There have been 3 different waves in the attempt to find the historical Jesus. The first begin in the 18th century and lasted to the turn of the 20th century. The 2nd was very brief, beginning and ending in the middle of the 20th century. The 3rd began in the late 20th century with the Jesus Seminar and continues today as reflected in Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot. What all three movements have in common is 1) the belief that the New Testament Gospels are unreliable historical sources about Jesus but that 2) there are kernels of truth hidden in them that modern scholarship can discover and use to give us a true picture of Jesus.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the famous religious scholar, organist and medical missionary, did a study of the 1st search in his book “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” He looked at the results of the scholars who attempted the search and concluded that each Jesus they came up with looked remarkable like themselves. The Catholic theologian George Tyrell made the famous observation that they looked down the well of history and thought they were seeing Jesus, but all they saw was their own reflection. Neither Schweitzer nor Tyrell were traditional Christians, each having rejected the orthodox faith, but as scholars, they judged the 1st search for the historical Jesus to have been a failure. The searchers just projected their own values onto Jesus.
What about the current search for this historic Jesus? Have they done any better? The current search has resulted in scholars being broken down into 5 camps. The true Jesus was either 1) an apocalyptic prophet, 2) a charismatic healer, 3) a Cynic philosopher, 4) a peaceful Jewish Messiah or 5) a prophet of social change. To this Reza Aslan has added a 6th option, violent revolutionary. In other words, the sure results of modern scholarship have been unable to agree on who the real Jesus is. They can’t even cut it down to 2 or 3 options.
Let me take a closer look at Reza Aslan’s reconstruction: Jesus the violent revolutionary on the side of the poor. Much has been made of the fact that Aslan is a Muslim. Many cultural conservatives have said he is a Muslim trying to attack the Christian Jesus on behalf of Islam. But his view of Jesus does not agree with the traditional Muslim view of Jesus. For instance, traditional Islam says Jesus was never crucified whereas Jesus’ death of the cross is very important to Aslan. I have read Muslim reviews of Aslan that are very critical of him.
I think Aslan’s scholarship is affected by his Islamic faith but in a more subtle way. A liberal religious scholar writing for CNN wrote a scathing review of Aslan’s scholarship about Jesus. He then concluded that Aslan saw in Jesus a failed version of Muhammad. They both led a violent revolution on behalf of an oppressed people but whereas Muhammad succeeded, Jesus failed. Remember that those that search for the historical Jesus often come up with a version of themselves or of what they consider to be a great person. Aslan, a Muslim, looks for Jesus and finds a version of Muhammad.
The truth is this. The New Testament documents are the earliest testimonies about Jesus that we have historically. The first ones (some of Paul’s letters) were written within 20 years after his death. The Gospel of Mark was written within 30 years of Jesus death. If these documents cannot be trusted, then we can know nothing about Jesus. Those that try to find another Jesus behind the Gospels just cherry pick the stuff they like out of the Gospels and create a Jesus in their image. The search for the historical Jesus is futile if the Gospels we have are inaccurate.
As I have pointed out before, even if you concede that The Gospels present a basically accurate view of Jesus’ self understanding, it doesn’t mean you have to believe in him. Maybe Jesus was wrong. That’s a topic for another post. But in the skeptics desire to discredit Christianity, they have gone for the homerun ball. They want to say that even Jesus didn’t believe in the biblical Jesus. Scholarship just doesn’t support that conclusion.
Of course, if you acknowledge that the Gospels are correct concerning the message of Jesus, you have to then ask the question, are they also historically correct concerning the miracles of Jesus. And this is the real agenda. These scholars are in rebellion against the biblical Christ and they are desperate to find intellectual justification for that rebellion. Instead of taking the weaker but more defensible position that “the Gospels are basically accurate in their overall picture of Jesus, but in their devotion to him they embellished the supernatural stuff”, these skeptics go for the knockout punch that you can’t trust the Gospels at all. The scholarship does not justify this conclusion.