The End of the Road for the Historical Jesus Quest

This month’s feature article in Christianity Today is “The Jesus We’ll Never Know” by Scot McKnight. I’d describe my experience after reading this article like entering an air-conditioned room on a sultry summer day.   Absolutely refreshing!

In the article, McKnight refers to the futility of the quest for the historical Jesus.  Though many people in our churches won’t be familiar with the names and objectives of this endeavor, we find its pull in the currents of contemporary culture and church life.  One well-known example is Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code

The historical Jesus pursuit seeks to answer questions such as “who was this Jesus of Nazareth?” and “what was his agenda?”  The scholars in historical Jesus quests take the evidence in the Gospels and sift it through critical methods and often liberal presuppositions.  The Jesus that emerges is far different from the Jesus of orthodox Christianity.  This quest has come in about three phases (cf. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for Jesus of Nazareth [InterVarsity Press, 1997], 9-13).  From about the 1970’s through today, third search continues.

But now, McKnight, who is an insider to historical Jesus studies, says “the era is over.” 

McKnight begins his article by highlighting the interesting results of a psychological test he conducts on the opening day of his class on Jesus of Nazareth.  The first part of the text asks questions about Jesus’ persoinality.  The second part of the tests asks questions about the student’s personality.  McKnight says that the strikingly uniform conclusion from this test is that everyone thinks Jesus is like them.  He observes,

Spiritual formation experts would love to hear that students in my Jesus class are becoming like Jesus, but the test actually reveals the reverse: Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves. If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.

This is true of the historical Jesus studies as well—which is a pertinent reminder about the importance of presuppositions.  One of the well-known names in historical Jesus studies, Albert Schweitzer, noted, Christ “is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well” (Tyrrell on the German scholar Harnack in Tyrrell, Christianity in the Crossroads, 44 in Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 490, n. 24).  

Following the article, CT offered N.T. Wright and Craig Keener an opportunity to respond to McKnight’s article by asking, “Should we abandon studying the Historical Jesus?”  Both answer “no.”  They contend that historical Jesus pursuits add value to the discussion.  Keener is probably right to point out that, “quests for the historical Jesus come and go, but no sooner are postmortems pronounced for one than another quest in a new form seems to rise.” 

Nevertheless, as other scholars who have invested themselves in this quest conclude, “the historical Jesus game has run its course and it cannot deliver the original Jesus [the Jesus found in the four gospels]”

The shortcoming and futility of the historical Jesus quest is summarized fabulously by McKnight as he closes out his article,

One day, while editing the final draft, I came across these words from Romans 4:25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”

This is what I said to myself: As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can’t. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. The quest for the real Jesus, through long and painful paths, has proven that much.

This is music to my ears and to the ears of all who cherish the Jesus of the gospels.  For the Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus that we proclaim and that our world so desperately needs. 

The best defense against future historical Jesus enterprises is to go on the offensive.  Let pulpits burn with the apostolic message of the death and resurrection of Christ.  I, for one, intend to do just that.   

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— [2] the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— [3] that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. [4] And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4, ESV)


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