Jesus Matters: 150 Years of Research

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Jesus Matters: 150 Years of Research

  1. Review

    During the last twenty years, there has been a renaissance in Jesus studies, especially in the United States. The results of the studies have not been hidden in the halls of academia. Books of historical scholarship on Jesus have become best sellers and the study of Jesus has been featured in cover stories of major news magazines and on television programs. Who was/is Jesus is a question that matters to Christians and others. The author, was stimulated to write this book by his discovery that "in English-language theological literature there is a wealth of books about Jesus, academic studies of Jesus of Nazareth which seem to reach a wide audience." As Professor of New Testament at the Theological University of the Dutch Reformed Churches in Kampen, The Netherlands, he felt it "worth spending time" to put this "remarkable development" in historical perspective.

    He begins stating that "around 150 years ago, ‘the historical Jesus’ was born."Prior to that time the traditional portrayal of Jesus was presented in creeds, dogmas and confessions developed in the early centuries of the history of the Church. The Council of Chalcedon in 415 adopted the formula that Jesus is "both truly God and truly man." Yet there was no doubt that a "’high’ Christology was the only good way of describing the meaning of Jesus Christ: he is the unique Son of God. In the christological disputes that followed Chalcedon, "the human nature of Christ seemed to be made quite simply and even obviously subordinate to his divine nature."

    During the 18th and 19th centuries, with the rise of biblical criticism, scholars began to look behind this traditional portrait of Jesus for the human Jesus. For the first time a distinction was made between the Christ of church tradition and the human being named Jesus of Nazareth. This was the beginning of the quest for the historical (pre-Easter) Jesus.

    The "first quest" which began in the latter part of the l8th century and flourished during most of the 19th century was oriented toward reconstructing the life of Jesus. The "second quest", sometimes called the period of "no quest", began in the early part of the 2Oth century. At this time, there was a growing conviction that little could be known of the historical Jesus. Moreover, some said that the quest for the historical Jesus is not essential to faith. It is "the kerygmatic Christ", in the proclamation of the Christian community, who is important. The period of Jesus scholarship known as "the new quest", which began in the mid-twentieth century, tried to build some continuity between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ.

    Against this background, the author devotes the remainder of his book to the renewed interest in the historical Jesus, dating from 1970’s. The current renaissance of Jesus studies is characterized by several important differences from the former quests. Today, historical questions are considered without being controlled by theological questions. These historical questions are now illuminated by the use of insights and models from the history of religions, cultural anthropology, and the social sciences. Archaeological discoveries such as the findings of Qumran and Nag Hammadi are taken into full account. The result is that studies of the social world of Jesus have become central in the quest for the historical Jesus.

    The author provides a current progress report on the state of Jesus studies. Reminding the reader that "the Gospel contains at least two voices: the voice of the historical Jesus and the voice of the post-Easter community," he emphasizes that in order to "sketch out a picture of the pre-Easter Jesus one must separate these two layers, these two voices." It makes a difference whether we concentrate on the kerygmatic Christ or on the "historical Jesus." He describes and explains the explorations of scholars in this endeavor, and makes appreciative and critical comments on their findings.

    As a result of his historical survey, the author concludes that "Jesus has many faces. No confessional writing or dogmatic formula can sketch out a picture of Jesus in which all these ‘faces’ have a full place." This is a readable and reliable survey of why "Jesus matters."

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