Upon the recommendation of Brandon Wason I decided to read Ernst Käsemann’s article “The Problem of the Historical Jesus.” (Essays on New Testament Themes, 1964) While I was aware of Käsemann’s position as one of the founders of the New Quest for the historical Jesus I had not actually read this particular article until now. His article is especially striking for myself as one living in an era in which the search for the historical Jesus is in full swing. Although scholars may acknowledge the reservations of scholars such as Bultmann and Schweitzer, each then proceeds to outline some sort of system for distilling the historical Jesus. Käsemann’s carefulness in asserting that while Bultmann has made valid points scholars should not give up and resume, at least in a limited capacity, the search for the historical Jesus is a stern reminder of the cyclical nature of Biblical scholarship. (This is especially true for a number of Pauline issues such as the historical value of Acts with regard to Paul’s life, Pauline authorship and the unity of Philippians.) The fact that Käsemann finds it necessary to make the following statment is especially enlightening,
“We should also be overlooking the fact that there are still pieces of the Synoptic tradition which the historian has to acknowledge as authentic if he wishes to remain an historian at all.” (46)
In other words , Käsemann felt it was necessary to remind the scholarly community that there are at least a few historical elements in the Synoptic Gospels! Although Käsemann claims that we cannot abandon the search for the historical Jesus, he agrees with Bultmann at least in the premise that it is difficult to ascertain the historical Jesus from the Gospels. He states that the gospel writers were not interested in the basic facts of history but were more interested in “eliciting from the past the essence both of its faith and of its own history.” Furthermore Käsemann states that,
“The significance of this Jesus for faith was so profound, that even in the very earliest days it almost entirely swallowed up his earthly history.” (23)
However, despite the limitations and difficulties scholars face when persuing the historical Jesus, Käsemann does not believe in giving up the pursuit altogether. A fitting summary for Käsemann’s position may be the following statement concerning his view on the search for the historical Jesus.
“No one may arbitrarily and with impunity exempt himself from tackling the problems which have come down to him from his fathers.” (24)
I am left pondering the notion of just how important bucking the current trend of scholarship can be. Additionally, the more I read by Käsemann, the more I respect him and wish he was still around. I would enjoy reading his reaction to a number of current trends such as the New Perspective and rhetorical criticism.