from jesus to christ - the first christians

What Can We Really Know About Jesus?

Evaluating the fragmentary evidence.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University

Every Christian sooner or later has to ask the question, "Who was Jesus really?" And we ask this in our age in a special way because we are very historically oriented. We are modern, or perhaps post-modern, people, but all of us have a sense that we want to know what things were really like. We know that the past is different from the present. We have experienced rapid change, all of us in our generation. And so we want to know what was Jesus really like. And that quest to understand what he was really like has turned out to be very disappointing. So how do we really get at that? We must, first of all, understand that in history facts always lie under interpretations and we never get to the facts. They're only interpretations. There is only an interpreted Jesus, there are many interpreted Jesuses. So where do we begin? We begin not with Jesus, we have no access to him. We begin with the responses to Jesus, by his followers, by outsiders who heard about him.... We begin with those reactions as they're enshrined in the text we have.

All we have from this period about Jesus is text, finally. And we try to work backwards and say, "How did we get these texts? Who wrote these texts? Where did they get the ideas?" Surely behind the written text there were oral traditions, we know that. There were oral traditions that went on after the written text, and we have evidence of those being written down later. So we try to dissect those. We say, "What kind of traditions? How were they shaped? What kinds of stories did people tell about Jesus?" Those stories have a shape to them. Do we find other stories in the culture of the Mediterranean world around Jesus? Other stories about other people that are shaped the same way? We have reports of what Jesus said. He told parables, he told stories, he told little epigrams. Those have a shape to them. Are they like any sayings that are attributed to other people at the same time? We're trying to put this whole story into a context of its own history, of its own time. And our ideal here is to be able to hear those stories, hear those sayings, as someone in the first century would have heard them, recognizing that there were conventions that if people heard a certain way of talking they would say, "Hmm, this person claims to be a prophet." Or this person about whom this story is told is a magician, someone with magical power, a healer, or this is a wise person, a person who delivers certain kinds of maxims or epigrams or tells proverbs or parables and the like. So there are socially conditioned ways of identifying people that one can see almost built into the shape of the tradition about Jesus. If we're smart enough, by comparing other sources from a similar time and place, we can retrace that history, working backwards from the text in the earliest time that we can get to.

Some scholars think that you can, by a process of analysis and text comparisons, figure out what Jesus said... How much more basic can you get than what somebody said? Doesn't that tell you who he is?

So how do we learn about Jesus from what he said? If we could only be sure that he said everything that's attributed to him in the various gospels.... This is complicated by several things. One of the complications most recently is the discovery in 1945 of some other gospels that we didn't know about before. One of them, the Gospel of Thomas, is nothing but sayings of Jesus. It simply goes along and says, "Jesus said this, Jesus said that." Well some of these things that Jesus said according to the Gospel of Thomas are quite familiar. They're very similar to things in the canonical gospels, but not identical. And there are other things which are quite different from any of the things that he said in the canonical gospels.

Then, even among the canonical gospels, the way Jesus talks in the first three, the so-called synoptic gospels, is very different from the way he talks in the Gospel according to John. Now, which is right? Which is the real Jesus speaking here? We discovered that there are several different portraits of Jesus enshrined in the shape of the traditions about him, and that these seem to go back to very early times. Now this runs flatly contrary to our traditional picture in which everything begins with a nice unified beginning in which everything was clear and only later there come heresies which change things. But it's not so surprising if you think about the way human beings tend to remember things. Everybody remembers things in accord with what makes sense in their particular view of the world. We have different portraits of Jesus because from the very beginning people tried to understand the mystery about him. And they understood it within categories which were familiar in their time and place, in their particular corner of that time and place. And so we have a set of variety of ways of perceiving Jesus from the very beginning. And that's built into the earliest sources that we have....

The really important figures in history always generate multiple traditions. Think of the different ways in which people even in our own time think about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He is the martyr, he is the hero, he is the great liberal, no, he was really rather conservative. He's the Cold War warrior, etc., etc. And this is somebody that we have on videotape. This is the person that we have speeches from and so forth and so on. How much more difficult it is to sort out the various reactions to a figure in the ancient past....

The temptation is, out of all of the various figures of Jesus that emerge in our sources, to pick one and say, "That's the real one." And usually we will pick one, of course, that accords with our notion of what we would like Jesus to have been like. You know, someone at the margins of society, the hero of the proletariat revolution or the anti-establishment figure, and so on. That's probably inevitable that we will all do this, but it's not very good history writing. I myself am very skeptical finally that we can describe independently of any of these traditions what the real Jesus was like.

Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School

Speaking as a historian, why is it such a problem to know anything about the life of Jesus, and what are the sources you can draw on?

The problem in understanding Jesus as a historian begins with the fact that we have rather limited sources for reconstructing his life. Those sources are primarily the gospel traditions that we have in the New Testament, some apocryphal materials from the early Christian tradition, and some sources external to the New Testament. Those sources external to the New Testament are particularly valuable because they're not directly statements of faith, the way the New Testament materials are. Chief among those external sources is Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote at the end of the first century and who in book 18 of his "Antiquities of the Jews," has a small passage about Jesus. He also reports about John the Baptist, and about James, the brother of Jesus. And those passages constitute the first external testimonies to the existence of Jesus by someone who was not a follower. They may have been tampered with in the transmission, but at the core there probably is a reliable historical account by Josephus of the existence of Jesus.

Why do professional historians give more credence to Josephus than, say, the gospels?

Professional historians, I think, try to assemble all of the evidence that's available for reconstructing an event. And they're concerned about the bias in any of those sources that they use. And at the first stage in reconstructing an event is to analyze the bias of sources. We had to do so both with the sources internal to Christianity as well as the sources external to Christianity. So the gospels, for instance, are clearly statements of faith and they have certain takes on who Jesus was and what he meant to his followers. External sources like Josephus don't have the same faith commitment, they may have some other axes to grind, but in any case you have to see what the biases of the sources are, and try to take those into account as you do your reconstruction.

Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

What can we really know about the life of Jesus? Are we dealing with facts here? Are we dealing with bits and shreds of evidence? Are we dealing with hypotheses?

Scholars have long debated what we know and what we think we can know about the historical Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus has claimed many, many victims. Scholars have trotted out their favorite theories, and theories come and go. My own approach is to say that while we cannot possibly know the historicity of any single incident related in the gospels, we can't possibly know the authenticity of any single saying attributed to him. We can't possibly identify the truth of any given verse in the gospels, nevertheless, certain large patterns do emerge, and those patterns seem to me to likely to be true, or likely to have a certain amount of historical veracity, even if you might not be happy with the patterns as being too vague or too general, but at least here I think we can see a clear consistent pattern of evidence in all the four gospels.

The core of the gospels is Jesus as the miracle worker, Jesus as a man who made a deep impression upon those who he came in contact with, his ability to attract large crowds, his ability to attract a dedicated core group of followers or disciples, and then a much larger group of people sort of in the margins of the core group who saw him as somebody special. After all, there presumably were many Galilean teachers or preachers in the first century of the Common Era. There will have been many who were executed by Rome as trouble makers or people who are threats to the social order. They will have been many wandering holy men around about Judea or even the Roman Empire. But this man clearly was peculiar. This man clearly made a mark, left an impression, somebody you didn't forget. Somebody who had power in a social sense. Someone who actually was able to somehow attract, enchant, and hold a large group of followers already in his lifetime. And this point, I think clearly must be true. I don't see how else we can understand the stories that are told in the gospels, even if the stories themselves may not be true, but the pattern, I'm arguing, has some truth to it.

So what pattern do we see? He's a holy man, a miracle man, someone who gets in trouble with the authorities, whoever they may be - Pharisees, scribes, priests, elders, he is constantly in trouble with them as a free-spirited individual. Someone who apparently preaches in the synagogue. All of [these activities] I think are the function of his power, the power as he has as a miracle worker and a holy man. And in the final analysis this is what does him in. This is what gets him into trouble with the authorities. At some point, such a restive individual simply could no longer be tolerated by the powers that be.

Holland Lee Hendrix:

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary


In my own view, the earliest layer of evidence is still an interpretation, so what we can know is only the range of interpretations that we first encounter in Jesus' traditions. And that is really a plurality of Jesuses. A Jesus that's understood as a sage and wise man in some traditions, a Jesus that's understood as a superhero, a great performer of miracles in another, divine person in another tradition. A Jesus who is understood as primarily the sacrificed, now risen and enthroned savior in another tradition. One finds the plurality of Jesuses even at the earliest stage of interpretation. That's why as far as we keep going and excavating the tell of Jesus, the earliest stage is still interpretation.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


From a historical perspective what we really know about the life of Jesus is very, very limited depending on which gospel you read. His actual career may be something less then one year and maybe even as little as only a few months, whereas in John's Gospel his career is nearly three years long. So there are these kinds of historical discrepancies among the gospels themselves. They range from the way his birth occurred to the actual day on which he was executed and even to the kinds of teachings and miracles that he performs throughout his career. As a result we begin to see that the gospels themselves are not as useable as historical information as we might have hoped.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
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published april 1998

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