So I’m currently taking my second last course towards my degree in New Testament studies. It’s an intensive course (i.e. assignments before and after one week of all-day classes), and part of my load in taking it was to lecture/present on Jesus as a historical person, and the research that is done to discover Him. Some of the highlights of my lecture (and please don’t expect too much of them, this is just regular old me giving the lecture) are summarized here.
The earliest excursions into Jesus’ life were by people like St. Augustine (of Hippo) who wrote Gospel Harmonies. Gospel Harmonies were a way that scholars tried to account for the slight differences that exist between the telling of the same stories between the different gospels. Were they different occurrences? Were they the same occurrence from different vantage points? How could such things be accounted for? This laid the groundwork for the impetus which keeps Historical Jesus research going, even to today and beyond: how do we account for our different gospel accounts?
The next stage of Historical Jesus scholarship was carried out through the efforts of scholars who wrote Lives of Jesus. These were broadly intentioned works that sought to capture glimpses of Jesus as He could have been. Unfortunately, they were all-too-often works that just expressed views of Jesus that were agreeable to the authors. Nonetheless, these began to use critical apparati (a word which I will use, regardless of how much my computer tells me it should be apparatuses) in their studies.
In general, for contemporary Historical Jesus studies there are three main points of consideration. These points are the context, the sources, and the criteria. In question form, these bring up issues of What is Jesus’ historical context?, Where do we find information about Jesus?, and What are the criteria for studying Jesus as a historical person?
With regards to the question of context, there are both the historical context and the social context at work. For the first, the findings that inform the work are taken from the work of historians and archaeologists. For the second, the findings that inform the work are taken from the studies of anthropologists and sociologists. The first will teach us about events and physical places; about art and craftsmanship; about food trends and letter-writing. The second will teach us about the forces that drove people to do the things they did and within which they operated – things like purity systems, patron-client systems, honour-shame systems, literacy levels, challenge and riposte. All of this together helps us to build the world that Jesus lived in, and thus to better understand Him and His interactions.
With regards to the question of sources, ultimately I think that it’s responsible to hold the canonical gospels as the most reliable sources about Jesus’ life. Some will argue otherwise – claiming that these works are biased as they were written by religious people for their own purposes; others will claim that other so-called gospels contain original traditions about Jesus, independently of the canonical gospels. In the end, however, there is no really great evidence that any of these other works were written before the canonical gospels, nor that they show any traditions reliably more ancient or innately authoritative than what the canonical gospels do. If a scholar decides a priori that s/he will take them in such a way, then they do – but there is a very difficult burden left on them to substantiate that claim.
With regards to the question of criteria, there are various criteria that scholars employ in looking at the sources in the light of the context. What one must remember on this point is that most scholarship views the Biblical gospels as highly suspect – they will cut out as much as they can, and see what remains. One is of proximity, which is to say that if a tradition about Jesus is thought to be older (i.e. provably dating closer to Jesus’ own time), then they are more likely to accept it as authoritative. The next is Multiple Attestation, which is the criterion that looks for the same tradition about Jesus rising from different trustable sources. The criterion of Dissimilarity is used by scholars to try to find traditions that are “uniquely” Jesus: that is, they are more likely to accept traditions as authoritative if they don’t seem to be particularly Jewish, nor particularly Christian (i.e. not proto-rabbinical, attributed to Jesus; not of the early-Church, attributed to Jesus). The problem with this criterion is that it would present Jesus as having no context (no connection with the past; no legacy into the future).
As it is widely believed that traditions about Jesus were sustained in oral form before written form, scholars will give authority to traditions that seem to have Memorable Content and Form, that is, for traditions about Jesus that would be easy to remember and transmit. At the same time, they look for traditions that fit Jesus’ particular context – this is the other side of the criterion of Dissimilarity, which diminishes the authority of traditions that don’t seem to fit Jesus’ specific context; this increases the view of the authority of traditions that do fit it. Scholars are likely to view traditions about Jesus that give Explanation for the Church greater authority as well (well, some scholars do). Finally, if they feel that a tradition doesn’t fit any of these criterion, but that it sits well with other traditions that do – if there is Coherence – then scholars are likely to view it along the same lines.
These are the tools that can be used by scholars to help them “find” the actual historic person Jesus. But scholars are a strange bunch, cutting the gospels to pieces instead of reading them as God gave them to the Church. Actually, not all of them do this. One of the best ways to read the gospels (which you already know of) is to read them as whole units. They tell the story differently, but they tell the same story – and isn’t that the story that we’re all here for?