Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Detective Work in the Gospels

Looking for evidence
If I were in the dock charged with falsely claiming that Jesus said and did certain things, I would have no eyewitnesses to call in my defence. Nor could I produce verbal or written accounts of anyone who had seen and heard Jesus while he was alive. My case would rest on circumstantial evidence.

Juries are (or should be) concerned with "what really happened". To convict a person on the basis of opinion would be grossly unfair. It is  sometimes difficult to differentiate between fact and opinion. Just because someone says something is true, doesn't mean it is. 

So if I were to say, "Men drive motor cars better than women" I will be quickly pounced upon and told to stop being bigoted. If I were to say, "People with university or college degrees earn more than those without" most people would query my information, but some would simply agree with me. But if I were to state that "Children must receive a good education at school", very few would think to query the truth of what I was saying - despite ample evidence that children perform far better when tutored at home.

Jurists are rather like historians in this respect. They have to "torture" their sources to make sure that their conclusions are based on fact. No source can be accepted at face value. 

We depend, for example, upon the Hebrew-Roman historian Josephus for much of our knowledge about the historical background around the time of Jesus. Just because he writes that "many thousands of Jews" did this or that doesn't mean that this is "what really happened". We must ask, "Is there any other evidence for this? If not, does it seem reasonable on the grounds of other knowledge that this actually happened?" Once we spot that Josephus often exaggerates numbers and gets names and dates wrong, we approach what he writes with added caution.

The Christian way of life is not based upon anyone's opinion, be they pope or archbishop. It is based upon a real person, who actually lived and really did and said certain things as a matter of good history. "Good history" isn't necessarily the conclusions of New Testament scholars, because they have a vested interest in not destroying the gospels as good history. Conscientious juries will watch out for this sort of bias. If a witness might lose money or position by telling the truth (as many Christian scholars would), his or her evidence should be tortured all the more. 

We do have to rely on witnesses - but their evidence about Jesus has to be tested to the extreme, since so much rests upon it. This applies especially to the gospels, if only because they have for so long been touted as "inspired" by God, and therefore to a greater or lesser degree beyond either correction or criticism.

Can I find good enough evidence for the jurors to conclude "beyond reasonable doubt" that my claims about Jesus of Nazareth are true? Since my well-being depends upon a fair judgement, I can only hope that the jury will accept my criteria for good evidence. I want them to agree that my detective work has been tough-minded, that I have not accepted rumour as evidence, and that I have done everything possible to exclude bias.

"Bare bones" history is concerned with evidence that stands up in the face of intense scrutiny by an unbiased jury. There is, of course, no sharp line between what is highly probable history and what isn't. The jury has to use its common sense in some grey areas.

Bare bones history is what I think the jury will accept in my defence. That is, although circumstantial, it can be shown to most probably be what really happened - or so close to it that any residual uncertainty is of little or no account. 

Unfortunately, I have an immediate problem. For many years the bulk of the material in the gospels has been widely thought to be "what really happened". I can bring evidence to demonstrate only that some 20 percent of the material in the gospels is in that category. This is not to say that the 80 percent about which my evidence is weak isn't historically true. Rather, that it must perforce be qualified by words like "possibly", "could have", "maybe" or "probably not" and the like. The latter sort of evidence isn't strong enough to rest my case on.

Positive evidence
The evidence I have for what Jesus really said and did has passed through at least two stages. First, it has come via word-of-mouth from those who met him or who heard about him second- or even third-hand. 

Second, it has been written down and, though generally faithfully copied over many centuries, has been subject to some interpolations by scribes. A person who is convinced that he or she knows the absolute "truth" through the Church's teachings may not care much for the accuracy of the evidence. The jury must also keep in mind that the discipline we today call "history" was not invented until no more than about 300 years ago. Before that, though people tried to work out "what really happened" they thought that past and present authorities had access to the final truth through revelation.

So the jury has to be alert for any evidence of transcription errors or of changes made by editors with their own theological agenda. As I sit in the dock, I'm aware that the nature of the manuscripts by which the evidence has come down to us over 2 000 years makes it difficult to be certain of the facts. Nevertheless, I have on my side thousands of scholars who have given their lives to sorting out the good texts from the bad. No documents in human history have been given so thorough a going-over as the gospels.

One of the most problematic areas (given that textual errors, omissions and falsifications have mostly been spotted) is the motivation of the gospel authors themselves. I have admitted to the court that these authors are not the "evangelists" most Christians thought they were. The names "Mark", "Matthew", "Luke" and "John" were attached early on in the Church's history without good evidence. In fact, nobody knows who wrote the gospels. I've also admitted that, while we can be reasonably sure about the decade in which each was first written down, we don't know the exact year. The jury should also note that the letters of Paul of Tarsus are earlier than the gospels - in some cases by about twenty years. On the other hand, Paul did not meet Jesus, though he spoke to those who did, including James, the brother of Jesus.

But perhaps the most pressing problem if I'm to convince the jury that I can make a case for my claims about what Jesus really said and did, is the motivation of the Gospel authors. It seems clear that the authors were not particularly interested in writing down history "as it really happened". A strong concern of theirs - if not the main concern - was to explain the meaning of Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) of the Jewish religion. They were more concerned with theology than with history. Some think that they wrote for the Christian communities of which they were part. In other words, the Gospels are primarily theological tracts in which some history has been incidentally included. 

My case to know "what really happened" looks fragile, given this background. I am forced to rest my case initially on positive criteria for good evidence (following the Roman Catholic biblical scholar, John P Meier [1]):

  • As verbal and then written material was written and passed around, some people (beginning with his immediate followers themselves) found some things Jesus said and did difficult to handle. It is more than reasonable to think that such things are likely to have been changed or edited out - given that people of those times didn't regard historical accuracy as important in the way we do. So when material critical of the followers of Jesus survives into the Gospels, we can be reasonably sure that it reflects "what really happened".

  • When we find material which has no parallel in our knowledge of Judaism of the time and about early Christians, we can reasonably assume that it is authentic. That is, it was probably not derived by the Gospel authors from their contemporary sources but came from some sort of personal knowledge.

  • When sayings or deeds are attested by multiple sources without substantial disagreement, they are likely to be good history - at least as good as the facts about any other person of the times. To dismiss such evidence would be to dismiss much evidence normally regarded by the vast majority of historians as "what really happened".

  • If material gathered from several sources is consistent, it is reasonable to think that it is good history. So, for example, if Josephus had described Jesus as a Roman, while Paul thought he was a Jew and Luke called him a Gentile, we would have to discount that data.

  • Jesus met a violent death. It was a death normally meted out to those the Roman authorities regarded as a threat to social stability and good order. As Meier writes: "A Jesus whose words and deeds would not alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus."

  • If, when analysing the Greek text of the Gospels, we detect traces of Aramaic (the language which Jesus and those around him spoke) we have a good indication that we are tapping the earliest strata of our source material. Though this doesn't mean that we can trace all such material, since the Aramaic may sometimes have been so skillfully translated into Greek that it is no longer detectable.

  • If other evidence for a passage is strong and the style is exceptionally vivid, then we can rest more heavily on that evidence. But we have to allow for the possibility that the Gospel author could at such a point have been responsible for the vividness.

Negative evidence
I will be on stronger grounds if I can show not only that I have found positive evidence for my bare bones history, but also that what I have retained does not exhibit certain characteristics:

  • If what I have retained as "what really happened" contains concerns of early Christians and therefore the Gospel authors, it should be suspect. Matthew 18.15-20 is an example. Here it is possible, if not highly likely (given how the Gospel authors approached their task) that Matthew is "using" the authority of Jesus to teach about how his followers should treat each other.

  • If it can be shown that material in any of the Gospels has been added by later scribes, it must be excluded. So Mark 16.9-20 has been dropped because the variations in old manuscripts don't support its authenticity. Most scholars agree that it was added later - either from another source of some kind, or by someone who thought he or she knew better than the original author.

  • When we come across material in which the Gospel authors (using Jesus as their mouthpiece) encourage their contemporaries in various ways, it's best to exclude that material from bare bones history. For example, in times when Christians felt embattled and persecuted, a passage like Matthew 16.27-28 would have been a powerful consolation. It is highly likely that this passage was formulated after Jesus died.

  • Similarly, passages which attack Jewish parties like the Scribes and Pharisees are best excised. There is some evidence that Jesus upset them over matters like fasting and ritual contamination. But the sometimes virulent way in which the Gospel authors attack their fellow Jews (remember, what we today call the early Christians thought of themselves as Jews, followers of "The Way") is appropriate to the latter part of the first century and not to Jesus as the facts reveal him. We have good evidence from the Acts of the Apostles and elsewhere that early Jewish-Christians were at loggerheads with their religious leaders, especially at the local level.

  • If we come across a reference to social, economic or religious conditions which we know existed only outside Palestine up to (say) 36, we know for sure that it is not the authentic Jesus. Because we don't know everything about Palestine at that time, this conclusion does not apply so strongly to data from that area. I will tell the jury that this is one of the most important areas of research at present.

The historical Jesus who rests on these and similar criteria may not be the more full-blown Jesus of tradition. But he is one about whom we can be reasonably certain in the sense that there is a high probability that he actually did and said these things. I for one am more comfortable with this person than with the wonder-worker and spirit-man from the grave.

Understandably, though, I will be nervous as the jury retires to consider their verdict. But I'm not deeply concerned. The jury is likely to be out for some centuries to come.

[1] A Marginal Jew, Vols I, II & III

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