The Quest for the Historical Jesus

By Robert A. Rees

Robert A. Rees teaches Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union and the University of California Berkeley. He has just completed a play on Emerson and his circle and is compiling a collection of his essays on the Book of Mormon. He can be reached at



Pilate asked the most important question in history, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” It is a question that will ultimately have to be answered by everyone—those who don’t believe Jesus is the Christ as well as those who do. But it seems that we will have to answer another question first: “Which Jesus?”

Among the Jews of Jesus’s day, there was considerable confusion over this question. As his disciples said, “Some say [you are] John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Today, the same question elicits a wide variety of responses. Reza Aslan, author of the 2013 biography, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, concludes that the Jesus most Christians believe in is essentially an invention of Paul: “. . . the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history,” he writes.

The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authorities of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing my comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.

Aslan is the latest of a long line of scholars who have tried to strip away what they consider myth, folklore, and invention from the biography of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Aslan echoes Albert Schweitzer’s hundred-year-old assessment: “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence.”

I first learned of the quest for the historical Jesus in Reid Bankhead’s BYU class “Jesus the Christ” in 1955, the quarter before I left for my mission. Bankhead excoriated Schweitzer and others who, to him, were looking for the wrong Jesus in the wrong places. But I also learned of the conflict between the “historical” and the “true” Jesus when reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” in Robert K. Thomas’s BYU course on the American renaissance. Emerson, whose family pedigree included seven generations of Congregational ministers, took the radical path of trying to rescue Jesus from the church:

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. . . . Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of the world. . . . But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding [which said], “This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.” The idioms of his language and the figures of his rhetoric have usurped the place of truth.

In 1960, I became more aware of the conflict between the “historical” and the “divine” Jesus when I left the safe, supportive haven of BYU for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin—at the time one of the most radical campuses in America. There I was introduced to higher criticism, which I found wonderfully expansive and enlightening in my study of literature and philosophy. At the same time, I was becoming a somewhat serious student of Mormonism—in fact I began teaching early morning seminary and inaugurated the first Institute of Religion classes at Wisconsin.

As a Christian scholar, I learned that it was possible to move back and forth between the secular and the sacred, between belief and doubt, between the German higher critic David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus, 1835), which attempted to separate Jesus from what Strauss considered the “myths” of the gospels, and James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ (1915) which affirmed those “myths” from the Book of Mormon and other Restoration scriptures.

Lowell Bennion taught that we should learn to “carry water on both shoulders,” meaning that we should use both faith and reason. It is when we abandon one for the other that we most risk missing the truth. Thus, over the years, I have learned that while it is impossible for us to ever fully know the “historical Jesus,” we should still continue looking for him among surviving sources. But we should also recognize that who Jesus was and is lies beyond all extant objective evidence. As Ezra Pound wrote in his poem about Jesus, “The Ballad of the Goodly Fere”:

They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think

Though they write it cunningly . . .

Or, as Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak Nehorai wrote nearly a thousand years ago about knowing God,

If all the heavens were parchment,

if all the trees were pens,

if all the seas were ink, and

if every creature were a scribe,

they would not suffice to expound

the greatness of God.

After the apostles respond to Jesus’s question about his identity, he asks them pointedly, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’s response—“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:15–17)—is inscribed in the hearts of all believing Christians, including Latter-day Saints. For those who are blessed to believe, the answer to Pilate’s question—“What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”—is simple: follow him.

Elder Marion D. Hanks once told me about driving at Christmastime with one of his young daughters and singing, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” After singing the refrain, “O come let us adore him,” she asked, “Daddy, what does it mean to adore him?” Elder Hanks said he launched into a long explanation that he sensed was not very satisfactory. After a pause, she said, “Daddy: I think to ‘adore him’ just means to love him.”

Although I am fascinated by the “historical Jesus,” I don’t agree with Reza Aslan that he “is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ,” because it is that title—meaning “the Anointed” or “the anointed one of God”—that sets him apart from every other person in history. Take away his divine birth and his atonement, crucifixion, and resurrection—as well as his singular, supreme example of unconditional love—and he is little different from other extraordinary teachers in history. The Book of Mormon says that as “the Holy One of Israel” he is also the “Keeper of the Gate” through which we all must eventually pass (2 Nephi 9:41). I for one am grateful that, as Nephi says, “he employeth no servant there.”