Anyone who’s read the Gospels knows that, though they present similar portraits of Jesus in many ways, the Jesuses they present are quite different in a number of ways as well. The details and ordering of the events in each Gospel change (John, in particular, is radically different from the rest). This presents us with a pretty difficult problem: how do we know what the real Jesus said and did?
The popular understanding of the question and its answers presents us with basically two possible solutions to this problem:
The first possible solution is to posit the inspiration of the Gospel narratives so that their historical reliability as witnesses is, in a sense, guaranteed by God himself. Thus, the classic fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy: that the Bible, the Gospels in particular, is without error in its report of events.
The second possible solution is to treat the biblical witness as fully historical documents—that is, fallible witnesses shaped by the authors’ own biases, contexts, etc.—and thus, to invent and utilize historical tools by which to “unearth” the actual Jesus from the text in which he is preserved. Thus, the historico-critical method, source, form, and redaction criticism, and three hundred years of heated scholarly debate.
The problem is that neither of these “solutions” really solve anything.
The first option, adopting the doctrine of inerrancy, ends up being intellectually indefensible. The discrepancies between the Gospels, while some may be explained away fairly eloquently, are too wide to be harmonized into one account. Moreover, it seems pretty clear that having four different Gospels is kind of the point. If the Church had wanted to have a single, authoritative Gospel, it certainly had that option: but it wasn’t taken. The early church preferred the diversity of multiple narratives over the simplicity of one.
Rejecting the doctrine of biblical inerrancy might attract us to the second option, but this course, once pursued, doesn’t deliver much either. After dozens of different scholars have tried their hand at rendering us a “historical Jesus”, the public has as many Jesuses as it has Jesus scholars. What ends up happening is that the Jesus the scholar produces looks an awful lot like a projection of the scholars’ own theological and political presuppositions. J.D. Crossan, for example, unearths from the biblical texts a “peasant revolutionary”, a people’s champion of inclusiveness, tolerance, and universal love.
Hmm . . . sounds a lot like Crossan came of age in the 60’s, no?
After two, three hundred years of reserach in this field scholars seem no closer to agreeing on who Jesus was than they were in the 1700’s (indeed, they might even be further away).
The problem is that any scholar’s historical Jesus is a hypothesis built on about two dozen different “best guesses”, themselves inferred from fifty other assumptions often taken as fact but which are, in reality, still up for debate. What happens, too often, is that scholars begin with the historical Jesus they want and line up all of the guesswork to get them to that conclusion. Their scholarly “moves” are guided by the destination they’re trying to reach.
One example: it is taken for granted in New Testament scholarship that Mark was written first of all the Gospels, probably around 70 C.E., the year the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. But there’s lots of room to argue (although I wouldn’t necessarily take this route—the point is to show how much uncertainty we’re dealing with) that it was actually Mathew which was written first, and that Mark represents, for one reason or another, a truncated version of Matthew. That’s going to change which texts you consider more reliable. The ‘Q’ hypothesis—which posits that Luke and Matthew share a common source—is another example of something hugely relevant in these kind of debates but still a subject of lively discussion in scholarly circles.
Both of these examples, themselves already technical, are the results of arguments built from a number of different scholars’ examinations of the biblical texts. Scholars do not always agree at this level of the discussion either. Like I said: arguments built on assumptions which are very much still under scrutiny.
The death-dealing blow to option 2 is the shocking lack of consensus among scholars on who Jesus “actually” was.
So, is there a third option? Or are we stuck waiting for somebody brilliant to come along and explain it all to us clearly? This question, I’m sure, will continue to confront me as it does many others. The answers are desperately important.