It would be unimaginably awesome if we had contemporary accounts by perfectly disinterested observers, or better yet multiple independent ones, but the contents of the bible really is pretty much the best we’ve got for figuring out what the dude actually said. Unfortunately, after the less scketchy of Josephus’ two brief mentions of Jesus in 90 CE, the earliest undisputed account that we have like this is from Pliny the Younger who, as a governor, writes to the Emperor in 112 CE that there are “Christians” about who are meeting illegally and who “worship Christ as a God,” all he wants is advice as to how to handle the situation. The next earliest is by Pliny’s friend Tacitus in 115 CE in his history of Rome where he mentions that the great fire, supposedly set by Nero, in 64 CE was blamed on “the Christians.” He seems largely uninterested in the scapegoats, but does mention that they got their name from Christus and that the “superstition” spread from Judea to Rome after Pontius Pilate executed Christus under the reign of Tiberius. This is still seventy nine years later. The earlier stuff that we have is indeed pretty terrible by the kinds of standards used to asses modern history, though is importantly a pretty standard level of terrible for the age. The accounts we have are written by true believers, who were not themselves eyewitnesses, who for the most part spoke a different language and lived in a different country than the eyewitnesses, they are not free from collaboration (With Mark being used as a source for Matthew and Luke), and they are pretty wildly inconsistent in both details and global understandings. However, there is still a lot we can do to get decent information out of what we’ve got.
Here is a brief introduction to how scholars approach figuring out what we know about Jesus
Thankfully there is a common thread among in puzzle solving oriented atheists and theists who FEEL VERY STRONGLY ABOUT RELIGION in a certain way and who have obsessed about these kinds of questions for centuries. Since well before the enlightenment, there has been a community of puzzle solving minded folks, both atheists and theists, who have put A LOT OF THOUGHT into squeezing just about everything that we possibly can out of the extant records we have. They’ve found that when assessing the veracity of historical materiel, it is important to keep in mind a number of principles, not all of which are very intuitive,
- First, and intuitively, the earlier the sources that the materiel is found in the better. Twenty years is indeed an awfully long time to be playing a game of telephone, or even for a single person to keep a consistent view. However, so long as we are talking about a single person, one could argue that their later writings might benefit from additional perspective, Paul’s letters for example do get a lot more subtle and interesting as time went on. We do have pretty reasonable ways to date even the earliest texts, for example each of the gospels refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (sometimes in an awfully specific predictions) and so we can reasonably assume that they were each written after that.
- Second, is the criterion of multiple attestation, or the more sources we have that cite or repeat the materiel the better. Materiel found in multiple sources that are independent and contemporary to each other is more likely to be historically accurate. It is pretty intuitive that it would be difficult for someone to make something up and get someone else, somewhere else, to make up a similar thing at the same time. Thus a dozen folks saying something in 75 CE isn’t that much worse than someone saying the same thing in 50 CE. For example, both Matthew and Luke talk about how Jesus is from Nazareth but say very different and unique things about how he got that way from being born in Bethlehem. Mark also says that Jesus was from Nazareth and so does John, which was written independently from the other three Synoptic gospels. Thus, we can pretty solidly trust their contention that Jesus was from Nazareth. However, as we can assume that since both Matthew and Luke were aware of the prophesies that declared that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, their unique stories of the nativity are probably a result of their common need to explain how Jesus was both born in Bethlehem and from Nazareth. The traditional Christmas story that most of us get as children is a pretty forced mash-up of the two that practically attempts to write a fifth gospel by smashing them together.
- Third, and much less intuitively, but if anything much more important, is the criterion of dissimilarity – also called the criterion of embarrassment. There are a bunch of parts of the New Testament that really don’t fit the simplistic version of the Christian narrative, and these are, if anything, parts that we can trust the most. Why would anyone make them up later? Thus, using this principle, we can trust that Jesus did indeed come from Nazareth all the more. Nazareth was a two horse town in the middle of nowhere that was famous for precisely nothing and recognizable to practically no one, particularly when the messiah is supposed to come from the birthplace of David, why make that up? And how could you possibly get everyone to agree on it if you did? Also, when authors disagree that can, if anything, tell us more about what the community thought than when they say the same thing, particularly when they argue like Paul regularly does. Who would make that up? Similarly, in a lot of first and second hand accounts in ancient texts, and particularly the bible, you will often find things that just make too little sense to be fiction – like the random naked guy running through Mark. Indeed during Mark’s very condensed run through of the final arrest of Jesus, Judas gets with the Jesus kissing, the fuzz shows up, Jesus cops to causing trouble, and then everyone books it, but then something really interesting happens. Some random dude, its not even clear from the passage if he was a follower of Jesus, loses his clothes as he tries to flee butt naked. The naked guy adds absolutely nothing to the story, isn’t the least bit relevant to the narrative, and if anything detracts from the message Mark is trying to convey; but fuck would that be memorable to an eyewitness. In a time when to be naked was to be dishonored, and to be dishonored was to be less than human in a way that is only really understandable in the abstract in our post-Christian world, that was a pretty big deal. While this would never occur to a fiction writer to put it, an eyewitness talking to the author of Mark would have good reason to consider the tale incomplete without it.Similarly, there are other passages like the famous account of Jesus saving the woman caught in adultery at the beginning of John 8 that are perhaps a little too perfectly Christian to have happened. Indeed in the earliest manuscripts we have John 7 cuts off in the middle of a sentence as if a page were missing and that entire story is missing from John 8. From this it is reasonably clear that some later scholars added it in along with an abrupt end to John 7. This would be an example of what scholars call pseudepigrapha, a fancy Greek word meaning writing that lies about who wrote it, that is used largely because most people don’t know what it means and thus are not bothered by it.
- Fourth, is my favorite criterion, just making sense. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi in the first century Levant, and any traditions that don’t make sense in that context are a lot less reliable. A lot of the later non-canonical Gospels suffer from stuff that is just stupid, but even some of the canonical gospels have some subtle things that don’t really make sense when you think about them. For example, in John’s account of Jesus’ famous late night conversation with Nicodemous, Jesus tells him that he must be born again/above. It is a play on words, and kind of a neat one. The words used are gennao (Strong’s 1080), which means begotten or born in a formal father oriented sense, and it is modified by anothen (Strong’s 509), which can mean either again or from above. The author of John uses anothen for both meanings in different parts of the Gospel and so the effect is obviously intentional, but importantly, neither the Arahmaic nor Hebrew languages that Jesus could have been speaking have an analogous word with both meanings. Whoops.
Despite what they’ve got on us, along with these tools, we have a lot of advantages today over any contemporary folks who might have been trying to distort history:
- We understand more Greek and Hebrew than they did; dictionaries are a great thing, though we do have meaningful gaps.
- We know a lot that they didn’t about what Christians on the other side of their world were saying.
- We have the benefit of two millennia of careful study to notice little subtle things like the play on words I mentioned.
- We are better educated than their general audience.
- We can spell properly and use computational analyses to track their non-standard spellings.
- We generally have a lot more access to the writings of their peers than they did.
It is also important to keep in mind that these principles apply just as well to any other ancient subject. For example, we only have three surviving contemporary records that describe Caligula, the contemporary and very popular Emperor, and they were written by people who despised him. They all have common motives in the same way, say similar things about how awful he was in a similar way, say incompatible things about how awful he was is a similar way, and if anything say things that just don’t make any fucking sense a lot more often.
Paul’s epistles, despite being unpopular with many liberal Christians, were written earlier than the Gospels. That is solidly before the First Judeo-Roman War, which started a train wreck in 66 CE that would sack Jerusalem in 70 CE, desecrating the temple and killing some huge proportion of all of the Jews, and would keep on wrecking until the end of the Third Judeo-Roman War in 135 CE by which point Hadrian all but erased Judea – even though he did predict it if more obliquely. That they were earlier, that they aren’t afraid to argue with other sources, that they largely agree with other sources, that at least the early undisputed epistles are really consistent, and that even the canonical potential forgeries are both really good as well as really early gives us a lot of insight into the early church and thus Jesus. Unfortunately, there are no extant earlier writings than the Epistles of Paul, though there were clearly writings produced that were contemporary to his that have not survived. Again, this level of shitiness in the record is not unusual for the age, even for people who were considered much more important than the rag tag followers of a random rabbi in the backwater of a backwater of a backwater.