The Historian’s Jesus

This is a  selection from Chapter Three of “Epiphany : A Theological Introduction To Catholicism” by Aidan Nichols O.P.  Here Fr. Nichols lists all the problems and a methodology for approaching the historical Jesus from the gospels.

Non-Christian Sources For The Life Of Jesus
So far as non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus are concerned, there is little to be said. The rabbinic materials — texts that have come down to us from the Judaism of the period after Jesus’ lifetime — contain no clear reference to him. Within the first hundred years after his death only three secular authors mention him: The Roman historian Tacitus remarks that Christians were named after a certain Christus, condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. A senior administrative official, Pliny the younger, in a letter to the emperor Trajan, describes Christians as singing hymns to someone named Christus, as to a god (which is therefore not, strictly speaking, a reference to the earthly Jesus of history). The third such reference is more informative. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing, it would appear, independently of the four Gospels but confirming their basic presentation, tells us that during the procuratorial rule of Pontius Pilate there appeared on the religious scene in Palestine a certain Jesus. He enjoyed a reputation for wisdom as expressed in teaching and wonder-working, and acquired a large following which led the Jewish leaders to bring criminal charges against him. Pilate had him crucified but his followers continued in their devotion to him till Josephus’s day. For any further first-century information about Jesus one must turn to the New Testament itself.

The New Testament and Jesus
The New Testament consists of four Gospels or presentations of the essential features of the life, work, and message of Jesus, followed by an account of the beginning of his Church (the Acts of the Apostles). Then comes a set of letters from various individual apostles, and the whole is brought to a close by a vision of the end of time, the Revelation of John. Of these books by far the most important for any reconstruction of the life of Jesus are the Gospels. We are enormously fortunate to have them, for they constitute one of the richest biographical sets of sources there are for any historical figure from the world of antiquity. Though it has been fashionable until recently to deny this, the four Gospels would have been understood by their authors’ contemporaries as biographies. The fact that they have a message to present about Jesus does not rob them of their status as biography, in the sense in which that literary genre was appreciated in the ancient world.[ R. A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge, 1992)]

Two Objections To Using The NT To Write A Life Of Jesus
We are, however, told by many scholars and popularizers of scholarship that using the Gospels to write a life of Jesus is problematic. Two objections are commonly raised.

(1)     The evangelists, like the other New Testament authors, were not interested in simply recording bare occurrences for their own sake. On the contrary, those who formulated and preserved the tradition about Jesus did so because they believed his religious claims and considered that they had later seen for themselves the reality that justifies those claims: the risen Lord of the first Easter. In early Christian tradition, therefore, the facts of the historical events were coupled with a new interpretation of those events, stemming from resurrection faith; the history of the pre-Easter Jesus was swallowed up by faith in the post-Easter Christ.

(2)      The gospel writers did not in any case share the high regard of the modem historian for knowing precisely when and where this or that event took place. Each evangelist goes his own way, except for a broad four-point outline consisting of the witness to Jesus of John the Baptist, a public ministry in Galilee, one or more journeys to Jerusalem, and the death and resurrection there. This is, fortunately, something, but in terms of an overall explanation of how Jesus’ life and preaching led to his death (and its amazing sequel), it is not very much.

Counter Arguments
These are indeed difficulties, but not insuperable ones.

(1)     First, the objection that the Gospels were from the outset an interpretation by faith for faith (intended, that is, to awaken or encourage faith in others), does not render them valueless as history. An interpretation, after all, is always an interpretation of something: it presupposes some kind of datum. The New Testament authors, responsible as they were both for preserving the traditions about Jesus and for applying them to the practical needs of the Church, were necessarily conscious that their work would be in vain if there was no historical basis for their teaching.

(2)     Second, although the evangelists clearly did not regard exact chronology as paramount (literary and theological considerations, as well as, no doubt, confusions or failures of memory, led to much discrepancy in this regard), it is possible to recognize in the Gospels a great deal of authentic historical detail (not simply a grand sweep; though here each section of a Gospel must be judged on its merits). Moreover, the events recorded in the Gospels both in themselves and in certain of their interrelations often reveal a close acquaintance with Palestinian geography as well as with the complex religious and political situation of the time. Furthermore, they frequently appear to form sequences that reflect an unfolding development in the attitudes of Jesus himself, attitudes towards the various social groups — whether family and kin, the twelve disciples, Jewish sects and movements, or pagans — that constituted his immediate world.

The Task of the Historian
Too often it is forgotten that behind all exegetical assessment of the gospel texts there stands a living person affected by and responding to the events of the time and the society in which he lived. It is the primary task of the historian to recover the features of Jesus in his public life and teaching, and not to become diverted by an obsession with the analytical dissection of the texts, the delineation of what may have been various stages in their transmission, or the search for the Christological emphases that may have characterized the local communities in the Church where those texts were stabilized in their present form. Fascinating though these adjunct activities are, the historian’s chief task is to arrange the relevant data in a narrative form, explaining that data by fashioning a connected story which seems coherent and plausible to the ears of enlightened (which does not by any means signify atheistic) common sense. The making of such coherent, explanatory stories about the human past is the discipline of history. Thus, for instance, no narrative reconstruction of the life of Jesus is plausible that so reduces the amount of what we know historically about him as to leave no clue as to how he aroused the reactions he did.

The “Instruction On The Historical Truth Of The Gospels”
In these matters of history and exegetical method there is a guideline for Catholic students in the “Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” written during the Second Vatican Council by a team of scholars under the aegis of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Its framers open by noting that

“Today the labors of exegetes are all the more called for by reason of the fact that in many publications, circulated far and wide, the truth of the events and sayings recorded in the Gospels is being challenged.”[Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, 1]

How, then, should these “labors” proceed?

In the first place, the “Instruction” says, the Catholic exegete will wish to draw on the resources furnished by the inherited patrimony of gospel interpretation, especially as that is found in the Fathers of the Church and her Doctors (the latter being theologians distinguished by three marks: learning, orthodoxy of doctrine, and holiness of life). We can take it for granted that such patristic and classical interpretation of the Gospels assumes their substantial historicity. Second, the Catholic scholar will also be happy to use the new aids provided by the historical method, though with a pinch of caution added. Because, as the “Instruction” points out, with particular reference to form criticism (on which more anon):

Certain exponents of this method, led astray by rationalistic prejudices, refuse to admit that there exists a supernatural order, or that a personal God intervenes in the world by revelation properly so called, or that miracles and prophecies are possible and have actually occurred. There are others who have as their starting-point a wrong notion of faith, taking it that faith is indifferent to historical truth, and is indeed incompatible with it. Others practically deny a priori the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. Others finally there are who on the one hand underestimate the authority which the apostles had as witnesses of Christ, and the office and influence which they wielded in the primitive community, whilst on the other hand they overestimate the creative capacity of the community itself. All these aberrations are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine, but are also devoid of any scientific foundation, and are foreign to the genuine principles of the historical method.[Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, 1]

What then are the main elements of the historical method, so far as the Gospels are concerned? There are usually held to be four “tools,” known (in order of their emergence in the last two hundred years) as source criticism, form criticism, tradition-historical criticism, and redaction criticism. In describing them I will keep in mind our particular interest: the historicity of the Gospels as a necessary condition for answering the question, How do we know about Jesus Christ?


Source Criticism
 deals with the literary relation between the Gospels and their written sources, if any are detected. Comparing the four Gospels leads to the conclusion that the first three share much common material (they are synoptic, a term first used when the practice arose of arranging their contents in parallel columns), while John is something of a sport. Comparing the Synoptics leads to one of four conclusions.

  1. The first, adopted by perhaps a majority of modem scholars but under increasing attack, is that Mark’s Gospel is primary, along with an anonymous source for the sayings of Jesus shared by Matthew and Luke — though this source, known as Q from the German word for “source,” Quelle, could be either a written document, now lost, or just a pool of remembered sayings, an oral tradition. In itself, there is nothing wrong with taking a special interest in Mark. Augustine wrote, Credimus in quem credidit Petrus, “We believe on him whom Peter believed,”[Augustine, City of God 18.54] and early tradition regarded Mark’s Gospel as the direct echo of Peter’s catechesis in Rome. Q, however, is much more problematic, since, as a sayings source, it has nothing about Jesus’ death and resurrection (the narratives of which figure so prominently in the canonical Gospels). Books can now be written, accordingly, that claim that for the “Q community” — a (hypothetical) Church with as much right to be regarded as authoritative as any other in the New Testament world — Jesus was a wisdom teacher pure and simple; his death and resurrection were not regarded there as normative for faith. Some source critics would go further and claim that the only reliable Synoptic historical material we have about Jesus is Mark and Q — and this would reduce our knowledge of him considerably. There is however no logical force behind this extension of the first solution to the Synoptic problem. Even if Mark and Q were the earliest sources to be crystallized out of the apostolic tradition, that does not mean they must necessarily be our only historical evidence. What about the material that is distinctive of Matthew and Luke? It cannot just be assumed that those evangelists spun it out of Mark and Q by creative imagination.
  2. A second major possibility alongside the two document hypothesis is now steadily regaining ground, and this is the so-called two Gospel hypothesis, according to which the order of the Synoptics is Matthew, Luke, Mark, with Mark writing on the basis of Peter’s preaching in order to unify the presentation of the gospel made in the very Jewish Matthew and the very Gentile Luke. Apart from the greater consonance of this theory with what the early ecclesiastical writers say about the order in which the Gospels were composed, it also solves many puzzles that arise if one adopts the two document hypothesis, notably the fact that there are many “minor agreements” between Matthew and Luke over against Mark. This is the Achilles’ heel of a theory according to which Matthew and Luke did not know each other, but are only connected through Mark.
  3. A third main possibility, associated with the name of Anglican exegete Austin Farrer, is to retain the priority of Mark but dispense with Q, holding instead that Luke used Matthew as a primary source alongside Matthew’s predecessor, Mark.
  4. A fourth and final view is that the Synoptics, despite their large volume of shared material, are in some way independent of each other. For those who take this line, the sharing of formulae in the Synoptic Gospels is to be explained in the first instance by the fact that Jesus formed the disciples into a group whose task it was to spread memorized versions of his teaching and summaries of his actions. After all, this is what appears to be happening in the Synoptic evangelists’ own accounts of the relation of Jesus to the Twelve, and it fits extremely well with the known practices of the Pharisees, and later on the rabbis, in a Jewish world where written and oral culture, learning from texts and learning by word of mouth, existed side by side. On such presuppositions there could be many different earlier versions of the canonical Gospels, and our best bet will be, then, a multiple source theory. The Swedish Lutheran convert to Catholicism Harald Riesenfeld and the French Dominican Père Marie-Emile Boismard represent, respectively, the first and second parts of this composite proposal. In the absence of any clear consensus about the direction of literary influence among the Synoptics, this may be the most prudent course to follow.

The Tyranny Of The Synoptic Jesus
In any case, in discussing the Gospels we cannot be content with the Synoptics alone. There is such a thing as the “tyranny of the Synoptic Jesus,” an undesirably exclusive recourse to Matthew, Mark, and Luke over against John in composing a narrative outline of Jesus’ life or an overview of his teaching. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when not so much was known about the archeology and cultural history of the Israel of Jesus’ time, it was not recognized that John’s exact knowledge of customs and places in Palestine makes him a promising source for the historian’s Jesus. The different tones in which the Johannine Jesus speaks may be explained in part by a difference of audience — one notes particularly the engagement of the Jesus of John’s Gospel with the learned theologians of Jewish parties of the day, and the fact that the lion’s share of his private or “esoteric” teaching to the Twelve in that Gospel is given on the occasion of his final meeting with them, the Last Supper.

Once source criticism — on the basis of a majority vote of Protestant scholars for the two document hypothesis — had put forward the claim that we can infer the editorial techniques of Matthew and Luke by seeing what they did to Mark, it was fairly inevitable that people should ask whether there might perhaps be signs of similar editorial work within Mark himself. An editorial framework was duly discovered, and, when removed, left behind a series of disconnected units of various kinds. Mark, it was now said, is a snapshot album — unconnected snaps of Jesus at various points in various postures, the interrelation (and, therefore, significance) of which we can no longer discern.

Form Criticism
And just as source criticism had been in fact the application to the New Testament of the methods of historians of texts from the Greco-Roman and medieval European worlds, so now a new method arose which applied to these disconnected units the methods of historians of folklore. The tale, the saying, the miracle story, and so forth, were already well known as typical forms of popular folk-culture from Norway in the north to the Australian aboriginals in the south. Focusing on such formal aspects enabled the scholars to identify (to their own satisfaction at least) the original function the units possessed at the oral stage before the author of Mark or the compiler of Q got hold of them. The overall conclusion of form criticism has been summed up as: “In the beginning was the sermon.” The units tell us next to nothing about the life of Jesus; rather, they tell us about the life of the community that believed in him. Such radical form criticism, undermining as it does any pretension to know anything much historically about Jesus Christ soon aroused attack, and deservedly so.

Form Criticism and Its Detractors
In the first place, we can say that the application of the form criticism of folklore specialists whose material has developed over hundreds of years to texts which have a prehistory of only a few decades is distinctly dubious.
(2) Secondly, form criticism cannot show, in point of fact, that units were not transmitted for their own sake. Were early Christians really so uninterested in what the Jesus of history had actually said and done? Was the principal effect of Pentecost to turn the apostles’ memories into blanks?
(3) Thirdly, it is a non sequitur to say that because the form of a unit shows how it was used in the earliest Church (before Mark, say) therefore it originated in the post-Easter period as the “theology of the community.”
At the most, form criticism has shown how “Jesus material” in the Gospels was affected by the use made of it in the early Church’s preaching, liturgy, and apologetics. It has not shown that the early Church had no interest in passing on authentic historical matter about Jesus Christ. The great Catholic historian of ancient education Henri-Irénée Marrou pointed out that the idea and techniques of form criticism are suspiciously indebted to the German romantics, notably J. G. Herder, in ascribing popular literature to the collective, spontaneous creation of communities — an almost unconscious expression of the soul or genius of a social group. This romantic theory is today largely abandoned as illusory by other literary historians, not excluding specialists in folklore.

Form Critics Distinguish The Historical From The Original Oral Record
Assuming that form criticism has at any rate some value, we are faced with the question, How can we distinguish words and ideas that the Church has introduced into the forms from the original oral record? Form critics had their own suggestions here. At their most rigorous they put forward two main criteria: a saying of Jesus may well be authentic if
(a) it is something a first-century Palestinian Jew could plausibly have said and
(b) it is not the kind of thing the early Church set out to say about Jesus but rather something which left that Church slightly embarrassed. The conclusion is that a typical authentic saying of Jesus might be Mark 13:32, where Jesus admits that he does not know the time of his parousia!
These criteria are far too restrictive. They state in effect that no saying of Jesus is authentic if in first-century Palestinian-Jewish terms it is original (in other words, Jesus was utterly conventionally minded!), or if the early Church agreed with it (in other words, the apostles got absolutely everything wrong!).

A Reply From The Tradition-Historical Critics And Redaction Criticism
The tradition-historical critics, however, accepted from the form critics that something like these criteria were the right ones and then tried to answer the question, If the language and ideas of the units identified by form criticism did not come from Jesus and the apostles, then where did they come from? Their answer was that the language and ideas at issue came from the surrounding culture within which the early Christian communities lived and prayed.

We can indeed accept that the historical tradition about Jesus was affected by picking up things from the environment, just as it was modified by such internal demands of the life of the Church as preaching. But since we have rejected radical form criticism, we necessarily also reject radical tradition-historical criticism. The problem the latter was devised to answer largely disappears anyway with the rejection of the former.

If form criticism is even partly right about how Mark and Q originally found their materials, it will be possible to ask, Why did Mark (since no one possesses a copy of Q) organize his materials the way he did? That is, we can ask not only about the prehistory of the Marcan units, as in tradition-historical criticism, but also about their subsequent history — and this is redaction criticism (named after the German loan-word from the French for “editor,” Redakteur). Redaction critics are interested in the author of Mark considered as an original theologian, and likewise with the authors of Matthew and Luke in their editing of Mark and Q. Here we may throw in John for good measure, insofar as it is possible to conjecture what his materials might have been.

The Acceptability Of Redaction Criticism
Once again, the acceptability of redaction criticism turns on just how radical is its use of form criticism. Once radical form criticism is accepted, redaction criticism makes the Gospels tell us more about the evangelists than about Jesus, just as tradition-historical criticism makes the Gospels tell us more about the contemporary culture than about Jesus, and form criticism makes the Gospels tell us more about the Church than about Jesus. But can we really suppose that the evangelists felt this sovereign freedom to make things up as they went along? As one critic has recently remarked:

“For all his claims to apostolic authority, Paul does not feel free to create teachings and put them in the mouth of Jesus. We might ask, Who in the first generation did?”[J. P. Meier, Jesus: A Marginal Jew (New York, 1991) 46]

The Three Stages of The Pontifical Biblical Commission
In its effort to keep the ship of gospel study on an even keel, the Pontifical Biblical Commission proposed a three-stage scheme as corresponding better both to Catholic teaching and to historical probability.
(1) At stage one, it suggested, Jesus deliberately created a group of disciples, a kind of rabbinate, so as to pass on the tradition about him in a culture where oral transmission was still vital in the communication of knowledge.
(2) Stage two involves the apostles themselves as they recounted Jesus’ life and words but did so in the light of what they knew to have been their final outcome.

It need not be denied that the apostles when handing on to their hearers the things which in actual fact the Lord had said and done, did so in the light of that fuller understanding which they enjoyed as a result of being schooled by the glorious things accomplished in Christ, and of being illuminated by the Spirit of Truth. Thus it came about that, just as Jesus himself after his Resurrection had “interpreted to them” (Luke 24:27) both the words of the Old Testament and the words which he himself had spoken, so now they in their turn interpreted his words and deeds according to the needs of their hearers. “Devoting [themselves] . . . to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), they made use, as they preached, of such various forms of speech as were adapted to their own purposes and to the mentality of their hearers; for it was “to Greek and barbarian, to learned and simple” (Romans 1:14) that they had a duty to discharge.[Instruction on the Historical truth of the Gospels, 8, 2]

Here then the oral forms were enclosed within the actual word-of-mouth preaching of the apostles.
(3) Finally, stage three was reached when those whom the commission calls “the sacred authors” began to operate and to compose the Gospels out of the material coming to them from the apostolic tradition. The commission speaks of these evangelists as setting down the gospel message in written form in response to the needs of their respective Churches.

Dei Verbum: A Broadened Notion Of Apostolic Authorship
Here the “Instruction” seems pointedly to refrain from identifying the apostles (and their co-workers) with the “sacred authors” or evangelists, and in this it appears to have had an influence on Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council. After declaring that the four Gospels are our principal sources for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior, Dei Verbum continues:

The Church has always and everywhere maintained, and continues to maintain, the apostolic origin of the four Gospels. The apostles preached, as Christ had charged them to do, and then, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they and others of the apostolic age [ipsi et apostolici viri] handed on to us in writing the same message they had preached, the foundations of our faith: the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.:.. Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitantly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up (cf. Acts 1:1-2). For, after the Ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with the fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed.

But in the following section, where it would be natural to find a confident assertion of apostolic authorship for Matthew and John, and that of “apostolic men” for Mark and Luke, the language is rather subdued.

The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, while keeping the form of proclamation, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus…. Whether they relied on their own memory and recollections or on the testimony of those who “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and minister of the Word,” their purpose in writing was that we might know the “truth” concerning the things of which we have been informed (cf. Luke 1:2-4) .[Dei Verbum, 18-19]

By borrowing the phrase “the sacred authors” from the biblical commission’s text, Dei Verbum leaves open (probably deliberately) the possibility that the authors of the Gospels were in fact second-generation Christian writers and scribes. At any rate, by prescinding from the question of how, when, and where the apostles committed, their preaching to writing, Dei Verbum made it officially possible for Catholic scholarship to adopt a broadened notion of apostolic authorship — though we should note that the historical authority of the Gospels will suffer if that notion is expanded too far: if, for instance, an “apostolic writing” comes to mean merely a writing in which the Church recognizes the apostolic faith. For that may be said of, for example, the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux, or the Code of Canon Law of the Oriental Churches! The most recent Roman pronouncement to take a position on the point, the 1994 document of the biblical commission on “The Interpretation of the Bible,” steers a via media in calling the New Testament writings a “genuine reflection of the apostolic preaching” while insisting that this does not necessarily mean all were composed by the apostles themselves.

Knowing About Jesus Christ
How then, can we know about Jesus Christ? We can obtain an historical knowledge of him by looking at the Gospels, but we must be canny about how we approach them. Though we can admit that they are deeply affected by the faith of those who wrote them, this does not mean that, as believers, the evangelists or those on whom they relied were uninterested in what actually happened. We can also admit that the evangelists were not historians in the modern sense, and even that, in quite a short time, the tradition about Jesus had been directed to the practical needs of the Church. But this does not mean that the evangelists or those on whom they drew were wholesale inventors of facts, continually put words on Jesus’ lips, and retained no sense of the location or order of events and sayings. We can accept that chronological order was not a paramount consideration for them or their sources. Otherwise they would no doubt have taken steps to ensure the transmission and writing down of a more consistent scheme. Arrangement of material by topic was sometimes more important, and this led inevitably to a certain displacement of episodes. But enough of what the contemporary non-Catholic exegete E. P. Sanders has termed “chronological clues” are left to reconstruct an outline chronology using the imaginative hypothesizing essential to all historical explanation.[In what follows I shall be indebted to the work, along these lines, of the German archaeologist-exegete Bargil Pixner, monk of the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem. See: B. Pixner, With Jesus through Galilee according to the Fifth Gospel (Rosh Pina, 1992]

In sum, the idea that the evangelists, or the early Christian community, were the inventors of much or even most of the story of Jesus is historically implausible. To explain the rise of the Church, a figure of enormous originality and power must be postulated by the most religiously skeptical of historians — and it is paradoxical that Christian scholars can sometimes appear less ready to accept this than some of their secular colleagues. Some would call what follows “novelistic,” but I prefer to make my own some words of a distinguished Protestant biblical scholar of a new generation:

This approach may rightly be regarded as conservative if by that is meant that it places a premium on considerations of historical plausibility, continuity, and common sense, at the expense of readings which tend to atomize texts into a profusion of sources in mutual social and religious contradiction. We must indeed affirm the multiformity of our evidence, and refuse to rule out the possibility of finding such contradictions. Nevertheless, my inclination here will be to look in the first instance not for clinical detail in source criticism but for a whole picture of both the teaching and the actions of Jesus which makes plausible sense in a first century Palestinian narrative framework.[M. Bockmuehl, This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah (Edinburgh, 1994) 21]

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