Historical Jesus Studies Today: An Update

Historical Jesus studies is a science that attempts to determine what can be known of Jesus on the basis of historical research alone, that is through the analysis of data pertaining to Jesus in accord with the same standards that would be employed when analyzing data pertaining to any other figure from antiquity. Such analysis is supposed to be free of religious (or anti-religious) bias, and scholars engaged in the field call each other to task when they suspect that one’s conclusions have been influenced by personal predilection. The scholars frequently maintain that they are not trying to discover what might be true of Jesus, but what is verifiable.

See Also: Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee, 2nd edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013)

By Mark Allan Powell
Professor of New Testament
Trinity Lutheran Seminary
June 2014

In the 1990s, the field of historical Jesus studies enjoyed a significant renaissance and attracted an inordinate amount of media attention. Near the end of that decade, I published a book that surveyed the field and summarized the major themes and positions. That book became a standard textbook in many colleges and universities and I recently revised it for a second edition.1 I thought that might be a fairly simple task, but as I worked on the revision I discovered that more than 50% of the material in the new book would be completely new. A lot has happened in the last twenty years! This might come as a surprise to non-specialists because, for the most part, the media lost interest in historical Jesus studies around the turn of the millennia and most of the work that is now done does not get noticed beyond academic quarters. In this article, I will briefly describe some of the most significant developments.

First, for those who might not be familiar with this field of inquiry, historical Jesus studies is a science that attempts to determine what can be known of Jesus on the basis of historical research alone, that is through the analysis of data pertaining to Jesus in accord with the same standards that would be employed when analyzing data pertaining to any other figure from antiquity. Such analysis is supposed to be free of religious (or anti-religious) bias, and scholars engaged in the field call each other to task when they suspect that one’s conclusions have been influenced by personal predilection. The scholars frequently maintain that they are not trying to discover what might be true of Jesus, but what is verifiable. Thus, if (as a Christian) you want to believe Jesus was born to a virgin, that’s fine, but (as a historian) you must recognize that this is not verifiable–at least, not in accord with any criteria that are normally employed for historical research.

So where are we now? I will list eight developments that have marked the last twenty years of research–and, then, I will mention three “peripheral currents” that might be of interest to purveyors of this website.

1. Historical Jesus studies is becoming more clearly identified as a discrete field of inquiry. The field has typically been regarded as a sub-division of New Testament Studies, which, in turn, belongs to the academic discipline of Religion or Theology. There have, however, been voices who questioned whether Jesus studies might not be more properly conceived as a sub-division of Ancient History (parallel to, say, “Julius Caesar studies” or “Alexander the Great studies”). This identity crisis continues to be investigated but, right now, the growing sense is that Jesus studies does not have to be a sub-set of anything. There are an increasing number of academics who think of themselves primarily as “Jesus scholars,” rather than as “New Testament scholars who happen to be interested in the historical Jesus” (or, for that matter, as “ancient historians who happen to be interested in Jesus”).

2. As a consequence of the above, the field has become more self-reflective with regard to its own history. In the first edition of my book I employed a cute paradigm that described the history of historical Jesus studies as a series of phases (“Old Quest”; “No Quest”; “New Quest”; “Third Quest”– with dates that supposedly marked each phase). At the time, this paradigm was in wide use (I did not invent it), but in the current century, it has fallen out of favor. It tended to relegate entire movements of the discipline to relative obscurity, as representative of failed, terminated projects, and it probably did this in a way that reflected Protestant and/or American bias. In any case, most Jesus scholars now regard such labels as unnecessary. There is a quest for the historical Jesus and it has been going on with diverse (but not easily or helpfully categorized) expressions for more than 200 years. In other words, whereas the 1990s seemed to be a decade in which Jesus scholars wanted to be known as part of something new (a current “cutting edge” approach to Jesus unlike those unproductive quests of the past), the new millennium is an era in which Jesus scholars are prone to connect their work with previous research. These days, the history of the discipline is not viewed as a fitful chronicle of stops and starts but as a progressive process of often insightful exploration. Current Jesus scholars embrace that history without feeling the need to define themselves over against it.

3. The last twenty years have witnessed a decrease in biographies of Jesus and an increase in dissertations concerning him. That translates into more focus on detail. There is a new generation of scholars who seem to have little interest in telling us everything about Jesus but who possess a passion for considering one thing that might ultimately contribute to a bigger picture (Was Jesus illiterate? Did he speak only Aramaic? Did he predict the destruction of the Jerusalem temple?).

4. There is less reliance on the apocryphal gospels than was in vogue a few years ago. No one can ignore those writings completely, but they seem to have worn out their welcome among many scholars who now think that their significance for historical reconstruction was exaggerated. With the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, the apocryphal works are almost unanimously viewed as late and all but void of historically reliable material independent of what can be found in canonical writings.

5. There is a new, cautious appreciation for the historical value of John’s Gospel. In the 1990s, Jesus studies invariably involved analysis of the Synoptic tradition; the Fourth Gospel was deemed too theologically developed and its compositional history was considered too complex for it to function effectively as a source for historical reconstruction. In the last few decades, however, James Charlesworth, Paula Fredricksen, John Meier and a number of other prominent scholars have made considerable use of John in their work on Jesus. Paul Anderson has led the charge in calling for an across-the-board reconsideration of John’s value as a historical witness.2 The growing trend in current Jesus studies is to recognize the Fourth Gospel as a minority “dissonant tradition” that not only can be utilized but must be, if the Synoptic tradition is not to be accorded free reign in a manner that seems uncritical.

6. One of the most significant recent developments in Jesus studies has been the de-throning of dissimilarity as the favored criterion for historical research. For decades, scholars deemed material inauthentic if it seemed overly compatible with the interests and ideologies of developing Christian religion. There is logic to this that ought not be dismissed, but scholars with a more optimistic appraisal of tradition have complained that such a criterion guarantees a Jesus who has little in common with his closest followers. The more common view today is that, while the presence of dissimilarity may help to establish authenticity, its absence does little to challenge authenticity. Certain traditions (that Jesus was baptized by John; that he befriended prostitutes; that he regularly ate with tax collectors) are likely to be authentic because they did not serve the theological interests of the church and, in fact, necessitated apologetic explanations. But traditions about Jesus that comport well with confessions and practices of the early Christians should not automatically be suspect: it is at least as likely that those confessions and practices were inspired by Jesus as it is that the traditions concerning Jesus were re-shaped to conform to confessions and practices he did not inspire. Gerd Theissen proposes that the criterion of dissimilarity be replaced by a “criterion of historical plausibility,” according to which “whatever helps to explain the influence of Jesus (on early Christianity) and at the same time can only have come into being in a Jewish context” is to be judged historical.3

7. As one example (or consequence) of the point just discussed, there has been a notable increase in the willingness of scholars to attribute messianic consciousness to the historical Jesus. One of the strongest pieces of evidence cited to support this is the across-the-board claim in New Testament documents that Jesus fulfilled what were thought to be messianic prophecies. For decades, most historical Jesus scholars dismissed passages in which Jesus fulfills the scriptures as apologetic fabrications of the early church. The assumed scenario was that believers scoured the scriptures for messianic prophecies and then created or shaped their traditions of Jesus in ways that presented him as fulfilling these prophecies. But, recently, a new wave of scholars have posed a sensible alternative scenario: perhaps Jesus himself (like many other people known to us from history) became convinced that he was the Messiah and then he read or heard about things that the scriptures said the Messiah would do and tried to shape his life accordingly. This would not explain everything: obviously, Jesus could not have orchestrated his own birth in Bethlehem (the authenticity of which remains highly contested), but why would he not have chosen to ride a donkey into Jerusalem in emulation of Zechariah 9:9?

8. There is also a marked return to the idea that Jesus proclaimed an eschatological/apocalyptic message of a coming kingdom. Perhaps the most distinctive hallmark of Jesus scholarship in the 1990s was a repudiation of the notion that Jesus expected and announced an imminent end of the world. John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, and others maintained that Jesus did not speak about the end of the world but of a new way of being.4 The eschatological and apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were dismissed as enthusiastic attributions of a church in crisis, exemplary of the kind of rhetoric spouted by sects experiencing violent persecution and/or social ostracism. The compelling question, however, has been whether the scenario that rejection of this material requires is more plausible than that which ensues if the material is accepted as authentic. We may start by noting that almost all scholars grant that 1) John the Baptist spoke of an imminent end; and, 2) Paul also thought the end was at hand. Is it reasonable, then, to assume that Jesus broke with his mentor on this point only to have his own (non-apocalyptic) stance subsequently rejected by his most prominent and earliest interpreter? That could have happened, but isn’t it more reasonable, this argument suggests, to regard Jesus as the midpoint on a trajectory, as the connecting dot on a line from the Baptist to the Apostle? Is it not simpler to assume a progressive development of ideas than to adopt a scenario that requires at least two 180-degree turnabouts? The debate does continue5 but those who grant general authenticity to the eschatological material are now regarded as representative of the mainstream.

All of these developments are sweeping and transcendent, applying to the field of historical Jesus studies in general. But the last two decades have also witnessed the development of certain para-disciplines, scholarly movements that progress alongside the field of historical Jesus studies without necessarily interacting with it. In the new edition of my book, I treat these in a series of three appendixes because, in my judgment, they are not actually having much of an impact on the quest for the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, I recognize the potential for public interest in these matters (and I suspect that the appendixes might be the most popular part of my book).

First, there is the work of mythicists who claim that Jesus never existed. The notion that Jesus is a completely legendary figure (like Robin Hood or King Arthur) or a total fabrication of the church has been bandied about at a popular level for centuries, usually among atheist or vehemently anti-Christian groups who rely on elaborate conspiracy theories rather than academic evidence. Recently, however, the “Jesus myth theory” (as it is called) has been taken up in earnest by a handful of academic scholars, including Robert M. Price, a respected New Testament professor who remains a Christian, committed to faith in the mythical Jesus, while maintaining that the historical Jesus did not exist.6

Second, we should mention the work of Christian apologists who devote themselves to establishing the historicity of various matters that historical Jesus scholars have deemed unverifiable. Craig Keener, for example, authored a detailed two-volume work on why the miracles attributed to Jesus should be accepted as authentic, historical events.7 He maintains that a refusal to recognize the historicity of events that are deemed “supernatural” stems from an anti-religious form of bigotry that is at least culturally biased and probably racist. Others wonder if he would apply the same reasoning to miracles reported in the Qu’ran or Book of Mormon.

Finally, there is the work of psychohistorians who attempt to construct psychological profiles of Jesus that would account for his behavior. Popular topics have included family circumstances that might have contributed to his particular conception of religion (e.g., he was an illegitimate son who found comfort in thinking he was the “son of God”); factors that would have contributed to development of what is now called (because of him) a “messianic complex”; personality disorders that might explain his suicidal tendency; and so forth. Psychologists of various types (Freudian, Jungian, Eriksonian, etc.) have surveyed what is regarded as the most reliable data regarding Jesus and offered their opinions concerning what sort of person in that social context would have chosen to remain celibate, or call disciples, or tell parables, or relate to the marginalized (or to women, or to authority figures) as Jesus is reported to have done.

In general, the work of mythicists, apologists, and psychohistorians does not get much traction in historical Jesus studies. The “Jesus myth theory” is typically dismissed as tendentious and lacking reasonable support. The work of apologists is considered sporadically–almost everyone will admit that the apologists sometimes make good points worthy of consideration, but their unwillingness to consider counter-arguments excludes them from settings where the bulk of academic conversation occurs. And while psychohistories of Jesus might be filled with intriguing possibilities, they are nevertheless regarded as too speculative to be taken seriously by most historical Jesus scholars.

Mark Allan Powell is Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. He served as General Editor for the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (2011) and is the author of a widely used college textbook, Introducing the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2009).


1 Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee, 2nd edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013); the first edition was published in 1998.

2 Paul N. Anderson, The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus: Modern Foundations Reconsidered (New York: T&T Clark, 2006).

3 See Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 116.

4 See especially Marcus J. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Society (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 74. But studies on Jesus by Dale C. Allison, Darrell Bock, James D. G. Dunn, Bart Ehrman, Craig Evans, Joachim Gnilka, Leander Keck, Scot McKnight, John Meier, E. P. Sanders, Graham Twelftree, and N. T. Wright have all argued for an eschatologically focused Jesus.

5 A good, though somewhat dated resource for assessing this discussion is Robert J. Miller, ed., The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2004).

6 See Robert M. Price, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point,”pp. 55–104 in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2009).

7 Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

Comments (5)

An excellent summary of things Mark. Nicely written.

#1 - Jm - 06/05/2014 - 18:18

I don't know how plausible objectively it is to think that Jesus associated with 'publicans and sinners' but I'm sure that the story of his doing so is not at all at variance with the theological purposes of the writers, who want to present Jesus as a person for all people.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 06/05/2014 - 20:22

'John Meier and a number of other prominent scholars have made considerable use of John in their work on Jesus..

This is so true.

For example, Meier makes use of the fact that the Gospel of John makes no mention of the baptism of Jesus to conclude that Jesus was almost certainly baptised by John the Baptist.

Without the Gospel of John, and its silence on this issue, we could never be certain that Jesus really was baptised by John the Baptist.

#3 - Steven Carr - 06/09/2014 - 07:45

I would like to know of some scholars who think they are “ancient historians who happen to be interested in Jesus”.

#4 - Mark Erickson - 06/12/2014 - 04:29

As for Jesus' baptism I would have thought that one of the strangest reasons for thinking that something happened is that someone does not mention it.

#5 - Martin Hughes - 06/13/2014 - 22:52

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