Scholarly Reconstructions of the Historical Jesus
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Consensus scholarly views of the historical Jesus
- The tyranny of the Gospels
- What Q does not tell us about an historical Jesus
- How New Testament scholarship operates
- Conflicting scholarly views about who and what Jesus was
- Finding Jesus in the Q prophets
- An argument for the existence of Q
- Not finding an historical Jesus in the epistles’ Christ
- Ehrman’s criteria for the genuine words and deeds of Jesus
* * * * *
Finding the Jesus of History
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 267-296)
What scholars claim to know about the historical Jesus
Here is Ehrman’s summation of what critical scholarship in general believes about the historical Jesus:
[T]here are a number of important facts about the life of Jesus that virtually all critical scholars agree on, for reasons that have in part been shown and that in other ways will become increasingly clear throughout the course of this chapter and the next. Everyone, except the mythicists, of course, agrees that
- Jesus was a Jew who came from northern Palestine (Nazareth)
- and lived as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era.
- He was at one point of his life a follower of John the Baptist
- and then became a preacher and teacher to the Jews in the rural areas of Galilee.
- He preached a message about the “kingdom of God”
- and did so by telling parables.
- He gathered disciples
- and developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons.
- At the very end of his life, probably around 30 CE, he made a trip to Jerusalem during a Passover feast
- and roused opposition among the local Jewish leaders,
- who arranged to have him put on trial before Pontius Pilate,
- who ordered him to be crucified for calling himself the king of the Jews. (DJE? p. 269 — my formatting)
This is a prime example of what I have called “the tyranny of the Gospels,” for not a single one of these biographical details is to be found in the non-Gospel record of the first century.
Furthermore, the three later Gospels of our canonical four (along with the satellite Acts) seem entirely dependent on Mark for their basic story of “Jesus of Nazareth.” Critical scholarship is essentially deriving its picture of an historical Jesus from the work of one author, at least several decades after the supposed fact.
Now, Mark and his redactors Matthew and Luke did have the Q tradition to draw on (the latter two from an actual document), though not for any portrait of an alleged originator of the sayings. The Q collection gives us nothing in the way of a biographical background, let alone presents a distinctive personality. (Remember William Arnal’s admissions: see below.)
- The opening pericopes of Q do not tell us that he was a follower of John the Baptist, or that the Baptist even knew of his existence.
- The Dialogue of Jesus and John (Lk./Q 7:18-35) comes from a later stratum and is an artificial construction out of previous literary elements which did not link Jesus and John.
- And not even Q has a word to say about his death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.
- As for teaching the Jews, the earliest stratum of Q is often claimed to be the teachings of the “genuine Jesus,” but it bears so little relevance to Jewish concerns of the time, and so much resemblance to teachings that can be identified with the Cynics, that the entire character of the earliest record of this branch of what became Christianity is brought into serious question.
|That an entire discipline of historical research can accept the claims that Ehrman enumerates in the face of bizarre, conflicting and non-existent ‘evidence’ like this demonstrates that this is a discipline which operates like no other branch of historical research. It adopts a methodology of a priori conviction, special pleading, contortion of texts, reading one set of documents into another, building straws into skyscrapers, and all of it going back to a raison d’etre traditionally embedded in thoroughly confessional interests, interests which still exist in many quarters of that discipline today. The clincher is the rabid antagonism which the discipline as a whole expresses, even by those who claim to have separated themselves from those confessional interests, toward any challenge against its obsessive line in the sand: the certain existence of the figure who is supposedly ‘proven’ by such problematic and conflicting evidence (and by such dubious antics as someone like Bart Ehrman has been engaged in).That is not how any other branch of historical research, let alone any form of scholarship worthy of the name, operates.|
What was the genuine historical Jesus about?
Beyond the basic biography which Ehrman presents above, we all know that further detail about the “certainly existing” historical Jesus enjoys anything but scholarly agreement. In fact, Ehrman provides us with an efficient summation of the abysmal accomplishments of the long and ongoing quest for the real historical Jesus:
But there is obviously a lot more to say, and that is where scholarly disagreements loom large—disagreements not over whether Jesus existed but over what kind of Jewish teacher and preacher he was.
Some scholars have said that he is principally to be thought of as a first-century Jewish rabbi whose main concern was teaching his followers how best to follow the Law of Moses.
Others have said that he was a Jewish holy man, like those we learn about from Josephus, a kind of shaman reputed to do spectacular deeds because of his unusual powers.
Others have maintained that he is best understood as a political revolutionary who was preaching armed rebellion against the Roman Empire.
Still others have claimed that he was a social reformer who urged the Jews of his time to adopt an entirely different lifestyle, for example, by embracing new economic principles as a kind of proto-Marxist or different social relationships as a kind of proto-feminist.
Yet others have suggested that he is best seen as a Jewish version of the ancient Greek Cynic philosophers, urging his followers to abandon their attachments to the material things of this world and to live lives of poverty, internally liberated from the demands of life.
Others have suggested that he is best seen as a magician, not in the sense that he could do magic tricks but that he knew how to manipulate the laws of nature like other workers of magic in his day.
Each of these views has had serious scholarly proponents. But none of them represents the views of the majority of scholars in modern times.
Instead, as I have repeatedly noted, most scholars in both the United States and Europe over the past century have been convinced that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who anticipated that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil now controlling this world in order to bring in a new order, a new kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of God.
This was essentially the view that Albert Schweitzer popularized in his famous book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer was not the first to articulate this view, but he was the first to bring it to wide public attention. And even though there are no scholars who agree any longer with the details of how Schweitzer worked out his views, there is still broad agreement that the fundamental assumption behind them is correct, that Jesus really did anticipate a cataclysmic break in the course of history when God would judge the world and set it to rights, establishing a rule of peace and justice here on earth, sometime, Jesus thought, within his own generation. (DJE? p. 270-271 — my formatting)
There is no doubt that in one way or another each of these scholarly views of Jesus can be extracted—sometimes having recourse to a bit of imagination—from the Gospel story, particularly (if not entirely) the Synoptics. (John presents nothing that is exclusive to him which is likely to be a reflection of historical reality, neither his character nor his words and deeds.)
A few of those scholarly views could even be extracted from Q, though not without facing some problems. Most Q scholars, I would say, accept the basic Kloppenborg stratification within Q: a “wisdom” Q1 stratum as the earliest, followed by a later (in compositional sequence) “apocalyptic/prophetic” Q2 stratum. We often hear (as from the Jesus Seminar and J. D. Crossan) that Q1 is closest to the ‘genuine’ Jesus and what he taught. But if Jesus was basically an apocalyptic prophet, where is that dimension within his teachings supposedly recorded in Q1? It is not there. Yes, there is a “kingdom here on earth” in view, but it is hardly to arrive through apocalyptic events.
Besides, where is Jesus himself in Q1? There is scarcely a mention of his name. There is good reason to think that even its isolated appearance was added later in constructing the set of three chreiai in Luke/Q 9:57-58 out of earlier elements which did not contain it (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.337-8).
Finding the historical Jesus in the Q prophets
In answer to these observations, scholars will point out the difference between “tradition history” and “literary [compositional] history.” Traditions may exist in the community from earliest times, but not be incorporated into a document until later. Perhaps true—theoretically. But if, as someone like Crossan claims, Q1 represents an interest in Jesus the teacher (despite the lack of any focus whatever on that teacher as an individual), why would such an initial collection of his teachings leave out anything prophetic and apocalyptic, especially if that was his essential nature, as Ehrman and “most scholars” (he says) would claim?
If the very genesis of the Galilean sect lay in John the Baptist, as the opening of Q (part of Q2) declares, with the Baptist preaching the imminent arrival of the apocalyptic Son of Man (with whom he makes no connection to any living person), why does no hint of that Son of Man appear anywhere in Q1, let alone as the originator of its sayings? (The “son of man” who has nowhere to lay his head [Lk./Q 9:58] is not an apocalyptic figure and is placed in a separate category of the phrase, a traditional biblical usage as a euphemism for “a man” or “this man.”)
Most of those scholarly interpretations of the historical nature of Jesus can be derived from the various layers of Q:
- the teacher of the Law,
- prophet of the future,
- Cynic-style itinerant sage,
- miracle worker and healer,
- apocalyptic voice for the imminent Kingdom of God.
These are the activities of the Q preaching sect itself.
But I turn once again to William Arnal’s insightful evaluation of the supposed founder figure in Q (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.349-50). Not only is his death “taken for granted”—in other words, it is never mentioned—neither is any resurrection or any other soteriological dimension taken into account in the role he is given. Not even in the all-important theme of traditional Jewish persecution and (alleged) killing of the prophets, can Q bring itself to focus on Jesus’ own death as the culminating example. Even in regard to his miracles, which are not played up in Q, the Jesus figure cannot be differentiated from the role and activities of the Q prophets themselves. He is “embedded” in, “assimilated to” the “broader ethos of the Q group.” In other words, what scholars think to discover about the nature of Jesus in Q cannot be differentiated from the nature of the group he symbolizes, both in Q and in the Synoptics which have built upon their Q background.
(This, by the way, is a very strong argument for the existence of Q and a Q community. Without either one, we are left with a free-floating picture of what deceptively looks like a variegated preaching sect, apparently influenced by a range of sources and ideas and culminating in Mark, Matthew and Luke, but which nevertheless lacks a concrete basis. Mark’s creation becomes rootless, with no foundation in an historically real background. Where did it come from? Was Mark a science-fiction writer in addition to being an allegorizer of spiritual truths? Did Matthew and Luke also take up an entirely fictitious account and add their own inventive magic to it? To what end, if the reader could make no connection to a Sitz im Leben they could recognize or relate to, let alone be converted to? Who would be interested in such a thing? Did the evangelists simply have too much time on their hands, taking up a hobby of inventing an entire universe for reasons only they could fathom?)
Not finding the historical Jesus in the epistles
Let’s see what Paul and the other epistle writers of the New Testament, along with various non-canonical writers for almost a century, do not tell us in support of Ehrman’s list.
First, they never make the statement that he was a teacher.
Paul claims a handful of “words of the Lord,” but they look to be from direct personal revelation, something on which many scholars agree. Various writers give us Jesus-looking teachings without attributing them to him. Some Jesus-looking teachings are attributed to God.
1 Clement gives us a block of mundane moral precepts he attributes to “the Lord Jesus” which “he spoke in teaching” (Clement of Alexandria presents an almost identical block as coming from God), but he also designates passages in scripture (see ch.16 and 22), as do other early writers such as the author of Hebrews, as the voice of Jesus speaking and teaching—often his sole voice—and the same terminology is used of the Holy Spirit who also “speaks.”
Nor does any first-century epistle writer describe their Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Considering the importance of the subject to Paul and others, this particular omission is striking.
None call him a rabbi, or a holy man, or any kind of shaman.
No one suggests he had a political or revolutionary agenda, much less that he died because of it; nor is he accorded a social philosophy.
And no one ever makes the slightest suggestion that he performed miracles of any sort.
Not even the epistles of Ignatius (c.110-130 CE, depending on the authenticity question), which supplies the most basic biographical outline of his birth, baptism and death, make any reference to teaching or miracle working. The epistle of Barnabas, probably a little later, makes reference to both, but in theory only, failing to supply any examples. Descriptions of his passion and death are still entirely dependent on scripture (Barnabas implies [e.g., 5:3, 5:12-14] that we know about Jesus through God giving us such information in scripture), as are those of 1 Clement and Hebrews.
For Barnabas, as also for the Didache (which, like 1 Clement, can be shown not to present any historical Jesus), the coming Parousia will be that of God, not Jesus.
Paul’s presentation of the present time
Consider this claim by Ehrman:
Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who anticipated that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil now controlling this world in order to bring in a new order, a new kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of God. (DJE? p. 270)
Now look at what Paul has to say on the subject in Romans 8:
For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. . . . Up to the present, we know, the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth. Not only so, but even we, to whom the Spirit is given as firstfruits of the harvest to come, are groaning inwardly while we wait for God to make us his sons and set our whole body free. For we have been saved, though only in hope. [NEB]
Not only is an appeal lacking to any precedent for believing all this through the teachings of the man whom Paul supposedly worships, there is not even a vibration of Jesus’ very presence detectable in the course of salvation history which Paul is describing here. (Compare the very similar impression created by Romans 13:11-12, 1 Corinthians 10:11, 2 Corinthians 6:2.) If recent times have constituted the pangs of childbirth leading to the kingdom’s arrival, Jesus’ life has been scarcely a pre-natal kick.
The “firstfruits” of what is to come have been given by the Spirit, not by Jesus, and it has been given to Paul and the present generation, not in the previous time of Jesus himself. Salvation has been provided “only in hope,” which suggests through faith in the new interpretation of scripture, not in the actual witnessing of the life, death and resurrection of the very divinity whose acts have provided it. (Compare the similar sentiments of 2 Peter 1:19, which says that it is the “message of the prophets” which shines like a lamp in the darkness awaiting the break of day, not the remembered life of Jesus himself. Scholars have been perplexed by that curiosity!)
|To think that such a preaching career as Ehrman envisions could possibly have been ignored by every epistle writer who urges his readers to have hope and trust in the coming salvation, is patently ludicrous.|
Finally, I have pointed out in this series the constant reference to the “revelation” of Christ the Son which characterizes the beginning of the movement, not his actual life lived on earth. This is language inconceivable in the context of an historical Jesus who would, among other things, have first announced the imminent arrival of Paul’s looked-for salvation. To think that such a preaching career as Ehrman envisions could possibly have been ignored by every epistle writer who urges his readers to have hope and trust in the coming salvation, is patently ludicrous.
|It is only by the most blinkered and closed-minded preconception that scholars like Ehrman can maintain their interpretation and certainty about an historical Jesus in the face of all the contrary evidence that lies outside the Gospels and Acts before whose altar of tyranny historicist scholarship continues to bow down.|
How do we establish what Jesus personally said and did?
Ehrman provides a description of first-century Judaism and its various classes—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Zealot revolutionaries—and their philosophies. (All of it has the tone and content of a “101” university course, not surprising in a university lecturer and one who has admitted that this book is not aimed at established scholars.) This lays the groundwork to justify his picture of the historical Jesus as an “apocalypticist,” one who along with many others believed that the world was presently controlled by evil powers and that God was about to intervene to correct the situation—usually by sending an agent.
|But I do wish that historicist defenders would realize that presenting accurate pictures of the period and its thought into which they can fit an historical Jesus does nothing to prove that there was an historical Jesus who can be fitted into such pictures.|
The Jewish world at that time was full of such fantasies, and current expectations included the arrival of a Messiah or two, or an apocalyptic Son of Man who would judge the world. But I do wish that historicist defenders would realize that presenting accurate pictures of the period and its thought into which they can fit an historical Jesus does nothing to prove that there was an historical Jesus who can be fitted into such pictures. The words that can be put into his mouth can be made to fit the mouths of many who could have spoken them. (Sometimes those words can be found in previous sources, even long earlier ones.) The activities of his supposed life can be assigned to any group engaged in the same activities.
In presenting widely-accepted scholarly “criteria for detecting historically authentic tradition” in regard to Jesus, Ehrman states two principles. One is that these criteria “apply to any figure of the past described in any kind of historical source.” The other is that we must “abandon any hope of absolute certainty,” and that “historians deal for the most part in probabilities, and some things are more probable than others.” On this, mythicists would certainly agree.
Is it “contextually credible”?
As Ehrman puts it,
But if a tradition does not fit into a first-century Palestinian context, then it almost certainly can be discounted as a later legend. (DJE? p. 288)
He hastens to point out that even if it does, this does not guarantee authenticity, but only the possibility of such. Once this state of possibility is established, the other two criteria are brought into play to judge its probability.
But before going on to those criteria, we need to realize that Ehrman is placing himself in a very narrow box.
The question is more complex and subtle than simply: did Jesus say or do this, or is it a pronouncement later placed in his mouth or an action assigned to him based on what later believers would like him to have said or done? What of words and deeds which were initially envisioned within quite different contexts? From Hebrews to 1 Clement to Barnabas, for example, words have been assigned to Jesus as spoken in scripture. There is no “later” or “legendary” dimension entailed here. Other scriptural passages were translated, whether by a Paul or a Gospel writer, into an action or event assigned to the Jesus they believed in, and there may be no criterion involved relating to the question of whether it fitted into a first-century Palestinian context or not.
A certain degree of begging the question is involved in Ehrman’s examples in regard to Aramaic words and possible precedents. He points to Gospel sayings of Jesus which “at one time must have circulated in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue.” If certain sayings make “better sense when translated back into Aramaic” (which is an assumption that they originally were in Aramaic) this would not in itself increase the probability that Jesus said them, since even if they did make better sense in Aramaic they could simply be seen as having had a prior phase in an Aramaic context, spoken by who knows whom. And the couple of brief Aramaic formulas such as “talitha cum” need be nothing more than common parlance in certain activities within a bilingual culture.
|In order to produce “several sources (that) did not collaborate with one another,” Ehrman has been forced to engage in some very dubious exegesis.|
Ehrman now turns to his two further criteria which can raise “possibility” to “probability.”
I have repeatedly stressed that a tradition appearing in multiple, independent sources has a greater likelihood of being historically reliable than a tradition that appears in only one. (DJE? p. 290)
And I have repeatedly pointed out that Ehrman’s enthusiasm for “multiple independent sources” cannot be supported. As for Q, it may be ‘independent’ of Mark and his redactors since it precedes them, but they in turn are not ‘independent’ of Q. Scholarship’s M and L are more reasonably products of Matthew and Luke, not separate source collections. For one thing, they show too limited an identifiable content to be judged as constituting independent sources; for another, they contain nothing in common, something less likely in source documents but to be expected if each is the evangelist’s own product. (I also quoted Robert M. Price’s view on the matter in the previous instalment.) Ehrman should be reminded of his own proviso: “some things are more probable than others.”
In order to produce “several sources (that) did not collaborate with one another,” Ehrman has been forced to engage in some very dubious exegesis. The independence of the Gospel of John is one that has been discussed and discredited (see previous instalment). Another is the claim that some of the content in the speeches of Acts precedes Mark; this, too, is highly questionable.
But the worst comes in Ehrman’s handling of the epistles. Wholesale reading of Gospel associations and meanings are imported into Paul & Co. Most blatantly, after applying his “contextual credibility” to the common practice of crucifixion by the Romans, Ehrman declares:
The crucifixion itself is attested (without Pilate) throughout Paul and in a range of other independent sources: 1 Peter, Hebrews, and so on. (DJE? p. 291)
His “without Pilate” is a serious qualification. There are scores of references throughout the first-century epistles to Jesus’ crucifixion, but is Ehrman not going to bat an eyelash at the universal lack of any mention of Pilate, let alone a time and place for that crucifixion—with a pretty clear reference by Paul to the agency of the demon spirits offered instead? Is he going to make the naïve assumption that the death of Jesus—especially a Jesus portrayed by the likes of Paul in so thoroughly spiritual and mythological terms, with no identification to any incarnated human figure—could only have taken place on earth? (Of course, that is a common naivete in historicist circles, whether lay or academic.) Making a bow to G. A. Wells’ interpretation of Paul’s Christ, should we not frown on his failure to even consider a crucifixion on earth by unknown rulers in an unknown past?
|Ehrman makes separate mention of the reference to Pilate in 1 Timothy (6:13), without acknowledging that the vast majority of critical scholars regard this as a second-century writing.|
Ehrman makes separate mention of the reference to Pilate in 1 Timothy (6:13), without acknowledging that the vast majority of critical scholars regard this as a second-century writing. Nor does he acknowledge the puzzling coincidence that this one reference to Pilate appears in a second-century writing when the Gospels had begun to circulate, whereas not a single first-century epistle happens to contain such a thing before they did. What is “more probable” here?
Quite predictably, Ehrman cannot resist another kick at the “brothers” can.
Or take the issue of Jesus’s brothers. As we have seen, in multiple independent sources Jesus is said to have brothers, and most of those sources name one of these brothers as James; this is true of Mark, John (doesn’t name James), Paul, and Josephus. Paul, as we have seen, actually knew James. This establishes reasonably good probability in favor of the tradition. (DJE? p. 291)
I won’t re-kick my own can about “brother(s) of the Lord” being no necessary reference to Jesus’ sibling(s). (Although I will mention a 2008 article by no less an historicist stellar light than R. Joseph Hoffmann, in which in no uncertain terms he argues for Galatians 1:19 being a reference to James as a member of the ‘brotherhood of the Lord’ and not as a sibling of Jesus.) Nor does Josephus mention multiple brothers of Jesus in Antiquities 20. (Ehrman ignores any debate over interpolation, including the aforementioned article by Hoffmann in which he declares that this reference to Jesus was a Christian insertion and that Josephus was speaking of an entirely different James.)
|New Testament historicist methodology is certainly a force unto itself.|
And in a blatant case of begging the question, Ehrman simply assumes that the “James” whom Paul was acquainted with was the brother of Jesus, which not only serves to ensure that Galatians 1:19 means sibling, it now constitutes another independent source in Paul for the fact that Jesus had brothers. This in turn grants “good probability” to Mark’s mention of Jesus’ brothers (6:3) as being an historical tradition and not simply a means of illustrating the proverbial point being made in the passage, or giving his fictional character a fictional family.
New Testament historicist methodology is certainly a force unto itself. I would love to see its claimed application “to any figure of the past described in any kind of historical source.” Or how regular historians outside the Alice in Wonderland world of New Testament scholarship would react.
The criterion of dissimilarity
Ehrman’s second criterion of probability has been discussed in an earlier instalment: that anything which does not conform to the interests of the movement formed after Jesus’ death is probably to be regarded as authentic. This, of course, has limited application, for it cannot pronounce on words and deeds which could have proceeded from Jesus and yet happen to have coincided with subsequent interests.
But as pointed out before, Ehrman fails to take into account that there are other reasons why ‘neutral’ elements can be inserted by an author creating an allegory or work of fiction. Thus his contention that Mark giving Jesus brothers has no bearing on his theological agenda and thus is likely to be historically accurate is simply not justified.
|This section of the book has been long on what scholars believe about the man, but short on secure reasons for it or on a reliable process for arriving at it.|
As a long introduction to his case for judging the real historical Jesus to have been an apocalyptic prophet, this section of the book has been long on what scholars believe about the man, but short on secure reasons for it or on a reliable process for arriving at it. We can only await Ehrman’s more focused evidence in the next chapter for his preferred interpretation of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet.
. . . to be continued