which for almost 200 years has devoted prodigious and by no means fruitless effort to regain and expound the life of the historical Jesus, freed from all embellishments by dogma and doctrine. At the end of this research on the life of Jesus stands the recognition of its own failure.

These are the opening lines of Gunther Bornkamm's 1956 book, Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually, it sold nearly 100,000 copies in over eleven printings, in numerous languages. It was one of the most influential studies from the middle of this century of the historical Jesus. What I think is interesting about this, though, is what Bornkamm assumed is not surprising. That it's not possible to write a life of Jesus any longer is, from his perspective in 1954, not surprising.

Now, 43 years later, for a large proportion of the population, it is now surprising. What's happened? What's happened in the process of the last generation, where it's now much more surprising for many more people?

I think the answer to that question is a two-fold gap, a gulf that's developed in our awareness as a population at large. For one thing, in the middle of this century there actually was, I think, more awareness of the critical historical issues surrounding the life of Jesus. There was just a broader knowledge of that. There's been over the last generation a diminution of interest in those discussions. And many of the discussions of the Jesus of history have been dominated by voices within particular faith communities talking to one another.

The scholars are probably also at fault. And that's the second issue. There's been a gap of awareness of what the new scholarship has been doing. And I don't fault the scholars. It takes a long time to get some of these issues out there. The massive new kinds of discoveries that have taken place in the last generally 20 years, especially in archaeology in the Middle East. Many of the new archaeological discoveries were only made after the '67 and '73 wars, partly by virtue of the fluke of where bombs landed and opened up areas that had not previously been excavated. But sometimes it brings to light things that we didn't know about previously--and thus a gap that has developed as a result of an explosion of new information, and also a lack of old discussions taking place. What that has produced for us now is a catch-up that we have to take into account. We have to get back into understanding where a lot of this is coming from. And that's really what we're trying to do now in all the kinds of seminary programs, divinity schools, university programs where we study this material.

Bornkamm's statement, though, also reflects another process of development in the twentieth century. After this blunt beginning in which he says no one can write a life of Jesus (remember, that's the opening sentence), he now spends 231 pages (in English; 211 in the original German) talking about the life of Jesus. How can he do that? What's he doing, if no one can write a life of Jesus? By "Leben Jesu" (life of Jesus), what he's really referring to is not talking about the historical Jesus. That's not the impossibility, but rather doing a traditional life of Jesus as a genre of literature that was common throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The equivalent would be what Marilyn and I came to call the "video Christmas card" effect, in terms of television programming that does Jesus. You've seen them on other kinds of documentaries that simply parrot out the gospel story without any kind of critical historical resonance to it. That's the "life of Jesus" as a traditional commodity. And there's nothing wrong with actually seeing what that tradition is. I think that's very important. But seeing the traditional take on the story is not necessarily the same as seeing the history and seeing the historical Jesus. And in a sense, that's what Bornkamm is talking about in 1956, and is still the process that we're going through today.

It is significant, then, that in his chapter on the indisputable facts of Jesus' life, much of the traditional material, the very sort of thing that's assumed in the traditional "video Christmas card" type account, now must be considered, in his view, as not having any historical value. He says, for example, there is no birth narrative or precocious infancy that can be maintained as a historical dictum in the study of Jesus. There are no hidden years of Jesus' life before he enters upon his public ministry. And, Bornkamm said, Jesus had no messianic self-consciousness during his own lifetime. He, in effect, became the Messiah in the mind of his followers only after his own death. 1956. That was the state of the question in the historical Jesus research.

Have things really changed significantly since that time? Yes and no. The issues are basically the same issues. How you go about it is basically the same process. But now there's lots of new information and new modes of approach to these questions, using the archaeology, using sociology and anthropology and other methods that get us into these questions.

Now, we should also recognize that Bornkamm's initial point comes as a result of two centuries of research prior to Bornkamm, which increasingly showed (as his statement suggested) how anachronistic were the traditional portrayals of Jesus in the popular culture of each age. Here's how Bornkamm continues that opening statement:

Why have these attempts (to write a life of Jesus) failed? Perhaps only because it became alarmingly and terrifyingly evident how inevitably each author brought the spirit of his (we would, I think, say now "or her") age into his (or her) presentation of the figure of Jesus. In point of fact, the changing pictures found in innumerable lives of Jesus are not very encouraging, confronting us as they do now with the enlightened teacher of God, virtue, and immortality, now with the religious genius of the romantics, now with the teacher of ethics in Kant's sense, and now the protagonist of social theory. These are the different pictures that emerge, depending on who's writing the story.

And all these pictures, Bornkamm notices, are coming from the same set of sources: the gospels and the Christian tradition. How can all of these pictures be true? That's the basic question. That has always been the question that has plagued the discussion of the historical Jesus. And this is where we come to see the dilemma is still with us. One scholar has referred to it as the dilemma of finding the Jesus of history over against the Christ of faith. And that's a classic definition of the problem that persists, I think, in most scholarly discussions: the recognition that it is possible to have a faith tradition about Jesus that is different from the actual figure. And in some respects, we have to think about keeping both of those things active and operative as we look at the process.

Another writer, Henry Cadbury from Harvard, refers to it as "the peril of modernizing Jesus". And it has also been dealt with in a number of recent books. In fact, just a spate of new books have come out since the early nineties on various aspects of the study of the historical Jesus. One I'll mention is Jaroslav Pelikan's Jesus through the Centuries. Pelikan says that one of the best ways to get the spirit of any age is to watch how it depicts Jesus. This is true across the Christian centuries. What should you think, for example, when you see a Florentine painting of Madonna and Child, or Mary at the crucifixion scene, wearing a brocade Florentine gown, and the guards at the tomb are in the armor of the Swiss Guard? How does that tell the story? Jesus, Pelikan argues, becomes a mirror of each age, as each period reflects its concerns and its issues onto Jesus and reads from that Jesus a support for its concerns.

Now, what I want us to realize is that that has two interesting effects. On the one hand, it is a salutary effect, religiously. It is part of how religions work, that they think of founders in these ways. It's how nations work for national founders, as well. We use such figures as ways of thinking about who we are. It's very human, and it's probably very appropriate in all aspects of what we do. On the other hand, it also changes that figure, whether it's George Washington or Jesus or Moses or Mohammed or anyone else. Those figures are always filtered through lenses of usage. And we have to be aware that while we're doing that (and maybe it's okay to do it, as cultures), we're also changing things.

But if you want to raise the historical question, you have to cut back through that layering of accretions and the cultural resonances that are reflected. And that's really what the historical process is all about. Holly did it beautifully on the program when he talks about the metaphor of an archaeologist's task of peeling back [layers]. Good archaeologists aren't only interested in getting at the bottom of that hole that they're digging and finding what's down there. The archaeologist has to be interested also in each layer on the way down, and assessing it for what's going on. And again, that's very similar to our process. I've heard another metaphor that's also good. It's like peeling an onion. You start peeling an onion, looking for the center, and what you discover is that the layers are the onion. There's nothing at the bottom. Well, there's nothing at the bottom except a little bit of stuff. And the layers themselves are part of the very substance of the thing you're working with. And I think [that] too is a very useful analogy for what we're doing, because we really do have to take the layering process just as seriously.

But this process is not new. When Bornkamm was talking this way in the middle of this century, his was what was then called the "new quest for the historical Jesus." We're now, by the way, in what's now called the "third quest for the historical Jesus." There will be a fourth, I can assure you, somewhere along the way. But at that time they called it the new quest, because Bornkamm, as his own statement reflected, was thinking back half a century before him, when Albert Schweitzer, in 1901, published the original book that came to be called The Quest for the Historical Jesus. And Schweitzer, in 1901, concluded precisely the same way: We don't know very much. The quest yielded a failure in so far as we are actually able to find too much about this historical figure. And that first quest for the historical Jesus, the one that ran from roughly the middle of the eighteenth century up to 1901, yielded a number of the groundbreaking pieces of information and scholarship that still influence our field today, but also, many of which have been radically challenged in more recent scholarship. So we're still working with issues that they raised.

At one point Marilyn and I had a wonderful opening vignette for the show that never got made. It was too expensive. We wanted to film at the White House and Monticello, because Thomas Jefferson, in 1804 and 1821, wrote his version of the gospel. It's called The Jefferson Bible. In 1804 he began thinking about this problem of the historical Jesus. He was reading the first quest scholarship at the end of the eighteenth century. He knew what was going on. And he began to think about this problem. And if you read his letters to John Adams, he says: "You know, that stuff in the gospels isn't the real Jesus." In fact, he says (these are his words), "It's like finding diamonds in a dunghill to find the authentic words of Jesus in the dross" (his term) "of the gospels." And so what he set about to do was actually to extract out the authentic words from that mass of other things that had been layered on top. Notice, he's working exactly in the same way that modern scholarship still does: recognition of the basic problem, and beginning to go back through it to think about how we get to the original Jesus out of those things that were put on later. And what resulted from that was his bible, the expurgated version of the authentic sayings of Jesus.

Now, what's really interesting is (true to Pelikan), if you look at Jefferson's Jesus, what do you think you see? Jefferson, of course. Jefferson, the renaissance man. Jefferson, the classicist and humanist and Enlightenment thinker. And the Jesus that he finds authentic in those words does not perform miracles. Jefferson didn't believe in the miracles at all. He basically threw them all out as superstitious accretions, and a number of the sayings of Jesus. For example, Jefferson's Jesus would say things like, "Blessed are the meek, and blessed are the poor in spirit." But Jefferson's Jesus could never have said, "Think not that I have come to bring peace to this world. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." And yet, all of those statements are found in the gospels, attributed to Jesus. Which Jesus sounds like the one you want, you see, is the question, and always the question that we face in this discussion.

The Third Quest

Now, Bornkamm's generation really is one that sowed the seeds for all of our current study. But a number of new developments have taken place.

Now, in the new wave of interest that's now called the third quest, new discoveries, new methods, and at the same time heightened evangelical interest have made for new ways of talking. Of course, many of you have heard of the Jesus Seminar and its interests. And we intentionally have not tried in the series to reflect the work of the Jesus Seminar directly. We thought about it at one point, mentioning, profiling the Jesus Seminar and what they do. But we ultimately decided that's not what this series is about. The series is actually about the history and what can be discovered, and not profiling the work of one particular group of scholars or another particular group of scholars that are currently working in the field. But the Jesus Seminar is just one aspect, one set of approaches (a fairly peculiar set, in certain respects) for going at this process. But there's been really a growing interest and a number of works in this regard. And I just want to now mention a couple of those.

Among the books that have come out recently is John Bowden's Jesus: The Unanswered Questions in 1988. I think he had a wonderful chapter entitled "The Kaleidoscope Christ" in which he tries to look at how some of this has been going. Probably, though, you're much more familiar with a couple of other books. There's John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant and his other version of the same, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. It's an abridged version of the same discussion. And he also wrote Who Killed Jesus? That was published in 1991. There's also John Meier's book, called A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. These are some of the most recent and important works, and yet they disagree. What is really interesting is how different these works are, how they disagree with one another in many respects, and yet how radical they sound in other respects, and similar to one another. What I want to try to get at is: What are they doing? How are they doing that?

[Most of these books provide] a pretty good discussion of many of the scholarly issues. But what they don't tell you very often is how they got there. That's my biggest problem with most of these studies. They give you the conclusions, they give you the historical Jesus as they see it, but they don't tell you why and how and what the issues were that led them to their particular conclusions. And I think what most of us need, in order to have this kind of discussion, is actually to know those other questions first, to know so that you can enter into dialogue with the very book that you're reading, so that you know why it's appropriate to question Meier's or Crossan's or my conclusions. You see? And in a sense, that's what I hope this series has brought out.

How do we make sense out of what these scholars are doing? That's really what I want to conclude with, and suggest a couple of things. For me, the key is the history. How do we use all of these discoveries and hold them together? The interesting problem is this. These fields do not develop in isolation from one another, nor does the research in one area stop and wait for other areas to catch up. All this research is going on simultaneously. And the challenge for scholars as well as non-scholars is to keep all of these things working simultaneously. It would be like medical research if, in order to solve the AIDS crisis, all cancer research was put on hold. For the medical community, you can't do that. And the medical community has to be aware of what's going on in cancer research at the same time that AIDS research is happening, and other kinds of research. We don't work that way. Scholarship has to go on simultaneously on all fronts, hitting on as many cylinders as possible. And then it's up to the scholars to try to see how these intersections work out. And in a sense, that's one of the things that this burgeoning new set of interest in the discussions is really reflecting, is how many of these areas have begun to come together. Traditional literary analysis of the gospels, working in the Greek and the Latin traditions of their time, the archaeology, the literary studies, and all those other things have been going on simultaneously, and beginning to yield some important information.

Literary Analysis and the Historical Jesus

Now we'll be talking just for the last few minutes here about how the gospels originated and developed a little bit, as a way of understanding this process. I would suggest the process works like this. We know something about the actual dates of the birth and death of Jesus. And let me say, I think there's really no historical doubt much any more that Jesus was a real historical figure, really was born, really did die. And we know more or less when those dates were. He had to have been born some time before 4 BCE if, as the gospel tradition suggests, he was born during the reign of Herod the Great. We know when Herod died. That was in 4 BCE. He has to have been born before that. How much before that, we're not absolutely sure. Three, maybe four years is quite possible. But the usual dates assigned to the birth of Jesus are about 7 to 4 BCE.

He died probably between 27 and 29 CE. At least, that's about where I would date it. It might go as late as 30 to 33. Our dates for the death of Jesus are also determined, though, by other historical information from the time. We know the dates during which Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea: 26 to 36. And that gives us the dating parameters within which we can place the actual death of Jesus. But in all probability, especially if Jesus was about 30 (as Luke's gospel says), if Jesus was about 30 when he started his ministry, and he was born before 4, he died somewhere around 27, 29 maybe. My own gut instinct is probably earlier rather than later, and I would say, as early as 27, within a year after the arrival of Pilate. But again, that's an instinct. That's not a provable fact.

But here's what's really interesting historically in the development, because the first gospel, Mark, is not written until after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Historically what we can see from the analysis is that the gospels are written roughly in this chronological sequence, and at this time period: 70 to 75 for Mark; 80 to 90 for Matthew; 85 to about 95 are the usual dates assigned for Luke (I would say maybe as late as 100; again my own view is a little different than other scholars'); 95 is the usual date assigned to John, but John's gospel may not be completed until as late as 125, in the form that we now have it in the New Testament. If these are the dates, though, what I want you to notice is this. Notice we are a full century after the death of Jesus, within a year or two. We are a century after the death of Jesus before John is completed. More than that, though, notice that the gap between Jesus' death and Mark's gospel. We have a full generation in the development of Christianity before the first written gospel is put down. And we know there is a major important political event, a traumatic political event that occurs before that, and is a stimulus to that process.

The question for the historical scholarship, the question that really lies behind all the historical Jesus discussions for lo these many years is: How do you fill in that gap? What kinds of things can you do to get back there and understand what was really happening? And in large measure, the answer to that problem comes in two forms: (1) looking for earlier oral traditions, and (2) looking at what's behind the gospels themselves. Now, this is one way of filling in that gap, because the earliest Christian writer in the New Testament is not Mark but Paul, the writer of those letters. And Paul's authentic letters all come from this same period in his activity, between roughly 49 to 60, when Paul was working in the Greek cities like Ephesus and Corinth and Philippi and Thessaloniki, where Paul was traveling and writing and doing his preaching. Those are the earliest pieces of Christian literature. And when we look at Paul's writings, we discover that Paul cites earlier oral traditions of Jesus that go back before his day. And when we can identify those, those pieces of information give us actually our earliest witnesses to what the Christians were saying. In other words, many of the traditions that one finds down here are actually later developments on, and evolutions of, the kinds of things that Paul knew halfway closer to Jesus. And we can see a lot of that.

Paul and Oral Tradition

I want to show you how we do it. Now, this is not magic. This is just hard core work, as a scholar. This is a text from First Corinthians 11. This is a very good illustration of how the scholarship works to get at some of these materials. For example, the text reads, "For I received from the Lord what I also deliver to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night that he was--"betrayed," the translations typically say; it's here "delivered up"--"that he was delivered up, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body.'" This is the establishment of the "last supper" tradition, in Paul's version.

What we can see in the Greek and in the analysis of this is, in fact, that Paul is writing, and so Paul's words are in black. The blue are his formula that tells us he's quoting oral tradition. It's called the Tradition Summary Formula among scholars. And it's the formula, "I received and I handed on." And in fact, the rabbis used the same formula for the passing on of rabbinic tradition (oral tradition). It's very commonplace in the passing on of oral materials. Now, when you see that kind of a formula, you look for, in the Greek, the word hoti ("that"). And in Greek, that's your quotation marks, the word "that." We just translate it "that", but the "that" is our cue that what comes next (and in this case, the red), are the words that Paul himself is quoting.

Now, Paul wrote this letter in about 54. We can date that pretty closely. But Paul is quoting something earlier, that he expects his audience to be very familiar with, and something that he probably had told them himself, early on, when he was visiting there. And we know when Paul was in Corinth, in about 50 to 51. So what we've got is something that goes back certainly before 50, and still earlier. And that's how we find it.

Now, this is in fact also, interestingly enough, is one of the early pieces of information about Jesus, one of the earliest that we know. One of the earliest core units of the historical Jesus is this statement. Now, it's still 20 years after the fact, to some extent. And yet it's as close as we can get to some of these issues. And that's what we're doing. But notice that it also yields some of the key little elements that make up the later gospel story tradition. So we can start to link those together.

Paul's Version of the Resurrection

Now, if we follow that with the other passage from chapter 15, we can do the same thing. And it works exactly the same way. This one: "I deliver to you as a first importance what I had received". So it's the same formula. And then it's that Christ died, that he was buried (notice he keeps the "that", so we're getting the quotation marks), that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day. In this case, the green represents Paul's editorializing comments. Now, that's open to some discussion: which words are actually Paul's editorial comments, which words are there in the oral tradition. But that's part of the debate. That's part of the scholarship. We can see it, though, very clearly down here in this one: "He appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have died." You see, that's reflecting Paul's own day. That's a Pauline editorial comment, so it's not part of the oral tradition, in all probability. But this is the basic summary.

Now let's look at this one for just a moment, because it's very interesting, especially when put in conjunction with the last one that we saw, because between them we have the core of the Christian passion narrative in its absolutely earliest form. We have the last supper and the arrest in the first passage, and in this passage we have death, burial, resurrection, and in three appearances that are enumerated. I want to look at a couple things. First of all, we've got basics. Not very much elaboration. It still doesn't tell us what happened very well, and yet it gives us the kind of core outline.

The Empty Tomb

Let me take one more step in this process, and then I'll quit for today, because we can now watch what happens in the actual gospels. But this is an actual comparison of the stories in Matthew and Mark of the empty tomb scene. And what I want to notice is how this story develops. I've given you the exact text out of the NRSV version. I've not changed a word. Exact text, lined up parallel where they're parallel, and set off differently where they're not. This is a standard study mechanism in scholarship. It's called a parallel gospel. Read the story from Mark, but just read Mark, and think about what the story is telling you. "When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb." Now, what are they planning to do? Anoint the body. So what does that assume about the tomb? That it's open. That they can get in there. But they're worried, because if you read next: Oh, there's that big stone. We've got to roll the stone away. But notice what's missing. What's not in the story? The stone is not sealed and protected. In the Mark version of this very important passage, the women are going to go and anoint the body. By the way, remember, there's no tomb in Paul at all. So this is a completely new version of the story, from what we saw in Paul. There's no tomb in Paul. In Paul we have "raise from the dead"; we have appearances; what we don't have is the empty tomb. Mark is the first time we see that. But when we see it, Mark has the women planning to go to the tomb, literally go inside the tomb and work on the body for funerary practices, anointing. These were very standard funerary practices. When they get there, they find the stone is already rolled back, and they actually go inside the tomb, and there they see a young man, robed in white, not an angel, a young man robed in white, sitting where the body had been. And that young man says, "He's not here. He's gone to Galilee. Go find him." And the women leave the tomb and say nothing to no one. And that's the end of Mark's gospel, the original ending of Mark's gospel.

Matthew, on the other hand, does something different. Look what happens. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb, when they buried. And after the sabbath, on the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. Are they going inside? No. They're not. Why aren't they going inside? Because in Matthew, we have that passage now interceding. That's not there in Mark. And it's the story of how they put a guard at the tomb so that no one could steal the body. That's in Matthew. And not only is it not in Mark; it's not possible in Mark's construction of the narrative. Do you see that? What's happening? We've moved from a very skeletal outline of the passion and resurrection, that Paul believes is absolutely true. But in the process, the story is gaining layers.

Now, some of you are asking this question silently, mentally: Why? Why are they doing that? They tell you why. The gospels always tell you what they're doing, one way or the other. Here's what they tell you. As the passage continues in Matthew, it tells you that when the guards find out the body is gone, they go and they bribe the guards so that they'll tell them that the disciples stole the body. But look at the last line. "And this story is still told among the Jews to this day." Now, whenever you see that in the Bible, that phrase "to this day," take note of it. It's there a lot, actually, both Hebrew scriptures and Christian New Testament. Whenever you see it, notice it's raising a flag for you and saying: Look at me, I'm telling you the perspective from which this story is being written. Why did Matthew's gospel insert the guards at the tomb before the empty tomb scene? And notice what I just said. I made a scholarly statement, and it's part of the process. Why did Matthew insert the guards at the tomb before the story of the empty tomb? Very simple. To explain this Jewish counter-story that had circulated by the time of Matthew's gospel, and is still circulating. Notice what we've just seen. We've got a story, a Christian story reacting to a Jewish counter-story, probably reacting to an earlier version of the Christian story, reacting to yet another earlier version. And the layers start to grow. That's how the gospels get put together. And the reason I've chosen this, obviously, is, it's one of the most important passages in the whole tradition: the empty tomb scene. But in fact, in fact, the empty tomb as a part of the story is a late process of development. The early stage is that very simple, very straightforward Pauline statement: "He rose and he appeared." And that's it.

Now, that's what all biblical scholarship is really about, especially in the gospels. It's as simple as that and as straightforward as that, as a process. Granted, there's a little more to it. You've got to do this for every last passage in all four gospels. People spend their lives on one gospel. They tend to be bored to death, but-- No, no. It's more interesting to do more than one gospel. But that's the way it works.

Now let me point out, then, by way of conclusion, this. I think all biblical scholarship of this sort really has two questions that have to circulate simultaneously in what we do. We're always asking, in a sense, two questions and keeping them balanced. What really happened, is the first question, always. What really happened? What does the history say was really going on back then? That's where all the Jewish scholarship, that's where all the history and the archaeology and all of that stuff comes into the picture. What was really happening? But that question by itself is never going to answer everything, because we may not know. The second question is: Why did they tell the story the way they did, later on? And that "why" question, that "why" of the process of development later on, is crucial to the process as well. And we constantly have to think about both of those things simultaneously. And that's why, when Marilyn Mellowes came to me and said, "Let's do a film about the historical Jesus," I said, "Not possible. Don't do it. Let's talk about how early Christianity developed, and along the way, we'll discover that that's the story of Jesus in another way." Thank you.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS