WHO LEADS THIS “THIRD QUEST” for the “historical Jesus”?

“Where’s Waldo” becomes “Where’s Jesus” for British-Influenced NT academic critical scholars

Braaten observed, “now at the end of this century [twentieth] a ‘Third Quest’ is underway.  Its headquarters are no longer in Germany, but in the English speaking realm of theology.” Carl Braaten, “Jesus and the Church, An Essay on Ecclesiastical Hermeneutics,” Ex auditu (January 1994), 61.


This Third Quest has received its major impetus and name from British theologian Tom Wright, proposing this new term “Third Quest” in a 1982 article and also in his update of Stephen Neill’s work on a historical sweep of New Testament study, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1961-1986.[2]  It has become an all-inclusive term to designate all historical Jesus research since the late 1970s and early 1980s.[3]   In this latter work, Wright said the following,

“Stephen Neill was correct to write in 1962 that ‘the historical reconstruction of the life and history of Jesus has yet hardly begun,’  but he could not have written those words today.  For, while the so-called ‘New Quest’ was still cautiously arguing about presuppositions and methods, producing lengthy histories of tradition out of which could be squeezed one or two more drops of authentic Jesus-material [Schillebeeckx], a quite different movement was beginning in a variety of places and with no unified background or programme.  Fortified by Jewish materials now more ready available, these scholars worked as historians, under no doubt that it is quite possible to know quite a lot about Jesus of Nazareth and that it is worth- while to do so—the two things which the orthodox Bultmann school had denied.  This movement of scholarship has become so pronounced that it is not fanciful to talk in terms of a ‘Third Quest.’[4]

For Wright, this third quest could be separated from the other quests for three essential reasons:

First, much of the last century (from Schweitzer to Käsemann, if you like) has not been trying to find Jesus—in fact, it has been spent by theologians actually trying not to find him, lest they base their faith on history and so corrupt it.  Secondly, this non-quest of the first half of the century was undertaken (if one may so speak) for. . . the desire to preserve orthodoxy and to protect ordinary Christians from the ravages of historical criticism.  Conversely, where the Quest has been and is undertaken, the pious and orthodox are not noticeably welcoming it with open arms.  One does not see copies of Vermes’s Jesus the Jew or Sander’s Jesus and Judaism on too many church bookstalls.  Thirdly, actual historical enquiry after Jesus has not reached an impasse: it could not have, since until a few years ago it had hardly started, and in fact shows every sign of healthy young growth, needing pruning sooner or later no doubt, but at the moment to be encouraged.[5]

Wright’s profound influence today among theologians has been a major factor in what is now seen as another attempt at searching for the historical Jesus.[6]The “Third Quest” has its special emphasis centering in the relationship of Jesus to Second Temple Judaism and its Literature and therein finds its distinctiveness.


Who is negative toward NT Wright . . . in his own words:


“the more distressing difficulties lie in [his] relationships with conservative Christians” for he relates that “I am wryly amused, and sometimes a little frustrated, when I see would-be orthodox people saying, ‘Oh dear, have you seen what Tom Wright is doing?  Are you quite sure he’s an evangelical?”[i]
[i] Stafford, “The New Theologians,” Christianity Today 43/2 (February 8, 1999): 46 (30-49)

[1] John Reumann, “Jesus and Christology,” in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters.  Eds. Eldon J. Epp and George W. MacRae (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989). 502.

[2] See N. T. Wright, “Towards a Third ‘Quest’? Jesus Then and Now,” ARC 10/1 (Autumn 1982):20-27; Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986.  New Edition. Second Edition by Stephen Neill and Tom Wright (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988 [1964].

[3] Beilby and Eddy, The Historical Jesus Five Views, 29.

[4] Neill and Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986, 379.

[5] Neill and Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986, 379-380.

[6] Christianity Today in 1999 declared N. T. Wright one of the “top scholars” in the church at the end of the Twentieth century.  His influence has been profound.  See Tim Stafford, “The New Theologians (February 8, 1999) 30-49.

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