I’ve been on a journey to rediscover the true Jesus. I wanted a fresh encounter with Jesus unencumbered by 2000 years of theological engineering and religious propaganda.
Resources for my journey included1: two 12-hour lecture series by agnostic Bart Ehrman: From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity and Historical Jesus; the four canonical gospels, which I read while doing my best to filter out all my indoctrination and pay attention to the actual words and deeds of Jesus; The Challenge of Jesus by Anglican scholar N.T. Wright; and The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide by Protestant theologians Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz.
My journey enflamed the mystery of Jesus and Christianity, which must always be the result of eschewing indoctrination for an authentic investigation that respects multiple viewpoints. Now, let me share a few highlights of my frustrating journey.
Jesus vs. Paul
Jesus preached repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom of God. But Paul (and subsequent Christianity) preached something very different: the death and resurrection of Jesus as the salvation of mankind. Jesus was entirely Jewish: he quoted Jewish Scriptures, observed Jewish law and custom, trained and taught as a Jewish rabbi, and said that “…until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter… will disappear from the Law.” But Paul preached that Gentiles should, in fact, not follow many Jewish laws. And Christianity has historically placed as much or more emphasis on the teachings of Paul than on the teachings of Jesus. My dad put it this way: We’ve been reading Jesus through the tone and structures of Paul. Perhaps we should be reading Paul through the words and deeds of Jesus instead.
The gospels are not necessarily problematic for people using them to support views about God or the best way to live; and indeed, most Christians are principally concerned with using the gospels to inform their theology and ethics, not to build viable arguments about the historical Jesus. But the gospels are immediately problematic for someone seeking to discover who Jesus actually was and what Jesus actually did.
Of course, the gospels were not written as historical records, but as proclamations about Jesus. And they were written by ancient monotheists, who were often more concerned with symbolism, tradition, and meaning than with rational, historical accuracy as we are today. So it is not surprising that the gospels are often contradictory or spurious.
Make a list of the events of each gospel, compare them, and you will find many general similarities. You will also find agreement between them and other independent sources, for example the writings of Paul. But you will also find many differences.
Many of these differences can be reconciled by recognizing that no gospel is a complete record of Jesus’ life. For example, Mark wrote2 that Jesus, Pilot, the Jewish leaders, and the crowd were in one place during Jesus’ very short trial, during which Jesus spoke only a few words. In John’s account, the Jewish leaders refused to enter Pilot’s headquarters because they didn’t want to be defiled just before Passover. So, Pilot walked in and out of his headquarters throughout the trial to speak with the Jewish leaders and then Jesus, who gave two long speeches. Christians reconcile these accounts by saying that Mark’s gospel is merely incomplete, and doesn’t bother to record Pilot’s many trips back and forth or Jesus’ long speeches. This may not be correct, but it is one way to argue that both accounts can be true even though they seem very different.
Another way to reconcile differences between gospel accounts is to claim that an event actually happened twice. Mark wrote that Jesus threw money changers out of the temple in the last week of his life, and John wrote that Jesus did this at the beginning of his ministry. To reconcile these different accounts, one may claim that Jesus threw money changers out of the temple at least twice, and that Mark recorded one such instance, and John recorded an earlier instance.
But many gospel differences are impossible to reconcile. For example, Mark wrote that Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover, and John wrote that Jesus was crucified the day before. We cannot say that Jesus was crucified twice. Scholars speculate that John placed Jesus’ crucifixion on the day before Passover because that fits with his image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. John is the only gospel author to repeatedly call Jesus the Lamb of God, and he reinforced this image by placing Jesus’ death on the day before Passover: the “day of preparation” during which Jewish priests slaughtered lambs for the upcoming Passover meal. In this way, John showed that Jewish leaders slaughtered Jesus on the same day they slaughtered lambs for Passover, and for the same symbolic purpose (atonement).
This manipulation of truth for symbolic, ritual, or numerological meaning was common among monotheistic authors. One example is Matthew’s genealogy. After opening his book with several “begats”, Matthew remarked that there were 14 generations between each of four critical events in Jewish history (Abraham, David, Babylonian exile, and Jesus). This fits with the systematic, numerical, and Hebraic emphasis throughout this gospel. But the author has manipulated the truth to support his bias. First, Matthew named only 13 generations from the Babylonian exile to Jesus. Second, though he named 14 generations from Abraham to David, there were actually 17 (see the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles). That Jewish authors often manipulated truth to achieve a religious or symbolic effect makes them less insidious but their writings no less historically suspect.
Also, many gospel accounts do not agree with other historical sources. For example, Luke wrote that Joseph traveled to the hometown (Bethlehem) of his ancestor from 1000 years ago (King David) for a census during the reign of King Herod, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But other historical sources claim that Quirinius was not governor until 10 years after Herod’s death. (Nevermind the absurdity of Emperor Augustus demanding a census of the whole Roman Empire requiring mass migrations of all people to the hometown of their 1000-year ancestors, an epic and unprecedented event that is not recorded in any other historical source.)
As we can see, a close look at the gospels reveals several irreconcilable differences between accounts, an authorial tradition of writing for religious effect at the cost of historical accuracy, and many historically implausible events. The examples given above are just a few of many concrete instances of these three types of problems with the gospels. All this makes an investigation of the historical Jesus through even the canonical gospels – our best sources on the life of Jesus – very difficult and insecure.
The Historical Jesus
Historical investigations use three basic criteria to determine the probability of recorded events. First, independent attestation. If an event is recorded in multiple independent sources, it is more likely to have occurred. For example, every source (Christian, Jewish, pagan) records that Jesus was crucified. Second, dissimilarity. If a recorded event does not support the bias of the author, it is more likely to have occurred (because the author wouldn’t invent stories that don’t support his bias). For example, Jesus being from Nazareth does not support the bias of any Christian or Jewish authors, because prophecies place the Messiah in Bethlehem, and Nazareth was small and insignificant (hardly a birthplace for the Messiah). Third, contextual credibility. If a recorded event does not agree with other historical sources, it is less likely to have occurred. Examples include the gospel discrepancies and the notes on Quirinius, Herod, and the Augustus census above.
Applying these three criteria, and understanding that earliest sources are most valuable – less likely to have suffered telephone game effects (or deliberate corruption) during oral tradition before they were finally written – we might find that the following summary is the most likely story of the historical Jesus3.
Jesus was raised a Jew in Nazareth by Joseph, a low-class laborer, and Mary. He had siblings, spoke Aramaic, and read Hebrew scriptures. He began adult ministry with his baptism by John the Baptist. He took 12 disciples, preached radical ethics, and called for repentence in preparation for a coming kingdom of God. He publicly associated with women, sinners and outcasts. In rural Galilee, he became known as a teacher, healer, miracle-worker, and exorciser. He travelled to Jerusalem, ate a meal with his disciples, was betrayed to Jewish leaders by Judas Iscariot, was tried before Pontious Pilot, and was crucified. Those who believed he was resurrected spread the story of Jesus rapidly about the Mediterranean.
This looks fine until you notice the events that have been specifically excluded because of their failure to pass historical criteria: virgin birth, Bethlehem, a shining star, wise men, teen teaching at the temple, Jesus’ divinity, dozens of miracles, parables, the resurrection, etc.
Miracles like virgin birth and walking on water present a particular problem for historians. Historians seek most probable events. Because miracles are, by definition, highly improbable, a miracle can never, for a historian, be the most probable truth about a particular event4. This can be seen as a special case of historical criterion #3: Jesus walking on water does not conform at all to the known history of Jesus’ context (people could not walk on water). In this way, historical investigation is ipso facto incapable of determining the veracity of miracles, just as scientific means are ipso facto incapable of investigating the supernatural. Unfortunately, this has not stopped some historians from pretending they have something to say about miracles, or some scientists from pretending they have something to say about the supernatural.
What is my response? Naturally, we need not throw out all Scripture because it contains errors. We don’t do this with anything else, anyway (if we did, we’d have no viable school textbooks at all). But all this (along with innumerable errors throughout the whole Bible) seems to indicate that the Bible is not the direct word of omniscient God, but of course the work of biased, fallible humans. There is much wisdom and truth in the Bible, but it is dangerous to assume the Bible is historically accurate, and it is dangerous to exegete doctrine from a single passage, especially if that passage does not agree with other accounts. And so, there is much about Jesus’ life and teaching that is in doubt.
Still, a coherant image of Jesus emerges from Scripture. He becons us to join in the current and coming Kingdom of God through sacrificial love for all, a divorce from materialism, faith in God, and continual servanthood. And he points us to communion with God, through which we will come to know God and experience him in obedience.
1 See this page for a nice list of other good sources, and a (very biased) summary of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Bart Ehrman’s lectures were very informative but employed inconsistent logic. My reading of the gospels only reinforced the many discrepancies among them. The Challenge of Jesus had some value, but it explored the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds in their original context given that the gospels are consistent and accurate, which of course they are not. My favorite source was The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, a convenient summary of all major historical research and opinions on the historical Jesus.
2 Actually, the canonical gospels are anonymous, but I say that “Mark wrote that…” instead of “the gospel traditionally attributed to Mark recorded that…” for brevity’s sake.
3 A full investigation of the historicity of every recorded event about Jesus fills many scholarly volumes, and is the subject of large research teams and vast databases.
4 This is true despite the fact that millions of people experience and witness miracles every year. That makes it sound like miracles are common, but they are incredibly uncommon compared to events that agree with natural processes. For every disease suddenly healed, there are a million more diseases that go through their natural progression. This is why we can say that the chance of any particular miracle happening is infintessimally small, and therefore historians cannot name any miracle as a “most probable” true event in history.