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The following is a summary/review of: W.P. Loewe, “The Historical Jesus,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 6 (Gale, 2002), 863-868.
The quest for the “historical Jesus” is aptly defined by W.P. Loewe as an attempt to reconstruct the earthly life of Jesus with the use of historical critical methods. Since the sources of the life of Jesus are laden with theological interpretation and are not historical biographies in the modern sense, moderns attempt to look past the theological interpretations to siphon reliable historical data. Although Loewe’s more modest claim is simply that the discipline of critical history was a child of the Enlightenment, his following account of the exploitations of critical historians who used critical methods to undermine the “Jesus of faith” demonstrates that the Enlightenment reconstructions themselves are inevitably fraught with their own unique modern interpretations (and there is good reason to believe that getting behind “interpretations” to discover bare historical facts about Jesus is a naïve quest only imaginable by an Enlightenment prejudice).
Certain authors mark turning points or trends within the critical approach to Jesus studies. Albert Schweitzer’s “magisterial survey” marks the end of the first phase in which critical inquiry was most premature. Writers like H.S. Reimarus, D.F. Strauss, and B. Bauer saw an opportunity to wield critical methods as a weapon against the Christian Church (863). Such authors eagerly dismissed Jesus as a revolutionary messianic failure (Reimarus), an inspirational personality who inspired a myth (Strauss), or a superfluous hypothesis (Bauer). Likewise, Protestant liberals such as A. von Harnack used critical methods to play a version of Jesus’ simple message off against traditional doctrine to make him more palpable to their contemporaries (864). Critical methods, then, were serving various and contradictory agendas. Schweitzer himself believed Jesus was an apocalyptic delusionary who tried to “force God’s hand” by his passion and death (864). In retrospect, of course, we can see that Jesus was mistaken in his apocalyptic fervor.
In the wake of such a quest for the historical Jesus, there was left open a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the so-called “historical Jesus” and the so-called “Christ of faith” (864). Jesus studies even fell on hard times, with Bultmann even arguing that any attempt to validate historically the biblical call to faith is in effect “an effort to win salvation by intellectual works,” while as a form critic also arguing that reconstructions of Jesus ministry were “practically impossible” (865-66). Loewe attributes the revival in optimism for Jesus studies (the “New Quest”) to Ernst Käsemann. The distinctive characteristics the author describes as 1) a more positive attempt to find underlying continuity amidst the discontinuity and 2) a far more “critical” attitude toward its sources—only those passages that met a “stringent criteria” could be “accorded historical probability” (865).
The scholarly corrections of E.P. Sanders brought into sharp focus new insight about the Judaism of Jesus’ day that showed a bias in Protestant scholarship to read the Catholic-Luther conflict back into the Jesus-Pharisee conflict (866). A number of new sources such as The Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in 1946-56) have contributed crucially to the ongoing revisions within Jesus studies. The novel approach of the Jesus Seminar was to vote on each saying of Jesus to create a consensus (including some of the extrabiblical Gnostic material and the hypothetical Q source). The recent work of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew (several volumes) is taken more seriously by Loewe.
The article concludes that 1) historical reconstructions are always subject to revision in principle, 2) appeals to any particular reconstruction as the “real Jesus,” played against the Christ of faith are simplistic and naïve, 3) although there is a diversity of historical probabilities, this does not make the results of the discipline arbitrary or purely subjective, 4) one can move beyond the historical while still being informed by the historical methods, and, finally, being true to the Catholic perspective, the author concludes that 5) historical Jesus research is a safeguard against “temptations to docetism” (868).