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The Quest for the Historical Jesus : Scholars Say He Existed but Search for Hard Evidence

December 12, 1985|JOHN P. MEIER | The Washington Post and The Rev. John Meier, a Catholic priest, is associate professor of biblical studies at Catholic University. and

Christmas, a feast that brings joy to the world, also brings hard questions to the intellect.

Who was this Jesus whose birth is celebrated every Dec. 25? Did he exist? If so, what did he really say and do? This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the "historical Jesus."

Today, practically all historians and scholars of Scripture agree that someone named Jesus of Nazareth did live in the 1st Century AD, and that he left behind a group of disciples who came to be called Christians.

However, Jesus was an itinerant preacher who in the nature of things did not leave behind him hard evidence from his life.

As far as we know, he wrote nothing. There are no references to anyone named Jesus in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the documents from around Jesus' time that were found in jars stored in caves in and around Qumran on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea.

The Gospel of Mark, the first of the Gospels, was probably not composed much before 70 AD, about 40 years after the Crucifixion. And we are not even sure who Mark was.

No Great Breakthroughs

Further, there have been no great archeological or historical breakthroughs since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 that would suddenly illuminate his life or that of the Jewish sects that flourished in Judea in his lifetime.

Even the Shroud of Turin--which some claim to be the burial cloth of Jesus--remains a question mark rather than evidence. We still do not know its origin and scientists disagree on its age.

Simply discussing these historical matters has divided Christians for more than 200 years. Today, some fundamentalist Christians see the sifting of the Gospels for historical data about Jesus as a threat to faith.

As they point out, Christians got along for about 1,800 years without a scientific attempt to get behind the Gospels. For such fundamentalists, the Gospels are like the minutes taken by a secretary at Jesus' seminars.

On the other hand, both Protestant and Catholic scholars hold that theology is "faith seeking understanding," as St. Anselm put it in the Middle Ages. In other words, faith has an intellectual dimension that demands further probing.

In our own day in particular, when it is so easy to conform to the dominant culture, even our own image of Jesus tends to take on the colors of prevailing intellectual fashion.

Hence, the importance of the search for the historical Jesus. It can help to keep faith honest and critical of a society that wants to use Jesus for its own purposes. The Jesus of history stubbornly refuses to be co-opted by any one party line. He is the message for everyone; He is the tool of no one. He declines to be a card-carrying communist, a complacent capitalist or a consoling clergyman.

Did Jesus exist?

To begin with, common sense tells us that religious movements are likely to get their start from a striking, unique personality.

In the case of Jesus, common sense is buttressed, first of all, by documentary evidence from non-Christians of the 1st and 2nd centuries.

Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived the first part of his life in Palestine before AD 70, is quoted in his "Jewish Antiquities" as referring to Jesus. Josephus describes him as a miracle worker who appeared to his disciples after his death.

The text as it stands is so positive that scholars suggest that it may have been tampered with by a later Christian scribe. Yet many experts, including Jewish historians such as Shlomo Pines and Louis Feldman, judge that a simpler reference to Jesus by Josephus does lie behind the present text.

In the early 2nd Century, the pagan historian Tacitus mentions in his "Annals" that "Christ, the founder of the Christian movement," was executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea.

Later rabbinical literature also contains a few scattered references to "Yeshu," or "Yeshua"(Jesus)--though these texts were written centuries after the time of Jesus.

An important point to notice is that while Tacitus, the pagan satirist Lucian (2nd Century), and later rabbis are for the most part negative in their references to Jesus, none denies his existence.

Of course, most of our knowledge of Jesus comes from New Testament documents. Since they are religious writings, and since they were composed decades after Jesus' death, historians naturally approach them with care.

Yet the fact is that various types of Christian documents, each presenting a somewhat different view of Jesus, were produced within 40 years of the supposed date of his death. This does seem to argue for the existence of the person being interpreted in such different ways so early on.

First Four Decades

Scholars believe that Paul's Epistles, Mark's Gospel and a collection of Jesus' sayings that experts call "the Q Document" all come from the first four decades after Jesus' death.

In the last century a radical Dutch school tried to question the early dating of Paul's Epistles--but no serious scholar today would deny that Paul's authentic letters come from the '50s of the 1st Century.

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