The list/description of which of his teachings can be historically and accurately attributed to Jesus.

The list was result of the "Jesus Seminar", made up of fairly liberal New Testament scholars. John Dominic Crossan, who wrote a book (which shares this node's name) about the conclusions of the seminar, was one of the big heads at the seminar.

In the end, the seminar concluded that only about 2% of what Jesus is purported to have said can realistically be trusted as authentic. (This is according to Lee Strobel's book "The Case for Christ", which attempts to say the seminar's findings were biased and Jesus was is and will always be LORD, DAMNIT!!!)

Many think that the actual teachings of Jesus were much more philosophical than religious, if you're willing to make that distinction. That is, his teachings may have indeed centered more on social revolution (true egalitarianism, something fairly unheard of in contemporary western civilization) than claiming himself to be god and the only way into that much-touted heaven the celebrities are always talking about.


It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Jesus' reputation as being the Messiah of the Jews didn't solidify into anything like it is now until long after his death. All of how today's Christians see Jesus is based on stories about him that were written no sooner than 30 and possibly as long as 70 years after his death. It was only after Paul (formerly Saul and later the Saint, of course) took Jesus' pacifistic and egalitarian message and mixed it with Greek philosophy and the kind of organization that was popular with Romans at the time that it became "I am the way, the truth, the light" and all that.

Will anyone ever REALLY know for sure what Jesus REALLY said? Surely not. Some hope for the existence of the hypothetical "Q" gospel, from which the New Testatment gospels might have been written from, which is supposed to be an actual transcript of sorts, rather than the retrospectives that the New Testament versions must be (being as postdated as they are).

Regardless, devout Christians remain convinced of Jesus' divinity and take the bible to he his word, incontrovertibly accurate. And they have some reason to think that. However, and just the same, skeptics and those of other faiths find reason to doubt that the Jesus of the Bible is really anything like that man who wandered the Eastern Mediterranean 2000 years ago.

What do YOU think?

For over two hundred years, generations of Christian theologians have tried to uncover a “historical Jesus” distinct from the dogmatic Jesus Christ of faith. The "quest" for the historical Jesus can be divided into three periods: the original "Quest" or "Old Quest" from 1778-1906, a mid-twentieth century "New Quest", and a "Third Quest" beginning around 1985 and continuing to the present.

The original "Quest for the Historical Jesus"

The original "Quest" was described in Dr. Albert Schweitzer's book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, first published in German in 1906 reviews the “Quest” from Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) to William Wrede (1859-1907). Dr. Schweitzer viewed the efforts of his countrymen with the typical 19th century German lack of humility --he refers to the critical investigation of the Bible “the greatest achievement of German theology”-- but nonetheless, he pronounced the effort a failure. Dr. Schweitzer abandoned a career in theology in 1913, and emigrated to Africa, where he founded a hospital.

Purported references to Jesus or “Christians” in some contemporary, “classical” literature --Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonious and a letter of Pliny the Younger-- are probably forgeries or interpolations. Even if they are authentic, these few references say little about Jesus other than that there was such a man and that he was crucified for disturbing the peace. Thus, the early “Quest” was mostly limited to critical examination of the Bible.

Why didn’t anyone look for the “historical Jesus” before Reimarus? Scholars certainly did look for a “historical Jesus”, but did not publish for fear of persecution.

The fates of contemporary English free-thinkers and Deists -- in the most liberal nation in Europe at the time-- must certainly have given Reimarus pause. The last execution for “blasphemy” in the United Kingdom was in 1697, the unfortunate victim being Thomas Aikenhead. (Arguably, Aikenhead should merely have been imprisoned for a first offense, not executed, and thus was a victim of legal malpractice on the part of his defense attorney). Thomas Woolston (1669-1733) an Anglican minister, advocated an allegorical interpretation of the Bible, and rejected the literal truth of the birth and miracles of Jesus. In 1729, Woolston was convicted of “blasphemy” and ordered to pay a fine, which he could not pay, and was therefore imprisoned until he died in 1733.

Reimarus used the term “historical Jesus” in contrast with “the Christ of faith”. This can easily be misunderstood as arguing that the Christian Jesus is not the “real” Jesus. Reimarus did not dare publish his ideas while he was alive: his works were published posthumously by the German philosopher Lessing.

Critical interpretation of Scripture required a refusal to accept the documents at face value. Clues to alternative explanations were sought in documents, along with rationales for believing some things, but not other things, stated in the text. Reimarus, for example, rejected the Resurrection, but looked to the Bible for evidence of an alternative explanation, and found plenty to support the theory that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and hid it.

David Friedrich Strauss's Life of Jesus (1835)

Strauss was a Hegelian, and thus had a theoretical basis for comparing contradictory supernatural and rationalistic explanations of stories from the Gospels, without a predetermined bias to determine which side was presented honestly. The result is a compelling proof that parts of the Gospels must be accepted as mythic, they cannot be accepted as literally true.

Example of myth: if the Resurrection is literally true, then Jesus did not die, not like we do. But if he did not literally die like we do --for real, finally and forever-- then the Resurrection is not literally true, either. The answer, of course, is that we don’t die forever, either. Something remains to be awakened, as if from a coma. That something is called a “soul”. We have immortal souls, and while the body dies, one day we too will be resurrected like Jesus was. This “answer”, however, is not a literal truth, at least not one explained in the Gospel, but as a narrative, a story, a myth, it is the meaning of the Gospel. The "myth" isn't the Resurrection: the point is not that the Resurrection is a fable. The myth is the "immortal soul" idea, which is the key to understanding that the story about the Resurrection has a connection, meaning and significance for you (because you have a soul, too).

Strauss did not merely identify the mythic in the Gospels, like Thomas Jefferson or the Deists of the previous century, and delete it from the text. He compared the relative degree and quantity of religious myth-making in the different Gospels --and found a great deal of it in the Fourth Gospel, the “spiritual” Gospel of John. Freed of the need to assert the literal truth and historicity of the gospel, Strauss, the student of Hegel and Plato, sees the underlying speculative philosophy in the Gospel of John. On the other hand, the same qualities which confirm John as a more advanced presentation of Christian thought, also make it less trustworthy as a historical document.

Strauss thus affirms the uniqueness of the Fourth Gospel. The critical approach thus explains, in a way a literal approach never could, why we have four gospels in the canon. If they are all literally true, then why not pick the best one and go with that? The critical approach also lays the groundwork for scholarship which tries to determine the order in which they were written, and the context. John, for example, is the latest of the Gospels, written after the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E. and after the early Christians had made a decisive break with Judaism.

Critical study, while it can only tell us who Jesus probably was --not who he really was-- what he may have said, has yielded many significant insights into how the canonical books of the Bible were created and assembled. For example, critical scholars noted that certain passages of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew --sayings of Jesus-- are identical. The explanation proposed, and now accepted by most Biblical scholars, is that the writers of these Gospels each relied on the same, pre-existing collection of Jesus’ sayings. No copy of this “source” text, known as “Q” (“source” in German is Quelle) has ever been found, but today no one doubts it once existed. A collection of Jesus’ sayings similar to what scholars think “Q” was like, called “ the Gospel of Thomas”, was found among the early Christian Coptic manuscripts discovered in Egypt at Nag Hammadi in 1947.

The "New" Quest for the Historical Jesus: Demythologizing the Kerygma

Archeological discoveries, such as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945 and the Nag Hammadi library in 1947, sparked renewed interest in the "historical Jesus". In the 1950's Rudolf Bultmann published an essay on "demythologizing" the Gospel message, which basically meant translating the Gospel message into the language of "Existential" philosophy. Thus, a "New" quest for the historical Jesus commenced, with new data and a new theorectical framework.

The term “myth” is not meant to be derogatory (though conservative fundamentalist rhetoric requires misunderstanding it that way). “Myth” in this sense is the use of the imagery of the world and of human life to describe what is otherworldly and supernatural. Rudolf Bultmann, in an essay entitled "New Testament and Mythology", published in English in Kerygma and Myth in 1953, took the position that modern people can no longer understand the truth of the Bible expressed in mythic terms. The myth is at best an echo, at worst a complete obfuscation, of what the Bible proclaims. In the myth, God gave up his son as a sacrifice to atone for our sins: does the image of killing an animal on an altar seem like an act of love to us, or an act of barbaric superstition? It has become necessary to “demythologize” the Bible message. This is possible if, and only if, the myth is not itself the message --the kerygma or “proclamation”-- of the New Testament. If the myth is not the message, but rather the myth is just the way the message was expressed, then the modern theologian must demythologize.

Despite Bultmann's basic intent to bring the Kerygma to modern man in terms he would understand, Bultmann and his followers tended to get mired in the jargon of Existential Philosophy. Their insights did not make it out the door of the university or seminary, except perhaps indirectly in forming the training and mindset of generations of liberal Protestant clergy.

In fact, probably what most distinguishes the "New Quest" from the current "Third Quest" is the latter's strong desire to bring the discussion about the historical Jesus out into the public arena.

The "Third Quest": the "Jesus Seminar"

Convened in 1985 by Robert Funk, the purpose of the Jesus Seminar is to “ evaluate the historical significance of every shred of evidence about Jesus from antiquity”. (Jesus Seminar Forum:Home). The Seminar presented in The Five Gospels a “Scholars Version” translation of the four canonical Gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas. This new translation also tries to present, using a gimmick of voting on and color-coding portion s of the text, a scholar’s consensus on what portions of the Gospels are likely to be things Jesus actually said. Whatever the merits of the gimmick, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have succeeded in bringing to the public the fruits of the scholarly “Quests”.

The critical approach of the “Third Quest” not only has much more historical data and evidence to work with than prior generations, but also can make use of certain hypotheses as well-settled tools of examination: (1) the gospels consist of early and later material, (2) the gospels were created out of layers of different kinds of documents: “sayings”, stories about Jesus, songs and prayers, and (3) the gospels speak in two voices: the message of Jesus and the messages of the “community” or Jesus movement.

Literalists frequently mistake critical investigation for theological argument. Take for example, the distinction between something Jesus might have said, and something the Jesus movement said about him. Religious conservatives bristle at the assertion that Jesus never called himself “Son of God” or “Son of Man” and point to places in the text which present Jesus applying one of these titles to himself. In fact, it’s quite clear from the Gospels that Jesus instructed his disciples not to spread around the statement that he was the Messiah, at least until after the resurrection. This part of the story is known by scholars as “The Messianic Secret”, after The Messianic Secret in the Gospels by William Wrede (1859-1906). Conservative reactionaries, welded to their notions of the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, don’t grasp that looking at the way the Gospels present Jesus (acknowledging that Jesus didn’t call himself Son of God) is not the same as disproving the theological principle of Jesus’ divinity. As a result, they never consider the significance of keeping the Messiah's secret until the true nature of that status could be revealed.


Dr. Schweitzer’s “Quest for the Historical Jesus”

Rudolf Bultmann's "New Testament and Mythology" essay:

Jesus Seminar Forum: Home Page:

Jesus Seminar links on the “Quest of the Historical Jesus”:

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