The “Historical Jesus” Is a Crucified and Dead Jesus

Albert Schweitzer, still the most famous “historical Jesus” quester

This post is a part of my ongoing (slow and steady) blog series on The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (CG). You can view the other posts in this series here.

In Chapter 4 of CG, “The Historical Trial of Jesus”, Moltmann dives deeper into the historical questions surrounding Jesus’ death. I’ve shared before a bit about Moltmann’s take on “Christology from Above to Below” vs “Christology from Below to Above” (i.e. when we develop a christology, do we start with a doctrine of the incarnation? or with the historical person of Jesus?). As we saw, Moltmann thinks the divide between these two methods is only apparent, compared to Pannenberg’s strong adoption of Christology from Below. In this chapter Moltmann speaks of a decision many of us are forced into between “Jesusology and Christology”:

The modern dilemma lies in the fact that the two sides [the preached Christ and the historical Jesus] can no longer be reduced to a common denominator. The choice is made between Jesuology, referring to the earthly Jesus, accessible to historical investigation and capable of human imitation, and christology, referring to the Christ whom faith and the church proclaim. But this leads to fatal divisions in theology and in the life of Christianity.
(CG, p 112)

On a more popular level we see this played out in the way people seek to “follow Jesus” but seem less than interested in the church’s teaching about Christ (while at the same time many who obsess over the church’s teaching about Christ are doing anything other than following Jesus of Nazareth!). There is a danger in preaching a “Christ” who bears little resemblance to Jesus. We must interrogate ourselves on this point with brutal honesty:

Every Christian must ask whether his faith in Jesus Christ is true and is in accordance with Jesus himself, or whether Christian tradition offers him or itself something different instead, an idea, a spirit or a phantom.
[…]
The danger that the veneration of a being of the spirit or heavenly world might replace the recollection of Jesus was recognized by Paul in the Corinthian church, and his answer was the preaching of Jesus crucified.
(CG, p. 115)

For Moltmann, Paul’s cruciform preaching (“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Cor 2:2) is a safeguard against illusion; the crucified Jesus gives us a picture of God free from idealized projection.

In a similar way, “the quest for the historical Jesus” seeks to peel back the veneer of dogma away from Jesus, in an effort to see Jesus as he actually was (whether it succeeds at this or not is another question!):

The motive of the quest for the historical Jesus was the attempt to set free the portrait of the historical Jesus from the accretions of church christologies and, behind them, the accretions of the post-Easter kerygma of primitive Christianity, in order to encounter Jesus himself without what those who venerated and followed him had made of him.
(CG, 117)

Although we cannot jettison the historocial Jesus from the Christ we preach, the “historical Jesus” is bound to the past; while christology arises from the recognition of the resurrection of Jesus. Consequently, he makes a bold statement here (echoed also in the Moltmann lecture I shared here recently) that the “historical Jesus” is a “dead Jesus”:

The ‘great enigma of New Testament theology, how the proclaimer became the proclaimed’ [Bultmann], becomes no longer a problem of general history or the philosophy of history, but is the essential problem of Jesus himself, and can only be understood in christological terms. From the point of view of the end to which he came, the historical Jesus is the crucified and dead Jesus.
(CG, p. 122)

This is not a denial of the resurrection (which Moltmann deals with more in depth in chapter 5 of CG, “The Eschatological Trial of Jesus”) but an affirmation that Jesus’ death was, like ours, the end of his “historical” existence; his resurrection (like the coming resurrection of all) is the beginning of his eschatological existence.

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