Five Major Developments in the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus


Historical Jesus and New Testament scholar John Paul Meier has revealed at some length the developments across secular scholarship within the so-called “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus (1). We will examine several of these areas, noting some of the works produced by scholars in the field. Generally speaking, the areas we find development in concern the historical-critical method/criteria of authenticity, a re-evaluation of sources, notably from Josephus Flavius, a far more developed and nuanced understanding of the historical Jesus’ first-century Palestinian context, insights from sociology, and a more thorough treatment of Christ’s miracles and the gospel miracle traditions. We will consider each in turn.

Controversial Developments

We begin with a small group of academics known as the Jesus Seminar, of whom most scholars, Meier included, find controversial. This group began in the 1980s and a number of its most prominent members have since passed away. The Jesus Seminar no longer exists today but was in its time an active group of professional scholars. It consisted of 74 experts and a few more non-specialists, which is small if we compare it to the 8000 or so members that make up the Society of Biblical Literature (as way of example). The Jesus Seminar was co-chaired by John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk, and it championed a picture of Christ as a Jewish peasant equivalent of a wandering Cynic philosopher. Crossan presented Jesus as a social revolutionary opposed to the ruling powers such as of the Roman Empire and the priestly hierarchy in the Jerusalem temple. Another view was of Jesus being an egalitarian feminist who attempted to undermine the hierarchical structures of the day by welcoming all to table fellowship and by practicing magic as an alternative to the temple cult. The Seminar also had the tendency to reject any future-eschatological element in Christ’s preaching of the kingdom, which means that he only wished his listeners and audiences to open their eyes to the present kingdom of God existing in their human experience. This is a controversial portrait as most scholars agree that the eschatological element is a certain aspect to Christ’s ministry as it is attested across various gospel sources and literary forms (2).

Perhaps another reason for the Seminar’s controversial reputation was that they argued that less than 20% of what Christ is purported to have said in the gospel accounts actually goes back to him. They also included the pseudepigraphical sayings Gospel of Thomas found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, alongside the traditional canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. However, most scholars are skeptical of this and would date the Gospel of Thomas in the early to mid-second century CE, and certainly not contemporaneous with or earlier than the canonical gospels (3). As a whole, the Seminar faced severe criticism for its methods and conclusions which included them supporting the primacy of apocryphal texts and advocating a politically correct Jesus. Meier is of the view that “Despite the Seminar’s protestations to the contrary, it has not avoided the temptation of projecting a modern American agenda onto a first-century Palestinian Jew” (4).

The Maturing of the Historical-Critical Method

According to Meier, a positive development has been in the maturation of the historical-critical method (5). Now more than ever before historical criticism has made critical dialogue possible for scholars across the board and has increasingly nurtured “a level playing field of research with agreed-upon rules for the procedures of historical inquiry that all can share.” Scholars from vastly different backgrounds and commitments can propose and test claims in the public arena through commonly accepted criteria. In fact,

“[I]t is this maturing, rather than waning, of historical-critical research that has enabled scholars like Sanders to be much more careful than their predecessors about distinguishing strictly historical claims, verifiable by any disinterested practitioner of the academic discipline of history, from theological claims that may be perfectly true but that are known and held by faith” (6).

It is also in light of this rigorous application of historical standards that contemporary scholars are able to more fully see what was wrong with much within the First and Second quests. This is because over the last few decades the definition and proper application of criteria have been debated at length and as a result refined. Some criteria that were once widely held have since fallen out of favour, while others have been more carefully formulated. For instance, an appeal to the presence of Aramaic vocabulary, grammar, and syntax in reconstructed forms of Christ’s sayings is far less used today than it was 50 years ago. Scholars are more aware of the fact that the earliest Christians were Palestinian Jews whose native tongue was the same Aramaic Christ spoke, meaning that historians can’t confidently distinguish what Aramaic traces have their origin in one of Christ’s Palestinian Jewish followers or in Christ himself. The criterion of dissimilarity has also been questioned, since, claims Meier, we are still not as informed about either Judaism or Christianity in the first century CE as we wish to be, which means that we can’t always affirm with certainty that a particular action or teaching of Christ is unique to him. Popular and still valuable are the criteria of embarrassment and of independent attestation in sources and forms. It is ultimately to the credit of the “fires of debate” that scholars now have a much better sense of the criteria of authenticity and their proper uses and limitations.

Critical Re-Examination of Textual Sources

A second major gain has been a critical re-thinking and re-examination of the various textual sources for the historical Jesus (7). Although there are many sources for the historical Jesus it is the four canonical gospels (of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) that are our only lengthy continuous sources from which we can obtain most of our information. Meier says that “the canonical gospels are permeated with the Easter-faith of the early church and must be carefully sifted with the criteria of historicity” (8). As such, scholars acknowledge that these sources were penned by Christians and therefore present a Christian bias and perspective on events. The historical-critical method has been engineered to take these biases into account in order to determine what is authentic historical material within these very Christian materials.

Regarding the rest of the New Testament, there continues to be lively and extensive debate over the extent to which Christ’s sayings and facts about him have been preserved in the Epistles, Acts, or the Book of Revelation. Meier holds that in his “minimalist” view there are a few examples of authentic facts about and sayings of the historical Jesus found in several of Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 9:14, 11:23- 26, 15:3-5; Romans 1:3, 15:8), James (5:12), Hebrews (7:14, 5:7-8) and Revelation (3:3, 16:15). Outside the New Testament, while some have argued for the authenticity and independence of a few agrapha, the only significant independent source is Josephus Flavius’ Book 18 of his Jewish Antiquities (95 CE). Many other scholars would add the Roman historian Tacitus also as an independent source (9).

Ultimately, the gain made is that there has been a more nuanced and careful evaluation and critical use of the main sources in the New Testament along with a more confident acceptance of the core text of Flavius’ Testimonium. As has long been known, the Testimonium is one of two references Flavius makes to the historical Jesus, but it is also the one reference that is an interpolation. This means that a later scribe, almost certainly a Christian scribe, touched up the Testimonium to present the historical Jesus in a more friendly and elevated light than one would expect of a Jew such as Flavius. However, thanks to the work of Louis Feldman, we know that most scholars acknowledge that Flavius mentioned Christ in this passage and said some things about him (10). The Third Quest has seen increasingly accepted reconstructions of this interpolated passage (11).

A More Mature Image of the Judaism of Christ’s Time

A third major gain of the Third Quest is a much more nuanced picture of Judaism at the time of Christ (12). Meier is of the view that many portraits of the historical Jesus produced during the First and Second quests are now outdated and that some of them presented a distorted description of first-century Judaism. It is important, maintains Meier, that we take into consideration the complexity and richness of the Judaism of the first century if we want to study the historical Jesus. Indeed there is broad agreement that this aspect to Christ’s context cannot be ignored, hence the proliferation of works by historians on the topic: John Dominic Crossan’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).

Important also is the more variegated Judaism of Christ’s time. In agreement with Meier on this is scholar Darrell Bock who affirms that the Dead Sea Scrolls have demonstrated the Judaism of the first century to have been far more complex than previously thought (12). Despite this diversity, particularly relating to questions of what constituted work on the Sabbath (for instance, although all Jews agreed that the Sabbath was a holy day there were differing views concerning what constituted work that varied between the Pharisees, Essenes/Qumran community, the author of Jubilees, Philo of Alexandria etc.), we can still develop an image of the Judaism that found broad agreement, which was that most first-century Palestinian Jews agreed on 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 (13). As such, this would have been the “mainstream” Judaism into which Christ was born and would have belonged.

A further diversity scholars now acknowledge, largely thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls find at Qumran, are the more variegated views about the Messiah or Messiahs held by the Jews of first-century Palestine. There does not appear to have been one normative view of a Messiah, as argued by John J. Collins who has brought light to the various messianic types scattered across the intertestamental literature. For example, Collins discerns the figures of a royal Davidic Messiah, a dyarchy of a priestly Messiah, and a royal Messiah, the combination of the roles of teacher, priest, and prophet in one figure, and an angelic or heavenly savior figure who bears designations like “Son of Man” or “Son of God” (14). Meier says that this multiplicity of messianic views is informative for those who see in Christ implicit or explicit claims of more than one messianic pattern. Meier sees this variety expressed during different periods of Christ’s ministry,

“It seems to me that most of the material that we can trace back to the public ministry of Jesus reflects the pattern of a miracle-working eschatological prophet wearing the mantle of Elijah. Yet in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple there seems implied a certain royal Davidic claim. It may be that Jesus reflects the syncretistic tendencies of his time in meshing more than one messianic role in his own claim and conduct. The material from Qumran certainly could lend support to this view” (15).

New Insights from Sociology

The Third Quest has been marked by an intense use of new insights garnered from sociology to locate the historical Jesus more concretely in his time and place. From a sociological perspective, interest has been on the roles of women in Christ’s public ministry (16). Influential works on this topic include Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s The Women Around Jesus (1982), Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983), Elisabeth Tetlow’s Women and Ministry in the New Testament (1984), Ben Witherington III’s Women in the Ministry of Jesus (1984), Carla Ricci’s Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women Who Followed Jesus (1991), Kathleen Corley’s Private Women, Public Meals: Social Conflict in the Synoptic Tradition (1993), Harvey Arden’s Wisdom’s Daughters: Conversations with Women Elders of Native America (1993), and more. Many of these authors look at problems in the present day, notably within the church and society, while also appreciating the role of women in the gospels and within the ministry of Christ.

An Adequate Treatment of the Miracle Tradition

There is now a far more positive treatment of the miracle tradition within the gospels (17). Scholarship of the early and mid-20th century seemed dismissive of Christ’s miracles as the likes of Rudolf Bultmann, Gunther Bornkamm, Hans Conzelmann, and Martin Dibelius dedicated very limited proportions of their overall work to this aspect of Christ’s ministry. Scholars within the Third Quest, however, have made significant contributions to this neglected area of the historical Jesus. An early example was Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician (1978), which was followed by many other works including John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1976, p. 303-353), E. P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism (1985, p. 157-173), John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991, 509-1038), Graham Twelftree’s Jesus the Exorcist (1993), and Steven Davies’ Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity (1995).

Meier believes that the discipline of history itself cannot rule out or affirm that a miracle has taken place in history for this is, in his view, a theological and philosophical claim that the historian cannot entertain. However, he does believe that when it comes to Christ’s miracles, the historian can seek to determine whether or not the miracles attributed to him go back to the historical Jesus or if they are the propaganda of the early church. Although the latter explanation was popular among post-enlightenment scholars who held a philosophical bias against the supernatural, today many scholars are far more willing to acknowledge and emphasize Christ’s miracle-working, faith healing, or exorcism as being a major part of his public ministry. Scholars also acknowledge how they contributed to the favourable attention Christ received from the crowds and the attention of the authorities (18). Paula Fredriksen highlights how “An ability to work cures, further, coheres with another datum from Jesus’ mission: He had a popular following, which such an ability helps to account for” (19) while Anthony Ernest Harvey is of the view that “Such facts are that Jesus was known in both Galilee and Jerusalem; that he was a teacher; that he carried out cures of various illnesses, particularly demon-possession, and that these were widely regarded as miraculous” (20). Meier offers several lines of support for these views:

[1] – The single most important criterion in this question is the multiple attestation of sources and forms. Every gospel source (Mark, Q, the special Matthean source, the special Lucan source, and John) as well as Josephus in Book 18 of his Jewish Antiquities (Ant. 18.3.3 §63-64) affirms that Jesus performed a number of miracles. This multiple attestation of sources is complemented by the multiple attestation of literary forms. For example, in Mark, Q, and John, both narratives about Jesus and sayings of Jesus (in addition, at times, to statements by other people) affirm Jesus’ miracle-working activity.

[2] – Closely intertwined with the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms is the criterion of coherence. The various narratives about Jesus and sayings of Jesus from many different sources do not simply lie side by side like discrete and hermetically sealed units. In a remarkable, unforced way they converge, mesh, and mutually support one another. For example, the various narratives of exorcisms in Mark, such as the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5,1-20 or the possessed boy in Mark 9,14-29, cry out for some deeper explanation. What is the meaning of these exorcisms? How do they fit into Jesus’ overall proclamation and ministry? The Marcan narratives, taken by themselves, do not say. But the various sayings about exorcism in both Mark and Q give the answer in terms of God’s powerful reign already present and vanquishing the power of Satan over the lives of individual members of God’s chosen people. Likewise, many individual healing narratives in Mark lack any wider explanation, which instead is given by Q logion of Jesus in Matt 11,5-6 par.: the hoped-for healing of God’s people in the end-time, prophesied by Isaiah, is now coming to pass. What is noteworthy here is how deeds and sayings cut across different sources and form-critical categories to create a meaningful whole. This neat, elegant, and unforced “fit” argues strongly for the basic historicity of the miracle tradition in the gospels.

Meier also mentions the earliness of the miracle tradition as a contributive factor. For example, accounts of Christ’s miracles were written down by Mark and Q some 40 years after the events narrated, which is very early in comparison to written versions of the miracle traditions of figures such as Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle Drawer, and Hanina ben- Dosa, which were composed centuries after the events. Meier spent over 400 pages examining the miracles ascribed to Christ and the criterion of multiple attestation in his A Marginal Jew and concluded that some of the miracle stories and sayings do indeed go back to the historical Jesus,

“The tally includes two or three exorcisms, various healings of blind, deaf, and generally sick people, and sayings of Jesus that affirm he performed exorcisms and healings, material spread over Marcan, Q, special Lucan, and Johannine traditions. Indeed, the stories of raising the dead found and John, plus an assertion of raising the dead in a Q saying (Matt 11,5-6 par.) make it likely that, during his public ministry, Jesus claimed to have raised the dead” (21).

However, of the so-called “nature miracles”, these did not hold up as well in Meier’s analysis, leading him to conclude that the feeding of the multitude is the only nature miracle that has a fair claim to go back to some remarkable event in Christ’s lifetime.


1. Meier, John. 1999. “The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain.” Biblica 80(4):459-487.

2. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 459-460.

3. Yale Courses. 2009. The Gospel of Thomas. Available. [08:50]

4. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 460.

5. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 473.

6. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 463.

7. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 464.

8. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 465.

9. Syme, Ronald. 1982. “Tacitus: Some Sources of His Information.” The Journal of  Roman Studies 72:68-82.

10. Feldman, Louis., and Hata, Gohei. 1989. Josephus, the Bible, and History. Leiden: BRILL. p. 430.

11. Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus remembered. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p. 141; Green, Joel. 2001. “Crucifixion.” In The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, edited by Markus Bockmuehl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 89; Meier, John. 1990. “Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52: 76-103; Yamauchi, Edwin. 1995. “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?” In Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, edited by J. P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 212-214.

12. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 466.

12. Bock, Darrell. 2012. Who Is Jesus? New York: Simon and Schuster.

13. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 468-469.

14. Collins, John. 1995. The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature. New York: Doubleday.

15. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 471.

16. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 469.

17. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 477

18. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 480

19. Fredriksen, Paula. 2000. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. New York: Vintage. p. 115.

20. Harvey, Anthony Ernest. 1982. Jesus and the Constraints of History. London: Duckworth. p. 6.

21. Meier, John. 1999. Ibid. p. 482.



  1. […] The Gnostic Gospels/texts, also known as the New Testament Apocrypha, consist of fifty-two texts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, by an Arab, Muhammad ‘Alí al-Sammán, who came across jars while looking for a soft soil to fertilize his crops (1). These texts have excited many readers, including scholars and laypersons alike, for their depictions of Jesus Christ and his early disciples and followers. This entry will briefly look at these texts and outline some of the reasons why most scholars have been hesitant to use the Gnostic sources as independent material for the life and ministry of the historical Jesus. […]

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