return to religion-online

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 2: The Impossibility and Illegitimacy of the Original Quest


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

A. The Ambiguous Term ‘Historical Jesus’

‘The quest of the historical Jesus’ is an expression which has become familiar to us as the English title of Albert Schweitzer’s book Von Reimarus., zu Wrede. It is a poetic rendering of the German subtitle, which read literally: ‘A History of Research upon the Life of Jesus’. Thus those who have read Schweitzer’s book have come to sense that the expression ‘historical Jesus’ is closely related to modern historical research. Yet the extent to which the meaning of the term is inextricably related to historical research must be explained in some detail, if the concept is to be freed from the ambiguity which continues to haunt it.

The term ‘historical Jesus’ is not simply identical with ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, as if the adjective ‘historical’ were a meaningless addition. Rather the adjective is used in a technical sense, and makes a specific contribution to the total meaning of the expression. ‘Historical’ is used in the sense of ‘things in the past which have been established by objective scholarship’.’ Consequently the expression ‘historical Jesus’ comes to mean: ‘What can be known of Jesus of Nazareth by means of the scientific methods of the historian.’ Thus we have to do with a technical expression which must be recognized as such, and not automatically identified with the simple term ‘Jesus’.

This technical meaning of the expression ‘historical Jesus’ may seem to us an unwarranted narrowing of the term ‘history’. Yet such usage is nearest to the original, etymological meaning of the term ‘history’ (lit. ‘research’). Such usage is somewhat similar to the scientist’s use of the term ‘nature’ to refer to what in the world around us is subsumed under law by scientific research.’ Now ‘history’ and ‘nature’ in this sense would envisage all of reality, if one assumed that objective historical scholarship and scientific research could, in theory at least, reach the whole of reality. In that case the technical usage of ‘history’ and ‘nature’ could be as comprehensive as the layman’s normal meaning of ‘history’ as ‘all that happened’ and ‘nature’ as ‘the whole world around us’.

This was in fact the assumption of the nineteenth-century quest of the historical Jesus. For this quest was initiated by the enlightenment in its effort to escape the limitations of dogma, and thereby to gain access to the whole reality of the past. The quest of the historical Jesus was originally the quest after ‘the Jesus of Nazareth who actually lived in first-century Palestine’, unrestricted by the doctrinal presentations of him in Bible, creed and Church. One then proceeded to implement this alternative between orthodox christology and the Jesus of the enlightenment by appeal to the current alternatives in method. If the orthodox Christ was reached through faith and doctrine, it was readily assumed that ‘the real Jesus of Nazareth’ could be found by means of the newly-discovered historiography promising to narrate the past ‘as it actually was’. Hence for the nineteenth century the two meanings of ‘the historical Jesus’ tended to coincide: ‘Jesus of Nazareth as he actually was’ coincided with ‘the reconstruction of his biography by means of objective historical method’.

For the twentieth century this is no longer obvious. The reason for this change does not lie in any restriction of the historical-critical method in dealing with the objective data, as if there were one group of historical facts accessible to historiography, while other historical facts were in principle beyond the historian’s reach.’ Rather we have come to recognize that the objective factual level upon which the nineteenth century operated is only one dimension of history, and that a whole new dimension in the facts, a deeper and more central plane of meaning, had been largely bypassed. The nineteenth century saw the reality of the ‘historical facts’ as consisting largely in names, places, dates, occurrences, sequences, causes, effects -- things which fall far short of being the actuality of history, if one understands by history the distinctively human, creative, unique, purposeful, which distinguishes man from nature. The dimension in which man actually exists, his ‘world’, the stance or outlook from which he acts, his understanding of his existence behind what he does, the way he meets his basic problems and the answer his life implies to the human dilemma, the significance he had as the environment of those who knew him, the continuing history his life produces, the possibility of existence which his life presents to me as an alternative -- such matters as these have become central in an attempt to understand history. It is this deeper level of the reality of ‘Jesus of Nazareth as he actually was’ which was not reached by ‘the reconstruction of his biography by means of objective historical method’. Consequently the two meanings of the term ‘historical Jesus’ no longer coincide.

Once it had become clear that nineteenth-century historical method had failed to penetrate the depths at which the reality of history lies, and consequently that its ‘historical Jesus’ failed to exhaust the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, it was inevitable that a re-study of historical method should follow, in an attempt to gain access to that deeper level of historical reality. But until such a method could be worked out and applied, and its results brought In, the only scientific historical reconstruction which was actually available remained that of the nineteenth century. For the time being at least, the only ‘historical Jesus’ available was the nineteenth-century reconstruction, now seen to fall far short of Jesus of Nazareth as he actually was. Consequently the twentieth century worked Out its initial attitude toward the ‘historical Jesus’ m terms of the only available reconstruction, that of the nineteenth century with all its deficiencies.

This produced in the first place a recognition of the relativity of historical research even in the modern, post-enlightenment period. To say that medieval historians were subjective would not imply that historiography is inevitably subjective. But to say that the classical age of objective historical-critical research was itself historically conditioned and to this extent subjective, was to imply that historiography is inevitably limited as to the degree of objectivity and finality it can attain. Thus Lessing’s old problem as to how ‘accidental historical truths can serve as proofs for eternal rational truths’ was deepened by the awareness that even our reconstruction of the ‘historical truths’ is ‘accidental’, i.e.historically relative. All this was only augmented by the growing awareness in psychology, cultural anthropology, and existentialism of the basic historicity of the self so that one no longer assumed that the historical and relative could be readily removed as merely a surface defect on an essentially natural or changelessly rational selfhood. The problem of the historian’s own historicity has become a fundamental problem. Quite apart from the assumptions of Christian faith, it is easy to see that all that Jesus actually was is not likely to be fully grasped, objectively demonstrated, and definitively stated by historical research in any given period. Now when we add to this the assumption that the historian’s subject matter is God, the impossibility of the situation is more than obvious. Thus the whole Ritschlian attempt to prove Christianity historically suddenly became absurd. Consequently it seems incredibly naive when today an advocate of positivistic historicism wishes to revive the attempt to prove historically the ‘absoluteness of Jesus’.

Since the twentieth century worked out its initial attitude toward the ‘historical Jesus’ in terms of the only available reconstruction, that of the nineteenth century with all its glaring limitations, it is not surprising to find as a second consequence a tendency to disassociate the expression ‘the historical Jesus’ from ‘Jesus of Nazareth as he actually was’, and to reserve the expression for: ‘What can be known of Jesus of Nazareth by means of the scientific methods of the historian’. ‘The historical Jesus’ comes really to mean no more than ‘the historian’s Jesus’. The clear implication is that ‘Jesus of Nazareth as he actually was’ may be considerably more than or quite different from ‘the historical Jesus.

It is in this sense that one must correctly understand statements which might seem shocking if used in the other sense of the term: ‘We can know very little about the historical Jesus’. If by this one means that we can know very little about Jesus of Nazareth by means of the scientific methods of the historian, so that a modern biography of him is hardly possible, such a viewpoint need not trouble the believer, although it could be a topic of legitimate discussion among historians. For the believer’s knowledge of Jesus has been hardly more dependent upon the historian’s research than has his knowledge of God. Such research was as a matter of fact largely non-existent during the centuries of most fervent Christian faith. The same situation prevails with regard to another current statement: ‘Christian faith is not interested in the historical Jesus.’ This statement is to a considerable extent true, if one understands it correctly to mean that Christians throughout the ages have been largely ignorant of and not interested in ‘what can be known of Jesus of Nazareth by means of the scientific methods of the historian’. The statement would become largely untrue only if one assumed it to be maintaining that Christian faith is not interested in Jesus of Nazareth.

B. The End of the Original Quest

This discussion of the shifting meaning of the term ‘historical Jesus’ has already drawn attention to the basic shift in modern man’s relation to history, as one of the broad and pervasive reasons why the quest came to an end. But there were also factors at work within the specific area of the study of Jesus which crystallized into the consensus that the quest is both impossible and illegitimate. It is to these factors within the discipline itself that we now wish to turn.

It is often said that Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus marks the end of the quest. This is to a considerable extent true, if one does not take it to mean that his book caused the end of the quest. Undoubtedly his book was sufficiently shocking to give pause for thought. But neither of the main points he makes was such as to lead to more than a temporary suspension of the quest: ‘The so-called historical Jesus of the nineteenth century biographies is really a modernization, in which Jesus is painted in the colours of modern bourgeois respectability and neo-Kantian moralism." However Schweitzer did not radicalize this insight into a questioning of the objectivity of historical research as such, but himself presented a reconstruction of Jesus which he regarded as objective, simply because it lacked the Victorianism of the classical lives of Christ. Nor did his insight lead him to doubt the appropriateness of the sources for the kind of chronological biography he and his predecessors tried to write. Instead he rejected the doubts of Wrede at this point, and to this extent is himself one of the last spokesmen for the nineteenth-century view of the sources. From his point of view the rejection of the nineteenth-century biographies as modernizations need in no sense involve a rejection of the quest itself, for the simple reason that an initial prejudice once detected does not justify the permanent end of a scholarly project.

The other main point of Schweitzer’s presentation is that the real Jesus of Nazareth was actually less modern than the Nicene Christ one had originally intended to replace. Schweitzer put it bluntly: Jesus was the high water mark of Jewish apocalypticism. Thus the theological value of the original quest in proving the Ritschlian system was reversed. Schweitzer had little personal sympathy for eschatology, and saw in it no potentiality for theology today. Consequently his construction was characterized by a crudity and misunderstanding inevitable in any appraisal of history from an inner distance. He remained a Ritschlian in his heart, and never dreamed that he would live to see Jesus’ eschatology become the core of modern theology. For theology has outlived the initial shock, and, in the movement stemming from Karl Barth, has learned to understand eschatology existentially from within. Thus Jesus, rather than becoming a liability to modern theology, has become the inescapable factor forcing almost every modern theology into some positive relationship to eschatology. Jesus’ theology is anything but irrelevant or meaningless for theological thought today. It is clear that neither of the most striking conclusions of Schweitzer’s work was such as to explain why the quest of the historical Jesus came largely to an end a generation or more ago.

The real cause behind the end of the quest is to be found in a series of basic shifts which were taking place in New Testament scholarship at the opening of the century. These shifts when taken together formed a decisive cleft between nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, and indicated the impossibility and illegitimacy of the quest of the historical Jesus. It is to these factors that we consequently turn.

C. The Sources and the ‘Impossibility’ of the Original Quest

The possibility of the original quest resided primarily in its view of the oldest sources as the same kind of objective, positivistic historiography which the nineteenth century itself aspired to write. The basic reorientation consisted in the discovery that the Gospels are the devotional literature of the primitive Church, rather than the products of scholarship. Thus the function which the tradition about Jesus performed in the life and worship of the Church came to be recognized as the organizing principle in the formation of the individual stories and sayings, and in the formation of the Gospels themselves. This insight, already at home in Old Testament research, was carried over to the New Testament by Wellhausen. The Gospels are primary sources for the history of the early Church, and only secondarily sources for the history of Jesus. Consequently the Siz im Leben of each tradition must be first identified, as the key to the direction in which the tradition would be inclined to develop. Only by discounting this tendency can one then hope to disengage the oldest level in the tradition, and thus come to speak about Jesus of Nazareth in distinction from the Church’s kerygmatic presentation of him. This basic methodological insight was implemented by the results of detailed analysis: William Wrede demonstrated that Mark is not writing with the objectivity or even the interests of a modern historian, but rather as a theologian of the ‘Messianic secret’. Karl Ludwig Schmidt demonstrated that the order of events in the Gospels is not based upon a memory of the order of Jesus’ public ministry inherent in the material, but rather is largely the contribution of the redactional process, which assembled unrelated stories, sayings, and small individual collections for devotional purposes, and then arranged them topically or theologically without any serious interest in chronology or geography. The basic theses of these works have not been disproved, and therefore must continue to be presupposed in current scholarship conversant with them.

It is often assumed that the original quest came to an end in Germany because of the rise of form criticism. Since form criticism has been widely rejected in the English-speaking world, the inference is readily drawn that the original quest can properly continue untroubled. However the basic assumption is in error. It was not form criticism, but rather the revolution in the generation preceding form criticism, which brought the original quest to an end. Form criticism was an outstanding attempt to implement some of those insights, but they themselves are more basic and have proved to be more lasting that has form criticism itself.

The form critic conjectured that one way to identify the Sitz im Leben of the gospel tradition would be to classify the material on purely formal grounds, and then to identify the function in the Church’s life responsible for the rise of each identified form. This procedure is methodologically sound, but did not in practice arrive at ultimately conclusive results. This was due to the indistinctness of the formal structure of much of the material, and the difficulty of making a clear correlation between formal tendencies and their setting in the Church’s life. Consequently when the form critics came to discuss the historicity of the gospel tradition, a question for which their method was at best only indirectly relevant, they tended to arrive at the conclusion which their general orientation suggested, rather than a conclusion which form criticism as such required. Thus their views as to the material’s historicity ranged from the more conservative position of Albertz to the mediating position of Dibelius and the radical position of Bultmann. A second consequence of the inconclusiveness of the results of form criticism is that the mention of their ‘forms’ has largely passed out of the scholarly discussion of gospel passages, even in Germany. Thus one may say that form criticism, as applied to the gospel tradition, has to a large extent passed out of vogue. Yet it is all the more striking that the basic orientation with regard to the Gospels, of which form criticism was but one manifestation, continues as the basis of twentieth-century scholarship.

This basic reorientation is to the effect that all the tradition about Jesus survived only in so far as it served some function in the life and worship of the primitive Church. History survived only as kerygma. It is this insight which reversed our understanding of the scholar’s situation with regard to the relation of factual detail and theological interpretation in the gospels. If the nineteenth century presupposed the detailed historicity of the Synoptic Gospels except where ‘doctrinal tampering’ was so obvious as to be inescapable (they had in mind such things as ‘Paulinisms’ and the miraculous), the twentieth century presupposes the kerygmatic nature of the Gospels, and feels really confident in asserting the historicity of its details only where their origin cannot be explained in terms of the life of the Church.’ In the nineteenth century the burden of proof lay upon the scholar who saw theological interpolations in historical sources; in the twentieth century the burden of proof lies upon the scholar who sees objective factual source material in the primitive Church’s book of common worship. The result is obvious: the burden of proof has shifted over to the person who maintains the possibility of the quest. This situation does not necessitate the further inference that such a quest is impossible; but it does explain how such a position seemed from a scholarly point of view ‘safest’, easiest to defend.

D. The Kerygma and the ‘Illegitimacy’ of the Original Quest

If we wished to summarize in one word these considerations which led to the view that the quest was impossible, we could speak of the discovery of the kerygma at the centre of the Gospels. It is only here that we reach the unifying factor in all the elements bringing the quest to an end. For as a matter of fact the discovery of the kerygma had an even more pervasive effect upon our problem than has been stated thus far. The kerygma came gradually to be recognized as the centre not only of the Gospels, but also of primitive Christianity itself. Furthermore it has increasingly come to replace the theological centrality of the ‘historical Jesus’ in leading theological systems of our day. It was this rise of the kerygma to the centre of our understanding of primitive Christianity, and to the normative position in contemporary theology, which was the underlying cause for questioning even the legitimacy of the original quest. It is this second aspect of the role of the kerygma in the problem of the historical Jesus which still remains to be examined in some detail.

If the nineteenth-century view of history found its meaningful expression in ‘the historical Jesus’, the twentieth century has found its approach to history already anticipated in the kerygma. We have already noted how the positivistic understanding of history as consisting of brute facts gave way to an understanding of history centring in the profound intentions, stances, and concepts of existence held by persons in the past, as the well-springs of their outward actions. Historical methodology shifted accordrngly from a primary concern for recording the past ‘wie es cigentlich gewesen’, i.e. cataloguing with objective detachment facts in sequence and with proper casual relationships. Instead, the historian’s task was seen to consist in understanding those deep-lying intentions of the past, by involving one’s selfhood in an encounter in which one’s own intentions and views of existence are put in question, and perhaps altered or even radically reversed. Now the kerygma is formally analogous to this new approach to the historian’s task, for it consists in an initial understanding of the deeper meaning of Jesus. Therefore the kerygma, rather than brute facts of Jesus’ external biography, was identified as our primary historical source for understanding his meaning. Of course this does not mean that the historian automatically accepts the kerygma as the correct interpretation of Jesus’ meaning, for it, like any other interpretation, is subject to critical reexamination. But it does mean that we have moved beyond the initial conclusion that the kerygmatized Gospels are incompatible with the historian’s objectives, to the recognition that they in their way are doing something similar to what the modern historian in his way would like to do.

Just as the kerygma provided a rapprochement to the current view of history and historiography, it also provided the unifying factor between the twentieth-century reconstruction of primitive Christianity and its own systematic theological reflection. This becomes apparent when one scans the interrelated course of New Testament research and systematic thought in this century. The century opened with the older generation still following the Ritschlian approach to God in terms of ethical idealism,’ and to Jesus as the historical fact exemplifying that ideal. However Ritschlianism was already giving way to the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, whose philosophy of religion centred in a decided preference for cultic experience over ethical action, and whose historical reconstruction saw primitive Christianity orientated like other Hellenistic religions to the cult’s dying and rising Lord, rather than to the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. This school combined its theological and historical positions into the normative statement that Christianity centres in a numinous experience of the dying and rising Lord, not in the ethical experience of the historical Jesus. Christ the Lord is the cult symbol of Christianity, but it would be an instance of the genetic fallacy to concern oneself with problems related to the historical origin of that symbol, i.e. its relation to the historical Jesus.

Between the wars the religionsgeschichtlich Schule faded away, and its historical reconstruction underwent a transformation in terms of more current theological orientations. The emphasis of comparative religion on the point that primitive Christianity centred in a dying and rising divinity was subsequently transformed, for instance by C. H. Dodd, into the emphasis on the point that the original kerygma had at its centre Christ’s death and resurrection. And under Barthian influence, Rudolf Otto’s ‘numinous’ experience of the tremendum and fascinans was clarified as an existential encounter with the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, i.e. as judgement and grace.’ Thus the kerygma became recognized as central in both senses of the term: as the content of the message and as the act of pteaching.

These two aspects of the term correspond respectively to the contemporary historical reconstruction of primitive Christianity and to the normative centre of contemporary theology, so that the term kerygma comes to represent the unifying element in the contemporary situation: historically speaking, the central content of primitive Christian preaching was God’s eschatological action centring in the saving event of cross and resurrection. Theologically speaking, this saving event proclaimed by the kerygma shows itself to be eschatological precisely by recurring in the proclamation of the kerygma itself: the act of proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes God’s act calling upon me to accept my death and receive resurrected life.’ Believing the witness about God’s past action in Christ coincides with the occurrence of this divine action in my present life. Herein resides the unity of God’s action in history, and ultimately the meaningfulness of the Trinity. Thus both as witness to past event and as experience of present event, the kerygma is central in primitive Christianity and contemporary theology. It is for this reason that the kerygma has become a whole unified theological position which has just as nearly swept the field in twentieth-century theology as did the theology of the historical Jesus in the nineteenth century.

The historian’s detection of the kerygma at the centre of the Gospels found a formal analogy in the contemporary view of historiography as concerned with underlying meaning, and this correlation led to the view that the kind of quest of the historical Jesus envisaged by the nineteenth century not only cannot succeed, but is hardly appropriate to the intention of the Gospels and the goal of modern historiography. The theologian’s recognition that the kerygma provides the normative pattern of contemporary religious experience also found a formal analogy in the contemporary view of existence, and it is this correlation which gave impetus to the view that the kind of quest which the nineteenth century envisaged ought not to succeed.

Christianity began with the call of the eschatological kerygma to break with the ‘present evil aeon’ and to commit oneself existentially to the ‘aeon to come’, which has drawn so near as to be already the horizon of present existence (e.g. Matt. 4.17; Rom. 11.2). God’s judgement upon this world must be accepted as God’s judgement upon myself, while the kingdom breaking in and destroying the present evil aeon is accepted as the grace of God in my life. Thus the kerygma proclaims the death in which resides life (Mark 8.35), a kerygma incarnated in Jesus and therefore shifting terminologically from Jesus’ own eschatological message into the Church’s christological kerygma: this death in which life resides is Jesus’ death, and becomes available only in dying and rising with him. This meant for the earliest disciples a basic renunciation of the struggle for existence, implemented by a complete break with the power structure of society: the automatic prerogatives of the chosen people, the security of the holy tradition, the comfort of established religious organization and clergy -- all such props, controlled by man and as a result constantly available to him for securing his existence, were in principle eliminated. Judaism’s ‘confidence in the flesh’ was revealed as the basic rebellion of the homo religiosus against God (e.g. Phil. 3; Rom. 10.3). Man must build his existence upon that which is beyond his control and available only as God’s gift (ubi et quando visum est deo), upon a world which is transcendent by being basically future, and present only as the eschatological miracle, the gift of transcendence. Thus ‘faith’, the pattern of contemporary religious experience which is to relate us to God through Christ, cannot by its very nature be built upon ‘the present evil aeon’, with all that it provides of worldly security under man’s control and invariably at his disposal; by definition ‘faith’ is the life given in death, and consequently has its basis beyond our control, is lived out of the future, is ‘an act of faith’.

Now it became increasingly clear that ‘the historical Jesus’, the scholarly reconstruction of Jesus’ biography by means of objective historical method, was just such an attempt to build one’s existence upon that which is under man’s control and invariably at his disposal. The historical Jesus as a proven divine fact is a worldly security with which the homo relgiosus arms himself in his effort to become self-sufficient before God, just as did the Jew in Paul’s day by appeal to the law. Whereas the kerygma calls for existential commitment to the meaning of Jesus, the original quest was an attempt to avoid the risk of faith by supplying objectively verified proof for its ‘faith’. To require an objective legitimization of the saving event prior to faith is to take offence at the offence of Christianity and to perpetuate the unbelieving flight to security, i.e. the reverse of faith. For faith involves the rejection of worldly security as righteousness by works. Thus one has come to recognize the worldliness of the ‘historicism’ and ‘psychologism’ upon which the original quest was built. To this extent the original quest came to be regarded as theologically illegitimate.

The classical document for this radical shift in the theological appraisal of the quest is the debate in 1923 between Harnack and Barth. For Harnack, the ‘content of the gospel’ consisted in concepts which must be disengaged from the historical ambiguities of the Bible and then grasped intellectually, a task which can only be performed by ‘historical knowledge and critical reflection’. This same rationalistic approach to the gospel was applied to the believer’s knowledge of Jesus: ‘If the person of Jesus Christ stands at the centre of the gospel, how can the basis for a reliable and communal knowledge of this person be gained other than through critical historical study, if one is not to trade a dreamed-up Christ for the real one? But how is this study to be made except by scholarly theology?’ To this Barth replied: ‘The reliability and communal nature of the knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ as the centre of the gospel can be no other than the reliability and communal nature of the faith awakened by God. Critical historical study signifies the deserved and necessary end of those ‘bases’ of such knowledge which are no bases since they are not laid by God himself. The man who does not yet know (and that still means all of us) that we know Christ no longer according to the flesh, can learn it from critical biblical scholarship: the more radically he is shocked, the better it is both for him and for the cause. And this may then perhaps be the service which "historical knowledge" can perform for- the real task of theology.’ Barth’s basic position was that the ‘theme of theology’ is ‘God’s revelation’, rather than any given concepts in the history of ideas. Consequently the fundamental role of historical critical scholarship would be quite different from that which Harnack conceived it to be: ‘Historical knowledge could then of course say that the communicating of the "content of the gospel", at least according to its own statement, can be carried out only by an action of this "content" himself. "Critical reflection" could lead to the result that this statement made by the gospel is based in the nature of the case (the relation between God and man), and consequently is to be seriously respected.’ Bultmann’ promptly shifted away from liberalism to the position of Barth, and the rejection of the quest on theological grounds gradually became a commonplace of contemporary theology.

Now the theological considerations leading to the rejection of the original quest as illegitimate correspond formally to the general pattern of existentialistic thought in our day. For existentialism usually conceives of inauthentic existence as man’s attempt to avoid the ‘awful freedom’ of his historicity, and to find security in his human nature, which is understood quite rationalistically: the individual is a particular, comfortably subsumed under a universal. Inauthentic existence is a life built upon conformity, the herd instinct, the tradition, that which is objectively available and controllable. The original quest was thus one way of implementing such a proclivity toward inauthentic existence.

This is not to say that authentic existence as understood by existentialism is materially the same as eschatological existence, but only that there is a formal analogy. For both viewpoints authentic existence is selfhood constituted by commitment, and consists in constant engagement. The nature of the commitment can vary as sharply as do Faust and Jesus; the ‘world’ in which one is engagé can vary as radically as do ‘the present evil aeon’ and the kingdom of God. The formal analogy affects the substance at only one point: a Christian content without the form of commitment and engagement becomes a this-worldly Christendom at ease in Zion, a dead orthodoxy, a white-washed tomb, a tinkling cymbal, and ceases really to be the Christian content. A Jesus whose role is established in terms of this world is not the eschatological Messiah transcending this world.

This formal analogy between Christian existence and existentialism draws attention to another aspect of ‘historicism’ which is theologically illegitimate. Sometimes historical critical scholars absolutized their method of objectivity into a permanent avoidance of existential encounter with the history they were supposedly studying. But existentialism insists that one should be engagé, with one’s whole selfhood at stake, in the ‘world’ in which one moves. And the kerygma calls for a total encounter with the person of Jesus, in which the self is put in radical decision. Therefore it can only regard as illegitimate a scholarly career which becomes in the long run no more than a distracting fascination with historical details about Jesus, details which may occupy the memory, move the emotions, prod the conscience, or stimulate the intellect, but fail to put the self in radical decision. This insight in no sense invalidated the role of detailed and exacting research. But it did mean that the historian’s personal authenticity could not be found in increasingly narrowed specialization; rather this came to be recognized as an escape mechanism in a situation where one’s research had actually become existentially meaningless. Thus both forms which the historical study of Jesus took at the opening of the century -- the attempt to prove historically his absoluteness, and the ultimate lack of interest in him as a possible understanding of one’s own existence, came to be recognized as illegitimate. In each of these various ways the temper of our day united with the course of theological and historical reflection to bring the quest of the historical Jesus to an end.

Viewed 63338 times.