The Jesus of History & the Jesus of Faith

There are five basic movements in regards to the historical Jesus:[1]

  1. Prequest
  2. First Quest
  3. Abandoned Quest
  4. Second Quest
  5. Third Quest

Pre-enlightenment (prior to 1778) studies of Jesus assumed that the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Christian faith were essentially the same. With the rise of the enlightenment and the exultation of man’s reason, however, there began a shift, claiming that the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith were different. This first quest (1778-1906) emphasized that this difference carried direct consequence to the Jesus of faith. Essentially, the first questers claimed that the Jesus whom Christian’s claimed as Lord was not the same Jesus who lived and existed in the first century. The idea was that Christians had simply constructed a fictional theological figure as their religious leader. The abandoned quest (1906-1953), marked by Christian existentialism, emphasized that the Jesus of history did not carry any consequence to the Jesus of faith; thus, though they would assert that the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith were different, they would also submit that Jesus of faith does not need to have any historical basis. This led to the infamous Bultmannian ‘demythologization’ of Christian documents, extrapolating the meaning from the texts, and marking the study of the historical Jesus as methodologically impossible. The second quest (1954-present day) led from the abandoned quest, but moved it forward, asserting that the historical Jesus was less important than the biblical Jesus of the Christian faith. There was some concession of the connection between the two, a development beyond the ‘abandoned quest,’ but the historical Jesus was studied beyond the biblical representation, using other ancient noncanonical Gospel material – e.g. the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of the Hebrews. The third quest (1965-present day) spawned from similar assumptions, but conversely. In contrast to the second quest, third quest researchers claimed that the historical Jesus was the appropriate focus of analysis. Thus, proponents of this perspective sought to rightly place the historical Jesus within the context of the first century, Second Temple Judaism. Moreover, as opposed to the two previous quests, researchers during the third quest philosophically assumed that the search for the historical Jesus was methodologically possible, but theologically neutral. Researchers attempted to examine Jesus apart from the church’s imposed Christology, remaining theologically unbiased. While this is nearly impossible and evidently not executed in the third questers’ proposals, it led to a variety of Jesus portraits. Of these many portraits, they include the popular ‘Jesus the Charismatic Faith Healer’ and ‘Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet.’ Let us take up these portraits as examples:

‘Jesus the Faith Healer’ was a position primarily supported by M. Borg and G. Vermes. They concluded that Jesus was simply a channel of God’s power to others. While taking a step in the right direction, recognizing Jesus’ supernatural abilities, they resolved these features to some mysticism foreign to the biblical account. Both men saw Jesus as comparable to other mystics or ‘holy men,’ but they dismissed the Gospel’s emphasis on Jesus’ intrinsic power – i.e. Jesus did not need to pray or ‘go outside of himself’ in order to perform miracles. E. P. Sanders and M. Casey are the most notable voices of ‘Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet.’ Sanders claimed that Jesus anticipated the end of the age during his lifetime, and sought to teach an ethic that would provide redemption before this divine intervention – e.g. unconditional love, forgiveness without repentance, etc. Importantly noted, Sanders dismisses any legitimacy to Jesus’ miracles, and designates them as a product of lunacy or deception. Casey concluded that Jesus was seeking to fulfill the ministry of John the Baptist, expecting the imminent climax of history, and foreseeing his death as having some significance to Israel, though not ‘messianic.’

Although these portraits do well at placing Jesus within his first century Jewish context, they seemingly miss the essence of the Jesus of the Gospel and dismiss significant material in the gospel narratives. Both portraits ultimately fail to adequately account for why Jesus was sentenced to death and crucified. The Gospels make it clear that “the crucifixion was religiously motivated and that Jesus was accused of blasphemy on account of his claim to deity (Matt 26:63-65; John 19:7).”[2]

The misconstrued portraits of Jesus are numerous, but it represents a valuable principle of research: the theological Jesus – the Jesus of faith – is largely contingent upon one’s historical Jesus. Truly, at the essence of the Jesus of faith there must be some causal relationship to the Jesus of history. If one ponders the first Christian, the first person to subscribe to the Jesus of faith (whomever that may be), there must be some history (however immediate) to spawn their decisive interpretation and action. Faith cannot be without its object (however unseen or hopeful), and thus faith cannot exist without an object. Belief, at least the type of belief intimated in the Gospel, is one that is necessarily executed with an activity beyond intellectual ascension. Faith is active, more so defined with ‘dependence’ or ‘trust.’ Now, if there be no proper object of one’s faith, then there is no reliability of dependence. For the dependence gives some stability, a foundation, and certainty by which to stand on. Such a foundation cannot be intrinsic to the faith, because then the faith would be independent in regards to its dependence – a grave inconsistence. Faith is the ὑπόστασις (hypostasis, ‘substance’) of hope, intimating that its essence rests in its relationship to something else; it is not and cannot be independent.[3] When one proclaims, “I have faith,” almost immediately another might ask, “Faith in what?” Faith is inextricably tied up in its object. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that there be an accurate history of Jesus. Nevertheless, there is a larger challenge that should be concluded in the conversation.

I would surmise that the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith are not different – i.e. in contradiction to one another – but the former is indeed incomplete. The only item of study, reason, and examination is constituted in the former. Certainly the ethical teachings, the miracles, and ultimately the resurrection can be studied in light of their being historically factual; yet the Jesus of faith is not merely a sum of tenets to be known, but a paradox to be believed. A man’s knowledge does not necessarily resolve into trust and belief, especially when he is called to believe the foolishness of God becoming man (the absolutely other becoming not absolutely other) and his resurrection from the dead. Such tenets do not sit well with the examiner, and they ought not sit well; they are foolishness to the Greek and a stumbling block to the Jews! The student can conclude that such things occurred in history, call them facts, but to believe is something more; it beckons the man out of himself and above his reason to the realm of faith, which is the flesh of the hope, the unseen. Jesus did not merely call us to be his students, but he called us to humbly resolve such study by being believers – more so, believers who live like we believe in such glorious truths. For, just as faith is necessarily related to hope as its object, even more so, it is related to love as its expression. Sola fide – but true faith is never alone.

The historical Jesus conversation should swiftly move from a discussion about data and facts (though not neglected) and towards the gospel, which is to be believed, not merely summarized and observed from a distance. This is a conversation that the modern world wants to have, and it should be one that we should happily engage in, because it provides us an open door to the gospel.


[1] Andreas J. Köstenberger, L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009); all the proceeding ‘Quest’ research is pulled from Kostenberger, 111-116.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Compare hypostasis in Hebrews 1:3 and 11:1, where faith’s relationship to hope is similarly described as the relationship between Jesus and God the Father.

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3 thoughts on “The Jesus of History & the Jesus of Faith

  1. Taylor~

    are you reading The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown straight through, or dipping in as a reference?

    I ask because CCC is my next big project to tackle, after What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About.

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