Baker Academic

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

My First Editorial Foreword of JSHJ - Anthony Le Donne

Issue 14.1 of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus is now available. This issue represents the first under my and James Crossley's supervision. We are both grateful to Bob Webb who founded this journal and served as its executive editor for over a decade. The essays in this issue were submitted, reviewed, and adjudicated under Bob's leadership. That said, they fit well within the trends of memory and metacriticism that James and I discuss in our forewords. As we assume Bob's duties, we thought it fitting to reflect on the field and offer a few prospects for newer trends. Below I republish the first half of my editorial foreword:

The Third Quest in Retrospect
by Anthony Le Donne

What was the Third Quest? In retrospect it was a historiographical construct demarcating a period of Jesus research characterized by (1) the question of Jesus’ Jewishness and subsequently his eschatology, (2) a preoccupation with criteria for authentication, and (3) the tendency to chart the intellectual history in terms of quests. In this short space I will reflect on the key trends in Jesus research from the 1970s to early 2000s and critique a few common categories employed. I will then briefly introduce a few trends that move beyond the so-called “Third Quest.”

From the 1970s to early 2000s Jesus’ Jewishness was reconsidered, foregrounded, marginalized, and accepted as consensus. [1] Factors contributing to this line of questioning included (a) an effort to rethink New Testament studies in light of the catastrophic consequences of Christian anti-Semitism, (b) the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and (c) a reaction to the rigid distinction between Second Temple Judaism and Hellenism of previous generations. Jewish voices like David Flusser, Geza Vermes, and Amy-Jill Levine were finally normalized within a field dominated by Christian and post-Christian scholarship. Other mainstream voices like Dale C. Allison Jr., John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders, and N. Thomas Wright accepted Jesus’ Jewishness as a primary starting point for the study of his life. Moreover, this generation reached a consensus that Jesus’ Jewishness was central to his identity, aims, and impact (specifically, Jesus’ eschatology was reexamined in light of other texts of Second Temple Judaism). These developments—the consensus and significance of the starting point—were relatively new to the field. Whereas previous generations failed to normalize the views of e.g. Jacob Emden (1697–1776), Abraham Geiger (1810–74) and Joseph Klausner (1874–1958) the “question” of Jesus’ Jewishness was finally a matter of nuance and focus rather than a disputed starting point. Importantly, it rightly became the central focus of Jesus research rather than simply the starting point. The so-called Third Quest, therefore, did not rediscover Jesus the Jew. Rather, this period marginalized a European thread of research that promoted an Aryan or even Christian Jesus. Today Jesus’ Jewishness is no longer presented as a “question” in need of an answer; it is the premise and guiding focus of the Jesus historian.

A byproduct of the emphasis on Jesus’ Jewishness was the influx of maximalist readings of the Jesus tradition by scholars who defended the New Testament as largely historically accurate. Whereas previous generations mined the gospels for the kernels of Jesus’ originality (elements that set Jesus against his Jewish “background”), many Christian scholars embraced the affinities between Jesus and Judaism. This allowed them to look for and find a Jewish historical Jesus within a largely Jewish New Testament. In service to this goal, many of these scholars employed field-specific literary tools. This brings us to the second key characteristic of that generation.

From the 1970s to early 2000s a handful of field-specific criteria were regularly employed in Jesus research. Some scholars identified dozens of criteria, some avoided their use entirely. Even so, the criteria of dissimilarity, coherence, Semitic influence, embarrassment, multiple attestation, and multiple forms were staples of the period. These formalized criteria represented the logic of previous generations but took on concretized and popularized form. While many of the adherents of these criteria (myself included) voiced dissatisfaction with a number of these criteria and/or their application, the search for a scientific method often settled for a checklist of criteria. In their most optimal application, the criteria were used to fortify more sophisticated methodologies. This is no longer the case. Whereas the so-called Third Quest generally accepted the use of criteria for authenticating pericopae in isolation, Jesus historians now must defend the use of these criteria. But judging from the last decade of articles and monographs, most historians—John P. Meier being a notable exception—simply avoid them.

From the 1970s to early 2000s surveys of Jesus research had standardized a “quests” paradigm in keeping with Albert Schweitzer’s nationalistic and Eurocentric myopia. This paradigm imagined that the phases of Jesus research could be divided into epochs and the genius of “great men” within these epochs. [2] The so-called Third Quest was thus a beneficiary and dissident of the Old Quest, the No Quest years, and the New Quest. Key names of great German scholars (Hermann Samuel Reimarus, Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann) were often offered as heuristic representatives of each era. But rather than distinguishing itself from previous generations, this “quest” language betrays the neo-romantic tendency to aggrandize the originality of men who transcended their social milieux to inaugurate new epochs. So the very tendency meant to distinguish the so-called Third Quest from previous generations reveals the same historiographical drive. Indeed the normalization of Jesus’ Jewishness and the standardization of methodology do not represent original ideas but attempts to build upon the ideas of previous generations. Still the drive to categorize the history of ideas by great men and distinct epochs demanded a construct. The label given to this construct was “Third Quest.” Not only is the moniker suspect, the historiographical drive that led to the moniker is suspect.

If indeed the Third Quest (both as a misnomer and as a heuristic construct) has run its course, what now? . . . .

The full piece can be purchased at

1 I do not include the “Jesus Seminar” of the 1980s and 1990s under the (already dubious) ­label of “Third Quest” as it is clear that Bob Funk refused to allow his brainchild to be associated with it. See Robert W. Funk, “Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” The Fourth R 14–4 (2001);; accessed: May 9, 2016. It should be said, however, that although Funk explicitly aligned his brainchild with previous generations of scholarship, the Jesus Seminar served as the foil (and catalyst) for several contributors to the so-called Third Quest.

2 Masculine language is used here to represent the prejudice of the age from which this ­historiography emerged.


  1. So what we know about Jesus is that she was entirely Jewish?

    1. Don't let that white dress with the Miss America sash fool you.

  2. Thanks for this Anthony! I look forward to reading the full piece in the new JSHJ. I think this conversation about where Jesus research is going is a very important one, and the kind of perspective you bring to it here is very helpful. In the full piece, do you get into some features of what you expect to represent the next few decades (let's not say 4th Quest, eh?) of Jesus research to look like?

    1. very briefly, Brant. I give a gloss on Social Memory theory. See also James Crossley's short piece in the same issue.

  3. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Hi Anthony, you wrote: "From the 1970s to early 2000s Jesus’ Jewishness was reconsidered, foregrounded, marginalized, and accepted as consensus."

    Here's a quote from Bob Funk on Jesus' Jewishness (Credible Jesus, 2002, p. 4):

    "...Jesus the man and teacher...Jesus the son of man or son of God...These twin problems present us with a delicate task. On the one hand we must distinguish Jesus from typical forms of Judaism, without however separating him from his ethnic heritage. If he said and did nothing distinctive, how can we hope to create a historical profile? In that case the story of any contemporary Jew would suffice. But we have dozens of portraits of contemporary Jews, and those portraits differ in myriad ways from one another. So we are obliged to locate a Jew but a Jew with a difference. That should not be difficult given the richness and depth of the Jewish tradition represented by the Torah, the great prophets, the wisdom tradition, and rabbinic lore...Doubtless in the stories told about him and the words ascribed to him there are memory traces of the historical figure...his view of God's domain...We are caught between the Scylla of a stereotyped first century Judaism and the Charybdis of Christian propaganda."

    The implication, as I see it: all memories have importance but their value is variable. We need guidelines for assessing a memory's value.

    1. Thanks Gene. This quote by Funk (not representative of most voices during this period) demonstrates a repeated tendency to distance Jesus from Judaism. This tendency was more common in antisemitic Europe, but bled into Funk's sonoma county context too. Notice that he writes, "we must distinguish Jesus from typical forms of Judaism without however separating him from his ethnic heritage." Funk wanted to paint Jesus as an ethnic Jew but whatever made Jesus memorable must have distanced him from Judaism. So it must be asked: why *must* we distinguish Jesus from Judaism? For example, Jesus seems to be remembered as an exorcist. Perhaps Jesus even stood out among his peers in this respect. Why do I need to distance Jesus from Judaism to make this point?

      Funk associated his own agenda with previous generations of German scholarship and saw his work as an extension of it. So it doesn't surprise me that he would want to set Judaism as the backdrop from which a unique Jesus emerges.

  4. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Thanks for this reply, Anthon. As I read the matter, you have raised the following questions:

    1. Is "distinguishing Jesus from typical forms of Judaism" equivalent to "distinguishing Jesus from Judaism" and "distancing Jesus from Judaism?" I would say 'no.'

    2. Is the memory of Jesus as exorcist (a) "distinguishing Jesus from typical forms of Judaism" (b) "distinguishing Jesus from Judaism," or "distancing Jesus from Judaism." If I have to choose, I would pick (a).

    3. Does a "distinctive" or "unique" Jesus equate to "distinguishing Jesus from Judaism" and "distancing Jesus from Judaism?" I would say 'no.'

    4. Is distinctiveness necessarily an unwanted quality? I would say 'no.' Is there any important way that Jesus is distinctive from both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures? Apparently, 'yes.' Is that okay? I would say, 'yes.'

    To address that last point, I quote from Hal Taussig, "Jesus in the Company of Sages." Profiles of Jesus (2002). Roy Hoover, Ed. "By almost all accounts the typical Hellenistic sage did not heal...the idea that a sage might heal does not even occur in the Jewish wisdom texts." (190-191)

    1. Gene, the above post only deals with the Jesus Seminar in a footnote and only then to say that Funk didn't want his program to be associated with the so-called "Third Questers." So the purpose of your comment(s) escapes me.

      On your third point, I would say that you're right. Jesus was probably unique in many ways. I do not think that any of these qualities distance him from Jewish life (I am beginning to question whether "Judaism" is an anachronism). It just so happens that Funk did indeed attempt to distance Jesus from his (Funk's) understanding of Judaism. This was one of the fatal flaws of his program. Funk promoted too many binary opposites in his view of historical figures and historians.


    2. From Dr. G

      But many cultures, including the Jews, often themselves see life in binary opposites. As clean or unclean; good or evil.

      Israel and Judah are seen as opposed to the nations. Moses was presented as really Jewish, and opposed to things Egyptian. Those who did not put the mark of the blood of the lamb on their door, were killed.