NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part I
INTRO | PART I | PART II | PART III | PART IV | PART V | PART VI | PART VII
"I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I
must confess as an historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth
is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus is easily the most dominant
figure in all history." …H.G.
The Mark on History
Everyone makes their mark on history. Everyone who has ever come into
this world leaves some trail behind them — relationships, records,
birth certificates, marriage licenses, family trees, memories, personal
belongings, so on and so forth. With an array of information, one can
paint a portrait of someone. The more information we have the more accurate
the picture is likely to be of the real person we are endeavouring to
study, or remember. My quest is to ask what kind of evidence exists to
give us an understanding of the historical Jesus?
In this part of the series, I will examine the evidence that is available
to scholars, and all of us…
What can we know about Jesus? One
of the harder tasks of the scholar is to sort through the sources we have
on Jesus and to see what can be authentically asserted back to him. Many
of my Christian friends have asked me "what more do we need to know
about Jesus"? This is because they are coming out of the view that
all we need to know about Jesus can be found in the writings of Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John.
Others have claimed that they can't trust the New Testament accounts
in the light of there being other reports to the life of Jesus. Some have
even gone so far to say we can know really nothing about the life of Jesus.
The first question we might ask then is how historically creditable are
Rules of Thumb…
In order to make answering this question easier, from my own studies
and reading I have brought together a few rules of thumb that might assist:
- Eyewitness testimony is better
than hearsay: As I will explain in greater detail below,
this rule makes the gospels interesting to work with. While one might
presume that the authors used the testimony of eyewitnesses, it is clear
that the evangelists themselves were not eyewitnesses (Luke admits
this fact in 1:2). The question that follows this one is how did the
evangelists get their information?
- Early sources are more credible
than late ones: Unlike most liberal scholars, I believe the
written accounts of Jesus from the first century are much more
important then those from the second century such as the Gospels
of Judas, Mary,
and Thomas etc. It is clear
that these sources contain nothing of historical value and if they do
it is only because they sourced it from earlier works. They are chronologically
too late to be useful. So, in trusting in the earliest sources, I will
be focusing primarily on the Pauline literature and the Synoptic
Gospels and to a lesser extent the Gospel
of John and the other New Testament texts.
- If the detail/information is embarrassing,
it's more likely to be true: One should take special note
of details and information within an account which is embarrassing for
the writer or reporter. After all, if somebody admits to something embarrassing,
it's more believable. This person had every reason not to tell it, but
still did. In the case of Jesus,
there are "awkward" details reported such as Jesus'
relationship with John the Baptist prior to his ministry, the
betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the abandonment of the
Twelve and ultimately the crucifixion.
- The Jesus presented has to be
both credible and crucifiable: Any understanding of Jesus
extracted from the sources must be presented in a way that "fits"
him into the Greco-Roman context as a first century Palestinian Jew.
Jesus cannot be so radical and
different that the content of his message doesn't make sense in his
context. Having said this, the Jesus
presented must be able to be killed. What I a mean by this is that Jesus
must end up on the cross on historical grounds for reasons that would
get him killed.
- The more independent witnesses
that report it, the better: If something continually appears
in different sources it should be taken note of, whether it is a title,
an event, a teaching or a problem. The more it appears across the different
sources, the better grounds it has for historical reliability.
- Focus on what we have, not what
we don't have: A lot of scholars, both liberal and otherwise,
use various 'sources' outside the New Testament. These sources however
are just merely theory and theoretical reconstruction, such as the Q
source, Luke source
or Matthew source. Granted
some of these theories are better than others, until these theories
can be proven more effectively we need to be cautious in using them
as primary or secondary sources.
The Gospel Truth?
One must keep in mind; the gospels are not reports of eyewitnesses. Most
historians date the death of Jesus
in the early 30's CE but the Gospel of Mark,
the first gospel to be written, wasn't written before 50 CE and the latest
being the Gospel of John written
about 90 CE. Even through titled the Gospels
of Mark and John,
they, and the other Gospels only had the authorship names attributed to
them in the second century. We do not know any of the authors of the gospels,
where they came from, how they lived and how they came to learn of Jesus'
So are the gospels works of fiction or history, fact or faith?
The gospels themselves are not biographies as we understand them today.
They are hardly a blow-by-blow account of what happened, complete with
dates and times but rather the gospels, like all history, are products
of an interpreted history. While the gospels do contain events that were
maybe rooted in history, each of the four authors makes his interpretation
on the event and crafts his own theology into the narrative. After all,
the author's of the gospels are called the evangelists and the purpose
of a gospel is not to purely recount history but rather to evangelize
It is important to note that the synoptic authors wrote for different
audiences and structured their gospels in a way to highlight different
theological themes or address particular situations and problems within
the early church. Unlike most New Testament critics, I find it inconceivable
to see the gospels as simply a collection of fragmented traditions strung
together, nor full of material created out of thin air to create some
'home-made recipe' of Christology and theology. One must understand the
nature and purpose of the gospel, which is to firstly tell the story of
Jesus of Nazareth and secondly address
the evangelist's contemporaries. Rudolf Bultmann
and his followers have argued for years that the traditions surrounding
Jesus were 'informal' and 'uncontrolled',
thus allowing the early Christian communities the freedom to change and
develop them. I disagree with this notion and side with N.T.
Wright, James Dunn and
Richard Bauckham in using Kenneth
Bailey's theory of "informal but controlled oral tradition".
'Informal Controlled Oral Tradition"
Bailey argues that by the phrase
found in Luke (1:2),
"eye-witnesses and minister of the word"
refers to accredited witnesses to vital traditions about Jesus.
In a synagogue, an official was placed in charge of the scrolls and it
appears that early Christianity adapted a similar style, having certain
people able to detail the story and tradition of Jesus.
This is clear in Paul's writing to the Corinthians as he recounts
how the tradition was passed onto him before he passes it onto them. Paul
makes it clear that he is not an eyewitness himself, but rather a part
of an extended network in which the stories and traditions would be told
and retold, under conditions of informal but quite distinct control. As
Ian Elmer explained to me (quoting
a theologian whose name escapes him and whose name I can source), Paul
on this first journey to meet with the Jerusalem Apostles spent fifteen
days talking to Peter. I agree with Ian when he claims they weren't
discussing the weather. Peter and perhaps the other Apostles, as
eye witnesses were sharing the story of Jesus
with Paul. Yet it is clear that story of Jesus
has not stood still in time as mere biographies, but rather theological
biographies. The early church, including Peter, James, John,
the rest of the Twelve, and the first Christian communities surrounding
the evangelists are constructing a more theological understanding of the
Jesus story. In short, Bailey argues
that the evangelists, while permitted to shape
stories of Jesus to address the needs of the early church, could not alter
them in their essentials.
To my mind the gospels come across as accurate sources about Jesus'
life and do originate with him. I also believe that the theology reflected
in the gospels has its roots in the teaching and actions of Jesus.
Having said this I would like to breakdown certain factors of the gospel
narratives that strike me as particularly interesting and worth taking
note of, as they relate to the other questions I wish to answer in this
- How does Jesus fit
- What were Jesus' aims?
- Why did Jesus die?
- How and why did the Early Church begin?
I have broken these factors into different categories, each one relating
to the detail for which I find them interesting and worth studying. The
first category contains the factors which relate to the "Words
of Jesus", this category focuses on Jesus'
teaching, ministry and message. The second is the "Deeds
of Jesus"; these factors observe the actions taken by
Jesus. The names, titles and identities associated
with Jesus shall be put in a third, "Titles
of Jesus". The fourth, "Details
of Jesus", is perhaps the most interesting and note worthy
as it focuses on the embarrassing, strange and unique information within
Words of Jesus
Deeds of Jesus
Titles of Jesus
Details of Jesus
The Kingdom of God
The Lord's Prayer
Oracles of Judgment
Call to Repentance
The Forgiveness of Sins
The Law of Moses
The New Covenant
The Calling of Twelve
Association with 'sinners'
The Temple Act
The Last Supper
Jesus of Nazareth
Son of David
Son of Man
Son of God
"A glutton and a drunk"
"King of the Jews
Baptism by John the Baptist
Breaking the Law
Betrayal of Judas
The crime of blasphemy
Denial of Peter
Abandonment of the Twelve
Roman execution by crucifixion
As well as these factors, William R. Herzog
II from studying out of the work of E.P.
Sanders on the Historical Jesus
has developed a list of what he calls "indisputable facts".
Herzog claims this list to contain factual information that
the majority of neither liberal nor conservative dispute:
- Jesus was born about
4BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great.
- He was raised in a Galilean village called Nazareth.
- Jesus was baptized
by John the Baptist.
- He called disciples and spoke of there being Twelve.
- Jesus was a Galilean
who preached and healed.
- He preached the Kingdom of God.
- He taught in towns, villages, and countryside of Galilee, but not
- Jesus confided his
ministry to Israel.
- About 30CE he went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.
- He created a disturbance in the Temple area and/or engaged in controversy
about the Temple.
- He shared a final meal with his disciples.
- He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically
the High Priest.
- He was executed on the orders of the Roman Prefect, Pontius
Pilate, and crucified outside Jerusalem.
- Now with these factors and facts in hand, before we can move onto
the 'why', we first must ask the 'what'.
The Fine Detail…
What was Jesus really talking about?
What are the parables and why did they matter to Jesus'
mission? What is the Kingdom of Heaven? How did Jesus
feel about the Law of Moses, was he a Law-breaking or a Law-observant
Jew? Why is the call of the Twelve so important? Are the miracles merely
works of magic? What's the big deal about Jesus
socializing with women, lepers, tax collectors, zealots and other so called
'sinners'? Is Jesus a prophet? The
messiah? The Son of Man? The Son of God? God? Why were his actions in
the temple so conversational? Did Jesus
know he was going to be betrayed? Did he know the Twelve were going to
abandon him? Did he know he would die? Did he know he would be resurrected?
With these questions at hand we must now move to Jesus'
If we are to make sense of the message, teaching, actions and of details,
we must see them in the context in which Jesus
and his followers would have seen them in.
Part II - "The Call Empire: The Greco-Roman world of Palestine"
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part I
INTRO | PART I | PART II | PART III | PART IV | PART V | PART VI | PART VII
Kenneth E. Bailey, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic
Gospels. Originally published in Themelios, 1995. www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_tradition_bailey.html
James Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christology in the Making; v1. London:
William R. Herzog II, Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical
Jesus. Louisville Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus; v1.
New York: Doubleday, 1991.
E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin,
N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God. London: SPCK, 2003.
- Early Traditions and the Origins of Christianity. Originally
published in Sewanee Theological Review, 1998. www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Early_Traditions.htm
Daniel Gullotta is a student at ACU National, studying a Bachelor's degree in Theology. He is a convert to the Anglican Church and a member of MEC's Youth Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
[Index of Commentaries by Daniel Gullotta]