My Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part 1 of 3
© 2015 by Alan F. Zundel
Stories of Jesus were implanted in me as soon as I was old enough to understand words. He has been a part of my mental makeup ever since, so much so that I feel like I know his story nearly as well as my own. But how much do I really know about him?
Having been raised a Roman Catholic Christian in the 1950s and ’60s, I heard passages from the four gospels at church every Sunday throughout my childhood and into my teen years. I accepted what I heard as the way it actually happened, as the adults around me all seemed to accept it and no one voiced any doubts if they had them.
Sometime in the early 1960s a young new priest was assigned to our parish and said something that stunned the congregation. He suggested that maybe the gospel descriptions of miracles were misunderstood. For example, in the story of Jesus miraculously multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fishes to feed a huge hungry crowd, maybe what actually happened was that he inspired people to take out food they had been hiding for themselves and share it with others. That, the priest suggested, was the real miracle: changing people’s hearts.
This was a mind-boggling thought to me: maybe things didn’t happen exactly the way the bible said they did. Apparently it was a new thought to my parents as well, because I remember them discussing it in the car on the way home from church. This was very different from the usual after-church conversation of whether we should stop at the bakery to get a coffee cake or doughnuts for breakfast.
The beginnings of modern bible scholarship
What I didn’t know was that by that time this way of explaining biblical miracles had been around for at least two hundred years. In the 18th century university scholars had begun trying to devise methods to discern the historical truth presumed to be behind biblical accounts of events, including the events of Jesus’ life. The first “quest for the historical Jesus” largely died out after 1906, the date when Albert Schweitzer published a book critiquing the methods and results of this quest.
But scholars did make definite progress in other areas, using new methods to analyze biblical writings and learn something about their origins. To take the first five books of the bible, both Jewish and Christian religious authorities had long accepted the tradition that they had been written by Moses. Scholars, however, demonstrated that four different narratives from four different writers using different styles and identifiable vocabularies had been combined to produce these books.
The Catholic Church initially resisted such new findings, but by 1943 Pope Pius XII had to concede there was a role for cautious use of the new methods. This opened the way for their being taught in Roman Catholic universities, thus spreading some of the new ideas to priests in training like the one who landed in our parish.
In the 1950s new methods for discerning the historical truth in gospel narratives were developed and applied by German scholars, and a 1959 book titled A New Quest for the Historical Jesus gained wide attention and went through several reprints. The idea of finding the truth about the Jesus story was definitely in the cultural air when our priest decided he needed to turn any doubts about the historical accuracy of the gospels in a religiously edifying direction.
My spiritual journey
As I grew into my teens religion was not much on my mind, crowded out by more important topics such as girls, music, and getting my drivers’ license. In retrospect, however, the influence of the Jesus story was in the background of my attraction to the 1960s counterculture—not just the men with beards and long hair, but the emphasis on loving everyone, living simply, finding inner truth and similar themes.
These parallels also deepened my mistrust of institutional Christianity, which seemed to me to have abandoned central teachings of the Jesus that they proclaimed. Support for carpet bombing of the Vietnam countryside flew in the face of clear messages such as “love your enemy and do good to those who hate you.”
By the mid-1970s the political side of the counterculture was waning and the inner exploration side of it was shifting from drug use to the exploration of spirituality. Advances in communications and transportation had shrunk the world by now so that information about Eastern religions was much more accessible, and a1965 reform of U.S. immigration law brought numerous spiritual teachers and gurus from other parts of the world to America to seek new followers.
I was swept up in this interest in world religions along with other young adults of the time, learning to meditate and reading various books on different spiritual traditions. While perusing the religious section of a bookstore I also came across a book on the death of Jesus which I bought and read. It was my first exposure to someone comparing the various gospel accounts of the same event—in this case Jesus’ trial and crucifixion—to get at the historical truth behind them. I was struck by how the gospel accounts were in some passages identical—word for word even—and in other passages different enough to be contradictory. The complex relationship between the texts was intriguing, but I wasn’t much interested in pursuing this problem at the time.
A few years later I became aware of the writings of St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish Christian mystic who wrote about meditation. I found his words helpful in my own meditation practice, and this opened the door to a whole new side of Christianity for me. Eventually I had a conversation experience and embraced Christianity, which led to a problem. There are so many different churches preaching so many versions of Jesus, which version one is the right one?
I decided I needed to read the bible carefully and thoroughly for myself in order to answer this question.