Baker Academic

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jesus Against the World

The Lexham Bible Dictionary (via Logos) asked me to write a survey of "Quests" for the historical Jesus. Instead of writing the standard 1st, No, New, and 3rd quests survey, my subheadings include: (1) Early Historical Reconstructions, (2) Reconstructions in Inter-Religious Relations, (3) Enlightenment Developments, (4) Jesus Against the World, (5) Jesus as "Supra-historical", (6) The Quest for Theory and Method, and (7) The Memory Approach. Below is an excerpt.


Jesus against the World

One of the most common ways to set the record straight is to set Jesus against a different backdrop. In doing so, Jesus’ aims tend to shift when set against a reconstructed ideology or political/religious power. Somewhat contemporary to this period of post-Christian revisions to the historical Jesus, Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697–1776) was faced with a dispute between Poland’s clergy and a Jewish community. Attempting to provide common ground between Judaism and Christianity, Emden wrote a short letter that described Jesus and Paul as observant Jews who created a religious system for gentiles. Emden suggested that their Gentile followers found the yoke (of Noahide laws) too burdensome and eventually departed from Jesus’ teachings (Falk, Pharisee, 13-23). Abraham Geiger (1810–74)—best known for his role in the founding of Reform Judaism—also argued that Jesus was a Pharisee. In Geiger’s reconstruction, Jesus emphasized Jewish liberty over and against the severe conservatism of the temple-based Sadducees. Eventually Jesus’ new group was taken over by Sadducees and non-Jews who reinvented Jesus’ teachings in their creation of Christianity. In these cases, the quest for the Jewish Jesus continued along a parallel track. Jewish-Christian relations thus continued to be an impetus for historical reconstruction in the Enlightenment period. It is, however, interesting to note a commonality between Jewish and Gentile scholars. In all of these historical portraits, Jesus was set against something, usually a group of people. Following Spinoza, Jesus was juxtaposed against the naïve irrationalism of his day. In many cases, Jesus was enlightened on matters of the natural world whereas his contemporaries believed in the supernatural. Often times, Jesus was set against the early Christians who misunderstood him and who created a mythology contrary to his original message. In the case of Geiger, Jesus was against the Sadducees and misrepresented by the Gentiles who took over his legacy.

The rise of racial theories and anti-Semitism in Europe also had an impact on Jesus studies. French Catholic linguist and historian, Ernest Renan (1823–1892), was also a racial theorist. His study of phrenology (measuring of skulls and brains to determine collectively held traits) would be used to support the disenfranchisement of Jews. Renan did not deny that Jesus was from Jewish lineage, but he claimed that Jesus was able to cleanse himself of Judaism.  In this way, Jesus became, not a Jew, but rather the “destroyer of Judaism” (Renan, Life, 168). This line of thought became a guiding hermeneutic for the “Institute for the study of Jewish influence on the life of the German churches and the removal of this influence” as anti-Semitism reached a tipping point in Nazi Germany. It was not uncommon for Jesus to be considered an Aryan in Europe during this period and especially in Germany. In short, Jesus was set against Judaism and Jews of all times and places.

Reimarus was personally opposed to the Jewish race and religion, but it is difficult to tell how much this derives from anti-Semitism and how much this derives from his stance against religion in general. Regardless, his notion that Jesus was a failed prophet won the day. William Wrede (1859–1906) gave fuller voice to this reconstruction arguing that Jesus mistakenly foresaw the apocalyptic end-time judgment. But the Christological character of the Gospels obscured Jesus’ theo-political thrust. Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), in perhaps the most influential retelling of Jesus’ life of all time (1906), offered what many thought what was the definitive treatment of the historical Jesus (Schweitzer, Quest).  He was more confident about the historical value of the Gospels as compared to Wrede, but maintained the notion that the Gospels misrepresented several aspects of Jesus’ outlook. Schweitzer’s Jesus was (like Wrede’s Jesus) obsessed with the end-time Kingdom of God. This would be brought about by a figure he called the “Son of Man.” But Jesus realized, toward the end of his life, that his hope for the Son of Man was misplaced and so decided to become this figure himself. In a sense, Jesus hoped to force God’s hand as he enacted the model of the “suffering servant” provided in Isaiah 53. In going to his crucifixion, Jesus believed that God would be compelled to act and install the Kingdom of God. In these portraits, Jesus was set against an “old world” and determined to establish a new world order.


  1. Most see the Bible as historical?

  2. All these add up though, usefully. To a multi layered construct.

    And to some extent, we are all products of a culture. Even Jesus.