For nearly 1800 years, Jesus of Nazareth was regarded as the "King of kings" and "Lord of lords" -- the divine Logos, the ruler of the universe, to whom all creation would one day bow down. It was he, the Son of God, who willingly entered into the human realm -- yes, the great mystery of the Incarnation, of God becoming man, of which Thomas Aquinas once wrote, "involved no change in God's eternal state, but united him in a new way with what he created, or rather, united what he created with himself." It was that great mystery which C.S. Lewis so eloquently called "the Grand Miracle," the miracle of God descending into the human sphere, "down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity . . . to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him." Indeed, this was the orthodox portrait of Christ - in fact, the only christological portrait that hung in the museum of classic orthodox theology. Now, however, the gallery is full of a number of portraits, all depcting something different, all reflecting contrary interpretations of the Jesus figure -- meanwhile, the orthodox portrait seems to be decomposing . . . How did this come to be?
Another aspect of Bultmann's methodology was to "demythologize" the Gospels - in other words, to take out the mythological elements such as miracles, etc., and thereby discover the heart of each pericope (i.e. short story, for instance, Jesus's baptism by John, the feeding of the 5,000 and/or 4,000). By taking out the apparent mythological elements in the Gospels, Bultmann believed that he could discover the "real Jesus," and through this process, understand the concerns of the early Church. Moreover, according to Bultmann, who was highly influenced by the existentialism of Martin Heidegger, it wasn't the historical Jesus who was so important (after all, it was impossible to totally reconstruct him) -- rather, it was the Christ of faith who demonstrates his power to believers in the hear and now. Bultmann's Jesus no longer walks the countrysides of Galilee, or the streets of Jerusalem; no, instead, Bultmann's Jesus walks the battlefields of war torn Europe, an alienated landscape of death, destruction, misery, starvation, and ultimate sorrow (World War I).
The scholar E.P. Sanders, in his study called "Jesus and Judaism," as well as in his "The Historical Figure Of Jesus," uncovered eleven undisputable facts about Jesus, a core around which the rest of Jesus's story could be reconstructed. By only resorting to undeniable "core facts" in the New Testament, Sanders uncovered at least fifteen undisputable facts about the life of Jesus around which one can rebuild the essential New Testament portrait of Jesus:
1) Jesus was born ca. 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great.
2) Jesus spent his childhood and early adult years in Galilee (Nazareth).
3) Jesus was baptized by John the baptist.
4) Jesus called disciples to follow him.
5) Jesus taught in towns, villages, and in the countryside (but not in cities).
6) Jesus preached the kingdom of God (justice, peace, equality, love, etc.)
7) Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover when he was about 30 years old.
8) Jesus created a disturbance in the Temple compound.
9) Jesus had a final meal with his disciples.
10) Jesus was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities - high priest.
11) Jesus was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
Sanders's aftermath of the life and death of Jesus is as follows:
1) His disciples fled at first.
2) His disciples saw him after his death (but in what way is uncertain)
3) His disciples accordingly believed that he would return to found kingdom.
4) His disciples formed a community to await his Messianic return, and sought to win others to faith in him as God's Messiah.
The importance of Sanders's work is (1) his emphasis on the sociological and political elements which were present in the first century AD, and (2) the idea the Jesus's action in the Temple is what eventually led to his crucifixion. The latter would become a standard for nearly all liberals involved in the New Quest. The most recent research has hearkened back to the period of "oral tradition," where stories about Jesus were told over and over in the context of an "oral culture." The difficulties for us to understand the "oral culture" (due to our post-Gutenberg paradigm) are nicely illustrated in James Dunn's work "A New Perspective on Jesus: What The Quest For The Historical Jesus Missed." Other criteria for uncovering the historicity of the real Jesus can be determined by invoking the methodology of the oral culture.
The Jesus Seminar
Without doubt, the most controversial group to arise in recent years is The Jesus Seminar. The Seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, and it was essentially comprised of 40-200 North American scholars who would gather twice a year to "vote" on which sayings of Jesus were authentic, and which sayings were not. Although the inferences of these scholars would be better read on a horizontal continuum, the "four-color" scheme that they devised and utilized in their The Five Gospels became notorious. Just as many New Testaments have the words of Jesus in red text, the so-called Scholars Version separated the sayings of Jesus into four categories:
Red = "that's Jesus" (It's something Jesus would definitely say)
Pink = "sure sounds like Jesus" (It's something Jesus might possibly say)
Gray = "well, maybe" (It's something consistent with what Jesus might say)
Black = "there's been a mistake" (It's impossible that Jesus could have said such a thing)
It is important to note that the Jesus Seminar is a self-appointed body with a mission to offset the conservative scholarly thrust which is present throughout North America. The Seminar, regardless of subjecting its works to peer review (except in some cases), has determined to bring liberal academic scholarship to the common man -- for this reason, the aisles of Barnes and Noble are adorned with books written by fellows of the Jesus Seminar. Also, special television shows on National Geographic and Discovery Channel are crammed with liberal scholars spouting out all sorts of heterodoxies to an unsuspecting public. All in all, as a polemical campaign, the effort has been somewhat successful because most readers and viewers are not widely read in these areas. Thus, the effect of the Jesus Seminar has been rather shocking to the North American public. Heralds such as Time and Newsweek have quoted many of the fellows of the Seminar, stating that only 25% of the Jesus sayings in the New Testament are authentic. Or, Jesus never uttered the Lord's prayer. Or that the Gospel of John is a complete fabrication. Without the Jesus Seminar preparing the field, books and films like "The Da Vinci Code" could have never been made.
So although the Jesus Seminar has succeeded in offering alternative Jesus theories to the public, theories that run counter to the traditional Gospel portrayal, it should be pointed out that the Seminar does not have the blessing of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) which is the authoritative governing body for biblical scholarship, comprised of 6,900 members. In fact, only a handful of fellows from the Jesus Seminar are connected in any way to the SBL. Nor is the American Academy of Religion (AAR) supporting the efforts of the Jesus Seminar. A great problem has arisen because the Jesus Seminar has portrayed itself as a "representative scholarly body" when, in fact, it is not, and because of this, many biblical scholars (conservatives, moderates and liberals) have heaped scorn upon the Jesus Seminar. Fr. Luke Timothy Johnson has written a scathing critique of the Seminar in his book The Real Jesus
Though the methodology of the Jesus Seminar has been exposed for its flaws and biases, the fellows of the Seminar present themselves as doing inductive, scientific work (with an air of triumphalism), exploring the sayings of Jesus against the cross-currents of first century sociological and political conditions. Some might respond, "Yes, but their work is scientific and democratic. What's wrong with that?" Well, sadly, "appearances" aren't always what they seem to be, especially in the case of the Jesus Seminar. Their methods are neither scientific or democratic, and the ghost of Schweitzer has come back to haunt them, accusing them of creating a Jesus figure in their own image. Nearly all of the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar already had a presupposed construct of the historical Jesus, not only in their minds, but in their writings - even before the advent of the Seminar. There is nothing objective about the method and process of the Jesus Seminar, although they have hoodwinked the North American populace into thinking that what they are doing is sound scholarship which is representative of cutting-edge hypotheses. In sum, no one comes to the Seminar's table with a tabula rasa - each scholar has his own hypothesis, and he or she will pick and choose which sayings of Jesus fit into his or her presupposed construct.
Some Key Sources For Understanding The Historical Jesus
1. Jesus Under Fire - Moreland/Wilkins, IVP
2. Historical Figure of Jesus - Sanders, Penguin
3. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was And Is - Wright, IVP
4. A New Perspective On Jesus - What the Jesus Quest Missed - Dunn, Baker
5. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography - Crossan, HarperCollins
6. Backgrounds of Early Chrstianity - Ferguson, Eerdmans
7. The Real Jesus - Luke Johnson, Harper
8. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods - Bock, Baker
9. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Blomberg, IVP
10. A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1 - John Meier,
11. Death of the Messiah (2 vols.) - Raymond Brown, Anchor
12. The Resurrection of the Son of God - Wright, Fortress
13. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels - IVP
14. Dictionary of Paul and his Letters - IVP
15. Dictionary of New Testament Background - IVP
16. New Testament Introduction - Guthrie, IVP
*It is important to note that there are numerous key works on the topic of the Historical Jesus which range from the popular to the scholarly. In the above list I have tried to provide a combination of works, some specific, some encyclopedic, all scholarly, in order to enhance the student's understanding of this most interesting and important topic.