Carl Braaten

Carl Braaten

At Christmastime, Christians remember and celebrate the great miracle of Christ’s incarnation and nativity: that, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, Jesus Christ “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”

It seems a natural season, then, for television stations to air programs about the man Jesus — as PBS’s Frontline series will do tonight when it reruns “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians,” which it calls “an intellectual and visual guide to the new and controversial historical evidence which challenges familiar assumptions about the life of Jesus and the epic rise of Christianity.”

Carl E. Braaten knows a thing or two about this and other “quests for the historical Jesus.” Nearly fifty years ago, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject. In his latest book, Who Is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers, he takes it up once again, providing a thoughtful and wide-ranging guide for Christians seeking to understand historical Jesus studies within the context of their faith.  

In this post, Braaten looks back on his first series encounter with historical Jesus studies and shares his perspective on contemporary historical investigations that seek to uncover the “real” Jesus. 

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After I passed the comprehensive examinations for a doctorate in theology at Harvard Divinity School, I made an appointment with Professor Paul Tillich to discuss a possible dissertation topic. Because I had taken every seminar Tillich offered, he knew that Christology was the focal point of my theological interest. Without a moment’s hesitation Tillich said, “You must write on Martin Kähler. First you must translate his famous book, Der sogenannte historische Jesus under der geschichtliche biblische Christus.  (Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Carl E. Braaten. Fortress Press, 1964)Then you must write a lengthy introduction to Kähler’s book to explain his thought within the context of 19th century Germany theology.” I took that not as a suggestion that I could mull over; rather, it struck me more as a command from one I considered at that time to be the greatest theological mind of the 20th century. Who was I to quibble?

Who Is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers

Who Is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers

Tillich wanted Kähler’s book introduced into the English-speaking world of theology because it would support his own view that the attempt of modern historical criticism to find the real Jesus was a failure. Kähler said that such an approach produces only the “so-called historical Jesus,” to which he juxtaposed the “historic biblical Christ.”

I went to Heidelberg University to translate Kähler’s book and to write the dissertation assigned to me. To my surprise and good luck German Protestant theology was undergoing a “Kähler-renaissance.” That was because Rudolf Bultmann’s program of demythologizing the New Testament by means of existentialist interpretation triggered the call by some of his pupils (Ernst Käsemann, Günther Bornkamm, Ernst Fuchs and others) to renew the quest of the historical Jesus. They feared that Bultmann’s approach would lead to docetism, the ancient heresy that denied the full humanity of Jesus, and that the Easter faith would evaporate into the mythical Christ of David Friedrich Strauss. Some scholars (for example, Arthur Drews, Bruno Bauer, and John Robinson) went so far as to use historical criticism to deny that Jesus ever existed. The story of Jesus was, in their eyes, all made up, pure religious fiction. Kähler would have shared Käsemann’s christological concern. But he would not have granted that the historical-critical method is capable of establishing the true identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the living Christ, and the Son of God.

Today a third new quest has been started, led by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan’s “Jesus Seminar.” Even a conservative scholar like N. T. Wright maintains that the quest of the historical Jesus is not only theologically necessary but that its findings are essential to Christian faith. I disagree, not only because of Martin Kähler’s rejection of the quest, and not only because both Paul Tillich and Karl Barth regarded it as a failed enterprise, but also because many current ranking New Testament theologians — authors of major works on the historical Jesus, such as Luke Timothy Johnson, John P. Meier, James Dunn, and Dale Allison — all confess that the total effect of their historical research does not and can not produce a trustworthy picture of the “real Jesus.” The historical Jesus who is the object of their critical scholarship is not the “real Jesus” of the Christian faith. Kähler could not have said it better.

The quest of the historical Jesus is not only a project of liberal theologians like those of the “Jesus Seminar,” who reject the high Christology of the Councils of Chalcedon and Nicaea; some conservative scholars are also engaged in the quest for apologetic reasons, to discover historical evidence and even proofs for the affirmations of faith. I think they are both off the track. Faith’s knowledge of “who Jesus is” cannot wait on the probabilities of historical research.

Who is the real Jesus? He is the living Lord Jesus, risen and glorified, to whom access is given only through the preaching of the Word and the response of faith. The historical critical method does not result in gaining access to the real Jesus. The Christian faith is not dependent on the always disputable and oscillating results of historical investigation. That is the viewpoint that Who Is Jesus? brings to bear on many of the most controversial issues of Christology today.

Click here to order Carl Braaten’s Who Is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers.