Sources – extent and nature

he has read the right things and drawn the right sorts of conclusion from them,
so his audience will gain a pretty good notion of the state of modern biblical
scholarship on the origins of Christianity. Aslan says what all scholars not in
thrall to blinkered religious conservatism say: when reading the New Testament,
we have to fight through several filters of authorship to get any idea of how
these sacred texts relate to a life lived in first-century Palestine. All the
works included in the New Testament canon were written in a language different
from Jesus’ native tongue, and even the earliest among them were written by
someone who never met him in his earthly life; the latest may postdate h-is
death on the cross by about a century. They are coloured by preoccupations
which were not those of Jesus himself, and they fuelled the development of a
church which became radically different from anything Jesus or the first
generation of his followers could have envisaged.  (Professor Diarmuid Macculloch review of “Zealot” by Reza Aslan)

But external arguments for his existence come from the Jewish historian
Josephus at the end of the first century and the Roman Tacitus early in the
second century. Neither is particularly interested in Jesus, but they do try to
explain this weird group called “Christians.” They both say the same four
things: one, [Christians] followed a guy called Christ; two, this guy led a
movement; three, they executed him to eliminate the movement; and four, it
didn’t work.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

“The fact is, I do not know why Christianity happened or why it “succeeded”. We would all like to explain those facts… [But] There is never enough information, and what we have is often difficult to interpret”. (Wayne A. Meeks – Professor Yale)

“The beginnings and earliest growth [of Christianity] remains in many respects mysterious. There are a number of reasons for this. The sources are few and consist almost exclusively of the internal literature produced by the sect for its own purposes. … These documents themselves had a unique history, for some were suppressed in the later struggles of the Christian movement to achieve and preserve a unified “catholic” and “orthodox” self-definition, while others became part of the movements’ new canon of scripture. To employ the latter as historical sources, we must try to disentangle them from the dense web of traditions in which they are embedded, traditions that are integral with the cultural identity of the West and with the personal faith of many.” (Wayne A. Meeks – Professor Yale)

For most rabbinic sages, we do not have the external or biographical references, nor do we have extensive internal biographies.  In the best case, we know as much about such major rabbinic authorities as Hillel, Rabban Gamaliel, Rabbi Akiva, or Rav as we do about the historical Jesus.  Often less.  The fragmentary biographical or, rather, hagiographical accounts remaining to us are often in conflict with parallel sources in different contexts, making it extremely difficult to describe an individual sage as a historical figure.  (Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee – Stanford and Professor Washington)

More is known about early Christianity than the origins of the other world religions.  Yet much remains obscure and is surely destined to remain so.  The quality of some of the sources makes the gaps all the more frustrating.  And there are other complications.  The subject matter is precious to some of the investigators and hateful to others, and in any case elusive.  The puzzling mixture of myth, history and legend, in writings which do not clam to be disinterested, has been treated by some with credulity and by others with inordinate suspicion.  (Robert Morgan – Oxford)

This does not mean that there was no such person as Jesus … It only means that, according to the documents we have, which are so overwritten, retrospective, and highly mythologized or, if one prefers, Hellenized; there is almost no way of getting through to the really core factual information concerning him.  (Robert Eisenman – Professor California State, Oxford)

There are lots of things that we can know about the life of Jesus with a degree of confidence, his healing activity, his proclamation of the kingdom, his connection to John the Baptist, the call of disciples who continued the movement after his arrest and crucifixion, and so on. Beginning from this kind of secure information, one can produce a good sketch of the life of Jesus, and E. P. Sanders has illustrated how much one can do with this kind of data when we integrate them into an informed understanding of Jesus’ historical context. But knowing things about the historical Jesus is not the same as being able to write his biography. Bultmann rightly pointed out that we do not have the data available to trace his psychological development in the manner of contemporary biography.  (Mark Goodacre – Professor Duke)

According to almost everyone, one of the most certain things that we can know about the historical Jesus is that he was a disciple of John the Baptist. This is bedrock stuff and anyone familiar with Jesus research will know all about why.  As it happens, I am inclined to agree with this; I suspect that Jesus did indeed have an association with John the Baptist and that it was important, in some way, in his development.  But how important was John the Baptist, as an influence on Jesus, in comparison to other people?  We know about the link between the two men because John the Baptist was himself famous — Josephus devotes more time to him than he does to Jesus.  So the tradition remembers and underlines the association between the two men. But our influences are seldom solely other famous people.  Perhaps the major influence on Jesus was his grandfather, whose fascination with Daniel 7 informed Jesus’ apocalyptic mindset.  Or perhaps it was Rabbi Matia in Capernaum who used to enjoy telling parables drawn from local agriculture.  Or perhaps it was that crazy wandering Galilean exorcist Lebbaeus who used to talk about casting out demons by the Spirit of God.  The fact is that we just don’t know.  We can’t know.  Our knowledge about the historical Jesus is always and inevitably partial.  If we take the quest of the historical Jesus seriously as an aspect of ancient history, we have to admit that many of the key pieces must be missing. The problem is that we are in denial. We simply do not want to admit that we do not have all the data we need to paint a complete picture of the historical Jesus. (Mark Goodacre – Professor Duke

Jesus research is a multiply complex affair, and.. establishing cast-iron approach or methods for it is impossible… As Crossan (1991:426) has noted, “there is only reconstruction”; and most would accept this.  … But at least there is now an open recognition of the complexity of the task.  This is progress of a kind. (James Carleton Paget – Cambridge)

I do not know whether the recovery of a Jesus after two thousand years of theological repair is possible. (R. Joseph Hoffman – Professor Beijing, Oxford)

If we concentrate on the whole rather than the details, however, we shall find that we know quite a lot about Jesus, even though we may not be able to reconstruct with certainty any of his sayings or actions. It is clear, for example, that he spoke with impressive authority, even though there is considerable doubt about the exact form of all the stories demonstrating that fact. It is beyond question, also, that he taught in parables, however difficult it may be to reconstruct them, or to be certain about their original meaning. Few scholars, if any, have doubted that the centre of his teaching was the Kingdom of God – though what he might have meant by that phrase is again a matter of dispute. He also performed various miracles, even though we may disagree about precisely what happened or how. Again, while various stories and sayings may or may not be “accurate,” it is clear that he befriended those on the outskirts of society and that he offended the religious and political leaders. It seems clear, too, that he called men to be his disciples – though whether or not there were 12 in the inner circle is not so certain – and that he demanded – and inspired – remarkable devotion on their part. It is indisputable that he was put to death by the Roman authorities – though to what extent the Jewish authorities were involved is far from clear – and that his followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead, though how and where they came to that conviction it is now impossible to say.  (Morna Hooker – Professor Cambridge)

One of the great disappointments in Jesus scholarship has been that the exciting discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, writings which belonged to the Essene community that flourished in Palestine at the time of Jesus, has not yielded any convincing reference to Jesus.  (David F. Ford – Professor Cambridge)

Nature of the sources

As to the role played by memory and oral transmission, one need only cite a few examples of early patristic quotations of passages from the intracanonical Gospels to appreciate the inexactitudes often encountered.  In Apologia 1 15:1-3 Justin Martyr cites Matt 5:28-29 (influenced by Mark 9:47), 32; and 19:12, and not one quotation is verbatim (in the extant manuscripts).  (Rev. James Charlesworth – Professor Princeton Theological Seminary)

So great has been the attention to Galilee in some recent studies that the one most historically secure event in his [Jesus’] life, namely, that he was crucified in Jerusalem under the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, has been virtually lost sight of.  (Sean Freyne – Professor Trinity College Dublin, visiting Professor Harvard)

As the Gospels are read, it is crucial that they be assumed at no point (and at no hypothetical level) to convey a historical perspective directly.  (Bruce Chilton – Professor Yale)

… we know very little about early Christianity because nobody, Jewish or Roman, appears to have been terribly interested in it.  (Richard Miles – Sydney, Cambridge)

“… the fantastic embellishments of later Christian writers”  (Richard Miles – Sydney, Cambridge)

Human memories are notoriously unreliable, and second-hand accounts of events that someone else saw get embroidered and exaggerated very easily.  (Keith Ward – Professor Oxford)

It is not only the books of the Old Testament which have their origins in a variety of oral and literary traditions.  The same is true of the Gospels.  The Gospels represent four telling of Jesus’ life, death , and resurrection, with interesting differences of perspective and detail, though also with considerable agreement.  In the case of the first three, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the agreements are remarkable.  It is not just that they agree about the order of many events and in much of the detail of what occurred.  It is even more than they agree, in the case of individual sections, in the overall literary structure of the narrative, and in sentence structure, choice of words, and grammatical form.  These linguistic agreements are so striking that they almost force one to the conclusion that there is a literary dependence of one kind or another.  That is to say, someone has been copying someone else.  (John Riches – Professor Glasgow)

What one can say with some confidence though is that it is likely that stories and sayings about Jesus circulated in varying oral forms before they were written down.  The Gospels, like the Hebrew Bible, have their roots in an oral culture  … … That is to say, many of the books of the Bible are not the work of one author, written over a period of a few years;  rather they are compilations which reflect communal traditions which may go back many centuries.  Even in the case of the New Testament, where admittedly there is a much greater preponderance  of works written by a single author, the Gospels are still in an important sense communal productions, which preserve the traditions of the earliest Christians.  (John Riches – Professor Glasgow)


“…the gospels are not biographical in anything but the loosest sense” (Ninian Smart – Professor California, Princeton, Yale)

“The evangelists’ aim is to write “gospel” – “good news” – not biography, and in their presentation of Jesus the so-called “historical Jesus” is already fused with the “Christ of faith”…. … the focus of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels is the Kingdom of God, not Jesus himself.  Jesus speaks only rarely about himself, and when he does, he demands secrecy.. or refers enigmatically to his approaching suffering and vindication… It is only during the “trial” before the high priest that Jesus is said to have agreed that the terms “Messiah” and “Son of God” were appropriate ways of referring to him”… … the picture of Jesus presented by John is very different. Instead of implicit Christology, we have explicit claims… spells out clearly the claims of the Christian community about Jesus by placing them in the mouth of Jesus himself”. (Morna Hooker – Professor Cambridge)

“A straightforward acceptance of everything as Jesus’s historical words is simply wrong:  sayings vary between the Gospels, and there is no exact agreement”.  (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

the last words of Jesus that appear in the Gospels… “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (from Matthew and Mark), but also “It is accomplished” (from John)… (.. from Luke): “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”  (Stephen Prothero – Professor Boston, previously Harvard)

“… a candid historical view of the NT writings, while recognising their overall unity of purpose and interest, is bound to recognise that they represent different viewpoints in the early church, and even that some of them look as if they were written to correct and refute others.  For instance, it is likely that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were designed not simply to amplify but rather to improve on the Gospel of Mark”.  (Leslie Houlden – Professor Kings, Oxford)

“It is a basic truth that, whatever the claims and the appearances, Jesus is never encountered “neat” in the NT.  Apart from the fact that the gospels are unlikely to be the work of stenographers who hung on Jesus’ every word and of adherents who witnessed his every act, those brief books have all the inevitable distortion that goes with selectivity; moreover, it is apparent that the selectivity was not unprincipled or merely random… … The upshot of all this is that we cannot tell with certainty what Jesus himself taught or practised, and scholarly opinion remains divided”. (Leslie Houlden – Professor Kings, Oxford)

Talk in ancient creeds of God as “father” and Jesus as “son”, and of Jesus “ascending into heaven” and “sitting at God’s right hand”, is metaphorical, not literal…It is recorded in a story-like context including stories of the wise men, shepherds and angels which many biblical scholars regard as unlikely to be literal.  (Keith Ward – Professor Oxford)

The Bible is … a synthesis of history and literature, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in tension, but utterly inseparable.  (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

There are four rather different Gospel accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus, all of them in a language (Greek) which Jesus probably did not use in his teaching, each Gospel often using different specific words when reporting what Jesus said on particular occasions.  It is glaringly obvious that not every specific word can be exactly correct, and in that sense there are errors in the text.  Yet the general tenor of Jesus’ teaching is quite unmistakable. … Also many [of the] New Testament letters were written within a decade or so of the death of Jesus, and they gave a vibrant account of the beliefs of the earliest disciples, who had either known Jesus personally or who had been able to talk to those who knew what Jesus had said and done.  (Keith Ward – Professor Oxford)

There was evidently one other reason for the composition of the three later Gospels (Matthew, Luke and John).  There were followers of Jesus, who were not included in the circle of those churches for which the central ritual and the story of Jesus’ suffering and death was the unifying principle.  Instead they believed that their salvation was mediated through the words of wisdom that Jesus had spoken…. Ecumenical consolidation of various Christian groups was the primary motivation in the production of these Gospels.  (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard)

“…complex world of the early Christian movement… shows us that what later historians depicted as an unbroken procession of a uniform faith was nothing of the kind… the traditional history of Christianity is written almost solely from the viewpoint of the side that won, which was remarkably successful in silencing or distorting other voices, destroying their writings, and suppressing any who disagreed with them as dangerous and obstinate “heretics”.  ” (Karen L. King and Elaine Pagels – Professor Princeton)

“… why do most Christians today think of Peter and Paul as brother apostles who shared the struggles of the early days together – not, as Paul himself describes them, as rivals engaged in bitter fighting over the meaning of Jesus’ death? This impression is not accident. Instead it was carefully constructed by the author who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.  For this author wanted to stop disagreements from leading to schism, so he chose to gloss over the harsh infighting between Peter and Paul and offered instead an exemplary picture in the Acts of the Apostles to illustrate how believers ought to resolve their differences”.  (Karen L. King and Elaine Pagels – Professor Princeton)

Christian theology has often drawn a sharp line between Scripture and tradition, but in fact Scripture itself is a product of tradition.  Its content and shape have been matters of debate, and are subject to the decisions of religious authorities in the various religious traditions.  (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

[after the New Testament]  “early Christian literature … Their methods were very simple:  where no authority existed, they invented texts and ascribed them to authors who never wrote them… Like their Jewish contemporaries, they lacked the critical concern for history and its sources which would have excluded these fabrications… … the historical writings of a contemporary Jew, Josephus… although he refers to John the Baptist, his books never comment on Jesus’ career: the one passage which appears to do so is agreed to be a Christian addition.” (Robin Lane Fox)

“Being honest about how the New Testament took shape” – Seminary students study for three years at the major seminaries such as Princeton Theological Seminary… then they leave us to serve a local church… fearing that the local church leaders may not be supportive, they frequently forget our teachings and process to preach and teach, far too often, as if the uneducated have the final word on the comparison of the biblical books.  For example, 1 Timothy, which is a work by someone influenced by Paul, is placarded as Paul’s own composition.  It is no wonder then that most people in the highways and byways of our culture assume that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John were composed by the disciples of Jesus who are called “Matthew” and “John the son of Zebedee”.  The assumption is that these works are by eyewitnesses -  Matthew and John heard what Jesus said and saw what he did.  Furthermore, it is presuppose that we have exactly what they wrote and that no changes have been made by the Greek scribes who copied what had been written.  We are assured that the Gospels we have are identical to the compositions that left the desks of Jesus’ disciples.  Now, let us be honest.  All of this is incorrect.  It is false, and the truth about the origins of our Gospels has been known for about two hundred years.  The Gospel attributed to Matthew cannot have been written by an eyewitness of Jesus and his first disciples.  All New Testament scholars would be pleased if this assumption could prove to be the father of a valid conclusion.  But, alas, the First Gospel was written over fifty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and – most important – the author, who is anonymous and unknown, based his story of Jesus on the Gospel of Mark, which was written first.  And Mark never met Jesus.  Attempts to prove that the Gospel of Matthew is either early or not literally dependent on Mark are usually fired by Christian apologetics, in the sad attempt to “shore up the faith”. Moreover the author of the First Gospel is understandably more interested in serving the needs of his community than in giving us a factual , objective, and uninterpretive account of what Jesus said and did.  The identity of the Fourth Evangelist is also unknown. .. Another point needs to be clarified.  We do not have even one fragment of the gospels from the first century.  We must work on second century, and even much later, copies of the gospels to discern what the author may have written… We text critics of the New Testament have grudgingly been forced to admit that many times scribes, who were copying the books of the New Testament, deliberately alerted the text.  Sometimes the alterations were for doctrinal reasons, sometimes they were caused by what seems to have been an embarrassing saying or episode.  Often it was to “correct” the text in light of more recent theologies and Christologies. .. Obviously, Christian salvation and teaching cannot be based on what is false.  The discovery of the truth can transport us back into the time of the evangelists…into the time of Jesus, perhaps even into his presence.  (from “The Good and Evil Serpent” by Professor Reverend James Charlesworth of Princeton University)

The story of the healing of the epileptic child, Mark 9:14-29, is the most complex miracle narrative in mark and presents the most difficult problems for the explanation of its relationship to the parallels in Matthew (17:14-21) and Luke (9:38-43a).  Mark’s version of the story is more than twice as long as the parallel versions in Matthew and Luke…. It seems that Matthew and Luke read a version of this story in their copy of Mark which did not contain the verses of Mark to which they have no parallel.  Especially the phrases and sentences of Mark 9:25-27 which are missing in the other two Synoptic Gospels have the appearance of secondary alterations or additions.  (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard)

[example of modification in Matthew] the divine dignity of the person of Jesus is more strongly emphasised, although there is no single title that would summarise the entire dignity of Jesus that is pictured in the story of his birth, life and death.  Titles of Jesus may become more elaborate.  The Markan formulation of the confession of Peter “you are the Christ” (Mark 8:29) becomes “You are the Christ the son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).  People approaching Jesus or witnessing his miracles “worship” him.   (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard) [italics added]

Close analysis of the Gospels… suggests that the memory of Jesus was transmitted orally within groups of disciples for some forty years, and that the written Gospels were literary crystallizations of such traditions selected and shaped within communities.  (Luke Timothy Johnson – Professor Candler, Yale)

[Recounting an anecdote about Winston Churchill’s meeting with another man called “Winston Churchill” – from “Mr Churchill’s Profession”...]  Like so much Churchilliana, however, this story seems to have improved in the telling.  (Peter Clarke – Professor Cambridge)

Luke has a copy of Mark’s Gospel before him and follows Mark’s plotline more faithfully than does Matthew.  He changes Mark mainly to achieve greater correctness and clarity.  For the same reason, apparently, Luke eliminates most of Mark 6-7, a section that contains repetitions (which Luke dislikes), stories that portray Jesus too much like a magician, and statements that reflect poorly on the disciples.  (Luke Timothy Johnson – Professor Candler, Yale)

With respect to Jesus, we have only writings by people who loved him and sought to honour him by keeping his memory and teaching alive.  (William Klassen – Professor Jerusalem, Cambridge)

[First we must consider] the nature of first-century biographical writings.  In the Jewish world, apart from Josephus, no one wrote biographies in the modern sense.  A modern biography seeks to set the subject into his or her historical context and usually to narrate the life of a person chronologically from birth to death.  The physical appearance of the subject is described, as is the psychological and intellectual growth of the person.  Modern biographers try to delineate external influences that had a major impact on the subject’s life, and, in turn, the important influence of the subject on people and events of his or her time.  Biographers try to restrict themselves to what is historically verifiable or at least plausible, to describe events and not just myths, beliefs or traditions.  Strictly speaking a modern biography does not seek to simply to praise or defame; but seeks a degree of objectivity so that the reader can make up his or her own mind.  By contrast, ancient biographers saw their role primarily as mythmaking, to honour the community’s heroes and to condemn its scoundrels for all time.  biographers were meant to serve a moral purpose to shape the actions of the community.  (William Klassen – Professor Jerusalem, Cambridge)

Four authors … each wrote a Gospel, and behind each lies a community within which a creative writer functioned.   (William Klassen – Professor Jerusalem, Cambridge)

What this discussion shows is that it makes little sense to speak of verbal inerrancy or the like in connection with the biblical text.  In many cases we cannot be sure what the exact words of the Bible should be.  Indeed, it is open to question whether we should speak of the biblical text at all; in some cases we may have to accept the fact that we have more than one form of the text and that we cannot choose between them. This is not to say that the wording of the Bible is unreliable.  The Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that there is, on the whole, an amazing degree of continuity in the way the text has been copied over thousands of years.  But even a causal comparison of a few current English Bibles (, say, the New Revised Standard Version, the new English Bible, and the Living Bible) should make clear that there are many areas of uncertainty in the biblical text.  Of course, translations also involve interpretation, and interpretation adds to the uncertainty.  For the present, however, I only want to make the point that we do not have one perfect copy of the original text, if such a thing ever existed.  We only have copies made centuries after the books were originally composed, and these copies often differ among themselves.  (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

A quick reading of the Gospels might give the impression that Pontius Pilate was a decent harassed administrator, reluctantly pressured into executing Jesus.  Gospel critics, considering for example Luke 13:1, already questioned this picture of Pilate.  But we know a good deal more about Pilate form a variety of sources outside the New Testament.  It confirms what Gospel critics already suspected from internal evidence, that Pilate was really a very hard man who would unhesitatingly order the execute of a Galilean who seemed to him sufficiently troublesome.  The tragic myth of Pilate as a decent fellow pushed into a terrible mistake has to go.  It was evolved by way of reconciling Christianity with the Roman State, but it is not historical.  (Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong – Cambridge and BBC)

[the virgin birth]  Matthew wrote…”All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel””.  Matthew took this quotation of the prophet Isaiah from his Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint:  Behold a parthenos shall conceive… Here the world parthenos certainly means a virgin.  But if Matthew had gone back to the original Hebrew in which Isaiah wrote, he would have found that this word was almah, which means simply “a young woman”.  Hebrew has a word for virgin, bethulah, but Isaiah chose not to use it.  He was predicting a perfectly natural birth.  There is no idea of virgin birth in Isaiah’s original prophecy.  Matthew can only use it as a proof text because of this mistranslation form Hebrew into Greek .  It remains just possible that Matthew inherited an independent tradition of the Virgin Birth, which he thought he could support with Isaiah’s prophecy.  But historically it seems much more likely that the whole idea simply arose from this mistranslation.  (Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong – Cambridge and BBC) am duplicating

One of the first exercises students of the Gospels do is to consult a parallel version of them, allowing an examination in four columns of the ways in which they relate to each other… As one notices the parallels and differences, a host of questions flood in and one thing above all becomes clear:  no single, agreed picture of Jesus is likely to be possible on this evidence.  (David F. Ford – Professor Cambridge)

The point here is not to ponder whether it is Mark or Matthew who gives the more plausible depiction of a conversation between Jesus and Peter.  We have absolutely no way of knowing whether anything like such a conversation ever took place, in Aramaic, some forty to sixty years earlier.  (Paula Fredriksen – Professor Boston, Princeton, Stanford)

There are, as we shall see, passages in Mark where it is impossible to be certain whether a particular story rests on a tradition derived from witnesses or whether it represents a deduction from Old Testament prophecy about what “must have” happened when the Messiah came.  (e.g.  Mark 15:24) (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

What the Gospels give us, inextricably fused together in a single picture, is the historic Jesus and the Church’s reactions to, and understanding of, him as they developed over half a century and more.  Seldom, if ever, can we distinguish with certainty and say:  “This is pure history “ and “that is pure invention or interpretation”.   (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

“Historical” and “mythical” are by no means opposed or exclusive designations.  Socrates, Alexander the Great and Spartacus were all “historical” figures who were also mythologised.  They really existed, but also became figures of fantasy to such an extent that it is impossible to tell facts about them from fiction.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

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