John P. Meier, «The Present State of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain», Vol. 80 (1999) 459-487
Despite the questionable method and positions of the Jesus Seminar, the third quest for the historical Jesus has resulted in seven notable gains as compared with the old quests. (1) The third quest has an ecumenical and international character. (2) It clarifies the question of reliable sources. (3) It presents a more accurate picture of first-century Judaism. (4) It employs new insights from archaeology, philology, and sociology. (5) It clarifies the application of criteria of historicity. (6) It gives proper attention to the miracle tradition. (7) It takes the Jewishness of Jesus with utter seriousness.
But with Josephus, I tend to think that we have exhausted our independent extracanonical sources. Tacitus and Pliny the Younger reflect instead what they have heard Christians of their own day say. Despite various claims, no early rabbinic text (the earliest being the Mishna, composed ca. A.D. 200) contains information about Jesus, and later rabbinic texts simply reflect knowledge of, and mocking midrash on, Christian texts and preaching.
In brief, the real gain here has been a more careful evaluation and critical use of our main sources in the NT along with a more confident acceptance of the core text of Josephus Testimonium, a small but precious piece of independent attestation to Jesus existence, ministry, and fate. Even if we wind up rejecting most of the other sources proposed by various recent scholars, the critical self-awareness of why we reject them is itself a gain.
III. A More Accurate Picture of Palestinian Judaism
A third gain of the present quest is a much more nuanced and variegated picture of Judaism at the time of Jesus. Without too much exaggeration, I think it could be said that many portraits of Jesus drawn by the first and second quests are automatically vitiated by the hopelessly outdated and at times viciously distorted descriptions of first-century Judaism that shape or warp these portraits. If the study of Jesus the Jew is to be taken seriously as a historical project, then the Judaism of the first century must be taken seriously in all its complexity and richness. It cannot be exploited simply as a negative backdrop, for instance as the religion of a fearsome, distant God who demands works-righteousness, against which the merciful Jesus, preaching the gospel of love, is then made to stand out and shine. Whether one looks at the Jesus of Rudolf Bultmann or the Jesus of Günther Bornkamm or the Jesus of Joachim Jeremias, one cannot help but feel that a 1st-century Jew is being stretched out on the procrustean bed of a German-Evangelical understanding of the theology of St. Paul21.
Perhaps, then, the single greatest justification of the third quest is its attempt to undo the caricatures of Judaism perpetrated consciously or unconsciously by the first two quests. Of course, this