Baker Academic

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Post-Third Quest Quirks; or, Have We All Stopped Medicating? - Le Donne

For me, talking about a post-Third Quest (as I did in my last post) is problematic.  It is sort of like asking a friend who has been acting funny, “Have you stopped taking your medication?!”  This, of course, is a much different conversation if you really think that said friend has stopped medicating.  But, in colloquial English, this question can also mean, “Gee, you seem to be acting funny!”

In the latter case, both parties can know all-too-well that said friend was never on any medication.  Similarly, talking about a “Third Quest” is indicative of a particular era of Jesus research and will continue to be indicative of this period long after nobody believes in this whole tripartite Quest business anymore.  So are we in a post-Third Quest era?  Well, I never really took any medication, but I get your meaning – we’ve all been acting a bit funny for about forty years.

Quirks of The Artist Formerly Known as the Third Quest:  

From the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, historians were fond of talking about “Quests”.  So what most marked out this period from others is that this “Quest” language got really popular.  This was due to N. T. Wright’s massive influence on the discipline and (my guess) had something to do with Monty Python. This is a point that I haven't seen anywhere and that bears repeating: the key distinctive of the Third Quest was that scholars beat the "Quest" horse to death and then kept beating it. This, of course, was okay because we were all riding imaginary horses in the first place (à la Monty Python).

This period saw a calcification and nuance to the traditional authenticity criteria. This, as Chris has pointed out, involved atomizing the Jesus tradition(s) and assessing it(them) as such. On the criteria, see further my essay here.

This period witnessed many, many Christian scholars embrace the Jewishness of Jesus.  Dunn writes:
In the closing decades of the twentieth century the most helpful advance in life of Jesus research was the recognition that the quest must primarily have in view Jesus the Jew and a clearer and firmer grasp of the consequences. What distinguishes this “third quest of the historical Jesus” is the conviction that any attempt to build up a historical picture of Jesus of Nazareth should and must begin from the fact that he was a first-century Jew operating in a first-century milieu. . . . What more natural, one might think, what more inevitable than to pursue a quest of the historical Jesus the Jew? (Jesus Remembered, p. 86)
This period witnessed the rise of the application of post-colonial theories to Jesus studies.  Although, much of this discussion was prefigured by Martin Hengel and Richard Horsley long before any clear interdisciplinary bridges had been built.

I’m sure that there are other quirks of this period, but these are the ones that impress me about the era.  So what marks this era out as distinct from previous eras?  Well, in all cases, Jesus scholars simply intensified research, produced more words, papers, books, etc.  But in almost every case, Jesus scholars industrialized the discipline by borrowing ideas from previous eras.  One caveat to this might be the rise and fall of Jesus the cynic philosopher.  That quirk lasted about as long as Jesus the magician, but it got a whole lot of play before Crossan jumped on the post-colonial bandwagon.

For more on my misgivings about the Quests, see my essay here. My main problem with the paradigm is that it was launched by eurocentric myopia and fails to account for all historical reconstructions of Jesus before the modern period.  Where does Origen fit into the Quests paradigm?  Where does Augustine fit into the paradigm? Where does Rabbi Jacob Emden? What about Percy Shelley?  What about Thomas Jefferson?  What about Morna Hooker?  What about Barry Schwartz?  I could name twenty authors that the Quests paradigm neglects.  If your Quest survey fails to discuss these important voices, it is probably because the Old Quest, No Quest, New Quest, Third Quest paradigm is misleading.  My point here is that as a heuristic tool, it fails.

So are we in a post-Third Quest period? Well, I guess. I've been taking these placebos my whole life and I recently stopped. ... I feel fine, thank you.


  1. If the only thing that defined “Third Quest” was a willingness to place Jesus in a Jewish context, that alone would justify use of the category. This is a huge development. Second Quest father Ernst Kasemann wrote in 1992 (1992!) that to consider Jesus’ teachings Jewish is insulting and renders Christianity meaningless. Can you imagine anyone classified within the Third Quest making such a statement?

    Yes, to be sure, there were scholars prior to 1980 (including Jewish scholars) who saw Jesus as Jewish in a meaningful way. But I think sometimes we take the current atmosphere for granted, and fail to remember how things WERE. Reading Sanders’ “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” is a good corrective. Since Sanders there have been massive changes in the way the Guild regards Judaism, thanks to Sanders and folks like Stendahl, Dunn, Wright, Meier and Ehrman, not to mention the inclusion in the Guild of folks like Vermes, Levine, Fredriksen, Boyarin, Reinhartz and Eisenbaum, If this era does not deserve to be marked off with its own category, then I’d suggest we cease referring to other equally dubious categories, such as “Enlightenment”, “American”, “Postmodern” and “New Wave”.

    I was going to conclude with a reference to you and Chris as young whippersnappers, but there are kids skateboarding on my lawn, so I have to go.

    1. Larry, as you probably already know: my thesis is that 'Jesus the Jew' has the been the key to rendering Jesus as a historical construction from Augustine onward. When we take a long view (one that includes Josephus, the Talmud, Spinoza, Ya'avetz, Joseph Klausner, David Flusser, etc.) the non-Jewish portraits from Renan to Kasemann do not represent an era before the "Third Quest". These non-Jewish portraits are failed attempts to hold back a 2000-year tide.


    2. The names and sources you mention for the 2000-year old tide are 86% Jewish. I might wish that my people possessed that kind of influence over the Christian memory of Jesus, but that simply isn't the case.

      Sure, we can both name non-Jews before the Third Quest who saw Jesus within Judaism in a positive way (as opposed to seeing Jesus being within Judaism as its opponent or victim). I'm not trying to say that the Third Quest represents something entirely new. I AM saying that the Third Quest is part of a sea change in the Christian attitude towards Jews and Judaism, a change that it is still very much in process and may have a long way yet to go. Maybe one reason I push back on this issue is because I'm not eager to see an end to these changes.

      Even if you're right about the long view (and I'll admit that at minimum you make good points, in particular about the silliness of dating the beginning of the Quest series as late as we do), the Third Quest would be important as a repudiation of the anti-Jewishness of the Second Quest. We're well rid of the idea that the "authentic" Jesus can be found in his least Jewish sayings and doings.

  2. Get rid of "old," "no," "new," "third," and "post-third" (two syllables is two[!] many). Keep "Quest"! There's still something pretty cool about looking over all those Quest books on my shelf and reflexively humming the theme music to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and/or Siegfried's Funeral March from Wagner's Götterdämmerung (thank you John Boorman!).