Until the mid-18th century, Gospel truth wholly dominated the Christian world and it has continued to do so in conservative ecclesiastical circles up to the present day. This certainty did not result from the blinding effect that faith exerted on the historical evidence. As early as the second century, divergences among the New Testament records were noted by perspicacious Church fathers and a deliberate attempt was made to harmonise them, producing the so-called Diatessaron, the four Gospels in one. But after some initial success the innovation failed and the traditional four Gospels survived.
Thus later Church fathers were perfectly aware that the two genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke were incompatible, but they launched the seemingly brilliant idea that Matthew traced the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph, while Luke did so through Mary. They turned a blind eye to the fact that among Jews a genealogy was expected to follow the male line.
The quest for the human figure of Jesus began with Samuel Reimarus in the mid-18th century and has characterised academic Gospel criticism up to the present day. For the first 200 years it was essentially a German academic pursuit, although from the late 19th century onwards there was a smattering of British, French and American contributions. It aimed at the rediscovery of the “historical Jesus” and sought to distinguish him from the “Christ of faith”. Its initial stage ended with the anticlimactic Geschichte der Leben Jesu Forschung (Quest of the Historical Jesus) by Albert Schweitzer, who in 1906 described the whole process as far too subjective to be worthy of continuation. According to Schweitzer, each scholar produced a Jesus in his own image and resemblance.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, research into the historical Jesus became rather unfashionable under the influence of Rudolf Bultmann, the great German scholar, and his new literary-critical school of Formgeschichte or form criticism. In 1926, he advanced the memorable statement that in effect excommunicated Life of Jesus inquiry in the wide academic circles over which he ruled: “We can know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus since the early Christian sources show no interest in either”. For Bultmann the setting of the Gospel message was not the life of Jesus; the evangelists were catering for the needs of the nascent church. After a 30-year silence the historical interest was slowly rekindled in Germany; it was shortlived and without noteworthy results.
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