“The Historical Jesus” has been a “hot topic” for some time. Like, for for nearly three centuries. That is to say, did Jesus say and do everything exactly as it is recorded in the gospels (which leads to multiple well-trod difficulties, such as the accounts of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the sermon on the mount/sermon on the plain, the words spoken at the last supper, etc. etc. See William Arndt’s Bible Difficulties and Seeming Contradictions for a sample). This is not merely an Enlightenment problem, though. Augustine wrote Concerning the Agreement of the Evangelists, and Origen had to deal with all this in his commentaries, too.
The Enlightenment raised the issues for a different purpose, though. The goal was to separate “The Historical Jesus” from the Jesus of Christianity, the Jesus of the church. The New Testament per se was not viewed as that which formed the church. Rather, in Enlightenment criticism the New Testament itself was part of the problem. It was argued that the church took the “historical Jesus” and completely altered his teachings and his life so as to create a certain agenda, the result of which is the New Testament. The goal was to remove “Faith” from the “Church” by removing “Jesus” from the “Bible.” As we look at Western Civilization over the last couple hundred years, it seems that they have succeeded. People have no problem with “Jesus”; what they have problems with is the Jesus found in the New Testament, and in the church.
Larry Hurtado is a NT scholar who is familiar to most pastors; his books are read in seminary classrooms, and Concordia Theological Seminary hosted a symposium featuring his work back in 2004 (and the papers were published in CTQ in 2005). Prof. Hurtado has a blog on which he comments on recent publications and issues in biblical studies; a recent post focuses on the issue of “Jesus” and the “New Testament” and the “Church.” He notes that people always have an agenda when approaching issues of “The Historical Jesus,” whether approaching the issue from a perspective of faith or of disbelief. True enough. What he questions, in addition, is the assumption of both sides that the teachings of Christianity should be derived solely from “what Jesus really taught” — If Jesus “didn’t say it” then it is of some kind of secondary authority. Red letters good, black letters iffy. Ironically, both “critical” and “conservative” scholars fall into this trap. As Hurtado notes:
both sides have subscribed to a common premise, which goes something like this: If a serious difference can be shown between what Jesus himself taught (especially what he taught about himself) and what early Christians believed (especially what they believed about him), then this would comprise a major theological problem for the validity of traditional Christian faith. The one side seeks (with intent!) to establish such a major difference, and the other side seeks energetically to minimize it, both sides working on the same premise.
Hurtado, rightly, I think, questions this assumption, and notes that it is not “what Jesus taught” that is decisive for the claims about Jesus (the Gospel message). Hurtado argues that “the basis for the christological claims of NT texts was never that Jesus taught and commanded them, but, instead, rested in what God had done, in raising Jesus from death and exalting him to unique heavenly glory.” So it is God’s action, in Christ, as preached by the apostles and witnessed in the gospels and letters which is the foundation for Christian teaching. We don’t use “red letter Bibles” because the red letters are not more important than the black letters. And in fact, without the black letters the red ones won’t make a whole lot of sense — or become too easily swayed to mean whatever we want them to mean.
Lutherans should never have had difficulty with this; we always liked Paul. And even though we usually preach on the gospel lessons, the way that we do that often make the evangelists sound like Paul. But that is okay, because they do.
There are several new books out on “The Historical Jesus” from a broadly evangelical perspective. Confessional Lutherans in recent year have, in general, not engaged these issues. Perhaps, given our creedal and canonical foundation, it is time that we did.