Who Do Men Say That I Am?

The study of Jesus has been an extraordinarily active enterprise in recent decades. Though rooted in the past, it is among the least antiquarian of historical or theological pursuits

A Traveler's Question

It had been a busy season among the hills and valleys of northern Palestine. There, in the land of Gennesaret, and in the towns of Tyre and Sidon, and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth had reproved a group of Pharisees for hypocrisy, rid a Syrophenecian girl of unclean spirits, restored a deaf man's hearing, and fed a multitude of four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes. Then, boarding a ship, Jesus sailed to Dalmanutha, where he confronted the Pharisees once more. From Dalmanutha he traveled to Bethsaida, where he healed a blind man. Afterward, according to the Gospel of Saint Mark, as he walked north toward Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?"

This is one of the most resonant questions in the whole of the New Testament. It is the question, it seems, of a man who wishes to disturb but who is also himself disturbed; of a man who has somehow found himself in deeper waters than anticipated; of a man at once baffled and intrigued by a destiny that he may have begun to glimpse but of which he is not fully aware. And thus, seeking guidance, seeking perhaps to ken the range of possibilities, Jesus put the question to his followers. It is an affecting and very human moment. Some of the disciples replied, "John the Baptist." Others said "Elijah" or "One of the prophets." Unmentioned by the disciples on this occasion were the many choicer and less admiring epithets for Jesus then current in Palestine—blasphemer, false prophet, madman. Jesus persisted: "But who do you say that I am?" Only Simon Peter ventured a reply: "Thou art the Christ." In the end Jesus declined to enlighten his followers. He simply bade them to hold their tongues.

They did not, of course, and the questions that Jesus posed, or is said to have posed, have therefore been posed for all time. It may be that Jesus went to his death not knowing quite who he was, regardless of what other men thought. He certainly went to his death with public opinion sharply divided and with his own disciples profoundly confused. There is obviously no consensus even today— even among Christians—as to what the real message of Jesus was and how it should apply to our lives, if it should apply at all. Despite the credal affirmations of the mainstream Christian churches, there is also no consensus— not if one looks at what real people actually believe—as to the identity of Jesus. Was he, as traditional Christian dogmatics hold, both God and Man—"the Word made flesh," a human being who was "consubstantial with the Father"? Did he partake of the divine in some more diluted and, as many twentieth-century churchgoers have doubtless concluded, inherently more plausible manner? Was he simply another of those charismatics who appear from time to time, destroy some complacency, do some good, and bequeath to the human race the symbol of an exemplary life?

The Gospel accounts, of course, offer clues about Jesus, but the Gospels are highly imperfect historical documents. They did not take final shape until the late first century, a full generation (or two) after the death of Jesus, which occurred somewhere around A.D. 30. The earliest surviving manuscript fragment, the so-called Rylands papyrus, which contains a few words from the Gospel according to Saint John, was produced as many as five generations after the death of Jesus. The Gospels were the work of people who already believed in Jesus as the risen Lord and who, as the letters of Saint Paul attest, had assimilated a body, if not always precisely the same body, of early doctrine. (Paul's letters, better known as epistles, date back to around A.D. 50—some twenty years after the Crucifixion—and provide a window on the Christian world as it existed at least a decade before any of the literary efforts now called Gospels.) The Gospels almost certainly were not by any of the twelve apostles and may or may not have been written by men named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who may or may not have been alive at the time of Jesus, and who may or may not represent composites of many individual chroniclers. The Gospels are also based on a wide variety of sources. Extracting historical fact, as a modern person would understand that term, from such texts is an enormously complicated task. Contemporary non-Christian documents are of little help. Historical accounts that mention Jesus—there are perhaps a half dozen brief references in the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and a few other classical writers—confirm little more than that he lived, preached, and was crucified.

Even as statements of belief, rather than of historical actuality, the Gospels are frequently ambiguous, inconsistent, and otherwise problematic. Not until the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, three and four centuries, respectively, after the death of Jesus, did the custodians of his memory succeed in codifying Christian doctrine with regard to the identity of Jesus. The councils assumed the doctrine of the Resurrection (it had never been called into question) and implied the doctrine of the Trinity (God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but they also proclaimed the nature of Jesus as true God and true man (their most important business) and, inter alia, the doctrine of the virgin birth (a subject that remains a matter of highly nuanced discussion). For a millennium and a half these have served as the basis of orthodoxy. Among the major Christian confessions they still do.

But the question Jesus asked on the road to Caesarea Philippi has proved durable. Over the centuries various answers have provoked a considerable amount of violence; people have lost their lives. In modern times the answers have provoked a considerable amount of scholarly debate; people have lost their jobs. Beginning roughly a century and a half ago biblical exegetes began to acquire new tools as aids in the explication of Scripture—archaeology, for one, but also source-criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, the history of religions, philology, linguistics, semiotics, and several others. Sheer luck produced such finds as the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (unearthed in Egypt in 1945), which consist of a large and virtually intact collection of previously unknown early Christian texts; and the Dead Sea scrolls (discovered in the caves of Qumran, Palestine, in 1947), which disclosed a radical Jewish monastic community contemporaneous with the ministry of Jesus. Historians and theologians have a much clearer picture now than they ever had before of the world in which Jesus lived, of the formation of the Gospels, and of the link between the two. Because these are today more surely understood, many scholars in recent decades have ventured afresh into the life, self-understanding, and significance of Jesus as an actual human being, who lived and died as human beings do. Insofar as these studies are concerned with a hermeneutic, or interpretation, of Jesus as the Christ (meaning the "anointed one," the person somehow chosen by God as the vehicle of divine revelation), they fall into a branch of theological and academic inquiry known as Christology.

Christology and related fields are extraordinarily active enterprises. David Tracy, a Catholic priest who teaches at the University of Chicago, says, "More has been written about Jesus in the last twenty years than in the previous two thousand." The subject has engaged not only prominent clerical theologians from many Christian denominations but also feminists, Jews, and agnostics. In a very direct way the current wave of scholarship (together, of course, with social conditions in Latin America) is responsible for the emergence of liberation theology. By its nature the study of Jesus is rooted in the past, but it is among the least antiquarian of historical or theological pursuits.

Those involved are modern men and women with an eye on the modern world, and the end that many of them have in mind is a reformulation and refinement of the Christian message for the kinds of people who inhabit our times. Tracy compares the present era to that of Saint Paul, in the first century, when the message of Jesus, a Jew speaking to Jews, was refashioned by Paul and others into a thought-language that the larger gentile world, unfamiliar with Palestinian Judaism, could understand and accept. Edward Schillebeeckx, a prominent Dominican theologian, expressed the same idea to me in another way: "In every age we must try to embed the faith in a new culture. That is the delicate function of hermeneutics—the reacculturation of the Gospel. This is the only possible way, in a new period, to believe in the same Christian faith."

It would be fair to describe me as a person who wants to believe. I became interested in the modern study of Jesus as a result of conversations over the years with several friends who are Jesuit priests. Eventually I set out on a kind of excursion, at first as an armchair traveler, but before long as a real one. I chose to speak chiefly with Catholic scholars, in part because I share with them a frame of reference, but also in part—and indeed more important—because much of the most significant and controversial recent work on Jesus has come from Catholic pens. The groundwork for modern New Testament studies was, however, laid almost entirely by Protestant scholars, and their methods and ideas remain very much to the point.

The First Quest

One does not need to plunge very deeply or for very long into the modern literature on Jesus, particularly the modern Catholic literature, in order to sense that something has changed profoundly. Consider one recent but basic Catholic text, A Christological Catechism, by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, a leading biblical scholar. Did Jesus claim to be God? Fitzmyer replies: "The Gospels have not so presented that claim.... It is impossible to imagine how such a statement would have been understood." What about the Resurrection of Jesus? "The New Testament never presents the resurrection of Jesus as a resuscitation, i.e., a return to his former mode of terrestrial existence." The so-called virgin birth? "New Testament data for this question are not unambiguous." The historical reliability of the Gospels? "The only answer which can be given to this question is meager indeed." Fitzmyer's full responses to some twenty important questions about Jesus are closely reasoned and supported by many pages of careful exposition, but the statements I have pulled out of his book suffice to establish the tone of things.

I do not know how much, but I suspect very little, of the content of A Christological Catechism would today strike non-fundamentalist theologians, which is to say most Christian theologians, as controversial or even avant-garde. Fitzmyer's book bears the imprimatur of the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Washington. It is used in seminaries. And it affirms, as a matter of faith, all the beliefs essential to Christianity. But Fitzmyer's answers lack the brevity and the certainty, the Thomistic elegance and the sometimes cinematic splendor, of the answers that I learned as a child in parochial school, of the vaguely more sophisticated answers I received at subsequent times in my education, and of the answers that, frankly, one still hears from the pulpit. Living a Christian life, whatever that may mean, and difficult as it may be, probably has not been made progressively harder over the centuries. But defining how a Christian should understand Jesus has.

Christology existed long before it had a name. The Christian communities that endured or were created during the politically tumultuous times after the death of Jesus represented implicit experiments in Christology. The early Christians groped to understand the meaning of Jesus as he had revealed it to them or to their ancestors. They eventually compiled and left behind documents testifying to the understanding that they proclaimed—their "kerygma," to use the term of art. The kerygmatic statements of the early Christian communities were not always in complete accord (the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John testify by their differences to this fact), and though the disagreements were sometimes merely a matter of emphasis, they were at other times fundamental. As noted, various councils of what was evolving institutionally into a church stepped in at intervals in a decisively interpretive way, most notably the Council of Chalcedon, in A.D. 451. Chalcedon was convened in order to suppress the idea suggested by various forms of Docetism (the word comes from the Greek dokein, meaning "to seem") that Jesus, though assuredly God, only appeared to be human.

After the Reformation, as Bible study by laymen became acceptable and widespread, at least among Protestants, and as doctrine became less resistant to scrutiny (again, among Protestants), the sacred Scriptures began to attract scholarly attention of a recognizably modern kind. The initial stages of this contest between reason and revelation are complex, and the motivations of those involved on the side of reason run the whole range from faith through skepticism to unbelief. Ultimately, the authority of the Bible was undermined, in two ways: at first by the scientific study of the natural world (for example, by the discovery of the motion of the planets), which cast doubt on the Bible's literal truth; and then by historical and textual study of the Bible itself, as if it were any other ancient document, which likewise raised disturbing questions. At the same time, critical investigation confirmed that sacred Scripture and secular history do intersect. Where were the points of intersection? With respect to the New Testament, rationalists during the Enlightenment sought to scrape away centuries of dogma in order to reveal the man Jesus, the Jesus of history. With the naive, somehow endearing overconfidence characteristic of the times, Enlightenment scholars simply assumed that the goal was not only achievable in theory but would in fact be achieved.

A lot of the scraping took place, as it continues to take place, in Germany, for reasons that I find it somehow more enjoyable to keep speculating about than actually to nail down. Whatever the explanation, Wilfred Sheed's famous image—"another damned theologian comes grunting out of the Black Forest"—is apt. One of the first scholars to attempt a comprehensive historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a professor of Oriental languages at a school in Hamburg. For some years scholars had been in the habit of conducting what are called parallel readings: comparing accounts of the same event that appear in two or more of the four canonical Gospels or in other canonical texts, such as the Acts of the apostles or the epistles of Paul. Those who employed parallel reading were looking for concordance, but just as often they found discord. (Judas, for example, hangs himself in Matthew but dies of an accidental fall in Acts; the Crucifixion occurs before Passover in John but during Passover in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; some of the apostles are described as witnessing the Crucifixion in Luke, but they flee the scene beforehand in Matthew and Mark.) Reimarus came to entertain profound doubts about the historicity—in the sense of "what really happened"—of the New Testament, and wrote a book on the subject, wisely directing that it should be published only after his death. In the book, which was published in sections, known as the Wolfenbüttel Fragments, from 1774 to 1778, Reimarus denied the Resurrection of Jesus, deemed the miracles to be unworthy of notice, and, while conceding the value of Jesus's moral teachings, ultimately characterized him as yet another of those apocalyptic visionaries whom Roman Palestine had served up with tedious regularity

The quest for the historical Jesus went on. In 1835 David Friedrich Strauss's book The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined commenced publication. The two-volume work eventually cost Strauss his university teaching job. Strauss accepted Jesus as a historical figure and the New Testament, in rough outline, as somehow corresponding to real events. But he concluded, as Reimarus had, "Nay, if we would be candid with ourselves, chat which was once sacred history for the Christian believer is, for the enlightened portion of our contemporaries, only fable."

The dismissal of Strauss from his job was only a prelude to the debate at the University of Tübingen (where Strauss had taught) and elsewhere. For one thing, the quest for the historical Jesus was not merely of academic concern. It had acquired a broad appeal to the educated lay public on both sides of the Atlantic. (Strauss's Life of Jesus was translated with remarkable speed for a work of German theology; an English-language version appeared in 1846, translated by none other than George Eliot.) Moreover, nineteenth-century scholars gradually succeeded in establishing certain key relationships among the Gospels, thereby restoring, they thought, a certain amount of credibility to at least some of the texts.

It had been assumed since the days of Saint Augustine (A.D. 354-430) that the Gospels were written in the order in which they appear in the earliest Greek texts of the New Testament and thus in every edition of the Bible: first Matthew, then Mark, then Luke, and finally John. Augustine had also noticed a certain similarity between Matthew and Mark, and he regarded Mark as an abridgment of Matthew.

Employing a method known as source criticism, nineteenth-century textual scholars suggested that Mark, probably composed in Rome around A.D. 70, was most likely not an abridgment but a source: the earliest and therefore the most primitive of the Gospels (and therefore the most trustworthy? scholars wondered). Matthew and Luke came next, these scholars concluded, and both drew heavily on Mark. This conclusion was based on the fact that Matthew contains 600 of the 661 verses of Mark, and Luke contains 350. Matthew and Luke probably also drew on some other common source: more than 200 verses, mostly sayings of Jesus, appear in both of these Gospels but not in Mark, arguing for the existence of an independent early text or oral tradition. This presumed "sayings source" is known as Q (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"), and scholars continue to speculate about the nature of the so-called Q community (if there was one). The Gospels of Luke and Matthew seem to rely on different sources for the balance of their narratives—that is, for those verses that they do not have in common. Matthew's independent source, known as M, survives in about 230 verses, and Luke's independent source, known as L, survives in 400 verses. Luke and Matthew are the only Gospels with a Nativity narrative, and their accounts differ, which suggests the existence of two further independent sources. The Nativity narratives are regarded by scholars as among the most recent and historically least reliable additions to the Gospels. (Christmas, by the way, was never actually decreed to fall on the twenty-fifth of December. The holiday seems to have replaced a pagan Roman feast day, coinciding with the winter solstice.) As for the Gospel according to John, it was recognized very early as the most anomalous of the New Testament texts and the last to be written. With its modest biographical content and its overlay of seemingly Hellenistic philosophy, John is usually considered separately from the other three Gospels, which scholars refer to as the Synoptic, or "seen together," Gospels.

The solution to what has been called the Synoptic problem—that is, the problem of the relationships among the three books—was a significant achievement, and it has been allowed to stand, albeit greatly modified and refined, and in several variations, by the majority of scholars to this day. Many nineteenth-century scholars were convinced that, having demonstrated the antiquity and precedence of Mark and of the verses shared by Matthew and Luke which constitute Q—ostensibly the least adulterated of available texts—they were ready to construct a biography of Jesus. One scholar wrote hopefully, "In substance and style and treatment the Gospel of Saint Mark is essentially a transcript from life." There were other developments that seemed promising. Philological analysis showed that much of the earliest Gospel material, though it has come down to us entirely in Greek, must have been composed originally in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. Numerous Aramaic constructions and figures of speech were found to occur in the Gospels; when translated back into Aramaic from the Greek, certain Gospel passages even arranged themselves into a characteristically Aramaic form of verse. The clear implication was that critical study had brought exegetes very close to the world of Jesus himself. Meanwhile, in 1859 there was the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus (it seemed until then to have been born to blush unseen in the library of St. Catherine's Monastery, at the foot of Mount Sinai) and the publication of the Codex Vaticanus (which had for years been under lock and key in the Vatican Library). These codices, which date roughly from the time of Constantine (who died in A.D. 337), are almost identical—each contains nearly the entire New Testament corpus, in Greek—and they are the best and earliest texts available. They became the basis for subsequent translations of the New Testament.

Predictably, perhaps, lives of Jesus proliferated like dime-store paperbacks, some of them written by men whose names still cross the modem tongue (Ernest Renan and Adolph von Harnack, for example), most written by men whose names are interred in the indices of unread books. In general the late-nineteenth- century "lives" of Jesus were not really lives at all but vessels, fashioned from the clay of Mark and Q, into which authors poured their own preconceptions and affinities: Jesus as ethical teacher, Jesus as social reformer, Jesus as symbol of humanity—Jesus, in other words, as the kind of fellow who would have fit comfortably into one or another of the familiar categories of the late-nineteenth- century bourgeois world, as someone who might even be asked to tea.

In 1901 Wilhelm Wrede effectively doomed the so-called first quest for the historical Jesus—though not, by any means, historical studies per se—by showing, in his book The Messianic Secret in the Gospels, that even the supposedly historical Gospel of Mark contained a filter of myth and belief through which historical fact had been forcibly strained. The "messianic secret" that Wrede discerned in Mark has to do with the repeated injunction, uttered by Jesus in that Gospel, following some demonstration of his powers or assertion of his identity, to tell no one what had transpired or been said. Wrede's conjecture—switching now from the subject of Gospel truth to that of historical truth—was that the majority of the followers of Jesus had no idea during his lifetime that he made any claim to being the Messiah; that a belief in Jesus as the Messiah came only after his death; and that the writer of the Book of Mark, in order to reconcile these circumstances with doctrine as it had evolved by his time, postulated the idea of a secret maintained between Jesus and his closest disciples (who, especially in Mark, do not understand what Jesus is telling them anyway). Wrede's idea of a messianic secret may be somewhat overblown, but not so his notion that Mark, like Matthew (apologist for and defender of a structured Church), Luke (evangelist to gentile Christians), and John (the mystical theologian), puts across a distinct point of view.

Five years after the publication of Wrede's book Albert Schweitzer, in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, wrote the epitaph to a century of work by Protestant historians and theologians: "Each successive epoch of theology found its own thoughts in Jesus.... But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus." The Jesus whom Schweitzer himself found was not a peasant Disraeli but a strange and, from a modern perspective, unfathomable eschatological prophet; an alien from a first-century world that modern folk had trouble acknowledging as utterly different; a sometimes frightening teacher who spoke and behaved as if the end of the world were literally about to occur Christians of the Belle Epoque would not have been comfortable in this man's company, Schweitzer suggested. They-would not even have understood what he was trying to say.

Above and Below

The approach from history is but one of a number of ways in which scholars have sought to understand Jesus better. "Scripture and Christology," a document published in 1984 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, lists no fewer than ten distinct methodologies, including speculative, historical, anthropological, and existential approaches, and also ones that focus on social concerns, Judaism, and the history of religion. There are more approaches even than these. But historical studies, broadly defined, remain disproportionately influential. The Jesus that people can try to know as they would any other person, the Jesus of history—and why he is important, and what his place should be, and how and when and in what way he should matter—is the Jesus to whom modern scholars keep returning. The reaction during the Enlightenment and afterward against the Jesus of dogma had been, in effect, a reaction against a millennium and a half of what is called Christology "from above." Such a Christology begins with a consideration of Jesus primarily insofar as he embodies a God who enters human history: with the Jesus, in other words, of the incarnation ("And the Word was made flesh"); the Jesus whose most important acts were first to participate in the mortal coil and then to die in behalf of all of the others who had done and would do so; the Jesus of sophisticated terminology, of scrupulous philosophical punctilio. The shift in perspective away from this Jesus has been profound and lasting. Most Christologies today are "from below"—beginning their reflections with the humanity and ministry of Jesus, and necessarily concerned, if not preoccupied, with the Jesus of history, with Jesus insofar as, embedded in human history, he moves somehow toward God.

David Tracy is one scholar who has been intent on keeping things from going too far in this direction. At Christmas time last year I visited Tracy in his office at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. The school is something of an omnibus institution, a remarkably active and productive place. It is one of the few divinity schools founded on the assumption that theologians, historians of religion, and those engaged in—or about to engage in—ministry can coexist under one roof. Tracy himself looks something like a character from a Jules Feiffer cartoon: neatly dressed in an out-of- date- liberal sort of way, with a carefully trimmed beard. He is the author of several influential books, including Blessed Rage for Order (1975) and The Analogical Imagination (1981). Although he is regarded as progressive on most issues—I have heard one person describe him, in jest, as a Unitarian—he has been more skeptical than many other progressives when it comes to what the historical study of Jesus can achieve.

Some of his skepticism has to do with his feelings about the importance of faith—faith, to begin with, in God; faith, furthermore, in a Christian tradition. Most, though by no means all, of those who have ventured into the study of Jesus during the past century and a half have professed some kind of Christian faith and therefore have brought faith to the task at hand. Always at least beneath the surface, and often breaking through it, have been the questions, Should the Jesus of history, to the extent that he can be reconstructed, even matter, and if he does matter, how and why? The answers fall across the wide spectrum between what human beings think they can know for themselves and what they conclude they must simply decide to believe.

"In a way, the historically reconstructed Jesus has been a horse that different people have ridden in a lot of different directions," Tracy told me. ''My own position is that the most important thing, at the outset, is to be as clear as possible about what it is that one, as a Christian, is confessing. Fundamentally what mainline Christianity has been saying is 'We believe in Jesus Christ with the apostles.' It's important to get the prepositions right. ln Jesus Christ: this has to mean that one has had an experience of God that one identified as an experience of this historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, who is believed to be the Christ—that is to say, minimally, the anointed one, maximally, the disclosure of God's own self. Of course, that's the whole range of christological debate.

"The peculiar part of modernity is to say 'I believe in Jesus with the apostles.' What do I mean by 'with the apostles'? The New Testament, after all, was initially called the apostolic writings, so what one might mean by 'with the apostles' is 'with these texts.' Or one might mean 'with the apostolic tradition as understood by, say, the Eastern Orthodox. Or one might mean with the apostolic tradition as handed down by Peter and his successors—namely the bishops of Rome. A fourth option, which is popular with many educated Christians, is to say, 'Well, let's look for the historically reconstructed Jesus.'

"Historical study is a very important intellectual enterprise, but it's important as a corrective. We believe in a Jesus who lived in history; therefore, if there are historical errors, they have implications for Christian belief. One of the very fruitful things that has happened has been what you might call the re-Judaizing of Christianity. This was sort of an unintentional by-product. Jesus is so Jewish. And Christianity is, after all, a Jewish religion that then went among the gentiles.

"The most important corrective of historical scholarship has been to begin to alter the view of many Christians that basically Jesus is God walking around in a mask, that he wasn't really human. This is Docetism, and a lot of Christians are really functional Docetists. Historical criticism corrects that very quickly. Good historical work on Jesus clearly demythologizes lots of common Christian views about who Jesus was. This, of course, is resisted by conservatives in the Christian churches. They don't want that. On the other hand, if too much weight is given to this quest for the historical Jesus, very tough problems have to be faced historically. Quite apart from the problems of the Gospels themselves, what can any historian writing about any historical figure—Lincoln, say, or Napoleon—tell you about what that figure really felt or thought? Guesses, that's what it comes down to.

"An awful lot of contemporary Christologies are confused on this point. People who I think are clear on the issue are people like the American Methodist theologian Schubert Ogden, before him Rudolf Bultmann, and in his own way Karl Rahner. It seems to me that, at least as I understand them, my friends Küng and Schillebeeckx in their different ways are too big on the historical Jesus. Their books have been very valuable to me, but at times it sounds like they're saying, 'If we could only get a historically reconstructed Jesus, then we'd have it, then we'd have a Christology.' I don't believe that's true."

The Second Quest

Rudolf Bultmann (1884 - 1976) arrived at the university of Marburg, in Germany, in 1907 and remained there for the next seven decades as one of the foremost New Testament theologians. His thinking resists brief summary, but it can certainly be said that in Bultmann's view, the Christ of faith rather than the Jesus of history was the point on which to fix. Bultmann argued, to begin with, that the historical Jesus had little relevance to belief in Christ. He wrote, "All that is necessary is to proclaim that he has come." Bultmann regarded Christianity as having begun only after the Crucifixion, in the belief system of the disciples, with the life and ministry of Jesus as therefore having little significance. Even if this were not the case, Bultmann argued, it would be impossible to reach beyond the kerygma and say anything with confidence about the historical Jesus, save that he existed.

Behind Bultmann's skepticism, which was powerfully expressed in The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), lay several factors. One of these was surely Bultmann's Lutheranism (Luther insisted that faith alone must be the basis for belief), and another was the experience of the First World War (which left theologians, like everyone else, emotionally shattered and less willing than they had been before to credit the capacities of human reason). There were also developments in critical method which gave Bultmann, and other scholars, pause. Among these was the new study of the history of religions, which permitted a comparison of Christianity with other contemporary religions (early Christianity appeared to have borrowed much in terms of doctrine and ritual, even as other religions would borrow from Christianity). More important was a methodology mentioned here earlier, form criticism, which had been developed by Hermann Gunkel, an Old Testament scholar, in the early 1900s. It was adapted to New Testament studies by Martin Dibelius and Bultmann.

Form criticism, which builds on source criticism, represents an attempt to go further back in time than the Gospels, into the earliest layers of pre-canonical tradition: into the period between Jesus's life and the appearance of the first Gospel texts. Its chief assumption is that the Gospels are compilations of smaller, pre-literary pieces, or pericopes—hymns, acclamations, sermons, sayings, miracle stories, parables, dialogues; Old Testament prophecies, and other literary forms—that had circulated separately among early Christian communities. (An exception is the Passion narratives—the extended accounts of the death of Jesus. These are believed to have been the first portion of each Gospel to have been constructed, and each seems to have circulated as a coherent package.) Another assumption is that the pericopes were used for different purposes— among others, preaching, instruction, and worship—and have to be analyzed in the context of their probable role in the ordinary life (the "Sitz im Leben," or situation in life, as form critics say) of primitive Christian communities. Those communities, moreover, were still evolving. As the earliest form critics saw it, the first Christian communities consisted almost exclusively of Aramaic-speaking Jews. Then came communities of Hellenistic Jews. And finally, after the evangelizing work of Saint Paul, there were large and expanding communities of gentile Christians.

The form critics, invoking what is called the principle of dissimilarity, regard only those pericopes that do not reflect borrowings from the Old Testament, do not reflect Jewish thought at the time of Jesus, and do not reflect the post- Easter preoccupations of the early Christians as likely to be primary material from the time of Jesus. Of course, passages other than those certified by form criticism could very well be historically valid; form criticism simply can't tell which ones are.

Bultmann's painstaking investigation of the Synoptic Gospels, line by line, left him unconvinced that one could discover much at all about Jesus the man. He accepted as authentic some of the parables (for example, that of the mustard seed), certain statements in which Jesus questions Jewish law (for example, "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill?"), and some of the apocalyptic sayings ("Blessed are the eyes which see the things that you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which you see, and have not seen them, and to hear those things which you hear, and have not heard them"). It could not be shown that very much else had a circumstantial provenance prior to the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity. Bultmann wrote, "Whoever prefers to put the name of 'Jesus' always in quotation marks and let it stand as an abbreviation for the historical phenomenon with which we are concerned is free to do so."

On schedule, a generation after the appearance of The History of the Synoptic Tradition, came a rebellion by many who had been Bultmann's students, and who still employed his methods, but who no longer shared his skepticism (which, to be fair, waxed and waned) of the assumption that aspects of the historical Jesus could be recovered. The participants in what has come to be called the new quest (it should be noted, by the way, that some scholars, especially in England, never quite gave up the old one) had modest aims. They did not believe, as participants in the first quest had, that a true biography of Jesus could ever be wricten, and they did not believe that one could readily find access to an "uninterpreted" Jesus. They did believe, however, that it was important to demonstrate the line of continuity between the teachings of the historical Jesus and the teachings of the early Church about Jesus. Ernst Kasemann made precisely that point in a famous lecture, "The Problem of the Historical Jesus," at the University of Marburg in 1953, which effectively ushered in the post-Bultmann age. "Primitive Christianity," he said, "is obviously of the opinion that the earthly Jesus cannot be understood otherwise than from the far side of Easter, that is, in his majesty as Lord of the community, and that, conversely, the event of Easter cannot be adequately comprehended if it is looked at apart from the earthly Jesus."

The new quest did not dispense with form criticism but rather advanced new or refined criteria to get around what might be called the false negative in the principle of dissimilarity. One of these new criteria was the principle of multiple attestation: if a circumstance, event, or saying is mentioned in more than one independent source, then the chances of its being genuine Jesus material, as scholars say, are thought to improve considerably. (For example, the importance of "the twelve"—that is, of those originally designated as apostles—is reported independently in Paul, in Mark, and in Q.) Another criterion was the principle of coherence, which argues for the authenticity of material whose message is consistent with that of other material that has already been found to be genuine through other means. Finally, there were the insights of redaction criticism, a technique that builds on form criticism and involves looking at each Gospel with respect to the editorial process that produced it.

The assumption on which redaction criticism rests is that the evangelists, as editors, were intent on producing works of particular and coherent theological substance. The Gospel of Mark, for example, was written in Rome for gentile readers, and at its core is the disclosure of some version of what Wrede first named the Messianic secret. Mark tends to be critical not only of Palestinian Jews in general but also of the apostles, whose inadequate behavior he mentions repeatedly. Matthew, in contrast, is exceedingly Jewish in tone, didactic, and concerned with presenting a glorified Jesus. He sees the inauguration of the Kingdom of God as having occurred in the risen Christ—not as an event for which Christians must wait indefinitely. Through redaction criticism it often seems possible to look over an evangelist's shoulder as editorial intervention is pressed into the service of theological emphasis. (Consider how "Blessed are the poor" in Luke appears in Matthew as "Blessed are the poor in spirit.") As it happens, all of the Gospels include material that runs counter to their overall points of view. Such material is thought to have been so deeply a part of the early Christian tradition that it simply could not be ignored. It may therefore represent a direct link between the Gospels and history.

One of the most striking features of the new quest is the fact that Catholic theologians have taken part in it—and, indeed, for much of the past decade have dominated it. Catholic scholars played virtually no role in the early development of historical-critical studies of Scripture. The few who tried to, such as Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell, were caught up in the Modernist controversy at the turn of the century and found their works condemned and themselves excommunicated. Various decrees after 1905 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission made it impossible for Catholic theologians even to think about participating in the modern reappraisals of Jesus. Then, in 1943, Pope Pius XII, a man who himself deserves a modern reappraisal, issued the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, which effectively opened up the Bible for scientific study by Catholic scholars. Several developments that had occurred between the wars seem to have forced the Church to face the issue squarely. One was the suddenly high volume of archaeological activity in the Middle East (with the region under de facto British and French protection for a short spell), which yielded new information about the world in which the Scriptures had been composed. Another was a general improvement in the translation and reconstruction of biblical texts. Finally, scholars were busily refining their appreciation of how first-century writers had used language. Two decades after Divino Afflante Spiritu, in 1964, the Second Vatican Council allowed scholarship to go even further. Catholic writers, who had been waiting on the fringe of Jesus scholarship like expectant homesteaders on the Oklahoma line, were quick to learn and apply the techniques of New Testament criticism.

The participants in the new quest have been prodigiously prolific. Since 1960, when the Protestant theologian Gunther Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth, the first of the important new-quest texts, was published, a major new interpretation of the life of Jesus has appeared about once a year (and there have been hundreds of other books, confined to some narrower aspect of Jesus's life and ministry). All have been based to a significant extent on textual analysis of the New Testament together with the findings of biblical historians. These are not so much biographies as they are investigations. There has emerged, after a quarter of a century, an element of agreement on several key historical points. Given the acute limitations of the critical methods employed, disagreements have flared over thousands of specific details.

What makes so many of the recent Jesus books so riveting to read is that one comes to them knowing that the authors are engaged in an exquisitely sensitive enterprise, that the reliable evidence at their disposal is at times barely on the palpable side of evanescence, and that a jury of the authors' peers seems to have been permanently empaneled to scrutinize every iota of every claim. These books are invariably long and dense, closely argued, and held in shape by a corset of scholarly apparatus. Much of the real work is done in the footnotes. But whether I have been reading a book by Bornkamm, Hans Conzelmann, or Joachim Jeremias (all of whom are Protestant), by Raymond E. Brown, Edward Schillebeeckx, or Hans Küng (all of whom are Roman Catholic), I have had the sense of being hot on the trail of a profoundly important historical person. Yet what a tenuous trail it is—the kind that a detective cannot simply follow but must create.

The Grand Inquisitor

The University of Tübingen, founded by Count Eberhard the Bearded in 1477, rises above a medieval town of half-timbered houses and winding streets on a crag overlooking the river Neckar, northeast of the Black Forest. The town seems made to wear snow. One of the pleasant prospects of achieving intellectual prominence in Tübingen is the near certainty of having a street named after you, or at the very least a plaque mounted on a doorpost on which you might have leaned. Johannes Kepler studied here, and one can still see the rooms at the Protestant Seminary where the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the playwright Friedrich von Schiller shared lodgings with the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Tübingen, like Rome, is built on seven hills, and, like Rome, the town has had a lot to say over the years about Christianity. It was the home, in the last century, of David Friedrich Strauss, Ferdinand Christian Baur, and the other members of the so-called Tübingen School, which first applied to the New Testament the notion of myth—the idea that it contains kernels of possible fact concealed, unfortunately, within an unshuckable husk of religious embellishment. Tübingen is the home today of several well- known writers on Jesus: Eberhard Jüngel and Jürgen Moltmann, the Protestant theologians; Walter Kasper, a Catholic priest who served as secretary of the Vatican Synod held late last year; and Hans Küng, another Catholic priest, whose views on a number of issues have repeatedly met with disfavor in Rome. Every theologian in Tübingen, it would seem, lives atop a hill (with "a clear shot at the others," Moltmann says), owns a word processor, and works in a book-lined study with a southern exposure and a splendid view of the Swabian countryside.

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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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