The Historical Jesus

When I first began this project, my intention was to avoid reading any secondary sources. The idea was to read the text without any preconceived notions. Unfortunately, as with a lot of (presumably) good intentions, this has gone by the wayside. The temptation was simply too great, and I caved. The first was St Saul, A Skeleton Key To The Historical Jesus, by Donald Harmon Akenson. An excellent work, and I highly recommend it. The second was The Historical Jesus, by Helen K. Bond, part of  The T&T Clark Guides For The Perplexed series.  I have  not quite finished it, but so far it has proven to be a terrific introduction to the topic. The third is Jesus and Judaism, by E.P. Sanders. I’m even less far along in this one as I am in Bond’s, but so far it’s seems really good as well.

The problem is that this has introduced another element into my analysis.  For the past few posts, I’ve been reading Mark from the perspective of how the text fits in to the Quest for the Historical Jesus. This is not a bad thing, per se, but it is a bit off-topic, so I apologize for the lack of focus. In the end, however, as I get a better handle on how to incorporate this new element, I believe this will add a new dimension to the discussion.

Let’s start with a couple of observations about the Quest for the Historical Jesus (QHJ). First, it is very striking that, by and large, the questers’ backgrounds are in theology or biblical studies rather than history. There is nothing wrong with this; however, the result is that they approach the topic very differently than an historian would. This leads to the second point: the most glaring difference between the questers and historians is that the questers base their search on the gospels, using Paul as a check and balance. As someone trained in history, the idea of  starting with a source that was written 20-25 years later than our earliest source is just odd. Akenson starts with Paul; not coincidentally, he is an historian rather than a theologian.

Even when we get to the gospels, the approach taken has an influence on the results.  The method I have stumbled upon, which consists of starting at the beginning of Mark and working through the work as it was written reveals certain properties that are, I  believe, different from what you get when you start elsewhere. Sanders, e.g, starts with the episode of the cleansing of the Temple, which occurs very late in Mark’s narrative. He then constructs an argument synchronically, without taking the progression through time into account. Again, as someone trained in history, this approach is somewhat odd.

So with apologies to Akenson, Bond, and anyone else I may offend I would like to engage in something like a thought experiment of sorts. It’s a general discussion meant to stimulate further discussion; it is not intended to prove an argument, or a thesis, or a theory. Which is good, since it does no such thing.

In his book St Saul, Akenson stressed that there were many different forms of Judaism (Judahisms, as he called them) current in first century Judea.  In her book The Historical Jesus, Bond makes the same point and with some emphasis.  This would lead me to believe that there is a degree of consensus on this subject.

This consensus leads us to a question.  Given this variety in Judaism, why should we expect that there was only one “Christianity”?

This is especially true if you take a look at where we end up when our sources become plentiful. By the mid-second century, “Christianity” is a very diverse lot. There are the tales of Matthew & Luke, followed by the very different story told by John; the ‘gnostic’ Gospel of Thomas; Valentinus, the founder of a Gnostic/dualist heresy bearing his name; these just to name a few.

Remember, Jesus wrote nothing.  M0re, two persons can witness the same event, hear the same speaker, and come away with diametrically opposing messages and ways of understanding what was said. If I may, I would like to mention the scene from Life of Brian, in which Brian’s mother (IIRC) heard the Sermon on the Mount and, not hearing properly, asked, “What’s so special about the Greeks?”, wondering why they should inherit the earth.

Granted, there was a body  appears to have been ‘disciples’, but how united were they? How uniform was their understanding and outlook?  We have seen the differences of opinion between peter and James in Galatians, and we realize just how differently two close followers can interpret the master’s message.

Consider a similar situation: Socrates. would we attempt to re-construct the ‘historical’ Socrates from Plato’s dialogues? No. So why do we think that we can get to the historical Jesus by way of stuff that was written 1-2 generations later? Plato knew Socrates personally, and yet he had no qualms about making him into the mythic symbol of The Sage. We, apparently, have no writings from anyone who knew Jesus. As such, thinking that we can re-create his teachings may be a bit presumptuous. To say the least.

Let’s take an even better example: Ronald Reagan. We are now about a generation removed from Reagan’s presidency, which is, more or less, the same time that had passed between Jesus’ death and St Paul’s earlier letters. In the intervening time, Reagan has become sort of the founder of the contemporary Republican Party in the US. He is revered and praised, perhaps not as a Saviour, but then again, the adulation often borders on worship. As such, we would imagine that his legacy would be carefully guarded by his followers. Except that isn’t what’s happened.

In the intervening generation, especially in the past ten years, what Reagan actually said and did and thought is not nearly as important to his followers as what they wish he had said and done and thought. The Myth of Reagan has overcome the Reality of Reagan among precisely those who are most devoted to his memory, who most ardently seek to be considered the “true” Reaganites.

Historians tend to believe that the memory of contemporaries will act as a check/balance to later accounts. In this view, those who remembered Jesus would act to correct any attempt made by a later chronicler to change the facts of the events of Jesus’ life. At one time it was an article of faith that veterans of the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon would have prevented Herodotus from deviating too much from the ‘truth’ in his account of that battle.  The problem is that this has adamantly not happened with Reagan and his legacy. We live in a world awash in information; we have voluminous records of Reagan’s official acts, miles of film that recorded his speeches, tons upon tons of evidence. Hundreds of thousands of people who lived through his presidency are still alive. And yet, has all of this information kept the memory of Reagan on solid factual grounds?


In fact, many of those who claim to be his true heirs are often the ones most willing to distort the factual basis of Reagan’s views. They have completely forgotten–or simply don’t care about–a lot of what Reagan said and did. Instead, they ‘remember’–or make-up–those parts of Reagan that suit their immediate needs in the early 21st century. They don’t care if what they say is completely accurate; indeed, they don’t care if it’s pretty much a complete fiction so long as it suits their purpose. It is often said that Reagan would never survive a primary election given the state of the current Republican Party; and yet, those who would chase him out with torches and pitchforks are the ones most likely to revere St Ronald, and swear most vehemently that they honor his Cause.

These followers could easily verify the truth of Reagan’s record, his views, his deeds; however they choose not to, because they are not concerned with factual accuracy,. Rather than accuracy, they believe in a Transcendent Truth.

This distinction between mere factual accuracy and the greater Truth is the definition of myth.

Even Tacitus, even Thucydides–those most ‘scientific’ of ancient historians–were often more concerned with their moral–with Truth–than they were with mere factual accuracy. Tacitus loathed the office of Emperor; he spared no effort to make it seem loathsome. Thucydides was more subtle; he used specific examples–the Melian Dialogue, for example–to stand as a type and a paradigm for other actions by an imperial power corrupted by its power.

Given this, why should we expect the followers of Jesus to have acted any differently? They were not writing history, or even biography; they were writing hagiography. What Jesus said and did wasn’t as important as what they believed he must have said and done. This was, after all, the strategy used by Thucydides to report speeches he did not hear; he tells us this explicitly, in so many words. As for the objection that the evangelists would have been made to stick to the facts by the existence of persons who could challenge and correct the record, the followers of Reagan have not been corrected by the legions of journalists who lived through those years. More, when someone makes a sincere and concerted attempt to correct the record, to point out how Reagan’s followers are factually wrong when they say certain things, the followers simply ignore the fact-based narrative, carry on with their version, and keep repeating it until that version becomes Accepted Truth. Eventually, the misrepresentations and outright fabrications become established as facts that “…everyone knows…” The persistent and consistent and vocal believer has, and has always had, a huge edge over the reasoned scholar in the ability to win converts.

Given this, and given the necessarily fragmented state of the various assemblies of Jesus as they existed in the second half of the first century, to believe that the factual record was maintained with anything like historical accuracy is an exercise in fantasy. In both 1 Thessalonians and Galatians, Paul complained of ‘other gospels’ in his lifetime. What did Apollos of 1 Corinthians teach? There is no reason to think that these gospels did not multiply with time. Gospels continued to be written into the second and third centuries, indicating that the Jesus narrative was still plastic for a very long time.

This, perhaps, is one of the major issues that spurred “Mark” to set down a written record of Jesus’ life: to maintain–or create–a level of consistency in the story. Yes, there were other reasons for writing, but this one doesn’t get much consideration. More, there is a very high probability, IMO, that Mark was not the first to do this. Rather, Mark was the most successful in doing this. His version resonated, perhaps because he was a better writer and thinker than his competitors. In much the same way, the Iliad that we know was fixed because “Homer” provided the most brilliant version when writing became possible. It eliminated the competition, and the Iliad that we know became The Iliad.

Here is how I suggest the history developed. Different groups, with different backgrounds, different beliefs, reacted to and were influenced by Jesus in different ways. As a result, in the time between Jesus’ death and Mark’s writing, some remembered Jesus as a wonder-worker; others as a preacher of eschatology; others as a quasi-Cynic sage. Who was right?

Possibly, all of them.

And just as possibly none of them. In the gospels, the various strands of Jesus’ teachings do not always fit well together; I would suggest this happened this because the various and diverse followers who stressed the various strands did not agree. It’s not necessarily that Jesus encompassed all of these aspects; he may have, but it’s not necessary.

The likeliest explanation is that the various groups heard him say something that they could adapt to their own purposes, or that fit their own preconceived notions of Truth. Perhaps, following John, or referring to John, Jesus said something about the coming Kingdom of God. Hearing this, someone who was already convinced that history was entering the End Times could easily interpret–or misinterpret if you prefer– something Jesus said as preaching about the End Times. The Kingdom is coming, ergo the current times must be ending. It’s a reasonable inference, especially if you already believe in the End Times. Those who had experienced, and been impressed by, the Cynic sages could easily cast Jesus into this mold. Others who were impressed by the plethora of wonder-workers abroad at the time could have been certain that Jesus performed wonders, too.

One group that is often overlooked are those who would become Gnostics, or dualists of some sort. “Gnostic” is a very imprecise term that often encompasses two compatible but fundamentally different ideas. The first is the ‘gnosis’, the idea of hidden knowledge. Jesus talked in parables; from there it is but a short step to saying that he talked of esoteric secrets. The other aspect of Gnosticism, which is not a necessary component, but which is often joined with it is the distinction between flesh and spirit, the Dualist belief in Good Spirit and Evil Flesh. This was latent, at least, in Plato’s thought, and was explicit in Zoroastrianism. We’ve seen at least oblique references to it in Paul. We get glimpses of it in Jesus, especially in Mark. The logical conclusion of dualism, with regard to Jesus, is Docetism. There is a persistent rumor about a ‘Secret Mark” in which Jesus’ secret teachings are set down. Part of the reason this seems plausible is that Mark does sometimes include aspects that could be–and later often were–doctrines that could be avowed by Gnostics.

Each of these groups would then have incorporated Jesus into their belief system, creating numerous strands of Jesus beliefs. The genius of Mark is that he was able to weave these strands into a single, coherent, and (mostly) cohesive narrative that then appealed to each of these groups. We all recognize that the places where these different narratives are joined are not always completely smooth, but many of them are. This weaving together may have had the effect–perhaps intended–of bringing some of these different Jesus beliefs into a single body. It is, after all, only after Mark wrote that we start hearing about Christians in Roman or Jewish authors. [Note: Suetonius wrote after Mark, but he was writing of a period before Mark. Does this explain why he confused followers of Chrestus with Jews, who were expelled from Rome? ]

One reason I posit this conjunction is based on what happened after. Even after the canon of the NT had been set, different groups were able to find individual threads and to use these threads to explain why orthodox Christianity missed the point, or flatly got it wrong. In the Greek East, the several centuries between the fifth and eleventh centuries were riven over and over again with Christological controversy and schism and heresy, most of it based, to some degree, on the text of the NT. These later groups could find what they were looking for because Mark had included some bits of it into his narrative which was then repeated–if in attenuated form–in Matthew and Luke. This same experience of schism occurred in the Latin West, mainly after the turn of the millennium. It recurred five centuries later in the Reformation, when the more-or-less single strand of orthodoxy once again splintered into a welter of beliefs, idiosyncratic in some cases, bizarre in others, all of it based on Scripture.

Can we sift evidence and come up with sayings that date back to Jesus? Probably. Will these sayings pin down who Jesus was, and what he really thought? And taught? I have my doubts. The various scholars set out so ably in Bond’s book have each presented a case that is, mostly, plausible. That they have all done so, and not always agreed should tell us something.

The lesson we should glean from these varying interpretations of the historical Jesus is that they are all based, to greater or lesser degree, on things Jesus said. Not that he necessarily believed, or meant to impart or instill belief in all of these things, but because, like so much wisdom, he spoke allegorically, which is another word for vague. Think of the brilliant prophecy given to Croesus by the Delphic Oracle: when Croesus asked the Oracle if he should fight with the Persian Empire, the Oracle told him that “if you fight, you will destroy a mighty empire.” He did fight, and he did destroy a mighty empire: his own.

This oracle represents wisdom-speak at its best. The disciple discovers not the outside truth, but what is inside him. Think of Zen koans. What do they mean? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The best wisdom literature and wisdom teaching is vague in this sense. The intent is not to impart specific knowledge, or even specific belief; rather, the point is to engage the listener, to make the listener ponder, to consider, and then to draw his/her own conclusions. Assuming that Jesus was such a teacher–and there is every reason to believe he was–is it any wonder that different groups reached different conclusions?


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 12, 2013, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. An excellent analysis. Despite the large amounts of records to the contrary, Reagan is becoming what people want him to be, despite the Democrats attempts to correct them by playing the recordings of his statements. The Democrats may be his bigger fans when his actual record is quoted today, even though the Democrats aren’t fans either. This dynamic must have happened for a short period. Does today’s mass media increase this effect, decrease it, or have little effect? Does the number of newer, younger people who have no direct memory vs the speed of older witness dieout have any effect at all? What controls the dynamics of splintering?

    • Glad you liked the post, and thanks for the kind words.

      As for the controls…I think what controls the splintering is a) the determination of the person using the record; and b) the size of that person’s bully pulpit. As I said, the fanatic with an easily repeated message has a huge advantage over a reasonable argument, at least in the public forum. So the determined and persistent advocate of a specific position will, generally, win the battle of public opinion. Alas.

      As for whether mass media makes it easier or harder…prima facie, it seems like the plethora of records should make it harder to distort the near past. Unfortunately, this has proven not to be true. All sorts of distortions and downright lies have become “facts” that “everybody knows”. So, overall, I would have to conclude that the mass media has very little impact, one way or the other.

      As for the effects of die-out…a big factor is the depth of public knowledge. The effects of the Depression were so deep, and so strong, that it took a full 40 years before Reagan could begin to challenge public knowledge about its causes. It took another 20 years before hacks like Amity Shlaes could flat-out lie by writing a book that blamed the Depression on FDR. Something like that, or WWII, which indelibly scarred the vast majority of an entire generation was not easily flushed down the memory hole.

      Reagan’s legacy, OTOH, whom a lot of people were able to, more or less, ignore, was much more easily manipulated. People were aware of him, yes, but what did he actually do? Who remembers 30 years later? I was alive, you were alive; we remember, but I don’t think we represent the majority. Again, most people will defer to the person who apparently knows what s/he’s talking about. And if the lie is repeated frequently and forcefully–the way Rush & co. do–then it’s hard to argue. Most people don’t have the confidence in their own memory, or have the facts, or whatever.

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