03/30/2007 11:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Mystery of the Real Jesus (Part 1)

A stir was made recently by the documentary film from 'Titanic' director James Cameron that claimed to have found the final resting place of Jesus and his family, and although the evidence presented wasn't satisfying to the vast majority of biblical scholars, the search for the real Jesus has become a preoccupation, even obsession. Modern people want evidence that a wandering rabbi, or teacher, actually preached in northern Galilee two thousand years ago, yet outside the New Testament, even the simplest facts about Jesus are essentially non-existent. This has given rise to a number of contending views:

1. The real Jesus is contained in the four gospels.
2. The Jesus found in scripture is so confusing and contradictory that the real person has been lost.
3. Historical evidence is irrelevant. The real Jesus exists in disembodied form.
4. There was no real Jesus, or if he existed, he is buried under layers of theology.
5. In the absence of historical documents, a circumstantial case can be made that reveals much about Jesus and his times.

There are pros and cons to each position, most of them unknown to practicing Christians and skeptics alike. I will devote a post to each argument, although entire books go into extensive detail about them.

Argument #1: The real Jesus is contained in the four gospels.

Pros: This would seem to be the simplest and most logical position to take. The four gospel writers either knew Jesus personally or talked to his disciples. They wrote their accounts roughly in the generation after Jesus died, or the one after that (in any case, before 100 CE). In addition, the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke overlap extensively --John is a separate case--further corroborating each other. If the four gospels don't offer the true Jesus as he existed, no other documents can claim such authenticity. They are the best we have or can hope to have in the future.

Cons: There are no cons if you believe that the four gospels are divinely revealed. But we live in an age of doubt and scholarly research, which have combined to upset the tradition of faith. Here are some of the relevant facts that make the four gospels less than convincing:
--The gospels are by unknown writers. Only tradition names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors. There is no historical evidence that these four figures wrote anything down, and we do not know their actual relationship to Jesus when he was alive. That again is a matter of tradition.
--It is likely that many unknown scribes altered the original texts before a final version was settled on between the third and fourth centuries CE.
--Whoever wrote these accounts, they do not offer the same picture of Jesus, but rather are full of contradictions. Nor do they agree on the same time line of events. (We don't know if Jesus taught for three years, as tradition holds, or as little as eighteen months. We don't know if he went to Jerusalem for high holy days or only once on the Passover when he was arrested and crucified.)
--Words are attributed to Jesus that no one could have heard (such as the scene in the garden of Gesthemane when Jesus asks God to take away the cup from his lips, meaning his coming doom on the cross. This is also when the text tells us that the disciples had all fallen asleep, without anyone to overhear his words. Since he was immediately arrested, he would not have had time to recount them, either).
--The four gospels are full of gaps. Except for a single incident in Jerusalem when he was around twelve, the gospels offer nothing about Jesus's life between the birth story and his appearance to be baptized by John the Baptist when he was around thirty.
--The Jesus of the gospels is psychologically incomplete (for example, not once does he either smile or laugh. We have to wait for later accounts to learn even the barest facts about his brothers and sisters).
-Many key teachings of Jesus are countered by their direct opposite. Jesus preached love, peace, and forgiveness but also vengeance, punishment, intolerance for sinners, and so on. He preaches humility but also says that no one can come to God except through him. He denounces the Pharisees as hypocrites who are blindly tied to the laws of Moses but at other times commands that his followers uphold the same laws.
--Jesus rarely refers to any historical or biographical facts. Such a basic thing as his marital status becomes open to speculation.
--The writers of the gospels did not set out to tell the facts of a life but to convert nonbelievers and support their own belief in Jesus as the Messiah. For this reason they almost certainly exaggerated events, invented miracles, put words into Jesus's mouth, or all three. (For example, Jesus often directly quotes the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah or refers to them. Is this how the actual Messiah spoke or how a Messiah has to speak if converts are to be won over?)
--Other documents may be as old as the four gospels and therefore have their own claim to authenticity. These include the so-called Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, which are early documents banned by the church after 313 CE, when the Emperor Constantine officially adopted Christianity, ending the persecution of the faith but beginning a massive effort to destroy heresy and authorize one church and one scripture.
--Among hundreds of early Christian congregations, scriptures differed widely. For example, local beliefs had a lot to do with the birth story of Jesus set down in the gospels. The fact that a scribe from a certain church was drawing from local stories probably played a big part.
--Mark appears to be the first gospel written, and scholars generally agree that it was based on a lost document (known as Q, from Quelle, the German word for source), which is thought to have been a list of Jesus's most important sayings, parables, and teachings. To this bare list Mark added all the stories he could find--these were handed down orally. At a certain point Q disappeared as the popularity of such lists of wise sayings waned.

Unless you believe that the gospels are revealed truth, these internal problems with the written text are enough, I think, to cast doubt on the Jesus we meet in the Bible. The hunt for the real Jesus had to continue elsewhere, as we will see in the next post.