The New Quest for the Historical Jesus

For years many theologians remained under the influence of Bultmann’s existential approach. But there were also signs of some dissatisfaction. In a landmark 1953 lecture, Ernst Käsemann argued that early Christian commitment to a particular message did not require believers to be uninterested in at least some minimum amount of historical facts in the life of Jesus. Rather, belief in Jesus actually requires the presence of some historical content.^17

Other Bultmannian scholars soon joined Käsemann in a modest critique of skeptical approaches that attempted to eliminate any historical basis in early Christianity. At the same time, scholars like Günther Bornkamm also continued certain other Bultmannian emphases: a rejection of the Nineteenth Century quest for the historical Jesus, and the assertion that faith does not depend on historical

14 Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygmaand Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. by Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), pp. 3–8 for example.

15 Ibid., pp. 9–16; Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology(New York: Scribner’s, 1958), pp. 16–18.

16 Barth and Bultmann had a famous disagreement over the reason for Paul’s citation of the resurrection appearances in 1 Cor. 15:3ff. Bultmann’s conclusion that Paul’s chief purpose was to present proof for Jesus’ resurrection (even though Bultmann thought that such was misguided) is important for our purposes. A brief synopsis of Bultmann’s response is found in his Theology of the New Testament, transl. by Kendrick Grobel (New York: Scribners, 1951), vol. I, p. 295. Barth registered his complaints against Bultmann on several occasions. One interesting claim is that, apart from the problems that he perceived in Bultmann’s program of demythologization, Barth thought that Bultmann’s agenda was a return to the old Liberal emphasis (How I Changed My Mind, p. 68), a claim that Bultmann vehemently denied. We will return to a critique of Bultmann’s views in Chapters 3–4.

17 Käsemann’s essay is included in Essays on New Testament Themes, transl. by W.J. Montague (Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1964), pp. 15–47.

scholarship. Nevertheless, a substantial amount could be known about the life of Jesus.^18

Citing the influence of Käsemann, Bornkamm, and others, James Robinson rejected the old quest, while calling for a new approach to the historical Jesus. In agreement with others that faith was not dependent on historical research, he still

asserted that the Christian kerygma(the core teachings) required an historical basis:

This emphasis in the kerygmaupon the historicity of Jesus is existentially

indispensable, precisely because the kerygma. . . proclaims the meaningfulness of life ‘in the flesh’.

It is this concern of the kerygmafor the historicity of Jesus which necessitates a new quest.^19

The “New Quest” for the historical Jesus scholars, as they came to be called, popularized a test for historical authenticity in the life of Jesus. Often termed the “criterion of dissimilarity,” this test dictates that we can only know that material in Jesus’ life is authentic if it is not derived either from primitive Christian teachings or from Judaism. When Gospel material originates from neither of these sources, one can be reasonably sure that the material is historical.^20