Since the Enlightenment, folks have been asking hard historical and theological questions about the reality and significance of Jesus. One of the means by which those questions are dealt with to the standards of a post-Enlightenment world is a construct called “the historical Jesus.” The activity behind this is usually called “the quest for the historical Jesus,” or simply “the quest.”
Although we did not get to this position overnight, it is not my intention to review the entire course of events here, as there are quite a number of excellent books and articles. Two short notes:
The historical Jesus is distinct from both the real Jesus, and from what is commonly called the Christ of faith. The Christ of faith lies outside historical inquiry. The real Jesus, or even a reasonably complete profile, is simply unattainable using the sources at our disposal.
What are our possible sources? Well, there’s the NT, Josephus, other pagan and Jewish writings, the Agrapha, and the apocryphal gospels. The bottom line, however, is this: Outside of the NT, only Josephus and possibly Tacitus, are early, independent, and reliable witnesses to the life of Jesus.
Both Josephus’ Jewish War (70 CE) and Jewish Antiquities (93-94 CE) contain passages mentioning Jesus. One mention in Jewish War is clearly a Christian interpolation. This long passage occurs only in the Slavonic (Old Russian) version. It is a very wild account of various events otherwise found in the apocryphal gospels.
In Antiquities, however, we have a mention of “the brother of Jesus, who is called Messiah, James by name…” which is likely to be authentic, and a second, longer passage, likewise in Antiquities which may have some elements that are not interpolations. I have bracketed the interpolations:
“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, [if indeed one should call him a man]. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. [For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him.] And up until this very day, the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.”
(Ant. 18.3.3 §63-64)
The only other possible early and independent witness to Jesus other than Josephus is Tacitus. The only copies we have of his Annals are missing the years from 29 – 32 CE, the most probable location for a report of the death of Jesus. His record of Nero’s role in Rome’s great fire contains the statement that Christ, after whom the Christians were named, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius (Annals, 15.44).
This leaves the NT. And what of the NT? Obviously, there’s the Gospels. Beyond that, there’s very little material. Such information as there is, is mostly in the works attributed to Paul, the only writer from the first generation of Christians.
Paul’s interest was primarily in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because his works are letters to converts of the first generation of Christians, he was able to assume that his readers already possessed most of the information they needed on the life and activities of Jesus. Occasionally, he does allude to some items taught by Jesus: divorce (1 Cor 7:10-11), independent financial support (1 Cor 9:14; cf Mt 10:10, Lk 10:7), the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26), and the basic facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3).
Beyond this, Rom 1:3 says that Jesus was of Davidic descent, and Rom 15:8 says that his mission was to Israel, not the Gentiles. There are also a number of exhortations, such as the one requiring converts to love their persecutors (Rom 12:14, 1 Thes 5:15, 1 Cor 4:12), that probably show knowledge of what Jesus taught during his lifetime.
Outside of Paul, the Epistle of James prohibits oaths (Ja 5:12), as did Jesus (Mt 5:34-37). The Epistle to the Hebrews affirms that Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, not Levi (Heb 7:14), and shows some awareness of a Gethsemane tradition (Heb 5:7-8). Revelation uses some of the imagery found in Jesus’ eschatological discourses such as the coming of Jesus as a thief.
And as Porky Pig would say, “TTThaat’s all, folks!” It’s not very much on which to base the study of an issue like the historical Jesus. When I continue, I’ll start with a look at the Gospels as sources – because they pose their own challenges to historical reconstruction.