Historical Jesus, Theology

Historical Jesus, pt 3 – Breaking Down the Narrative

The historical Jesus is summoned, but the image who appears too often is a (thinly disguised) version of ourselves. – Paula Fredricksen1

In order to “properly” dissect the gospels to discover the historical Jesus, the Jesus Seminar and other “Jesus Scholars” make certain assumptions made about the texts. Paula Fredricksen candidly points out that, as modern scholarship views it, the Gospels sit on the far side of a tremendous gap between them and the life of Jesus. She supposes that Jesus was an Aramaic-speaking Jew of the lower class in a pre-Christian world whereas the evangelists were Greek-speaking Christians in a world hostile to Judaism. Based on this, she makes the following conclusions:

  1. Even if eyewitness testimony does lie to some extent behind some of the Gospel traditions, that testimony is never scientific or objective, first of all because the witness is human. In this particular case, their conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead, which would have motivated their preserving and circulating these stories, would inevitably have affected the reports of prior events that these witnesses gave. Other early members of the movement, not so convinced, would and presumably did speak differently.
  2. These stories would have been told and retold – by those of the original generation during their lifetimes; by the later, intervening generations for theirs – before achieving the relative stability of writing. Revision and amplification inevitably travel along this chain of transmission, again because its links are human.
  3. The eventual achievement of written form did not fully stabilize these traditions from and about Jesus, as a simple comparison of our four Gospels shows. The Gospels themselves differ.2

The Inconsistency of the Narrative

The inherent unreliability that Fredricksen seems to expect from the Gospels illustrates that modern Jesus scholarship has rejected the concept of inspiration. This is, in fact, one of the intrinsic beliefs of Jesus scholarship. It is assumed that the Gospel narratives developed over time. They develop this belief at the intersection of two epistemological vectors.

1. The nature of God is such that he would not inspire Scripture.

Robert W. Funk continually reiterates that the Jesus Seminar does not believe that God effects change in the world.

“The notion that God interferes with the order of nature from time to time in order to aid or punish is no longer credible, in spite of the fact that most people still believe it. Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood. Miracles are conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the regularity of the order of the physical universe.”3

Since the giving of Scripture by the power of the Spirit of God would be considered a miracle, it could not have happened. Scripture must then, by default, have developed by human agency and humans are inherently, if subconsciously, prone to embellishment and bias.

Even ceding the idea that God might have supernaturally given the narratives; the Jesus Seminar asks the simple question of why God did not preserve the original manuscripts to avoid confusion.

“It seems little enough to ask of a God who creates absolutely reliable reporters. In fact, we do not have original copies of any of the gospels. We do not possess autographs of any of the books of the entire Bible. The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one hundred and seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, and no two copies are precisely alike.”4

Hence, since God did not preserve his perfectly given narratives, he must not have given the narratives in the first place. As a result, the existing gospels must be the works of men and subject to the conditions of the works of men.

2. The supposed inconsistencies of the narratives show evidence of tampering.

The probability of the inaccuracy of the gospel narratives increased geometrically when one removes the view of scriptural inerrancy. If the accounts were not given by God then they were suspect to all kinds of unchecked influences that altered, deleted, and added material.

Crossan puts it quite plainly. He details that while most people read the gospels one after another, when you read them next to each other, the errors become quite evident.

“It is disagreement rather than agreement that strikes you most forcibly. And those divergences stem not from the random vagaries of memory and recall but from the coherent and consistent theologies of the individual texts. The gospels are, in other words, interpretations.”

Add on top of this the belief that those who developed the narratives had their own agenda, and you have quite the mess to sort out. “The historian…must be aware that the authors had theological convictions and that they may have revised their accounts to support their theology.”5

Jesus scholarship seems to view the gospels as a literary form unique to the Christian community.

“The gospels are neither histories nor biographies, even within the ancient tolerances for those genres.”6

“Scholars make the most of the fragmentary and belated texts they have, utilizing the rigors of investigation and peer review, and offering no more than tentative claims based on historical probability.”7

In other words, the true meaning of the text must be determined by the historian/literary critic.


Bultmann’s proposition that the narratives were intermixed layers seemed to make Jesus scholarship impossible. How could one separate the various forms and contexts to bring the historical Jesus out from underneath the rubble, so to speak?

E. P. Sanders proposes that there are four layers of development in the gospels, which expands on the basic problems with the cultural gap demonstrated above.

  1. The original oral traditions which were delivered (performed) in homiletical or pedagogical contexts
  2. Collections of related units into groups of pericopes
  3. Gatherings of pericopes into Proto-gospels (pre-Mark and Q)
  4. The development of the canonical gospels8

Dividing the canonical gospels based on their proto-gospel influences is a fairly straightforward matter. The historian assumes that Mark is one source for Matthew and Luke, then he removes all the passages and incidents that all three share. After that, he classes all the material that Matthew and Luke share as coming from another source – usually Q.

What is left over is considered the author’s embellishment. Most Jesus scholars attribute this material to performances in oral form. With each performance of the oral tradition of Jesus’ words, new factors or contexts or situations were added. “The Christian material was kept alive and fresh, even though it was used over and over again, by being applied to living issues – not all of which were the issues of Galilee between 25 and 30 CE.”9 This contextual material is considered the work of the individual evangelists and generally disregarded.

The proto-gospels are themselves considered compendiums of smaller units called pericopes – literally “cut around.” These are self-contained units, usually stories surrounding a saying or series of sayings. They are often found in different contexts in the gospels and are supposedly moved around to any number of different settings to suit the needs of the narrator.

In turn, the pericopes have at their root the original oral traditions with some additional teaching materials attached. These are considered hermeneutical or pedagogical units, depending on if they were used in preaching or in teaching.

Finally, these small units have at their core the oral traditions. These are usually sayings of Jesus without any contextual information although some of the events are considered historical. Of course, they are translations of Jesus’ sayings since he spoke in Aramaic, and as Bultmann points out, there is some inherent loss in translation.

Bultmann stats quite plainly in Jesus and the Word, this is really as far as we can go. The understanding beyond the original oral traditions is lost. If they aren’t the words of Jesus, there really is no way to figure it out.

Really, this scenario has been oversimplified for brevity’s sake. The process adopted by Jesus scholars is often quite involved. It is important to note one more thing before moving on to other matters.

Jesus scholars, especially the Jesus Seminar, do not consider the larger contexts of the gospels because they assume, based on Schmidt’s work, that the overarching plots and storylines are fictional. They do not attempt to interrelate events, characters or developments. They view the narratives as collections of independent pieces without cohesion. They consider the gospel narrative to be composed of 176 individual pericopes, of which they consider 80% to be non-historical.10

The Jesus Scholars’ Seven Pillars

In The Five Gospels, Robert Funk establishes the seven pillars upon which their understanding of Jesus and early Christianity rest.

  1. There is a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith
  2. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are closer to the historical Jesus than John
  3. The Gospel of Mark is prior to and a source for the other two synoptic gospels
  4. There existed another source (Q) that provided material for Matthew and Luke that is independent of Mark (more correctly, pre-Mark)
  5. Jesus was a non-eschatological teacher who used aphorisms and parables
  6. There is a fundamental contrast between the oral culture of Jesus day and a print culture of our own day.
  7. The Gospels are assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.11

We can further reduce these seven pillars to a much simpler formula. At its very basic level, modern Jesus scholarship assumes the inaccuracy and evolution of the Jesus stories. While accepting that Jesus truly existed and that there is a tangible record of his ministry, they reject the primary sources of that ministry on the basis of a hundred years of scholarship which begins with the assumption that Jesus could not be divine.

Dramatic Plausibility

As the Jesus Scholar reads the narratives of Jesus, or more specifically the pericopes of Jesus, he examines them for internal consistency. This examination is based on several standards:

  1. Anachronisms (persons or events which are deemed to have come out of a different time period) are rejected
  2. Mythological connections are set aside – for example, Jesus’ birth story is so similar to that of Moses that they consider it a later addition
  3. Elements which justify Christian thinking or practices are not included – they are assumed to be later additions

In short, the stories surrounding the sayings are generally rejected. Funk explains:

“Historical reminiscence is likely to be found in the nucleus of stories if anywhere, particular performances of the introductions and conclusions will tend to reflect the storyteller’s or narrator’s interests, convictions, and audience.”12

The Problem with Dramatic Plausibility

Critiquing the narratives on the basis of dramatic plausibility requires a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the cultural contexts of the Scriptures. Even E. P. Sanders bulks at making judgments based on this criterion. He admits that we know little about the cultures Jesus lived in outside of the writing of Flavius Josephus.13

Josephus is, at best, a disreputable source. He was a Hellenic Jew who surrendered Galilee to the Roman general Vespasian and only spared his own life by predicting that Vespasian would become emperor. While he is the only extra-bibical, near-contemporary of Jesus, his works show misinformation and personal bias. His writings are certainly as tainted (if not more so) as the scholars claim the gospels are.

Even if we allow that the extant copies of Josephus are trustworthy (which is questionable), there are a number of reasons to look to his accounts warily.

  1. He spent most of his time living in Rome, researching from secondary and tertiary sources. He may have made things up for all we know since there is no way to verify his works.
  2. His volumes are written specifically for the Roman court, and as such cast Rome always as the protagonist, which must have required adjustment of events.
  3. We have no way of knowing his sources’ veracity since they are lost.

What we do know is that historical records like Josephus’ rarely represent the actual living conditions of the lower classes. If Jesus was, as Crossan calls him, “A Mediterranean peasant”, then our knowledge of the context of his teachings is limited. We can conjecture as to the nature of his associations, the social standing of various individuals.

So really, our knowledge of the actual context of Jesus’ life is virtually unknown outside of archaeology and archaeology is often reinterpreted by scholar based on their own biases.


1 Paula Fredricksen, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” (World & I, vol 14 iss 12) p 285, 15p

2 Ibid.

3 Funk, “21 Theses of the Coming Radical Reformation”.

4 Funk, The Five Gospels, 10.

5 E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus. (New York: The Penguin Group, 1993), 8.

6 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994), xiii.

7 Funk, The Five Gospels, 10.

8 Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 61-62.

9 Ibid.

10 William P. Lowe, “From the Humanity of Christ to the Historical Jesus” (Theological Studies, vol 61 iss 2, June 2000) p 314, 18p

11 Funk, The Five Gospels, 5-8.

12 Funk, The Acts of Jesus, 26.

13 Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 21.

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