What can we know about Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus of Nazareth has become one of the most influential persons ever to have lived, so it seems like a useful idea to ask what might actually be known about him. The answer isn’t straightforward. Did he even exist? Some people say he didn’t, but then again some people say the earth is flat. The 1st century world of the Roman Empire paid almost no attention to him, but he’s briefly mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus around 94 CE, and by the Roman historian Tacitus around 116. Otherwise, we’re dependent on the books in the New Testament – chiefly the four Gospels, and the letters of Paul.

None of these, however, are ‘history’ or ‘biography’ in our 21st century sense, and were written from 20 to 70 years after Jesus’ death. The earliest writings are Paul’s, dating from 50 to 60 CE, and are not accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, but letters focussing on issues arising in the first Christian ‘churches’. Thereafter, we have the four Gospels – Mark around 70, Matthew around 80, Luke around 85, and John around 90-100. These Gospels were originally anonymous. Names weren’t attached to them until the 2nd century, so we can’t say we know who the authors were. What we can say is that whereas the first followers of Jesus would have been illiterate, Aramaic speakers in rural Galilee, the Gospel writers seem to be well educated Greek speakers in various urban locations in the Roman Empire.

Jesus and his original followers wrote nothing. The activities and teachings of Jesus were initially passed on by word of mouth. The writer of Mark’s Gospel made use of such ‘oral traditions’, and slotted them into a very loose and limited kind of ‘chronological’ framework. The writers of Matthew and Luke based their work on Mark’s Gospel, and also on a no longer existing document with a list of some of Jesus’ sayings. John’s Gospel is very different from the first three, even contradicting them in some important aspects. All four Gospels were written to confirm believers in their faith, and to attract converts. They are promotional works, or propaganda in a non-pejorative sense, and must be approached in that light.

A useful model for these Gospels is that of an archeological dig. They contain different levels of material, from early to late. In other words, the ‘earliest’ level of what we read, may possibly represent, reasonably accurately, what Jesus did and taught, whereas the later levels more likely represent the developing interpretation by the growing ‘church’ of what it came to believe that Jesus said and did. It is far from easy to sort all of this out. There are useful rules which can be applied to assist us, but the fact remains that different people will come to different conclusions, which can all be justified by valid arguments. If we have an interest in these things, we must do your own reading, and reach our own conclusions, while holding on to an open and receptive mind.

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