Friday, May 20, 2011

JI: Our Sources for Jesus

In the fifth chapter of JI, Ehrman explains what we can and can't know about Jesus, based on mainstream biblical scholarship's interpretation of our ancient sources about him. He lists the criteria that would be ideal for understanding such a historical figure. The sources should be:
  • Many in number
  • Contemporary with the described events
  • Independent from each other
  • Written by people free from ulterior motives
  • Consistent with one another
The sources for Jesus fail on four of these five criteria. It's true that we have multiple accounts of Jesus' life. But, Ehrman writes:
"They were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus' death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything that he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. The accounts they produced are not disinterested; they are narratives produced by Christians who actually believed in Jesus, and therefore were not immune from slanting their stories in light of their biases. They are not completely free of collaboration, since Mark was used as a source for Matthew and Luke. And rather than being fully consistent with one another, they...[contain] both contradictions in details and divergent large-scale understandings of who Jesus was." (emphasis mine)
To summarize: our sources are late, biased, codependent and contradictory. The task of biblical scholars is to piece together the truth using these flawed bits of evidence. Ehrman describes the gospels as a product of several decades of oral tradition—passing from stranger to stranger, from language to language, from culture to culture—and changing significantly over that time.

What do secular, extrabiblical sources say about Jesus? As Ehrman says, "the answer is breathtaking." No Greek or Roman sources mention Jesus until about 80 years after his death. The first ones we find are from Pliny the Younger in 112 CE and the historian Tacitus in 115 CE, and even those offer very few details. The first Jewish source is Flavius Josephus writing in 90 CE, but scholars generally agree that much of this brief account was inserted later by Christian scribes.

And so, flawed though they are, the gospels are the best resources available for evaluating the historical Jesus. Ehrman presents four criteria that biblical scholars use for finding the information within the sources that is most likely to be reliable:
  • The earlier the betterHe identifies the gospel of Mark along with the hypothesized sources Q, M and L as the earliest sources.
  • The more the better – Example: Matthew, Luke and John independently state that Jesus was born in Nazareth, so it's more likely to be true.
  • Better to cut against the grain – Details that are contrary to the Christian agenda (e.g. Jesus' baptism) are less likely to have been made up.
  • It has to fit the context – Anything that is unlikely to have taken place within the Jesus' cultural environment probably isn't authentic.
There are many other such criteria that aren't discussed. It's also worth mentioning that the minority of scholars who believe Jesus never existed at all would disagree with the validity of most of these criteria. In any case, next time I'll take a look at what Ehrman says we can learn about the real Jesus using guidelines such as these.

No comments:

Post a Comment