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Monday, January 7, 2013

The “Quests” Paradigm Needs to Go Away (Historical Jesus and Wikipedia Part II) - Le Donne

In the first part of this series, I talked about my rationale for taking this on. Paragraph two of the Wikipedia entry for “Historical Jesus” reads:
Since the 18th century, three separate scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during that phase. The second quest which started in 1953 reached a plateau in the 1970s and by 1992 the term third quest had been coined to characterize the new research approaches.
The common paradigm that outlines historical Jesus research in terms of First (Old) Quest, No Quest, New Quest, Third Quest needs to be cast into the abyss for a time, another time, and a half of a time. Those who continue to teach it should have millstones tied to their necks and… okay that might be a bit extreme. The point is that the “quests” paradigm is wrong.

Interestingly, this particular wiki entry doesn’t mention the so-called “No Quest” years, so perhaps we’re making progress. In short, the “No Quest” years were not all that no-questy after all. Allison has suggested the more helpful moniker “No Biography” years. Even so, one might look at Fernando Bermejo Rubio, “The Fiction of the ‘Three Quests’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Historiographical Paradigm,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7 (2009): 211–53.

My chief problem with the paradigm is that the “first” quest wasn’t the first quest. It is typically said that the old quest launched with Reimarus/Lessing. Albert Schweitzer is, in large part, responsible for this point. But even he suggested a few previous incarnations of the quest. Since Schweitzer, scholars have continued to find studies that predate the “First Quest”. Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza might be the first “modern” attempt to discuss the problem, but there were several premodern attempts to discuss the Jesus of history (see my chapter in this book or my A. Le Donne, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Revisionist History through the Lens of Jewish-Christian Relations,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10 [2012]: 63–86).

Schweitzer’s life of research outline was motivated by his belief that the German spirit and mind were superior to all other civilizations and cultures previous and contemporary. He says as much on page one of his The Quest of the Historical Jesus. So he naturally focuses on German thinkers. The rest of the paradigm was filled out by using Bultmann’s influence as a guidepost. The three “Quests” paradigm only makes sense with a particular set of blinders on.  I would like to think that these blinders are finally ready to be removed.


  1. Anthony, is the Quest paradigm any worse than any other? Yes, people were questing before the First Quest. Yes, it's ironic that the early and important Jewish quester, Joseph Klausner, belongs to the period of No Quest. But is this any sillier than dividing up intellectual history into periods of Renaissance, Baroque, Enlightenment and Romanticism? Not to mention how these periods magically end at the midpoint or end of centuries?

    First you wanted to take away Criteria. Now you want to take away the Quest with a capital "Q". Next you'll be telling me that there's no such thing as an Original Manuscript of scripture.

    Look. These constructs have a certain utility. They reflect the importance of Schweitzer and Kasemann as people who did change the course of scholarship. Besides, the first Quest neatly marks out everything I don't ever want to read, the No Quest signifies a possible mistake that smart people might want to avoid, the Second Quest defines a period of odd persistence of scholarly anti-Semitism, and the Third Quest is (in your own words I think) the most productive period ever in Jesus historical research. As categories go, I've seen worse than this.

    1. Ah, the old "it could be worse" argument. I will, of course, counter with the "it could be better" argument. That is my main point. I have no problem with the discussion of eras. But this paradigm needs to be replaced. A few other minor points:

      1) I think that the traditional criteria can be adapted in a more sophisticated historiography. And I attempt to do so. That my name is on the cover of a book that seriously undermines the tradition use of the traditional criteria simply means that I've thought about this topic more than most.

      2) There were probably original mss of the letters of Paul, James, etc. But I don't think that this works for the Gospels. (I took the bait right on time for that one, didn't I?)

      3) If the neat demarcations of the paradigm give you justification for not reading the "first quest" literature, this is further reason to stop using the paradigm. Of course, you already know this.


    2. I look forward to your improved draft paradigm. So long as it's not paradigms we're opposing, you can put me on the drafting committee. Put me in charge of the wine list.

      As far as your use of the Criteria in your Historical Jesus book ... THAT would make for a good post here. It wasn't clear to me why one would apply any of the traditional Criteria to memory. As you've described it, it's up to the historian to plausibly describe the multi-threaded memory tradition as we have it -- and by memory tradition, I thought you meant ALL of it.

  2. I think I agree with Larry. The three quest paradigm is a helpful pedagogical simplification. It describes patterns of thought and influence in the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. It highlights some things and obscures others, so what? That is what simplifications do.

    1. If the paradigm is misleading (as Dale, Fernando, Porter, and I have argued), it is not pedagogically helpful. What would be more pedagogically helpful is a better paradigm.


    2. As I see it, the existing paradigm assumes that the three biggest moments in the modern study of HJ are Schweitzer, Kasemann, and the realization that Jesus was really Jewish. I think an argument can be made that these really ARE the three biggest moments, but a problem with paradigms is that once you buy in, it's hard to critically analyze the assumptions behind them.

      From a postmodernist memory perspective, the paradigm might focus not on key shifts in our understanding of the past, but instead on large changes in direction of memory trajectory. Of course, that might STILL mean Schweitzer, Kasemann and the Jewish Jesus, though now I'm also thinking Bultmann, and Augustine. The question is not so much whether the alternate paradigm is misleading, but where it leads to. I'm channeling my inner Thomas Kuhn here.

  3. I'll stand by the argument to do away with the criteria, but I think the quest paradigm is sticky. Of course it's inaccurate as a reflection of scholarship as a whole, and on that basis could be done away with. I still find it useful in the classroom, especially when I introduce it and then follow up with how it ultimately is misleading. Furthermore, something, I think, gets lost in the complaints. It IS (for the most part) an accurate description of German scholarship in those time periods.


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