Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Abandoning "the third quest" of the Historical Jesus

On her always stimulating Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick asks the question whether there is now a Fourth Quest for the Historical Jesus?. She sees the third quest as "dominated by the work of Crossan, Borg, Patterson, Funk, Mack, Downing and the Jesus Seminar, but also including Horsley, Kaylor, Witherington, Meier, and so forth". She feels that the "fourth quest" reacts to this and "pushes several items to the forefront" including Jesus as a Jew, the apocalyptic dimension to Jesus' teaching, problems with dissimilarity, stress on orality and so on. This fourth quest is populated by Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen, A.J. Levine, Jimmy Dunn and Gerd Theissen, and also N. T. Wright, though his work is "too apologetic for me". Well, if the terminology of the fourth quest takes off, remember where you heard it first.

I am not convinced, though, about the need for a new term. Indeed, I think the entire business of categorizing periods of the quest has now run into confusion and impasse and it should be abandoned. Briefly, these are what I see as the key points:

(1) The term "the third quest" was coined by N. T. Wright in 1986. He used it to describe the wave of scholarship that he felt had superseded the “new quest”. For Wright, the key players in this third quest were Geza Vermes and Ed Sanders alongside Ben Meyer, Anthony Harvey and Marcus Borg. If one is being a purist about the term "third quest", its originator has a quite different view of it from those who used it after him.

(2) The term came back to haunt Wright because the quest developed in all sorts of unexpected (to him) ways in the late eighties and nineties. Wright therefore attempted a new inventory ten years later in 1996, when he himself makes his major contribution to the quest in Jesus and the Victory of God, and he calls the newly emergent movement typified by the work of Crossan, Funk and the Jesus Seminar as "the renewed new quest". (And now Wright also moves Borg from the third quest to the renewed new quest). Although Crossan saw Wright's categorizing as somewhat condescending, Wright was actually echoing the characterization of the Jesus Seminar's work by Robert Funk, who was not keen on the third quest, and who saw himself in continuity with Bultmann, and who spoke of a renewed quest.

(3) Recently the situation has become more chaotic because many are simply describing all contemporary Jesus research as “the third quest”, whether the research is undertaken by Sanders, Wright, Crossan or Borg, e.g. the recent Biblica article by John P. Meier. As a result, some now mean one thing by "the third quest" and some mean something else. It is has therefore ceased to be a useful descriptor.

(4) The taxonomy of the Jesus research into these three distinct quests was in any case dubious from the start. Key to the notion of "the new quest" begun by Käsemann in the 1950s, and continued by others of Bultmann's students in the 1950s and 60s, was the idea that there has been a period of "no quest" from Schweitzer through to Käsemann. But this idea is highly dubious, as Dale Allison demonstrates in Resurrecting Jesus. There was in fact no such period of "no quest". Indeed several of the most famous works of historical Jesus scholarship emerge in this period, T. W. Manson, C. H. Dodd, Joachim Jeremias among them.

There is now good reason to abandon the unhelpful language of "the third quest". When I began my Historical Jesus course earlier this semester, I had a dilemma about how to characterize the history of research. In the end, I decided to introduce these terms, new quest, third quest, etc., but then to explain why I thought that they were inadequate.


Michael F. Bird said...

Mark, I find this topic most interesting. The taxonomy: First Quest - No Quest - New Quest - Third Quest sounds like the history of Jesus scholarship according to Dr. Seuss! I think guys like Allison as well as Stan Porter and James Paget are on to something for questioning the term "Third Quest", both its accuracy and utility. Part of the problem is the misconception of the Third Quest as encompassing all of current recent. It is wrong, for instance, to think of Funk and friends as part of the Third Q when Funk explicitly disassociates what he is doing from the Third Q. Also there never was a no-quest period of research (but that idea I think goes back to a guy called Klooster and not Wright!) and the Kasemann quest was really only new among the Bultmannians. Be that as it may I still find enough distinguishing elements for a Third Quest as a distinctive phase of Jesus research. For those interested see Bird, Michael F. “Is There Really a ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus?” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 24.2 (2006): 195-219.

Anonymous said...

There are two useful articles in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus: "Assessing Progress in the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus" by C A Evans in vol.4.1 (2006), and "Luke 17.11-19 and the criteria for authenticity revisited" by Stanley Porter in vol 1.2 (2003).

They each question the schematisation of the Quest into stages, showing how it is often a case of overlap. Evans thinks the Jesus Seminar is "an atavism harking back to the older New Quest" (nice phrase). Both articles are well worth reading.