Summary: An overview of contemporary study of the historical Jesus and a look at who Jesus believed himself to be.
Who was Jesus really? Not just who do Christians think Jesus was or who do I think Jesus was, but who did Jesus himself think he was?
The question of the identity of Jesus is a question that continues to spark incredible interest among people. Last Monday night I went to Borders Books and Music in Montclair after our elder meeting, and I found 65 different books about Jesus in the religion section. All but one of those 65 books argued that Jesus really existed, but each book presented a different portrait of who Jesus was. Just a sampling of different titles illustrates this diversity: Jesus the Magician, Jesus the Heretic, Jesus Symbol of God, Rabbi Jesus, Jesus One Hundred Years before Christ, the Changing Faces of Jesus, and Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
Who was Jesus really? How did Jesus view himself?
Last week we started a new four week series called Common Questions About Jesus. In this series we’ve been looking at some of the most basic questions people today have about Jesus. Last week we looked at the question of whether Jesus really existed and we saw that the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is compelling. However, just because someone actually existed doesn’t mean that everything people believe about that person is true. Over time myths and legends can develop about a person that have nothing to do with who that person really was. A great example of that is St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. No one doubts that Patrick really existed, that he was a historical figure who lived in Ireland in the fifth century. However, the idea that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland was a much later legend that developed hundreds of years after Patrick’s death. Some have wondered if the same thing might be true of Jesus. Certainly Jesus really existed--the historical evidence is simply too overwhelming to deny that--but was Jesus really who Christians have historically claimed he was?
Today we’re going to look at who Jesus thought he was. To do this I’m first going to give you a brief overview of historical research into the life of Jesus. Then we’ll look at a few of the contemporary portraits of Jesus that have been offered as an alternative to the traditional Christian view of Jesus. Finally we’ll look at one event from Jesus’ life that demonstrates for us how Jesus viewed himself.
1. An Overview of Jesus Studies
First I want to give you a brief overview of historical research into Jesus. This overview helps us understand why there are so many books about Jesus today and why they all differ from each other so much. There have been basically three quests or movements that have tried to research the life of Jesus from a purely historical perspective.
The first quest for the historical Jesus began with an 18th century skeptic named Hermann Reimarus. Reimarus’ goal was to destroy the Christian faith at its root by demonstrating that the Jesus Christians believed in was not the Jesus of real history (Wright 16). Reimarus was a deist who came to the four New Testament gospels skeptical of anything supernatural. First quest historians like Reimarus focused on Jesus’ example in the New Testament gospels. They purged Jesus of all Jewishness, and what was left was a teacher who provided a good moral example and who gave good advice. There were no Bible believing Christian historians involved in the first quest, and that first quest ended when scholars pointed out that the Jesus of the first quest looked a lot like the first quest historians themselves.
The second quest--also called "the new quest"--for the historical Jesus started in the early 20th century with a German scholar named Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann and his followers were extremely skeptical about the historical value of the four gospels in the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The focus of this second quest was on the sayings of Jesus because they thought all the actions of Jesus found in the New Testament were creations of the later Christian church. There were no Bible believing Christian historians in the new quest. The new quest is represented today by the Jesus Seminar. Perhaps you’ve read about the Jesus Seminar the last few years in Time, Newsweek or seen their members interviewed on TV. The Jesus Seminar is a group of about seventy New Testament scholars who meet twice a year to discuss historical research into the life of Jesus. Most of the Jesus Seminar scholars have doctorates from Claremont Graduate School, Vanderbilt, and Harvard, so they don’t represent a cross-section from all the major American universities. In fact, entirely absent are historians from such schools as Duke, Princeton, Yale, and University of Chicago, and so forth. Since the focus of the new quest is on the sayings of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar began their work in the early 1990s by voting on the authenticity of the various sayings attributed to Jesus in the four gospels. They concluded that only 18% of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the four New Testament gospels actually go back to Jesus himself. The other 82% they believer were invented by the later Christian church (Hays 4). In fact, one critic of the Jesus Seminar says, "What the members of the Jesus Seminar have done, in effect, is merely to offer us an anthology of their favorite Jesus sayings" (Hays 7). The new quest for the historical Jesus tries to eliminate what they think of as "Christian distortion" in the Gospels. One participant of the Jesus Seminar told Newsweek, the Jesus Seminar is attempting to "rescue Jesus from the spin doctors who wrote the gospels" (Woodward 49). So anything in the Gospels that seems to reinforce what Bible believing Christians believe about Jesus is automatically viewed as non-historical and untrue. The new quest also minimizes the Jewish context of Jesus. There are lots of New Testament scholars who represent the new quest, though it seems to be losing steam these days.