Recently Prof. James Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary asked several scholars this question: “What is the future of historical Jesus research?” We will be posting abbreviated versions of the answers given by Dr. Craig A. Evans (who was one of the scholars addressed) on this blog the next three Thursdays.
Guest Post: Dr. Craig A. Evans
Question 1: Is the Third Quest for the historical Jesus over? What are the most interesting and promising future perspectives in the field? What problems require further analysis?
The Third Quest, as defined in the 1980s, is over. The Third Quest will be remembered as a recovery of the Jewishness of Jesus and his world. This recovery included important archaeological work and the publication of the remaining Scrolls from Qumran’s fourth cave. For some of its contributors, the Third Quest was a reaction to the theologically-driven New Quest, which was insufficiently historical in perspective and simply did not take into account adequately the world of Jesus and his first followers. As the next phase in Jesus research gets under way, I do not expect this sort of reaction to take place. The New Quest is dead and gone. There will be little or no interaction with it in future studies. In contrast to the New Quest phase, the Third Quest laid a foundation on which future studies will build.
Cultural and contextual studies of first century Jewish Palestine will continue and will provide the setting in which the next phase of Jesus research will be undertaken. I say this because archaeological discoveries in the last two decades of the twentieth century exploded dubious theories—many of them oriented in a Greco-Roman, minimal-Jewish or non-Jewish direction. For example, the theory that Jesus was influenced by Cynic philosophy in nearby Sepphoris, where supposedly Cynicism and other forms of Hellenistic thought flourished, has been shown, in the light of excavations in the 1990s, to be very improbable. The physical remains of culture, dating to the period prior to 70 CE, reveal a Sepphoris that was Torah observant and a Sepphoris in which there was no significant non-Jewish presence. Ongoing publication and study of the many scrolls from Qumran have led to similar results. The old idea that exalted epithets such as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High” applied to Jesus reflect Greco-Roman thinking, rather than Jewish thinking, has been seriously challenged by the Aramaic fragment, 4Q246, in which an eschatological figure is described with these very terms. Moreover, the idea of a Messiah figure, whose appearance brings healing, resurrection of the dead, and good news for the poor—concepts that define the identity and ministry of Jesus—is now attested in 4Q521. Indeed, the idea of a figure who acts in the very place of Yahweh himself, in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 and an expected eschatological jubilee, is attested in 11QMelchizedek.
Archaeological and literary discoveries such as these will lead the way in the future. This work is far from finished. Less than 10 percent of the sites relevant to the life of Jesus have been excavated and tens of thousands of papyri, inscriptions, and other ancient texts have yet to be published and analyzed. The Third Quest moved scholarly discussion in the right direction. The next phase will build on its success and correct its mistakes
It seems like the Third Quest should be deemed a success for the most part. It redirected historical Jesus studies back toward history and it recaptured the Jewishness of Jesus. I am excited to see where the project goes in light of more and more ancient documents, archaeological discoveries, and so forth. This makes me wonder where the discussion regarding the Fourth Gospel fits. I know some have deemed the “Fourth Quest” as the one wherein this gospel finally is given a chance to speak.
If you get a chance to comment, Dr. Evans, would you be willing to let us know whether or not you find room for the Gospel of John as historical Jesus studies progress?
Thanks for the brilliant thoughts, Dr. Evans. If you’re able to respond, do you think there will be any major changes in historiography as it relates to epistemology in the fourth quest?
Thanks for writing at Near Emmaus!
At Vridar there is an argument made that this phrase, ” Indeed, the idea of a figure who acts in the very place of Yahweh himself, in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 and an expected eschatological jubilee, is attested in 11QMelchizedek.” , particularly, “the idea of a figure who acts in the very place of Yahweh himself” indicates that the writers thought of Melchizedek as a god to be worshiped with Yahweh. But else where the thinking of the scroll community is very conservative in its monotheism, like 4q504 V:10 “For though alone are a living god and their are none beside.”
What is your thought?
Interesting ideas from 4Q246 and 4Q521. They point to ideas which may have influenced Jesus’ thoughts about himself, and possibly how followers later saw him
But the ideas and hopes are, historically speaking, clearly false. God’s intentions and the nature of his Kingdom were misunderstood (because of a mis-reading of supposed israelite history) and the hopes raised inevitably proved vain. Jesus seems to have shared the false hopes and his followers suffered the disappointment that followed.
Christians need to take on board what it means for Jesus to have been fallible about the ways of God, and to accept that God maybe does not have ‘Kingdom’ plans for this world at all.
“Christians need to take on board what it means for Jesus to have been fallible about the ways of God, and to accept that God maybe does not have ‘Kingdom’ plans for this world at all.”
Thank you for bringing that up, I couldn’t agree more. Recently I’ve been coming to terms with the fallibility of Jesus, it hasn’t been easy, but it is rewarding. I think the fallibility of Jesus is something that ought to be taken seriously, rather than brushed aside with the intellectually dishonest rationalizations of fundamentalism.
I would hope that if there is a “fourth quest” for the historical Jesus, it will enable Christians and non-Christians alike to engage Jesus as he (most likely) is, not as we would like him to be.
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