I recently worked my way through Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (OUP, 1999), one of Bart Ehrman's earlier books. It is a very readable presentation of Ehrman's position on the historical Jesus issue, accepting and updating Albert Schweitzer's early 20th-century view that the primary proclamation of the historical Jesus was apocalyptic.
Ehrman approaches the issue as a scholar and historian, not as a Christian. For a more Christian-friendly investigation into the historical Jesus literature, read Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, which I discussed in an earlier lengthy post.
I want to address some LDS questions in the second half of the post, so I'll take some shortcuts with the book itself. First, from the preface, here is Ehrman's own summary of his central point, stating why he accepts Schwietzer's claim and what that means.
[Schweitzer] claims that Jesus is best understood as a first-century Jewish apocalypticist. This is a shorthand way of saying that Jesus fully expected that the history of the world as we know it (well, as he knew it) was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human political and religious institutions. All this would be a prelude to the arrival of a new order on earth, the Kingdom of God. Moreover, Jesus expected that this cataclysmic end of history would come in his own generation, at least during the lifetime of his disciples.
And here is a summary comment on the book from the Publisher's Weekly blurb at Amazon, which calls the book "the single best introduction to the study of the historical Jesus."
The author contends that this portrait of Jesus ... has been overlooked in the rush to draw Jesus in the images of whatever scholarly or popular movement is painting Him. Ehrman examines carefully noncanonical and canonical sources as he reconstructs the life of Jesus. He uses already established critical criteria — independent attestation, dissimilarity, contextual credibility — to determine what elements of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life can be considered authentic. For example, according to the evidence, he asserts that we can seriously doubt that the virgin conception, Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the story of wise men following a star are historical events. Ehrman then proceeds to provide a lucid overview of the turbulent political and religious times in which Jesus lived and worked. Finally, the author provides a detailed examination of Jesus' words and deeds to show that they present the work of a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who expected universal judgment and the coming Kingdom of God to occur within his own lifetime and that of his disciples.
The LDS View
So here's my question: Have any LDS leaders or scholars engaged the historical Jesus literature, and if so what do they say about it from an LDS perspective? The approach of a scholar making a historical Jesus argument is generally to take the four gospels, along with other early documents thought to be historically authentic in whole or in part, then apply criteria such as those used by Ehrman (independent attestation, dissimilarity, contextual credibility) to pare down the sources we have to the most historically reliable statements of Jesus or about him. The LDS position that the Bible contains some historical errors ("We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly," AoF 8) certainly opens the door for LDS scholars to engage in their own version of the historical Jesus quest.
The first English edition of Schweitzer's book came out around 1910, so it would probably be unfair to expect Talmage's Jesus the Christ (published in 1915) to respond or comment. The volumes in Bruce R. McConkie's Messiah series have no bibliography and don't appear to contain endnote references to any of the historical Jesus literature. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism contains one reference to Albert Schweitzer, under the entry "Christology." After reviewing various early Christologies, the article notes: "Over the years, others have insisted that Jesus Christ is merely the ideal man for humanity, since Jesus often called himself 'the Son of man.' They have felt that he seldom drew attention to his divinity, as Albert Schweitzer argues in his famous Quest of the Historical Jesus (1911)."
What about LDS academics? In The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (U. of Illinois, 1993), Grant Underwood devotes a page to Schweitzer in the first chapter when giving background on apocalypticism. Underwood comments:
What role apocalypticism played in the rise of Christianity and how it has continued to inform its character has been a matter of lively debate for over a century. In his influential book The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer reviewed the writings of hundreds of scholars who since the eighteenth century had attempted nondevotional biographies of Christ in an effort to separate the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith and dogma. Schweitzer believed his study actually demonstrated how thoroughly unscientific were the methods and how unhistorical were the conclusions of this self-proclaimed scientific quest for the "Life of Jesus." Tired of explicit or implicit confessional overlays, Schweitzer proposed his own allegedly objective reading of the documents to produce what has been called the apocalyptic Jesus.
After quoting a few scriptural passages (Matt. 24:34, Matt. 10:23, Mark 9:1) which suppport Schweitzer's view, Underwood comments: "Whatever the best interpretation of these passages actually may be, it is at least clear how a literal reading could give one the ideas that Schweitzer (and others) set forth." Underwood then concludes, "Most scholars concede that at least among Jesus' followers, particularly his early Jewish converts, apocalypticism was common."
I thought Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament (Deseret Book, 2006) might have a couple of paragraphs, but no luck. There was a long sidebar on apocalyptic literature in the chapter on the book of Revelation and a two-page discussion of the Kingdom of God in the chapter on Matthew, but no clear discussion of apocalyptic themes in the (historical) pronouncements of Jesus and no citations to or discussion of the historical Jesus literature.
And of course there's always something by Nibley, in this case the transcript of a 1956 presentation he gave at BYU titled "Historicity of the Bible." Here's the passage of interest.
Both Harnack and Schweitzer laid great emphasis on the claim that virtually nothing is or can be known about a historical Jesus. This freed them to work out a kind of a Jesus that pleased them. "We are thankful," wrote Schweitzer, "that we have handed down to us only gospels, not biographies of Jesus." When new discoveries come out, they receive, to say the least, a very cold reception. If the real Jesus walked in on them, they would invite him to leave. They have the Jesus they want, and they do not want more.
If anyone has additional citations, please note them in the comments. At this point, I'd say there isn't much published that gives an LDS position or response to the historical Jesus literature. That's a little surprising, given that it is, quoting Ehrman, "the view shared probably by the majority of scholars over the course of this century, at least in Germany and America" (p. ix).
I did locate a couple of articles of interest to the LDS reader, but I would hesitate to say they represent the LDS view of the historical Jesus literature.