Before looking directly at the quality of the historical evidence for Jesus in the New Testament and other early Christian literature, it is important to determine what counts as historical evidence. This is a step often overlooked in reconstructions of Jesus’ life or in discussions about historical evidence. What do we consider evidence for any historical search?
To think about history, the past, is as human as thinking about the present day. Just as my dog does not spend any time reflecting on the situation in Haiti, for instance, there is something else he does not consider: the history of dogs and information about how dogs before him have lived. Dogs do not do history. Human beings do history. We think about the past, our own ancestors whom we have never met, and the great events and figures of the past. We do this so that we can know something about the past, the Second World War, the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, or ancient Egypt. Yet, how can we know anything about the past if we have not met any people from the (ancient) past whom we can get to know? How can we reflect on our experiences with these people when we have had no experiences on which we can reflect? We are not able to set particular experiments which we can then perform to test information we have been given about particular individuals from the past. Are we left, then, with a staunch agnosticism about historical events and people? I will argue that we come to know people not just through direct experiences, but through a consideration of the data left to us by ancient witnesses, texts and artifacts, and the process of wonder, questioning and judgment based upon this ancient evidence. We can claim a type of knowledge based on historical data.
For instance, how is it that we know anything about Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine? In all of these cases, written accounts have been left to us by contemporaries or near contemporaries concerning these major military, political and cultural figures. In some cases, material artifacts - sculptures, statues, or mosaics - have been left behind which testify to their existence. But no one alive today has ever had access to them directly or even saw them, quite literally, in passing, such as in a triumphal march or a coronation. We are dependent entirely upon ancient reports of their words or deeds, either in written or material forms. Dependent is the key word; we have no independent access to them. We cannot experience them as living human beings, nor can we test scientifically their existence to judge the reality of that existence. What remains, what we have to judge, are the ways in which other (ancient) people memorialized them.
How can we be sure we are getting accurate memorials, portraits or narratives of these ancient, long-dead people? To some extent, we must trust the ancient accounts in an act of goodwill, but we would not be wrong as ancient historians to have some suspicions, to ask questions, to judge evidence as trustworthy or false. Goodwill comes first, but suspicion has its uses. It is clear, though, that regular means of understanding the truth of something – direct personal experience or scientific experimentation – will not do. What are our options then to know the past, beyond simple trust, unless we want to say, quite simply and abruptly, that we cannot know the past at all and simply dismiss the effort?
I am not willing to say that we cannot know the past at all or come to accurate knowledge of historical figures, though it would be well to admit from the start it can be a difficult and complex task, in which careful study and questioning are essential. There are no shortcuts to good history. What we must do is study the historical accounts left to us and, if we are lucky, we will have more than one historical account to consider, compare and judge. The reality is that where more than one historical record exists regarding a particular figure, we are in a much better position to judge historical reality and accuracy. We might find one record trustworthy, or unbelievable, for a number of reasons, and so the ability to test and judge between records, in light of specific data about that person or in light of other, relevant historical data, becomes paramount in our quest to know historical figures. Where many records agree, we might find some historical solidity, perhaps even certainty: given that numerous accounts suggest that Julius Caesar adopted Octavius, the boy who would be called Caesar Augustus, and we find no corresponding data which would put this in doubt, we can accept the historical information as trustworthy.
We must always, however, also question the origin of our historical sources. Who wrote them? When? Why? What was their relationship to the subject? What did they have to gain or lose by writing in the manner they did? What are their biases? Did they know the person in question or are they relying on other sources? Did that person even exist? All of these questions, and many others, are essential for the historian who studies not only Alexander, Julius Caesar and Helena, but also the life of Jesus. But in any historical enterprise it is important to remember that when the historical existence and reality of a person - at that most basic level: that person truly existed - has been established, that historical person, like every other person, lived a life in which they said certain things and did certain things, and only those things. The hard reality of existence is important to keep in mind because history can seem like a morass or like Alice’s rabbit hole at times: there is no reality, only hypotheses and reconstructions which are all biased, problematic and partial. However difficult the task might be to answer all of the questions - who, what, where, when, why? - we must judge on the basis of the evidence we have and on all of the evidence. What is the best and most likely picture of this particular person on the basis of all the historical evidence under consideration? It is here that the same processes that we use to make sense of people, events and other texts in our day-to-day life come to the fore. We must rely on our wonder, questioning, understanding and judgment. We must be able to ask questions, to consult others who have asked questions, and to test to see if we know enough to judge. We have to test our biases, to be open about our blind spots and weak spots, to gather information in order to deepen our knowledge and understanding.
Now we can ask the question that we will consider in future posts, “what evidence do we have that Jesus existed?” In the case of Jesus, like any other historical figure, we need to know our sources. Who knew him? What did they say about him? Think of it in this way: who is best situated to tell your story? Who knows you well enough, inside and out, to tell your story? This does not mean who will gloss over the difficulties and the problems, the stresses and the doubts, but who has access to you as a whole person? Who is willing to tell the truth about you? In the same way, when we consider the historical sources about Jesus, we have to ask who knew Jesus well enough to pass on his story. Who spent time with him on a regular basis?
We are dependent upon our sources to know about the sources of Jesus’ life. We cannot meet the historical person and judge the accuracy of the information we have read in the historical texts. We do not have the option of meeting a person about which a friend has told us so much about and then testing this information and the truth of it when we meet that person and get to know them face to face. This is the conundrum of history. What we can say is that Jesus lived a life prior to that life being recorded in the Gospels. He had friends and family, followers who knew his story before they recorded it or thought that it would be best to write it down for posterity. That is, prior to the accounts upon which we rely, Jesus’ life was known by those around him who thought it worthy to tell his story, ultimately in written form. Our earliest written accounts which concern Jesus are actually not the four canonical Gospels, but the letters of Paul, which show little interest in most aspects of Jesus’ earthly life, such as where he went, what he ate, even what he preached. But we have to stop here immediately, and return to Paul’s letters and the Gospels at a later point, to ask about the significance of “early” sources and the many claims that there are other sources beyond the New Testament which are “better,” “earlier” and “different” than those preserved by the early Church and which witness to a “better,” “earlier,” and “different” Jesus. These are questions we will consider, but at this point I want only to consider the basic understanding of historical knowledge.
Once we come to know someone through historical sources, we have to make some sort of judgment on the reliability of those sources. This is the big issue that we face with ancient sources: how do we know that the people who are passing on the story are telling the truth about this person? This leads to more questions, naturally. What would they have to gain by lying? Power? Prestige? Wealth? Fame? Perhaps they are not lying, but could the people telling the stories be delusional? It is possible that well-intentioned people could get historical data confused without intending to do such a thing. Yet, how many people telling an historical account could be delusional at once? Or maybe there is a plot, a conspiracy to tell the account in certain way? Still, another question might be, did ancient people experience the world in a different way and explain events in ways that we know now are credulous and foolish? Could that be the case? Or is the story being told too long after the events took place or the person was alive and the memories of those who are passing on the accounts have become clouded by emotion and age? I suppose we should stop there, though other questions could be asked, and state once again the credo that goodwill comes first, but suspicion has its uses. All of these questions arise from suspicion of the sources and so from those who passed on the material and wrote it down. We must be certain to balance suspicion with goodwill, but all questions have a right to be asked because this is how we come to know ancient people: by asking and answering questions and judging the likely truth of our answers.
Another set of questions that arise is about the actual content of the historical texts. What are they telling us? As I mentioned before, where agreement exists amongst a number of sources, that is often cause for judging the knowledge contained in those sources historically sound. Yet, is there information contained in ancient historical texts that is so strange and odd that people question whether such a thing could have happened? Do the accounts of Jesus’ miracles render them a priori, without historical questioning or examination, ahistorical events? Does Buddha’s enlightenment under the Boddhi tree indicate a historical fabrication? How do we know we are dealing with historical reminiscences or historical fabrications? How do we judge this? This is an especially difficult case with an individual like Jesus or Buddha because the texts are telling us that the figures being described are unique, that it is the unique things they do that indicate their unique being. Jesus, say the Gospels, is one of a kind, the only Son of God. This is why gaining understanding of an historical individual is both like being the reader of a text and someone who is getting to know a person.
After questioning the origin of the texts, the sources, and the content of the texts, we have to ask ourselves both questions about the texts and the person we are coming to know in the texts. Does this seem like a real person? Do we understand what makes this person tick? Do we have a sense of what this person aimed to do and why they aimed to do it? Can we believe the sources and what they tell us about this person? This is not an easy task, but it is the historical task. And yet, there is one more issue that clouds the historical process and our access to grasping the truth about a person, to affirming our knowledge as true and this should be seen as a separate issue. Yes, there will be one more post on historical understanding in general before getting to the actual evaluation of the historical claims about Jesus and this will consider development in understanding an historical person.
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