The Historical Jesus
The Historian's Dilemma: "Nothing But The Facts"
Historians have come to recognize that our sparse historical sources -- coming both from ancient pagans as well as from early Christians -- make it difficult for historians to augment Jesus' biographical-historical life over that found in the Gospels. Even though we love and believe in the Christ of faith as portrayed in the Gospels, the human side of our mind might like to have a thorough and accurate biographical history of Jesus that supplements the Gospels. We could think of this as if Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated without a thing being known about him other than that he had been President. Upon his death, we probably would have wanted to know when and where he was born, where he studied law, what kind of a lawyer he was in Illinois before he became President, his role in the Civil War. And how did it come about that a majestic memorial was built personifying him sitting in a chair?
This is roughly analogous to our interest in the historical Jesus. Jesus was purely man as well as purely God. We don't need the facts about His early life in His incarnation as a man. But perhaps in our years of studying the Gospels' we begin to want, for example, details about His foster-father Joseph, who His friends were, who His “brothers and sisters” were (see Mark 6:3) and what “brothers and sisters” meant in the scope of the large extended family that all Jews had, hence whether he had cousins and uncles. What sort of games did He play in His early childhood, when and how did He become a carpenter, and was He good at his craft? Did Jesus at age 10 have a crush on one of the pretty girls in Nazareth? The Gospel authors did not provide us with any of that biographical-historical data, nor anything remotely similar to it.
How did Jesus, a boy before age 12, attain to the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures that He displayed in his give-and-take with the teachers of the law in the Temple, and what did it mean at that age for Him to “be in His Father's house?” (Mk. 2:41-52). Did Joseph give Him a scolding for worrying himself and Mary for not telling them that He “had to be about His Father's business?” And did He feel chagrin that his mother had been anxious for Him for the three days before she and Joseph found Him in the Temple, i.e., did he sense his mother Mary's “keeping all these things in her heart?” (verse 51). And what role did Mary, His sinless virgin-mother play in teaching Him about the Jewish law as well as generally raising Him to be an obedient boy?
What about Mary's taking charge of Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana? What did that mean to Jesus? The wine had run out, and she informed Jesus, “They have no wine.” (Jn. 2:3). Jesus gave her what might have been a “put-down,” maybe even a “smart-Aleck” question, by saying, “Woman, how does your concern affect me (verse 4)?” Ouch! But notice what Mary did in return. She ignored Jesus' impertinent question and just took charge of the situation by saying to the servers, “Do whatever He tells you!” (verse 5). She didn't say anything to Jesus such as, “Well, are you going to do anything about this?” Knowing more about the relationship between Jesus and Mary, His fundamental human relationship, would certainly be interesting, even crucial in our desire to know about the historical Jesus. The early family life of a person tells us a great deal about someone's personality later in life. How about Mary standing at the foot of His cross, wondering what He meant when He said to her, in a dying gasp, while referring to her and John, “Woman, behold, your son,” and to John, “Behold, your mother.”
No, we don't need to know more such biographical-historical data about the Christ of faith from the Gospels in order to attain His salvation. And it was precisely the Christ of faith that the Gospel authors passed onto us, and not Jesus' human, biographical-historical life. But if we somehow could get a more detailed written account of Jesus as a human being, authorized by the Church as truthful, we would probably want to read it. If we want know about God, we have to know about Jesus, who tells and shows us who God the Father is. The authors of the Gospels, the four evangelists, wrote purposely for believers, and not at all for professional historians. The slender biographical-historical facts that are in the Gospels give us enough information to preserve the necessary faith in Jesus that we need as Christians. However, if we Christians desired to construct a deeper biographical-historical account of Jesus, we would need the skills and training of professional historians in order to augment the life of Jesus presented in the Gospels.
Historians' Difficulty in Using the Gospels as Historical Sources
As a matter of fact, a myriad of historians – literally hundreds of them from the 19th to the 21st centuries -- have made a close study of the Gospels following the technical and scholarly rules of historiography in order to deepen our knowledge of the biographical-historical life of Jesus. Their historical quest was based not on a desire to improve upon the Gospels' presentation of the Christ of faith, but to increase humanity's sense of the historical Jesus. However, the search by historians for the historical Jesus outside of the Christ of the Gospels proves to be a difficult task. The main difficulty in constructing the life of the historical Jesus has to do with the sources that are available to historians. Historians regard the Gospels themselves as sources, but they are not the only sources historians want to have at their disposal. The reason for this is that historians find discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Gospels, and these failures of a unified logic on the part of the Gospel authors violate the primary tools of historical research and conclusions.
Let's consider the major inconsistencies that tend to drive historians away from writing an account of the historical Jesus based entirely on the Gospels as their source. Since the historians start with the Gospels as their principle historical source, there are obvious passages in the Gospels that are either not subject to historical study or are confusing to historians because they seem contradictory. For example, historians can't very well talk about Jesus' miracles as evidence for his earthly life as an historical figure. But the main inconsistency bothering historians in their quest for the historical Jesus is His resurrection, or as historians would say, “His so-called resurrection.”
Here is how historians view the resurrection scenes reported by the authors of the Gospels as contradictory: First off all, the resurrection itself is not narrated in the New Testament. What is narrated is the empty tomb and the apparitions of the risen Jesus. The earliest witness of the resurrection, written probably in 51-52 A.D. is in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, two decades before the first Gospel appears, Mark, in 70 A.D. Paul writes:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received...that Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five-hundred brothers at once... After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all...he appeared to me.” (1 Cor. 15:3-8.). [Further] “If you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9).”
Important proof texts of the resurrection appear frequently in Acts of the Apostles, e.g.: “God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death...” (Acts 2:24). All in all the Pauline preaching and Luke's historical record in Acts make it abundantly clear that the resurrection was a primary object of the apostolic proclamation from the very beginning. Peter said of the Twelve before the evangelization depicted in Acts even starts: “Until the day on which he was taken up from us, [we] were a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:22). Historians take seriously these proclamations in the early Church of the early Christians' belief in the resurrection, as they are reliable reports by the Church of solid sightings of the resurrected Jesus early on in the Church's preaching and mission.
However, what prevents historians from accepting, not the reliability of witnesses' testimonies to the post-resurrection appearances, but their difficulty in accepting as reliable the original scenes of the post-resurrection accounts themselves, on the third day after Jesus' death as recorded in the Gospels:
(1) In Matthew's Gospel, Mary Magdalen and “the other Mary” are the first to go to the tomb, which still has a stone rolled in front of it. There was an earthquake followed by an angel rolling back the stone to the tomb, and telling the women, who did not go into the tomb, “Go quickly and tell his disciples He has been raised from the dead and is going before you to Galilee...[After seeing Jesus and embracing His feet the women “did Jesus homage.”] Jesus then tells them, “Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Mt. 28: 1-10).
(2) In Mark's Gospel, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb with spices. The stone had already been rolled back and the women entered the tomb, seeing “a young man” clothed in a white robe. As in Matthew's account, the women are told (not by Jesus but by the “young man”) to go tell Jesus' disciples that “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.” (Mk. 16: 1-7).
(3) In Luke's Gospel, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, (and unnamed others) take spices to the tomb, enter and find two men in dazzling garments appearing to them and telling them to remember that Jesus had told them he would rise on the third day. The women left the tomb and went to tell the apostles what they had seen and heard, but the apostles thought their report was nonsense. However, Peter got up and ran to the tomb by himself, saw the burial cloths and went home.
(4) In John's Gospel, Mary Magdalene, by herself, came to the tomb and found the stone rolled back. She ran and told Peter and “the other disciple” (unnamed). The two men ran to the tomb, with the other disciple out-running Peter, looking in the tomb but not going in. Peter, however, enters the tomb and sees the burial cloths. Then the other disciple also entered the tomb. Then both men returned home. Mary evidently had gone to the tomb after the two men, and stayed outside the tomb weeping, and then saw two angels. She turned around and saw Jesus, although thinking he was the gardener. Jesus says to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Jesus in Hebrew, “Rabbouni, which means Teacher...Jesus tells her “stop holding on to me... for I have not yet ascended to the Father.
Historians find these accounts of the resurrection three days after Jesus' death disparate and even downright contradictory. To understand this, we must understand the methods historians use to write history. Two words summarize the demands that professional historians impose upon their exploration of the past: (1) as we have already seen, historians need sources. (2) And their sources must be reliable enough to provide direct evidence that they are genuine and persuasive. The direct evidence of what their sources tell historians about the past would have to be substantial enough to stand up in a court of law proving historians' conclusions.
With regard to historians using the Gospels as sources for finding the historical Jesus, historians have a dilemma confronting them. As suggested earlier, the Gospels were not intended to be objective descriptions of historical facts, but proclamations of the “good news” of the salvation that Jesus brought, written by his followers who wanted to promote faith in Him. But we have more biographical-historical information in the New Testament about Paul than we have about Jesus. That is because Paul wrote letters of which we have the complete subject matter. These letters are written sources providing direct evidence not only about Paul's life as a founder of Christian communities throughout the Roman world, but also direct evidence of geographical, political, social and cultural facts about that world. Jesus left us no writings of His own. Historians have only someone else's writings about Jesus written by third parties.
Therefore, the sources we have about Jesus's life and teaching -- the four Gospels -- are third-party accounts supposedly written by four saints whose names were added as titles to the respective Gospels many years after the appearance of the Gospels in the early Church. The four saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not the authors of the Gospels bearing their names. In fact, the Gospels were written anonymously. The words found in modern Bibles, “the Gospel According to..,” followed respectively by the four names of the men inserted as the Gospels' authors, was a phrase added to the titles of the Gospels in the 15th Century, shortly after 1453 when the printing press was invented.
An anonymous printer in Basel, Switzerland, is known to have added the various numbers designating chapter and verse headings to his printed books of the Bible, making the Bible much more readable to the average person. This same printer is a likely candidate for adding the four phrases at the top of the first pages of the four Gospels, namely, “the Gospel According to...” followed by the names of the four saints who had become popularly designated as the Gospel authors during the Middle Ages.
Analyzing the Four Gospels as Preliminary Sources
St. Mark may have been the only truly named, entitled author of at least a part of a Gospel. Mark travelled with Paul on Paul's first and on part of his second missionary journey, and then was dismissed as having deserted Paul by not continuing his work with him. (Acts 15:38). Mark went to Rome to attend to St. Peter, translating Italianized Latin for Peter, evidently never even going to Jerusalem. Thus Mark was something of a linguist, and may have been the key exponent of getting Aramaic records of Jesus' sayings translated into the original koine, common, or everyday Greek, in which the four Gospels were written, rather than in classical Greek.
However, Mark's whereabouts were also subject to changes in venues that disassociated him from the time needed to sit still and write a full Greek Gospel, or even to train disciples to serve as his secretaries for writing one. Shortly after St. Peter was executed under Nero's persecutions, in 64 A.D., Mark was called by the Christians in Alexandria, Egypt to come and serve as their bishop. This was an appointment he accepted, and after that we don't know when or where he died. There is a tradition associated with both Peter and Mark that Peter dictated a portion of oral remembrances of the gospel to Mark before Mark left for Africa, which made their way into an Aramaic source that Mark probably supervised to some degree, and afterward sponsored the turning of the Aramaic into the final Greek version.
Mark's final Greek version was translated not by Mark himself but by unknown writers, probably in Rome, after Mark left for North Africa when Nero's persecutions of Christians rapidly sped up, making Peter one of its victims. This final Greek rendition was used by the sources who were the eventual supervising editors of both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, permitting us to accept Mark as the first true organizer of a Gospel, which was named for him in 70 A.D.
St. Matthew and St. John both likely would never even have seen a Gospel named for them. That is because they both left Jerusalem and Palestine shortly after the Lord's resurrection and ascension. St. Matthew went first to Antioch, a popular city for early Church leaders establishing a community of future saints and martyrs. St. Matthew is said to have dictated unorganized Aramaic sayings of Jesus to a secretary, but then left it to an anonymous expert in Greek to make the translation from Aramaic to Greek.
Whether before or after the Greek translation was made, Matthew left Antioch and traveled to North Africa, perhaps to Alexandria first, but certainly to Ethiopia, where tradition in the Church's official Martyrology, or the recording of the deaths of the martyred saints, give evidence for his death by execution in Ethiopia. The Gospel named after him is dated as written in 85-90 A.D., perhaps dates that come from an unofficial oral tradition for the date of Matthew's death. The Gospel of Matthew depends heavily on the Gospel of Mark, as does the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Mark is found in 330 verses out of 1068 in Matthew, and 330 out of 1150 in Luke.
St. John is remembered by reliable sources to have taken Jesus' mother, Mary, with him to Ephesus, where he is said to have formed a school of disciples to whom he dictated his Aramaic account of Jesus' life and teaching, that was later (c.95-c.109 A.D.) translated into Greek. John was eventually arrested for not honoring pagan gods and goddesses in Ephesus and sent to the prison island of Patmos, a small island in the Aegean Sea west-southwest of Ephesus, where either John or an associate experienced the visions set forth in the Book of Revelation, and recorded in the final edition of that book.
John's Gospel is genuinely associated with the Apostle, as he is said to have organized a school of disciples to whom he dictated major portions of his Gospel. Matthew's and John's moving their residences from Jerusalem meant they themselves did not have the time needed to write the lengthy gospels named after them. However, it seems likely that St. John wrote the three Letters named for him. It must be remembered that John's Gospel was separate and distinct from either comparison to or reliance on the other three Gospels, which are grouped together and called the Synoptic Gospels.
St. Luke was called the “beloved physician “when by Saint Paul (Col. 4:14), and was the only Gentile named as an author of a Gospel, as well as of The Acts of the Apostles. Luke accompanied Paul on three of his missionary journeys, and, like Matthew, he too became a co-founder of the church in Antioch, where he was an associate of St. Ignatius (35-107 A.D.), the first bishop of Antioch. Luke eventually returned to his native Greece, where tradition says that he wrote his Gospel and Acts of the Apostles in the most scholarly version of koine Greek when considered with the Greek translations made among the other Gospels translated from Aramaic to Greek. Luke was remembered as having lived alone unmarried and having died at age 84. Luke makes a strong case as an authentic author of Scripture, both of his Gospel and, even more importantly where historians are concerned, Acts of the Apostles.
Luke's action of originally writing in Greek was because his native tongue was Greek and thus the Gospel assigned to him needed no translation from an oral Aramaic dictation to Greek, as was the case with Matthew, for example. The one book in the New Testament that is accepted as truly historical by scholars is Acts of the Apostles, unquestionably written by Luke, and unquestionably a source that projects direct evidence of its authenticity as a source for historians. Luke made use of three main sources for his writing, namely, (1) the Gospel of Mark in a primitive Greek format, as we have seen above, (2) a document called Q, (see next below) from the German word for source, Quelle, and (3) Luke's recording of his own reminiscences from talking to people in Palestine and Antioch who had been either disciples of Jesus or knew direct evidence of Him from friends or neighbors in the early Christian community. Luke's reminiscences came to be called L by scholars, as it was original in and of itself without reliance on either Mark or Matthew.
The Mysterious Q
The German name, Quelle, obviously pricked historians' interest, because they believed that with Q they might have finally found a legitimate original source representing the Gospels as the biographical-historical Jesus. The only problem for the historians was that, as soon as they learned about this, the yearned-for earliest source for much of the Synoptic Gospels, they also found out that while Scripture scholars had extracted Q from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Q itself did not exist as a separate document in its original form. Whereas above we pointed out the close reliance of Matthew and Luke on Mark, Q was taken from the close parallels of verses in Matthew and Luke. Thus, to abbreviate the existence of the pre-source material underlying the Synoptics as direct-evidence sources, we have one strand identified as (1) Mk-Mt-Lk as a single united source, (2) Mt-Lk as another single united source, and (3) Q-Mt-Lk as the third single united source.
Q consists mainly of sayings of Jesus, but includes also material on John the Baptist and Jesus' forty-day fast and His temptation by Satan. Q was a single document, not merely a collection of oral traditions written in Greek as were the Synoptics. Its entire content was used either by Matthew or Luke or by both of them. The order of Q's contents in Luke is nearer to the original than that in Matthew. If, as scholars think, Q was all of an original piece, than it, and not Mark's Gospel written in 70 A.D., would qualify as being the first written Gospel. Unfortunately for historians, they have no way of holding Q in their hands as they do with other sources, including the source material of the four Gospels. These Gospel source materials constitute a collection of writings scattered here and there along with oral remembrances by early Christians, which likewise are not as original as Q. Hence scholars needed to search out other sources, which they have done by leaving Christians sources like the Gospels behind and turning instead to Roman-pagan sources, which we will now turn to.
Roman History as a Source
The first Roman historian relevant to the search for the historical Jesus was Suetonius (75-160 A.D.), who wrote a biography of the emperor Claudius, in which he writes about newcomers to Rome from the east, or Palestine. He says that these newcomers are religiously devoted to a man named Chrestos, which was the Greek spelling of the name Christus, or the Latin name by which Roman Christians referred to Christ. Suetonius also wrote that these newcomers were drawing many Jews into the new religion. Suetonius obviously is a meager source, but he is both a very early and credible one, telling us authentically that Christians were adding to the population of Rome and worshiped Christ.
Next comes a well-known Roman historian who rose to high rank in Rome's government, namely the consul, Tacitus (55-120 A.D.). Tacitus tells us of a fierce persecution directed against the chrestiani, or Christians, under the criminally insane Emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.) Tacitus writes that Christians were believers in a certain Chrestos, who was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (Emperor 14-37 A.D.) Tacitus obviously tells us more than Suetonius does about the early Christians.
Pliny the Younger (c.62-c.114), a successful lawyer and a consul in the east, wrote the Emperor Trajan (53-117 A.D.) seeking instructions on how to deal with a sect of Christian believers on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Pliny reported that these believers assemble on certain days before sunrise and sing hymns in honor of a man named Christ, as though he was a god.
The best written source for modern historians in learning about the historical Jesus is Flavius Josephus (c.37-c.100 A.D.). Josephus was a Jewish historian, who in 66 A.D. joined forces with the Maccabean family in waging war against Romans in Palestine who had desecrated the Jewish temple. In 94 A.D. he published his massive twenty-volume, Antiquities of the Jews, in which he refers to Jesus as follows:
“He as a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man, and accomplished incredible deeds and taught all men who receive the truth with joy. He drew to himself many Jews and many others who came from Hellenism. Although Pilate condemned him to death on the cross at the instigation of the leaders of our people, his early followers remained faithful. For he appeared to them on the third day restored to life, as the prophets sent by God had foretold this and a thousand wonders of him. The Christian sect, which is named after him, survives to this day.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3).
Summary of Historians' Efforts to Write a Life of the Jesus of History
The writing of the life of the historical Jesus has been the major problem of New Testament scholarship for more than a century. After numerous shifts of opinion, the consensus of scholars is that the life of the historical Jesus cannot be written. The reason is that the sources for an historical biography do not exist. Refinements on this statement diverge all the way from historical skepticism which asserts that the historical Jesus cannot be known, to the conservative position which believes that we lack only an exact chronological scheme.
More persuasive is the historical conclusion that the life of Jesus cannot be written because it has already been written in the Gospels. The purpose of the Gospel writers was not to write a biography of the historical Jesus, but to present His teaching on the Kingdom of God and the necessity for human beings to seek and enter that Kingdom. Jesus was “the way, the truth and the life” for showing what the historical Jesus as we know Him, if only from the Gospels, personified the Kingdom of God in His person. But the Gospel writers did not, and were unable, to present his historical biography.
The compelling personality of Jesus which emerges from the Gospels is one and vividly real, but little effort is made to delineate Him fully. We can believe that the atmosphere of mystery in which he appears reflects the atmosphere of his historic presence. Those who knew Him and related the anecdotes from which the Gospels were written knew that there were depths in Him which they never comprehended. The modern historian will do well to respect their reserve.