Ernst Käsemann’s Quest for the Historical Jesus Revisited in the light of the "Third Quest"



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Ernst Käsemann’s Quest for the Historical Jesus Revisited

in the light of the “Third Quest”





  1. Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998) can be situated at the very beginning of what has been called the “Second Quest” for the historical Jesus. His 1953 lecture “Das Problem des historischen Jesus”1 – delivered to the circle of the former disciples of Bultmann and published in 1954 – provoked a discussion in which Käsemann himself intervened by publishing, in 1964, his “Sackgassen im Streit um den historischen Jesus”2. In the work of Käsemann, the Quest takes the form of a double question: why did the second generation of Christians – who, having heard the post-paschal proclamation in the expectation of the sudden return of Jesus and leading a life in the Holy Spirit, ignoring Jesus “according to the flesh” – feel the need to narrate the history of Jesus and of a Jesus who belongs to the past, through a narration which would constitute one of the poles of Christianity from the second century – next to the mostly Pauline apostolic letters -, a narration which would finally be inscribed in what would become the canon of the New Testament ? By raising this question, Käsemann intended to ask the question of the “theological relevance [Relevanz] of history” another time, according to his own formulation3. It is this question that would determine the change of perspective that would follow.




  1. When touching upon his fundamental questions, however, Käsemann was ultimately seldom followed by his contemporaries. Indeed, a “Second Quest” of the historical Jesus took place (in which Günter Bornkamm, Ernst Fuchs, Gerhard Ebeling, Hans Conzelmann and Herbert Braun participated) but this quest was above all guided by the parameters inherited from “dialectic theology”, and especially from Bultmann. One approached Jesus starting from the Pauline proclamation in order to retrospectively discover in him the same attitude of faith: a passage from what was “implicit” in Jesus, to what had become “explicit” in the Apostle, as Conzelmann said, or a re-reading of Jesus as a “witness to the faith”, as Fuchs and Ebeling held. One is looking for a continuity in Jesus and one finds and thinks it in a fact of faith, which is considered in its particular coordinates. (It is worth noting that Bultmann, whose fundamental theological positions are in Käsemann in a particular way assumed and pursued, was defending the idea that one cannot speak of Christianity and, thus, of the Christian faith, until after the crucifixion.)



  1. In order to adequately understand the positions of each and to discern what is at stake, it could be useful to recall that Käsemann’s investigation of the historical Jesus has a parallel in his other research in which he also shows a shift or a displacement regarding his Bultmannian inheritance. Again, Käsemann was not followed – and probably not even understood – by other heirs of Bultmann. In particular, this is the case for his reflections on the apocalyptic horizon of the first Christian communities. Käsemann strongly affirmed that apocalypticism constituted the source or the matrix of all Christian theology (See especially his 1960 Die Anfänge Christlicher Theologie, but already in his Sätze heiligen Rechtes im Neuen Testament in 1954 , and the same idea has been taken up again and defended in Zum Thema der Urchristlichen Apocalyptik, in 19624). This is also the case for his treatment of the question of the canon. Käsemann published a number of articles on this theme and edited a book about Das Neue Testament als Kanon5. Through these two themes the question of the relevance of history reoccurs in the form of concrete socio-cultural representations in the case of apocalypticism, and in the form of the diversity of the texts and the institutional, ecclesial and religious arrangement, in the case of the canon or of the New Testament as canon. On the whole and consistently, Käsemann keeps his distance from any anthropological reduction which is unduly spiritualizing (related to the ‘‘demythologization’’ [Entmythologisierung] ) and from any sense of “rejection of the world” [Entweltlichung]. He emphasized the cosmological and socio-political horizon of the faith, a horizon that he linked to the realities of creation that transcend or decentralize humanity (this point of view will also dominate the reading that Käsemann will propose of the apostle Paul).




  1. One cannot understand the “Second Quest” of the historical Jesus without returning to the changes of perspective that were brought about by “dialectic theology” or the theology of the “God-Other” after the First World War. We refer first of all to Protestants such as Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), but their groundbreaking work was not without effects for Catholics even without the same radicality (on the whole, Catholicism will appreciate in this protestant turn a welcome theological renewal). This new field – with all its variants – will be the major position exploited until around the second third of the 20th century, and it is precisely in relation to this position that Käsemann can be re-read, within a certain angle, as anticipation of the paradigm shift that will characterize - clearly, in my opinion – what is called today the “Third Quest”. It is also in relation to what this so-called “dialectic theology” has brought about that it becomes possible to measure whether and how one has to hold onto the validity of or to particula veri associated with the “Second Quest”.

As a whole, the “dialectic theology” affirms that what remains decisive is not the historical Jesus, but faith. Moreover, this faith has been understood as related to a proclamation (kerygma) of an existential type, testifying to a God-Other and profoundly questioning everyone on the innermost level. What is emphasized, here is a primacy of the faith and a primacy of the alterity of God, of his heterogeneity or his transcendence, and a refusal to acknowledge history as foundation of the faith. Hence, protestant theology after the First World War understood itself as a rupture with regard to the earlier liberal theologies and has attempted in an exemplary way to put an end to the quest of the “lives of Jesus” which marked the protestant – and laicized (see Ernest Renan, in France6) - 19th century. This was, for Christian theology, a major shift linked to larger socio-cultural changes. The name of Karl Barth counts as an emblematic reference here, but one can legitimately associate with it as well the name of Rudolf Bultmann.




  1. Let us dwell on Rudolf Bultmann for a moment. Paradoxically, he publishes a book on Jesus, in 1926, but he does so to make it clear from the introduction that he will not describe Jesus as “a great man, a genius or a hero”; and the work will likewise not deal with the “eternal value of his message”. This position is linked to his often-repeated declaration: “we can know […] nothing of the life and the personality of Jesus because the Christian sources in our possession […] have manifested no interest on this point, and also because there is no other source on Jesus. All that has been written on the life of Jesus, since one and a half century, belongs to the realm of the novel” (Ibid.). Bultmann pursued in this respect the conclusion of the findings proposed by Albert Schweitzer in 1906. Every historian “scientifically” constructs his own Jesus ; it can be a rationalist, a romantic, a revolutionary or a bourgeois Jesus, depending on whether the historian is rationalist, romantic, revolutionary or other. Schweitzer called this the “misery of modern theology” which is “proud of the virtuosity with which it finds its present in the past”7.

Positively, for Bultmann it is only important to know how I am interpolated today, in my most intimate existence, on the way I situate myself in the world. No historical figure, Jesus included, would know how to answer this question. To use theological language, one would encounter here only the “Jesus according to the flesh”, a dead Jesus. This Jesus is not important for faith, and can even constitute an obstacle to faith, as an object of the world on which one relies, and which becomes an idol that obstructs the irruption of transcendence. The truth only relates to my existence, via a completely different Word, which makes me alive in my authenticity and, at the same time, makes me die from what can only be inauthenticity, lying to oneself, death. Bultmann refers to the moment of the proclamation of the Word – the Kerygma – which is a moment called “eschatological” in its double appearance of judgement and recreation. This Word is “the end of history and not the beginning of a second and new history”, Barth wrote in his Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, which Bultmann welcomed in an article published in 1922 in Die Christliche Welt. What is at stake is the radicality of being called into question “here and now”. There, the ultimate nearness of God (his coming) links itself in reality to an ultimate alienation (sin or confinement).


The proposed reading takes place on the basis of the coordinates of faith and theology. These coordinates authorize an irreducible difference between what has been historically manifested, even in Jesus, and what has to be held as truth with regard to God, thus allowing that all historical differences in the field of culture and representation be overcome. This reading is based on the Christian proclamation that calls into question the existence through a testimony, that of the biblical texts, which is itself answering to an interpolation. Therefore, Christian truth can only exist after the cross and what has been said about it as the attestation of another life, a life in the absence, the unsurpassable and constitutive absence of Jesus. In a rigorous way, Bultmann states that the man Jesus does not belong to the theology of the New Testament, but to its presuppositions.
Barth equally refuses all biography or portrayal of Jesus, just as he is convinced that a “capital” element “will always escape the biographer of Jesus”, namely “the vertical movement” which makes Jesus Christ what he is8. Barth refers to the form and the function of the Gospels, as do Bultmann and the so-called history of literary forms (Martin Dibelius and Karl-Ludwig Schmidt), which will later be replaced by the history of the redactions of each Gospel. The action of Jesus is “the good news that he proclaims […]. The gospels and the underlying tradition did not judge important to provide information about an activity of Jesus of another nature […], even if this activity could be interesting though”9. In 1960, Barth ironically distanced himself from “authoritative specialists of the New Testament” saying that “they are engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus, armed with swords and sticks” like the garrison at Gethsemane10.
Let us add that Bultmann had declared, at the end of his introduction to Jesus, that it might be possible that the gospels refer to a Jesus who existed historically. But, if this was not the case, it would not change anything relative to what is at stake and to the truth proclaimed and offered. In 1911, Paul Tillich concluded in an analogous way11, when the question of the non-existence of Jesus had been seriously discussed in the book of Arthur Drews, Die Christus-mythe (1910). What is important here is the fact, the decision or the attitude of faith which has its own order of significance and validity, and which a question of the order of history cannot attain, lest it invest it unduly in a spiritually and theologically perverse way.


  1. Before reconsidering more deeply what could be the continuous validity of Käsemann’s position, it is worth reiterating that the first quest of the historical Jesus, linked to the 19th century liberal theologies, was more diversified and not always as naïve as the representatives or the heirs of the “dialectic theology” want to claim. In the tradition of the European enlightenment, the Bible has been given back to the past. One discovers and assumes that it is a product of this past, a dated and culturally isolated product. Inspired or not, its authors were human, and from them to us or from us to them, the cultural distance is great. However, at the same time, and beyond the strictly rationalistic critique, without hermeneutics nor constructions of meaning (Reimarus or Paulus), the Bible is here considered as a moment inscribed in a history that precedes and follows it. In this history the Bible can constitute a step or a progress, to be deciphered (Judaism will often pay the price for this12), and it can be understood as standing at the beginning of an impulse to be taken back again. Historically, Christianity has given a form to this impulse but, very often, it has been interpreted as a betrayal, an infidelity or as a phenomenon which was not at the height of its message. From that point on new forms of spirituality or religions, even social and moral visions, could be – or should be – complimentary to Christianity or else replace it, even if these forms may be conceived as liberal Christian or as post-Christian.

Here, Jesus is considered as the founder of Christianity (it was also the case for orthodoxies at the time, although neither patristic nor medieval theologies did evoke him in such terms: they meditated the figure of Christ in a cosmic and metaphysic perspective wherein all comes from God and returns to God, but not in a historical perspective13). As it unfolds, modernity is commended by a quest for its beginnings, believing that the origin reveals the reason and the possible truth of what has been reclaimed on the basis of this origin, even if this reason and this truth have been recovered by what follows, or distorted and overloaded with diverse additions, or even betrayed. In this case, one spontaneously thinks that Jesus carries the truth of Christianity, even if this means rediscovering and developing him against what Christianity really is. Therefore, the quest for the historical Jesus serves as a test to determine what the truth or spiritual message is and what Christianity and the Church means.




  1. Nevertheless, a re-reading of the 19th century quest for the historical Jesus, which is, all things considered, manifold in its procedures and for its proposed results in rapport with the (true) face of Jesus, can show that it is not merely a simple return to the origin. It already comprises – in spite of its subsequent critiques – the conscience of a difference, to be thought of, between an ancient historical fact, to be established, and a spiritual or, simply, human truth, to be validated in the present.

The liberal protestant theologian and historian of the first centuries of Christianity, Adolf (von) Harnack, intended, in his 1900 Essence of Christianity, to examine Christianity “strictly from the historical point of view” (cf. his first conference), while investing Jesus as an immediately religious reality (“hatching autonomous religious lives, that was what he wanted”, ibid., and: “we are in presence of a reality that imperiously requests our collaboration”, beyond or in spite of miraculous stories; see the second conference). There, Jesus appears as a man who experiences “the quiet and the peace of the soul” and who can “transmit these attributes to others” (cf. end of the second conference); or he appears like a man whose message is “the domination of the Holy God in the heart of the individuals”. From then on, “all that was tragedy in an external sense […] has disappeared”: the only remaining question is that of “God and the soul, of the soul and of its God” (cf. the end of the third conference). The central motif then is that of “an internal coming of the Kingdom, beginning right now” (fourth conference). Harnack will then carry this concentration on the ‘‘essential’’ (essential for Christianity l as well as for what the divine and the human are) further to its ultimate idealistic and universal consequences, by saying that “the Gospel is not, to tell the truth, a positive religion like the others, […] it knows no legalism nor particularism, so that it is the religion itself” (cf. middle of the fourth conference)14. Albert Schweitzer, another contemporary representative of German liberal protestant theology, also conceives his project as historical. But, he erects a portrayal of a Jesus who, marked by the Jewish apocalyptic background, is a stranger to modernity. What can be drawn from this portrayal for today seems to be little as far as the continuity of a message or of an “essence” is concerned. It is more in discontinuity, it changes by an almost superhuman effort of the will, mobilised by a task of civilization.


Here one does not have to be content with a simple return to the origins and that history has to be deliberately taken into account, as much in its differences and its discontinuities as in what must be constructed positively, is even more clear with David Friedrich Strauss. His Life of Jesus, published in 1835, was as famous and emblematic in Germany as the work of Renan was in France. Indeed, Strauss’s work is first of all historical and critical, and it was received so; but, it was necessary for him to recapture the moment of the dogma or of the myth, being conscious of the difference of the orders of validity in the case of history and in the case of dogma (the so-called speculative moment). From the first sentence of his book, Strauss announces its intention: “it was time to substitute a new way of considering the history of Jesus to the obsolete idea of a supernatural intervention or of a natural explanation”. Thereafter, he contends that one has “to abandon the old field” and that “the new must be the one of mythology”. Through seven hundred pages, Strauss then examines different aspects of “the life of Jesus”, annihilating “the biggest and the most important part of what the Christian believes of Jesus”, but knowing that this then portends “the problem of restoring in dogma what has been destroyed in critique” (cf. § CXLII).
Pressing forward with the critique is not only to break with a false representation but also, according to Strauss, to enter into the work of mediation or of reflexive recovery which characterises dogma (ibid.). This is precisely what rationalism does not do. It rejects dogma considered as “contradictory in itself, useless and even harmful to the true feeling of moral religion” (§ CXLV); but it then suddenly allows, all things considered, that Jesus is seen, as Strauss says, as “a divine messenger, […] provided with a privileged sum of spiritual gifts”. Jesus can be proposed in it as “the most sublime man” whose “religious doctrine” has “divine dignity” because of “his purity and his excellence” (ibid.). Hence, the rationalist gives satisfaction neither to science nor to faith (§ CXLV s.).


  1. Today, at least for about twenty years and in another context in the USA, a Third Quest for the historical Jesus has commenced. As ambivalent as the first two quests, it presents itself as a return to the first quest, that of the 19th century, beyond the opposition between faith and history that ruled the second. The return to an ancient question, upon closer inspection, takes place of course under the conditions of changed historical insights. One can notice two outstanding elements:




  1. One deliberately takes into account the elements previous to the Gospels (like the so-called ‘Q source’, a collection of words of Jesus which leads without any narration to the Passion) or the extra-biblical elements (like the apocryphal writings, in particular the Gnostics, whose “rediscover” has been brought about by the discoveries at Nag Hammadi).

  2. One integrates a view of first century Judaism which is much more diversified than one could imagine (the discoveries of the manuscripts of Qumran play a certain role here, but not uniquely) and crossed by phenomena of acculturation with the Hellenistic world (the Jewish world at that time was composed of Essenians, Pharisees, Qumran, Zealots, John the Baptist and his disciples, of “the Jesus movement”; and he has been characterized by the differences between Judea and Galilee, or between the Judaism of Jerusalem and that of the diaspora, …).

The result of this quest is not homogeneous. Nevertheless, significant lines emerge: the previously central motif of the proclamation of the eschatological, or even millenarist, kingdom has been abandoned in favour of a more distant wisdom, likewise, the theme of salvation has also become blurred even if transposed in modern or existential categories, for example. The rupture that Jesus marks or the birth of Christianity as distinguished from its environment and, as a result, the accent put upon an irreducible specificity – the central points made by the supporters or the heirs of the “dialectic theology” –, have been replaced by a positing of religious and cultural belongings and reconfigurations (that of Judaism or of the Hellenistic world, the latter being partly composed of Judaism). The distance, the decentralization and, even the indifference (innocent or intentional) with regard to the world have been substituted for the emergency, the imminence and the decision.




  1. How does the theological position which has dominated the protestant twentieth century, especially in Europe, represented by Barth and Bultmann, appear today? Personally I would say that, as far as the relation to history is concerned, the position of Barth and Bultmann was correct both for the attention to the theological and spiritual ambiguities inherent to the quest for the historical Jesus and for subsequently having put forward an order of truth which is properly theological and spiritual. However, the very radical way they did it allowed for an understanding of faith basically disconnected with real history, with its socio-cultural dimensions, with its institutional games and with its incarnated crystallisations, while all these things should be evaluated, regulated, criticised, reformed or reconsidered differently. To speak here only of the decision and of an act related to God-Other runs the risk to hand us over to arbitrariness or fideism, into an absence of visibility and into a purely private individualism. Käsemann had a premonition of this and engaged the debate, but at that moment, he was only in part or badly understood by the systematicians, and was mostly discussed, on detailed points, by the exegetes.




  1. Beyond its particular features, the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus – not without link, explicit or not, with larger cultural and theological interrogations –, constitutes an opportunity to draw the attention to a change which is going on in the way itself of relating to the origins. This shift, in a certain aspect, is poked by the question of the sources that have been used, which is a central question at the very heart of the “Third Quest”, with its turn to apocryphal writings and to socio-cultural data of the period under study15. The turn to texts which had not been retained in the canon of Scriptures, something quite legitimate in matter of historical research into the possible significance of Jesus and the movement that related to him, when added to the features of the proposed portrayal of Jesus, deepens in fact the distance between the figure of Jesus and real Christianity. On the contrary, the first and the second quests very often made an effort, beyond the corrosive critique of ecclesiastical ideologies or of a believing propensity coming close to idolatry, to retell a spiritual truth common to Jesus (a truth to be interpreted correctly) and to Christianity (truth to be reformulated, to be re-discovered or to be fully accomplished).

Modernity, born with the Enlightenment and extended throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, was in search of its origins. It was a very decisive and discriminating question. Socio-culturally speaking, a similar quest has not disappeared today, rather it tends to be partly replaced by a new attention paid to the historical effects (Wirkungsgeschichte) and to the reception (Rezeptionstheorie), wherein take place not only a simple relation to the past but, also, innovation and the constructions of memories. In this case, all that Christianity is, with its power, its deadlocks and its pathologies, will be considered as an object of examination and of intelligence on the level of its real deployments, of its institutional and canonical structures, and of its socio-cultural crystallizations. In this line, the question of its origins appears less important than that of what happened afterwards, including undesired effects. Sociology, history of religious acculturations, cultural anthropology in this context take precedence over the research of a message, of an intention, a programme or a goal, of an essence also (the essence of Christianity or of Jesus’ preaching). Moreover, what is imposing itself is a comparative work, engaged on a large, diverse and changing horizon.




  1. Jesus is not the founder of Christianity. William Wrede (1859-1906) emphasized this, as did Nietzsche in his Antichrist. One can only repeat it. In fact, to assert the contrary is devoid of any historical relevance and, in any case, anachronistic. To speak of Christianity, in terms of real history and religious structure, makes no sense before the second century; around the year 135, according to some, or the year 180, according to others. As a result, the status of both Jesus and the Bible is that of constructed origins, a memory that a lineage assigns to itself on the basis of its proper choices, different from that of other lineages. In fact, Christians are not the only ones to refer to Jesus. Various Gnostic movements have done the same and even, later, Mani. Even the Koran refers to Jesus, including, the virginal conception includd. What Christianity makes of Jesus, and what will be sanctioned in the Christian canon – the proposed figure, textual and symbolic, religious included – is highly significant and important : significant for Christianity and the real institutionalization of the religious to which it gives form. Moreover, what is made of Jesus here, by inscribing him in interpretative schemes of cosmic dimensions, deriving from cultural environments and allowing to tell a religious or theological truth of global significance.




  1. Stricto sensu, as I have written elsewhere16, the historical Jesus does not have any theological relevance as such. At the very least, he has no direct theological relevance. Otherwise, one falls into a “Jesus-idolatry”, which will not exactly give a good account of Christianity. His theological relevance can only be indirect. A distance opens itself between two terms, on the one hand, Jesus, and, on the other, Christianity. Its status is food for thought this point forward. At any rate, in a methodically well-guided theology, it is required to distinguish the stages and levels of relevance between:




  1. Jesus of Nazareth or the historical Jesus;




  1. the confession of this Jesus as Christ. This is the fruit of a re-interpretation of what he has said, done and undergone, following the symbolic matrix of messianism (Christ being the transcription of the word Messiah), a re-interpretation rebounding on the mobilised matrix (this is what the texts that have been integrated in the Christian canon do);




  1. A subsequent reflexive meditation, conditioned by the forms of thought of late Antiquity concerning the divine and the human, a meditation conducted in connection with the proposed figure of Jesus Christ (a moment sanctioned by the dogma)17.

That Jesus has existed does not cause any doubt. In return, who he was always escapes us. But, what Christianity did with this reference is instructive. Historically instructive first, and a genealogical re-reading of the West could not do justice to it; it should even integrate in its examination the portrayals of Jesus that were conceived outside of belief systems and of historical work properly speaking, in their literary, plastic and cinematographic variations or in the books presented as historical but coming forth from imagination: for example, a Jesus who passed in India, or a Jesus frankly Essenian, even esoteric or Gnostic (one finds these from the 19th century). It is instructive, secondly, for our present situation, for our contemporary socio-cultural and religious debates which are influenced both by complex inheritances and by diverse possibilities of constructions always to be reconsidered, with their temptations, their risks and their own promises.




  1. In 1953, Ernst Käsemann asked the question of our relationship to Jesus of Nazareth, the question of the theological pertinence of history. For all that, he did not revisit the different orders of reality and of validity which, on the one hand, history, and, on the other hand, faith and theology present (this is his inheritance from dialectic theology, which he has not reputiated, and we have seen that the problematic has not always been absent among the historians and critical exegetes of the 19th century). Käsemann only wanted to be attentive to the concrete conditions of faith or of beliefs; that is, to their socio-cultural representations and to their inscriptions in the discontinuity of times, wherein are tied up a concrete relation to the past (a narration and a constructed memory), a present identity and an innovation with regard to the future. In this general perspective, one cannot focus on Jesus only, and even less desire to indicate an essential and legitimizing continuity between Jesus and the believer. Rather, the debate will bear upon Christianity – the Christian religion – and the ways that it takes shape for the best and for the worst. And there, contrary to what a part of the historical research of the 19th century thought, and from which the “Third Quest” is not always exempted, the canon, the dogma and the institution cannot be dismissed because they would be ideological additions. They come forth, with their particular characteristics – once again institutional, and involved in real socio-cultural games –, from an examination and a treatment on the level of history; unless one reduces history to purely juxtaposed events and unless one simply finds joy in the explosion of the inherited structured circumscriptions. Indeed, memories basically are reconstructions – and are often anti-memories –, the structures must certainly be deconstructed but, it will not be in order to leave the field (to whom? To the fideism of private decisions? To the sentimental or ethical values of engagement? To diverse fanaticisms? To the ecclesial apparatus?); rather, it will be in order to discern the operating genealogies linked to these memories and structures that determine us, and to discern the human stakes that are hidden behind them, both on the individual and collective level.




1 In Exegetischen Versuche und Besinnungen I, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1960, pp. 187-214.

2 In Ibid. II, 1964, pp. 31-68.

3 For a more systematic and documented exposé (discussion included), see my book Vérité et histoire. La théologie dans la modernité : Ernst Käsemann, Paris-Genève, Beauchesne-Labor et Fides, 1977, (1983), pp. 37-132.

4 Respectively in Exegetischen Versuche und Besinnungen II, pp. 82-104, 69-82 et 105-131; On these points, cf. again my book cited above, pp. 221-292 (touching also the debates with Ebeling and Fuchs in particular).

5 Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1970 ( in my book, cf. pp. 133-219).

6 On this topic, are relevant my presentation and my putting in perspective, ‘‘XIXè et XXè siècles. La Bible située dans l’histoire et lue comme histoire’’, in La Bible. 2000 ans de lectures (Jean-Claude Eslin and Catherine Cornu ed.), Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2003, pp. 238-258.

7 To the end of his programme-book Geschichte der Leben Jesu Forschung, published in 1913 (repeating Von Reimarus zu Wrede, of 1906), Hamburg, Siebenstern-Taschenbuch, 1972.

8 Kirchliche Dogmatik IV/2, § 64/2, Zürich, Ev. Verlag, 1955, p. 113.

9 Ibid., § 64/3, p. 233.

10 “How my Mind Has Changed”, in Evangelische Theologie 20, 1960, p. 104.

11 Cf. “Die christliche Gewissheit und der historische Jesus”, in Main Works/Hauptwerke 6, Berlin, de Gruyter, 1992, pp. 21-37.

12 Jesus often is considered as surpassing Judaism. He is “the great soul” above of all “race”, wrote Renan according to whom Christianity is constituted of the “Aryan races” that adopted it. The modern interpretation of the Bible (spiritualising and idealist, of a universalist range as for what it can reveal on the human) and the surpassing of the Jewish religion (archaic, ritualist and too much linked to its particularity) form a couple and are found in German protestant theology from the last thirds of the 19th century to the first World War. Thus, Harnack claims, in his Essence of Christianity, that, “Jesus’ preaching will rapidly lead us toward the heights from which his relations to Judaism can only appear as too coward” (1st conference). Twenty years later, he will still write : “Conserving [the Old Testament] in Protestantism as a canonical document is the consequence of a religious and ecclesial paralysis” (Marcion : Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott. Eine Monographie zur Geschichte der Grundlegung der katholischen Kirche, Leipzig, Hinrichs, 1921, p. 248 ss). In the name of a liberal will to interpret Christianity for the modern world, one will speak of a necessary “dejudaization” [Entjudaisierung], a vein particularly affirmed by Paul Anton de Lagarde (1827-1891), professor of Old Testament and orientalist, by Arthur Bonus (1864-1941), pastor and writer, by Johannes Müller (1864-1949), preacher, presenter of spiritual sessions and, since 1917, doctor honoris causa in theology from the university of Berlin, or by Arthur Drews (1865-1935), philosopher of the monist movement.

13 These orthodoxies have resisted against the entree on the scene of historians or exegetes-historians. Hence, in catholicism, the brutal condemnation of modernism in 1907 or, in the Protestant context, the theopneustia or literal inspiration of the bible, dear to awakening movements of the first quarter of the 19th century, and the evangelical movement which will lead, at the beginning of the 20th century, to fundamentalism in the USA.

14 It is worth noting that in his L’Evangile et l’Eglise, of 1902, Alfred Loisy proposed a catholic answer in its depth, even if it has been condemned by Rome. Loisy asked to take into consideration the institutionalization and its positive and historical data, in the line of what he has written elsewhere: “Christianity […] is far from being damaged by the time. From an explosion of illuminism and of fanatism […], it has gradually become wiser […]. Catholicism has stemmed the scourge of Christianity. And that is why I always consider the fundamental idea of Protestantism, the return to primitive Christianity, as an insanity” (cited by Bernard REYMOND, Auguste Sabatier et le procès théologique de l’autorité, Lausanne, L’Age d’homme, 1976, p. 38). Harnack’s book also was at the origin of a debate with Ernst Troeltsch, another liberal protestant theologian who wrote in 1903 Que signifie “l’essence du christianisme”? (revised and expanded in 1913). In this book, Troeltsch presents the question of historical discontinuities that have to be taken into consideration. Schleiermacher, for his part, made Jesus the “archetype” of the authentic humanity in its relation to God and, from then on, he could conceive – like Harnack would do it later – the Gospel as the religion itself.

15 The same phenomenon and the same displacement of the problematic were inscribed at the very heart of the so-called “History of Religions” school in German protestant theology at the beginning of the 20th century, before 1914-1918, about which Ernst Troeltsch articulated himself.

16 Cf. My book La théologie face aux sciences religieuses, Genève, Labor et Fides, 1999, p. 228, in a chapter devoted to the whole problematic evoked here.

17 I develop these three moments in ‘‘Après les christologies libérales’’, in La christologie entre dogmes, doutes et remises en question, Paris, van Dieren, 2002, pp. 7-21.


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