Updated 5 hours after posting to expand Schweitzer quote.
The approach I like to take is one I learned from the way historians (certainly many of them at any rate) investigate other topics, whether in modern, medieval or ancient times.
I have used the example of Alexander the Great before, so for convenience I use it again here. It’s a safe bet to say that the existence and conquering career of Alexander is a “fact of history”. We have primary evidence from his own time still surviving (e.g. coins) and testifying to his place in history. We have much other evidence for major cultural, economic and political changes throughout the Middle East that are most cogently explained as the result of his conquests. So when we read secondary sources about him we have supporting knowledge that assures us that these sources are about someone real. We might call this sort of supporting knowledge “external controls” that we can bring to our reading of the secondary sources.
The problem with studying Christian origins as if Jesus himself were the historical founder of Christianity is that we have no similar controls to support the New Testament narratives. This is why, after discussing the problems with using Josephus and Tacitus as evidence for the historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer wrote:
In reality, however, these writers [those arguing for the historicity of Jesus against mythicists] are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability. (From page 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)
So what is the safest way to approach the Gospel narratives about Jesus?
In the case of other historical figures historians have the advantage of secondary sources that are of a known provenance.
- Diodorus Siculus (1st century bce): 17th book of Universal History
- Quintus Curtius Rufus (1st century ce): History of Alexander
- Plutarch (2nd century ce): Life of Alexander
- Flavius Arrianus Xenophon (Arrian) (2nd century ce): Campaigns of Alexander
- M. Junianus Justinus (Justin) (3rd century ce): epitomized the work of Pompeius Trogus (Augustan age)
These literary sources, as is clear just from listing them here, include the identities of their authors. They also include reassuring statements about the sources used by those authors. These sources are written in a recognizable genre that we associate with serious efforts to convey information about the past — or at least drawing on the lessons of past events to inspire or teach certain values to their readers. And part of that genre involves writing about a “real historical person” to whom mythologies and legends attached themselves — as distinct from writing about a person who is reduced to a virtual nonentity once the miraculous is removed.
It is even better when we have the additional control of other secondary sources also testifying independently of our documents and of our subject of historical inquiry. So we have, for example, an admirer of Socrates, Plato, speaking of his teacher, and also a contemporary satirical playwright, Aristophanes, mocking Socrates. The different literary sources for Julius Caesar are often referencing each other or their authors.
Unfortunately we lack any such controls — and we lack even a provenance — when it comes to the Gospels. Moreover, the Gospels are of an unclear, certainly debatable, genre. Genre informs us how we are to read something. (It is understandable that many Christians want to argue that the Gospels are biographies, but the main arguments for this (Burridge) look to me like a series of dot-points of superficial comparisons lacking any theoretical foundation. There is much more scholarly basis to the argument (Vines) that they should really be read as a form of Jewish novel.)
So how should we study the Gospels in our quest for Christian origins?
We don’t know who wrote them, when, where, for whom or even why. We can make educated guesses about some of these things, but these will always be open to debate, of course.
We can see clear evidence in the narratives of an interest in using stories to deliver theological messages. The same stories sometimes vary across the gospels in order to convey different theological messages. We can also see clear evidence that many of their anecdotes, and even certain images, words and larger structural units are derived from other identifiable literary sources — especially those in the Hebrew Bible.
From surviving sources we discover that the Gospels make their impact in the wider literary world for the first time well into the second century where they meet clear theological (cum political) needs of “the church”. Further, the narrative within the Gospels itself does not appear to have been widely known or accepted until that time. (Justin appears to speak of King Herod and the Jews crucifying Jesus in the time of Pilate, for example, not unlike the scenario in the Gospel of Peter. Judas is certainly unknown.)
If the story of Jesus in the gospels were based on historical events then scholars would have many difficulties attempting to explain how this Jesus was exalted to such a high divine status (sustainer and creator of the world, etc) in such a very short time after his death, how people who once ignored or despised him or who were disillusioned by him turned around overnight to worship him and persuade thousands of others to do likewise across the world. And several other problems that preoccupy NT scholars. Surely there must be a more natural explanation for Christian origins, one consistent with the norms of human experience.
We could assume that the Gospel narrative is based on memories or traditions in some sense historically true. But we have no grounds for doing so, and several for not doing so (as alluded to above). In fact, assuming the narrative is historical is a logically flawed start. I copy here my notes from what P.R. Davies wrote in relation to historians who have in the past assumed the biblical narrative of the united Kingdom Israel and subsequent history of the divided kingdom is historical to highlight the logical fallacy. In the blue column is a common rationale for asserting the historicity of a biblical narrative.
|1. “The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.”||This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up.|
|2. “Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.”||This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.|
|3. “Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.”||Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”|
|4. “Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed down through many generations.”||This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.|
I think there is a sounder, more valid approach to studying the Gospel narratives as sources for early Christianity:
- seek to understand first what sorts of stories they are (scholars are doing this already), including genre studies, studies in intertextuality, midrash, etc.
- seek to understand what gave rise to the narrative content in the Gospels. Is it best explained as the penning of varying oral traditions, and if so, are these from historical memories? Or are the narrative details best explained as symbolic of a “new Israel” and end of the “old”? Such questions will of course require a close attention to the broader context (rivalries with rabbinic schools, persecutions, etc?) at the time they were written. (Again scholars are in many instances very engaged with some of these studies now; but many also work on the assumption that only one of these is correct — the oral tradition source — and do not open themselves to questioning this. As a result they sometimes neglect to justify this assumption from the narratives themselves and against other explanations.)
There’s very little I saying here that is new. As I have said, scholars are already engaged in the relevant studies. What seems to me to be missing is a more neutral ground for such investigations where they can be examined afresh without the blinkers of what I think is the unjustifiable assumption a core historicity in the Gospels’ narratives.