W.To some knowledgeable Christians this lack of an historical background for the central figure of their faith has been an embarrassment and a concern. Christianity would seem clearly to be founded upon who this man Jesus was and what he did and said so thoroughly that without him it has no center. For non-Christians a missing historical Jesus is proof positive that Christians don't know what they are talking about and that the foundation of their religion is questionable at best. For Christians who are unaware of it discovery of the missing historical Jesus can be a faith-shattering experience.
W.In the 17th and 18th centuries, flush with the successes of Rationalism in Science, Industry and Society Christian thinkers began to apply their minds to the life of Jesus in what Albert Schweitzer characterized as the Quest of the Historical Jesus in a book of the same name. They sought to comb the Biblical record for every historical detail and develop a historical narrative of Jesus' life purified of every mythical element. Thomas Jefferson, a student of Rationalism, authored his own Bible in which he expunged all supernatural events including the resurrection (a fact worth recalling whenever anyone invokes the faith of our founding fathers). While Jefferson was certainly no biblical scholar his effort was characteristic of the Rationalist approach and result.
W.Schweitzer concluded that every scholar of this Rationalist project succeeded only in making Jesus over in his own liberal self-image -- replacing the original Jewish apocalyptic prophet with a moral and ethical teacher suited to the Protestant temperament of the time. Schweitzer demonstrated that everyone had been peering into the well of the Gospels only to see themselves reflected at the bottom and not some objective historical truth. What Quest scholars did not adequately account for is that the Bible is not a historical document. It is a testament to what the authors believed happened not to what they saw exactly. The story of the life of Jesus as reported in the Bible is full of inconsistencies and at times contradicts otherwise known historical facts. It is a story with so little historical content that when abused it turns into a Rorschach test for the goals and objectives of the researcher.
W.I came to grips with the dilemma of the (missing) historical Jesus while growing up. That was in the period just before the current Quest. It seemed to me at the time and still does that there can be no doubt that there was a historical figure named Jesus (Jeshua if you prefer) at the center of the foundation of Christianity. It also seems true that the object of Christian faith is really a mythical figure commonly called Christ. The mythologization of Jesus began with the very first recordings of his teachings and life. The historical Jesus is like an artifact left too long at the bottom of the sea (20 centuries approximately) that has become encrusted with barnacles. Over time the real historical figure has disappeared under layers of interpretation and tradition until we have the religion(s) that we have today.
W.This does not invalidate Christianity. It just makes it something different than some people's naive impressions of it. It also makes recovery of a historcial Jesus very difficult and error prone. Modern Christianity has been able to distinguish between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of history to produce a viable Christology based on a traditional if not precisely historical figure of Jesus.
W.At the end of the 20th century another Quest for the Historical Jesus got underway in the form of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was a convocation sponsored by the Westar Institute that again determined to discover and make explicit the lingering trace of the historical Jesus in the Bible. The Jesus Seminar started with the idea of producing a new "red letter" edition of the Bible (in which Jesus's actual words are printed in red). It ended up with a text that is printed in red, pink, gray and black depending on authenticity.
W.The Jesus Seminar included up to 200 participants with a core of 74 Fellows. The Seminar included Protestants, Catholics and atheists. It included scholars from universities and seminaries including some of note. It has been justly criticized for lacking a conservative or evangelical representation. On the other hand it included a number of non-scholars. It has been characterized as a "self-selected" group. It was unusual in scholarly research in that it openly publicized its deliberations. These were democratic in that the Fellows voted on the historical authenticity of each biblical passage.
W.All-in-all a Jesus Seminar consensus is just a majority of voting, self-selected participants in the Seminar.
W.The Jesus Seminar concluded that only 18% of what is generally attributed to Jesus is authentic and threw out all supernatural reports -- just like previous Quests. The Jesus that emerges has been characterized as nothing more than a liberal American secular humanist and cryptic sage devoid of any jewish or prechristian sensibilities. It is a result Schweitzer could have easily predicted -- Jesus made over in the image of the Jesus Seminarians.
W.One of the questions one needs to ask in all this is, How important is it to know that there was a historical Jesus? Obviously if you believe that the Bible is a factual report of the coming and goings and doings and sayings of Jesus then you will have one answer to this question. If on the other hand you believe the Bible reports what others believed about Jesus though they never knew him then you will have another answer. The developing story of Christ in the church through all ages is to my mind just as important as its manifestation in one historical figure. So are the teachings and theology that resulted. This too is God acting through Jesus Christ.
W.Another question to be considered is, What are the uses of the historical Jesus? In the first Quest scholars sought to prove the historicity of Jesus to anchor their faith in Rationalism but were eventually found to have only discovered the Christ of (their own) Faith whose historicity is unimportant. In the current Quest the idea of the historical Jesus is under attack from within Christianity possibly in the service of one of several new agendas.
W.Without the traditional figure of Jesus some would argue Christianity is freed for a transition that will allow it to meet the demands of a new age. Some see a need to find a common ground with the other great religions. Some seek to repair the fractured and confusing monotheism plus trinity of Christianity. Some see a need to recoup the status and power of a lost Christendom. The Westar Institute and its followers are not the only seekers of a new Reformation in an increasingly pluralistic and non-christian world.
W.Renewed interest in the historical jesus could also be linked to the resurgence of Christianity in the U.S. in the form of the Neo-Evangelical movement. While other, mainline Christian churches continue to decline conservative, Neo-Evangelical and independent churches are enjoying growth. This development is not entirely religious since the Religious Right has entered both into the political vocabulary and the calculations of politicians. The possibility of a new American Christendom with all that entails looms over us all.
W.Since Neo-Evangelicals tend to be unquestioning of scripture and accepting of its historicity perhaps members and followers of the Jesus Seminar hope that the revelation of the missing historical Jesus will cause their movement to self-destruct. Perhaps they only wish to make it clear that not all Christians are Neo-Evangelical. In the latter case I would suggest that neither are all non-Neo-Evangelicals friends of the Jesus Seminar. Pluralism applies equally well to the internal as well as the external world of Christianity.
W.An acquaintance once said that when he is accosted by a Neo-Evangelical with, "Have you found Jesus?", he has to resist the temptation to reply, "I didn't know he was lost!" As I have thought about the Quest for the Historical Jesus this joke has come to seem more and more like an answer. If you don't know that Jesus is lost -- if he is not lost to you -- then the Quest seems no more relevant to life than self-assured proselytizing.
information on the Quest for the Historical Jesus can be found here.