April DeConick and Mark Goodacre have some pointed observations about the way the quests for the historical Jesus have been categorized. April thinks we have entered a fourth quest — a peculiar claim, in my view, since many of the features she lists as characteristic of this quest have been associated with the third — and Mark thinks (like Dale Allison) that numerically categorizing the quests has had its day and should be abandoned. Dale has been quite strong about this:
“The assertion that we have recently embarked upon a third quest may be partly due, one suspects, to chronological snobbery, to the ever-present temptation, where new is always improved, to flatter ourselves and bestow upon our own age exaggerated significance, to imagine the contemporary to be of more moment than it is.” (Resurrecting Jesus, p 14)
Yes and no. I appreciate Dale’s ongoing warnings about the past being given short shrift — and he’s right, as Mark points out, about the “no-quest” period (1906-1953) being a misnomer — but it’s demonstrably evident that scholarly labors have paid off since the 70s in ways far more progressive than before (which I list below). On the other hand, Mark has a good point about the third quest ceasing to be a useful descriptor on account of its diversity. But that’s an irony, because it relates precisely to one of the defining marks of the quest (see 4 below).
The following significantly distinguish the “third quest” (the 70s to the present) from preceding quests.
1. An understanding of ancient Judaism without caricature (thanks mostly to E.P. Sanders).
2. Increased application of social sciences, which helps understand Jesus as the product of an honor-shame culture, and peasant society, in an advanced agrarian empire (thanks largely to the Context Group).
3. Intensified studies of the differences between Galilee and Judea (thanks to those like Sean Freyne, Richard Horsley, Eric Meyers, Burton Mack, and Mark Chancy — all of whom have very different views on the matter).
4. The amorphous nature of the quest itself, mentioned by William Herzog, which renders the term “third quest” somewhat of a paradox–
“the absence of a cultural synthesis such as those that supported the first and new quests. The first quest grew out of the cultural synthesis of the Enlightenment which we call modernity, and the new quest was held together by a clear hermeneutical program that drew its inspiration from Heidegger [existentialism]. The third quest know no such synthesis. The lack of such an organzing philosophy or theology promotes diversity and exploration.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 33).
So I think there are grounds for continuing to use the term “third quest” despite (and because of) the absence of a cultural synthesis propelling it. I don’t see a fourth quest emerging in the near future, because it would have to be reacting against something so diverse that there’s really no vision to react against — unless it’s against the search for Jesus period. In other words, the only “fourth quest” I could see distinguishing itself is one which truly called for a “no quest”, like William Arnal does in The Symbolic Jesus.