The Historical Jesus
The Gospels as Sources
"Bare bones" history tries to arrive at "what Jesus really did and said". It
attempts to sort out from the bulk of the gospel material those parts which have
a high probability of being "what really happened".
Much more of the material in the gospels besides the bare bones of "what
really happened" could be history in the sense that it may have
happened. But that material would not be given a high probability score by
non-Christian historians. The analytical discipline we call "history" is ideally
a unity. In theory most historians should be able to reach similar conclusions
about "what really happened". In practice, they seldom do. Why they quite often
fail to reach consensus is a complicated matter .
But what all historians would agree is that history as a discipline shares a
basic theory of knowledge with science. So, for example, if scientists were to
demonstrate beyond any doubt that no spacecraft could ever possibly escape the
earth's gravitational field, we might have to conclude that nobody has ever
visited the moon.
Historical consensus is less absolute. But if a large majority of historians
agreed, for example, that Jesus is a Christian fiction it would be extremely
hard to contest their assertion on historical grounds. This would in turn impact
every Christian severely, since even traditional believers agree that their
faith is based on a real, flesh-and-blood person who once actually lived on this
Bare bones history attempts to work out what really happened in the life of
Jesus. It turns out, as one instance, that the vast majority of historians
reject the accounts of Jesus walking on water. At the very best they identify it
as extremely unlikely to be an accurate account of "what really happened".
They do so because the only way to avoid the surface tension of water being
too weak to hold up the body of a man is to deny the entire structure of
physics, or to posit a miracle (in the sense that the nature of matter has been
temporarily changed from a source outside the universe). That is, if an event
which contradicts the essence of physics is to be shown to be one that really
happened, it would require absolutely cast-iron eye-witness evidence from a wide
range of incontestable sources. Nothing in the gospels supplies that degree of
good historical evidence.
The historicity of the gospels is complicated by a further problem. Their
authors did not aim to produce what we would today call history. The gospels are
theological works in which historical material in almost coincidental. To put it
another way, their authors were interested in putting across what they and early
Christians thought about the meaning of Jesus. "What really happened" was
almost certainly not important to them in the way that it is to us.
It's with this background that scholars have for hundreds of years dug deep
into the Gospels to try to find their sources. They have hoped in doing so to
strengthen the bare bones historicity of the man Jesus.
Mark's Gospel is widely thought, on the basis of internal evidence, to have
been the first gospel. A date of about 70 is generally agreed - though some
think it may have been 65 and others around 75. (Note that even these early
dates would have been some 30-40 years after Jesus 'death. All Paul's letters
would have predated this Gospel.) Many scholars now agree that Mark used both
written and oral sources. Many of his language structures show signs of having
been derived from verbal accounts which were passed on from person-to-person
before he wrote them down.
When the language and structure of Matthew and Luke are analysed down to the
last syllable, this conclusion is reinforced. They both contain material which
clearly comes from Mark.
There is also material which is common to Matthew and Luke, but which doesn't
appear in Mark. About 200 verses come from this source. Some scholars think that
there must have been a document behind this common material. A German scholar
called it quelle which is German for "source" - hence "Q" as a kind of
nowadays to refer to a hypothetical, possibly written, source. Though it is only
fair to say that many scholars think that there is not enough evidence for this
Some material in Matthew appears nowhere else. The same applies to Luke's
Gospel. Because we can't trace the source of these passages, we have no way of
testing their historicity. Scholars nevertheless think that, for example, the
parable of the "Good Samaritan" in Luke is probably close to "what Jesus really
said" on the grounds of it's consistency with what we know of Jesus from
The possibility of Q as a source has been strengthened by the recent
discovery of the Gospel of Thomas. It contains 47 parallels to Mark, 40 to Q, 17
to Matthew, four to Luke and 5 to John. These passages don't tell a story as do
the other gospels, but are strung together as sayings.
Some think that Thomas dates from between 50 and 60 - that is, about the same
time as Paul's later letters and before the earliest other gospel (Mark). It was
also, therefore, written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. It's similar
in form to "Q", but Thomas is clearly independent of Q. Other scholars date it
in the second century, in which case the gospels may be a source for Thomas, not
the other way around.
Thomas has been translated into English from a Coptic translation of the
original Greek. The manuscript was discovered only in 1945. It corresponds with
smaller fragments of the gospel, written on papyrus and discovered in Egypt in
the late 1800s.
The sources so far mentioned leave out John's Gospel. There appears to be
almost no "bare bones" history in this gospel. It is an original work of
theology, loosely strung around an account of Jesus life which has little
resemblance to the other three Gospels.
These sources are preserved in a variety of hand-written manuscripts.
Although they are often mere fragments and have been dated across many
centuries, scholars have been able to derive a reasonably accurate version of
the originals from them. At times, though, variations in text make some passages
dubious - even though they may have parallels in other sources.
So, for example, the saying about a "sign from heaven" at Matthew 16.2-3
(also in Mark 8.11-13, Luke 11.29-30 and again in Matthew 12.38-40) is unlikely
to be good "bare bones" history. This is because it has been left out of a large
number of important manuscripts of Matthew and included in fewer, less
well-attested ones. In addition, the verses seem to be uncomfortably close in
meaning to Luke 12.54-56. If the latter can be so different, which is the most
original? It seems impossible to tell for sure.
This is a good example of the possibility that some passages have been
doctored, not by the original authors, but by those who copied them out
laboriously by hand from other copies. This sort of doctoring isn't as heinous
an action as might be thought. The mentality of the scribes of some 1 500 years
or more ago was very different from ours. It wasn't until modern times that it
was commonly thought vital to preserve historical sources accurately in the same
form as an original.
Similarly, in accepting Matthew 16.25 (saving and losing life) as "what Jesus
probably actually said", the evidence has been weighed up carefully:
A very similar version appears at Matthew 10.39. The original Greek is
only slightly different. Of course, Matthew could have made it up twice. But
it's more likely that he wasn't too worried about the exact wording as long as
his main point was got across. He would not have been particularly concerned
about repeating the saying twice. Nor would he have been as concerned about
exact duplication of the wording as we might today. 
It's very close to Mark 8.35, which is probably earlier material.
Interestingly, Mark's verses are not strictly speaking good bare bones history
because the author appears to have inserted the words "for my sake" and "for
the sake of the good news" - both of which are highly likely to have been
derived from the concerns of the early church.
Luke 9.24 backs up Matthew's version once again. Luke seems to have
modified Mark's original, though he's kept the words "for my sake".
Luke 17.33 is thought by many to reflect the original words of Jesus
better than either Mark or Matthew. It has no Christian additions. The
paradoxical nature of the saying is highly typical of what we know from other
sources was Jesus' way of getting across his points. It is a typical Jesus
aphorism. Not that the author "Luke" would have been concerned about this sort
of thing. Such considerations are entirely modern. Which is why he could so
easily transpose the context of the saying into that of the "last days" or
what is now called "the second coming".
The saying also appears in John's Gospel (12.25) - one of the very few
slices of bare bones history in that document. The author has chosen his own
context and in doing so gives his own typical theological slant to the saying.
All-in-all these few words are well testified. Indeed, the only way of
supposing that they don't quite closely reflect "what Jesus really said" is to
also suppose that the gospels as a whole contain no history to speak of.
 See Van Austin Harvey, The Historian and the Believer
 An interesting example of this appears in the writings of Plutarch
(46-120 CE), a Greek historian and biographer. Writing about the day Alexander
the Great was born to Philip and Olympias, Plutarch gives two differing versions
of events which nevertheless convey the same message [in Alexander
3.8-9(4-5) and in Moralia II.105A-B: given in Ancient Quotes and
Anecdotes, V K Robbins, Sonoma, 1989].