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Recent Books on the Historical Jesus


  • Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: From Reimarus to Wrede. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

  • G.A. Wells, The Jesus Legend. Open Court Publishing Company, 1996.

  • G.A. Wells, The Jesus Myth. Open Court Publishing Company, 1999.

  • Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. The Free Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


In the 24th chapter of the Book of Joshua, after the promised land has been conquered, Joshua leads his people in a ceremony of covenant renewal before God. To commemorate the occasion he erects a "stone of witness." Its purpose is to serve both as a monument of great victories won and a rebuke should the people fall away from faithfulness to the God who gave them these victories. It strikes me that Albert Schweitzer's great book The Quest of the Historical Jesus (originally published in German in 1906) is much like the witness stone of Joshua. It is an irreplaceable monument capsulizing, and critiquing, a great era of scholarly enterprise, that of the original quest for the Jesus of history. It did that job matchlessly well. And it acts as a silent reproof to much current scholarship which has hastened to forget the lessons Schweitzer taught. Thus its recent reprinting is an important event.

Schweitzer's tome not only summarized the major (and often the minor) scholarly works on the subject; it also set that chronicle in the context of intellectual history. Tracing trends in the research and carefully indicating the dogmatic and anti-dogmatic agendas motivating many of the Lives of Jesus he discussed, Schweitzer charted out, as Bultmann might say, both the Historie and the Geschichte of the Jesus quest. That is, he reviewed the facts and set forth their larger significance. Schweitzer showed how gradually the critical study of the gospels had forced the delineation of three great alternatives. First, are the gospel traditions to be taken as historical or supernatural? Second, should a Life of Jesus be based on the Gospel of John or the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)? Third, should Jesus' mission and message be understood as primarily moralistic or eschatological? It was a great gain, Schweitzer said, for scholars to come to grips with the pervasive presence of legendary material in the gospels (though Schweitzer himself still felt he could discern a goodly amount of authentic sayings, enough to build on). It was just as important to decide that to whatever degree the Synoptics might be historical, John certainly was not, since it contradicts the others so grossly. And most important of all, it was vital to determine that Jesus was not a liberal, nondogmatic preacher of morality and generalized humanitarianism, but rather a prophet heralding the soon-coming end of the age.  

Schweitzer claimed to have exploded the hitherto-regnant "modern" Jesus of liberal Protestantism, a proponent of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. This Jesus was a figment of the Modernist imagination and a figurehead of liberalism against orthodox Protestantism and Catholicism. But Schweitzer by no means proposed to return to the dogmatic myth-man of the Creeds. He still wanted the historical Jesus. It was just that the liberal Protestant questers hadn't found him. Schweitzer thought he had. Building on the work of Johannes Weiss (Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, 1892), he was fully prepared to discover a Jesus who would turn out to be an embarrassment to modern Christianity of all stripes. He did not insist on a Jesus who would be his own mirror-image. And a strange Jesus is what he found. It was a Jesus who spearheaded a movement of repentance aimed at forcing God into granting the messianic age of redemption to Jewry. When this failed, he decided it was God's will that he himself die to bear the full brunt of the end-time tribulation in his own person, so everyone else might escape it. Afterward, he expected, he would rise as the apocalyptic redeemer and judge the earth. So, unlike liberal Protestants, the historical Jesus was much interested in dogma, only it wasn't particularly orthodox or Christian dogma. Schweitzer's Jesus was indeed an embarrassment to both the liberals and the orthodox. Schweitzer was still so captivated by what he described as the current of spiritual force streaming from the shadowy figure of the noble but delusional Jesus that he was willing to leave everything behind and become a medical missionary in French Equatorial Africa. Schweitzer, then, was hardly trying to debunk a Jesus he didn't want to take seriously, the motive conservatives always ascribe to critical scholars like the Jesus Seminar.

Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus is often said to have put an end to the original quest. And such was his intention, by succeeding where his predecessors had failed. And in general, scholarship followed him in seeing Jesus as an eschatological (i.e., end-times) preacher. In any case, Schweitzer had declared the old liberal quest dead as a dinosaur. He revealed its bankruptcy by showing how un-historical and theologically self-serving it had always been. The jig was up. In future, he thought, it would have to be Schweitzer's way or no way. As he framed the alternatives, it was a choice between "thorough-going eschatology" and "thorough-going skepticism." The major advocate of the latter was Wilhelm Wrede, author or another pivotal book of New Testament scholarship, The Messianic Secret (1901). Wrede was much more skeptical than Schweitzer about the historical value of Matthew and Mark. Schweitzer had thought both gospels basically reliable, but Wrede saw that even Mark, the earliest gospel, was essentially fictive (a conclusion strongly reinforced in recent years by Werner Kelber, et. al., The Passion in Mark, Frans Neirynck, Duality in Mark, and Robert M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark). Wrede admitted that little if anything could be reliably ascertained about the historical Jesus. And Schweitzer raised the spectre of Wrede as if to scare the reader into accepting his own alternative.

Very little changed after Schweitzer, for all the lip-service paid him. Lives of Jesus continued to be written, now mostly by Neo-Orthodox scholars who seized on Schweitzer's demonstration that the historical Jesus after all held robust dogmatic beliefs but used this discovery as a trick to sneak traditional Reformed Protestant doctrine back into the mouth of Jesus. The end of the age he predicted must have been the end of the Jewish dispensation, that's all. Schweitzer had been hi-jacked by the apologists for orthodoxy, who used his book as a club to strike back at liberals who had used their own historical Jesuses to attack orthodoxy. This trend continues unabated today, especially in the writings of evangelical apologists N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington III. On the other hand, the passage of time has produced a backlash to Schweitzer's eschatological Jesus as well. Many scholars, including Richard Horsley, John Dominic Crossan, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, James Breech, Bernard Brandon Scott, and Robert W. Funk of the Jesus Seminar, have resurrected the old liberal Jesus, albeit in somewhat new dress, new idioms, and he is decidedly non-apocalyptic. And he is again suspiciously reminiscent of each scholar who paints his "historical" portrait.

But one scholar, while not embracing Schweitzer's own sketch of the historical Jesus, has at least taken Schweitzer's ultimatum seriously. G.A. Wells, in a series of erudite studies, has embraced something like Wrede's alternative: thorough-going skepticism. Wells, emeritus professor of German language and literature at the University of London, approaches gospel scholarship as an outsider. Odd thing about outsiders in this field: Christian apologists always declare them to be refreshingly objective when they urge conservative positions, but rank amateurs and cranks when they do not. Wells has suffered much abuse, falling into the latter category, but he always answers as a gentleman, as in his two latest books.

All of Wells's books (well, almost all--see below) have in common their advocacy of the Christ-Myth theory once argued powerfully by Arthur Drews, Bruno Bauer, James Robertson, B.W. Smith, and others. The theory came under severe criticism, and scarcely anyone today will take it seriously. Even the supposed arch-skeptic Rudolf Bultmann once said that no one in his right mind doubts that Jesus existed. In the face of this universal disdain, it has taken Wells a good deal of courage to rehabilitate the theory for our day. And it is important to recognize that Wells has significantly modified the Christ-Myth theory. First, he is more modest in his claims than his predecessors. He maintains only that the notion that Jesus is pure legend is at least as plausible a reading of the evidence as any of the critical theories that, while demythologizing Jesus, assume that he did exist as a historical entity. He does not try to rule out competing views as absurd or incredible. Second, Wells appeals for the mythic prototype for Jesus not to the Hellenistic Mystery Religions with their dying-and-rising gods, but rather to Hellenistic Jewish speculation on the figure of personified Wisdom. In texts like Proverbs chapter 8, Sirach chapter 1, and Wisdom of Solomon chapter 7, Wisdom was said to have first assisted God in creating the world, then to have descended into it to summon foolish mortals to repent and learn from her, to have been rejected, and to have returned to heaven. Wells thinks that, just as Philo thought the Word of God had been personified in the Old Testament patriarchs, so was Jesus a kind of historicized version of Wisdom. Paul, on Wells's reading, believed that Jesus, Wisdom incarnate, had in some vaguely conceived past time, come to earth and been crucified by hostile supernatural forces (1 Corinthians 2:8), but of a Galilean prophet and teacher, of a miracle worker born of a virgin and executed by Pontius Pilate, Paul has nothing at all to say. For Paul, Jesus was barely a historical figure, little more than Asclepius or Hercules, whom legend also made figures of the (vague) historical past. It was only subsequent to Paul that the legend of the (recent) Galilean Jesus began to grow. Sayings became ascribed to him that Paul would certainly have quoted as germane to many subjects he discussed, had they been coined already in his day. Only a scarce few later New Testament writings, mainly the spurious 2 Timothy, make any reference to gospel-like sayings or episodes.

Wells's case is so shocking to the conventionally religious that many of them seem unable to entertain his views long enough to understand them before firing off polemical broadsides. And a major reason Wells has continued to produce books on the same topic is to keep responding to his critics, lest his theory become buried in misrepresentation. Each new defense brings some new facet of the matter to light. The result is that, while each of Wells's books stands on its own, anyone who has read one or more of his previous books will still find every new one, including The Jesus Legend, illuminating. The book spends minimal time setting forth the case for the Christ-Myth theory and goes on to consider a fascinating array of allied topics, such as whether the ethics attributed to Jesus are as noble as even many unbelievers say they are, and whether the gospels are anti-Semitic. He also provides case studies on  the work of particular apologists like Protestant John Warwick Montgomery and Catholic John P. Meier.

But there is even more reason for the long-time Wells reader to look into his latest book, The Jesus Myth, because here Wells proves once and for all he is no crank riding a hobby-horse. For in that most rare of scholarly spectacles, we see him changing his mind! In The Jesus Myth, Wells retreats from the pure Christ-Myth position, granting that Burton L. Mack (The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins) has established a credible portrait of Jesus as a Cynic-like sage whose sayings are contained in the earliest stratum of the Q Document. Wells is still quite adamant that the full-blown figure of the Jesus Christ of the gospels is a myth. The case is similar to that of King Arthur: there may well have been some Romanized British war chief back in the sixth century, who in some measure gave rise to the figure of King Arthur, but that hardly means that Mallory's Arthur is a historical figure. Still, we must not minimize the importance of what may seem a subtle shift. What Wells now says is not essentially different from the estimate of Bultmann and other Christian radical critics who have long admitted that only a largely unknown, minimally historical Jesus lies somewhere behind the myth-screen of the church's dogma. With The Jesus Myth Wells has come much closer to the mainstream.

Should we conclude that the latest Wells has refuted the earlier Wells? I do not. For it seems to me that Burton Mack's arguments establishing the Cynic color of the Q sayings actually undermines their value as evidence for an historical Jesus. The discernible consistency, as well as the distinctive "tang" of the sayings, are now seen to stem not from one gifted imagination (that of an historical Jesus) but rather from the collective style of the Cynic movement. And the sheer number of sayings imply we are dealing with a collection of sayings from various originally unnamed sources, later compiled under one name proverbial for wisdom, like the collections of proverbs ascribed to Solomon in the Old Testament.

Charlotte Allen, like Wells, is a well-read outsider, and her book The Human Christ is written for outsiders who are interested in the historical Jesus debate but lack the time to familiarize themselves with the ever-expanding body of literature on the subject. Allen has absorbed a lot of it, and some of her chapters are quite helpful in bringing Schweitzer's classic up to date. She shows justified skepticism over many of the most recent historical Jesuses, and one can only cheer her on in these cases. But there is something amiss here. Just as Luke apparently sought to supplant Mark and Q (Luke 1:1-4), so does Charlotte Allen seem to want to supersede Schweitzer, whom she faults for being a pedantic stringer-together of endless book reviews. This assessment makes a strength into a weakness as far as I am concerned, since Schweitzer's book is an invaluable repository of information about a whole raft of fascinating tomes long unobtainable. She also underestimates the synthetic dimension of his study and gives no hint of the ubiquitous wit and gift for brilliant and striking metaphor Schweitzer displayed.

Where she does supplement Schweitzer, covering much of the same ground, is to substitute gossipy background information (itself quite interesting!) about the scholars both discuss. But Allen also makes much of the supposedly serious neglect by Schweitzer of a handful of English dilettantes and pamphleteers whose (by her account) amateurish and sophomoric attacks on the traditional Jesus of Christian faith preceded the work of the German Hermann Samuel Reimarus, with whose writings Schweitzer's survey begins. One wonders why, if these Englishmen were such inconsequential hacks as Allen makes them, she would think it so significant for Schweitzer to have omitted them? The answer, I think, is that Allen dismisses virtually all the scholars she discusses as being on the same level! Throughout her book, Allen, a confessed Roman Catholic, seems possessed of a notion that any theory, any viewpoint, is an arbitrary dogma, an unscientific myth (except hers, of course), that one picks them up by osmosis or by hypnosis if one is not careful, and that such theories completely bias the outcome of one's research from the outset. Such researches, by the likes of David Friedrich Strauss, Alfred Loisy, F.C. Baur, or Rudolf Bultmann, can be smugly dismissed once their supposedly defining viewpoint is revealed. Allen pays virtually no attention to the data and the specific arguments these scholars offered for their views. It is enough for her to know that Baur was a Hegelian, Bultmann was an existentialist. They must have whittled down Jesus to size to fit their predilections. In fact, Baur's particular schema of early Christian history was established in its essentials before he ever read Hegel, and its validity or lack of it has nothing to do with any special dogma of Hegel. Similarly, Bultmann did adopt Heidegger's existentialist framework to demythologize the New Testament, but was it an arbitrary choice? Hardly: Heidegger had himself been a Catholic seminarian and got his ideas from demythologizing Christianity himself in the first place! And to charge that Bultmann derived his scientific model of the universe as a closed system from his doctoral studies of ancient Epicureanism--! She makes it sound as if Strauss's Life of Jesus Critically Examined, no doubt the most detailed and meticulous book ever written on the gospels even today, were simply a function of left-wing Hegelianism and German imperialism. Pity the poor reader who has read Charlotte Allen and is discouraged by her from reading Strauss's (or Schweitzer's) infinitely superior work. Loisy she accuses flat out of embracing gospel criticism just because he "wanted to be thought forward-looking." A single glance at any page of Loisy's still arresting books will show the absurdity of this libel.

Allen is in the final analysis an apologist of the same stripe as Luke Timothy Johnson, whose blurb, not surprisingly, appears on the dust jacket. She employs the standard moves of this school of anti-critical retrenchers. For instance, she gloats that Baur's theories, as well as his dating of the New Testament books, were disproved and are just plain wrong, though, mysteriously, many scholars still seem to be influenced by them. This is just a spin-doctoring way of saying that though some have criticized Baur's views, others do not believe Baur has been refuted at all and thus continue to hold to his opinions. Like James Charlesworth of Princeton and the late Raymond E. Brown (who nonetheless was still a little too left-wing for her tastes), she rejoices that we can now ignore the massive scholarship of the History of Religions School that interpreted the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul in Gnostic categories. No matter how compelling the Gnostic and Mystery Religion analogies to the New Testament are, the mere fact that there exist some Jewish parallels (in the Dead Sea Scrolls), no matter how remote or incidental, automatically entitles these apologists to leave early Christian origins right where they belong (according to Christian theology), in the Jewish (= Old Testament) womb.

Some of Allen's gloating is premature. She delights that Robert Eisenman's first-century C.E. dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls was refuted by the Carbon dating he himself urged be performed, but she seems unaware of more recent tests that have vindicated him. She appeals to John A.T. Robinson's The Priority of John, as many apologists do, to vindicate the historical reliability of that gospel, but she ought to have read Maurice Casey's scathing 1996 rebuttal Is John's Gospel True? which handily reveals Robinson's last book as the embarrassment it is.

Books like this one try to smuggle by the reader the outrageous assumption that everyone has something to prove except Christian apologists. For Allen, it is the height of philosophical eccentricity to find miracle stories historically implausible; it is ridiculous and reductionist, downright superstitious in fact, to make the gospels myth and legend. There is something Orwellian here. The Human Christ is one more attempt, with the empty urbanity of a G.K. Chesterton or a William F. Buckley, to assure the troubled reader that all is well, he can return to his dogmatic slumber. I think of another such pearl of smug wisdom from Anglican pundit Dean Inge. Making sport, as Allen does, of much recent band-wagon theology, Inge wrote: "He who marries himself to the spirit of the age will often find himself a widower." Maybe so, but we have to ask, is necrophilia a better option?   



CopyrightŠ2009 by Robert M Price
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