The Historical Jesus

Though the preacher in his day already said, “Of making many books there is no end,” his sage comment seems much in place in modern times. The number of books which every age, and especially this one, produces on the “life of Jesus” is nearly without number. Again and again, men turn to the scanty historical references recorded in the four canonical Gospels, and they attempt to write interpretations, if not reinterpretations, of the facts which are revealed.

Of course, an attempt to form a historical conception of the life of Jesus calls for a harmony of the four Gospels. That is to say, the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (generally called the Synoptic Gospels) and the Gospel according to John must be harmonized and, in respect to their contents, presented in proper chronological order. The first such harmony was composed by Tatian, a native of Syria, about the year 175. He transformed the four canonical Gospels into a single presentation of the life and message of Jesus. Eusebius, the noted historian of the early Christian Church, is said to have coined the name Diatessaron (literally, one “through four”) for Tatian’s harmonized Gospel.

Tatian’s work not only set the stage for numerous harmonies of the Gospels in subsequent ages—even Calvin harmonized the contents of the Synoptic Gospels and edited his work in commentary form under the title Harmony of the Evangelists. The harmony of Tatian also became the direct and indirect source for the writing of many books on the “life of Jesus.”


The question which Jesus addressed to the Pharisees, “What think ye of the Christ? whose son is he?” appears to lie in the root of the search for the historical Jesus. Whereas men in earlier days spent their time in harmonizing the Gospels and in displaying all the facts available, so that they might gain a picture of Christ, scholars in the twentieth century have tried to discover a third dimension. However, in their search for this third dimension they are overlooking the first and second for the simple reason that these are out of focus. No longer are modern scholars interested in the strictly chronological facts gathered from a harmony of the Gospels. They doubt whether such facts can he proven scientifically. Instead they have directed their attention to the explanation of the message as well as of the person of Christ. Questions are asked pertaining to the motives which governed Jesus’ activities on earth, whether Jesus considered Himself to be the Messiah, and what his relationship was toward God and men. In answering these questions, the careful exegete of former times has become the modern sociologist who makes use of history merely to embellish his sociological analyses. The twentieth century scholar tries to find answers to his questions by turning to modern methods employed in the fields of history and sociology.

In trying to gain an understanding of the man Jesus, present-day scholarship has effected a separation between the person called Jesus and the message of Christ. Liberal theologians maintain that the message of Christ has been augmented and changed by the apostles and the communities of the early Christian church in the first century of this era. And since this message has been altered, it fails to tell the inquirer of today precisely what happened during the life of the person called Jesus. Hence no exact, scientific information about Jesus can be gleaned from the pages of the four Gospels. Although this approach has been heralded by a number of liberal theologians, the debate concerning an understanding of the historical Jesus presently enters into the question whether there is any relationship, and if so, any continuity between the man Jesus who hailed from Nazareth and the exalted Lord who is proclaimed by the church.

At the moment the pendulum of the quest for Jesus is swinging away from the extreme position, in which Jesus was considered a mythological figure with a divine message. How far the swing of the “new quest” will go in the endeavor of discovering Jesus as a mere man is difficult to say. One thing is certain, and that is, that the quest is dealing with the age-old question of the two natures of Christ. It is the question posed by Christ himself: “What think ye of the Christ? whose son is he?”


When on the 8th of October of the year 451 the Fourth Ecumenical Council convened in the city of Chalcedon, the delegates to this synod debated the doctrine of the person of Christ. The setting of the stage had been provided by certain leaders in the church, who in their contentions had tried to give answers to the question whether Christ has one or two natures, a human and a divine.

The Syrian monk, Nestorius, who in 428 had been consecrated bishop of Constantinople, openly taught that the natural Son of God was different from and other than the son born to Mary in Bethlehem. Thus Nestorius made a distinction between the divine and the human. He separated the man Jesus from the revealed Christ. He spoke of two natures and two persons, and of the indwelling of God in man. In this indwelling God and man were united only morally, for the human nature in Christ was divided and separated from the divine nature.

In reaction to this view, Eutychus, a superior in a monastery in the neighborhood of Constantinople, taught that Christ before his incarnation had two natures, but that after his birth the divine and the human natures became one. Just as one drop of honey which falls into the ocean is absorbed, so the human nature of Christ is completely taken tip by the divine. In the process of absorption, the human body of Christ became a deified body; and although it appeared to be of human characteristics, in reality it was not.

The Council of Chalcedon took note of these teachings and in a dogmatic confession rejected them. Regarding the perSon of Christ, the Council said that he is truly God and truly man, and that as to his divinity he is of the same substance with the Father, and as to his humanity of the same substance with us. Furthermore, the Council confessed that Christ is in all things exactly like us (sin excepted), that in respect to his deity he was begotten by the Father before all times, and that in respect to his manhood he was born of the virgin Mary “when the time had fully come.” And it declared that this one and the same Christ has two natures, which are neither confused nor changed, neither divided nor separated, but together in one person, the Lord Jesus Christ.

It appears that the confession of the Council is rather negative, for a total of four negating predicates is used to describe the natures of Christ. Against Eutychus, the confession declares that the natures are in confused and unchangeable; and against Nestorius, it says that the natures are indivisible and inseparable. By means of this negative formulation, the delegates gathered at the Fourth Ecumenical Council asserted that the natures in the person of Christ could be described only in terms of what they are not.

Former Attempts

Throughout the centuries the Church has confessed this dogmatic exposition of Chalcedon and has stood for its defense whenever it was attacked. But in the nineteenth century liberal theologians began to dissociate themselves from this ancient confession. They announced the impossibility of proclaiming the doctrine that Jesus is truly God and truly man. It was asserted that the human nature of the man called Jesus should be separated from the religious connotations which the church had associated with the divine Christ.1 And with the separation of the human and divine, liberal theologians could use the person of Christ as a champion of their own causes, such as, moralism, perfectionism, and idealism. They broke with the confession of the church and thus were at liberty to interpret the life of Jesus as they pleased.

In this part of the survey, the names of Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann will be mentioned. In the opinion of Schweitzer, Jesus was a man who had dreamed that he would be the Messiah in the kingdom of God. After he was baptized, Jesus expected the coming of the kingdom to take place during the harvest time. For that reason he sent out his twelve disciples and charged them, “But when they persecute you in this city, Bee into the next: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of man become” (Matthew 10:23). However, when the disciples returned from their mission, the kingdom had not come. Jesus began to realize his failure. He changed his procedure and thought to hasten the coming of the kingdom by ushering it in through his own suffering and death. Also this turned out to be failure and disillusion.

Who was the Jesus depicted in the Gospels, and what significance does he have for us? Concludes Schweitzer in his impressive volume on The Quest of the Historical Jesus, “(Jesus) was not a teacher, not a casuist; He was an imperious ruler…He commands. And to those who obey Him … He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”

The emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg, Rudolf Bultmann, declares that “no sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the Palestinian community. But how far that community preserved an objectively true picture of him and his message is another question.”2 By this he means to say, that the early Christian communities composed the Gospels. Since much of the historical data in the Gospels must be relegated to myth and fantasy, it is very difficult to determine what the true facts are when we speak of the historical Jesus. Stripped of all the extraneous information about Jesus, the Gospels merely picture Jesus as a prophet who is the bearer of the divine message which compels men to choose either for or against God. Hence, shorn of all that is divine and substantiated only by the divine message, the Jesus presented by Bultmann has assumed the proportions of a mythical figure of the past. In the mind of this Marburg scholar, the reality of Jesus’ existence can not be denied. Yet the picture of him painted by the evangelists must be met with utter skepticism.

Modern Search

Consequently the historical person of Jeslls of Naz….reth

has little, if any, meaning for Bultmann. Instead he places emphasis on the message of Christ. The divine message is all-important for the Christian faith. However, it should be understood that also the message of Christ, as presented in the Gospels, must be subjected to close scrutiny. Much which belongs to the art of story-telling of the early Christian community ought to be removed before one can speak of the words of Christ.

Since it is rather difficult to determine the distinction between fable and truth, the matter of ascertaining the message of Christ becomes highly subjective, to say the least. If Bultmann proclaims that the message is of ultimate concern, it is an understood fact that the historicity of Jesus Christ is entrusted to a secondary place, namely, to the human mind which reasons scientifically whether the occurrence of Jesus could have taken place. According to Bultmann, the message of Christ is not interested in providing the believer with objective historical facts. History is to be regarded as secondary in the proclamation of the divine message. Of primary importance is the message which demands faith in Christ. In short, there is no need for historical facts in the proclamation of the message of Christ.

It is readily seen that the emphasis in Bultmann’s approach falls on the exalted Christ, who has entrusted to the church his divine Word, in which he calls men to faith. The Jesus of Nazareth was a mere man about whom we know very little. Of the information which the Gospels relate about him, much has to be discarded as myth and fable compiled by the early Christian community. Not the Jesus of Nazareth, but the Christ whose message has been kept by the church, is of importance in Bultmann’s theology.

Although Bultmann dominated the theological scene for more than thirty years, for some years already another trend is becoming apparent. The pendulum seems to be swinging back. The question has been asked, whether it might be possible to get back of the message of Christ, and if this proves to be a possibility, whether there is any relationship between the words which Jesus spoke on earth and the message of Christ as it was proclaimed by the apostles and the early Christian Church. Thus in the so-called post-Bultmannian era, it is asserted that the message of Christ was not only uttered in the words of Jesus of Nazareth, but also in his person and conduct.

An American Representative

One of the exponents of this “new quest” is James M. Robinson, professor of Theology and New Testament at the Southern California School of Theology at Claremont. In a monograph entitled A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, Robinson makes use of existential philosophy in order to discover the aims and purposes of the man Jesus. He contends that an understanding of the message of Christ requires a thorough acquaintance with the historical setting in which Jesus lived. Yet this is not sufficient, for the modem inquirer should learn to understand the selfhood of Jesus. By living into the life of Jesus and by laying hold of his selfhood, one can grasp the meaning of his intentions and commitments. Thus the causes and circumstances which brought about Jesus’ words and actions become meaningful.

Robinson uses the existential method of moving from the exterior to the interior, for when he reads about the activities and words of Jesus in the New Testament, he asks the question: what caused Jesus to speak and to act as he did? He seeks to gain insight into the selfhood of Jesus and exerts himself to understand the commitments and intentions which governed Jesus’ selfhood. By means of this insight and understanding, Robinson attempts to establish the historical data of Jesus’ life and person. To be sure, the exponent of the “new quest” relies upon modern methods used in an existential approach to history.

The “new quest” wishes to find out what Jesus’ motives were while he spoke, taught, and healed. Therefore it investigates the human existence of Jesus, and from the vantage point of Jesus’ selfhood it attempts to explain history. Concisely, the “new quest” of the existential human nature of Jesus has become the task of the modern historiographer.


The literature on the subject of the “new quest” has been phenomenal during the last ten years.3 It is virtually impossible to sort out all the articles, gather all the information, and pass judgment on the subject. Yet one generalization made on the evidence presented is this: in spite of all the daring emphases expressed by the exponents of the “new quest,” the basic pattern of principles and methodology remains the same. Be it with individual modifications and variations, those writing for the “new quest” one and all sing the same song.

Therefore, when the question is asked whether the flood of literature relative to the “new quest” has been of value, the answer must be negative. In spite of all the hooks and articles which have come off the press in the last decade, there is not much that can be added to the store of existing knowledge. Perhaps the only thing that can be said in favor of the “new quest” is the “swing of the pendulum” from the exclusive search for the divine Christ to the investigation of the words and deeds of Jesus revealed in the New Testament.


However, this favorable comment needs to be qualified immediately. The modern investigator assumes the role of a historian who interprets history from an existential point of view. Thus he never takes historical documents at face value, but approaches them critically. He reasons that the Gospels may have some record of the words of jesus; nevertheless, it is very well possible that these words have been put into Jesus’ mouth by the evangelists, so that there is no certainty that Jesus ever spoke them. For this reason, the exponent of the “new quest” uses procedures employed by the critical historian to distinguish the authentic from the unauthentic when he is reading the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament.

The investigator has become a historian interested in the sociological aspects of Jesus’ life. Therefore he is far removed from the position of the believer who exegetes Scripture by approaching it as the inspired revelation of God. Hence, the modern scholar does not tell his readers what the Word of God says, but he conveys to them what he thinks the words and deeds of Jesus mean.

This negative view of sacred history does not at all coincide with the facts recorded in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the epistles and Apocalypse of the New Testament. Eyewitness accounts are drawn up in the narratives relating the earthly life of Jesus, and these historical documents testify that Jesus is the Christ. With this fact as point of departure, the question may be posed: why would the church have written Gospels (through the agency of the evangelists) and cherished these documents with a veneration accredited to inspired writings, if the interest in history and in the historical recollection of the person of Jesus Christ had been of no account?


Although it seems to be a mark of simplicity to say that the modern quest of Jesus has been to no avail, fact is that the inner life of Jesus can not be subjected to investigation.4 The presentation of a harmony of the Gospels has met with general approval, but a study of the person of Christ is a dubious undertaking. And rightly so. The delegates to the Council of Chalcedon realized the mystery of the person of Christ. As a result of this realization, they formulated the dogmatic confession of the divine and human natures of Christ in negative terms. Guided by this realization, orthodox theologians have refrained from writing for the “new quest.” Jesus—God and man—has been revealed to us as the miracle of miracles, and this supreme miracle can not be explained in terms of modern methodology.

Ours is the task, the sacred obligation, to accept the revelation of Jesus Christ in faith. We are to worship him as the Son of God come into the flesh to take our place, so that we may be hid in Christ.

1. G. C. Berkouwer in his book De Persoon van Christus (Kampen: J. H. Kole, 1952) p. 17, calls attention to the fact that this assertion is not something introduced by Bultmann and his system of demythologizing. In fact, Bultmann finds his theological roots in the liberal teachings of David Friedrich Strausz (1808–1874).

2. R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (New York: Ch. Scribners’ Sons, 1958, 1958. 17f.

3. For a useful guide, consult Hugh Anderson, Jesus and Christian Origins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

4. As Joachim Jeremias, New Testament scholar at the University of Gottingen, notes, “If…we occupy ourselves with the historical Jesus, the result is always the same: we find ourselves in the presence of God Himself: For the quotation, we are indebted to Christianity Today (Volume IX, No. 14), p. 32.

The central question has been and still is: What think ye of the Christ; whose sois he? In an attempt to answer this question conflicting theories have been propounded and a continuous stream of books has been published. Once again there are changes of approach and understanding advocated which will affect preaching in the churches. In this article Dr. Simon Kistenwker, professor of Bible at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, alerts the reader to some of these.