The New Quest for the Historical Jesus

Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

In the last two hundred years of biblical research, scholars have outlined various “quests” for the historical Jesus.  Each quest accompanies new insights into historical records and artifacts that emphasize some never-before-understood facet about Jesus of Nazareth.

The first quest, around the turn of the eighteenth century, applied new approaches of historical inquiry to the Bible.  Many, like Thomas Jefferson, concluded that Jesus was a wise sage whose many miracles were an invention of the early church.

Other quests thereafter understood Jesus to be a prophet who proclaimed the world’s imminent end.

Now, with the start of a new century, we stand in the shadow of a contemporary, burgeoning quest for the historical Jesus.  Unlike years past, it combines historical research with literary criticism, specialized interpretation, and global, multicultural experiences of the Risen Christ.

For many, the freedom to marry objective inquiry with spiritual, global awakening is refreshing.

I am reminded of a book review I did some time ago on Jonathon Merritt’s Jesus is Better than You Imagined.  I noted that the book focused on Merritt’s experiences of Jesus more than the life of Christ or the many ways that historians understand his ministry, death, and resurrection.

Little did I know that this type of experiential writing tipped a hat to a new quest that makes the reading community–those of us deeply invested in the Bible and the life of Christ–a part of the interpretation of who Christ was and is.

edgarIn his book, Jesus Christ Today, New Testament scholar Edgar McKnight notes that this kind of interpretation marks one of three contemporary interpretative resources that define a new quest for the historical Jesus.

Whereas the first resource is that of experience and multicultural theology, a second resource originates in ongoing conversations with world religions.

Echoing an age-old question aptly summarized by Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, Christians are asking whether Jesus is the “name above names” or simply “the name among other names.”

Our understanding of other world religions — their dissimilarities as well as similarities to Christianity, including similarities related to a penchant towards religious fundamentalism and violence — is shaping how we read Christ’s teachings and the impact he has made on the church and history.

No matter how we answer Knitter’s question, however, we cannot deny that theological study and dialogue with other religions illuminates Jesus’ presence in our life.

A third interpretative resource consists of scholars and clergy who understand Jesus as a rabbi deeply embedded in the Judaism that shaped his teachings and understanding of God.

It was not until after the Holocaust–and the realization that much of Christian theology influenced anti-Semitic policies in the west–that scholars revisited and affirmed Jesus’ Jewish identity and relationship to the people of Israel.

Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright are but some contemporary scholars who have mined the Bible with this field of investigation in mind.  N. T. Wright, a popular author even in conservative, evangelical circles has argued persuasively that Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Jewish worldview of the First Century.

It is precisely this type of quest that has ignited a reexamination of the Bible and inspired Christians to practice a vibrant, fresh faith in which Jesus has become all the more “relevant” in the minds of believers around the world.

It is relevant because this examination has political ramifications.  The more Christians listen to different communities of faith–be it Jewish or otherwise–the more Christians are forced to reconcile Jesus’ message of peace with the ongoing religious conflicts that detrimentally affect global politics and the Middle East in particular.

This new quest–steeped in interpretative communities that emphasize religious experience, world religions, and Jesus’ Jewish roots–has the power to add a valuable and much-needed voice in a world that is becoming more divisive and violent due to the fracturing of historical, political, and religious ideologies.

No matter where we stand in this new quest, may we faithfully seek Christ and respond to His cause for peace wherever we trod.

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