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The "quest for the historical Jesus" is based on the assumption that the Gospels, when interpreted literally, do not provide an accurate description of Jesus' life, healings, beliefs, and teachings. Theologians involved in the quest believe that much of the material in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) is unrelated to real events. The stories largely reflect the evolving beliefs of the early Christian movement.

Conservative and liberal Christians have very different beliefs about the Bible, about Jesus' earthly ministry, and thus the need to search for the historical Jesus.

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Conservative Christian beliefs:

Religious conservatives tend to view the Bible as inerrant. It was written by authors who were inspired by God. It is free of error (when properly interpreted), and adequate to meet all of one's spiritual needs. Conservatives believe that the Bible contains a full and accurate description of Jesus' life:

bulletAccording to the Gospel of John, Jesus has existed since the creation of the world.
bulletAccording to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, he was conceived by a Jewish virgin and the Holy Spirit, circa 4 to 7 BCE, in Palestine.
bulletAll four gospels accurately describe his baptism, ministry, execution, resurrection, re-appearance to his followers, and ascent to heaven.

Thus, there is no need to search for the historical Jesus. All the information one needs to know is already in the Bible. One merely needs to pick it up and read it. There are many apparent conflicts among biblical passages. However, all or almost all can be either harmonized or attributed to minor copyist errors. Those that cannot be harmonized will be done so in the future.

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Liberal Christian beliefs:

Religious liberals tend to view the Bible very differently. 

bulletThey note that essentially all of the information about Jesus and his earthly ministry is contained in the gospels. Very little is seen in the various Epistles or in extra-biblical documents by contemporary historians. Paul, for example, rarely mentions Jesus' ministry. He appears to be unaware of such items as the virgin birth, the empty tomb and bodily resurrection.
bulletThey conclude that many, perhaps most, of the statements and actions attributed to Jesus were never actually said or done by him. They are fictional accounts created by various primitive Christian movements in order the support their theological beliefs about Jesus.
bulletThey do not view the gospels as biographies of Jesus. They regard them as theological writings, intended to bolster the faith of the early Christians.
bulletThey interpret the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) as containing a variety of material of varying accuracy -- including:
bulletSome accurate recordings of Jesus' words and actions.
bulletSome paraphrases of Jesus' words.
bulletSome fictional accounts of Jesus' words and actions, created by the authors to:
bulletsupport their group's developing theology, or
bulletfill-in missing periods in Jesus' life, or
bulletmake their writings fulfill a prophecy from the Old Testament.
bulletSome ideas borrowed from Mediterranean Pagan religions.
bulletSome religious propaganda intended to attack other religious groups, including Rabbinic Judaism and Gnostic Christianity. These were viewed as threats to the authors' Christian faith groups.
bulletIf one reads the Gospel of Q (an early gospel whose text is contained in Matthew and Luke) and then studies the four gospels in chronological order (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John), a pattern emerges. In the earliest writings, Jesus is clearly portrayed as an itinerate rabbi / teacher / philosopher / spiritual healer. The synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), written circa 70 to 90 CE, show the gradual development of theology about Jesus. John, the last gospel, written circa 100 CE, presents Jesus as a divine being, the Son of God, who has been in existence since the creation of the universe.

Enormous effort has been committed over the past two and a half centuries to discover the historical Jesus by stripping away the multiple layers of theological accretions added to the gospels in the hopes of glimpsing the actual Jesus. The "search" has accelerated in recent decades, partly due to:

bulletRecent findings by archaeologists. 
bulletThe increased availability of information on the two dozen or so forms of Judaism during the 1st century CE.
bulletThe addition of skilled historians to the search.
bulletIncreased study of early Christian epistles and gospels that never made it into the official canon.
bulletThe discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library.

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Copyright © 2000 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-MAY-28
Latest update: 2004-OCT-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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