Final Essay for the Master of The Historical Jesus Course
Rev. Sharon J. Mayer
While taking this course I used the information given by Dr. Morris as well as other sources that will be listed at the end of this essay. This essay in no way defines my beliefs or thoughts about Jesus. I took the course for a purely historical study of Jesus. I wanted to objectively look at all information positive or negative as I took the course. I decided the best was to use the ideas of a forensic investigator and go piece by piece through the information given.
Finding the historical record of Jesus is rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are one color and the same shape. For all the information on what people perceive to be facts about Jesus it is very hard to pinpoint information that has not been tainted by adjenda to promote the church, a program, or to enhance belief structures. In some cases the stories were given a local flare to attract followers.
The main source of information is contained in the canonical four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and Mark having been taken from the same writings as Luke as well as a writing that is called “Q” from the German work quelle – source. No one is certain who composed “Q” and it is thought the gospels were named for persons to enhance the information given rather then by the persons named. There are also source writings listed as “L”. The Gospel of John was written much later. There are no early writings about Jesus and as with any orally transmitted information the stories changed with telling over the years. The gospels themselves were not written until many years after the events and taken from oral stories and remembrances that may or may not be complete or true. Many followers repeated what they heard, or thought they heard from followers who had heard the stories from others.
There are several other writings that were not incorporated into the known Bible that are sources to look at. These noncanonical gospels were written in the second to eighth century. There are about a dozen and it is thought they were pseudonymous, claiming to be written by the apostles, disciples or Jesus’ bother James or Mary Magdalene. All the books appear to be forged. It was felt they either did not conform to the teachings of the church or they contained inaccurate information.
When looking at other writings outside the Christian faith it is noted that very little was written about Jesus. The Pagan scholars did not write of him during the time of his life or soon after his death. The Jewish scribes did not write about him either. He is mentioned in Josephus’ history of the Jews but even that may have been tainted when Josephus’ writing were in the hands of Rome and parts were added as Rome embraced the Christian Faith. Here and there on finds a few words or a question in a letter but no great amount of writing for a person who was to be known as the Son of God or part of the Trinity.
It is know, from what little writing that has been found and from oral tradition that Jesus was born in the northern province of Bethany and his mother was Mary. His father was a carpenter or tradesman and there were more children in the family than Jesus. we don’t know much about his childhood from the gospels but there are some writings outside these texts that tell about him but there is no way to check them for truth and many of the stories seem to be a way of making Jesus sound more supernatural or to make him greater in the eyes of the person hearing or reading the story. In some of the writings it reminds one of the story of Washington and the cherry tree written by Parson Weems.
There are several ways that historical scholars decide if information passes the test to be considered a reliable source. There is the Criteria of Independent Attestation: Multiple sources for the same information. Criteria of Dissimilarity: When there are dissimilar sayings from early church teachings. Criteria of Coherence: When sayings and events remain the same from story to story. Criteria of Language and Environment: Where the words would not have been used and do not fit or the event could not have happened in the time or place noted. Criteria of Embarrassment: If the saying was against church policy and would be an embarrassment.
Another form of usable information is if it would not be something that church would use to promote a tenant of faith, multiple things that are published and contain the same information. Taking into consideration that Matthew and Luke were copied from Mark when the information remains the same it can be used to prove the information. There is also the book of The Coptic Gospel of Thomas that was from at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and is the only complete book found. Although it only contains says of Jesus it can be used to verify what Jesus may have said.
There are so many “faces” of Jesus that one is not sure what to believe. Was he just a local prophet that was preaching to the neighbors? He preached a prevalent ideal of the time and one that John the Baptist also preached the apocalyptic idea that the time was near for God to send someone to rule the earth and that were would be turmoil before this happened. He never directly stated he was that person and used the known form of the Son of God being understood by the Jews of the times. Some thought he was to take over the land and dispose of the Romans in a mighty battle. Although the Romans were no harder on the Jewish peoples than others they had conquered, the people where tired of being ruled by others and wanted to see someone come and defeat the Romans. He isn’t seen to have followed or been a member of any of the four groups of Jewish people at the time although some of the ideas he put forth were followed by some. This makes it very hard to pinpoint his true belief. If you read the different gospels there is no direct information of exactly who he was.
Even his death is under question. Was he crucified although it was a Jewish tenet that anyone hung on a tree (cross) was to be condemned? Was he laid to rest in a tomb? Did his rise from the dead. Or was he just stunned by the events of his beating and/or given drugs to make him appear dead and later removed from the tomb and met with the disciples before leaving the area to go to India or France? There seem to be stories that either of these might have happened. Again, we have no proof.
The ideas that were fostered and gave way to the Christina religion were promoted best by Paul. He was rather like the Carl Rove of the ancient world when it came to promoting the church. Having been a nonbeliever it is said he had a conversion experience and saw the risen Christ and realized he had wronged people and should make amends by preaching the gospel of the risen Christ. He also wrote in militant terms and this helped when Constantine become a Christian while conquering the known world.
While new information is forthcoming and items are being found we may never really know, in a historical sense, who the son of a carpenter and young mother was or why he came to be such a force in the world.
Additional reference material from my personal library used for course;
New International Version of the Holy Bible
King James Version of the Holy Bible
The New American Bible
The Koran, Translated with notes by N.J. Dawood, Penguin Books, 1956
Jesus Interrupted, Bart D. Ehrman, Harper One, copyright 2009
Misquoting Jesus, Bart D. Ehrman, Harper, copyright 2005
Lost Scriptures Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament; Bart D. Ehrman, copyright 2003. Bart D. Ehrman chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is considered an authority on the early Church and the life of Jesus
Lost Christianities, The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Bart D. Ehrman, Oxford U Press, copyright 2003
All the Miracles of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, Zondervon Publishing House, 1961
The Secret Teachings of Jesus, Four Gnostic Gospels, Translated and with notes by Marvin W. Meyer, Vintage Books, copyright 1984
When Jesus Lived in India, The Quest for the Aquarian Gospel: The Mystery of the Missing Years, Alan Jacobs, Watkins Publishing, copyright 2009
The Nag Hammadi Library; Revised addition. James M. Robinson, General Editor, copyright 1988
The Gnostic Bible, Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds; Edited by Willis Barstone and Marvin Meyer, copyright 2003
.The Historical Jesus Course, Bart D. Ehrman, The Teaching Company, Copyright 2000
From Jesus to Constantine, A History of Early Christianity, Bart D. Ehrman, The Teaching Company, Copyright 2004
As well as other articles
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