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.

I spent some time not long ago in Tübingen, and passed the latter part of an afternoon in the company of Hans Küng, at his home high on the Waldhäuserstrasse. The decor had a contemporary, citizen-of- the- world sort of flavor. The furniture was modern and vaguely Nordic, the books on the shelves were in the three or four languages one might have expected, and the clothes on the master of the premises were timelessly mid-Atlantic—dark blue sport shirt and chino pants. Küng, at the age of fifty-eight, looked as spare and well-organized as did his domestic environment. He did not seem any older that day than he was ten years ago, when David Levine did a caricature of him for The New York Review of Books; the original was hanging framed in a stairwell.

Küng has had his troubles with Rome. In 1979 he was forbidden by the Vatican to call himself a Catholic theologian, though he retains a professorship at Tübingen. Küng is also the director of his own Ecumenical Institute. Whenever Küng must refer to Rome, he puts a certain spin on the word, conveying the most potent form of contempt, the kind that is somehow empty of both sneering and dismissal.

Küng's Christology—expressed most comprehensively in his book On Being a Christian (1974)is among the purest available versions of Christology "from below." Küng has little patience with the various proclamations ("from above") of an established Church; these amount, in his view, to opaque strata of time-bound interpretation. He believes that modern critical methods can recover a core of historical reality. And he believes that they can bring even a skeptic to recognize significant facts about the historical Jesus, and even a skeptic to acknowledge (somehow) Jesus as (somehow) the Christ: the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, the divinely appointed object of human longing. Küng is saying not that one can accept Jesus as Christ without faith but that what one can learn of the historical Jesus is sufficient to reveal Jesus's message, and that the message in itself is conducive to faith. He is also saying that Church teaching on Jesus the Christ has to be related critically to the original message of Jesus himself. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its résumé against Küng, found "serious harm to some essential points of Catholic faith" in this view of things, and more particularly in its results.

On Being a Christian is in large measure a vigorous meditation on the Jesus of history, on the Jesus distilled from Scripture by modern scholarship. Küng's intention is to identify what is historically reliable and theologically essential in the Gospels—the Jesus who proclaimed something called the Kingdom of God, who drew sinners (as then defined) into his circle, who preached a new future for the oppressed—and then to follow Jesus as a contemporary might have done. That is, to hear his words, to hear those words in a particular political and religious context, to appreciate the authority with which Jesus seems to have spoken, to contemplate how he lived and with whom he chose to pass his time, and finally to formulate a response. Küng writes: "Would it not perhaps correspond more to the New Testament evidence and to modern man's historical way of thinking if we started out like the first disciples from the real human being Jesus, his historical message and manifestation, his life and fate, his historical reality and historical activity, and then ask about the relationship of this human being Jesus to God, about his unity with the Father. "

I asked Küng why he had written On Being a Christian (it is very different from his books on papal infallibility, Church reform, and the priesthood). He said, "In writing my book The Church I found myself always speaking about this man Jesus Christ. I realized that I did not really know who this man Jesus really was. And it occurred to me that many of my colleagues and many of the people who read my books didn't know who Jesus was either. After writing Infallible? I was more than ever pushed to discover on what our theology is based. I think I know the tradition—that is, the old tradition—about as well as anyone. I was educated in Rome and spoke in Latin every day for seven years. And I liked it. But I was never able to preach about Jesus. It was easy for me to preach about the Pauline epistles but never very easy to preach about the parables. I decided eventually to preach on the Gospel of Saint Mark, and I did, verse by verse. I experienced in a new way what I had once found boring. I came to the conclusion that basically the Christian message is He Himself. I hate to say it so simply—I've seen in America what television preachers can do with such remarks—but that is a convenient way of getting across the general idea.

"Let me take one precaution. No one who comes 'from below' in theology says that there is no 'above.' That is a calumny. In essence, though, I am looking at Jesus as the disciples were looking at him; to ask the question, Who is he? That is the question that runs through all of the Gospels. Of course, some of them give him titles—in Saint Mark's Gospel he is called the Son of God—but the Gospels keep asking Who is he? Who is he? What is his relationship to the message about the Kingdom of God? His relationship to the will of God? All of this is seen from the point of view of the disciples. And here, I think, we have to be consistent. We cannot, when it's no longer possible to justify something from below, just come flying in by helicopter. I know that you can simply tell your students that this or that is a Christian truth, and make a big deal about it, with all sorts of sophistication, but the Jesus of history did not say, 'We are three in one, and now reflect on that.'

"I am often surprised to see the kinds of tricks theologians resort to in order to bring in from above what they cannot justify from below. And I think that the major problems I have had with Rome and that others, like Schillebeeckx, have had with Rome have to do which whether theologians are willing to accept the historical-critical method or not, and whether dogmatics have to be built on a safe historical-critical foundation or not. In On Being a Christian I started from below and arrived at the top. Rome would say, 'Well, you should have said more about Chalcedon and all the rest.' And Rome would say, 'You can't get all the way from below, you need a helping hand from above.' I think the hand is there anyway, all the time. The hand, so to speak, is the message itself. You cannot read one passage of the New Testament without being challenged. Take the 'Our Father': there is a challenge in every phrase. But the challenge is not expressed in terms of a mystery. It is never said that you must believe, that there is a whole dogmatic system.

"Always the first thing to ask about the doctrine is, Would Jesus himself understand this? Karl Rahner once said that Jesus would not have understood the first Vatican Council on infallibility. But the Church instead asks the question of the Grand Inquisitor: Why do you, Jesus, come to disturb us? We have our dogmas about you. We know much better than you. You were not so outspoken. You were not so clear. We have made it much better than you said it."

A Life and a Death

What did Jesus say? How did he live? No one really knows where Jesus was born: possibly in Bethlehem (as Luke and Matthew claim), possibly in Nazareth. Nazareth was certainly where Jesus grew up. It was a town of so little size and consequence that its name appears in no literary source, or at least none that has survived, until the Gospels themselves. The first mention of Nazareth in a secular source is a carved inscription, discovered in 1962 and dating from the third or fourth century; other archaeological evidence, from Nazareth itself, confirms the existence of a town on that site at the time of Christ. There is general agreement that the information in the two Nativity narratives cannot be relied upon as historical fact and that these narratives were inserted into the Gospels of Luke and Matthew to assert certain claims about Jesus: for example, that he was descended from King David, whose own roots lay in Bethlehem. These narratives include elaborate and mutually contradictory genealogies tracing the ancestry of Joseph, the father of Jesus, back to David—an irrelevant exercise, admittedly, if one also accepts the idea of the virgin birth. The Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew are utterly divergent and cannot, as the exegetes say, be harmonized. (The best historical account of the Nativity narratives is The Birth of the Messiah, by Raymond E. Brown, a veteran biblical scholar. It is an extraordinary piece of work—I found myself reading all the footnotes, which are helpfully provided at the bottom of each page rather than at the back of the book—and it is a good basic introduction to the way New Testament exegetes do their business.) That the Nativity narratives in Luke and Matthew convey very different information will probably not be apparent in the Nativity displays on town greens throughout the United States. They will show the infant Jesus being visited not only by shepherds (who appear only in Luke) but also by the Magi (who appear only in Matthew and whose number—commonly depicted as three—is not given).

We do not know the year in which Jesus was born, though we do know that the years spanned by his life coincide roughly with the first three and a half decades of the first century. It is possible that Jesus was not an only child, given the references to that effect in the Gospels, the letters of Saint Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, and the chronicles of Josephus. (Here, for example, is Matthew: "Is not his mother called Mary? And his brothers James and Joses and Simon and Judas, and his sisters, are they not all with us?") He was, probably, the son of a carpenter named Joseph, who may have died before Jesus reached maturity.

There is no reference in the Gospels to Joseph after Jesus begins teaching.

The fundamental fact about the young Jesus—indeed, about Jesus at any age—is that he was, as Geza Vermes recently observed, "a Jew and not a Christian." Vermes is a distinguished Jewish historian at Oxford University and an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls. He notes that Jesus was raised in Galilee and spent almost all of his life there (far, in those days, from the religious niceties of Jerusalem), where a sturdy if unsophisticated kind of Judaism was practiced. Jesus was circumcised as a Jew, lived as a Jew, prayed as a Jew, performed Jewish rituals, and spoke in Aramaic to his fellow Jews in terms that they and he would understand. All of this is presented frankly in the Gospels, though Christian scholars for centuries were not disposed to make very much of it. Jesus was inextricably a part of the early-first-century Jewish world. Then as now the Jewish world was large and diverse. Some eight million Jews inhabited the Roman empire, accounting for as many as ten percent of those who rendered unto Caesar.

Despite the Diaspora, which began well before the Christian era, the focal point of Jewish spiritual life remained Palestine, and the Palestine that Jesus knew was a land in religious and political ferment. Jesus may have been old enough to remember, or at least to have heard described in graphic terms, the tax revolt in A.D. 6, which the Romans suppressed. Charismatic, apocalyptic preachers roamed the countryside. Thanks to the chance discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, we know a great deal about, for instance, the Essenes, who followed a Teacher of Righteousness and held eschatological beliefs similar to some of those taught by Jesus. The eager suggestion, made soon after the scrolls were found, that the Teacher of Righteousness was in fact Jesus himself is not accepted by most scholars. The fact that the scrolls contain terminology that corresponds to much Gospel terminology—for example, references to a conflict between light and darkness—suggests, however, that certain ideas, and ways of talking about them, were in the air. Christian scholars, especially in Europe, have tended to emphasize an abrupt discontinuity between the contemporary Jewish situation and the teachings of Jesus. Jewish scholars such as Vermes and, earlier, Joseph Klausner, who might be presumed to have a greater familiarity with Jewish texts and deeper insight into Jewish history, tend to find a place for Jesus in the multiform first-century Judaic context (as do most American Christian biblical scholars).

It is fairy certain that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Baptism was common in the Jordan Valley among reformist Jewish sects. It symbolized repentance and conversion to the way of the prophets. The tradition of Jesus's baptism is extremely old, appears in three of the four Gospels, and flies in the face of early Christian teachings about the sinlessness of Jesus (recall form criticism's principle of dissimilarity). Ironically, we know more about John's appearance—he dressed in camel's hair— than about that of Jesus, of which the Gospels say not one word. After his baptism Jesus began a ministry in Galilee. How long he preached there can never be known. The Synoptic Gospels say one year, John says at least two. Jesus's message and his behavior attracted considerable attention, a sizable following, and much animosity. When, near the end of his life, he came to Jerusalem (had he been there before during his ministry, as John states?), he was turned over to the Romans by a faction of the Jewish establishment and in short order crucified. Precisely what he did that made a number of sufficiently powerful contemporaries want to see him dead is unclear. It is generally accepted, however, that a sign was nailed to the crucifix stating THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

To reconstruct what the historical Jesus actually preached, as opposed to what the early Christian communities interpreted, and then quoted him as saying, one has no choice but to rely on the findings of textual criticism. There is consensus on some things. For one, Jesus was an eschatological prophet (and so he viewed himself; in fact, he may have viewed himself as the final one), who spoke of a definitive coming of the Kingdom of God (meaning, in some sense, "salvation"). There is no record of his ever advocating secular revolution against Roman occupation; divine intervention in the very short term would have made that unnecessary. Many of his contemporaries entertained similar beliefs. The Kingdom, Jesus said, is "at hand," and he invited those who listened to him to embrace it. Jesus did not, however, say precisely when it would come (on one occasion he admitted that he did not know when it would come), though he said it would come soon. He did not spell out what its coming would entail. There is no evidence that he intended to found a Church, at least not as the term is commonly understood, but Jesus clearly wanted to call together a group of followers, and he appointed leaders—"the twelve"—to help guide that body.

Jesus was obviously iconoclastic. He spoke with enormous personal authority. Almost never do the evangelists record him citing earlier prophets, Scripture, or the law to justify his statements. (By and large, where biblical citations are attached to sayings of Jesus, they have been added by the evangelists, whoever they were, as glosses, in order to provide a grounding in prophecy and therefore a context of fulfillment.) Apparently Jesus's teachings on several matters deviated from contemporary Jewish belief—for example, in forbidding divorce. On his own authority he performed exorcisms and forgave sins. And he associated freely with the outcasts of society—lepers, prostitutes, the poor, and collaborators with the Roman regime (notably tax collectors). None of this seems to have gone down well with the religious authorities: Jesus remonstrates, "The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man who is a glutton, and a winebibber, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners." But were these grounds for execution?

E. P. Sanders, an Oxford historian, argues in his provocative new book Jesus and Judaism that they probably were not. What the Jewish establishment may have feared more than anything else was simply a disruption of public order and subsequent Roman reprisals—a well-founded concern, in retrospect, given the calamitous rebellion in Palestine a generation after the death of Jesus, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple. Jesus was not the only charismatic Jewish preacher to be executed during Rome's occupation of Palestine.

Sanders argues, too, that much of the central message of Jesus—about concern for the oppressed and about the love and forgiveness of God—was not antithetical to all Jewish thinking, though it is often portrayed that way in the Gospels. (This is especially the case in the Gospel of Saint Mark, which appears to have been compiled in Rome in the sensitive period right after Nero's persecution of the Christians and in the midst of the Jewish revolt in Palestine; one theory is that Mark was trying to put some distance between the beleaguered Roman Christians and the rebellious Palestinian Jews.) But the interest of Jesus in sinners and the downtrodden, unique or not, was clearly fundamental to his preaching. The parables of Jesus, which are largely though not wholly taken as authentic, and his sayings, particularly those known as "aphorisms of reversal" (for example, "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first"), which are also largely accepted as authentic, speak overwhelmingly about the dispossessed. Three verses in Matthew and Luke that most exegetes agree are among the oldest in the tradition and that almost certainly constitute Jesus material are included among the Beatitudes, delivered during the Sermon on the Plain (as Luke calls it; according to Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount): "Blessed are the poor: for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now: for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now: for you shall laugh." It is, of course, words like these that provide much of the impetus for modern liberation theologies, whether they be focused on political and social liberation for the downtrodden, as in Latin America, or on the liberation of women everywhere. Among the better-known liberation Christologies of the former kind are those by Gustavo Gutierrez (A Theology of Liberation, 1971), Juan Luis Segundo (The Liberation of Theology, 1975), and Jon Sobrino (Christology at the Crossroads, 1976).

As a growing number of feminist New Testament scholars have recently been pointing out, Jesus seems to have displayed attitudes toward women that were highly uncharacteristic of the first-century world. That those attitudes survive at all in Gospel texts compiled by men who may not have shared such views serves only to emphasize the importance of the tradition. Jesus associated freely with women and taught some of them as disciples. Women are frequently observed among his following, and many— for example, Martha, Mary, Susanna, and Joanna—are mentioned by name. The subjects of Jesus's parables are as likely to be women as men, and women in the parables are held up as models for emulation (or the reverse) no more or less often than are men. Jesus repeatedly expresses his concern for the plight of widows, refuses to shun the company of prostitutes and adulteresses, and performs numerous miracles in behalf of women. As noted, Jesus also forbade divorce. In the twentieth century divorce may be liberating for some women, but in the first century it was a calamity for most women. (In Jewish law a wife could not initiate a divorce, but her husband could do so at will and had no obligation to his spouse afterward.) The historicity of the preaching by Jesus on divorce is accepted by almost all scholars, though few go so far as to assert that in these sayings we have the ipsissima verba—the "very words themselves"—employed by Jesus. (A modern analogy: No one disputes the historicity of Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech; in that speech, however, Carter never once used the word malaise. )

The Jesus movement, like other reform and renewal movements in first-century Judaism, was highly egalitarian, and the egalitarianism appears to have survived into the early decades of Christianity. The pre-Pauline Christian baptismal formulation, preserved in Paul's epistle to the Galatians, is a radical declaration. It reads: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Elisabeth Sch[cedilla]ssler Fiorenza, the author of In Memory of Her (1983) and perhaps the most prominent feminist theologian writing today, has attempted to reconstruct—as best one can, given the essentially androcentric nature of the sources—the role of women in the earliest Christian communities. She argues persuasively that many women played key roles in the early Church, served as priests and missionaries, often worked with their husbands as a team, and were members of the church leadership. Eventually, however, the Church readjusted to the patriarchal patterns of the surrounding culture. There is some speculation, incidentally, that one of the hypothesized pre-Gospel sources—L, the source thought to be unique to the Gospel according to Luke—may have been the work of a woman. Luke contains more passages involving women (about forty) than any other Gospel; roughly half of those passages appear only in Luke, and most of them seem to come from L.

The questions of Jesus's self-understanding is intriguing but ultimately elusive. It is not clear which of the titles or designations with which he is endowed in the Gospels he actually gave himself. Son of God, Servant of the Lord, and Messiah seem mainly to have been added to the texts by later believers. (There is a lot of controversy about the term Messiah, which had a range of meanings in the first century.) Jesus refers to himself on some seventy occasions as "the Son of man," a designation that appears to be somehow mystical and significant. It turns out to have been, among other things, a conventional way of speaking about oneself in Aramaic in the third person (as Jesus does in this passage: "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head"). In passages that scholars accept as reflecting the earthly Jesus, he calls himself a physician (in the sense of a healer of souls) and a shepherd (leading a flock), and he accepts the designation of prophet.

What chiefly seems to distinguish Jesus from other Jewish charismatics is the intensity of what has been called his Abba experience, an experience that perhaps lies at the heart of his sense of authority. Abba is an Aramaic word for a male parent—the word a son would use (the connotation is "father dear," but the word's simplicity and ease of pronunciation suggests the speech of a child) rather than a word that might be used by a historian, an exegete, or a social-welfare agency. Jesus refers to God as "Abba" repeatedly in the Gospels. Abba is not a word that first-century Jews commonly used in prayer or supplication. The word is not unique to Jesus, but it is employed by him in a unique fashion, and if there is any word in the New Testament that one can be absolutely certain that Jesus used, used frequently, and used with a particular meaning, it is this one. The word even appears in its Aramaic form in the Greek text of the Gospel according to Mark. Greek texts are the earliest ones we have; the survival in them of Aramaicisms—whether these are words or peculiar speech patterns—is of considerable exegetic significance. In Mark, Jesus is quoted as saying on the eve of his death "Abba, [and then, translated] Father, all things are possible to Thee. Take away this cup from Me. "Nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou wilt." Abba is twice used in the epistles of Saint Paul. Personalizing a relationship to God in this way, and with such frequency, is utterly new. On just one occasion does Jesus speak of God in the sense of "your father in heaven" or "our common father": in John 20:17, a passage that occurs, significantly, after the Resurrection. Everywhere else he refers to God simply as his own father. (One might ask, what about the Lord's Prayer? The word our in the prayer's opening address— "Our Father, who art in heaven . . . "—is actually an emendation by Matthew; the shorter and more authentic version in Luke omits the pronoun.)

In the view of scholars the Abba tradition survives in the Gospels not because it represents anything traditional about Judaism but because it stuck in the memory of those who had known Jesus. Jesus used Abba to mean something special, to imply a relationship, to somehow define his own ministry, and he used it at some of the most critical points in his life.

Jesus did not, however, invoke Abba when he was on the cross. He said, instead, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The question is another of those that scholars believe ring true historically. The words, quoted as Jesus would have uttered them, in Aramaic, come from Psalm 22. And after Jesus spoke them, he died.


I met with Edward Schillebeeckx one day last winter in his room at the Albertinum, the Dominican House at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. It was a cold and snowy day, and Schillebeeckx, who suffers from a heart condition and had just recovered from the flu, seemed somewhat frail; his thick eyeglasses and fine white hair reinforced the impression. Schillebeeckx, a Fleming by birth, is the author of many books on a variety of subjects: marriage, clerical celibacy, Mary, the Eucharist. During the early 1960s he achieved considerable prominence as an adviser to the Dutch bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Not until relatively late in his life did Schillebeeckx undertake the two works that have won him widespread recognition—Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1974) and Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord ( 1977). A third book, completing what will stand as a christological trilogy, is in preparation.

Schillebeeckx has on three occasions—in 1968, 1976, and 1982—been challenged by the Vatican to explain his theological views. Each time he has been exonerated. The challenges have come on various issues: prominently, his failure, in the Church's view, to place enough stress on the traditional Chalcedonian formulas regarding the divinity of Jesus and to emphasize the "objective reality" of the Resurrection. Schillebeeckx's response to the first charge has always been simply that the terms used at Chalcedon, redolent of Middle Platonism, have no real meaning any longer for modern people. Over a millennium and a half such basic words as person—as in "two natures in one person" and "three persons in one God"—have been radically transformed in meaning. (I recall David Tracy saying that, sure, he could affirm the language of Nicaea and Chalcedon, but that he had had the benefit of a great deal of study. He wondered what a poll of ordinary Christians would reveal about their understanding of any statement in their creeds.) The question of the Resurrection consumes a considerable portion of Schillebeeckx's book Jesus, and it was the subject that I most wanted to discuss.

"The first thing to remember," Schillebeeckx said, "is that there are limitations to what we can know by using the historical-critical approach. The only texts that we have show Jesus already proclaimed as Christ by the Church and by his first disciples. The New Testament is the testimony of believing people, and what they are saying is not history but expressions of their belief in Jesus as Christ. But that belief is filled up and determined by who Jesus historically was, and this allows us to reconstruct Jesus to a certain extent. In Jesus I tried to reconstruct what happened to the apostles at the Resurrection, what is meant by the Resurrection. It was, of course, impossible, but we have some important elements of the story. Here is the central one: We know that the apostles were flying away after the death of Jesus. Then, within a matter of days, they are boldly proclaiming that he lives. What happened in between?"

There are no eyewitness accounts in the Gospels of the Resurrection, and certainly nothing to justify the common portrayal of that event in devotional art: as the great boulder rolls away, Jesus, clad in a winding sheet, blazes forth in glory from his grave. What one does find in some of the Gospels are divergent accounts of various people visiting Jesus's tomb and finding it empty These are thought by Schillebeeckx and others to reflect an ancient pilgrimage tradition. In the decades between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, Christians visiting Jerusalem were shown an "empty tomb" as a devotional aid; the empty-tomb tradition was then incorporated into the Gospel texts. Far from being a proof of the Resurrection, the stories of an empty tomb reflect the practice of people who already believed.

Later on in the Gospels there are similarly divergent accounts of appearances by Jesus to one or more of the disciples. These cannot be taken at face value either. The idea of an appearance is probably not meant to convey an actual sighting but rather to suggest something more along the lines of a recognition. This is the sense it has in the epistles, when Paul describes his blinding on the road to Damascus, his vision of Jesus, and his subsequent conversion. It is clear from the context that what Paul really experiences is a "voice," a word that survives today with a full complement of notoriously ineffable connotations. It may very well be, as Schillebeeckx suggests, that the evangelists, writing after Paul, used Paul's description of his encounter (with a "risen" Jesus) as a model for their own descriptions of what transpired in the aftermath of the Crucifixion.

The fact remains that Christians believed, soon after the death of Jesus, in something they called a Resurrection—believed in it so intensely that they were willing to die for it. (Few if any of the twelve apostles are thought to have died a natural death.) Schillebeeckx begins his exploration of the "Easter experience" with the failure of Jesus's ministry in Galilee, a failure that is nowhere stated explicitly in the Gospel texts but that has been inferred by many scholars. For example, the number of references to the large size of the crowds that Jesus attracts diminishes markedly in the latter half of some Gospels, and anathemas are pronounced on towns that have apparently washed their hands of Jesus ("Woe unto you Chorazin. Woe unto you Bethsaida"). Rejected in Galilee, Schillebeeckx contends, Jesus decided to bring his message, the eschatological message about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, to Jerusalem. He probably knew that his life would be in danger. ("One would have to declare Jesus something of a simpleton," Schillebeeckx writes, "if it were maintained that he went up from Galilee to Jerusalem in all innocence, without any idea of the deadly opposition he was to encounter there.") And he probably made some sort of connection in his own mind between the possibility of death and the coming of the Kingdom. The account of the Last Supper, though heavily overlaid with material that reflects a developed liturgy of the Eucharist, also contains very early passages suggesting, in what may be a recollection of Jesus's own words, that death was not to be the end of the matter.

Jesus was arrested, and the disciples fled. The theme of rejection and denial by the apostles is so strong in the Gospels that behind it must lie some hard core of fact. The apostles fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane; they run away when the authorities come to get him; Simon Peter even refuses to admit having known him. As Schillebeeckx sums it up, the apostles left Jesus "in the lurch." (This notion survives in texts that were written under the auspices of a Church that had been led by the very men the Gospels criticize; there is obviously some importance to the idea of rejection. ) As the disciples scattered, perhaps to Galilee, Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin and convicted, not, in Schillebeeckx's view, for anything he had preached (although the Gospels contend that he was condemned for blasphemy) but rather on the technicality of his refusal to answer the tribunal's questions—in other words, contempt of court. The nature of first-century Jewish legal proceedings is one thing that historians can reconstruct with a fair degree of reliability. Another is the horrible technique of crucifixion, which caused death, often by asphyxiation, only after prolonged agony. Indeed, a leg of the victim was sometimes broken in the end, in order to diminish his capacity to raise his hanging body, anchored by nailed feet, and thereby gain a full breath. This apparently was not necessary in the case of Jesus. He was already dead when the executioners came around to break his leg.

The Resurrection was, at least in part, a Resurrection of faith. The disciples had been dispersed. They dared not associate with one another. At the same time, in the view of Schillebeeckx, they began to reflect on the traumatic events of the recent past, experiencing intense feelings of guilt and repentance. They had been men "of little faith," as Jesus had said they were. But had they lost the faith? Schillebeeckx describes a conversion process in which the disciples, upon recollecting the Jesus they had known, and what he had done and said, came one after another to a kind of illumination: a palpable sense of forgiveness and renewal, and a conviction that fellowship with Jesus—a risen Jesus who was actively present—remained possible. Precisely what happened, of course, one cannot describe. It is very likely, however, that it was the apostle Simon who was the first to experience a conversion, and that he was instrumental in gathering the disciples ("but some doubted," in the words of Matthew) together once more. Among the apostles it was Simon to whom Jesus made his first appearance (for example, in Luke: "The Lord has indeed risen, and has appeared to Simon") and it was to Simon that the early Church, though putting the words in the mouth of Jesus, gave the additional name Peter (Latin for "rock"), apparently in recognition of the fundamental role he played.

As for the Resurrection itself—as something that occurred in reality, and not merely in the minds of the disciples—Schillebeeckx deems it to be so alien to human experience, so "apart" from human history, that it cannot be adequately explained or understood by means of historical-critical methodology. One accepts it on faith. And when we met in Nijmegen, Schillebeeckx made it clear that he does. "The Resurrection is a vindication of Jesus," he said, toward the end of a long conversation, "but it is not only a kind of ratification of the values proclaimed by Jesus. It is also a ratification of the person of Jesus. Something happened to Jesus himself. The Resurrection is not only about what happened to the disciples after the death of Jesus. There are some theologians who are saying that the Resurrection can be reduced to the Resurrection of our belief. I think there is more. As I said, something happened. Something happened to Jesus."

The Jesus books of Edward Schillebeeckx are remarkable pieces of scholarship, extraordinarily erudite yet thoroughly accessible. One has a sense of the author as a man of infinite patience. One has the sense of him also as one who lives for his subject, in all meanings of that phrase. I asked him, as I was leaving, how he spent a typical day. Schillebeeckx said' "I work. And I work. And then—of course I get my sleep."

The First Coming

Not long ago a photocopy of an article in The New York Review of Books appeared on the bulletin board at the Jesuit Residence on the campus of Loyola University, in Chicago. Scrawled on the article was a question: "Can you believe this was written by a member of the Loyola faculty?"

The author was Thomas Sheehan, a professor of philosophy, and the article, though ostensibly a review of Hans Küng's Eternal Life?, was really an evaluation of the status of recent scholarship about Jesus. Sheehan referred to a "liberal consensus"—a consensus that, in his view, had emerged among progressive theologians who employ or rely on modern critical methods—and he argued that the liberal consensus represented not merely a demythologizing of Christian, specifically Catholic, belief but also the dismantling of orthodox doctrine. Theologians had, he wrote, "pushed Catholic theology to the point where it seems to break down." Sheehan described this development as immensely promising. The appearance of Sheehan's article provoked something of a tempest. The Catholic magazine Commonweal commissioned and printed several rebuttals, generating in turn numerous letters to the editor, responses to the letters, and responses to the responses. The magazine required several issues to purge itself of the debate.

Sheehan's latest book, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, was published this fall. The title of the book is taken from Saint Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist and the first to refer not only to the first coming, of Christ, but also to some sort of second coming. Jesus had spoken of the coming of the Kingdom of God which he believed was imminent, but early Christianity eventually shifted the focus from the message to the messenger. (The proclaimer became the proclaimed, in Bultmann's famous phrase.) The Christian tradition, in Sheehan's view, amounts to an enormous distortion of the original message of the Kingdom of God. Sheehan proposes a reinterpretation that is free of the notion of Christ ("that is, without interpretations that equate the kingdom of God with Christ's salvific acts . . and ultimately with his divine person") and more or less free of Jesus ("not dismissing the prophet, but also not turning him into an idol"). It is Sheehan's hope that the contemporary resurgence in critical studies about Jesus means that Christianity will discover what he believes it always was about: "Not God or Christ or Jesus of Nazareth, but the endless, unresolvable mystery inscribed at the heart of being human."

I joined Sheehan for lunch one day at a rather crowded restaurant on Broadway Street. He is sharp-featured and swarthy in appearance, precise and self-confident in speech. There is a kind of voice that, though not loud, somehow tends to be everywhere audible in a room dense with conversation, and Sheehan's voice is like that. (The result was that as we talked, surrounding conversations were gradually extinguished; I think everyone was probably listening to Sheehan's peroration.) He expressed a certain puzzlement at the refusal of Christian scholars to draw the conclusions that he himself draws from the evidence. "They say, 'Yes, the scholarship says this, or that, or the other, but I still believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he existed from all eternity' they just continue to incant the myth " Sheehan explained that while some had called him a post-Christian agnostic, he preferred to be thought of as a "pre-Christian catholic, catholic with a small c"—willing to acknowledge what was universally valid in the message of a pre-Easter Jesus who was not God. On such terms alone is he willing to affirm a belief in what Jesus is about.

"I can subscribe to that formulation," he said, "only as long as I am allowed to interpret it: Jesus is a symbol of human liberation. I believe that, sure. The real issue is that Jesus didn't come to proclaim himself. He didn't come to proclaim any particular interpretation of himself. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God—something that in itself is problematic, couched as it is in an apocalyptic, eschatological language.

"To say I believe in Jesus means, first of all, that I want to take Jesus at his word. To take Jesus at his word means to step behind Christology and take the content of the message as it was actually preached. We can find out through scholarship what that message was. What is the message of the Kingdom of God? The future is now present—where the future means the eschatological coming of God—granted, present in an incipient, inchoate way, but present and soon to be fulfilled. That's the bottom line. Translate that into terms we recognize: the incarnation of God among his people, God refusing to make a distinction between divinity and humanity Translate that: religion is over; religion that draws distinctions and tells you how to get from the human to the divine is over. Eschatology is converted into the tasks of justice and mercy. It's as simple as that.

"There's nothing absolutely foundational in Christianity that is obligatory for anybody—for the Salvadoran guerrilla, the Evanstonian bourgeois Catholic, David Tracy, or me. What you have is always the slippery ground of hermeneutics, of the need to interpret. Frankly, I don't think that there's a definable orthodoxy any longer even within Roman Catholicism. I know a Jesuit theologian who told a group of us that the Christ event—Jesus sent by God and the whole ball of wax—applies only to Western culture. 'Christ is the symbol of Western culture for being touched by God. Ontologically, the Christ does not apply, may never have had any significance, for Eastern cultures.'

"I think what we have today is an explosion of pluralities. All efforts to reduce to unity are over. This is not without precedent. In the first century A.D. Christianity was not a unity, it was a plurality of different approaches. Johannine Christology was very different from Mark's Christology. Q Christology was very different from that of Luke and Matthew. You don't even get the same interpretations of what the victory of Jesus was. Was there a Resurrection? Was it an exaltation? Was it a rapture into glory? What you had was a plurality that only pulled itself together under force of political circumstance after two or three hundred years. At Chalcedon, perhaps. In the early years variety was the norm. You didn't even have the same structures for governing the Church. Did all early Christian communities have bishops? No. Perhaps what we're seeing as the Church enters its third millennium is a reprise.

"That doesn't mean that we've lost anything. Everything is still available for retrieval—for pulling from it some kernel of truth, depending on the interest of the group looking back into it. If you break down the surfaces of positions you can still find something in the most speculative fourth-century Cappadocian Greek Fathers that is useful today for liberation theology."

Thomas Sheehan is a layman. He is a philosopher, not a theologian, and he stands at the modern end of a long, uneven, tradition: of secular writers who have ventured into Jesus territory. His book will probably hit a nerve in some educated Christians, who will suspect that Sheehan is saying what many theologians don't dare to say but deep down really believe. I think that perception is wildly incorrect.


A striking quality of Jesus is his utter independence—in his life and in subsequent history. No one interpretation has ever achieved a monopoly. In his recent book Jesus Through the Centuries, a survey of perceptions of Jesus in art, literature, philosophy, and social science, the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, of Yale University, calls Jesus "the man who belongs to the world." It is hard to think of any other figure who, over the years, has been claimed by so many and in so many different ways and for so many different purposes, who yet has never been identified exclusively with any single cause, and who has remained perpetually available for use. The diversity that Pelikan finds is extraordinary. And Pelikan is concerned only with how Jesus has been perceived in the West.

Diversity of interpretation will inevitably increase; on this point Sheehan is surely correct. The scholarship of the past few decades has largely been specific to the developed world. It has involved the tasks of both demythologizing and translating: of making the content of first-century Palestinian texts somehow accessible to educated "Christians in the twentieth-century West. But the developed world's way, for so long the dominant way, is already a minority's way. It is in the Third World that most Christians now live. There are more Presbyterians in South Korea than in Scotland, more Anglicans in Africa than in England, more Catholics in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern Hemisphere. We are only just beginning to hear from scholars in the Third World—in Latin America (primarily), Africa, and Asia. In East Africa, Christians call Jesus "the first ancestor." In Ghana he is "the great snake." The Lakota Sioux refer to him as "the buffalo calf of God." Contexts shape Christology, and they always have.

There is something to be said, finally, for mythology. Around Christmas time last year the context I found myself in was Chicago, Illinois. I had spent a long day talking with various scholars about Jesus research, and at times I had had the distinct impression of being present at some sort of clinical procedure. Walking up Michigan Avenue in the early evening through a light snowfall, I came to the Water Tower, brightly lit. On the pavement nearby was a Salvation Army band, which, as I approached, began to play "O Little Town of Bethlehem." And I must say that it was quite a thrill.