Ajoke has been going the rounds in theological circles for some time now. It goes like this. The Pope was told by the Cardinals that the remains of Jesus had been dug up in Palestine. There was no room for doubt: all the archaeologists, scholars and experts were agreed. Teaching about the resurrection, the lynch-pin of orthodox Christian faith, lay in ruins.

The Pope sat with his head in his hands pondering his position and that of the Church he headed. He decided it would be only decent—whether or not it would be Christian no longer seemed to matter—to let the separated Brethren know. So he called up Paul Tillich, the leading Protestant theologian, and told him the bad news. There was a long silence at the end of the phone. Finally Tillich said: ‘So you mean to say he existed after all . . . ’

This joke exemplifies the wide range of ‘Christological’ positions surrounding the figure of Jesus even within the mainstreams of contemporary Christian belief. (Christology is that part of theology concerned with the person and work of Jesus, ‘The Christ’. In orthodox Christian confessions, the assertion that Jesus was ‘Christ’ implies belief that in him ‘pre-existent’ and eternal god became fully man, ‘sharing truly and fully in the conditions of our empirical humanity’ while yet remaining fully god.)

Christology is of significance even to those of us who are not Christian because as D.M. Baillie, a theologian, once put it, it ‘stands for the Christian interpretation of history as against other interpretations’: and the Christian interpretation, of course, remains among the most prevalent in the world. But this joke also underlines one of the most significant differences between Christianity and the other world religions: and that is that Christianity makes claims about divine intervention in natural and human history which, on the surface at least, would appear to be potentially vulnerable to advances in historical knowledge. If it became widely known that the body had been found in Palestine, then belief would be, or perhaps I should say ought to be, affected.

Now, of course, nothing remotely as dramatic as the corpse of Jesus has turned up; but our historical knowledge and understanding has been growing steadily for two centuries or more. These advances, however, have not tended to favour ‘the Christian interpretation of history’. Rather, as Walter Pannenberg, a theologian, has put it: ‘Since the Enlightenment, the historical picture of Jesus has become farther and farther removed from dogmatic Christology in general.’ He admits that for a long time now it has appeared impossible to unite the godman of Christological dogma with the historical reality of Jesus: there is a sharp distinction between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History. For two centuries, he explains, theologians have concerned themselves with ‘overcoming this growing cleft’.

Of course, as an historical materialist (of sorts), the overcoming of the cleft is not at the top of my agenda. Rather, I want to ask what, in fact, can we know about the Jesus of History, and what implications, if any, does this knowledge have both for ‘the Christian interpretation of history’, and for those of us who take a more secular view of historical process?

What, then, can we know about this ‘Jesus of History’? The ‘Old Quest’ for the historical Jesus, as it is called these days, began in the 18th century and escalated during the 19th. For the most part it was conducted by German, Protestant scholars, most of whom were believers, some of whom, however, were deists or sceptics. The Old Quest was fired by the belief that a ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ picture of Jesus could be established by tearing through the ‘monkish illusions’ of Nicaea and Chalcedon and returning to the only sources about the life of Jesus, i.e. the gospels. The beginnings of serious, modern New Testament scholarship fuelled this ‘Quest’; but one of the reasons why its results were so diverse and inconclusive was that the gospels still tended to be regarded as attempts to write ‘biographies’ of Jesus, drawn from various lost, written sources.