The search for the historical Jesus is dead. 

At least, that’s what Protestant Scripture scholar and former member of the Jesus Seminar Scot McKnight announced last month in the pages of Christianity Today. In the April edition, McKnight made the case that the 200-year-old search for “the real Jesus” has finally run out of steam. 

Nobody, however, can make such pronouncements without a chorus of naysayers rising up. Accordingly, the article has spawned a heated debate in the world of Scripture scholarship.  

Distorted portraits

According to Brant Pitre, professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, the debate centers on the scholarly undertaking to figure out who Jesus really was, a quest predicated on the belief that the “Jesus of the Gospels” is a fictionalized version of the man who lived in first-century Palestine, in essence a creation of the early Church remade to suit its purposes and theology. 

That quest was launched by European Protestants in the late 18th century and soon became all the rage in Protestant circles. Not until the 1940s, however, in the wake of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Divine Spirit”), did Catholic scholars enter the conversation. 

“At the very moment the discussion was waning in Protestant circles, they jumped in,” Pitre told OSV. 

But, everyone was back in the game by 1985. That’s when a group of leading biblical scholars formed the Jesus Seminar, a project devoted to discerning what New Testament claims about Jesus Christ were and were not true. Sayings and actions attributed to Jesus were put to a vote, and ones believed not credible were thrown out. 

The problems of such an undertaking were legion. Miracles and supernatural action were automatically discounted, and there was no clear-cut criteria upon which to base decisions. 

The end result, said Father Pablo Gadenz, assistant professor of biblical studies at Seton Hall University, was that “most of the portraits of the ‘historical Jesus’ didn’t look so much like Jesus as they did the authors who were coming up with the portraits.” 

And it’s those distorted portraits that have helped undermine the Christian faith throughout the West.  

Harm to preaching 

According to Scott Hahn, Franciscan University theology professor and founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, for more than 50 years the idea that the Jesus of history is a separate reality from the Jesus of the Gospels has dominated Scripture courses in universities and seminaries — Protestant and, with few exceptions, Catholic alike. 

“Since Vatican II, what you’ll find in most Catholic Scripture courses is pluralism and ecumenism,” Hahn said. “The Catholic tradition isn’t privileged in any authoritative manner, with Protestant theologians treated with the same seriousness as [St. Thomas] Aquinas.” 

The end result of that, added Pitre, is poorer preaching and more doubt in the pews. 

“If historians are taught to doubt the historical reliability of the Gospels, that makes it difficult for them to preach the Gospel with conviction,” he said. “And if we can’t access the real Jesus through the Jesus of the Gospels, then faith is hanging from a thread.”  

Which is exactly the point made by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 book, “Jesus of Nazareth.” There, he asked, “What can faith in Jesus as the Christ possibly mean, in Jesus as the Son of God, if the man Jesus was so completely different from the picture that the Evangelists painted of him, and that the Church, on the evidence of the Gospels, takes as the basis of her preaching?” 

The answer is “not much.” And that is a major reason why McKnight believes the quest for a historical Jesus is on the wane.  

‘Driven by trust’ 

But is the quest dying out, or is it merely changing course? 

Father Gadenz, Hahn and Pitre all agree that scholars formed in the tradition of pluralism and skepticism still dominate in most Scripture study classrooms. Also like McKnight, they do see the tendencies to deconstruction slowly fading. But they don’t see the search for the historical Jesus going away anytime soon. Nor do they think it should. 

“McKnight takes a very either/or approach, contrasting the historical Jesus with the canonical Jesus,” said Father Gadenz. “But history and faith don’t have to be separate. We need both, just like we need faith and reason, science and religion.” 

Jesus, after all, walked in history. And to ignore that, to ignore the context in which he was born, became a man, conducted his ministry and was eventually killed, opens up the Gospel to an almost endless array of misinterpretations. Which is why a small but growing cadre of younger biblical scholars are beginning to pursue a different way of studying the historical Jesus. 

“Earlier quests were driven by skepticism in the Gospels,” explained Pitre. “This way is driven by trust, by a belief that the canon of Scripture is a testimony to a larger, richer Jesus than any modern scholar can make up on their own.”

Papal contribution 

That Jesus is the Jesus who emerges in “Jesus of Nazareth.” And that, said Hahn, is no coincidence. The pope has been at the vanguard of the Catholic movement to use history to illuminate the Jesus of the Gospels and eradicate the false dichotomy between the “Jesus of history” and “Jesus of faith.” 

Hahn expressed his belief that Benedict’s own Jesus quest will be a legacy as lasting in the area of biblical scholarship as Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body is proving to be in the realm of moral theology. 

“This isn’t a distraction. It’s not an extracurricular activity. It will perhaps be his primary contribution to getting the Church back on track,” he said.  

That day, however, is still not here, and at least for Catholic Scripture scholars, there is still much work to be done. 

“The generation of biblical scholars that followed the publication of Divino Afflante Spiritu wanted to show that they were as good as their Protestant counterparts, that they could use the right tools and methods,” said Father Gadenz. “They proved that. Now it’s time for a new generation to recover the larger Catholic vision.”  

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Catholic Biblical Sources (sidebar)

Unlike Protestant scholars, the principles upon which Catholic biblical scholars are supposed to rely are clear. They’ve been delineated with increasing clarity by the Church in key magisterial documents such as: 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church  

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (1965) 

Pontifical Biblical Commission’s Document on the Historicity of the Gospels, Sancta Mater Ecclesia (1964) 

Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) 

Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus (1920) 

Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893) 

Joining those documents this year will be Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation from the October 2008 Synod, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” and the second volume of the pope’s “Jesus of Nazareth.”