Historical Jesus 2: The Gospels

One way to approach the hard historical and theological questions about the reality and significance of Jesus is through a construct called the “historical Jesus.” Since there are few other sources, most of our information comes from the Gospels. How do the they stack up?

The one item on Jesus which was probably composed and published in his lifetime was the titulus that accompanied his crucifixion:

Mk 15:26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”

Mt 27:37 And they placed over his head the written charge against him: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Lk 23:38 Above him there was an inscription which read “This is the King of the Jews.”

Jn 19:19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.”

Not so hot, eh? But perhaps this is a trivial example, such a small thing that no one would take care to get it right. So let’s look at another one – the words of institution at the Last Supper. There are four versions: Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20 and 1 Cor 11:24-25. Here are two of them:

Paul: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, 24 and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Matthew: 26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.

In a context of historical inquiry, these are significant differences in the record of a very important event. So folks who contribute to the historical Jesus discussion responsibly do so by distinguishing between the ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, and the ipsissima vox, the sort of thing Jesus usually or typically said.

It is very, very, rare to hear someone make a claim of ipsissima verba, but there are some ways to make plausible claims of ipsissima vox. Many times, however, the best that can be done is basic content or “the earliest form available,” and uncertainty about what part, or parts, might go back to Jesus.

Moving from the realm of words, there’s also the question of whether or not the Gospels (or any one gospel) provide a chronological narrative. That is, do we have any idea of the order in which Jesus did the things he did between his baptism and his crucifixion?

Most folks think that the earliest Gospel is Mark’s. Mark was then used by Matthew and Luke as a source. These last two supplemented Mark’s story with other material. One source, which both of them seem to have shared, is called Q. In fact, the definition of Q is that it is the material shared by Matthew and Luke.

Beyond these two sources, Matthew and Luke seem also to have had some other traditional material, unique to each. These minor sources are called M, and L, respectively. Finally, there’s the material added by Matthew and Luke themselves. It is very difficult to distinguish between M and Matthew’s work, or between L and Luke’s work, so many folks don’t even try.

This theory of the relationships between the Synoptics is called the two-source theory. There is an alternative, called the Griesbach hypothesis, which regards Matthew as the earliest and Mark as an edited “reader’s digest” offering. There are also folks who don’t accept the reality of Q (after all, no one’s ever seen it!), as well. I’ll stick with the two-source theory.

So…if Mark’s is the oldest Gospel, then does Mark offer a chronological narrative? The answer is no. Between the baptism and the crucifixion, Mark appears to be a collection of oral and written traditions grouped by common forms, themes, or key words, not chronology.

You can still see these groupings. For example, there’s a whole raft of stories, called “controversy stories” early on in Jesus’ ministry (2:1-3:6), and another set balancing it at the end (11:27-12:34). A central section of miracle stories and sayings in 6:6b-8:21 are all linked by the word “bread,” and the parables are in 4:1-34.

And you can even see a division in the opening words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” As it happens, the first half of Mark deals mainly with the idea of Jesus as Messiah, culminating with Peter’s confession in 8:31, while the second works more on the idea of the Son of God, culminating in the centurion’s confession in 15:39.

Another reason not to read these events in Mark chronologically is that Matthew and Luke didn’t. For example, Matthew has rearranged Mark’s miracle stories to make nine miracle stories divided into three groups and separated by “buffer” material (Mt 8-9). Then there’s the Sermon on the Mount, which is only in Matthew – but some of it is replicated as a shorter sermon in Luke, and some of it is just scattered through the rest of the Lucan narrative.

For this reason, folks who work responsibly with this stuff don’t even try to lay down a chronology. Instead, you’ll find that they address historical Jesus questions by topic. You’ll find chapters on the “kingdom of God/heaven” or “miracles,” or whatever, but you won’t find a chronology between the baptism and the passion.

Folks who have actually managed to read this far may have concluded that I am seriously lowering your expectations. I certainly hope I am. This is the Third Quest. What happened to the other two? Both pretty much died out, mainly because of the unwise (overconfident) claims and methodologies of the “questors.” In this Third Quest, many folks make a very real effort to see that the claims and aims match the sources. As the sources are limited, the claims and aims must follow suite.

Next time, we should get to the heart of the matter, the criteria used to actually talk about judgments of historicity.

4 Replies to “Historical Jesus 2: The Gospels”

  1. Two types of folks typically reject historical Jesus research. As you have surmised, fundamentalists equate the historical Jesus rather naively with the Jesus presented in the Gospels. Tensions and contradictons are harmonized. Historical Jesus research is ususally seen as a threat.

    The other group are the folks who follow Bultmann’s approach. Strong believers like the fundamentalists, they assert that the Quest is both impossible and theologically dangerous. In their thought, this sort of thing tempts Christians to prove their faith through the results of scholarship, which is a form of justification by works.

    It interests me that you used the word “deconstruction” to describe this effort. I’ve not used that word to describe this work. However, I’ve just finished a book by John Collins on historical-critical exegesis in the post-modern world. One of his points is that h-c study of the scriptures was deconstruction before was popular. He also notes, however, that exegetes have not usually pushed their methods to the extremes that modern deconstructionists do. Very interesting thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *