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)

search engine by freefind

hit counter

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 [1].

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 planet.

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 shorthand used
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 conclusion.

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 elsewhere.

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. [2]

  • 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.
[1] See Van Austin Harvey, The Historian and the Believer
[2] 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].

[Home] [Back]