While few scholars doubt that Jesus ever lived, several approaches have been popular over the years that propose to limit what we can know about the historical Jesus. We will investigate a number of common misconceptions that would restrict research on our topic. Each challenge will be presented, followed by an initial critique. Many of the criticisms in this chapter will anticipate the research that will be presented subsequently.
A Demythologized Jesus
From about 1930–1960, a popular view was that the Gospels do not present a historical record of Jesus, but a witness to early Christian belief. Since the writers were more concerned about faith and the application of the Christian message to daily concerns than about actual events in the life of Jesus, we know much less about the historical Jesus than the Gospels actually record.
The most influential version of such a view was popularized by Rudolf Bultmann, who held that the Gospels were essentially a later interpretation of Jesus’ person and teachings, largely in mythical terms. The early post-Easter faith allowed a free modification of the historical Jesus into a partially mythical figure. According to this theory, the Gospel writers used imagery to express spiritual concepts in mundane terms.
For instance, God’s transcendence might be described as immense spatial distance. Or God’s use of a miracle to control nature would really reveal his omnipotence. However, these mythical expressions were said to be literally meaningless today. The chief job for theologians, according to Bultmann, was to demythologize the Gospels by ascertaining what the writers were really trying to communicate and by reinterpreting it into a message that was existentially valid for twentieth century humanity.^1