Sep 30 2012


Published by under Talks


James Veitch

Centre for Defence and Security Studies

Massey University



The question came out of the blue.

Would I like to talk to the Dunedin Sea of Faith group about a question that lies at the heart of all theology, all preaching, and all thinking about the Christian faith – the question that has brought us together tonight. In fact for many of us brought up in the scientific age of the 21st century and who from time to time struggle intellectually with what we hear on Sundays at church, it may well be the question that underlies the integrity of the gospel. The question is: who did Jesus think he was?

I am always keen on a challenge: so having received an invitation I responded almost immediately. In saying yes I realised that I had been looking for an excuse to write about this question and its answer for quite some time – some years in fact – and the e-mail from Dunedin provided me with the question that I needed to use to put pen to paper in order to sort out my ideas. Peter’s letter from out of the blue was the catalyst I needed. So here we are: I hope you will not be disappointed!

But first a caveat for what I am about to say:

Eduard Schweizer in his book that he entitled quite simply, Jesus (published in1968 in German and in 1971 in English) wrote: It is impossible for any historian to write history without personal involvement. Whoever narrates a historical event must choose between what is important to him and what appears to be of secondary importance. [And] to do so he must understand to some extent what the events are all about (5)…Neutrality is …impossible. (6)

The answer to our question is therefore going to be my answer. As a matter of course it will be contestable: this is the nature of scholarship. I have chosen the scholars to help me produce an answer and I am biased about whom I have selected. They articulate a perspective that I have chosen to set out for you to consider. In all cases their contribution is also contestable. As it turns out I will not be neutral though normally I like to give both sides of an argument. Tonight this will not be the case. There is not time to discuss all that I should in opening up a topic like this so I am reluctantly skimming the surface. The end notes will give further indication of the scope that a full answer to this question would entail.

First let me clarify the question.

The influential German American theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965) mentioned, on a number of occasions, that his theological contemporaries spent a lot of time writing books in answer to questions that were not being asked. Tillich’s sermons, published in parallel to his Systematic theology, were an attempt not only to answer central questions he heard being asked of clergy, scholars and theologians in the late nineteen  forties and into the fifties but were carefully crafted responses to real questions that he believed mattered and that were actually being asked.  Tillich was a model teacher and would as a matter of course take student questions and redefine them before answering –he always wanted to make sure that he had heard the question correctly so he could give an appropriate answer. A technique that led Robert Funk to comment the beginning of knowledge is knowing the right questions to ask (Honest to Jesus(1996).

The question that we will consider is, I suggest, the right question to be asking if we are to address the central issue that underlies what the Church wishes to tell others about God, the nature of reality, the value of human life and of course about Jesus.

Who did Jesus think he was or, as I wish to refine it – just slightly – who did Jesus think he really was?:  in other words, is there a historical Jesus and if so do we have any idea of what he really thought, said, believed and did ?

The question is more than a ‘who is  Jesus?’ question: it is a question directed to Jesus himself when we find him – does he say anywhere about who he thought he was and what he thought he was doing; and did he and not others have an answer to the question of who he was. If we can tie the question down then it is possible we will learn something.

Trying to clarify the question and what it might mean is a major challenge. This is a 20th or 21st century question. We are obsessed with who we are, and who other people are or think they are. The psychiatric clinic and the psychologists chair are constantly occupied by people wanting help with answers to this question. However people in the first century didn’t ask the same question because they thought differently: I will explain.

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus comes up with a version of our question (8:27-33). He asks his friends ‘who do people say I am? We imagine that with this question Jesus is fishing for an answer about something that has been bugging him. Is he on the right track with what he is saying and doing? His friends tell him what they have heard from street gossip. And then more pointedly to his own close friends he asks, ‘but who do you say I am’. He puts them on the mat by saying ‘come clean with me – tell me honestly who you think I am?’ They prevaricate a bit and for good reason and then the reader gets the answer that is already obvious to us because we know the outcome. ‘You are the Christ’ – the anointed one – ‘THE Messiah’ – the one who comes to earth in God’s name!

They tell him the words he needs to know – and by doing this they supply Jesus with his identity.

Let me explain a bit further:

In the first century people expected to hear from others, when the time came, who they were – and they expected to hear it from family, the group that they were in and belonged to – they provide each other with their identity – in our modern sense of the word. Each person looked to others to supply them with their identity. They became personalities because of the identity others gave them and they grew into the character of the gifted identity.

So this is a story about Jesus discovering who he was: the Messiah – the one long promised to the Jews who would one day arrive in their midst and lead them to victory over their oppressors and enemies. The implication is that Jesus did not know this until it was confirmed for him by his close friends.

I wonder what his reaction really was, not that we will ever know! ( But I am thinking imaginatively of the Jesus of history. Would he have said: Wow! You  have to be joking?  Or, Strange you say that. I have always, from as early as I can remember, dreamed of being the Messiah – but I needed some one to tell me it was Ok to dream like this. Or, Not on your life I do not want to be the Messiah – agreeing to this will get me killed. Or, Really! You think I am the Messiah. I want to think about this – it may have consequences I may or will not like!)

I hope you have my point: it is going to be difficult to identify the words of the real Jesus.: that person who really did live in 30CE.

Have you ever noticed something else about this story?

Have you noticed that the identity given to Jesus by others in these questions and answers is an identity given to him by the writer of Mark? Mark, whoever he was, writes the story: he creates the story – it is his story: the words are his. He gives the words to the friends to say because he (Mark) wishes to give Jesus his role of Messiah so that his (Mark’s) story can develop from this point onwards in a particular direction. Mark needs Jesus to agree to be the Messiah so he can reach the conclusion he is planning on having.

If this is the case, then what do we know about the story – Mark’s story – the gospel? If we know the answer to this question then we will be able to work out the reason the story is being told in this way.

This story written by Mark was a ‘life of Jesus’ (what we call ‘a gospel’) put together sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, which happened in 70CE, and after the suicide-murder incident at Masada, three years later, in 73. If we give Mark time to get his wits together after the upheavals that  affected most of the people who lived in the province of Judea – the southern part of Palestine – where Jerusalem was situated,  then it is a fair assumption that his story must have circulated after say, 75, perhaps even closer to 80. This is around 45-50 years after Jesus had been killed by the Romans. A whole generation of Jesus’ followers had lived and died during this time. Mark tells his story looking back a whole generation after the incident he is going to create, took place. Obviously he had not been there! The median age people lived in the first century was around 30.

How can we be so sure about the date of say 78-80 for the circulation of Mark? ii

We know this because Mark calls Jesus – ‘Jesus from Nazareth’  (1:24) but there was no village of Nazareth until after the fall of Jerusalem and Nazareth was likely founded and settled by refugees, perhaps followers of the way of Jesus who had fled the city from the Judean south, either immediately before, during, or after the horrific destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and the routing of the zealots: the latter were the group who had started the war with the Romans in 66. iii

We know about the war from a book written for the Roman elite by Flavius Josephus entitled the Jewish War and this circulated around 77 or 78. Josephus talks about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the rout of the zealots whom he blamed for starting an impossible war. He wrote his book to explain why the Jews rejected colonisation and were prepared, foolishly, to go to war about it. Josephus does not mention Nazareth which is surprising if it existed in the time he was writing. He does not mention Jesus in his book on the war either-although he does mention Jesus, his brother James, and John the Baptist in his later book on Jewish Antiquities, written near the end of the first century – but that is another story.

So Mark should be dated after the Jewish wars and after  the period of clean up that followed-so that is around 80.

Mark chapter 13 seems to presuppose a background like the events that climaxed the Jewish Roman war – when the Romans over-ran the city of Jerusalem – and was described by Josephus in his book. Not that he was there but he wrote about it in graphic detail after talking with others who had been. He obviously made up some of it. So Mark’s story should at least be written after the fall of Masada in 73 when the struggle of the Romans against the Judeans wrapped up. Given the turbulent times then a date for its circulation seems reasonable at 80: time needs to be allowed for the story Josephus portrayed to circulate either orally or in print – or in a combination of both. Perhaps whoever put Mark together lived in Rome and knew first-hand about the book on the Jewish war and was inspired to  put the record straight about Christians – remember there was  a major fire  Rome in 64 that was blamed on Christians!

If Mark 13 reflects this background  of the fall of Jerusalem then the story Mark tells of what happened to Jesus, after he discovered that others were sure he was the Messiah (in chapter 8) owes a great deal to the events of 70-73 – including Mark’s  portrayal of the crucifixion and Mark’s inclusion of a betrayer in the story. Try telling the story at Easter with this background: it can be very moving. v

But why would Mark have been written in the first place?

Because the author wishes to present Jesus to his Roman readers as the Jewish Messiah, and writes his story to tell the Roman elite who this Jewish insurrectionist was, to describe and explain the ways in which he behaved, and to explain that both he and his followers were not the threat the Romans thought they had been at the time: forty or fifty years earlier. vi

Matthew’s gospel (circulating about 85-90 another Jewish story) and Luke (circulating towards the end of the first century which retells the story of Jesus in Greco-Roman terms) copy the outline of ‘the life of Jesus’ from Mark, and by so doing, they historicize Mark’s life of Jesus.  In other words Matthew and Luke copy the outline of Mark’s life of Jesus and instead of treating it as a creative work of fiction they treat it as if it was recording fact and events that happened in history. It will not be long before Mark’s story is also regarded as a factual account of the life of Jesus.

It will always be difficult after Matthew and Luke appear to identify where the Jesus of history is speaking and which stories about his life were stories of things he actually did.

The default position has become – read the gospels as if they are telling stories about what actually happened and the words of Jesus (who is now depicted as larger than life as he stands at the centre of the story telling) as his words.

If this scenario turns out to be the case then how are we going to find an answer to our question if one obvious starting point does not even get us close to who we might imagine was the historical Jesus?

Help from Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

Albert Schweitzer more than a hundred years ago realised that not only was our question a serious question but it was a difficult question to answer for all the reasons I have given.

He did not have access to the kind of information I have included in my opening teaser but he did know that many in his day were asking who the Jesus of history was in light of the critical studies theologians and biblical scholars had been writing over the previous one hundred years. vii

Many of these studies had threatened to undermine the reputation of the church and destroy its influence in society and Schweitzer did not support this. Like many of his day he believed that the church played an essential role in maintaining social cohesion and stability. But he also knew that the theologians of the previous century had discovered that the bible was a very different book from what the church had maintained for centuries and it would not be long before the difficulties with the bible began to unravel.

Things came to a head when Johannes Weiss published a short book in German entitled, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (German 1892: English 1971) in which he argued that the historical Jesus was an eschatological figure who believed that the world would come to an end in his and his listener’s lifetime and a new order would be inaugurated with the arrival of God’s special envoy. When the end did not arrive as Jesus expected  it would after he sent his disciples out to announce  the end (see Matthew 10) he took it upon himself to seek his own death in order to bring about the end of the world. He, as a consequence, began to think that he was God’s special envoy who would return after his death to inaugurate the new era. The ethical teaching attributed to Jesus was  put into his mouth by the early church to cover up the fact that Jesus had got the story wrong about the end of the world. Schweitzer popularised this view of Weiss’.

In his first book, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (1901) Schweitzer set out this view of Weiss.  The book did not go unnoticed and like Weiss’s book sent ripples of unease into the church. This book was followed five years later by another entitled, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). The book analysed the ideas of the historical Jesus developed in the Nineteenth century that had caused unease and in some case dismay in the church and in wider society.

In his analysis Schweitzer dismissed liberal and conservative theologies alike and accused theologians and biblical scholars of not using the historical critical method seriously enough.  To a person their Jesus was the Jesus they created to fit into the times in which they lived. They saw what they wanted to see in the gospels and were embarrassed by the Jesus they discovered. To deflect attention from this embarrassment they created a picture of Jesus as a teacher of  morals and ethics. viii

Using historical critical scholarship more rigorously than any of the theologians whose work he analysed Schweitzer repeated his earlier view -Jesus expected the end of the world to dawn in his life time (when he sent out his disciples on the  mission described in Matthew 10 and when it did not appear he grew disillusioned and deliberately set out to  sacrifice his own life  in order to save (God’s) people from the upheavals popularly believed (with ideas and word pictures drawn from the books of Daniel and Enoch) to precede the end of history – and thereby to hasten the coming of the end times. In reaching this decision about who he was and what his role in history really was Jesus was profoundly influenced by the Judaism of his day. ix

Jesus belonged to his own first century Jewish world in Israel-Palestine and he saw the world differently from the way the world was viewed in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The figure of Jesus was a stranger to the world of Nineteenth and Twentieth century Europe.

He wrote [The real historical Jesus] will be to our time a stranger and an enigma, (397) He comes to us unknown, without a name, as of old he came by the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not. (401). In other words- we can never knowthe historical Jesus: we do not know what he actually said: but of this we can be sure – he was completely engulfed (possessed even) by his eschatological world view. (We can picture him as this eschatological figure from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark in particular, because they are both the most Jewish of the gospels.)

Schweitzer wrote: He will be a Jesus, who was the Messiah, and lived as such, either on the ground of a literary fiction of the earliest Evangelist or on the ground of a purely eschatological Messianic conception. In either case, He will not be a Jesus Christ to whom the religion of the present can subscribe (396). x

By the religion of the present, Schweitzer meant the churches down the street in Germany and across the road in France. The two (the Jesus of the first century and the Jesus of the church down the street) were poles apart.

The Jesus who lived in Palestine was someone whose contemporaries may have thought was unusual, at times puzzling and difficult to fathom but he was someone who engaged them in ways that related to their world and its way of thinking about Jewish religion.

By contrast someone like this was not someone who could be readily understood in late nineteenth century Germany. If he had lived then, in Schweitzer’s time he would have been be an odd character: a square figure for a round hole; someone who would have been dismissed and written off as being too weird to be authentic. So how is the gap between the first and the twentieth century to be bridged?

Schweitzer wrote: It is not Jesus as historically known but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men who is significant for our time … Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time but his spirit which lies hidden in his words is known in simplicity  and its influence is direct.(399) xi

Not surprising Schweitzer’s ideas caused debate and controversy in Germany and France. Critics jumped on the band wagon and wrote dismissively of the Jesus of the church in the light of the picture Schweitzer had given of the Jesus of history. If behind the Jesus of faith was a person who had talked about the end of history and when that did not occur had deliberately set out to die believing that he could save his people from the chaos of the end and who would be, through his own death, the one who would return to inaugurate God’s new world order, then the foundations of the church were shaky. This person would have had to be mentally unstable to think and to act like this.

Five years after his book on the search for a historical Jesus had been published Schweitzer was persuaded to address the issue his critics had raised. He wrote a doctoral dissertation in medicine entitled The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1911) in which he reinforced the conclusions of his earlierbook but this time specifically arguing  that Jesus was not at all mentally disturbed. xii

He wrote, it must be admitted that Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah and expected his majestic return on the clouds of heaven (36).

But did this not mean that he Jesus was out of his mind to make such claims? Not at all, argued, Schweitzer. The historical Jesus was not a fanatic whose hallucinations bordered on the paranoid. xiii

There was nothing pathological about thinking and acting like he did. The ideas that Jesus shares with his contemporaries and which he accepted from tradition may not be considered diseased even when they appear to our modern views entirely strange and incomprehensible.(60) And again, Jesus shared this apocalyptic view with the people of his day. There was nothing unreal about his believing that he was to occupy the highest place in the future world. (63)

What was striking to Schweitzer though was the fact that he [Jesus] regarded himself as the man who would enter upon the supernatural inheritance of the family of David. 

In other words was the claim of Jesus to identify himself with the Old Testament Davidic traditions over the top, Schweitzer asked himself. But he quickly added these words – a psychological analysis of this attitude is not possible … the exaggeration of an idea does not in itself  justify our considering it the manifestation of a psychosis (63-64). He concludes: The only symptoms to be accepted as historical … – the high estimate Jesus has of himself and perhaps also the hallucination at the baptism – fall far short of proving the existence of mental illness.(Conclusions 4.)

So, Schweitzer gives this apocalyptic picture of Jesus a clean bill of mental health and then surprisingly declares the search for the historical Jesus over. He has the question of Jesus sorted.

So who did Jesus think he really was? According to Schweitzer …

Jesus thought that he had been commissioned by God to proclaim the end of the world which would come in his life time and to warn listeners about the end and tell them about the new order that would follow. He did this. He spoke apocalyptically in the language of his contemporaries but the end did not arrive and this left him disillusioned and dismayed.

When the end did not occur he believed he was being called upon by God to provide his death to bring about the end of the world. He believed that if he did this then he would return to rule the peoples of the world in the name of God.

He did this and the end has not arrived: at least not yet.

Did Jesus get it wrong? Did the early church get it wrong?

For Schweitzer, there is no complete accuracy about the words of the real Jesus. In the gospels there is just a general description of his ‘end of the world sayings ‘(see for example Matthew 10). So there is room to move on the question of: did he get it wrong!

Although Schweitzer does not say so it is clear that his eschatological Jesus is a human Jesus and not a divine figure.

So why is Schweitzer so important?

His demolition of theologies liberal and conservative was decisive and definitive. Theologians of the nineteenth century had given the church an inadequate picture of the Jesus of history. They did not use historical criticism fully.

Secondly, he was clear and insistent about the eschatological figure of Jesus which was a picture of the real Jesus.

With these two conclusions there would be no further need for debate as to who Jesus was or thought.

Thirdly, this connection of the historical Jesus with eschatology will gradually stick like glue to the popular portrait of Jesus that will dominate the church’s thinking in the 20th century. In time this apocalyptic figure would make Jesus stand out among his contemporaries as a unique individual and this is what will gradually disconnect him from his Jewishness.  Because of Schweitzer’s medical diagnosis Jesus would always be regarded, from this time onwards, as a sane eschatological Jewish figure of the first century.

These three books, especially the psychiatric study of Jesus, constitute the tipping or turning point in the search for the Jesus of history.

The response to Schweitzer’s work was decisive: the focus fell quickly in the church onto the Jesus of faith – the Jesus of the New Testament writers who had captured positively the ‘spirit of Jesus.’

This Jesus  who  talked about the end of the world and warned people of the judgment to come and who at some point after his death would come again  to judge the peoples of the world  was both the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith: end of story.

Schweitzer’s study also established two important principles that became essential for the success of any further search for a historical Jesus.

First, any attempt to search for the historical Jesus must start with a historical critical analysis of the literature of the New Testament.

Second, any search for a historical Jesus must  place that figure into his religious context in the first century – to be credible he must be placed squarely into the context of first century Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and will always be a Jew – this insistence  has important consequences for studies of the historical Jesus.

Bultmann (1884-1976)

In Germany the most innovative development of techniques to bridge the world of the first century with that of the twentieth following Schweitzer was to come from Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) with the publication of  his History of the Synoptic Tradition. The book is about the sources used by the Gospel writers and the bottom layer so to speak goes back the words of Jesus. This seminal publication was followed by his book on Jesus(1926) (In English, Jesus and the Word 1934 and 1958) that caught people’s attention, in spite of the unrest in Germany at the time and the threat of impending conflict.

At that stage Bultmann was still caught up in a new movement within German Protestant theology that included Karl Barth and his thinking was still a work in progress: at this point the influence of Johannes Weiss one of his professors was quite strong.  He writes little as we know of his (Jesus’) life and personality we know enough of his message to make for ourselves a consistent picture … What the sources offer us … (is) the message of the early Christian community … freely attributed to Jesus. This naturally gives no proof that all the words put into his mouth were actually spoken by him. (8)  And again: The message of Jesus is an eschatological gospel(27)…first put into his mouth by the church (123). But the sayings attributed to Jesus that show no church interests at all go back to Jesus(124).  Now Bultmann does not develop this line of thinking about what the historical Jesusmay have actually said himself: only occasionally are the words heard in the text itself.

His Jesus is more of a rabbi than an eschatological prophet, a rabbi whose teachings were driven by high moral values (57ff). The short pithy sayings put into his mouth in the gospels, bring together eschatology and ethical teaching and whenever they are expressed together there is a good possibility that they were spoken by the historical Jesus. He writes: Both the eschatological and the ethical teaching of Jesus belong equally to the oldest stratum of the tradition – that is, there is a good possibility that the words of the historical Jesus have been captured.

His well known essay New Testament and Mythology published first in 1941 and in English in 1953 left New Testament scholarship reeling – He had moved on in his thinking: he now thought that the search for a historical Jesus was all but impossible. The only thing that is historical about Jesus (that we can be certain took place in space and time) is his crucifixion and it is clear the Jesus of history is human –not divine. He writes: His life is a human life which ended in the tragedy of crucifixion.(34).  Bultmann did not have the tools to enable him to extract from the gospels the words of the historical Jesus. Time after time when we think we have encountered Jesus in a saying that seems to belong to the basic strata of tradition we will be disappointed

In a later summary of his thinking he writes

[The] eschatological expectation and hope is the core of  …  New Testament preaching throughout. The earliest Christian community understood the kingdom of God in the same sense as Jesus … but this hope of Jesus and the early Christian community was not fulfilled.  And the reason – the conception of the kingdom of God is mythological as is the conception of the eschatological drama. (Jesus Christ and Mythology, 1958, 13-14)

What God has done in Jesus Christ is not an historical fact which is capable of historic proof … That is the real paradox. Jesus is a human historical person from Nazareth in Galilee. His work and destiny happened within world-history and as such come under the scrutiny of the historian who can understand them as part of the nexus of history. Nevertheless such detached historical inquiry cannot become aware of what God has wrought in Christ, that is, of the eschatological event.(80)

So where does this leave our question?

It is not possible to be sure about the actual words Jesus spoke. What we have in the gospels is the Jesus figure of faith told in the religious language of myth.

In a general sense we know that he combined the eschatological outlook of his contemporaries with an ethical content. But both he and the church were mistaken about the end of time and the inauguration of the new order. In order to make sense of the gospels and the New Testament  in the light of this failure the church of the 20th century must learn to demythologize the language and the thought forms used in the first century to discover new ways in which the church can respond to the word of God in its own setting.xvii

In other words our task today is not to search for a historical Jesus but to demythologise the preaching of the early church and then to express the spirit of that proclamation in language and thought-forms that will work for us – this is the reason Bultmann sought help from his philosopher colleague Martin Heidegger the great existentialist scholar.

But there is a very large elephant in the room and the shadow it casts over the New Testament has been there for a hundred and thirty years: at least from the time of Herman Reimarus (1694-1768).xviii Ever since the elephant in the room of scholarship and the life of the  church has been and still is  historical criticism. The principle mentioned by Schweitzer in his book on the search. In fact Schweitzer had written in the  sixth edition of his origins book (in 1961) the present question for present and future time concerns the manner in which Christian faith comes to terms with the historical truth about Jesus and the results obtained there by.xix

Beyond Bultmann what happened?

In England a major study of Q was published by T.W.Manson, first in The Teaching of Jesus(1931) and then in more detail in The Mission and Message of Jesus 1937 and in a reprint of part 2 of the latter entitled, The Sayings of Jesus (1949). This work was important because it drew attention to the significance of exploring the content of Q as the source for the words of Jesus that predates the gospels.xx Manson was not alone in exploring questions around Q but he influenced others who were to take up the search for the historical Jesus more extensively.

One of the most important was Norman Perrin in his book , Rediscovering the Teaching of the Early Church(1967)  who set out three criteria for enabling scholars to distinguish the possible words of the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith. The criteria are dissimilarity -dissimilar to the characteristic emphases of both the Judaism of Jesus day and the early church; coherence – material from the earliest strata that ‘hangs together’ with material identified as authentic from the use of dissimilarity;  and multiple attestation – a saying is found in more than two or three sources that are independent of each other.

Other scholars turned their attention to a study of the parables looking for clues that might lead to the historical Jesus. Prominent among this group were Joachim Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus) (1954),CHDodd (The Parables of the Kingdom) (1935), Amos Wilder (The Language of the Gospel) (1964).

What was missing was a comprehensive pulling together of proposals, criteria and insights that connected these to the application of the historical critical method to the gospels. Robert Funk who was a key figure within the Society of  Biblical Literature turned his attention to this challenge.

Historical Criticism and the Jesus Seminar xxi

The most  recent thorough going attempt to apply the principles of historical critical thinking to the quest of the historical Jesus came from the vision of Robert Funk (1926-2005) and the international scholars he gathered together to form the Jesus Seminar starting in 1985.  By 1993 the Seminar after meeting regularly twice a year and working collaboratively produced the results of its search for the authentic words of Jesus (or what did Jesus really say) in an edition of The Five Gospels.  The five gospels are the canonical gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas.

In the analysis the Seminar made extensive use of Q – the Gospel based on sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Q is a hypothetical gospel that was first identified 150 years ago (Holtzman in 1863). These sayings attributed to Jesus are as close to the historical Jesus as it is possible to get, the seminar claimed.xxii The sayings are in order of the most likely to be sayings of the historical Jesus

Aphorisms (short pithy sayings):

Turn the other cheek (M5:39 and in Q),

Share your coat and shirt (M: 40 in Q)

Blessed are or Congratulations to the poor (M 5:3, Thomas 54b, also Q)

Go the second mile (M: 5:41)

Love your enemies (M: 5: 44b, also Q)

God’s presence works like leaven (or yeast) (M:13: 33 ,Thomas 96:1-2, also Q)

Give to the emperor what is demanded and to God what is due (M: 22:21c, Thomas 100:2b-,and also Mark 12:17b, also Q)

Give to beggars and to thosewho ask for a loan (M: 5:42a, also Q)

A story:

A Samaritan meets a traveller who has been mugged and what he does as an illustration of how being a neighbour works in practice (Luke: 10:30-35)


Blessed/congratulations you who are starving (M 5:6, Thomas 69:2 ,Also Q)

Blessed/congratulations you who are grieving (M: 5:4, also Q)


A clever manager swindles his boss and gets away with it because he was so shrewd is another illustration of how the presence of God works (Luke 16:1-8)

The presence of God (the kingdom of God) can be likened to a manager who employs labourers at different times of the day though they complain about the pay (M: 20:1-15)

A special saying:

Abba Father (the opening words only of the ‘prayer of Jesus’ (M: 6:9b, and 9c, also Q)

A Parable:

The presence of God (the kingdom of God) can be experienced like the planting of a mustard seed  that turns into a shrub then  spreads like a weed  (M: 13: 31-32, Thomas 20:2-4, and Mark 4:30-32, also Q)

Quite radical ideas. Each should be understood as the starters for conversation and debate that may well have lasted an afternoon, a day, or a week!

The seminar identified these 15 sayings as meaning, ‘that’s surely Jesus speaking,’ and 74 other sayings as ‘sure sounds like Jesus speaking’ making for a total of 88 sayings identified as words to be attributed to the historical Jesus. (The methodological principles the seminar used in reaching this classification are set out in The Five Gospels. 19-38).

The seminar announced that eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him (5) In other words just eighteen percent of all the sayings can  be regarded as Jesus speaking – or as close to the Jesus of history  as possible.

Now this was real progress.

We should note that all except 3 in the list are also in the first edition of Q and a further 38 in the second category are also in Q. This implies that the first edition of Q gathers together all the sayings that were remembered, on someone’s good authority, to have been spoken at some time by the historical Jesus at some point in his short public life.

As the seminar also connected Thomas with the investigation and Thomas figures in this list then it is a safe assumption that both Q and Thomas were in touch with the same material circulating in the first fifteen years or so after Jesus had been killed.  (For an outline of the  sayings  in Q1 (see Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel(1993),109ff).

This connection would also suggest that the earliest community of Jesus’ followers were encouraged and empowered by remembering these sayings and in discussing and applying them to their lives at every level. Burton Mack noted, the crisp sayings of Jesus in Q1 show that his followers thought of him as a cynic-like sage. Cynics were known for begging, voluntary poverty, renunciation of needs, severance of family ties, fearless and carefree attitudes, and troublesome public behaviour(115).

There is no apocalyptic prophet speaking in these words: the words fall into the category of a wise man speaking in a revolutionary manner about the value of religion (or a belief in God) in and for people’s lives.

The historical Jesus is human not divine: he is a wise man: a sage with a revolutionary mind and heart who was committed to promoting change in the religious lives of his contemporaries. He is also an advocate of non-violence in an age of violence whichmay account for the attention from the authorities that he eventually attracted.

The significance of Q

What is even more interesting is that when the layers to Q are removed an apocalyptic voice does emerge in editions two and three especially as the Jewish war begins and history moves towards the showdown when the temple and city of Jerusalem are destroyed.

In fact the second edition of Q reflects a development that suggests that his followers came to imagine and to debate what they as a result came to believe would be the thinking of Jesus applied to the new situations they met: they created new sayings and stories that they attributed to Jesus. (See Mack 131ff. A similar situation applies as the third edition of Q appears. See Mack 171ff.)

Although this happens over a thirty year period  the additions (or the reformatting) do not radically alter the picture of Jesus  and his followers that emerged in the first edition – A version of the cynic tradition lies at the centre of an emergent religious way of life that is still based in Judaism.

This understanding of the way of Jesus would continue, until the onset of the Jewish Roman war, following 66, would eventually change forever the place of temple Judaism in Jewish religion and open an opportunity for the followers of Jesus to create a fresh approach to Judaism – an approach that was cloaked and expressed first in the Gospel of Mark: And as we have seen that gospel invented a life for Jesus that pictured him as a different person.xxiii

Now who did Jesus think he really was?

He thought he was – knew he was – a Jew – a Galilean Jew perhaps – a native of Capernaum maybe – who adopted the life of a cynic to talk about the way God was present in his and his listener’s world. He diagnosed the needs of his listeners and gave them a recipe for living well with God in mind. His message was deceptively straightforward. Only those who took him seriously realised how radical he was and how dramatic the changes to life would be if enough people joined his group. The sayings point to a non-violent way of life  

The seminar did use the word eschatological to describe the thinking of Jesus but now its meaning was not connected with the end of the world but with the task of ‘cleaning up the world’: a task that was already underway championed by the historical Jesus. This was the great difference between John (the baptizer) and Jesus.

This discovery of these aphorisms and stories threw light on the importance of the Gospel of Thomas – a sayings Gospel and the collection of sayings attributed to Jesus found in a hypothetical Gospel known to scholars as Q.

Some members of the seminar published popular books to convey the significance of the achievements – prominent among the writers were John Dominic Crossan: Jesus A revolutionary Biography(1994). Crossan has sketched the world Jesus lived in and came from, gathering together the best information and knowledge available and  has developed independent ideas about Jesus and his world. xxv Marcus Borg, Jesus:Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary(2006). Both Crossan and Borg shot to public attention with the freshness with which they presented the story of Jesus and the relevance of this story for today’s world.

But just like Schweitzer’s Jesus who rubbed sharply against the fabric of the church a hundred years earlier so this portrait of Jesus clashed with well-established views of Jesus which had turned the Jesus of history into the Jesus of faith.

A Postscript

Just how promising the Seminar’s findings may become can be illustrated by turning, in conclusion, to the work of a Scottish New Testament scholar James Moffatt (1870-1944). Whilst a parish minister he saw published in 1901 a book entitled The Historical New Testament. It was sub-titled: being the literature of the New Testament arranged in the order of its literary growth and according to the dates of the documents. It runs into 726 pages and includes his own translation of the New Testament. Moffatt had hoped to use the Revised Version of the New Testament (1881) but was refused permission by the publisher to re arrange the books into a historical order – so he had no option other than to produce his own translation. The historical order followed dating that scholars of the time had given for each book. Each book of the New Testament was accompanied by full critical notes and extensive bibliographies.

Moffatt undertook this task he said for the benefit of his congregation. It was better he thought to provide an edition of the New Testament in historical order so that educated members of his congregation could understand how the faith of the early church had developed. If they understood this then they might well not leave the church if they ever found out that the New Testament of the church was very different from the historical reality.

It was a potential tipping point proposal: but it went nowhere. Moffatt offended  leading New Testament scholars of his day many whom he greatly admired  and who no doubt could make or break an academic career if he ever wanted one – which he did . His mistake: he  had suggested that they had not applied the historical critical method with  the rigor that might have been expected. He apparently regretted this comment until his dying day: and the idea of a historical New Testament was abandoned. He did produce an Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament for student use (placing the letters of Paul first and Mark precedes Matthew and reordering the remaining books) but this was not the same as putting into people’s hands an edition of the New Testament in historical or chronological order.

An edition of the New Testament set out in chronological order that shows how Jesus became God from beginnings as a cynic teacher would enable many to understand their faith and relate itto the 21st century.xxvi

i Paper presented to the Dunedin Sea of Faith 23 August 2012

ii If Jesus was born around 6BC and died either in 30 or 33 – he lived for as long as 36 or 39 years – but this is guess work!

iii The city would be restored and rebuilt by the Emperor Constantine from 312CE onwards. Constantine  and his mother Helena, would invest consderable financial resources and energy into making Jerusalem the centre of the world and in establishing Christianity as the religion of Rome.

iv See: Joel Marcus: Mark 8-16,(2009,) 864ff for a discussion of all the issues surrounding this chapter and its possible background.  Rene Salm in his book, The Myth of Nazareth, (2008) sets out the evidence  surrounding the founding of Nazareth and provides the basis for the view taken here.

v I have a text of the story, re-edited from my original translation  of Mark in 1993. It is entitled: A Death Without End: The Last Week in the Life of Jesus of Galilee (It was read  by a group in  First Church Martinborough, on Good Friday, April 2012)

vi I wonder if Mark originally finished at 15:39 with the Roman army officer exclaiming: ‘this man really was close to God’ – there is no textual evidence for this but it seems a logical place to end the story – there is some fiddling with the conclusion of Mark in any case – as any good modern translation will indicate in the footnotes! In any case Mark is not anxious to blame the Romans for crucifying Jesus. Note also that Mark has no birth stories and no story about the resurrection and it is a very Jewish story.

vii Karl Barth would write about all the key figures and their thinking at a much later date: see Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century. German edition,1952. First English edition of the first eleven chapters of the original entitled, From Rousseau to Ritschl1952, and the complete edition, 1972.

viii Most of the nineteenth century German theologians were influenced  by deism and rationalism and so found reports in the gospels  of miracles performed by Jesus  intellectually difficult to accept. So they also dismissed the apocalyptism in the gospels.

ix Schweitzer revised his book for a second edition in1913: this was translated into English and published in 2000.

x Note Schweitzer left open the possibility that the identity of Jesus as messiah had been given to him by the gospel writers and was not what he himself knew, or imagined. Of course it could have been the latter!

Tonight we asked the right question: who did Jesus really think he was?

And we have seen how historical criticism properly applied produces an answer that makes good sense.

The next task 

The next question to ask  that arises out of the  question we have considered tonight is this – How did the historical  Jesus become God – or God incarnate ? This  gives rise to a third question – Is it possible to believe in God – or take a belief in God seriously  once  the process  of how  Jesus became God incarnate  is to be understood?  Perhaps the way to ask this question is this: what ways of thinking about God come into view once we know how Jesus the cynic teacher, the man of history, became God incarnate a development that took over a hundred and fifty years.

xi When Schweitzer uses this word ‘spirit’ he is referring to the qualities of the first century Jesus that made him stand out and that survived his death: it is the impact his life and his thinking made on those around him. Put in another way: the spirit of Jesus empowered the collective memory of his friends and becomes the way in which they remembered him and past this impact on to others.

xii The dissertation of forty one pages was published in English in 1913.

xiii Schweitzer rejected psychopathological studies of the historical Jesus basically  because they were not based on historical or literary criticism – what he called the scientific study of the life of Jesus.(45). the psychopathological studies that were based on the results of his book on the Quest of the Historical Jesus were based on a superficial reading of the New Testament. His work as a biblical scholar was very different. Matthew and Mark (dating from 70-90 and in part going back to older sources46) were his primary sources for his reconstructed picture of Jesus. The ‘kingdom of God’ which features strongly in Jesus words in these gospels signified that Jesus believed that the end of the world is…near(48). According to Schweitzer Jesus’ contemporaries would have understood him when he made such claims because of the widespread influence of the books of Enoch and Daniel and the widespread belief around the ‘woes of the Messiah’ which influenced his thinking about what he was saying, claiming, and doing. Jesus and his contemporaries believed that the world was about to end. There was no difficulty with this. But towards the end of his life Jesus changed in his thinking and came to believe that he was the Messiah (he had until that point always spoken of the messiah in the third person) and that his death would be an atonement that would exempt mankind from the general misery believed to precede the end of the world and the inauguration of the messianic kingdom. Jesus was a Jewish man of his times who came slowly to the conclusion that he was the Messiah and that he would play, in his death, a special role for the people of his day.

xiv Jesus talks about the end of the world and the coming of the son of man – God’s special agent – to inaugurate a new era (the kingdom of God) only to come to the belief when the end of the world does not occur that he is both the herald of that end (the messiah) and the one who will come again to inaugurate the new era. He dies to make these things happen.

xv As an aside: In  the United States the reaction to  nineteenth century  liberal theology was a series of conferences beginning at Niagara in 1895. (The latter adopted a statement of the five principles of fundamental Christianity: the verbal inerrancy of scripture [curbing the use of historical criticism], the divinity of Jesus [against the view that Jesus was a human being only], the virgin birth of Jesus [supports vie that Jesus was a divine human being: the God man], a substitutionary theory of the atonement [defines the reason for the death of Jesus: he dies on the cross in place of me  to take away my sin and reconcile me to God], the physical resurrection and bodily return of Jesus [the confirmation that Jesus was the God Incarnate and the Messiah, God’s representative: the Christ]. These topics were the subjects of monographs written by leading scholars and published at regular intervals over ten years from 1909)

xvi Written first in 1921, enlarged in 1931 and reprinted with supplement in 1957 ( and translated into English in 1963.

xvii An addition to the text but removed to fit the time constraint.  The Section was entitled: Jesus the Jew. Within ten years of Bultmann a creative start was made to the third stage of the search when Geza Vermes produced a study of Jesus in context. This was a principle foreshadowed by Schweitzer – the historical Jesus belonged to a particular period of time – he was a Jew who lived and died a Jew in a particular geographical area (Galilee in Palestine) and in a particular time in the history ( 6BCE to 30 or 33 CE). So to understand who he was to his contemporaries and who he was or became to himself this Jewish context must be restructured. In his book Jesus the Jew published in 1973, Vermes firmly rooted Jesus into the Jewish world of the first century. As a result of background studies, especially of first century Galilean charismatic religion, Vermes identifies Jesus as the just man, the zaddik; he was Jesus the helper and healer, Jesus the teacher and healer; he was venerated by his intimates and less committed admirers alike as prophet, lord and son of God. (225). This book was followed by other studies of the Jewish connection. E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism(1985) demonstrated the link between Judaism of the first century and the development of early Christianity and mapped the point of divergence that took a century or more to register. But both studies were polite acknowledgements of the Jewish background to the New Testament and a gentle acknowledgment of the Jewishness of Jesus. Vermes developed his earliest views with three other studies: Jesus and the World of Judaism(1983), The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993) and The Authentic Gospel of Jesus(2003). More recently a remarkable study by Daniel Boyarin entitled, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ(2012) has made the issues very clear. Boyarin writes pointedly: Christianity hijacked not only the Old Testament but the New Testament as well by turning that thoroughly Jewish text away from its cultural origins among the Jewish communities of Palestine in the first century and making it an attack on the traditions of the Jews.(157) We are used to hearing that the Old Testament-was hijacked by the church – there is a Jewish version of the Old Testament-it is called the TANAK or the Hebrew bible. It contains the same books as the Old Testament in the Bible. To acknowledge that the Old Testament was a Christian view of Israelite religion and Judaism was one thing but to say that  the New Testament  had also been hijacked by the church was  quite another thing altogether. Every Sunday as the gospel is read Jesus is assumed to be a gentile figure and not a Jew so at least to that extent the figure of Jesus is hijacked – but he broke with the Judaism of his day is the popular view and set out in a new religious direction: this is what the church believes and teaches. But did we get that right? Boyarin insists that Jesus is through and through a Jew and who he was and what he said was an integral part of the fabric of Jewish society (and religion) in his day. Here are Boyarin’s words:… the Gospels themselves and even the letters of Paul are part and parcel of the religion of the People of Israel in the first century…the ideas surrounding what we call Christology the story of Jesus as the divine human messiah were also part (if not parcel) of Jewish diversity at this time(22). Boyarin again: [first century Jews had like Jews for centuries] been talking about, thinking about and reading about a new king, a son of David who would come to redeem them from … Roman oppression [on the basis of the book of Daniel]. So they were persuaded to see in Jesus of Nazareth the one who  they had expected to come: the Messiah, the Christ. A fairly ordinary story … is thoroughly transformed when the teacher understands himself – or is understood by others – as the coming one(160). No need for the historical critical principle – the Gospels can be read as Jewish literature – Jesus cannot be divorced from his context and that context is well reflected in the gospel tradition. So we have in place one major piece of our answer to our question.We can say Jesus was a Jew: a Galilean Jew and would have spoken like one and thought like one and behaved like one – and most certainly he died as one: killed because he lived out his religion in ways that grated against the Roman establishment of the day as well as the leaders of temple Judaism. But once the Jewishness of Jesus is presented in this manner, the normal way the gospels, and other texts, are read and the presuppositions that support the way they are currently read in the church, along with the church’s thinking about these matters is immediately challenged. There is nothing special about Jesus that would have separated him from this context. Disappointingly the views of Vermes and Boyarin simply equate all that Jesus says with the gospel tradition and ignore the issues that historical criticism had raised.

xviii Reimarus was the first modern scholar to analyse the resurrection narratives historically and critically. He never published the results but Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) a university librarian and art critic had  fragments of the results  that he edited and arranged for publication between 1774-1778. See Marcus Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (1994 ) for a useful and readable account of the search for the historical Jesus.

xix See Eric Grasser in his article,Norman Perrin’s Contribution to the Question of the Historical Jesus.The Journal of Religion. Vol.64.4. (1984) 484-485

xx The major critical study of Q is by James M Robinson et al (2000)  but uses the Greek text. A more accessible version of Q is by John S. Kloppenborg Verbin,ExcavatingQ(2000). A readable version with a non-technical introduction (Thomas Moore) and preface (Marcus Borg) is The Lost Gospel Q:The Orignal Sayings of Jesus(1996). See also James Veitch, Jesus of Galilee:Myth and reality – The Five Gospels in modern translation arranged chronologically;From Man of Wisdom to God Incarnate (1994). The translation of the book of Q in this translation is derived from the Gospel of Luke. Also JamesM. Robinson (et al ),The sayings Gospel Q in Greek and English(2002).

xxi Two key New Testament scholars working independently in the United States laid the basis for bridging Bultmann’s work with a strand of emerging scholarship in the third stage of the search for the historical Jesus. They were:   R.H Fuller in his Critical Introduction to the New Testament(1965) and Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the teaching of Jesus(1967). See also Duling and Perrin, The New Testament, third edition (1994) 520ff

xxii I will only give the references to Matthew-M where there is a combination with Luke. The sayings are only a sample of the kind of things Jesus spoke about. Perhaps we could think of them as the sayings that made the best sense to his listeners and that were remembered, discussed and debated long after he had been killed – as they tried to amongst other things to ponder and to understand why such a good man should have got in the way of the Romans and have been killed. He after all was not a man of violence. A revolutionary yes but he did not advocate violence to overcome violence – his revolution was inward and religious – but perhaps that is the most radical of all pathways of change.

xxiii The impetus for taking this fresh approach had been suggested earlier by Paul – the ‘god fearer’ who had suggested in an early letter – Galatians – that Jews and Gentiles should be able to unite religiously around the teachings and life of Jesus. (There is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, young or old-all are one in Christ Jesus:-3:28) This window of opportunity came with the destruction of the temple (70) and the routing of the zealots at Masada (73) a decade or more after Paul had disappeared from the scene. The community addressed by Mark was encouraged to take this path following the destruction of Jerusalem into the future and build a new religious community open to all.

xxiv This was followed in 1998 by The Acts of Jesus – a report of the seminar on the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus, or in other words, the results of a search for answers to the question: What did Jesus really do?  The main points of the findings were: Jesus was an itinerant teacher in  the  Galilee and taught in  synagogues there. He proclaimed the kingdom of God; He was a healer. He spent time with social outcasts and took meals with them;  He was executed during the prefecture of Pilate (16-36); the reports of the trial of Jesus lacks historical foundation; the body of Jesus decayed just as other corpses; It does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives of resurrection or appearance stories; Mary of Magdala was considered a leader in the early Jesus movement along with Peter and Paul; Jesus’ parents were named  Joseph and Mary.(566-568) 

In 1999 the results encapsulated in these two publications were published in a third book entitled, The Gospel of Jesus. Not surprisingly reactions to the seminar’s work were negative and for a time stirred up vigorous debate. But for the first time since Schweitzer’s closer of the quest a way had been discovered to help readers of the New Testament recognise the DNA of the voice of the historical Jesus.)  In the seminar’s work the figure who emerged as the historical Jesus was not the apocalyptic – end of the world – other-worldly eccentric figure presented by Schweitzer but the figure of a ‘wise man’ a man who became well known for his pithy and often witty sayings about religion and insights about life and this grabbed  the attention of conflict weary Palestinian Jews both Galileans and Judeans.

xxv See also the following books by Crossan-The Historical Jesus(1991);  The Parables:The Challenge of the Historical Jesus(1992); The Essential Jesus (1994); Who is Jesus? (1996), Who killed Jesus? (1996) ; The Birth of Christianity (1998);  Excavating Jesus (with Jonathan L Reed) (2001); In Search of Paul (with Jonathan L Reed) (2005); The Power of Parable (2012)

xxvi Between 1991-1993 I published in New Zealand an edition of the New Testament in Chronological order, (which included my own translation) this was followed by an edition of the Gospels. I did this for much the same reasons as Moffatt but also to show that there was another authentic  way to understand the New Testament and the  development of Christianity than was current at the time in the conservative Evangelical climate . In August 2012 Marcus Borg will publish his new book, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the order the Books were written – a long overdue contribution by a New Testament scholar  to improving the  level of  biblical literacy in the church and wider society at a time when the church has lost a great deal of its credibility and  intellectual integrity.

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