Over the last four-hundred years or so, critical scholars of the New Testament have been on a quest to apply the methods of historical research to the canonical Gospels in order to discern what the historical Jesus was really like. The assumption underlying much of this work over the years is the idea that the Gospels do not give us an accurate portrait of Jesus, so we have to go behind the scripture to find out who Jesus really was.
Today, scholars often describe the history of this quest as having taken place in three stages (click here for a quick online primer, click here for something more substantive). In the first two quests (and to some degree in the third quest), scholars have tended to reconstruct Jesus in their own image. As Albert Schweitzer famously concluded, Questers have looked into the well of history searching for Jesus and instead have seen their own reflection.
I began reading two books this week, both of which have something profound to say about the so-called quest for the “historical Jesus.” I use quotation marks around that phrase because it has become a shorthand among many scholars for the Jesus of history as distinct from the picture of Jesus that we have in the Bible. These two books are written at very different levels, but they are both working from the same assumption. The Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus of history.
The first book is John Piper’s 2006 release from Crossway, What Jesus Demands from the World. For me, one little chapter was worth the price of the book, “A Word to Biblical Scholars (And Those Who Wonder What They Are Doing)” (pp. 29-36). In this chapter, Piper describes trying to come to terms with the Quest for the Historical Jesus when he was working on his doctoral studies at the University of Munich in the 1970’s. Here’s his evaluation, with which I heartily agree:
The upshot of those days in Germany was a growing disillusionment with the historical effort to reconstruct a Jesus of history behind the unified portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. . . For my part I saw massive minds assembling, with great scholarly touch, a house of cards. It helps to be sixty years old. I have watched the cards collapse over and over. . . I had seen glorious things in the Jesus of the Gospels, and the Quest was offering me husks and ashes. . . (p. 31)
The conviction was growing in me that life is too short and the church is too precious for a minister of the Word to spend his life trying to recreate a conjectured Jesus. . . To the degree that the present reconstructions of the historical Jesus depart from the portrayal found in the Gospels of the New Testament, they will be forgotten . . . (p. 32)
The portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels of the New Testament is the only portrayal that has any chance of shaping the church and the world over the long haul. . . I will wager my life that this was God’s idea and that it will be worth all my remaining breath to try to understand what is actually there and teach it faithfully (p. 34).
But even having expressed such skepticism about the “Quests,” Piper is thankful that “God has raised up several generations of careful, rigorous, and faithful scholars who are not cowed by the radical critics and who patiently go about their work establishing the historical credibility of the four Gospels” (p. 33). Dr. Richard Bauckham certainly falls into this category of “faithful” scholars who are trying to establish the historical reliability of the Gospels. I will discuss my initial reflection on his new book tomorrow.
But Isn’t there great wisdom in what Piper is saying? In two thousand years of church history, the heresies and the skeptics have come and gone, but the Gospels have stood firm against the assaults of many enemies. I for one, don’t want to tie my fortunes to sinking ships, and many of the fads of biblical criticism have turned out to be just that. The great martyrs of the Christian church didn’t go to their deaths reading Reimarus, Strauss, or Bultmann. To a man, they were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. History has shown that the Jesus of the Gospels is the only one worth having, the only one worth living for, and certainly the only one worth dying for.