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Theories and Methodologies in the Study of the Historical Jesus and Christian Origins


John Dominic Crossan, the doyen of Historical Jesus studies, disarmingly admits that his subject “is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography” [NOTE]. His field has expanded enormously in the last few decades to become an industry churning out articles and books while he has himself become a television and media regular beloved of reporters who value his pithy aphorisms as ready made sound bites for their stories. Crossan believes the Historical Jesus leaves much to the imagination but others claim the early Church is even more of a blank slate. “It is not possible to explain the expansion of Christianity convincingly,” says Paul Veyne in the introduction to the German edition of Peter Brown’s The Last Pagans. Veyne continues “We know utterly nothing about it; we haven’t the slightest idea of the shape a causal explanation of the process might take on and in any case, frankly viewed, any attempted explanation would be both purposeless and impossible.” [NOTE].

In a field containing a heady mixture of religion and politics, as well as a vocal fringe ready to put forward any view they can think of, the scholar must tread carefully. But these attributes make being an observer, if not a participant, so rewarding and are why the quest to find a historical Jesus is showing no signs of let up after two centuries of effort.

Early work on the Historical Jesus

The critical and academic study of Jesus as a historical personage is usually said to have begun with David Friedrich Strauss, who published his Life of Jesus Critically Examined in 1835. Strauss, keen to break the dichotomy between false and mythological, suggested that many of the stories in the Gospels were myths intended to illustrate aspects of Jesus’ mission and legitimise him in the eyes of Jews or Greeks. The controversy the book engendered pretty much ended Strauss’s academic career and spawned a crop of studies of Jesus’ life. This mainly German work was analysed by Albert Schweitzer in The Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906. He carefully reviewed the fruits of the previous century, devoting particular attention to Strauss, before concluding that “There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus.” [NOTE]. This pessimistic assessment effectively ended what has since been called the First Quest for the Historical Jesus.

The Second or New Quest was founded by Rudulf Bultmann in the 1930s who brought a new methodology called Form Criticism to bear on the problem of what parts of tradition date back to Jesus. He and his students dominated Historical Jesus studies in Germany and exported their ideas to America where they took root in liberal seminaries. The New Quest also failed because Form Criticism was unable to separate history from myth without some sort of external control. Bultmann himself conceded “I do indeed think that we can know now almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus since the early Christian sources show no interest in either.” [NOTE].

The Third Quest for Jesus

The relative success of the American based Third Quest which begun in the 1970s, rests on twin pillars. First, led by Geza Vermes, researchers have identified Jesus and his followers as first century Jews and not, as had been the previous practice, as proto-Christians. Second, the canon of the New Testament has been supplemented with whatever other texts can be found and the number of such texts available has exploded in the last sixty years.

The central advantage of identifying Jesus as a Jew was that it enabled him to be located within a cultural milieu that had already been subject to a great deal of research. It was no longer the case that later impressions were being projected back onto the historical Jesus. This is not to say that earlier scholars did not realise that Jesus was Jewish but rather that he was studied as an outsider rather than as someone brought up within the culture. They asked why Jesus seemed to be in constant opposition to the Pharisees, rather than noting that he had a lot in common with them too and his most successful follower, Saul of Tarsus, was a Pharisee himself. Furthermore, the authors of most of the New Testament were also Jews and so it must be understood as a product of first century Judaism despite actually being written in Greek.

The canon of the New Testament was finally fixed at the council of Chalcedon in AD451 but the main shape was clear by the late second century if not earlier. Third Quest scholars abandoned this distinction between canonical and non-canonical and started to gather together all the texts they could. As well as writings of the apostolic fathers that had always been known, like the letters of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, new texts have been rapidly coming to light such as the Gospels of Thomas and Peter, the Secret Gospel of Mark, fragments of lost gospels and large amounts of Gnostic writing from the Nag Hammadi library. The treatment of these texts varies from scholar to scholar. John Meier examines them closely before deciding that the canonical books are the only reliable source of information after all [NOTE]. However, Crossan puts great stock in the Gospel of Peter containing the earliest version of the passion narrative while the late Morton Smith made so much of the rather dubious Secret Gospel of Mark in books like Jesus the Magician (1978) that, as can be seen here, it has even been suggested he used a forgery. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that most scholars insist is late and Gnostic although some, such as Helmut Koester and members of the Jesus Seminar, believe that it is part of an independent tradition predating the canonical Gospels.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the 1940s, have engendered a lot of interest but, outside of the sensationalist fringe, there is consensus that they have nothing to do with early Christianity at all. They are, however, an unparalleled source of information on another Jewish sectarian movement of the time that furnish many insights into the cultural environment in which Jesus lived and the sorts of people who were cutting themselves off from it. The Nag Hammadi library, which came to light at much the same time, was the other textual discovery of the century. A number of codices dating from the fourth century were unearthed in the Egyptian desert which contained the writings of Gnostic sectarians previously known, if at all, only from short quotations. The Gnosticism that was revealed was an enormously varied patchwork of beliefs that made orthodox Christianity seem homogenous in comparison. Initially, there seemed to be a temptation for scholars to portray Gnosticism as a kinder, gentler form of Christianity that was ousted by the more assertive orthodoxy. More in depth study of the texts now available has found Gnosticism to be far too varied to make any such judgements and indeed the very variety of readings available was what enabled earlier scholars to pick out the passages they liked.

The twin pillars of Jesus’ Judaism and the new textual material have allowed the Third Quest to make progress on many fronts. We now have a better understanding of Roman Palestine, Hellenistic and third Temple Judaism and Greek religion than ever before. Unfortunately the man in the centre of all this scholarly activity remains an enigma. Who was Jesus? Crossan claims he was a revolutionary peasant, to Burton Mack he was a “cynic-like sage” [NOTE], to Tom Wright he is a Jewish prophet and to Marcus Borg a charismatic preacher (and definitely not an eschatological prophet). As Luke Timothy Johnson says, all this variety could mean that “virtually any hypothesis can sustain itself” [NOTE] and even Crossan admits that the “stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.” [NOTE] On the other hand, a great deal of Jesus research is about his motivations and what he was trying to achieve - considerations about the ‘inner man’ that might be equally opaque if applied to Socrates or Seneca.

Behind these different Jesuses, the Third Quest has used the available materials and methods to secure a number of facts that are almost universally accepted and thus escaped the trap of extreme scepticism. EP Sanders helpfully gives a list of them and adds that there are now “no substantial doubts about the course of Jesus’ life” [NOTE]. The establishment of this framework, which can act as a control over further speculation, is a major achievement of the Third Quest and has given an answer to the question of how much we can know about the real Jesus.


Textual criticism

Faced with four basic Gospel sources, the reaction of researchers has been to find several more. Source Criticism attempts to break down the presently extant texts into their constituent and earlier parts. The triumph of this approach has been the discovery of Q (from “Quelle” which is German for “source”) and the almost total acceptance of Markan priority. The traditional view had been that Matthew’s Gospel was the first written (a position now called the Griesbach hypothesis after its most persuasive modern exponent) but source critics said that Matthew and Luke had used Mark and another lost source dubbed Q (made up largely of sayings of Jesus) as well as their own material. The Gospel of John is apparently unrelated to the other three but has also been split into a number of parts including a “Signs Gospel” of miracles suggested to predate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD. Crossan has suggested there existed a “Cross Gospel”, which he claims to find embedded in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, which underlies all four passion narratives [NOTE].

The temptation to deconstruct texts was taken to its logical extreme by Burton Mack in his own work on Q. Regardless of the fact that Q itself is only a hypothetical document, he divides it into three separate sources Q1, Q2 and Q3. Furthermore he postulates in which order these three were written and hence what they tell us about the evolving view of Jesus. The lowest level corresponds to Mack’s own picture of Jesus as a cynic sage without any reference to his death and resurrection. Luke Timothy Johnson is not alone is wondering how the sheer weight of assumptions required to give this reconstruction can be supported [NOTE]. Source Criticism itself has not been without its critics. A minority of scholars reject the existence of Q while Wright insists that we must use a “holistic reading” [NOTE] of the complete texts in their final form as only these fully reflect the intentions of their authors.

In order to determine what dated back to Jesus, Rudolf Bultmann developed Form Criticism. He broke down each of the Gospels into ‘pericopes’ or little story fragments that appeared to be self contained and then attempted to make a judgement about the authenticity of each. Third Quest scholars have used a similar method best typified by that of the Jesus Seminar founded by Robert Funk. The Seminar studies each act or saying of Jesus and then, using the criteria of authenticity (about which more below) vote on the likelihood of it being genuine. The results are published as translations of the Gospels that colour code each pericope according to the level of certainty the seminarians had about whether it dates back to Jesus.

Form Criticism is criticised for being too much of a blunt instrument and unable to deal with a genuine theme running through a series of apocryphal stories. Funk had wanted to use a simple ‘true or false’ system for the Jesus Seminar but accepted more shades of uncertainty under pressure from other seminarians, perhaps horrified to be asked to make a clear cut decision. Crossan, himself a member of the Jesus Seminar, uses a more refined methodology in The Historical Jesus that involves stratifying the pericopes from every text he can find, grouping them together as his data and then deciding which ones have independent attestation. The pericopes with at least two independent attestations and dating from the earliest strata form his initial collection of facts. Although many might object to his decisions on stratification and independence, Crossan’s methodology is at least transparent and can hence be analysed and unpicked by those who disagree with him.

The authors of the early Christian texts all had agendas of their own (known as tendenz) and these are what Redaction Criticism attempts to unravel. We have now moved beyond Jesus himself to what was being said about him by the earliest communities that produced the Gospels. Redaction criticism looks at changes and additions the evangelists made to their source material either by way of explanation or attempting to make sense of difficult passages. For instance, asides in Mark’s Gospel make clear it was written for a non-Jewish audience. However, the hints about the author and his community that can be picked up by this method are very scanty and open to debate.

Criteria of Authenticity

The analysis of particular pericopes of the Jesus tradition is usually carried out using the criteria of authenticity as a toolkit. Exactly which criteria are used by a given scholar, the names she gives them and the techniques with which she applies them all vary, but certain common points apply. A list and description of the criteria can be found in many books on Historical Jesus research and I have selected a few major ones to examine.

Dissimilarity: Each of the writers of sacred literature had a particular perspective which colours their work and determines how they redact the Jesus tradition available to them. This criterion supposes that a pericope that runs counter to the rhetorical flow of the text is more likely to be true. John Meier, among others, hones this into a criterion of embarrassment that suggests that if the writer sets down something he would rather have avoided, then it is more likely to be true [NOTE]. The ultimate embarrassment is the crucifixion itself, but Peter’s denials and John baptising Jesus (who was supposed to be sinless) are other examples. This methodology sounds sensible but requires caution. First, it can only determine the contents of the tradition inherited by the writer in question and not its genuineness. As seriously, it assumes that we can discover the writers purpose from his text and hence tell what is inimical to it. For instance, Peter’s denials might be a reflection of the writer’s community being in conflict with another community claiming descent from Peter.

Coherence: This criterion seems to run counter the one above but is concerned not with the coherence of the evangelist’s message, but that of Jesus himself. A saying that squares well with what we already know about Jesus, especially if it cannot be traced to another source, is more likely to come from him. The problem is that we need knowledge of Jesus and the usual temptation is to accept something under this criterion if it agrees with our pre-formed impression of what Jesus ought to be like. Certainly much of the criticism of historical reconstructions of Jesus centres on their apparently being decided in advance with the evidence supplied later.

Multiple attestation: The textual critics have supplied us with some probable family trees for early Christian writing that mean we can trace dependency. This in turn allows decisions to be made on how often various points about Jesus are independently attested. While this can only show that something comes from an early tradition it is more objective than other methods. The difficulty arises when we cannot agree on textual dependency with the classic case being whether John used the synoptic Gospels.

Historical plausibility: This criterion suggests that when a particular event or custom is known to be the usual practice, it is more likely to have happened. Some historians go further and say that just a precedent from another source can reinforce the likelihood of accuracy. The battleground here is over whether Jesus was buried in a tomb. Some scholars claim that Roman practice was to leave the corpse hanging on the cross or throwing it into a lime pit. Others admit this, but point to the archaeological discovery of a crucifixion victim in a high status tomb, Philo’s account of honourable burial being allowed for rebels at festival time and Josephus being able to persuade the Romans to take down his friends off the cross. These they say are precedents that the usual practice was not always followed and so the Gospel account of Jesus being buried by Joseph of Arimathea is credible and should be believed.

Language: Although Jesus and his followers most likely spoke Aramaic, the entire New Testament is in Greek. However, there are short snippets of Aramaic transliteration (such as Jesus calling God “Abba”) that suggest survivals from a pre-Greek tradition that should be closer to the real Jesus.

While the criteria of authenticity need to be handled with care, they do provide ways in which particular sayings and events in the accounts of Jesus’ life can be analysed and possible genuine facts about him winnowed from the chaff of later embellishment.


New Historicism and Semiotics

The Gospels provide some of the most fertile ground there is for analysing how facts are weaved into stories intended to communicate a particular message. This process can be quite explicit and works both ways - where the story is fitted to the prophecy (such as the virgin birth) or the prophecy fitted to the story (such as Matthew’s unattributable saying stating Jesus would be a Nazerene). Beyond these obvious cases, scholars have unpicked other events in the Gospels to try and determine to what extend the Old Testament was being retold in the guise of the New. Two examples of this theory in action should suffice to illustrate the point.

The feeding miracles are found in all four Gospels (twice in Matthew and Mark) and so are central to the Jesus tradition. They can be analysed as being built on the real Jesus urging people to share their food but with layers added on top from the Old Testament. In particular the story of Elijah, who of all the prophets was a northerner like Jesus, feeding a hundred (2 Kings 4:42 - 44) is a clear precursor to Jesus, the new, bigger and better Elijah, feeding four or five thousand. The passion narrative is also laden with symbolism and Crossan has suggested that apart from the brute fact of the crucifixion, it is entirely made up of what he calls ‘prophecy historicised’ [NOTE] by which he means a post de facto attempt to justify Jesus’ death with reference to the scriptures.

Although the Old Testament provides a rich source of material that the New Testament’s authors could have used, Dennis MacDonald has looked beyond it to another ubiquitous literary source - the epics of Homer. After convincingly showing that the apocryphal Acts of Andrew is built over the same textual skeleton as the Odyssey, in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2000) he also tried to demonstrate that Mark’s Gospel follows the same pattern. In this he is perhaps less successful and his parallels require too many assumptions and leave too much that could simply be coincidence.

The multi-layered depth of the symbols and myths overlaying the historical Jesus has caused some to echo Schweitzer and ask if we can know anything about him beyond the most basic facts. To this it can be argued that the fault is with a post-modernism that deems everything symbolic even if it is well attested and credible, such as the empty tomb or disturbance in the temple. We can deconstruct the texts of the New Testament ad infinitum without ever increasing the stock of historical knowledge. It is the same earth being tilled and the chances of finding something new must be getting increasingly remote.

The issue here is which controls should constrain semiotic speculation. It is true that practically anything can be interpreted symbolically although it is much harder to ascertain whether our symbols are those the original author had in mind. Furthermore, in making their redaction of stories and sayings, ancient authors could be using historical facts with symbolic value to make their point. There does appear to be a belief that if an event of Jesus’ life happens to correspond with one of the multitude of prophecies of the Old Testament, it cannot be factual. Hence there is widespread rejection of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because of a prophecy (Micah 2:5) even though both Matthew and Luke seem to have hit on the same idea independently.

In the quotation from Crossan we started with, the other side of the New Historicism was clearly recognised in that we impose our own values and patterns onto the past. In Historical Jesus studies, feminist historians in particular, have been accused of attempting to recruit Jesus and the Gnostics to their cause by a measure of cherry picking the sources and imposing their own values on them. Elaine Pagels, in her best selling The Gnostic Gospels (1979) appears to try and highlight apparent feminist elements to paint a picture of Gnosticism far more to modern taste than many would allow. A reader could form the impression that the nice tolerant Gnostics were crushed by the state backed power of the narrow minded orthodox. Even in the canonical Gospels, certain pericodes, like at Luke 10:38 - 42, have been interpreted as the last vestiges of a feminist Jesus who was suppressed by the male dominated church as soon as it got the chance.

While using the symbolic resources of the Old Testament and elsewhere, the historian should try to keep within the largely agreed framework delineated by Sanders and Meier unless they have good cause to step beyond its bounds. Only if we allow ourselves to be constrained by some controls can we be doing history because otherwise the story we tell comes entirely within. It is better to be a complete agnostic about the Historical Jesus than accept a reconstruction that cannot be justified from the sources.

Marxism, Sociology and Anthropology

Marxism has not had a huge part to play in Jesus research until the Third Quest. The traditional Marxist view of the early church, as typified by Engel’s article Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity in 1882, was that of the priests deceiving people with “fine delusions” in order to obtain and hold power, but conversely Christianity’s popularity among the oppressed also led to comparisons with working class movements.

Crossan, in his efforts to contextualise Jesus does examine the modes of production and degree of exploitation in a Mediterranean peasant society. Related to this is his work on the client/patron social structure that requires intermediaries between the lower strata of society and the sources of power. Favours were passed up and down the chain that enabled power to be used in a more efficient way than if it was simply being exercised by one man. On the other hand, this structure veiled the real source of power to those lower down the ladder who could only reach it only through the intermediaries. The system of clients and patrons reaching all the way up to the Roman Emperor is but one form of this while another, probably more important to Jesus, was the priesthood of Jerusalem’s temple who controlled the access to the divine. Crossan suggests that Jesus rejected these earthly power structures and preached a radical egalitarianism of peasant liberation. However, after Jesus’ death, the old forms slowly reasserted themselves with the embryonic church developing a hierarchy of bishop, deacon and layperson. The ultimate power was God but he was still veiled by intermediaries through whom the people must go to gain his blessings. In the case of Christianity, as in Judaism, hermits and prophets could follow the example of Jesus and opt out of this system to claim a direct link to God. As long as they enjoyed enough popular support and kept their preaching reasonably compatible with the church’s own, they could thrive as few outsiders do.

Anthropologists have solved one problem that has plagued biblical studies since the rise of rationalism and that is what to do about miracles. Writers have long assumed that miracle stories take a good number of years to develop and that their presence means the source that preserves them must be remote to the event. However, studies of Indian fakirs and other holy men have found that stories of magical power can start immediately and be widely believed during the lifetime of the wonder worker. The belief is so strong that even when fakirs methods are known and exposed they continue to be lauded for their powers. There are also numerous stories in the Christian missionary community of miracles carried out by still living persons who seem either unable or not inclined to refute the accounts. Consequently, it is now widely held that the miracle stories in the Gospels could reflect the attitude of Jesus’ contemporaries to his abilities rather than merely reflecting myth making by the evangelists.

In The Rise of Christianity (1996), the sociologist, Ronald Stark, has been studying the early church and has turned the methods of his field to the cause of explaining its success. He has brought to bear “rational choice theory”, “dynamic population models”, “theories of the firm” and “social anthropology” to paint a radically different picture of how Christianity conquered the Roman Empire. He suggests that Constantine’s adoption of Christianity was a reaction to its success, especially in his army, rather than being the cause. While Stark’s conclusions are controversial, the methods he has introduced should add new weapons to historians’ armouries as they try to establish how a persecuted sect became a state religion.

Orthodoxy and heresy

In the late 18th century, Edward Gibbon courted controversy in the famous two chapters of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that deal with the rise of Christianity. He tried to explain how this religion managed to become so successful using naturalistic means although with his tongue firmly in check he first admitted “that it was owing… to the ruling providence of its great Author” [NOTE]. Even today the story of martyrdom and near inevitable triumph remains the picture carried around in the heads of most lay people.

Walter Bauer set much of the modern agenda for study of the early church in 1934 when he published his Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Initially most influential in his native Germany, its thesis was carried over the Atlantic in Koester and Robinson’s Trajectories through the Early Church (1971) and is now one of the standard works on the subject. According to Bauer, orthodoxy is unseated from its throne and Christianity becomes a market place of competing heresies, one of which was eventually victorious. Orthodoxy defined itself by the use of the ‘apostolic succession’ of bishops from the original apostles, the statements of faith or creeds and the assembly and closure of a canon of sacred writings. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library has greatly increased the number of heretical texts available and increased the impression that early Christians were a highly disparate bunch.

Against this consensus, more conservative historians point out that we have no solid evidence of the relative strengths of particular sects and we cannot say that the mainstream of early Christian opinion was not essentially the same as what later became orthodoxy. Although, they are happy to admit of the variety in early beliefs, they also see orthodoxy as emerging from a formalisation of views in the second century rather than being a distinct trajectory that came to dominate. To simply assume all sects are equal because they all wrote something is a reflection of our own modern relativism. Besides, it is hard enough to discover why Christianity was ultimately so successful. Splitting it into innumerable sects only generates another question - why, out of these, was it what we now call orthodoxy that won?

Our view of the early church is warped by the ultimate success of orthodoxy and by the documents that happen to have survived. The theological arguments of the literate were probably irrelevant to their flocks whose faith was relatively simple. When they lent their weight to esoteric disputes on the nature of Christ it was tribalism or support for a charismatic preacher that brought them onto the streets. Once orthodoxy triumphed most of these people could happily drift into the fold unless, like in Egypt, the local traditions were sufficiently strong and isolated to allow an independent church to develop.


The question of how and why Christianity expanded to conquer the Empire that had persecuted it remains as much a mystery now as it always was and Veyne’s pessimism remains justified. However, anthropology and sociology have opened up new lines of enquiry that do not depend on the narrow written record or the post ad hoc explanations of the church. As for Jesus himself, he continues to ask “Who do you say I am?” [NOTE]. Each generation answers the question in its own way, using the texts both within and without the New Testament to find the man with whom they want to identify. The Third Quest is driven by our desire for a Jesus about whom objective facts can be known and also one who nicely complements our modern liberal outlook. Unsurprisingly, scholars like Sanders and Crossan have been able to provide both.


Crossan, John Dominic The Historical Jesus New York, 1991

Johnson, Luke Timothy The Real Jesus New York, 1996

Koester, Helmut Ancient Christian Gospels London, 1990

Mack, Burton The Lost Gospel Shaftsbury, 1993

Meier, John A Marginal Jew - Volume 1 New York, 1991

Sanders, EP The Historical Figure of Jesus London 1993

Schweitzer, Albert The Quest for the Historical Jesus Baltimore, 1998

Vermes, Geza Jesus and the World of Judaism London, 1983

Wright, NT The New Testament and the People of God London 1992

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© James Hannam 2003.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009 .