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

Until quite recently it was supposed by a large majority that the gospels contained eyewitness testimony of those who had met and accompanied Jesus of Nazareth. These people had, it was thought, heard him address crowds, eaten meals with him, and perhaps even seen him tried and crucified. Some must have known him as a boy or young lad. Others had perhaps been around at his birth.

It wasn't until later that evidence demonstrated conclusively that the earliest gospel (Mark) wasn't written down until (at the very earliest) about 65 and probably not until just after 70CE - that is, at least 30 years after Jesus died. Why, we might ask, was nothing written down before then? There may have been. Most scholars of the New Testament think that a written source, now lost, was used by the authors of both Matthew's Gospel and Luke's Gospel (known as "Q"). But there is no way of dating that source.

In searching for the Jesus of history one attempts to get at "what really happened" in his life. So it seems that the gospel authors had to rely on the memory of others for "what really happened." This means either

[1] that their source material was first-hand, gathered from eyewitnesses who were there, or

[2] that eyewitness material had been passed on from person to person over some decades.

The first option is possible. If one assumes that Jesus' ministry ran from 27 to 30 and that an eyewitness was then 20 years old, he or she would have been about  55 years old in 65. The latest possible date for Jesus' death is 35 - so an eyewitness for Mark's Gospel might have around 50 years old at the time of the crucifixion. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew were written much later - probably 15 or 20 years later. The chances of them having been able to talk to an eyewitness are very much lower, probably near zero.

The problem with this conclusion is that although material in the gospels is often quite vivid, it contains few characteristics of  eyewitness accounts. Just the opposite, in fact. Almost all serious scholars agree that the material shows every sign of having been edited, sometimes extensively. Some material is without doubt the work of the gospel editors.

So the second option is more likely. Eyewitness accounts of "what really happened" were passed from person to person. We have no way of knowing how many steps in the process there might have been in the oral process before anything was written down.

The issue of possible loss of accuracy in such a transmission process is of considerably greater concern today than it once was. This is because the capacity of people to remember accurately has been rigorously tested in laboratory experiments for decades now. The conclusion is clear. The vast majority of us have faulty memories. Sometimes our memories are so distorted that they bear little resemblance to "what really happened" .

  • When we're under stress we tend to jumble the sequence of events, perceive important details incorrectly, and fail to notice critical aspects of an event.
  • If something happens quickly and our attention is then distracted, the memory will fade equally fast.
  • If an event doesn't affect us emotionally, it's memory will disappear quickly.
  • If an event isn't directly relevant to our personal situation, it will not easily be recalled, if at all.
  • If we have a clear memory of something, and then many things happen between the event and trying to recall it, we'll find it difficult or impossible to reproduce an accurate account [1].

Occasional individuals seem to have a "photographic memory". They can, for example, read a page of a book and then reproduce it exactly. Others can hear a speech and then recall it more or less word for word. But such talent is rare. Most of us don't remember well or particularly accurately. Sometimes our memories are seriously distorted.

Many critics of the Bible I have read on this matter downplay the issue of accurate memory. But it's a serious concern for anyone who seeks to know the Jesus of history. In the 21st century we have many types of mechanical means with which to record events and convey information. In Jesus' time, there were very few documents. Most records were carried from decade to decade by word of mouth. Almost none were ever written down.

Marathon memory
Another possibility remains. Memory can be trained. With considerable effort and using well-known techniques, it's possible to improve an otherwise ordinary capacity to remember. Rather like a marathon runner who trains over the distance repeatedly until it becomes easier, many (but not all) of us can with discipline and constant practice learn to memorise and recall large amounts of data.

This seems to have been the norm in the first century. I have been told that Jesus was an illiterate peasant. There is no evidence of this. Indeed, the evidence is if anything to the contrary. DF Watson writes that it "... it was the father's responsibility to teach the Torah to his sons" so primary schools took longer to establish than secondary schools. There were secondary Hebrew schools two centuries before the time of Jesus, probably in response to the influence of Rome and Hellenism. "Boys learned the alphabet by writing the letters on a small wax tablet with a stylus ... Reading was a matter of memorization ... Memorization of large portions of the texts read was the desired result" writes Watson [2]. Jesus may well have been educated - at least to the standard of an ordinary lad of his time and place.

My conclusion is that those who gathered material for their gospels may have had as sources others whose memories had been at least partially trained. This may not, however, have been the advantage some think it was because

[a] the first "believers" are likely to have come from the poorest sectors of Palestinian society. Evidence from some of the New Testament letters and elsewhere suggests this. Such people are unlikely to have gone to school and may not have had the advantage of memory training; and

[b] the gospel authors were not particularly interested in recording what really happened. Theology, not history, was their primary focus.

CL Blomberg [3] writes, "All [are] agreed that the teachings of Jesus and the narratives about his life which comprise the Gospels were transmitted orally over a considerable period of time before they were ever written down."

I have found a wide range of opinions about the reliability or otherwise of this oral material. Some think that Jesus' followers would have taken notes and had discussion groups about the meaning of his sayings and actions. Others propose that very little of what really happened has been preserved in the Gospels because so much corruption of memory took place over the 30 or so years between Jesus' death and the first written records.

Accurate memory
The truth may lie somewhere in-between the two extremes. Research into the social and economic background of the first century seems to be widening the scope of what we can guess about Jesus by providing information about what was normal in his lifetime.

But the hard fact remains: we almost certainly have no access to eyewitness accounts of "what really happened". That the parable of "The Labourers in the Vineyard" in Matthew 20, for example, is exactly "what Jesus really said" is so extremely unlikely as to be almost impossible in historical terms. Moreover, the parable has no parallels in other gospels - it occurs only in Matthew's Gospel (see When Witnesses Disagree). Because we know that there are no eyewitness accounts in the gospels, we also know that the parable isn't the recorded words of Jesus.

Why then preserve it as good "bare bones" history (see Is Jesus History)?

The answer is that the parable demonstrates so many of the characteristics of the kind of thing which is well-attested as coming from Jesus, that it's likely to have come from him.

  • I know of no similar stories or parables in any other literature of, or close to, his times. So it's not likely that the gospel editor transposed a similar well-known tale into the mouth of Jesus. Nor is this the kind of story which relates to the agenda of early Christian communities.

  • Almost all of the historical sayings of Jesus use an ordinary event, known to all who would have been listening, to make a point. This parable is typical of that sort of usage.

  • In these sayings an ordinary event is "turned around" in such a way that it would have both attracted attention and have been readily remembered and recalled. There is a reversal of expectations. Jesus seems to have been particularly skillful at this.

  • The parable is inserted awkwardly into its context here. As J C Fenton argues [4], "... the awkwardness with which the parable fits into this context indicates that it was not composed by Matthew, but came to him from a non-Marcan source."

All of the above does not, of course, "prove" anything in the sense that doubt about the historicity of this parable - or something quite close to it - is totally excluded. But it is about as close as it's possible to get to good history. Putting the matter differently, these are the kind of criteria which exclude some 80% of the Gospels from the body of "bare bones history".
[1] Various data quoted in Introductory Psychology, Malim & Birch, 1998
[2] Dictionary of New
Testament Background, IVP, 2000
[3] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, 1992
[4] The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Penguin Books, 1963

[Home] [Back]