Towards a theological assessment of the Third Quest for the historical Jesus

Gladstone Hudson Stevens, Marquette University


One of the most distinctive characteristics of current research into the life of Jesus, sometimes referred to as the "Third Quest," is its self-understanding as a historical, as opposed to a theological, endeavor. It is the opinion of scholars such as E. P. Sanders, John Meier, John Dominic Crossan, and Richard Horsley that previous attempts to reconstruct the Jesus of history were marred by the theological agendas of the investigators. For this reason, these authors maintain that legitimate research regarding the figure of Jesus must prescind from issues of a theological nature. The thesis of this dissertation is that it is not possible, in the ultimate sense, to sever theological from historical questions in life of Jesus research. Several reasons may be set forth to justify this claim. First, the primary sources for a historical reconstruction of Jesus are primarily faith documents. Second, all investigations on the subject proceed within a cultural and intellectual context informed by the ongoing historical significance attributed to Jesus. Third, the methods of critical history are themselves not devoid of theological import. I shall attempt to demonstrate in the course of this dissertation that the severance between theological and historical approaches to the figure of Jesus can in part be bridged by the application of certain insights generated by theologians of the post-war era. It has been argued by Gerhard Ebeling, Richard R. Niebuhr, and Wolfhart Pannenberg that reference to philosophy of history, signifying here history conceived as a meaningful totality rather than as a collection of disparate events, may serve as the link between theological and historical construals of Jesus. It is their contention that historical methods prescribe and presuppose a world-view in which those methods can function. Furthermore, all historical investigations, even the most detailed examinations of a specific figure or event, entail at some level a view of history as a whole. Because critical history does, consciously or otherwise, involve questions relating to universal meaning it cannot ultimately be seen as discontinuous with theology. This common horizon provides the condition of possibility for a theological assessment of contemporary Jesus scholarship.

Recommended Citation

Stevens, Gladstone Hudson, "Towards a theological assessment of the Third Quest for the historical Jesus" (1997). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9811409.