Inadequacy of the Tools in the Search for the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing my reading of part 2 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

. . o . .

Legend? Tale? Novel? — If these labels can be applied to any of the Old Testament works they fail when we attempt to relate them to the New Testament narratives.

The impasse of the “legendary” additions to a “biography”

The eighteenth-century scholars of the Enlightenment sought to pull Jesus down from his divine status but to endorse him as a wise and exceptional teacher and human being. Lessing (Education of the Human Race, 1780) spoke of humanity going through various psychological stages and being ready for Jesus at the time he came to bring us out of childish legalism and into the light of the rational and spiritual appropriate for emerging adolescence.

A BETTER Inftructor muft come and tear the exhaufted Primer from the child’s hands. Christ came !


That portion of the human race which God had willed to comprehend in one Educational plan, was ripe for the fecond ftep of Education. . . .

That is, this portion of the human race had advanced fo far in the exercife of its reafon, as to need, and to be able to make ufe of, nobler and worthier motives of moral action than temporal rewards and punifhments, which had hitherto been its guides. The child has become a youth. Sweetmeats and toys have given place to the budding defire to become as free, as honoured, and as happy as its elder brother. (Lessing, Education, sections 53-55)

Ernest Renan caused a storm when he published a study of Jesus (1863) that humanized him, psychologized him and stripped him of his divinity, in the process establishing his more “genuine” place in history.

Let us then place the person of Jesus on the highest summit of human grandeur. Let us not permit ourselves to be led astray by exaggerated distrust in regard to a legend which continually draws us’ into the supernatural world. The life of a Francis d’Assisi is also only a tissue of miracle. Still has anybody ever doubted the existence and the character of Francis d’Assisi ?  . . . .


The evangelists themselves, who have bequeathed to us the image of Jesus, are so far below him of whom they speak, that they constantly disfigure him because they cannot attain his hight. Their writings are full of mistakes and misconceptions. At every line we recognise discourse of a divine beauty reported by writers who do not understand it, and who substitute their own ideas for those which they but half comprehend. Upon the whole, the character of Jesus, far from having been embellished by his biographers, has been belittled by them. Criticism, to discover what he really was, must eliminate a series of mistakes, arising from the indifferent understanding of the disciples. They have painted him as they conceived him, and often, while thinking to make him greater, have in reality made him less. (Renan, Life of Jesus, 368-69)

According to Renan (and historical Jesus studies are in one sense still following in his train) everything in the Gospels can be explained in terms of mixing the historical with the legendary. Renan excels at it and that’s what caused a scandal in France at the time: the gospels are full of invention, alteration, metamorphosis, the illusions of followers, when it suits him, and authentic sayings whenever they correspond to the idea that he makes Jesus “the incomparable man”. Renan’s efforts are still being undertaken today though with ongoing efforts to hone sharper analytical tools.

Another false foundation has been the “logia”, the supposedly authentic words of Jesus that registered on the spot by original witnesses. Not mentioned by Charbonnel but Maurice Casey’s claim is one of the more extreme: he proposed that a disciple took down words and wrote on wax tablets the words of Jesus as he heard Jesus speak. Edgar Quinet from 1838 could joke about this research on the logia:


Lessing held them to be free translations of a lost original which one imagined in turn to be Hebrew, Aramaic, Chaldaic or Syriac, even Greek, and which finally was supposed never to have been written; this is what was called an oral gospel.(Edgar Quinet, ”La vie de Jésus-Christ, du Docteur Strauss”, en ligne § 33)

We have theories woven around the purported words of Papias that an original Gospel of Mathew contained words of Jesus in Hebrew. We have Q, the source hypothesized to explain similarities between Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark, and that is thought to consist primarily of sayings material. But none of these hypotheses, even if there were such documents, can possibly be verified as originating with the words of Jesus and accordingly they can bring us no closer to a historical Jesus.

Treating the gospels as primarily “legendary” colouring of the life of Jesus does not help us get closer to a historical Jesus behind them. On the contrary, the concept contributes to obscuring the question of the nature of “biography”. Renan was forced to admit the vagueness of the notion:

Let the Gospels be in part legendary, that is evident since they are full of miracles and the supernatural; but there are different species of legends. Nobody doubts the principle traits of the life of Francis of Assisi, though in it the supernatural is met at every step. Nobody, on the contrary, gives credence to the “Life of Apollonius of Tyana”, because it was written long after the hero and in the conditions of a pure romance. (Renan, Life of Jesus, 17-18)

A more radical view of the gospels is that they consist largely of myth. But this view does not help bring us closer to a historical Jesus, either.

Blurring myths and allegory

David Strauss in the pioneering Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) tackled the question of the gospels as myths. Édgar Quinet could not escape the difficulty here:

The preface to the Gospel according to Saint Luke, so reasoned, so methodical, so philosophical, is this really the introduction of a collection of myths? Do not the epistles of Saint Paul bear such an imprint of reality that this testimony reflects on the previous era? and this man, so similar to us, so close to us that we touch him with our hands, does he not plead for the truth, for the historical integrity of the characters whom we reach only through him? These are all points that should be examined closely. With regard to the comparison of the gospels and poems of popular origin, I accept it, and I say: Charlemagne was transfigured by the imaginations of the Middle Ages; but under the fable was the story hidden; under the fiction of the twelve paladins there is the author of the Capitulars, the conqueror of the Saxons, the legislator and the warrior. How, in the tradition of the apostles, would there be only a shadow?

It is obvious that there is a stumbling block over the notion “collection of myths”. And just as problematic is “popular tradition”. Is it conceivable that vague multitudes could forget or have different ideas about origins, beliefs, teachings, suddenly come together and produce a remarkably common ideal figure? Quinet again,

Do not most parables end with these words or other equivalent: ” In truth, he spoke thus, but they did not hear him “? Clear evidence, irrefutable proof that the initiative, the teaching, that is to say the ideal, did not come from the crowd, but that they belonged to the person, to the authority of the master, and that before being accepted by the greatest number, the religious revolution was conceived and imposed by a supreme legislator.

Right criticism, false conclusion, writes Charbonnel. The text can be written as totally symbolic and have nothing to do either with fraudulent manipulation, or with a popular elaboration of legends, or with a popular presentation of ethical truths.

Layers of text forms

With form criticism came the quest to identify the original form of a saying or description, but though the texts could be dissected and analysed through supposed layer upon layer, it has been impossible to know if any particular form of a text originated with Jesus or even if it went back to original disciples.

(To extend the thought beyond Charbonnel’s work, we also see ongoing efforts to achieve the same end, and based on the same assumption that the gospels originated with a historical figure and his followers, with other tools such as memory theory and “grasping the gist” of the gospel narratives.)

Dead ends

Charbonnel concludes that we must extricate ourselves from two critical ruts: treating the gospels as fables, deceptions of various sorts; and treating them as inevitable exaggerations of stories that had their beginning with eyewitnesses.

In the next section Charbonnel addresses the hypothesis of the gospels as “midrashic” literature.

Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Inadequacy of the Tools in the Search for the Historical Jesus”

  1. If most all of the “objective” nineteenth century scholars were fluent in biblical Greek ?

    • It is hard to understand how they missed the massive intertextuality of the Markan gospel with older scripture.

    But from our current position, it is all to easy to underestimate the enormity of challenging the historicity of the Christ god. Much less knowing with a high degree of confidence the composition dates/order of the gospels.

  2. Someone who led thousands of followers, attacked the temple in Jerusalem was welcomed by the inhabitants of Jerusalem as a conqueror and whose existence terrified the Roman government should have left some actual evidence more than third hand contradictory, often clearly false,rumors written down a couple of generations later

  3. This is a good approach. I didn’t take this approach in my book, but I would like to go back and address this type of material in a new book at some point. As for db’s comment, I think its important to remember that even as little as 50 years ago Mark was still not given much attention. Matthew, Luke and John were all primary focuses of study, and even people who gave attention to Mark often read it through the lens of the other Gospels, just as people read Paul through the lens of the Gospels.

    But yeah, laying out the development of the modern NT studies is a good way to start the subject.

  4. [T]hrough the lens of the Gospels.

    Just so. I got the advice not to do that from reading G. A. Wells forty-odd years ago. Once you stop reading backwards from the Gospels it leaps off the page that, whether or not there was a Jesus the man, Paul knew only Christ the god. Once that is seen, it can’t be unseen and everything follows after. Sometimes a longtime after; but follow it does! 🙂

    1. IMO, Wells was the victim of a “Buffalo Stampede” per holding that “Q supplied the gospels of Matthew and Luke with much of their material concerning Jesus’s Galilean preaching.”

      Per Wells, “The weakness of my earlier position was pressed upon me by J.D.G. Dunn [see The Evidence for Jesus 1985, p. 29], who objected that we really cannot plausibly assume that such a complex of traditions as we have in the gospels and their sources could have developed within such a short time from the early epistles without a historical basis…”

      1. Dunn’s objection actually begs the question of Jesus’ historicity. Other explanations are removed from consideration by the way the problem is framed.

      2. “…within such a short time… ”

        Paul states he fled a Nabatean controlled Damascus. This has produced all kinds of made-up crap spun on the premise Jesus was real and his floriut was in the prefecture of Pilate. Since the “real” Jesus has gone “Pfft!”, we no longer have to invent things to cohere on a date of 30CE. Nabatean control of Damascus after the advent of Pompey in the East and his annexation of Syria to the Republic in 63BCE is as extremely unlikely as there being a God.

        Then there is the pathological yearning for earlier dates and earlier sources for the Gospels. G.Mk’s “Little Apocalypse” has far more points that map on the Bar Kochva War than on the Neronian revolt and Irenaeus hears that there are such things as written Gospels in the midst of writing “Against Heresies”, initially thinking they are just more heretical writings.

        I think 1 to 2 centuries is more than enough time, even discounting the several religions that sprang up in the last two recent centuries and became full fledged in less than half a century, or that the disarticulated skeleton of “Jesus” can be found in the writings of Philo and that it was a cottage industry practically to go scouring scripture for clues.

        If Christ was only a god of apostolic imagination we do not have to depend on anything that turns out to have to follow from supposed historicity. There is no neccessity for imaginary sources invented by “scholars” to support an imaginary history the invention of those same “scholars”.

  5. This happens over and over: stripping a “god” of his divine status requires that the strippers go overboard in praising their “actual” qualities, e.g. “The eighteenth-century scholars of the Enlightenment sought to pull Jesus down from his divine status but to endorse him as a wise and exceptional teacher and human being.”

    His wisdom consisted of stating what other people had already stated and his teachings were deliberate obfuscated into the forms of parables because he felt theta the rubes weren’t ready for the truth. Jesus is not quoted as saying anything new. A pretty poor performance for an all-knowing god and even for “an exceptional teacher.”

    1. As Crossley might say, “Jesus had to be made a man, but not that much of a man.” There remains a fearful limit to how far one can make him an ordinary mortal. I find some of the scholars who do go all the way with truly humanizing him do so with some apparent consciousness of how “daring” they are to do so. Can’t remove from my mind misanthrope R. Joseph Hoffmann’s blunt assertion about Jesus: “He sure as hell didn’t love everybody.”

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