International Journal of Middle East Studies

Research Article

The Quest of the Historical Muhammad

F. E. Petersa1

a1 Department of Middle East Languages & Literatures New York University


Writing in 1962 Stephen Neill listed twelve of what he regarded as “positive achievements of New Testament studies” over the past century.1 As an affirmation of progress in a notoriously difficult field of investigation, they make satisfying and even cheerful reading for the historian. Who was Jesus of Nazareth? What was his message? Why was he put to death? Why did his few followers become, in effect, the nucleus of the powerful and widespread community called Christianity? These were the enormously difficult questions that had begun to be posed in a critical-historical way in the mid-19th century, and some of the answers Bishop Neill discerned, though by no means final, represented ground gained and truths won. Neill's widely read book was revised in 1988, and though his optimism was here and there tempered by what had been said and thought in the twenty-five years since the first edition,2 there was still good reason to think that historians were by and large on the right track in pursuing what Albert Schweitzer described in 1906 as “the quest of the historical Jesus.”3