This essay appeared in a revised form in The Fourth R 28.1 (January-February): 21
Everyone interested in Jesus of Nazareth should be interested in this short essay. I am not certain who first stated the basic problem of historical Jesus studies in so many words, but any historian who works comparatively and critically with the gospels today immediately becomes aware of the problem. Here is how the German scholar, Wilhelm Wrede, formulated the problem in 1901: "How do we separate what belongs properly to Jesus from what is the material of the primitive community" (Messianic Secret, 4). Wrede may even have been the first to state the problem in this way. Albert Schweitzer, who critiqued all the scholarly lives of Jesus in German and French written from 1778 through 1901, was in the best position to have recognized the problem, but in fact did not. Schweitzer rejected Wrede's literary-critical analysis of Mark in 1906, and assumed that the earliest two gospels were historically reliable in what they reported. He also was less than critical in what he generally regarded as authentic Jesus traditions (J. M. Robinson, "Introduction," to Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, xix). After Schweitzer's book, no critical studies of Jesus were written until 1956, in part because of the difficulty of separating Jesus from the church's beliefs about him. An axiom of critical Jesus studies is this: the gospels contain some reliable historical information about Jesus, but it must be separated from the basically faith descriptions of Jesus where they are concealed.
Recently it appears the situation has changed to judge from the spate of critical Jesus books published at the end of the twentieth century. In spite of scholarship's failure to solve the basic problem, scholars have again begun writing "biographies" of Jesus. Some confidently combine an extensive "course of life" with psychological analyses of Jesus. Nevertheless, these studies do not first lay out for readers exactly where they draw the line between the good-intentioned machinations of the early community and Jesus himself.
Actually in the two-hundred and fifty year history of history-of-Jesus research only once has it happened that a large group of scholars (The Jesus Seminar) has convened to address formally the basic problem of Jesus research. The Seminar did its study in the public eye (not behind the ivy-covered walls of academia), reached a consensus (that did not please everyone), and published a report to the public (The Five Gospels
, 1993), which included their findings and the reasons for their findings. One would have supposed that this report would have become the basic point of reference for all future Jesus studies. Scholars could cite the report by adding or subtracting sayings and giving the reasons for their judgments. But the report was generally treated at best with benign neglect by the guild of scholars, and Jesus studies continued apace without first carefully sorting out "what properly belongs to Jesus" from the "material of the early community." In other words the basic problem of Jesus studies is routinely ignored.
How should we regard books on Jesus of Nazareth that: (1) do not recognize this axiom of critical Jesus studies: that not everything attributed to Jesus in the gospels originated with Jesus; (2) do not include a specific list of the historical raw data on which the author bases his/her description of Jesus; (3) do not include a justification for regarding such raw data as historical; and (4) do not carefully distinguish between the data and their own interpretation of it.
It is easier for me to respond by describing the extremes. At their very worst such studies are romantic and devotional, and are intended, either consciously or subconsciously, to buttress the faith of the believing community. Hence they are not critical studies, but fall into the category of propaganda or devotional literature.
On the other hand, at their very best they are still flawed studies because they confuse the raw data with their analysis, and fail to justify what they do use. Hence at best they are unreliable and misleading.
Missouri State University