Summary and Conclusions about the Historical Jesus (Part One)

(This is the thirteenth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site. Today’s post is the first of a two-part conclusion of the series.)

In the early first century BCE, a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth is said to have lived in Palestine. We find record of his existence not only in the 4 canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, but also in as many as 200 other “gospels” that were rejected as “heretical” by early church authorities. Additionally, there are references to Jesus’ existence and execution in sources outside the Bible including the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman historian, Tacitus.

All of this is quite remarkable, since Jesus was not a member of the ruling classes, but a common working man from a very remote village in a remote province of the Roman Empire. The ancients (and even our contemporaries) did not usually keep records of such people. Moreover, Jesus’ contemporaries were mostly illiterate and not able to leave documentary records themselves. In fact, far from being a member of the literate royal or priestly classes, the Jesus of the gospels is presented as alienated from such groups. He was excommunicated by the religious authorities of his community and finally condemned and executed by the civil and imperial powers of his day. Given Jesus’ social insignificance on the one hand and the abundance of record about him on the other, there can be little question about the actual existence of the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth.

However, the historical details of Jesus’ life are another matter. Strictly speaking, we have no historical records of Jesus’ life. What we have instead are “gospels” which are faith documents highly colored by the beliefs of their authors. In fact, the purpose behind the gospels is not primarily to convey biographical detail, but to present the figure of Jesus as seen in a light that was not apparent to most of the people who witnessed his life – the light of faith. Additionally, evidence shows that the authors of the gospels were not above inventing words and deeds they attribute to Jesus in order to make their point about his being the Son of God.

In chronological perspective, what we have in the gospels is a kind of layered “onion” based on an historical event (the life of Jesus) but subsequently enhanced by a “resurrection” experience, by an overwhelming infusion of a “Holy Spirit” (on Pentecost), by an initial proclamation (called “kerygma”), by a long oral tradition of nearly 50 years, and by the eventual writing down of that tradition adapted for communities in vastly different historical circumstances.

In addition those traditions were melded with   “pagan” elements provided by contact with the Greco-Roman world. (This is not even to mention other elements that were eventually syncretized with Christianity. These came, for example, from Germanic nature religions after the 5th century fall of the Roman Empire. They came as well from sources as distant as Egypt, India, and China as Christianity blended its own spiritualities with religious traditions from those geographical locations.)

After peeling that onion, the question remains, “Are the peels all we have left?” Is it impossible to know anything at all of the historical Jesus? The question is important for believers since what Jesus really said and did and not the later interpretative traditions determines the content of the actual revelation embodied and communicated in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus words and deeds are the final court of appeal when discrepancies or contradictions arise concerning the doctrinal or moral content of Christian faith.

For instance, did the God Jesus revealed favor the poor over the rich? Was the Kingdom of God Jesus preached more open to the values of socialism or of capitalism? Must followers of Jesus espouse non-violence or are the teachings of Jesus compatible with modern warfare or violence of any kind? Should taxes be paid to the state? Is divorce permitted or not? Did Jesus really claim to be God’s unique son? Is he the “only way” to the Father? And what about the virgin birth and infancy narratives; did the events allegedly behind them actually happen?

To answer such questions and in general to “get at” the historical Jesus, scholars have developed those “tools of discernment” described earlier in this series. The criteria include multiple attestation, embarrassment, discontinuity, rejection and execution, and coherence. “Multiple attestation” refers to traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds found in two or more of the canonical gospels and/or in several non-canonical sources. The criterion of “embarrassment” applies to elements the Jesus tradition includes even though such inclusion runs counter to the apparent intention of the author.(For instance, presenting Jesus as baptized by John gives the impression that Jesus was subordinate to the Baptist.) “Discontinuity” refers to words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived from either the teachings of Judaism or from the early church. [An example of discontinuity would be Jesus’ rejection of voluntary fasting for his disciples (Mk. 2: 18-22).] The standard of “rejection and execution” is based on the historical fact of Jesus’ crucifixion (established by the criteria of embarrassment and multiple attestation).  It authenticates words and acts of Jesus that alienated, infuriated and outraged the religious and political authorities of his day – that led to his execution. (A Jesus who does not alienate people, especially the powerful, cannot be the historical Jesus.) The standard of “coherence” applies to gospel inclusions that agree with the previously described criteria.

(Series Conclusion on Wednesday)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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