I’ve just finished Bart Ehrman’s wonderful book Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, and I feel like I’ve met Jesus for the first time. And boy was he an interesting guy. I don’t know if all those people wearing WWJD bracelets know what they’ve gotten themselves into, because according to the evidence, they better hit the streets and start screaming “repent, for the end is near.” Jesus was not the person many modern believers think he was.
First, let me say, this is not a book by some fringe liberal or right-wing ranter. This is a book by an established professor who is considered one of the experts on the historical Jesus. He wrote the textbook used at Yale for their Introduction to the Historical New Testament Course–a course I took online, taught by the very interesting Dale Martin (turns out, if you don’t care about credits or credentials, you can study at our country’s top universities for free).
So, back to Jesus. I was very surprised right away. Not because of the content, but because of the conspiracy. Yes, conspiracy! It turns out that all the really, really smart Biblical scholars in our country have come to some common agreement about what is real and what isn’t real in the New Testament–and nobody has bothered to tell us regular folk. (Okay, you can argue endlessly about who is a Biblical scholar; but, come on, if professors at places like Harvard, Notre Dame, and Princeton, as well as many major and respected seminaries like the Chicago Theological Union agree on a point, I’m not going to argue with them).
So, back to Jesus again. Turns out the big Jesus thinkers have come up with some clear criteria about what is real in the New Testament. They made rules about what they can accept as historical–meaning, it might have really happened—versus what items were added later, perhaps by a disciple in order to prove some developing theology. Of course, there is a lot of wiggle room and heated debate among scholars, but here are the rules they’ve agreed to. If a bit of New Testament meets a couple of these criteria (they vary in importance) scholars–even non-religious ones–agree it probably really happened.
Rule #1: The event has to be mentioned in several independent sources. This is tricky, since two of the Gospels copied one of the others. But there is a lot of proof of independent sources.
Rule #2: What Jesus said or did has to make sense in a historical context. If Jesus pops a burrito into the microwave, we know it is not true, because Jesus wasn’t Mexican (oh, and he didn’t have a microwave). Same thing is true if Jesus starts spouting “Theology” that did not come into existence until a hundred years after his death. This is often the case in The Gospel of John–a beautiful “theological” piece but not very historical.
Rule #3: Coherence or Consistency. This rule is used along with other rules to strengthen an argument. Is what was done consistent or coherent with other actions in the scene or story–then it might be real.
Rule #4: Embarrassment (or Jesus did what?!?!) My favorite rule. Formally called the criteria of dissimilarity: if something said in the Gospels is embarrassing, especially to Christians, then it’s probably trustworthy. The assumption is that early writers would not have gone out of their way to add embarrassing material to the Gospels, so if it is in there, it probably happened (somebody forgot to delete it). A common example is the baptism of Jesus by John in an early Gospel, which shows Jesus taking a subordinate role to John. Later Gospel versions have been dressed up a bit to give Jesus super-powers–but the original, well, it’s kind of embarrassing because Jesus appears to be below John.
These are the rules, with some surprising results.
So what in the Gospels can be attributed to the historical Jesus? WDJRD? (What Did Jesus Really Do?) Stay tuned for next week when I go through what most experts think really happened (or go read Bart Erham’s The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium). While you’re waiting, please take the super unscientifically inaccurate survey (no email or name required). Results will also be posted with next week’s blog. If you find what you’re reading interesting, read more here, or subscribe to my feed. Also, here’s another interesting post about Jesus.