The Quest for the historical Jesus has progressed through at least four periods of development with an increasing trust towards the biblical sources, all seeking in different ways to understand the relationship between the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus we meet in Scripture.


The Quest for the historical Jesus has progressed through at least four periods of development of seeking to understand the relationship between the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus we meet in Scripture. The First Quest, reaching back to the 17th century, attempted to distinguish between and describe the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. The next period that followed is often called the No Quest period, a time in the early 20th century when many thought that nothing could be gained by going down this path, while others disagreed and continued to work in this area. The Second Quest began in the 1950s when Ernst Käsemann and others tried to adapt the literary discipline of Form Criticism to the historical task of the Quest. The Third Quest began to emerge in the following decade with the discovery and publication of the Qumran scrolls. Challenging the methods of the Second Quest, Third Quest scholars began to ask how Jesus’s actions and teachings would be understood and whether they could fit together well in their cultural and theological setting.

A key part of the public conversation about Jesus involves the historical study of Jesus. It grew out of skepticism about the truth of Scripture but presses for corroboration using means that all students of history would apply. The assessment of those methods can be rooted in a naturalism that discounts the activity of Scripture by definition. For those open to the activity of God, the pursuit of corroboration can be of help in interacting with those who lack a religious commitment or who have doubts. The history of such a quest is mixed, producing an array of views about Jesus and debate about its usefulness, in part because of the variety of ways people assess the accounts they deal with in looking at Jesus’s life and the complexity of factors one weighs as sources are examined.

The Beginning of “Quests” for Jesus

The Quest for the historical Jesus, as it is often called, began when some said the church’s portrait of Jesus was too covered over with later-formulated doctrine to tell us who Jesus really was. So skeptical people formed rules to challenge the church’s take on Jesus. These rules come from a mixture of tools that Jesus historians regularly use when trying to confirm a historical event or when grappling with issues raised by the nature of our sources about Jesus. In its earliest days, and even now, much historical study of Jesus served to challenge the church’s confession of Jesus.

Both people of faith and people who challenge faith sit at the table and debate who Jesus is and how we can know who he was. As you might expect, sometimes the discussion is heated. Can these diverse students of Jesus have a conversation without claiming that one has to accept all the church believes in order to discuss Jesus? That is part of what historical Jesus study attempts to do.

The First Quest and Lessing’s Ditch

The first Quest for the historical Jesus reaches back into the late 17th century. Looking at differences in the texts and questioning whether the Bible was giving us history alone, scholars set out to distinguish between the real historical Jesus and what they called “the Christ of faith,” a figure many of the originators said was not the real Jesus but a later construction of the early church. The initial discussion was rooted in a deep skepticism about what the Bible said about Jesus. The goal of getting us back to a truly historical Jesus often led to a moralist turn, with Jesus becoming one prophet among many. It became common to argue that there was a vast difference between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. This gap eventually became known as Lessing’s ditch because the German Enlightenment scholar Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) used the picture of a ditch to describe the difference between the two portraits. The portraits—the biblical one and the historical one—were that distinct.

Lessing’s goal was to get back to Jesus as he was and not a view that was layered with later ideas about him. The claim was that the Gospels really did not give us the real Jesus; he had to be rooted out of the sources through all kinds of historically based questions. No longer could a person simply say, “The Bible tells me so.” Or if they did, there was a good chance that their claim would be dismissed as naïve or unscientific. Lessing’s ditch not only argued for a gap between of the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history; it also placed a huge space between people who sought to converse about who Jesus was and is.

Some said we could never cross Lessing’s ditch. This was said most famously by Rudolph Bultmann (1884–1976), who argued we could not get back to Jesus as he was (see Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus and the Word). For him and many others like him, “ditch” was too small a gap to adequately describe what Lessing claimed. It was more like a canyon. We cannot find the real Jesus, he argued, at least not in the gospel sources that present him. If Jesus is to be found, he must be reconstructed historically.

But not everyone was so completely skeptical; many tried to bridge the gap between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. These bridge builders argued there was a way to cross Lessing’s ditch, and they have tried to construct a way through. Not all skepticism is strictly negative but a serious testing of the sources can lead to good questions and fresh answers.

These discussions first started in the late 17th century when miracles began to come under serious challenge, differences between accounts of the same events were noted, and issues were raised about the claims of Jesus. There were no rules for judging the events of the Scriptural accounts, just subjective judgments about what was likely for Jesus to have actually done. The array of portraits led Albert Schweitzer in 1906 to publish a work on this phase of Jesus study and to critique it as far too subjective and detached from the original Jewish context of Jesus’s work. He argued that the vast array of distinct Jesus portraits produced up until that time were methodologically flawed. Most agreed with Schweitzer’s analysis of work done over a period of more than a century. His book and critique marked the end of this first period of the Quest for the historical Jesus. In many ways, this initial period was the most skeptical.

The “No Quest” Period

Then came what is often called the “no quest” period, which spanned the first five decades of the 20th century. In fact, this is a very poor name for the period because a lot of writing was done about the historical Jesus during those years. What seemed to be missing, however, was any unified method of approach, any methodical way of engaging the issues. Each writer continued to see the Jesus he or she wanted to see and constructed him on the basis of what seemed best to the author. It was in this period that Rudolf Bultmann argued that we could know next to nothing about the historical Jesus. His influence is why some call this the “no quest” period. It was a period when many thought that nothing could be gained by going down this path, while others disagreed and continued to work in this area.

The Second Quest

In 1953 the prevailing skepticism changed. One of Bultmann’s students, Ernst Käsemann, who had become a professor himself, argued that we could know more about Jesus than his famous mentor had claimed. He argued for trying to separate later Greek strata from the original more Hebrew/Aramaic layers of the tradition. He also argued that studying the development of the tradition as it told and retold certain events could give clues as to what was more original. This area of study is known as Form Criticism, which emerged between 1919 and 1921. It argued that stories were passed on with a variety of certain kinds of structures (forms), mostly in short pieces. Variations of the forms might yield clues as to what was original with the story and what was not. This historical use of Form Criticism was always a debated feature of its use. Vincent Taylor, an English scholar, wrote in the 1930s that as helpful as Form Criticism was as a literary tool to analyze the outline of a story, it was worthless as a historical tool, which is how the new (or “Second Quest”) Jesus scholars wanted to use it. Nevertheless, it is in this period the rules began to emerge as a means of giving some structure to the effort and overcoming the criticism being leveled against Form Criticism.

These rules were called “criteria of authenticity”. Among the important ones are multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, and coherence.

  • Multiple attestation argues that the broader the array of traditional source strands an account or theme appears in the more likely it is to be authentic. A traditional source strand is not the mere presence in a gospel, but is seen as Marcan material, teaching shared between Matthew and Luke (a source known as Q), unique material in Matthew, unique material in Luke, distinct contents in John’s gospel, and an array of other less full sources.
  • Dissimilarity argues that anything that does not come from Jewish culture nor from the early church teaching must be Jesus. This criterion is sometimes altered to argue not quite like Jewish practice nor quite like the early church.
  • Embarrassment argues the church would never create such an account as something in it would be an embarrassment to the church.
  • Coherence argued that anything that fits with or coheres with what the other criteria surface also could be authentic.

People continue to debate how useful these criteria and other like them are, as well as to discuss where the burden of proof lies (presuming either authenticity or inauthenticity first or simply being neutral on that question). Much historical Jesus discussion will raise these kinds of measures, imperfect as they are. to assess the sources because without something like them it is simply a matter of subjective opinion.

As Käsemann was proposing a fresh look at Jesus study, new archeological finds changed the map and understanding of the first-century religious environment of Jesus. The finds at Qumran on the Dead Sea known as the Dead Sea Scrolls surfaced between 1947 and 1956 but were slow in being published and even slower to be more fully evaluated. This library of texts came from a community that had separated from official Judaism and the temple and had moved out into the desert in the mid-second century BC to await God’s vindication on their behalf. They remained there until the Romans rolled through in the same war that led to the temple’s destruction in 70 AD.

Eventually, scrolls were found in eleven different caves. Scholars have labeled these scrolls with the letter Q, preceded by a cave number and followed by a manuscript number, so they can be easily identified as ancient sources from Qumran. So, for example, 4Q174 is manuscript number 174 from cave 4 at Qumran. These manuscripts gave us unprecedented insight into Judaism of the period in the very locale where John the Baptist and Jesus also worked. The scrolls also began to undercut the idea that we could easily separate Greek ideas from Jewish ones, a key premise of the Second Quest. The reason was that this separatist Jewish sect—which was anti-Greek culture in attitude—had many expressions that had been thought to be a unique reflection of Greek culture.

Other means of evaluating the Jesus material needed to be found.

The Third Quest

With the publication of the scrolls, it became clear that Judaism was far more complex in the time of Jesus than had been previously appreciated. With these finds we now had more means by which to study these ancient beliefs in their historical and cultural context. In addition, other older Jewish works became more accessible in English translation. As a result, scholars began to appreciate more how these works shaped discussions about the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus a new quest (often called the Third Quest) emerged in an effort to understand Jesus in the setting called Second Temple Judaism. This was the Judaism Jesus had been a part of growing up. This Judaism, with its emerging diversity of views reflected in the Dead Sea finds and other ancient sources, was the theological context of his audience.

In 1945, yet another set of texts was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These texts, though containing later materials, surfaced other texts that described Jesus. These texts also drew a lot of attention and added to the discussions about Jesus and how other saw him in the earliest centuries. They were generally not as important to the development of the Third Quest but have come to have a role in reflection about Jesus as the quest progressed. Their discovery added to the complexity of the conversation.

Such dramatic new finds propelled the Third Quest. It began to emerge in the 1960s, especially as the Dead Sea Scrolls came to be appreciated more and more. By the 1980s, some scholars were writing from a Third-Quest viewpoint and challenging the Second-Quest approach. Unlike the second questers, they did not start by trying to peel away at the texts of the gospels, but by trying to understand the historical setting in which Jesus lived and the consistency of the whole narrative line that the materials about Jesus reflected. This meant playing not only with an eye to the rules but also to a cohesive presentation of Jesus that fit into this emerging background of what was happening in the first century. Third Quest scholars began to ask how Jesus’s actions and teachings would be understood and whether they could fit together well in such a setting. This reversal of the starting point also went back to a premise Albert Schweitzer had made: if you are to understand Jesus, it must be out of his Jewish environment and the audience he challenged.

The Current Situation

The Quest for the historical Jesus is still controversial in part because it is a complex endeavor tied to reconstructing the past based on the selection of sources that we have found with scholars applying a variety of standards in how they asses the accounts. As time as progressed through the Quests, the results have tended to trust the sources more than initial efforts with some arguing that Lessing’s ditch severely misrepresents what can be shown. Both evangelical and non-evangelical writers have participated in these discussions, especially more recently. Some have advocated that John’s Gospel needs more attention in these discussions than it historically has received. Like the impact of Jesus himself, this discussion will remain a part of the public discussion about Jesus among scholars as they discuss and debate the merits of what the sources tell us and as a means of dealing with the skepticism of many.

Further Reading

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.

This essay has been translated into Spanish.

This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0