Joe Bessler

Joseph A. Bessler.

A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historical Quests Changed Theology for the Better

Salem: Polebridge Press, P/Back, 250 Pages, 2013.



I have been waiting for this book since late 2006.


John Smith, Dick Carter and myself met with Joe in Santa Rosa, CA. in 2006 to invite him to come to Australia in 2007 to the first Common Dreams Conference in Sydney. We shouted him a beer and he told us about the book he was writing. He accepted, came, and was brilliant.


Bessler is a theologian, affectionate known as the ‘Jesus Seminar theologian’, stationed at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa.

His book covers each of the three quests of the historical Jesus—from the original quest in the early 20th century, through the new quest of the 1940 and 50s, to the renewed quest in the late 20th early 21st centuries, initiated by the Westar Institute and its famous ‘Jesus Seminar’. He seeks to capture the historic questions that surround and shape each of these research endeavours and assess the impact of these differing quests on theological and cultural life.


He is critical of neo-orthodoxy—justifiably so I reckon—because in their rejection of the historical or human Jesus in favour of the Christ of faith, they missed something. What they missed was the possibility that the question of the historical Jesus was in fact, “not only a historical question but also a historic question—a question that created a series of profound social, political, and theological impacts that have continued to shape and reshape our world” (Pg:2).


In short, the ‘quest’ for the historical Jesus “is not (and was never) simply about the historical Jesus; it was always already about larger issues involving churches’ theological self-understanding and their relation to broader society. And… the theological rejection of historical Jesus research was almost always a refusal to deal with those larger issues” (Pg:3).


Moreover, there was not simply one quest, but differing quests that emerged within distinct periods and places. Quest One: 18th and 19th century and Reimarus, Strauss, Schweitzer, and medieval background, and emergence of new tensions; Quest Two or ‘New’ Quest: Bultmann, Kasemann, Robinson, Kung; and Quest Three or ‘Renewed’ Quest: as expressed in the work of Funk, Patterson, Taussig, Crossan, Scott, and the Jesus Seminar.


There is theological continuity across these quests “in that they press the Christian institutions of their period to alter long-held theological assumptions in order to make room for a new depth and range of discourse” (Pg:4).


How have they challenged the institution? Q1—move beyond the use of ecclesiastical power to control civil society and embrace greater religious freedom; Q2—embrace the full historical humanity of Jesus and be open to the full range of human experience in modern life; Q3—reject the politicised power of Christian fundamentalism and open up modes of faith beyond the too-narrow confines of right belief.


The publication of such historical Jesus scholarship has often created a climate of scandal. “Blaming scholars for confusing and disturbing the faith of the simple believer, outraged officials have sought to mock and suppress such inquiry as a kind of treason against the church. Historic questions are often the most scandalous precisely because they raise basic, fundamental challenges about the assumptions governing their societies” (Pg:5).


Bessler has written an important book. It deserves to be widely read and internally digested. I am grateful for his research and publishing efforts. For, in each time and place where a ‘quest’ has become important theological inquiry, “what has appeared initially as a threat and as a scandal, has brought both greater openness and vitality to discussions of faith” (Pg:227) even as it has brought the human Jesus and his teachings into clearer view.


As Bessler says: “if one can see the importance for models of faith that go beyond official claims of right belief and supernaturalism to speak in publicly assessable ways, then what appears to others as scandal assumes the weight of a risk worth taking” (Pg:227).


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