|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
 A Marginal Jew, Vols I, II & III