The Second Coming of the Liberal Jesus?

by Leander E. Keck

Leander E. Keck is Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and former Dean. His books include The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon 1994-96), Who is Jesus?, Paul and His Letters, and The Life of Jesus.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 24-31, l994, pp 784-787. Copyrighted by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author reviews three recent books that take up the quest of the historical Jesus, using noncanonical sources as evidence that must be taken seriously.

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. By Marcus Borg. HarperSan Francisco, 160 pp. $16.00 paperback.

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. By John Dominic Crossan. HarperSanFrancisco, 208 pp., $18.00 paperback.

The Religion of Jesus the Jew, by Geza Vermes. Fortress, 244 pp., $13.00 paperback.

"The historical Jesus" is back. For the third time, we are told. The resurgence of interest in the Jesus of history is evidenced not only by the books from Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Geza Vermes but also by the publication of The Five Gospels (Polebridge/Macmillan), reflecting the conclusions of R. W Funk's Jesus Seminar in which Borg and Crossan are active participants. Whether or not these works represent a "third Quest of the historical Jesus," it is instructive to view them in light of earlier efforts to recover Jesus "as he really was," and to ask whether the second coming of the liberal Jesus is at hand.

On the whole, 19th-century (German)Protestant scholarship, no longer able to affirm inherited christological doctrines such as atonement and parousia, preferred "the Jesus of history" before he became "the Christ of faith" (to use the title of D. F.Strauss's book-length review of Schleiermacher's Life of Jesus). To show that nonetheless Jesus was both a credible founder of Christianity and the continuing object of devotion, critical historiography had to show his truly heroic quality, usually by contrasting him with his Jewish heritage and environment. The first quest of the historical Jesus foundered, however, when it became apparent that the synoptic Gospels and their sources were so thoroughly permeated by Christian theology that an uninterpreted Jesus could be glimpsed only here and there. Furthermore, the historical Jesus that could be recovered turned out. to be an apocalyptic preacher of the kingdom of God -- as alien to liberal Protestantism as to the Christ of dogma

.In the wake of Barthian theology, Bultmann declared the whole Quest impossible on critical grounds and illegitimate on theological ones. He deemed it simply another attempt to base faith on works (this time, certified facts) rather than on the Word of God. But what sort of continuity, if any, could be discerned between the message of Jesus and the kerygma of the church? If there were only discontinuity between Jesus himself and the proclaimed Jesus Christ, the gospel would be a myth imposed on history, and Jesus would not be the church's sovereign but its hapless victim.

In response to such questions, Ernst Kaesemann launched within the Bultmannian circle a fresh search, later dubbed "a New Quest" by James Robinson. This venture found continuity between the existential understanding of the self before God, expressed in one way by Jesus and in another by the kerygma. This second Quest, like "the new hermeneutic" with which, it was linked, was shortlived, especially on the American scene. The questions that it generated were simply ignored as interest in social and sociological matters took center stage.

The alleged third Quest, while no more uniform than its predecessors, rejects Bultmann's double verdict about Quests, and is determined to know as precisely as possible what Jesus did and did not say, and to understand the critically certified Jesus as a historical phenomenon in the social landscape of his time. Moreover, some of its practitioners, especially Crossan, insist that the noncanonical evidence has as much right to be taken seriously as the New Testament Gospels.

Especially important is the Coptic Gospel of Thomas found in 1947, which consists of 114 sayings of Jesus but has no passion story. It appears as the fifth gospel in the color-coded Five Gospels, showing at a glance what the Jesus Seminar decided was truly from Jesus (red), what probably represents his thought but not his words (pink), what he surely did not say (black) and what he probably neither said nor thought (gray). According to this wisdom, there is but one genuine saying of Jesus in the entire Gospel of Mark, while three are preserved in Thomas. Overall, only 18 percent of what the sources attribute to Jesus is deemed to have been actually said by him. The difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (any form of early Christian faith will do) has seldom been greater. And because the Jesus of history is again portrayed in heroic terms which protect him from becoming a skandalon, one must ask whether we are witnessing the parousia of the liberal Jesus.

Borg, Crossan and Vermes present quite different portrayals of Jesus. The book by Vermes, a renowned Oxford expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, is the most focused because it completes a trilogy (Jesus the Jew, 1973; Jesus and the World of Judiasm, 1983). Crossan's is essentially a condensation, of his The Historical Jesus (1991); Borg's, while drawing on his Jesus: A New Vision (1987), not only records the author's personal pilgrimage of faith and understanding but is the only one that re reflects on the import of the critics' Jesus for contemporary Christian faith

Only in part do the different portrayals reflect the fact that Borg is a Lutheran, Crossan a Roman Catholic and Vermes a Jew. Much more signifi cant is their divergent stance toward the Gospels. Not only does Vermes ignore Thomas, but in contrast with the Jesus Seminar's passion for methodological rigor, ad mits that "methodology ... makes me see red, perhaps be cause more than once I have been rebuked by trans-At lantic dogmatists for illegitimately arriving at the right con clusion following a path not sanctioned by my critics' sa cred rule book." Vermes sees the Gospels (and the whole NT) as "One particular sector on the general map of Jewish cultural history," not as an independent corpus. Whereas Vermes first stakes out a topic and then works his way to particulars by adducing historical considerations, Crossan isolates a cluster of sayings on a topic, considers only the earliest and doubly attested, and then compares the treatment of the theme with Greek as well as Jewish materials in order to develop an interpretation based on anthropological studies of Mediterranean peasants. Vermes finds this approach quite inappropriate.

For Vermes, Jesus was "a charismatic prophetic preacher and miracle worker" who "represents the charismatic Judaism of wonder-working holy men." Vermes examines the nature, style and content of Jesus' preaching, discusses the idea of God as King and Father in relation to Jesus' "eschatological enthusiasm" and portrays "Jesus the Religious Man" before reaching the epilogue "intended to bring into sharp relief the difference between this religion and historic, ecclesiastical Christianity."

Borg explicitly accepts Vermes's classification of Jesus and goes beyond it: "The most crucial fact about Jesus was that he was a 'spirit person'. . . one ... to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality." To this he adds three other categories: teacher of wisdom, social prophet, and founder of a "Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day."

For Crossan, in contrast with Vermes and Borg, the religious dimension of Jesus' word and deed is almost totally absorbed into his social role as a countercultural itinerant on the border of revolt. Relying heavily on studies of ancient peasantry in order to extract from Josephus and the Gospels a picture of Galilean antipathies and unrest,

Crossan regards Jesus as a Jewish edition of the GrecoRoman cynic. "Jesus and his first followers ... were hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies" -- a remarkably succinct summary. Jesus had a social program which "sought to rebuild a society upwards from its grass roots, but on principles of religious and economic egalitarianism" made concrete in "the combination of free healing and common eating" which "negated alike and at once the hierarchial and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power." Whereas Borg's Jesus mediated the sacred, Crossan's.Jesus refused to be the broker or mediator of God and God's kingdom; he was "the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity, or between humanity and itself

In anchoring Jesus firmly in the religion of first-century Judaism, Vermes is part of a growing circle of Jewish scholars whose work makes it possible for modern Judaism to reclaim Jesus as one of its own. His Jesus is not unlike the prodigal son who was welcomed home after years among the gentile Christians. Once back home, there is nothing about the religion of Jesus the Jew that is articularly offensive to Judaism; at the same time, Vermes is spared the temptation to portray the Jesus of history as the center of a fleeting, brilliant moment that stands sharply against the oppressive darkness that surrounded him.

However, for Crossan (and to some extent Borg) the Jesus of history was the center of a Galilean Camelot, the halcyon days when Jesus and his band roamed the countryside, disregarding societal structures, defying hierarchical patterns, irritating elites and confounding the powerful, creating a grass-roots movement with nobodies while at the same time refusing to be its leader or mediator of the New because that would be brokering the kingdom. Ironically, the brokerless Jesus is himself thoroughly brokered by this biographer.

The marked differences among the three Quests should not obscure the continuity that results from shared reliance on key aspects of the historical-critical method and its judgments about the Gospels and early Christianity. Basic for all three Quests is the view that Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q, and that between Jesus and all written sources stands the oral tradition which shaped and expanded the Jesus materials, so that recovering the Jesus of history entails differentiating what the texts report from what Jesus really said and did. As a result, the volume of "hard data" on which the historical reconstruction of Jesus can rely is markedly smaller than that of the sources. After subtracting sayings in which Jesus speaks of himself in suspiciously Christian terms, as well as those in which he uses Jewish commonplaces, the figure who remains was baptized by John, preached the kingdom of God, healed the sick, relied on striking aphorisms and parables, indiscriminately consorted with those deemed "sinners," and was executed by Roman authorities for reasons difficult to ascertain. Having given up the Gospels' reports that Jesus deliberately sought death, criticism has been unable to determine whether he was executed because he was rightly perceived to threaten the existing order, or was misunderstood, or simply found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Whether the relentless use of methodological skepticism which marks this strand of historical criticism has yielded credible history is precisely what is contested. Peter Stuhlmacher, for instance, says flatly that "without ... acknowledging that the human Jesus already laid claim to being the messianic Son of Man whom God sent to Israel, one cannot make sense historically of Jesus' ministry or even of the passion narrative" (Jesus of Nazareth, Christ of Faith). Crossan says virtually the opposite (see p. 93).

What links Borg's and Crossan's Jesus with the liberal Jesus of the first Quest is the absence of the futurist (apocalyptic) horizon of Jesus' message and mission, including the widely accepted view that he believed the coming kingdom was making itself effective proleptically in his work. According to Borg, Jesus was "noneschatological": he did not expect "the supernatural coming of the kingdom of God as a world-ending event in his own generation." With the highly problematic modifier of "a world-ending event" the statement is quite misleading, since there is no evidence that the coming of the kingdom meant "the end of the world." Without this modifier, the statement becomes highly questionable. For Borg, of course, futurity is obviated by a Jesus who mediates the divine.

Crossan, on the other hand, retains the term "eschatological" but reduces it to meaning world-negation --"a radical criticism of culture and civilization." Whereas Borg has little to say about Jesus' message of the kingdom, Crossan emphasizes it as the theme of Jesus' egalitarian activity as well as of his teaching. But Crossan too disabuses Jesus of expecting divine intervention to bring the kingdom, and claims not only that Jesus became "almost the exact opposite of the Baptist" but also that Jesus taught a present sapiential kingdom, though as understood not by elites (like Wisdom of Solomon or Philo) but by peasants, whose dream of an egalitarian world was a matter of social protest.

It may surprise readers to learn that the result of Jesus' enacting the kingdom ("what the world would be if God were directly mid immediately in charge" or "a community of radical and unbrokered equality in which individuals are in direct contact with each other and with God') was a band of hippies among yuppies. In fact, it is by no means clear why "kingdom of God" should be retained at all for world-negation -- unless one is willing to think of God and world in Marcionite terms. Crossan in fact attributes to Jesus "a very different message from a very different God." Nor is it clear why such a Jesus would have been executed. The idea that this Jewish cynic (and his dozen hippies), with his demeanor and aphorisms, was a serious threat to society sounds more like a conceit of alienated academics than sound historical judgment.

Vermes's Jesus is much more plausible. While regarding the parousia as a Christian idea, he not only relates Jesus to first-century Jewish religion but emphasizes his eschatological awareness: "the religion of Jesus the Jew is a rare, possibly unique, manifestation of undiluted eschatological enthusiasm." It is Vermes who sees the correlation between the keen sense that God's imminent kingdom is breaking in and repentance (teshuvah, turning), faithful surrender to God ('emunah), and "an untiring effort to follow God as a model, a constant imitatio Dei" -- motifs absent from Borg and Crossan, for whom Jesus is only externally a Jew. Though Crossan says that "Jesus' Jewishness is particularly important in terms of the body/society interaction" (body as microcosm), there is virtually nothing particularly Jewish left in Crossan's portrait of this Mediterranean peasant. Jesus' social location is far more important for Crossan than his religious location. Indeed, whereas first-century Jewish religion was the wellspring of Jesus' life and mission, for both Borg and Crossan that religion was in effect the oppressive structure that he negated. They neither discuss the role of Torah in Jewish life nor have anything good to say about the Judaism that shaped Jesus and his matrix.

To be sure, Borg insists that Jesus was and remained Jewish, just as he asserts that it was not "the Jews" but the "elite" Jewish collaborators with Roman power who rejected him. He too finds the imitatio Dei motif in Judaism -- two motifs, in fact: be compassionate (that is, merciful) as God is compassionate, and be holy as God is holy. Although compassion and holiness were in conflict, the latter was dominant, producing a "purity system" (with sharp social boundaries). Jesus' mission was really an "attack upon the purity system"; in other words, on the allegedly prevailing form of Jewish religion maintained by priests and the elite, while construed somewhat differently by Pharisees and Qumranians.

Interestingly, Borg apparently has fewer doubts about the Gospels' portrait of Judaism (which reflect the Evangelists' time more than that of Jesus) than about their portrayal of Jesus. Understandably so, for seeing Jesus against the background of later first-century Judaism makes it easier to portray him as the hero of moderns alienated from religious traditions and structures. Vermes is surely on the more solid ground here in contending that there is no evidence that Jesus was "hostile to the Torah in principle or refused to abide by it in practice"; to the contrary, "he acknowledged the Law of Moses as the foundation stone of his Judaism.

What must not be overlooked is that the authors' separation of Jesus from futurist eschatology, the secularized reduction of his message and mission to (peasant) class protest and social reconstruction, and the refusal to acknowledge the positive and formative influence of Jewish piety on Jesus are all of a piece. Whereas the second Quest demythologized the apocalyptic eschatology that informed Jesus' message of the kingdom in such a way that the kingdom remained God's initiative and gift eliciting a new ethos, thereby respecting the biblical-Jewish roots of Jesus' word and deed, the Borg-Crossan construal tacitly posits an inert deity who at best provides a formal warrant for a class-based cultural criticism and who apparently has allowed the covenant-commitment to Israel to lapse, for there remains neither promise nonfulfillment. In this interpretation of the kingdom, Jesus may refer to God but not defer to God's action-. It is by no means clear why this egalitarian Eden, which relies wholly on human will power, is less illusory -- especially in this blood-soaked century when human capacity is unmasked -- than the Jewish apocalyptic hope for the coming of God's kingdom.The value of these books is not in what they say about Jesus so much as in what their saying these things prompts one to think about. The Quest itself continues -- as it must.