chapter  14
The quest for the historical Jesus
Pages 16

Christians worship a vulnerable God, one who, for the salvation of humankind, came down from heaven, was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and was executed by the Roman authorities in occupied Jerusalem sometime between 29 and 33 ce. The historical actuality of the life of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, fully divine and fully human, has always been fundamental to classical Christian faith. For the first Christian theologians the Docetic suggestion that Jesus merely appeared to be human and was not therefore subject to the realities and contingencies of history, together with the Ebionite suggestion that Jesus, though the greatest of prophets, was not actually divine, constituted the two paradigmatic distortions of classical incarnational theology. Colin Gunton has shown how these heresies have been replicated in the modern era (Gunton 1983). (1) Docetism reappears in the guise of Deism, the dominant theology of the Enlightenment, which denied any possibility of an immutable deity becoming a mutable human being, since that would allow the accidental truths of history to override the necessary truths of reason. Though the life of Jesus could be read idealistically, as a symbolic representation of an eternal ideal, it could not be seen to embody, let alone generate and actualise, eternal truth. Thus the eternal significance of Jesus is effectively dislocated from his historical actuality. (2) Ebionism reappears in the guise of naturalism, the emergent philosophy of the mainstream Enlightenment, which denied the existence of any transcendent realm above, beyond or ingrained within the natural order. On a naturalist reading, though Jesus was certainly a flesh-and-blood human being, he could not possibly be divine, or representative of any form of transcendent reality. Idealists sought to protect eternal transcendent truth by denying any necessary relationship between the eternal ideals of Christianity and the Jesus of history; naturalists sought to deny eternal transcendent truth by reducing Jesus to an ordinary human being. Thus, with the dawning of the Enlightenment, the ancient heresies of Docetism and Ebionism were reconstituted in distinctively modern guises: either the eternal significance of Jesus has no necessary connection with his historical person, or the historical person of Jesus has no eternal significance. Where once Paul’s proclamation of Christ crucified constituted a ‘stumbling-block’ to ancient Jewish scholars who could not accept Jesus’ divinity, and ‘foolishness’ to Hellenistic philosophers who could not accept God’s mutability, so now assertions of Jesus’ divinity

constitute an affront to empiricist-and positivist-minded naturalists unable and unwilling to discern any eternal significance in the historical Jesus, while assertions of the eternal transcendental significance of the all-too-human Jesus constituted an affront to rationally minded idealists unable and unwilling to accept that eternal ideals can be embodied in and constituted by contingent historical events. Insofar as orthodox Christianity persisted in seeking to identify, in the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures, the essential unity of contingent historical events and eternal transcendent truths, it rejected philosophical idealism and naturalistic reductionism in favour of a heady combination of historical and theological realism. Just as Christians worship a vulnerable God, so their faith is vulnerable to the contingencies of history, and by extension to the processes and results of historical research. Any retroductive account of the ontological significance of Jesus of Nazareth provided by orthodox Christians will, inevitably, be concerned with the possibility of revealing a genuine convergence between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith proclaimed by classical Christianity. The fact that the Christian historian approaches the historical data with a particular theological agenda does not imply that the writing of Christian history is intrinsically subjective. This is because all historians necessarily approach historical data with one or other set of prejudices and preconceptions; those who claim not to do so merely embrace the prejudices and preconceptions of a modernist worldview that claims to inhabit the neutral objective space established by (supposedly) universal reason. If all historical investigation is necessarily ‘contaminated’ by the subjectivity of the historian, then the alethic truth of their historical narratives must ultimately be judged against the objective historical realities testified to by historical documents that are themselves inevitably wrapped up in the subjectivity of their authors. Positivistic historiography generated a story of the progressive erosion of Christian faith in the face of trenchant historical criticism. Though this is by no means the whole story, critical scrutiny of the Bible undoubtedly raised fundamental questions about the historical foundations of Trinitarian Christianity. This was perhaps most clearly evident in the emergence, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, of the so-called ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’. We will refer to this Quest as the ‘Original Quest’, to distinguish it from the ‘New Quest’ and ‘Third Quest’ which emerged in twentieth-century scholarship. The Original Quest was, in the main, conducted by scholars convinced of the essential discontinuity between the Christ of Christian faith and the Jesus of history, and as such constituted ‘an explicitly anti-theological, anti-Christian, anti-dogmatic movement’ (Wright 1996, p. 17). Its ideological commitments combined (1) a positivistic concern to strip away the supernatural ‘Christ of faith’ proclaimed by the Church, in order to reveal the unadulterated ‘Jesus of history’, and (2) an idealistic concern to account for the eternal significance, or insignificance, of both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. We will begin with the positivist concern to recover a picture of the Jesus of history supposedly obscured by the Christ of faith, and then consider idealist attempts to recast the orthodox understanding of the eternal significance of the historical Jesus.