Welcome to this second essay from one of Ian Elmer's theology students at ACU National, Daniel Gullotta. We are publishing these essays Daniel has submitted from two principal points of view. Firstly they enable us to see how a young person tackles these big theollgical issues. Secondly, and this is one of our main aims in encouraging the submission of these commentaries from younger writers, is it provides some insight into the broader perspectives of young people. _Editor
Who is this strange man called Jesus? What did he do? What was he like? Why is he so important? All throughout the ages, people have had different things to say about this unique preacher from Nazareth. Some have confessed him as their lord and saviour, yet others might say a mystical prophet of great power, perhaps even a wise teacher and a deep thinker, some have gone so far as to call him God. Yet in modern times scholars, theologians and historians have sought to discover the historical authenticity of Jesus of Nazareth, seeking to discover and reconstruct his life, mission, ministry and execution. By searching for the historical Jesus, scholars have drawn a distinction between the Jesus as reconstructed through historical methods and the Christ of faith as presented by the Christian scriptures and theological tradition.
What this essay is about…
This essay will explore the person of Jesus as a historical person, the sources, both Christian and non-Christian, regarding Jesus as well as the problems scholars find with them and the scholarly methods and historical criteria applicable to the life of Jesus.
In most modern biblical scholarship, the five criteria for historicity is used in judging the historical truth or worth of individual pieces of information (sayings, stories, or events) found within Gospels. This criterion includes:
So, what do we know of Jesus in historical terms…
In historical terms and based on the criteria above, it is generally agreed that Jesus was a Jewish teacher from Galilee who was regarded by the public as a healer and was baptized by John the Baptist. He preached with startling parables and aphorisms and often turned common ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience. He preached of "Heaven's imperial rule" or "Kingdom of Heaven", which was already present but unseen, as well as depicting God as a loving father2. However at the end of his life, he was accused of sedition against the Roman Empire, and on the orders of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was sentenced to death by crucifixion3. Though most agree on these points, many differ in their reconstruction and portrayal of Jesus, such as describing him as a rebel, a revolutionary, a wisdom sage, a prophet, an apocalyptic prophet and saviour4.
The majority of scholars in the fields of history and biblical study base this life portrait on the earliest known documents relating to the life of Jesus, being three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the writings of the apostle Paul and even some parts of the Johannine Gospel. It is also noted by scholars that the authors relied on various sources, including their own memories, the testimony of eyewitnesses, and as even the traditional analysis asserted, the later authors did not write in ignorance of some texts that preceded them. Some scholars argue that the Gospel of Thomas should be credited as an early text, as well as the Q document and other New Testament apocrypha5.
Other sources used by scholars outside the Christian Scriptures include statements and writings by the Early Church Fathers, most significant of these sources are the early references of Papias and Quadratus. However of all the non-Christian writings preserved, very little is recorded about Jesus and the work of the early church; however there are references and passages recorded in the works of Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius6.
Not one single text can be reliably attributed to the hand of any of the original disciples of Jesus…
The main problem with the sources written by Christians and the Christian communities is that they have been influenced by the post-Easter faith of the early Church and are written some thirty and more years after the Christ event. As well as this, they are written in Greek for Greek-speaking second- and third-generation Christians, not for the Aramaic-speaking Jewish followers of Jesus and not one single text can be reliably attributed to the hand of any of the original disciples of Jesus. Also, each of the four gospels portrays a very different Jesus and very different interpretation of the Christ event. While these others sources have been proposed and theorized such as the Q document, none of these sources, if they do indeed exist, have been found7.
Scholars are convinced that earliest and best Christian sources reversed are the cannon and the apocryphal texts of the New Testament have been often stated to yield nothing into the historical life of Jesus. Non-canonical sources such as the Gnostic Gospels, have been argued to be composed chronologically too late in comparison to these canonical works and they are much inferior in historical contend. While the church may regard them as heretical at worst; scholars generally call them fantasist at best8.
The remarks made of Jesus in Testimonium Flavianum by the Jewish historian Josephus, has often called concerns about the authenticity of the passage and is widely held by scholars it is an interpolation by a later scribe. While very few scholars believe the whole testimonium is genuine, most scholars have found that there at least some authentic words of Josephus in the passage9.
In conclusion, while from our study we may be able to reconstruct certain aspects of the life and ministry of the historical Jesus it is important to understand that we cannot ever fully know or appreciate the Jesus of history. There is so much we do not know about him nor that we can ever know about him10. As well as this, it is important to understand that the Jesus of history can only take us so far. Without the Jesus of history, there is no Christ of faith, but without the Christ of faith there is no Jesus of history. In spite of the numerous ways the tradition of Jesus has been transmitted down throughout the ages, we have a clearly remarkable array of evidence about this strange man called Jesus of Nazareth. This man, whose life, teachings, death and resurrection continue to profound, amaze and inspire humanity everywhere, today, and just as it did two thousand years ago.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?