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A New Quest of the Biblical Jesus by James M. Robinson


James M. Robinson is the Arthur J. Letts Professor of Religion and Director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate School and Co-chair of the International Q Project. Published by SCM Press LTD, Bloomsbury Street, London, 1959. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1. Introduction


[Editor's Note: The extensive footnotes for these chapters are omitted. They are available only in the printed copy.]

A. The ‘Bultmannian’ Epoch in German Theology

The present work is intended as a programmatic essay, i.e. as a contribution to basic thought about the unfulfilled task of New Testament scholarship. Hence its point of departure is not in the relatively untroubled and uninterrupted quest of the historical Jesus going on in French’ and Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Rather it is based upon the conviction that this continuation of the nineteenth-century German quest ought probably to be interrupted or at least disturbed. The present study has to do with a quite different kind of quest based upon new premises, procedures and objectives, a quest which may well succeed in a way the other did not. For a new and promising point of departure has been worked out by precisely those scholars who are most acutely aware of the difficulties of the previous quest.’ As a matter of fact this new development is recognized in its full significance only when one observes that it forms a central thrust in a second, ‘post-Bultmannian’ phase of post-war German theology.

Clearly the first phase of post-war German theology was the rise of the Buitmannian position to the centre of debate. The cumulative weight of Bultmann’s prodigious career, focused into the concrete programme of demythologizing, burst like a meteor into the void caused by the attrition of the Nazi ideology, the war and post-war collapse, and the passing of such leading New Testament scholars as Lietzmann, Büchsel, Behm, von Soden, Lohmeyer, Kittel, Dibelius, and Schniewind. Such pupils of Bultmann as Ernst Käsemann (Tülbingen), Günther Bornkamm (Heidelberg), Ernst Fuchs (Marburg), Erich Dinkler (Bonn), and Hans Conzelmann (Göttingen) have proven sufficiently distinguished to rise into the leading professorial positions, and a theological affinity to Gogarten and Tillich has provided a broad theological context. Bultmann himself provided a pre-established rapprochement with the dominant cultural trend in Germany centring in the existentialism of Martin Heidegger. His own monumental Theology of the New Testament provided the theological synthesis of the day, as did Barth’s Romans a generation ago, and Harnack’s What is Christianity? at the turn of the century. Consequently Germany is just as nearly ‘Bultmannian’ today as it was ‘Barthian’ a generation ago, ‘Ritschlian’ half a century or more ago, and ‘Hegelian’ still earlier; and Bultmann’s works and ideas have become Germany’s dominant theological export throughout the world.

One might well expect that the result of this first post-war phase would be a period of Bultmannian scholasticism. Instead we seem to be entering a new phase characterized by a critical restudy of the Bultmannian position by his leading pupils -- itself a rare tribute to the spirit of free and critical scholarship represented by Bultmann. This second phase of post-war German theology may be designated as ‘post-Buitmannian’ in the stricter sense:

led by outstanding pupils of Bultmann, it is based upon a thorough appreciation of the achievements of Bultmann’s brilliant career, and could not have taken place without those achievements. Yet it sees its task as that of carrying through a critical revision of Bultmann’s position, out of which revision the theological synthesis of the future will grow. The first part of this new programme to get seriously under way is with regard to the problem of the historical Jesus.

B. The ‘Post-Bultmannian’ Quest of the Historical Jesus

The German repudiation of the quest of the historical Jesus at the opening of the century found its definitive crystallization in the scholarship of Rudolf Bultmann. His form-critical research tended to confirm the view that such a quest is impossible, and his existential theology carried through the thesis that such a quest is illegitimate. Therefore it is not surprising that the critical restudy of his position by his pupils should begin here.

The discussion was formally opened in 1953 by Ernst Käsemann, who presented an address to a meeting of ‘old Marburgers’ (i.e. Bultmannians) on ‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’.’ He moved beyond a recognition of the validity of much of Bultmann’s position, to argue that since something can be known about the historical Jesus, we must concern ourselves with working it Out, if we do not wish ultimately to find ourselves committed to a mythological Lord. The crucial issue is identified in ‘the question as to the continuity of the gospel in the discontinuity of the times and the variation of the kerygma’, i.e. whether the proclamation of the exalted Lord through the Church is in some kind of recognizable continuity with the preaching of the historical Jesus, and consequently whether the exalted Lord is in continuity with Jesus of Nazareth.

Käsemann’s move toward reopening the quest of the historical Jesus has met with a rapid and largely favourable response from the various segments of German-language theology. Traditionally conservative theology has inherited liberalism’s original position with regard to the historical Jesus. It is therefore not surprising to find Käsemann’s view advocated by spokesmen for Roman Catholicism, Scandinavian theology, and non-Bultmanman Germans. And the new quest has found the support of Joachim Jeremias, who perhaps more than any other is the custodian of the heritage of detailed and exacting philological, environmental research about Jesus, which is perhaps the most permanent contribution of the original quest. Furthermore, in typical German style, the current discussion has produced a doctoral dissertation, a contribution by a non-theologian,’ a discussion of the discussion, and an extremist who clearly went too far. Certainly the most significant aspect of the continuing discussion is the response of leading representatives from the predominant Bultmannian and Barthian segments of German theology.

Käsemann’s initial proposal of a new quest arose from the problem of the relation of Jesus’ .message to the Church’s kerygma. This was soon followed from the Bultmannian side by a parallel proposal on the part of Ernst Fuchs, who concentrated upon Jesus’ conduct as ‘the real context of his preaching’. ‘What did Jesus do? We said he celebrated the eschatological meal with tax-gatherers and sinners (Matt. 11.19 par.), and we designated precisely this meal as the act of goodness supplied in advance to them all by Jesus. This means: Jesus forwent the publication of his own private eschatological experiences; rather he determined only to draw the consequences from them and to begin here on earth with the work of God visible only in heaven! This is why he celebrates his meal. It is just this that is Jesus’ real deed.’ What is here said of the eschatological meals open to all is then generalized to an interpretation of Jesus’ conduct as a whole: ‘This conduct is neither that of a prophet nor that of a sage, but rather the conduct of a man who dares to act in God’s stead, by (as must always be added) calling near to him sinners who apart from him would have to flee from God.’ This conduct, maintaining that God’s will is a gracious will, by implication also claims to be divine action, and it was this claim latent in Jesus’ conduct which led to opposition and to his death (Mark 3.6).

When Fuchs comes to Jesus’ message, he presents it as dependent upon Jesus’ action. For this view Fuchs appeals to the parables, which were often spoken in the setting of the eschatological meals: ‘Jesus supplied his disciples with the interpretation of his parabolic language by an act of goodness.’ ‘It is consequently not the case, that first the parable clarifies Jesus’ conduct -- although Jesus makes use of it in defence of himself; rather it is the other way around: Jesus’ conduct explains the will of God with a parable which can be read Out of his conduct.’ Thus in Jesus’ mouth the parables are ‘a witness to himself’, and ‘apply primarily to our relation to Jesus himself’. This approach to the parables is then generalized into an approach to all Jesus’ teaching: ‘For if we see this aright, then it is to be expected that certainly Jesus’ words . . . generally reflect his conduct historically.’ ‘Jesus wishes only to be understood on the basis of his decision, his deed.’ This concentration in Jesus’ teaching upon his action made it possible for the disciples to conceive of his death also as divine action, which in turn led to the primitive Christian sacraments as custodians of ‘Jesus’ understanding of himself’. Thus Fuchs has carried through with regard to Jesus’ action the same thesis which Käsemann presented with regard to his message: in the message and action of Jesus is implicit an eschatological understanding of his person, which becomes explicit in the kerygma of the primitive Church.

The initiative of Käsemann and Fuchs in proposing a new quest of the historical Jesus has produced its first tangible results in the appearance in 1956 of Gunther Bornkamm’s monograph Jesus of Nazareth. This is the first book on the historical Jesus to issue from the Bultmannian school since Bultmann’s own Jesus and the Word appeared thirty years earlier. However the impetus provided by the proposal of a new quest is not only evident in the very fact that Bornkamrn’s book appeared, but is also evident in its distinctive divergences from Bultmann’s own traditional presentation. For these divergences express the newly awakened concern for the message and conduct of Jesus in their relation to the kerygma.

Bornkamm does not focus his presentation on Jesus’ ‘word’, as did Bultmann, but concerns himself as well with the events of Jesus’ life, as did Fuchs. In addition to chapters on Jesus’ disciples (Ch. VI) and his final journey to Jerusalem (Ch. VII), Bornkamm risks an introductory chapter which collects whatever general biographical information is available about Jesus into what amounts to a personality sketch. The significance of this chapter (III) lies in its attempt to describe the human impression Jesus made upon people in a way clearly suggestive of the meaning Jesus has for faith, as if a human contact with Jesus were -- at least potentially -- an encounter with the kerygma.

Buttressed by the context of Jesus’ conduct, Bornkamm’s presentation of Jesus’ message diverges from Bultmann’s typical emphasis upon the future, of which Jesus’ action in the present were but a sign calling for decision. Instead, a primary emphasis falls upon the present: ‘Unmediated presence is always the characteristic of Jesus’ words, appearance and action, within a world which . . . had lost the present, since it lived . . . between past and future, between traditions and promises or threats’ (58). This is not to say that Bornkamm has moved to the position of ‘realized eschatology’ (91); rather he sees (with Bultmann) the tension between future and present as inherent in the involvement of the imperative in the indicative, i.e. inherent in the historical understanding of the self. But it does mean that he emphasizes more clearly than has been customary for Bultmann the continuity between Jesus’ message and the Church’s kerygma.

Bultmann’s classical distinction between Jesus and Paul had been: What for Jesus is future is for Paul past and present, since the shift of aeons separates them, so that Jesus preached the law and the promise, while Paul preached the gospel.’ This has become in Bornkamm the distinction between John the Baptist and Jesus. John is the ‘sentinel at the frontier between the aeons’ (51); the difference between John and Jesus is that ‘between eleventh and twelfth hour’ (67); and ‘the contemporizing of this reality of God is the real mystery of Jesus’ (62). Therefore Bornkamm’s discussion of the messianic problem (Ch. VIII) does not confine itself to the view (shared with Bultmann) that Jesus made no claims to messianic titles, but goes on to explain the absence of any such special topic in Jesus’ teaching by the view that ‘the "messianic" aspect of his being is enclosed in his word and act, and in the unmediatedness of his historical appearance’ (178). This leads to a final chapter (IX: ‘Jesus Christ’) in which a continuity between the historical Jesus and the Church’s kerygma is sketched. In the Easter experience the disciples were assured ‘that God himself had intervened with almighty hand in the wicked and rebellious activity of the world, and had snatched this Jesus of Nazareth from the power of sin and death which had risen up against him, and installed him as Lord of the world.’ Easter ‘is thus at the same time the inbreaking of the new world of God into this old world branded by sin and death, the setting up and beginning of his reign. . . . We note how here Jesus’ own message of the coming reign of God rings out again in new form, only that he himself with his death and resurrection has now entered into this message and become its centre’ (183 f.). Here it is clear that Jesus’ eschatological message, including his eschatological interpretation of his own conduct, has been continued in christological terms by the Easter faith and the Christian kerygma.

Hans Conzelmann has united these various lines of development into a unified view of Jesus’ eschatology and his person, in which christology replaces chronology as the basic meaning of Jesus’ message: the kingdom which Jesus proclaims is future, but the ‘interim’ is of no positive significance to him. Rather Jesus confronts man with an unmediated and consequently determmative encounter with the kingdom. This is the common significance of various themes which when taken literally could be contradictory: the nearness of the kingdom, the suddenness of its coming, and Jesus himself as the last sign. None of this is meant by Jesus temporally, but only existentially. Although the nearness is presented temporally, its ‘meaning lies in qualifying the human situation in view of the coming of the kingdom’. Predictions of coming reward and punishment, like the present beatitudes and woes, represent the alternatives of salvation or lostness involved in one’s present situation. Hence Jesus’ message of salvation and his call for repentance ‘form together the absolute determination of human existence’.

Put the other way round, ‘existing means nothing more than comprehending the signs’, i.e. Jesus’ action. If Jesus’ eschatology seems intentionally to ignore time, this is only because it intentionally centres in his person. He ‘connects the hope of salvation with his person to the extent that he sees the kingdom effective in his deeds and understands his preaching as the last word of God before the end.’ Thus his eschatology involves an ‘indirect’ christology: ‘If the kingdom is so near that it casts this shadow, then the "observer" no longer has it before him, in the sense that he could still observe it from a certain distance; rather is he at that instant fully claimed. Jesus does not give a new answer to the question "When ?" -- in that case he would still be an apocalypticist -- , but rather he supersedes this question as such.’

C. Bultmann’s Shift in Position

Certainly anyone who has followed this ‘post-Bultmannian’ development within Germany cannot fail to wonder how Bultmann himself reacts to this trend, a trend which certainly diverges from the ‘classical’ Bultmannian position, but which nonetheless works largely upon Bultmannian presuppositions and can in fact appeal to an undercurrent in Bultmann’s writings which already moves in this direction.’ It is therefore quite significant that a recent article by Bultmann seems to be by implication a defence of Ksemarm’s position against an initial criticism by the Barthian Hermann Diem: Diem had maintained that when all is said and done Käsemann has presented Jesus as only proclaiming ‘general religious and moral truths’ about ‘the freedom of the children of God’, rather than a message in continuity with the Church’s kerygma. For Käsemann doubts that Jesus claimed to be Son of Man and says instead: ‘Jesus came . . . to say how things stand with the kingdom that has dawned, namely that God has drawn near man in grace and requirement. He brought and lived the freedom of the children of God, who remain children and free only so long as they find in the Father their Lord.’

Bultmann points Out that eternal truths, when used in concrete proclamation, can become historical encounter. Already in this sense he recognizes that Jesus’ teachings were used by the primitive Church as kerygmatic proclamation of the exalted Lord: ‘One can hardly object that Jesus’ preaching was after all not Christian preaching, on the grounds that Christian preaching proclaims him, but was not proclaimed by him. Even if here we completely ignore the question, in what sense Jesus’ preaching could perhaps after all be designated a hidden or secret Christian preaching, in any case his preaching was taken up into Christian preaching and became a part of the proclamation in which the Proclaimed is at the same time present as the Proclaimer’ (246). However this is a purely formal use of Jesus’ teachings, just as many ‘general truths’ can be used in concrete proclamation. Bultmann recognizes that the problem of the relation of Jesus’ teaching to the Church’s kerygma -- i.e. the by-passed question of the sense in which Jesus’ preaching is Christian -- goes deeper. ‘This does not yet make it clear why the Proclaimer necessarily became the Proclaimed, unless it could be shown that Jesus’ preaching of the law was differentiated from every other preaching of the law by being at the same time the proclamation of God’s grace, which not only assumes freedom, but also grants it’ (253).

At this point those accustomed to Bultmann’s earlier distinction of Jesus from Paul in terms of law and gospel,’ and his subsequent classification of Jesus within Judaism2 as only a presupposition of New Testament theology, would expect him simply to repeat that position. But instead, he lays hold of Fuchs’ concept of Jesus’ conduct as God’s goodness in action, and comes to the conclusion that Jesus’ message is after all grace, i.e. ‘after all a hidden or secret Christian preaching’: ‘Such calls for decision as Matt. 11.6; Luke 12.8 f., are, by calling for decision with regard to his person, at the same time words of promise, of grace: it is at this very moment that the gift of freedom is offered to the hearer. If the one who calls for decision is the "glutton and drunkard, the friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7.34f.; Matt. 11.19), does this not mean that he who proclaims the radical requirement of God at the same time speaks the word of grace? If the tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before the officially "righteous" (Matt. 21.31), then it is because those who understand God’s requirement are those who have received grace. And when the condition runs: "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Mark 10.15), then certainly the condition contains at the same time the assurance of grace’ (254). Bultmann himself seems to have adjusted to the ‘post-Bultmannian’ move of his pupils at least with regard to grace in the historical Jesus and the kerygma.

When we apply this position to Diem’s original criticism of Käsemann, that the latter presented Jesus as only teaching general truths rather than the kerygma, it becomes clear that Diem has overlooked the crucial point: Käsemann went beyond the view that Jesus taught God’s fatherhood and man’s freedom, to the assertion that ‘God has drawn near man in grace and requirement,’ and Jesus ‘brought and lived the freedom of the children of God’. Between the false alternatives of ‘just general truths’ or ‘explicit claims to messianic titles’ there lies in Jesus’ public ministry a whole area of eschatological action accompanied by theological commentary which Diem overlooked, and wherein resides both the historical and the theological point of departure for the Church’s kerygma, and thus the crucial area of research for a new quest of the historical Jesus.

D. The Barthian Rapprochement

The movement we have sketched within the historical research of New Testament scholars largely under Bultmannian influence is to a certain extent parallel to the increasingly positive evaluation of history on the part of Karl Barth,’ and a reawakening concern for the historical Jesus on the part of systematic theologians closely associated with him.’ Perhaps the most significant instance of this trend is the shift of Hermann Diem from his initial attitude of considerable reserve to an acceptance of the basic position of Käsemann. Diem’s basic position is that the New Testamentn proclaims a Jesus Christ who proclaims himself. This history of the proclamation is the object of historical research in the New Testament which we seek, and which is the only legitimate object of such historical research according to the New Testament’s understanding of itself." But rather than implying by this, according to his original Barthian position, that one cannot enquire behind the evangelist’s message to that of Jesus, Diem now recognizes that ‘we must search back to that first phase of the history of the proclamation, the proclamation of the earthly Jesus himself’.’ For this historical question of the continuity of the proclamation from Jesus to the Church is recognized as the theological question as to whether the Church’s Lord is a myth. For Diem concedes that a negative answer to the historical question would ‘negatively prejudice’ the theological question as to the truth of the gospel. Consequently he concerns himself with the historical question sufficiently seriously to trace, in one instance, the term ‘Son of Man’ in the Gospels, the continuity between Jesus’ message and the Church’s witness: although Jesus may never have called himself Son of Man, he did say that acquittal by the Son of Man in the eschatological judgement was dependent upon one’s present relation to himself (Mark 8.38 par.). Thus the content of salvation is dependent on Jesus, and it was this which the Church explicated by attributing to him the title of bringer of salvation (i.e. the title Son of Man). Here Diem has clearly moved to the position of the advocates of the new quest, both by accepting -- in terms almost identical with those of Käsemann -- the theological validity of the new quest, and by adopting the basic method of the new quest, which consists in moving below the surface of terms and even concepts to the level of theological meaning and existential significance.

From this survey of current German discussion we may conclude that the proposal of a new quest of the historical Jesus. originally made within the context of the ‘post-Bultmannian’ direction of leading pupils of Bultmann, has broadened itself, not only in traditionally conservative circles, but also by support from the Barthian side as well as from Bultmann himself. A concentration of force seems to be in the making, which may well provide enough impetus to move beyond a mere proposal to a distinctive trait of theology during the coming generation.’

It is in this relatively propitious setting that the present work is presented, as a contribution to the new quest both by a clarification of its nature, and by an initial participation in the work of the new quest at a few significant points.

In order to enter into this discussion in such a way as to be able to make a fruitful contribution to it, it will be necessary (Ch. II) to recognize the degree of validity inherent in the arguments which brought the original quest to an end by pointing to its impossibility and illegitimacy. For only within the valid limits thus imposed can one seek in a relevant way (Ch. III) to define the sense in which a new quest may be possible, and to investigate (Ch. IV) the legitimacy of such a quest, i.e. the degree to which it is theologically permissible and necessary. Only then can one attempt (Ch. V) to get the actual work under way by laying hold of the central problem in terms of which the detailed research upon individual problems will gain its relevance.

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