I had a question recently regarding the gospel of Thomas and why it sould have more authority than any of the four gospels taken up in th Biblcal canon. What I know of the gospel of Thomas is what was written by people like Tom Wright and Scot McKnight. The Gospel of Thomas forms part of the Historical Jesus research and to put it in context, the history of this research needs to be taken note of.

I had the privilege of meeting and hosting  Scot McKnight when he was in South Africa in May this year. When we considered inviting Scot to South Africa I read his “blog” on a regular basis and learned quite a lot from the posts as well as the comments.

I also read a series of posts on the history of the Historical Jesus research. With his permission I am copying his posts on this topic on my “blog”. I am writing in English, because I expect him to drop by from time to time an comment as well. If I may ask, will you be so kind as to comment in English. I will however try and translate in a sentence or two comments that are written in Afrikaans.


Go to your local Barnes and Noble or Borders or any bookshop of fine taste and you will find a section on Jesus, and the books about Jesus make one subtle or not-so-subtle promise: the book will reveal who the real Jesus was and what the real Jesus was like. This week I’d like to follow up our New Perspective on Paul series with a short series on the historical Jesus.

On what does faith rest — and this is one big question for modernity — on the Gospels or on the believability of the Gospels? On what the Church has been led to believe about Jesus or on what we can construct as reliable the Gospels say? Do we believe in the Jesus of history or the Christ of the Gospels/the Christ of faith? (Of course these are dichotomous expressions — to bring out the force of the questions.)

Today we look at the rise of what can only be called the radical apocalyptic Jesus.

It begins at a time George Washington was galvanizing the American peoples into a new country, in 1776, and when Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s nephew, GE Lessing, published a book called Fragments of an Unknown Author. Those were the days when gamesmanship was the mood — the author was neither unknown and these were hardly just fragments. Reimarus, a lifelong resident and teacher at the high school in Mecklenburg, was a man of reputation. He chose not to make his real thoughts about Jesus known, so he nursed his doubts — and serious doubts they were — privately by writing out his ideas about Jesus. He died in 1768, and GE Lessing published the “fragments” in 1776. The seventh fragment was called “On the Intention of Jesus and His Disciples.”

Now the major points to be understood for the historical Jesus debate came into play at the time of Reimarus and have been with us ever since. They animate the books on the bookshelves today.

1. Critical thinking about Jesus meant analyzing both the orthodox faith (Nicene Creed) and the Gospel records on the basis of sifting the evidence.
2. Sifting the evidence meant sitting in judgment on the facts of the Gospels to see if Jesus really did say such and such and if he really did do such and such.
3. Once one had sifted through the evidence, one could salvage those parts that one thought were historically authentic and then compose a picture of Jesus on the basis of that sifted evidence.
4. The major result of this critical thinking process is that the Jesus of the Gospels is different from the Jesus of critical thinking. In other words, the Jesus of history is not the same as the Christ of faith.

This last point is the whole point of historical Jesus studies. Whatever you call him — historical or “real” Jesus — is not the same as the Gospels and not the same as the orthodox faith. Of course, there are soft historical Jesus books (all lives of Jesus from even orthodox Christians) and hard historical Jesus books (those in the wake of Reimarus).

This post is a little on the long side, and no other post this week will get this long, and you can read either about Reimarus or Schweitzer to get the big drift … but here goes….

What about Reimarus? What did he think the “historical” Jesus was like?

1. Jesus was aspired to be the messianic king on the throne of Jerusalem but he was a political pretender.
2. Jesus’ aspirations were frustrated by the outworkings of history and he died in despair crying out to God in wonder of why God had abandoned him.
3. The notion of a spiritual resurrected Messiah was invented by his disciples.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), famous for being a missionary doctor in Africa (Out of My Life) and for his “reverence for life,” had three earned doctorates — music, theology, and medicine — and it was his second one that got him in trouble with the religious authorities. When he sniffed the wind of opposition to his free-thinking about Jesus, he chose to spend his life in Africa in obscurity as he worked out his own ideas.

At the turn of the 20th Century, he published a book now called The Quest of the Historical Jesus that changed the scholarly approach to Jesus. Building on Reimarus and taking the form of a travelogue through the history of Jesus books, Schweitzer’s final chapters spelled out his own ideas on Jesus — and they were very similar to Johannes Weiss, a contemporary German scholar.

1. Jesus was an enthusiastic political aspirant who was absorbed in an apocalyptic mindset — the world was about to end.
2. So convinced was he that the end was imminent, he sent out his twelve to evangelize and was convinced the would not get back before the end of history: Matthew 10:23 (”you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes”).
3. When the twelve returned, Jesus was shocked.
4. So he reconfigured his ideas to see himself in terms of the suffering servant of Isaiah.
5. Jesus acted in the last week to force God to act in history to bring about the end.

Here are the haunting words of Schweitzer, words not found in the later editions of his work.

“There is silence all around. The Baptist apppears, and cries: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign” (370-371).


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  1. Attie, hierdie is regtig ‘n baie interessante inskrywing. Ek sien uit daarna dat jy dit gaan opvolg en ook vir ons jou posisie oor die onderwerp gaan vertel. Ek het self al heelwat van die Jesus-seminaar gelees, maar ek dink nie ek stem heeltemal saam met hulle nie – hulle is oorkrities oor die evangelies. Van hul lede egter al met fassinerende idees oor die historiese Jesus vorendag gekom, veral ons eie Andries van Aarde wie se boek Fatherless in Galilee ‘n baie interessante blik op Jesus gee, sonder dat dit noodwendig met klassieke Christologie hoef te bots.

  2. Bertus is saying he is looking forward to this series and he would like to hear my viewponits on some of these thoughts. He has read some on the Jesus Seminar, but he is of the opinion that they are over critical of the gospels. He also says that not all of the Historical Jesus research need to conflict with Christian viewpoints. He mentions the South African author Andries van Aarde’s book: Fatherless in Galilee.

  3. Bertus: What I have learned from people like Tom Wright and other theologians is the professional way they treat each other and differ from each other. Everytime Tom Wright criticise people, for instance from the Jesus Seminar he first of all mentions their contribution to New Testamentical Studies. I think you know that I do not agree with the people from the Jesus Seminar, but I am amazed at what the study of the historical Jesus has revealed.

  4. Attie, I am also looking forward to what this series will say about the historical Jesus research. I have heard quite a lot about this issue, but I could’nt ask as I got the impression that anybody asking will be seen as a fundamentalist – I am not a fundamentalist, but I do not agree with the mesage I hear from the most of historical Jesus group. I just hope the people who have questions with the way you (and some of us) think about the Bible and God will join in the discussion. Looking forward.

  5. Bertus: Jy vra moeilike vrae. Ek het baie teenstrydige emosies beleef toe ek hoor hulle gaan tronk toe. My eerste emosies was met betrekking tot die ouers. Tog was ek ook baie jammer vir die seuns, sonder om te probeer regverdig wat hulle gedoen het. Aan die ander kant was hulle arrogansie (as ek dit so mag noem) tydens die hofsaak ontstellend. Ja, ek sal vir hulle bid. Ek sal bid vir hulle bewaring in die tronk, ander kere is ek bang dat ek net vir hulle wil bid omdat hulle wit en Afrikaans is, en waarom ek dan nie met dieselfde passie bid vir swart jeugdiges wat soortgelyke misdade pleeg nie. Soms wonder ek of ‘n mens ook moet bid vir hulle rehabilitasie in die sin dat hulle verantwoordelikheid sal aanvaar vir wat gebeur het, en dat hulle en ander daaruit sal leer. Ander kere dink ek daaraan dat hulle opgeneem is in ‘n land waar misdaad buite beheer geraak het, maar weereens mag dit geen mens se misdadige optrede regverdig nie.
    Maar, meeste van alles sal ek bid vir hulle ouers – vir troos, dat die Here mense oor hulle pad sal stuur wat hulle sal help en sal bemoedig oor die volgende paar jare.
    Ek sal bid, maar dan sal ek ook bid: Here, U weet wat ons (en hulle en hulle ouers) nodig het, nog voordat ons vra.
    Hoe voel jy daaroor?

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