There are three main reasons why the search for the historical Jesus began (of three searches). The first is the problems raised in the Gospels such as consistency, apparent contradictions, historical accuracy, etc. Then there was the problem posed by the Reformation in completely changing the perspective on the Bible and Jesus. Finally, there was the current worldview of modernity. This led many to believe that the Gospels do not give an accurate portrayal of the real Jesus, which caused the need to search through all the sources to find the historical Jesus.
The first search was from 1778-1906. Rationalism and deism became the dominant epistemology and worldviews in the eighteenth century. In 1778 Hermann Reimarus wrote On the Intention of Jesus and the Disciples and was the first to make the distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. A gap began to form between history and faith.
Numerous other fictions “lives” of Jesus were written throughout the late eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. These writers included K.F. Bardht (1792), K.H. Venturini (1809), and Heinrich Paulus (1828). Venturini claimed that Jesus was just a member of the Essenes, that the miracles were staged, and that he was crucified but did not die. Paulus took a rationalistic approach and attempted to give natural explanations for the miracles. All these writings were speculative in explanatory hypotheses but generally accepted the Gospels as substantially accurate.
At the age of 28, David F. Strauss (1808-1874) wrote Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) and was the first major figure to suggest that the Gospels are largely fictitious because of the miracle claims. He claimed that the Gospels were designed to teach transcendental moral truths taught by followers and not Jesus. “The historical Jesus was thus turned into the divine Messiah by the pious, but erroneous devotion of the church.”
Thus, we have the the development of source criticism, which attempted to trace the record of the literary sources of the Gospels. The synoptic problem became a major talking point: How do we account for the similarities and the differences between the synoptic Gospels? The Gospels were claimed to have been based on earlier written sources: What are these and how do they relate together to form the Gospel accounts we have? Thus, we have the two document hypothesis. Mark, the earliest Gospel, gives the framework but lacks much of the teaching. In 1890 the “Q” (from the German word for source, Quelle) hypothesis claimed that this document, Q, was the primary sources that contained many of the sayings and teachings. The Q hypothesis suggested that Matthew took elements from Mark, Q, and Matthew’s unique contributions. Luke had elements of Mark and Q while adding his own unique material.
In 1906 Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote The Quest for the Historical Jesus. In this work he argued that Jesus was not a moral reformer and rejected Strauss and his followers. Instead, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, proclaiming the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Historically, Jesus is unknowable and we can never get back to the real Jesus and we don’t need to. Schweitzer brought the end of the first search for the historical Jesus.
There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He is destroyed by them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign. Schweitzer, Quest for the Historical Jesus, 370-371.