For almost two hundred years historical criticism of the New Testament has been retreating before the advance of the historical Jesus. Great ramparts have been erected against him, yet each has been overpowered in turn. Liberalism sought to limit Jesus to non-supernaturalistic terrain and manned its defenses with the great names of nineteenth-century historicism—Baur, Harnack, Strauss, and others. Yet liberalism now lies as impotent as Shelley’s Ozymandias (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”). After the fall of liberalism, New Testament scholarship in Germany erected an existential fortress that flew Bultmannian colors, but it too is being overthrown. In recent years Bultmann has been deserted by his followers, and a ‘ “new” quest for the historical Jesus is in progress. The new quest is promising. Whether it will eventually come to terms with Jesus is one of this century’s imponderables.
Critical study of Jesus’ life has reached a crucial juncture. Scholars can screen out the elements in Christ’s life that they find objectionable, with the result that the historical Jesus will either fade into the irrecoverable past or be recast as an unindividualized shadow of modern man. Or scholars can yield to the Jesus of Scripture, with all his disturbing elements. Only this will satisfy the deepest needs of men.
The old quest of the historical Jesus dates from the death in 1768 of Hermann Samuel Reimams, the historian with whom Albert Schweitzer begins his survey of nineteenth-century research. Reimarus was no New Testament scholar, but at his death he left behind a manuscript that was to have far-reaching implications. He argued that historians must distinguish between the “aim” of Jesus and the “aim” of his disciples, that ...1
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