from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Historian's Task

What are the challenges in reconstructing Jesus' world?

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


For every scholar working with ancient history, the first thing to recognize is that our evidence is very, very fragmentary. In a way, we can never reconstruct history because we don't have enough pieces. It is like an archaeological excavation. If you excavate a temple you may find the foundations of the temple. They may be disturbed, though, and you may not be sure how long the temple was. But you may find a few column drums, a column capital, maybe a few pieces from the roof structure. And now you have to form a hypothesis of what this temple looked like. And it remains a hypothesis because there are never enough pieces. Even the beautifully reconstructed facades of buildings that you as a tourist can admire today are the result of a hypothesis. And therefore the actual reconstruction can be difficult because the hypothesis could be wrong.

Essentially we are not dealing with a different situation with respect to the "reconstruction" of early Christian history or of the history of Jesus. That is, we cannot really reconstruct. We can learn from the evidence certain information that we can judiciously interpret, and, therefore, form an approximate picture of what happened. We know that Paul wrote such and such a letter to Corinth at such and such a time. And it tells us a few things of what's going on in the Corinthian community, but we will never know the whole story of what was going on in the Corinthian community. Only as much as we know in order to find a reason why Paul wrote his letter. But that doesn't give us a history of the community in Corinth. So one has to be very, very cautious, I would say even in using the term "reconstruction." On the other hand I think we have to learn to use "hypothesis" as a positive term. Because hypothesis is the only way in which we can understand. If we don't form a hypothesis, since we don't have brute facts that we can just take, we will know nothing. So hypothesis is a very positive term.

Now if you want to apply this to the question of our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth himself and his ministry, we have to face one other difficulty. Not only that our information is fragmentary, but also that the information that we have has not been preserved in order to inform us about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but has been preserved in order to instruct the ancient Christian churches under the authority of Jesus of Nazareth. And therefore we have, in every single piece of tradition, a transformation of the character of the material. It is almost as if you find in an ancient building, an archaeological excavation, a piece that has been reused, which came from another building originally. And we have only reused pieces....

What Jesus actually said, and what Jesus actually did, as a brute historical fact we will never know.... Because figures of past history are not necessarily remembered for what they did, but they are remembered for what the effect of the next generation was. Socrates is of course a famous example. We don't have a single saying of Socrates about which we can be certain. But we can know why Socrates was the topic of Plato's philosophy, and that a number of questions of Plato's philosophy are rooted in the figure of Socrates himself. But we cannot reconstruct his teaching. And I think we are in the same situation with Jesus, a situation in which we can be certain that all of this would not have happened without Jesus. That the disciples would not have had the miraculous experience of Jesus being among them as they broke the bread and shared the wine after Jesus' death, had not Jesus already shared bread and wine with them to the outlook of the future coming of the Kingdom of God. So we can draw lines between what we see as the effect and what might have been the causes. But we cannot peel down the tradition to an original kernel which we can ascribe to Jesus.

Eric Meyers:

Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University


There's no greater challenge for a teacher or a scholar of antiquity than to try to put all the evidence together and come up with a plausible explanation of what occurred. Archaeology clearly gives us the setting in which great events can take place. They can help us understand the way cities get built, but they can't help us understand the content of the message of the teacher. And so archaeology is a dialogue with literary sources. It's a dialogue with the Bible. It's a dialogue with Josephus. It's a dialogue with inscriptions and all the other written evidence that we have. And when you come to put these things together then it falls upon you as a thoughtful interpreter of all these data to come to a subjective and important resolution of the tensions between these two kinds of evidence. And I would hope that I'm a sensitive interpreter of these evidence because unless you sense the dynamics between them you can't come up with a good resolution to the issues.

In the end it comes down to making plausible hypotheses. And as scholars everyone of us is bent on coming up with the most plausible hypothesis.... As an historian of religion, as an interpreter of data, whether literary or archaeological, you do the best you can. You take this dynamic between literary sources and archaeology, you look at both sides of the coin, as it were, and you put them together and you come up with the best hypothesis that you can make.

Even though I have no doubt whatsoever that Jesus was an historical person, that he lived and had an enormous impact on his time and on subsequent time, we, in the end, have no real proof that this man lived in archaeology. It is an hypothesis....

Allen D. Callahan:

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School


Looking at the life of Jesus as a historical problem, why is it so difficult to reconstruct his life historically? There's basically plenty of evidence for it.

It's the nature of that evidence, I think, [that] is inherently problematic, because in a way Jesus is the quintessential non-historical person. I mean here is a man who was born in the provinces, probably poor, at least in terms of all of the traditions we have at our disposal. Not only was he born in those circumstances, he lived in those circumstances and associated with other people who lived in those circumstances. This is no way to become a big shot. This is certainly no way to become somebody who establishes the end of an era and the beginning of a new age....

History isn't made to record the deeds of a person like Jesus. I mean Jesus is very much like most people, statistically speaking, who have ever existed in the world - poor, obscure, no pretensions to royalty or distinction of any kind. They live under less than desirable conditions and they die that way. There's nothing historically remarkable about that. Billions of people pass through this vale of tears in exactly that way. The argument of the gospel proclamation is that there is something distinctive about this particular individual. So that kind theological claim is on a collision course with the way that history is usually done....

John Dominic Crossan:

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


Can you describe your method or the method of historians for trying to reconstruct who the real Jesus was?

My own method is interdisciplinary and it is hierarchical and it is interactive, which means that I begin with cross-cultural anthropology, and I try to understand the world of Jesus as anthropologists see it, as an agrarian society, as a peasant society with an abysmal gulf between the haves and the have nots. On top of that, I build all we know about Jewish history and about the Roman peace at the time of Augustus. On top of that I build a layer of archaeology, for example, the urbanization of lower Galilee with the building of Sepphoris and Tiberius. And only on top of that then do I look at the earliest texts relative to the Jesus tradition....

Step by step, how do you try to get to the hard core of fact about the life of Jesus?

Let me take a simple illustration. The Q gospel, that is the text which is embedded in Matthew and Luke, but does not come from Mark, would probably date to around the 50s. There is also a gospel called the Gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Take a look at those two gospels. There's about a 30 percent amount of common material in them, and that's an extremely high percentage, if they're not copying from one another, which they don't seem to be. That material is earlier than its use in the Q gospel or in the Thomas gospel. That material, alongside whatever we have in Paul, is about as early as we can get. And I focus tremendously on that material.

So this core material that you're relying on pre-dates what is generally considered the New Testament.

The material that I'm relying on would predate the New Testament; the Q gospel of course is embedded in the New Testament today and is discovered in Matthew and Luke. But yes, we're talking about the 50s which is at least 20 years before Mark's gospel. But of course, about the same time that Paul is writing, so it doesn't antedate Paul really.

More about Q and the Gospel of Thomas in this essay by Marilyn Mellowes.

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published april 1998

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