Historical Jesus, Theology

Historical Jesus pt 4 – The Historical Record

In history, as in journalism, second-hand is usually as good as it gets. We can’t speak as historians. But as journalists, we find those Gospel discrepancies very reassuring. That’s how real events get reported. – Ted Byfield1

One of the harshest realities for Christians to accept is that we do, to a certain extent, recreate Jesus in every culture and generation. It is unavoidable simply because we truly do not understand the world that Jesus lived in. We have indications and generalizations from archaeology and contemporary records, but we do not know everything or even nearly everything.

It is the ultimate presumption to state that any one group of scholars has mastered enough of Jesus’ world to contradict what the Bible shows. A modern equivalent of their textual attempts might be like taking the Constitution and trying to determine which member of the Constitutional Convention was responsible for which articles and statements.

This, however, is exactly what the Jesus scholars believe they can do. They believe that they have reasonable evidence to present Jesus in situa, or as near to it as possible. This is a summary of their conclusions and some simple, concise answers.

Early Christianity

Most Jesus scholars will cede the point that early Christianity developed shortly after the execution of Jesus. They accept the presence of what they call “the Jesus movement” and the person of the apostle Paul.

It is to this “Jesus movement” that we owe the fictional accounts around Jesus. The narratives of the gospel supposedly grew up around the sayings credited to Jesus. The sayings were passed on and added to through oral tradition. This was a subconscious movement from proverb to gospel, and it would have taken place over at least a couple of centuries.

Personally, I have no problem with believing that the Christian gospels began as oral tradition. I do not however believe that they were embellished records because I can freely accept the supernatural. The Jesus Seminar’s biggest failure is that it is a wholly modernistic, rationalist approach that believes that if they cannot experience it, it must not have happened.

The Evangelists

The writers of the gospels were anonymous Christians with little connection or love for the Judaism that Jesus ministered in. They were Greek-speakers with very little information about Jesus’ life, and so they invented or extrapolated the context of the sayings they had heard through oral tradition. Most Jesus scholars believe that the evangelists were at least 3rd generation Christians. This belief is so ingrained in the modern mind that a 1990 U.S. News & World Report article simply states it as fact: “While some of the writings bear the names of those who walked with Him on the dusty roads of Judea, centuries of scholarship have turned up little convincing evidence that His 12 closest disciples did much writing, either.”2

Of the preserved gospels, Mark was written first. Since it contains little supernatural information, reflects Jesus’ Judaism in a rather neutral light, and seems to be more pericopic in nature, they conclude that it is close to the original oral tradition.

Contemporary with Mark, there is another source – Q – which contains only oral tradition. The two sources were combined by the author’s of Matthew and Luke into their current forms in the 2nd century. The three gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are then synoptic because they rely on similar sources and not because they are written by eyewitnesses.

All Jesus scholars conclude that the gospel of John is written last, but they differ widely on its sources. Some say that it relies on parts of Mark and Q, while others believe it is entirely a work of fiction. They almost all agree, however, that it is not a reliable source of information on the life of the “historical” Jesus.

There is no reason to assume any of the things the Jesus Seminar assumes about the Gospels other than the theories of some 19th century theologians who believed the Gospels must have evolved and hence the ‘simplest’ of them must be the ‘first’ of them. There are a lot of reasons Mark might not be the ‘source’ material for Matthew and Luke – differences which I’ll address one day. But if Mark is not the ‘first’ written gospel, then their entire theory about the writing of the gospels falls apart.

Jesus and His World

With the elimination of the gospels as reliable witnesses to Jesus’ surroundings, the Jesus scholars extrapolate who Jesus was – literally picking and choosing which references in the gospels are original.

In Excavating Jesus, John Dominic Crossan argues that archaeological digs in Nazareth have yielded little to support the Gospel records of the village. The town was probably populated by a few hundred residents, and it is definitely Jewish in nature. There is no known structure for a synagogue. There are no contemporary references to the town until after the time of Constantine.

Crossan argues, based on the archaeological discoveries in Nazareth, that one can divide the Nazareth of the Gospel records into recognizable layers of development.

  1. Materials that go back to the late 20’s.
  2. Materials adopted from earlier layers or created by and within the ongoing “Jesus movement” tradition, dating from the 30’s and 40’s.
  3. This layer is divided into three sub-layers
    1. Mark & Q – spanning late 50’s – early 70’s
    2. Matthew & Luke – the 80’s but dependent on Mark and Q
    3. John – the layer of tradition, reliant on the previous layers and additions

Of course, the distinctions among these layers are very fine, and only the objective scholars of the Jesus Seminar are able to accurately divine what is true.

Under the weight of this information, Crossan states unequivocally that Nazareth could not have yielded a literate, educated rabbi. Based on an assumed literacy rate of under 5%, Crossan makes the statement that Jesus must have been an untrained and illiterate peasant. In fact, all of Crossan’s works attempt to show Jesus to be “a Mediterranean peasant.”

The best answer to the arguments about Nazareth are simple ones – misinformation. There is nothing in the gospels that indicates that the synagogue Jesus entered was a building. In all likelihood, it was a gathering of the men without the need for an official building. The building of synagogues was almost parallel with the construction of churches in the Christian era.

Second, the traditional Jesus is indeed not nearly as Jewish as Jesus truly was. Christian closed-mindedness has blinded us to what the gospel record really says about Jesus’ Judaism. While living to fulfill the Law, he violates only the interpretation of the Law and never the Law itself.

Third, the assumption that Jesus was an ignorant peasant is ungrounded. In all likelihood, either Joseph or Mary had family in the Levitical lines. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is called a daughter of Aaron, and although the Jesus Seminar rejects the supernatural account of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, they accept the existence of John and his family. If Jesus was John’s cousin, then he was most likely close enough to the priesthood, or at least the Pharisaical schools, to learn to read and write – if informally.

Fourth, it is entirely likely that Joseph was not the poor, ignorant hick he is portrayed as. The fact that he can afford to trek to Jerusalem at least twice during Jesus’ life, and apparently more often, indicates that he may very well has been a landed man. He may not have had a great deal of ready cash, and since he was not a farmer, he did not bring the offerings of lambs and goats; but nevertheless, he is called “the carpenter” – perhaps an indication of his status in the region, not just the village where he resided.

As such, Jesus was not necessarily a peasant. He did not possess things, but that would not have prevented his family from doing so. A simple man? Yes, probably. A peasant? Hardly. Since Jesus had no intention of living to an age or marrying, he did not take possession of Joseph’s property and allowed his half-brothers to take up that role. This is evident in a later talk about the sons of Jude, one of Jesus’ half-brothers, who possess 9,000 talents worth of land – not a small sum.


1 Ted Byfield, “If the Gospels are Disqualified, then Most History Must Be Disqualified Too” (Newsmagazine vol 25, iss 4, 01/12/1998), p

2 Jeffrey L. Sheler, “Who Wrote the Bible?” (U.S. News & World Report, vol 109 iss 23, 12/10/90), p 61

2 thoughts on “Historical Jesus pt 4 – The Historical Record”

  1. Great stuff…any chance you could expound on what “Q” is? You reference it a few times but don’t say much beyond that it is a source of oral tradition. What does that mean? Don’t laugh, but my only reference to a “Q” is of a funny immortal from Star Trek portrayed by John de Lancie…and I’m sure your not talking about him.

    1. Q is short for the German word Quelle or “source.” It is a hypothetical (and in my opinion, non-existent) source for the gospels. It is the ‘common’ material in the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke.

      Q in Wikipedia

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