I find myself in the "spiritual but not religious" camp these days. That wasn't always the case. I spent roughly ten years as an evangelical Christian. During this time Jesus was my Lord and Savior. I worshipped Him, served Him, and gave my life, as best I knew how, to doing His will.
But, although Jesus of Nazareth has arguably shaped me more significantly than any other historical figure, he no longer plays a huge role in my spirituality. This is largely because I have come to certain conclusions about his historical identity. During seminary, primarily through the work of Dale Allison, I became convinced that the historical Jesus is best described as an Apocalyptic Prophet. That is, Jesus believed that normal history was about to end and would be soon followed by a final judgment in which the righteous would be separated from the unrighteous (cf. Matt 25), the righteous inheriting a new world free of evil, pain, and suffering – the Kingdom of God – the unrighteous destined for eternal punishment. In my opinion this belief was the driving force of Jesus' ministry. When Jesus proclaimed that "the kingdom of God is at hand," a phrasing which seems to sum up his message in the minds of the gospel writers, this is primarily what I think he had in mind.
Not everyone agrees.
The "Quest for the Historical Jesus" has been underway for almost three centuries. The most famous overview of the Quest comes from Albert Schweitzer in his The Quest of The Historical Jesus. In it, Schweitzer traces historical Jesus scholarship from Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) through the end of the 19th Century. Since Schweitzer's time new scholars have added their work to the field, each with their own take on who Jesus was as a historical figure.
It's a confusing field of study, and the portraits that scholars paint often look very different from one another. When musing about whether Christian theologians should even be concerned with finding a historical Jesus, Allison remarks:
"If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear. More than one historical Jesus resides between today's book covers. We indeed have a plethora of them. There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian. There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom. There is the Jesus of E. P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer. There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent violent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination. One could go on. To the outsider, theories about Jesus must seem to crisscross each other to create a maze of contradictions. For the portraits, which serve different constituencies in the marketplace, are to large degree not complementary but contradictory."
– Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus
There is no one Historical Jesus. There are only various reconstructions.
For the layman, I don't blame anyone interested in "the Quest" for throwing their hands up in the air. If the scholars don't agree, how is the layman to decide? And isn't it presumptuous to think we can know Jesus better than 2,000 years of Christian Tradition has taught?
Perhaps. But for those who have gone down this road of study, their personal conclusions often drastically change (or sometimes confirm) the nature of their faith. It's a big deal.
In this series, I'd like to outline several different paradigms for understanding who Jesus of Nazareth was as a historical figure. In the process, I will use the work of well-known modern scholars as representative of a given paradigm. The outline will be as follows:
1. N.T. Wright: The Orthodox Jesus
2. Marcus Borg: The Wisdom Jesus
3. Dale Allison: The Apocalyptic Jesus
4. John Dominic Crossan: Jesus the Cynic Philosopher
5. Reza Azlan: Jesus the Political Revolutionary
I will then conclude with some thoughts on several issues surrounding Historical Jesus studies.