The Gospels: Why the Historical Jesus Matters

by Stephen T. Davis

Suppose one day an astronaut from some far-off galaxy entered my office. Suppose our space traveler was interested in the cultures and religions of the earth, and asked me: “What is this thing called Christianity? Could you tell me please what it is?” I don’t know what all I would say in response, but I know what my opening line would be: “Let me tell you about a person whose name is Jesus.

This thought experiment has theological implications. Christian faith begins with Jesus, with stories about who he was and what he did. This is the same impulse that caused the early church, some 30 to 40 years after its founding, to write the Gospels. Christian thinking, worship, and practice must be rightly related to Jesus. If our beliefs and practices are out of touch with the Jesus who actually lived in [Judea and Galilee] centuries ago, Christian faith is in serious trouble. It has no plausible foundation.

Of course the object of Christian faith is not “the historical Jesus,” if that means what later theology would call the humanity of Jesus. The object of our faith is the triune God, who is revealed in human history, and especially in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, is not the man Jesus but was incarnate in human history as “the historical Jesus.”

The quest for the historical Jesus: three major phases

Nevertheless, questions about who Jesus was and what he said and did are crucial for Christians. Our faith is not a dropped-from-the-sky code of behavior or a set of timeless teachings from a guru. Ours is a religion of history, a faith whose vital essence consists of great revelatory actions of God in human history, preeminently the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of the Son of God (Heb. 1: 1).

So we need to know about Jesus: Who was he? How did he view himself and his mission? What did he do and say? Why was he crucified? Was he really raised from the dead? What was it about Jesus that brought the Christian church into existence? For most of Christian history, these questions were answered by simply accepting uncritically what the four canonical Gospels said about Jesus. No major differences were expected or detected between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus who actually lived-or, indeed, between the historian’s “Jesus of history” and the church’s “Christ of faith.”

But a German scholar named H. S. Reimarus (1694-1768), often considered the founder of “the search for the historical Jesus,” brought this long era to a close. Reimarus wanted to discover who Jesus was by entirely rational means, i.e., by historical research unfettered by dogmatic considerations or ecclesiastical control. Other notables in what has come to be called the “Old Quest” were David Friedrich Strauss, author of The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), and Ernest Renan, who wrote Life of Jesus (1863). The culmination of the Old Quest was Albert Schweitzer’s famous Quest of the Historical Jesus (1909). Schweitzer’s own proposals about Jesus no longer command assent, but his lasting contribution was his critique of his predecessors. He showed conclusively that their “Jesus” was largely a fantasy made in their own image.

The next period in the “quest” is sometimes called “No Quest,” largely because of the influence of Rudolf Bultmann.1 In The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), Jesus and the Word (1926), and other influential works, he argued that it is impossible for scholars to come to know much about Jesus. Accordingly, the main object of study for Bultmann and his disciples was not so much Jesus as the early church. Indeed, Bultmann stressed the importance for his own day of the preached kerygma of the early church, although many believe that the way he interpreted that message had more to do with existential philosophy than it did with Christianity.

Then in the 1950s a much heralded “New Quest” for the historical Jesus began, under the influence of such scholars as Ernst Kasemann, Gunther Bornkamm, my own Claremont colleague James M. Robinson, and (a few years later) Edward Schillebeeckx. The contemporary continuers of the tradition of the New Quest are such figures as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack, and the members of the Jesus Seminar. What seems to unite the contemporary scholars just noted is: (1) the fact that their “Jesus” — not always for the same reasons — largely seems to float above his own Jewish background; (2) their insistence that Jesus was not an apocalyptic or eschatological teacher; and (3) their eager willingness to entertain almost any ideas about Jesus, however bizarre, except orthodox ones.

But another group of contemporary scholars, sometimes called the “Third Quest,” is also at work: people like Martin Hengel, John Meier, E. P. Sanders, Ben Witherington, and N. T. Wright.2 They emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, and consider him an apocalyptic prophet who announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. These folk have no unified theological agenda — they include Catholics and Protestants, liberals and evangelicals — but they all emphasize the importance of the death of Jesus. They ask: What was it about Jesus that caused him to be crucified?

Jesus is a now “hot topic.” Many Jesus books have been written in the past 15 years, including at least one by a journalist who is in effect reporting on the current state of Jesus studies.3 This may be partly due to the media-savvy work of the Jesus Seminar. Indeed, one of the reasons I agreed to serve as integrator of this issue of Theology, News and Notes is a conversation I had three years ago with a retired Presbyterian school teacher. She had seen Robert Funk, co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, on television. She was deeply worried by what he said and in effect was asking me whether it was still intellectually possible to be a believer in Jesus. It certainly is. I hope our essays can show, at least in part, why it is.

What did Jesus think about himself?

One way of approaching the question of the reliability of the picture of Jesus painted in the four Gospels is to ask: What did Jesus think of himself? The traditional way of answering this question, especially in the period before Reimarus, was simply to quote the Christological statements in John’s Gospel, e.g., “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), or “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). But many biblical scholars deny that these words constitute the ipsissima verba of Jesus. These statements, and the many other high Christological statements made about Jesus throughout the Gospels (they say) tell us more about the faith of the early church at the time the Gospels were written than they do about the actual teachings of Jesus.

Is that true? Well, it is true that the Gospels are statements of faith rather than “facts-only” biographies of Jesus. (The writer of John even admits as much; see John 20:31.) It is also true that John’s Gospel was the last canonical Gospel written, and thus was the furthest removed from the events it describes. As even the early church recognized, it is a more overtly theological interpretation of Jesus than were the synoptics. Moreover, if Jesus spoke and taught in Aramaic, then since the New Testament was written in Greek, almost none of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels constitute his ipsissima verba.

But a convincing case can be made that much of the material in the Gospels that implies a high Christology can in some form be traced back to Jesus, and that he implicitly claimed the high status that the church attributed to him. Here is one telling fact about the earliest Christians: They practiced worship of Jesus. Early Christian prayers were addressed to Jesus, one preserved even in Aramaic (“Maranatha“), which attests to its earliness (1 Cor. 16:22; see also 2 Cor. 12:8; 1 Thess. 3:11-13; 2 Thess. 2:16-17; 3:5; 16; Acts 1:24; 7:59-60). There were also doxologies addressed to Christ, or to Christ and the Father together (Rom. 16:27; cf. 2 Cor. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:18; 2 Peter 3:18; Rev. 1:5-6, 13; cf. 7:10), and hymns of praise to Christ (Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 3:16; cf. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). In Matthew’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus is worshiped (proskynesis) by Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:9) and by the 11 disciples on the mountain (28:17).

Richard Bauckham argues that the transition from prayers and thanksgiving to Jesus to actual worship of Jesus (cf. Acts 13:2) was a smooth and perhaps not even conscious process; there is no evidence of anybody in the earliest Christian community contesting it. He says: “The role which Jesus played in the Christian religion from the beginning was such as to cause him to be treated as God in worship.”4

If Bauckham is correct, why is it so? Perhaps the early Christians worshiped Jesus soon after the resurrection in part because Jesus himself was conscious — at least in some sense — of his divine status and implicitly communicated that fact, by his words and deeds, to his followers. (This is not to say that Jesus thought of himself in terms of the credal definitions that came centuries later.) This claim can be supported by attending to sayings of Jesus that even radical critics like Bultmann, Norman Perrin, and the members of the Jesus Seminar consider authentic.6

For example, consider this statement:

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you (Luke 11:20; Matt. 12:28).

Bultmann enthusiastically accepted the authenticity of this text. While it does not claim divinity, it amounts to a claim by Jesus to be exorcising demons as the agent through which the reign of God enters history. Note the parallel to Exodus 8:19, in which the Egyptian magicians confess their inability to duplicate the plague of gnats, and declare: “This is the finger of God.”

Notice also how Jesus took upon himself the authority to relativize, deemphasize, and even in places rewrite Old Testament Law:

Listen to me, all of you, and understand; there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile (Mark 7:14-15).

The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28).

Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead (Matt. 8:22).

All three of these texts are accepted as authentic by the critics, and all three amount to radical revisions of Old Testament Law. In the first, Jesus is relativising the Jewish dietary laws. In the second, Jesus is taking upon himself the authority to reinterpret the Sabbath laws. And in the third, Jesus is opposing and correcting Mosaic Law. Proper burial of one’s relatives was one of the most sacred duties in [Judean] Judaism (see Gen. 50:5-6; Lev. 21:2-3; Tobit 4:3). Jesus was saying that following him took precedence even over that duty.

Other points could be made,7 but the conclusion is that Jesus must have considered himself and his own teachings to have divine authority. He believed that salvation had arrived in his own person and ministry. Notice also (here we are relaxing a bit the methodology of using only texts considered authentic by radical critics) that Jesus took upon himself the divine prerogative to forgive sins (see Mark 2:5 10; Luke 7:48); spoke to God with apparently unheard of and puzzling intimacy with the Aramaic term Abba (perhaps “Papa”8); claimed to be the “Son of Man” who would judge all things and determine our final status before God; and claimed at the trial scene to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mark 14:61-62).

Was Jesus resurrected?

The question of the status or person of Jesus pushes us inevitably toward the resurrection. Although I cannot argue the point here, theologically orthodox scholars have made a powerful case in recent years for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead — indeed, his bodily resurrection.9 Once it is established that Christians rationally presuppose a worldview called supernaturalism — God exists, created the world, and has the power and interest occasionally to intervene in human history — a strong case can be made for the resurrection (Supernaturalism is opposed to the naturalism or Deism that many critics of the resurrection presuppose.)

It is important to note that the earliest Christians unanimously and passionately believed that Jesus was alive. It was this belief that caused the Jesus movement to survive and thrive (unlike, say, that of John the Baptist or even bar-Kochba a century later). This conviction allowed Christians to overcome both the discouragement of their leader’s death, and later persecution. For another, the criticisms of the empty tomb tradition and of the appearance stories that are typically given by critics can, in my view, be answered. Finally, opponents of the resurrection face one huge embarrassment: No one has ever produced a plausible naturalistic explanation of what happened after the crucifixion that accounts for all the accepted facts (e.g., Jesus was crucified and died; early Christians believed in the resurrection). None of the explanations that have been suggested — wrong tomb, swoon, hallucination, mistaken identity, myth — have any compelling evidence in their favor, and many are so weak as to collapse of their own weight once spelled out.

So the claim that Jesus really was raised from the dead by God looks to be, for supernaturalists, by far the best explanation of the evidence. (I am not claiming that the resurrection by itself proves authentic all Jesus’ words and deeds in the Gospels; this is a separate issue.)

Now I have discussed only two out of many important issues relevant to the historical Jesus, and them only briefly. But my point is that the study of Jesus, carefully done, can provide (what radical New Testament criticism cannot do and does not want to do) a plausible basis for Christian teaching and worship. And it is crucial that it do so, since one’s views about Jesus Christ are at the heart of the Christianity that one holds. They influence what one will say about virtually every other theological topic — the Trinity, creation, providence, sin, redemption, ethics, ecclesiology, and the sacraments.

Articles about the four Gospels

For articles about specific chapters within the Bible, see

Although theologically orthodox Christians must keep their critical faculties alive, they also approach Scripture with a hermeneutic of trust. This is irritating to nonbelievers and radical critics, who see no reason to treat the Bible any differently than any other book. But (as Thomas Oden argues10) if God decides to offer salvation to human beings through Jesus Christ; and if Jesus Christ is primarily mediated to people of later generations via written texts; then it follows that God will not allow the testimony of those texts to be massively misleading or false. Obviously, this argument raises issues that cry out for discussion but, for lack of space, I cannot explore them here. Suffice it to say that in my opinion there needs to be, and in fact is, a strong link between the Jesus whom we find in the Gospels and the Christ whom we Christians worship.

“Let me tell you about a person whose name is Jesus.” This, again, is what I would say to our hypothetical space traveler who wants to know about Christianity. I would begin by telling stories about Jesus, the same stories that the apostles and their followers told and wrote down and that have come down to us today. To tell anyone what Christianity is, we must begin with Jesus — with the Jesus who lived in our midst, with “the historical Jesus.”


1 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1951), 11. This despite the fact that Bultmann said a great deal about Jesus in Jesus.

2 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), xiv.

3 Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (New York: Free Press, 1998).

4 Richard Bauckham, “Jesus, Worship of,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 815.

5 Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 162.

6 The first is accepted by Norman Perrin and rated pink (“Jesus probably said something like this”) by the Jesus Seminar. See Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus ( New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 149-150, and Robert Funk et al., The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 36. The second is also colored pink by the Jesus Seminar. The third is colored pink by the Jesus Seminar and accepted as authentic by Perrin.

7 See Royce Gruenler, New Approaches to Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 19-108.

8 This point has been disputed by James Barr. See “Abba isn’t ‘Daddy’,” JTS 39 (1988) and “Abba, Father,” Theology, 91, no. 741 (1988). For a response to Barr, see Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 408-412. My own claim is that we have lots of Jewish prayers from the first century, and none of them address God as Abba, except those of Jesus.

9 In an official publication of Fuller Seminary, I gladly mention George E. Ladd’s classic, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975). See also Gerald O’Collins, S. J., Jesus Risen (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), William L. Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), and Stephen T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993).

10 Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life; Systematic Theology, Vol. II (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 212.

Stephen T. Davis, Ph.D. is professor of philosophy and religion at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. He is an executive member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Philosophy of Religion Society and has been a visiting professor at both Fuller Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his scores of writings on Christian philosophy, theology, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are God, Reason, and Theistic Proofs (University of Edinburgh, 1997); and Risen Indeed (see note 9 above).

Reprinted with permission from the June 1999 issue of Theology News and Notes, Copyright 1999 Fuller Theological Seminary

Author: Stephen T. Davis


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