38 votes, average: 5.00 out of 538 votes, average: 5.00 out of 538 votes, average: 5.00 out of 538 votes, average: 5.00 out of 538 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (38 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

The Beginning of the Quest of the Historical Jesus

In 1901 William Wrede, a German Protestant biblical scholar, published his earth-shattering work, Das Messiasgeheimnis, “The Messianic Secret.”  It overturned in a rather devastating way the entire scholarly consensus about the Gospel of Mark and, more important and relatedly, undercut the whole enterprise scholars had undertaken to use the Gospels to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus.

When five years later, Albert Schweitzer (later famous as a great humanitarian, medical doctor to Africa, who had abandoned his career as a biblical scholar and concert organist to engage in his mission; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952) published his even-better known and justifiably classic study The Question of the Historical Jesus, he gave it the rather uninspiring title Von Reimarus zu Wrede: “From Reimarus to Wrede.”

This was a history of scholarship on the historical Jesus, written to explain the attempts scholars had made since the Enlightenment down to Schweitzer’s own day to describe what Jesus really said and did given the problem of our Gospel sources.  Starting with Hermann Samuel Reimarus in the 1770s, Schweitzer discusses every single major scholar (and eviscerates a good number of them) who had taken on the task, down to Wrede, who overturned the whole apple-cart.

Each and every one of these critical scholars of the 18th to very early 20th century realized that we cannot simply accept the Gospels at face-value as giving a historically accurate depiction of Jesus; instead, they realized that there are discrepancies, contradictions, historical mistakes, etc. in the Gospels, and that therefore they have to be used critically in order to reconstruct what really happened in Jesus’ life.

Schweitzer starts with …

The rest of this post is for blog members only.  To read it you need to belong.  We all have a need for belonging.  Why not satisfy that need and … belong?   It won’t cost much, your fee will go to charity, and the world at large will be a better place!

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

Mark: The First Gospel in 19th Century Research
Mark’s Central Focus on Jesus’ Death



  1. Avatar
    ajh22  February 7, 2019

    Do you think there is a possibility that the gospels are pure religious allegory and not meant to be historical? The gospels are anonymous, don’t claim to be writing history, do not cite sources, are filled with symbolism, allusions to OT, they have Jesus quote OT scriptures as dialogue, they contain imagery, analogy, miraculous events, contradictions between the gospels which show each writer had an agenda, and there is a lack of contemporary witnesses and sources to anything in the gospels. It makes more sense to me that these stories are completely man-made fabrications.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      Read Luke 1:1-4. He clearly seems to want to present a historical account, and seems to assume others did too.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 8, 2019

      Can you cite any examples of this ever happening elsewhere? In other words, relatively contemporary accounts of a recently deceased figure who inspired a major religion (not set in ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far far away’), full of correct historical and geographical details, referencing people whose existence is attested to elsewhere, basically telling the reader “This person really lived and died and and his life and death means something to us all”)–and then people avidly joined this new cult, even though there would be people who would inform them no such person had existed, it was all a story?

      The gospels were originally anomymous, but so was Primary Colors, a novel clearly based on the first Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. And not a work of history, but still with some truths to tell.

      You can call it fiction based on fact–you can certainly call it a heavily mythologized history–but history it remains. And there are facts in there, whether you want to acknowledge them or not.

      Btw, there’s still Paul. And multiple references to Jesus from Non-Christian sources, later on–Josephus, Tacitus–nobody ever mentions the possibility that Jesus didn’t exist. At that time, it would have been possible to find out. People would have talked. Christianity had many enemies, many critics–many critiques and outright calumnies of Jesus can be found, but they’re talking about a person they clearly believe lived and breathed and bled.

      It’s hard to know WHO he was. It’s really not hard to know THAT he was. And it does nobody any good to keep relitigating the matter, since those who believe in him as God don’t really want to know about the man, and would never be convinced by such arguments. I believe in him as a man, and I’m not impressed either.

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 7, 2019

    This must be one of your finest posts! Can’t wait for the next one. Do you hold to the “hatched a plot” assertion (or is it just a conspiracy theory)? Will your subsequent posts touch on that matter?

  3. Avatar
    godspell  February 7, 2019

    Recently finished reading Sue Prideaux’s masterful (and eminently readable) biography of Nietzsche, “I Am Dynamite!”, and was interested to learn that one of the ways Nietzsche began to be noticed in academic circles was to attack Robert Strauss, perhaps the most influential writer on the historical Jesus, at least according to Schweitzer–and he published, in the early 19th, garnering some truly savage attacks from believers–but Nietzsche, who was already leaning towards atheism, attacked him too (attacks get you noticed much more than defenses).

    Strauss said what we now (many of us) accept as common sense. There were no literal miracles, Jesus didn’t rise, Joseph was probably his father, but the church growing around his memory needed myths (as all religions, then and now, theistic or secular, need them), and myths were accordingly found, or invented.

    A student of Kant (and thus hated by Hegelians), Strauss thought a rationalist Christianity was possible, however–Jesus as moral teacher–this is where he and Nietzsche parted ways. The young upstart (almost a complete unknown at the time), said that if the myths were factually untrue, there was no basis for Christianity continuing, or for any form of faith (leading him, ultimately, to “Gott ist tot”–meaning that belief in a supernatural God is no longer viable for educated people, and of course nobody else matters). Christianity had been a mistake, and should be abandoned.

    Strauss barely noticed this little-read work (part of the “Untimely Meditations”), according to Prideaux–he had been attacked by so many more prominent people, years before, from the other side of the same argument–believers who said he was undermining faith. Strangely, Nietzsche (whose father was a Lutheran Pastor, a mantle he was expected to inherit), was making the same argument as religious conservatives. That EITHER Jesus was everything the gospels claimed of him, Messiah, Son of God, miracle worker, God Himself–or he was nothing but an interesting but ultimately irrelevant failed revolutionary, who was misunderstood by everyone around him. Nothing in-between. One or the other. (It should go without saying that Nietzsche was seeing much of himself in Jesus, who he later said he greatly admired–the historical Jesus, as you’ve doubtless noted, is often a mirror).

    And this strange confluence between conservative Christianity and radical atheism continues to this day. EITHER he was God, OR he was nothing.

    I dissent.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      I think you mean David Friedrich Strauss? Yes, he was a very big deal in the intellectual life of the time.

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 8, 2019

        As you have yourself observed, haste makes mistakes. I read up on him before posting, but I have to do these quickly at odd moments, and blanked on his Christian name, which has a certain pleasant irony to it. I’ve never read him myself, nor had I heard of him prior to reading Prideaux’s book, so his name was not well-engrained in the memory. (It will be now.)

        Also, for reasons that pass comprehension, I can’t post here from my work computer. It lets me type out a post–I click “Add Comment”–and no comment is added. I have to go to another computer in my general workplace, on breaks, and post quite hastily from there. It is what it is. And David remains David.

      • Avatar
        John Murphy  February 9, 2019


        Is Strauss’s book worth reading now? It’s available online, but it would be a huge undertaking for a layperson* to get through it all. Are his contentions still widely shared by scholars?

        *For this layperson anyway.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 10, 2019

          It’s a terrific book. It gets very philosophical in places, but in some ways the best way to read it is to pick a passage he discusses in the meat of the book and see how he handles it (e.g., Jesus walking on water).

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  February 8, 2019

      For Robert Strauss, see 1. “Stalag 17” 2. “The 7 Year Itch.” (Both Billy Wilder) 3. Other flicks.

    • Robert
      Robert  February 8, 2019

      Robert Strauss disambiguation: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Strauss?wprov=sfla1

  4. Avatar
    Matt2239  February 7, 2019

    Why should anyone want to know what really happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth? If Jesus actually said, “render unto Jesus what is Caesar’s,” would that cause people to send their income tax owed to their local church? If so, then that implicitly confirms that the search for what Jesus really said and really did is, at its core, a religious search.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      Most people do because they think he’s the son of God on earth, whose teachings should be followed.

    • Rick
      Rick  February 10, 2019

      Because many do think he’s the son of God on earth but I don’t so I read to… support my opinion, sneer at the believers, amaze myself that these few old writings could be a basis for belief by millions of people? I’m sure some of it is a reaction to and against religion. What I continually come away with is an amazement about the degree to which I am limited in understanding the First Century world. Case in point the line mentioned: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.. Sunday school taught that it demonstrated Jesus cleverness and scriptural superiority in dealing with the Pharisees… Later in reading Rivkin’s The Shaping of Jewish History I learned no, not so clever… it was the one catch phrase agreed to by the factions in Judea as it was the basis for the Hebrews special treatment by Rome. Pablum to the masses to maintain the status quo.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  February 7, 2019

    I sometimes wonder if we give Mark too much credit for crafting his story with the “messianic secret” to make a theological point. Maybe he was just trying to explain why people who lived in Jesus’ place and time didn’t know about this supposed Messiah. I can envision someone hearing the gospel story and replying, “I lived in Jerusalem (or Galilee) and I never heard about this Jesus Messiah!” Why? Mark explains, because Jesus intentionally kept it secret until the right time. Why didn’t they hear about those great miracles? Because Jesus intentionally kept them quiet. Maybe Mark was just explaining away why people did not hear about this great Messiah before the early believers started to spread their version of the story.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      Yes that’s precisely Wrede’s point. Mark invents an explanation. That means it’s not historical.

  6. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 7, 2019

    Off topic but I see that Albert Schweitzer wrote another book titled The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. At some point in the future might you be able to post your thoughts about that?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      Could do! He also wrote a very important biography of J. S. Bach; and another on pipe organ construction in France and Germany . An amazing scholar….

  7. Avatar
    gavriel  February 7, 2019

    Please also do a walk-through of the second and third quests , too!

  8. Avatar
    ddorner  February 7, 2019

    Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot’ is a great novel!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      Do you mean that ironically, as a “work of fiction”?

      • Avatar
        ddorner  February 8, 2019

        Yes, sorry, it was my subtle attempt at humor.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 10, 2019

          Ah, I wondered. My brother told me that when I gave a talk at his university, Kent State, many years ago, the newspaper writing up an account of my lecture introduced me by saying I had written seven novels!

          • Avatar
            Mark57  February 12, 2019

            Its not just you. I graduated from Kent State. The newspaper definitely sucked. lol

  9. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 7, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree that we really can’t have “historical Jesus” without the supernatural element as part of the narrative. As you alluded to in the Price debate, it’s actually amazing we have the sources about him that we do. If there was nothing truly remarkable about him, nobody would’ve ultimately cared about him.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      No, I don’t agree at all. It’s like saying that Islam wouldn’t exist unless Mhohammed really did those miracles; or Mormonism wouldn’t exist unless Joseph Smith really translated those gold tablets or … or pick your religion.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  February 8, 2019

        What I meant was there had to have been something about him that led to his being remembered. The way some skeptics give you these very minimal facts about him; basically that he was a poor backwoods guy who talked about the flowers of the fields and then died seems inadequate on the face of it.

  10. Avatar
    rburos  February 7, 2019

    thank you for this!

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  February 7, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I heard a scholar claim that the last 30 years has been the best in historical Jesus studies due to the fantastic publications and attention to detail. Would you agree with this? Are historical Jesus studies better than ever? If so, would this be due to the training scholars receive or a stepping away from faith based scholarship?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      Every one thinks their own age is the best, and that scholarship has never been better! But nothing being written now compares to, say, Schweitzer in staying power, or Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) in influence.

  12. Avatar
    obrienma  February 7, 2019


    Posts like this make the cost of blog membership a bargain! Thanks!

  13. Telling
    Telling  February 8, 2019

    I’ve mentioned before that it is painfully obvious, in my opinion, that Christian Church leaders from ancient times and today have no ability to transcend the narrative developed out of entrapment in physical matter. We need look at sources that are free from (or at least understand) such entrapment to see this. This includes ancient Hindu and Buddhist (and other Asian) religious texts, and Iranian Sufism, metaphysics, mysticism, and the so-called “gnostic” Gospel of Thomas, and throw in modern biocentralism and quantum physics. It is very apparent (to me) that the Church never even began to grow past the created storylines of any particular present age and has no clue to what a Master teaches. To rise above the narrative IS the teaching of the Master.

    There are words attributed to Jesus that are of an elevated nature; others are ridiculous. I think Jesus was one such elevated Master, but his message (the chief cornerstone) was “rejected by the builders”, the baby thrown out and the bathwater kept. So, people worship the bathwater (myths). God help them.

  14. Avatar
    meohanlon  February 8, 2019

    Why not allow that Jesus’ self-understanding had developed so much during the period that the gospels cover, that he eventually started to yield to popular pressure (and/or progressively revelatory visions) to fulfill the decidedly messianic role? Could the “secret” just be based on his followers’ memory of a more self-doubting stage, earlier on, well before his fatal trip to Jerusalem? Doesn’t seem too far fetched. Mark’s gospel especially seems to have more of a character arc than tradition would hold.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 8, 2019

      Sure, you could argue it. But you’d have to provide some evidence for it — just as for any theory.

  15. Lev
    Lev  February 8, 2019

    This is turning into one of those threads that keeps me up at 1:20am on a Friday night pacing about in my flat as new avenues of thought and theory are hurriedly examined. This is gold!

    I lament over why most churches aren’t as informative, thought provoking or educational as a blog by an agnostic scholar. You’re doing the work of angels, Bart, even if you don’t mean to!

  16. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 9, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you consider yourself to the left of Strauss? i.e.:

    “There is no occasion to doubt that the Apostle Paul had heard this [1 Cor. 15:3-7] from Peter, James, and perhaps from others concerned…and that all of these, even the five hundred, were firmly convinced that they had seen Jesus who had been dead and alive again.” – David Friedrich Strauss, acclaimed liberal scholar in ‘The Life of Jesus for the People’

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2019

      I don’t know what right and left mean in this kind of situation. It’s not a matter of theological or political ideology, but simply of doing history and figuring out what most probably happened.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 10, 2019

    A really great post. Thanks.

    Almost six decades ago, I was a 15-year-old teenager who had just received a “preaching license” and was guest preaching in small, conservative churches in south Texas essentially giving the same sermon about Jesus, an itinerant preacher who changed the world, in different places. Then, in the church library across the street from my house, I came across a book that had just been donated to the library after the death of a church member and this book literally changed my life. It was Schweitzer’s classic “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.” Religion was never the same again. This is why scholarship associated with a personal religious journey interests me so much.

  18. Avatar
    vienna1791  February 11, 2019

    Concerning the Resurrection of Jesus. I wonder what your take is on an idea proposed by Dr. James Tabor. Using the discrepancies between the synoptics and John, he argues that it is quite possible that the finding of the empty tomb was due to Joseph of Arimathea placing the body of Jesus in a temporary tomb because of the rush of the upcoming Sabbath, then taking his body immediately at the end of the Sabbath strictly at 6 pm that evening or at the start of Sunday. When his followers show-up the next morning, still on Sunday, his body is gone. He argues that because Mark really ends with an empty tomb, later visions AND the empty tomb may have given rise to the Resurrection story. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2019

      I think it’s highly unlikely. And yet more likely than a resurrection by a magnitude of infinity!

  19. Avatar
    Eric  February 11, 2019

    Your gadfly Aslan has egg on his face of late for seeming to advocate battery against a 15-year old in the public square that is Twitter.

    I’m assuming we know of no actual biblical scholars publicly musing about perpetrating mayhem upon minors?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 12, 2019

      Really?? I hadn’t heard of this? Advocating battery???

      • Avatar
        Eric  February 12, 2019



        Quite the controversy. Even NYT editorial chastised him. Even after the fuller story came out, he defended his original tweet, something along the lines of “saying a kid has a punchable face”” is not child abuse [if he is wearing a MAGA hat].

        Of course, Aslan’s Jesus was a Zealot, so perhaps this is Aslan’s take on WWJD?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 13, 2019

          Punchable face? Yikes. I wonder if he was serious…

          • Avatar
            Eric  February 13, 2019

            He was defending it for days in the face of an uproar, but by then was calling it a “joke.” (The kid and family received death threats and his school was closed for a few days, not only due to Alsan’s tweet but it and many like it).

            apparently, now looking, there have been past “controversies” around his tweets, in which he intorduces (jokes?) about perpetrating violence upon those with whom he disagrees. i think he lost his CNN gig over one of them.

            Hope he doesn’t go into the stacks of this blog’s library and start tweeting about you!

          • Bart
            Bart  February 15, 2019

            No, no. We get along. We wrote nice blurbs for each others’ most recent books.

  20. Avatar
    JayinHK  March 5, 2019

    Aslan lost all credibility right out of the gate trying to argue Jesus was a sophisticated, Hellenized Jew from Sepphoris.

You must be logged in to post a comment.