The so-called “quests for the historical Jesus” refer to the development of scholarship on the historical Jesus beginning in the late-18th century running up into the modern-day. It is a span of time marked by new developments and milestones that New Testament scholars have put into four phases or stages: the First Quest, No Quest, Second Quest, and the Third Quest, each of which we will briefly observe here.
The First Quest
The First Quest for the historical Jesus reaches back into the late seventeenth century when scholars first set out to distinguish between the real historical Jesus and what they called “the Christ of faith.” This latter figure they claimed was not the real Jesus of history but a later construction of the early church (1). As such, the First Quest was marked by much skepticism as some scholars questioned if the Bible actually provided historical information. It became common for thinkers in this quest to claim that there was a huge difference between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. This became known as Lessing’s ditch, a phrase that caught on after the German scholar Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1981) used the analogy of a ditch to describe the difference between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. Some scholars claimed that it was impossible to cross Lessing’s ditch at all. For example, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), despite viewing Christ as Lord and Saviour, argued that we could not get back to Christ as he was. For Bultmann and others like him, the metaphor of a “ditch” was too small to adequately describe what Lessing claimed, instead it was more like a canyon. Due to this canyon, it is not possible to find the real historical Jesus, at least not in the gospel sources.
Other scholars were far less skeptical. Many tried to bridge the gap between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, and they often saw scholarly skepticism not as something necessarily negative but as a path leading to good questions and fresh answers. The First Quest came to an end with the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). In 1906, Schweitzer published a work on this stage or phase of historical Jesus study and critiqued it for being far too subjective and detached from the original Jewish context of Christ’s work. He argued that the array of distinct Jesus portraits produced were methodologically flawed. Most scholars agreed with Schweitzer and his work closed a period that was in many ways the most skeptical.
The “No Quest” Period
The First Quest was followed by what some have referred to as the “No Quest” period. This period spanned the first five decades of the twentieth century but despite its name, much writing was still done on Christ. What was ultimately missing was any unified methodical approach to engaging the issues and different writers came to see Christ in the way he or she wanted to see him.
The Second Quest
The Second Quest saw a large shift in skepticism as Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), a student of Bultmann’s and a professor himself, in 1953 argued that we could in fact know more about the historical Christ than his mentor had claimed. Käsemann argued that it was possible to separate later Greek strata from the original more Hebrew/Aramaic layers of the tradition. He further claimed that studying the development of the tradition as it was told and retold could provide clues as to what was more original. This area of academic study is known as Form Criticism and it claimed that stories were passed on through various kinds of structures (forms) and that variations of these forms might provide clues as to what was original concerning a story as opposed to what was not.
At this point in the Second Quest, archaeological finds began informing an understanding of the first-century religious environment of Christ. The discoveries of scrolls at Qumran on the Dead Sea, for instance, surfaced between 1947 and 1956. These, which came to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls, were slow in being published and just as slow to be fully evaluated. These texts came from a community that had separated from official Judaism and the Temple. These Jews are known as the Qumran community and they moved out into the desert during the mid-second century BCE and remained there until the Roman military came through in the same conflict that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. These scrolls were found in eleven different caves in Qumran and the Judean desert (2). They were labeled by scholars with the letter Q, followed by a cave number, and then a manuscript number, so that they could be easily identified. So, for example, 4Q171 is manuscript number 171 from cave 4 at Qumran. These scrolls proved hugely valuable because they gave scholars unprecedented insight into Judaism of the period in which Christ was born, lived, and worked.
The Third Quest
The “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus has its origins in the work of scholars like E. P. Sanders who were active in the mid-1980s (3). The Dead Sea Scrolls had demonstrated that the Judaism of the first century was far more complex than had been previously thought. This led to an important development in the Third Quest and that was to understand Christ in the context of the setting called Second Temple Judaism. This was the Judaism that Christ was a part of while he grew up, which motivated scholars to try to understand this historical setting in all of its detail. Although ancient Judaism was diverse, most first-century Palestinian Jews agreed upon the basics such as belief in Yahweh (the one true God who had chosen his people Israel), the importance of circumcision, food laws, the Sabbath, the Jerusalem Temple, and the Mosaic Torah (4). A proliferation of works exploring this aspect to Christ’s life and ministry were produced by scholars: John Dominic Cross’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1976), E. P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism (1985), Paula Fredriksen’s Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (1999), and John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (2009).
A further discovery came in 1945 in the form of a set of texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These finds included other texts that described Christ but that were much later and more legendary than the traditional gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. On a public level, these soon became the stuff of much public attention given sensationalist and hyped claims made by some conspiracy theorists and fringe scholars, while on the academic level they contributed to discussions on how others saw Christ in the earliest centuries post his death. A controversial move was made by a small body of scholars that emerged during the 1980s called the Jesus Seminar. Some of these scholars included the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas alongside the New Testament gospels and therefore treated it as a primary source for some of the sayings of Christ. Indeed the Jesus Seminar was skeptical concluding in their Five Gospels (1993) that less than 20% of what Christ is claimed to have said in the gospels actually goes back to him. However, the Seminar faced severe academic criticism for its sensationalist claims, biases, methods, and conclusions, and is viewed as a fringe group of scholars as opposed to representative of the views and conclusions of mainstream scholars in the field.
One of the more important developments in the Third Quest was with regards to methodology (5). The maturation of the historical-critical method further developed agreed-upon rules for historical inquiry into the historical Christ. All scholars can share in this method as it enables scholars from vastly different backgrounds and commitments to objectively propose and test claims about the historical Jesus. It has become increasingly possible to subject the sources for the historical Jesus to the accepted criteria of the historical-critical method. Sanders, for instance, believes that through this method’s application we can know the following facts about Christ which are almost beyond dispute on historical grounds (6):
 Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great
 he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village
 he was baptized by John the Baptist
 he called disciples
 he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities)
 he preached ‘the kingdom of God’
 about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover
 he created a disturbance in the Temple area
 he had a final meal with the disciples;
 he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
 he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
 his disciples at first fled
 they saw him after his death
 as a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the kingdom
 they formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.
Sanders adds that the “list of everything that we know about Jesus” could be longer although these 15 facts are the strongest (7). However, the historical-critical method has also brought into question the historical reliability of some gospel narratives. For example, there is a general consensus that Christ’s infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are conflicting and are limited in the way of historical information (8). Sanders, for example, is only willing to accept two episodes of Christ’s life prior to his baptism by John the Baptist and this is that “Jesus lived with his parents in Nazareth, a Galilean village…” and that “When Jesus was a young man, probably in his late twenties, John the Baptist began preaching in or near Galilee. He proclaimed the urgent need to repent in view of the coming judgement. Jesus heard John and felt called to accept his baptism. All four gospels point to this event that transformed Jesus’ life” (9).
The developments within the quests for the historical Jesus suggest a chronicle that has been controversial, complex, and captivating. It has been controversial because, as one scholar remarked, studying the historical Jesus is like doing “open-heart surgery on Christianity”, the faith of over two billion people. It is complex because it involves carefully working with ancient historical sources which evidence a pre-modern culture and that often make claims about divine activity. But at the very least it has been captivating. Whether or not an individual embraces Christ, no-one can deny that his life has impacted the world, whether that be perceived positively or negatively.
1. Jacobs, Maretha. 1996. “The relation between Jesus, Christ and Christian faith in current historical Jesus scholarship.” Neotestamentica 30(1):103-119.
2. Ross, Philip. 1990. “Overview: Dead Sea Scrolls.” Scientific American 263(5):36-41.
3. Meier, John. 1999. “The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain.” Biblica 80(4): 459-487; van Aarde, Andries. 1995. “The ‘third quest’ for the historical Jesus — where should it begin: With Jesus’ relationship to the Baptiser, or with the nativity traditions?” Neotestamentica 29(2):325-356.
4. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 468-469.
5. Jacobs, Maretha. 1996. Ibid. p. 105.
6. Sanders, E. P. 1993. The historical figure of Jesus. New York: Allen Lane. p. 10-11.
7. Sanders, E. P. 1993. Ibid. p. 10.
8. Yale Courses. 2009. The Historical Jesus. Available; Sanders, E. P. 1993. Ibid. p. 88.
9. Sanders, E. P. 1993. Ibid. p. 12-13.