Literary Sources Concerning Jesus

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Literary sources for the life of Christ

In any historical reconstruction, sources of information are indispensable, and these have never been more important than in the account of the historical Jesus. All the available sources will now be collated.

The synoptic gospels

The synoptic problem

The reason why Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as synoptic gospels is that they follow a common pattern in describing the ministry of Jesus. What is known as the synoptic problem arises when these three gospels are compared with one another. Both the similarities and the differences are significant. Sometimes there are three witnesses to the same incident, sometimes two, and not infrequently only one. In many cases the witnesses agree verbally, in other cases they do not. Two major questions arise: in what order did the gospels originate, and what is their precise relationship to each other?

It will not be necessary here to go into detail over the various solutions of this problem, but some indication must be given, since the approach to the literary sources will inevitably influence the approach to the historical Jesus. The traditional view of gospel origins was that Matthew was the prior gospel and that Mark was no more than an extract from Matthew. This was Augustine’s view and held sway until well into the 19th cent. Of the three gospels, Matthew was the most used. This view tended to cause Mark to fall into neglect as a source of data for the historical Jesus. It is still maintained by some Roman Catholic scholars (e.g., C. Butler, L. Vaganay, and L. Cerfaux) that Matthew is prior, but with considerable modifications of the older traditional form of the theory.

The priority of Mark

Both the other synoptic gospels have been regarded as prior by various scholars. Whereas few have supported the priority of Luke, most modern scholars have concluded for the priority of Mark as offering the best solution to this difficult problem. It cannot even now be considered as an unchallengeable hypothesis, nor must its hypothetical character be forgotten. Acceptance of the Markan hypothesis draws attention to one important aspect of the historical data. It was strongly attested in the ancient tradition that Mark was Peter’s interpreter, and if the tradition is true it has obvious bearing on the relation of Mark’s gospel to the events recorded. If an eyewitness is behind a writing, it is at once invested with greater importance as a historical source. This would be particularly true of Mark’s gospel, as Peter could have been present at most of the events which Mark describes. This traditional ascription has been severely challenged by form critical schools of thought, which deny eyewitness control of the transmitted material. The strength of the external evidence for this tradition cannot be denied and full weight must be given to it. The most important witness is Papias, who claimed that Mark wrote down what he learned from Peter’s preaching and that he aimed for accuracy, but was not concerned about order. This means that Papias was not prepared to attach too much importance to Mark’s chronology, but did not dispute the historical veracity of his account. Since later patristic writers accept this opinion of Papias regarding Mark’s relation to Peter, it must have been considered reliable tradition.

The sayings source (Q)

If this theory of Markan priority is accepted as a beginning point in surveying the materials for a life of Christ, it leads to the problem of the source of the non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke. Mark has a limited scope, consisting mainly of events, and including little teaching material. What then is the main source for the teaching material in Matthew and Luke? The answer generally given is that they were indebted to a common source called “Q,” or “Quelle.” For the present purpose, “Q,” whether it be treated as a written source or as a symbol for common teaching material, will be restricted to that material which is shared by Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark. Since this consists almost wholly of sayings of Jesus, it is clearly a most valuable additional source of information about the Jesus of history. Had Mark been the sole source, there would have been little idea of the wide range and variety of the teaching of Jesus, with a consequent lessening of the concept of Him as a teacher. Many source critics therefore place the sayings source on a level with Mark as an important witness to the life of Jesus, but there is an important difference. The existence of Mark as a source is beyond doubt, but the same cannot be said for “Q.” There is no external evidence, as there is for Mark, concerning the one who produced it, nor is there any indication of the source of the material contained in it. Did it have apostolic sanction? Was it based on witnesses? Can it be assumed that care was taken to preserve the sayings of Jesus without corruption? Since the “Q” source is generally considered to be the major source for this teaching material, some answers to these questions are clearly of basic importance.

Some have supposed that Matthew was its author, on the strength of what Papias said about Matthew writing the “Oracles” (of Jesus). If this is a true deduction from Papias, it would supply apostolic authority for the sayings collection. Matthew must have heard Jesus teach many times and may well have been present on most of the occasions when discourses or connected sayings are attributed to Him. But this interpretation of Papias’ words was prob. not Irenaeus’ understanding of them, for he repeated similar wording but makes Matthew the author of an Aramaic gospel. This was the common conviction of the ancients. If Matthew was not the author of “Q,” who was? There is no satisfactory answer. If such a source existed, all that can be asserted is that it was clearly highly regarded by both Matthew and Luke for them both to incorporate it in their gospels.

While the possibility of a sayings collection cannot be denied, its hypothetical character has caused some scholars to look elsewhere for a solution. The view that Matthew used Luke, although not without difficulties, would at once dispense with “Q” (as A. M. Farrer has pointed out, “On Dispensing with ‘Q’,” Studies in the Gospels, ed. D. E. Nineham [1955]). This would enhance the value of Matthew as a source, for it would mean that the sayings material incorporated by him was the result of his own collection, if the apostolic authorship is maintained. Whoever is the author of the first gospel, the strong patristic connection of the gospel with Matthew’s name shows the high esteem in which all the material, including the teaching portion, was held. To maintain a close contact between Matthew and the sayings material is, therefore, not only more in harmony with the external evidence, but is also more satisfactory than attributing “Q” to an anonymous author.

Material peculiar to Matthew and Luke

Following up the “Q” hypothesis, attention must be drawn to the material peculiar to Matthew and Luke. These two authors record considerably more material separately than is recorded by Mark alone. There has been a tendency among many scholars to prefer what appears in two or three witnesses as superior to what is testified to by only one. A single witness cannot for that reason alone be considered suspect. Such a principle of criticism would at once put Matthew’s and Luke’s special material at a discount, but this is not historically sound. The reliability of a witness depends on the reliability of his character and not on the existence or otherwise of other witnesses to corroborate what he says. Nonetheless, some of Matthew’s special material has been regarded as less authentic because it raises difficult apologetic problems. Such details as John the Baptist’s hesitation to baptize Jesus, the coin found in the fish’s mouth, and the opening of the graves during the crucifixion are considered secondary tradition because of the difficulties which they raise.

That there is need for explanation is undeniable, but that the material must be considered secondary through ecclesiastical influence upon the tradition is not self-evident. The heightening of the miraculous is of such a character that it is difficult to imagine that it would have remained unchallenged had it been wholly fictitious. In any case, the proportion of material in this category is so small a part of the whole of Matthew’s special material that it would be unjustifiable if it were allowed to dominate any evaluation of the whole.

Both Matthew and Luke include special sections dealing with the sayings of Jesus. Matthew generally combines his with the material assigned to “Q,” whereas Luke is more inclined to keep his separate. Both include parables of Jesus, but their differences are significant. Matthew’s are generally kingdom parables whereas Luke’s are not so specified. Moreover, Luke’s parables tend to concentrate on a more personal interest than Matthew’s. This difference reveals the individual approach of the two evangelists, and also points to the wide variety of the teaching material of Jesus. Comparison of the matter peculiar to each with that common to both reveals the additional insights which their individual choice of sayings provides.

For instance, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew contains considerably more sayings than Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, particularly about Jesus’ attitude toward the law. Similarly, our knowledge of many incidents and sayings from the latter part of the Lord’s ministry is wholly dependent upon Luke (e.g., Zacchaeus, the parables of the lost things). Some comment will be made later on the particular contribution of each evangelist toward a reconstruction of the historical Jesus, but now the purpose is to draw attention to the value of sources of information which are peculiar to any of them. Unless there is some adequate reason for regarding such sources as inferior, it is reasonable to receive them as data for a historical reconstruction.

The birth narratives

One special aspect of both Matthew and Luke is their inclusion of birth narratives which are clearly drawn from entirely different sources. It has rightly been pointed out that Matthew shows more clearly Joseph’s position, whereas Luke’s narratives are more concerned with Mary’s. Some scholars have contended that in both accounts the narratives have been influenced by OT motives, but there is a difference between narratives created from OT patterns and those influenced by OT thought. Matthew includes many instances in his birth narratives of fulfillments of OT prophecy, but any suggestion that he has created the narratives to fit in with the prediction is unworthy of the high spiritual tone of these narratives as a whole.

Some have seen in Luke’s narratives something in the nature of a poetic idyll which was never intended to be regarded as historical, but if this is so it is strange that Luke takes such pains to stress that his gospel was based on careful historical inquiry (Luke 1:1-4). It is reasonable to suppose that Luke received the material for his birth narratives from a reliable source. There is, in fact, no reason why he should not have had communication with Mary, although this cannot be proved. Some prefer to maintain that Luke has incorporated into his gospel an earlier source which dealt with the birth story.

Some mention must be made of the theory that Matthew used a book of OT testimonies to Jesus, if only to point out the great importance of the idea of fulfillment in the gospel accounts. Matthew includes twelve citations introduced by a special formula apparently drawn from the Heb. rather than the LXX, and this has given rise to the theory that he used a testimony book containing OT citations which had a bearing on the events in the life of Jesus the Messiah. A modification of this theory is that the Early Church was more interested in passages which contained Messianic predictions than in isolated OT texts bearing on the life of the Messiah (cf. C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures [1952]). Whether either of these theories, or alternatively the further suggestion that the collection is the work of the evangelist is true, is immaterial for the present purpose. What is important is that none of the synoptic gospels, or for that matter the fourth gospel either, treats the events and teaching of Jesus in isolation from the OT. His incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection were all viewed by the early Christians as fulfillments of OT predictions. No approach to the life of Jesus is valid which does not give considerable weight to the OT background.

The fourth gospel

The problems of historicity

The use of this gospel as a source of data for the life of Jesus has been variously regarded throughout the period of NT criticism. Sometimes the synoptics have been regarded as superior, and sometimes John has held first place. Throughout the first half of the 20th cent. John’s gospel was discounted as a historical source, but there has latterly been a greater readiness to reinstate it. This has been due in no small measure to the discovery of the DSS. It would be a mistake to maintain that the connection between these scrolls and John’s gospel was close, but what parallels there are support the view that both may belong to a similar milieu of thought. This means that the gospel cannot be considered a wholly Hel. production in which the author attempts to present a Hel. portrait of Jesus, as earlier scholars had frequently maintained, but must be viewed against the background of a Jewish syncretistic milieu. If the men of Qumran could talk in abstract terms (e.g. the symbolic use of light and darkness), there is no reason why Jesus should not have done the same. It is against such a “new look” on the fourth gospel (to use Bishop J. A. T. Robinson’s phrase (Twelve New Testament Studies [1962]), that the Johannine problem must be considered in its bearing on the historical Jesus.

The first consideration is to decide what relation the gospel has to the events which it relates. Did the writer intend to write facts, or interpretation, or both? In what sense can the details of the narratives be considered historically valid? No answer to these questions can begin in a better place than with John’s purpose, according to his own statement (John 20:30, 31). Whereas he makes clear his evangelistic purpose—to lead to faith in Jesus as the Christ and as Son of God—yet the faith is based on “signs” which have been performed in the presence of the disciples. The basic facts of the gospel were therefore verifiable by responsible witnesses. It cannot be denied that what John purports to write has a close connection with events that happened, although his own purpose is concerned with the Christ of faith. In view of John’s stated purpose, the theological aspect of his gospel must be borne in mind throughout. He was not concerned to write bare history, but history with a specific aim in view.

The validity of the history will naturally depend on the trustworthiness of the author, and this raises the whole problem of authorship. It is not my intention to discuss the problem here, but rather to consider the effects of various suggestions on the problem of historicity. If the traditional view that the Apostle John is the author be maintained, the validity of the data must be highly ranked, for the whole gospel would then be basically an eyewitness account. Much more importance would attach to the farewell discourses (John 13-17) if the author had been personally present. In spite of the external evidence, corroborated by several internal hints of an eyewitness, many have found difficulty with this view and have postulated another author—either a John the Elder or else some entirely anonymous person. Most who dispute apostolic authorship, however, do concede some apostolic connection (except many Continental scholars). Some regard the Apostle John as the witness behind the gospel, if he is not the author.

The problem of authorship is less crucial than that of history. A few illustrations will show the force of this. In the realm of chronology John places a cleansing of the Temple near the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, whereas the synoptists place it at the end. If John’s narrative is taken symbolically of the cleansing of Judaism by Jesus, the chronological problem ceases to exist. But the record does not read like a symbolic account. Another problem is the form of teaching. The absence of parables and the presence of much discourse material, including rabbinic type dialogue, marks John off from the synoptic gospels. The problem is not insuperable, for some parabolic forms are included in John in addition to the allegories of the Vine and Shepherd, while some extended discourse material is found in the other gospels, particularly Matthew. Moreover, it must be remembered that John’s material almost wholly centers in Jerusalem, whereas the synoptists concentrate on Galilee. In spite of the historical difficulties, it is not impossible to integrate John as a historical source with the synoptic gospels.

The relationship to the synoptic gospels

A comparison of John with the synoptics shows how much he has left out and also how much new material he has included. The question naturally arises whether John is independent of the synoptic gospels or whether he used them as a source. In view of the small amount of material common to all the gospels, there is much to be said for the theory that John did not use the others as literary sources. The largest amount of common material is in the Passion narrative. It seems indisputable that John assumed the synoptic tradition even if he did not use them as sources. He speaks, for instance, of the Twelve without further definition. His omission of the institution of the Lord’s Supper would be unintelligible if he did not assume that details of this were already widely known. It is a reasonable hypothesis that John intended his gospel to be complementary to the synoptics. There was no question in his mind that his gospel would be used alongside the others. Patristic testimony shows that at a fairly early period this happened. John and the synoptics were the only gospels found acceptable. It must not be overlooked that whatever incongruities modern scholars find between John and the synoptics, the ancients were not conscious of them, with the sole exception of a group known as the Alogi, who were opposed to John’s doctrine.

The major problem facing the historian of the life of Jesus is to find some satisfactory way of dovetailing the separate accounts. The cleansing of the Temple is an example. Some decision must be made about this, either the postulation of a double cleansing or else a choice between the Johannine and synoptic chronology. Most choose the synoptic dating, but the former suggestion is not impossible. The dating of the Last Supper is another well-known crux, since John appears to set it on Nisan 13, while the synoptics prefer Nisan 14. Another problem is to fit into the Galilean account of the ministry in the synoptics the events recorded by John as happening at Jerusalem. Moreover, the length of the public ministry of Jesus poses a problem, for John suggests that the period must be at least two if not three years, whereas the synoptics give the impression of one year. The matter is not irresoluble, since a reference to a harvest in the midst of the synoptic ministry shows that more than one year must have been involved, although the events appear on the surface to have happened all within two Passovers. Clearly the synoptists were not as interested in the festival days as John, who for this very reason must be regarded as a better guide in such matters of chronology.

Attempts at harmonizing must at best be regarded as tentative and in some cases as purely arbitrary. In dealing with such sources, one must conclude that the chronological data in the gospels is so sparse that it is impossible to reconstruct the order of events with any certainty. Unless the purpose is to trace some psychological development in the mind of Jesus, the order of events is of little importance. Of the major events there can be no question. The absence of chronological data makes a biography impossible, but the material is sufficient to show the reality of the Jesus of history. In the outline that follows some order had to be selected. In many points of detail the order chosen is admittedly arbitrary.

The fourfold presentation of Jesus

It is significant that in spite of an early attempt at producing a harmony of the gospels (i.e. by Tatian), it was always preferred to keep the gospels separate. Each presents its own portrait and each is needed for the total picture. It will be valuable, therefore, to give some indication of the characteristic features of each evangelist’s presentation of Jesus, for this is more valid than any attempt to reconstruct a continuous account from material in all four gospels.

Matthew’s portrait

This has many distinctive features. His portrayal is like a royal figure. The line of descent in the genealogy is through David, who is named at the head of the second main section in Matthew’s list. The expression “Son of David” occurs on various occasions in the gospel, to a greater extent than in the other synoptics. Matthew’s birth narrative concentrates on homage fit for a king (Matt 2), as compared with Luke’s account of the worship of the lowly shepherds. In the narrative of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, both Matthew and Luke refer to the kingly scene, but only Matthew cites the OT passage, “Behold, your King is coming to you.” While all the synoptics mention Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, it is Matthew in particular who concentrates upon it. His parables are kingdom parables. The message of Jesus is concerned with the proclamation of the kingdom.

Another characteristic of this gospel is the authoritative nature of Jesus as a teacher. In the great discourses which Matthew has sandwiched between blocks of narrative, he specially emphasizes the teaching ministry of Jesus. Yet, he does not portray Jesus as a Jewish rabbi. In fact, Jesus claims authority to supersede the law, which the rabbis considered their highest duty to uphold. In view of this fundamental difference, it is no wonder that Jesus so often was at variance with the religious leaders of His day. Matthew comments that “he taught as one who had authority and not as the scribes” (Matt 7:29; cf. Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32, where similar comment is made about Jesus’ visit to the synagogue). Matthew’s gospel is dominated by his five great discourse sections—Matthew 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 23-25—which illustrate various aspects of the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom.

Matthew shares with the other gospels the picture of Jesus as Son of man, a title which Jesus uses both redemptively and eschatologically. He also shares with them the belief in the Messianic claims of Jesus. He alone records the words of Jesus about the coming church and gives some indication of its nature (cf. Matt 16:18ff.; 18:15ff.). In this respect this gospel leads into the Early Church period, for it is Matthew who gives the Great Commission of Jesus to His disciples before His ascension and ends with the assurance of Jesus’ continuing presence with them. One cannot put aside this gospel without awareness of the future of the people of God because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Mark’s portrait

Mark’s distinctive contribution is one of emphasis rather than unique material. The first feature is the constant activity of Jesus. The relative absence of teaching material contributes to this impression. Mark often says that the actions of Jesus were performed “immediately.” One saying may fittingly be chosen as summing up Mark’s portrait of Jesus (Mark 10:45; cf. Matt 20:28), that the Son of man came not to be served but to serve. His is essentially the gospel of Christ the servant, a gospel full of bustling activity which would make a great appeal to men of action. Jesus was no religious recluse, but a man deeply aware of the needs of those around Him.

This gospel is also remarkable for the large proportion of space devoted to the passion and resurrection narratives. There is little specific teaching about the meaning of Christ’s death (except Mark 10:45), but the arrangement of the whole gospel gives the impression that for Mark the real focus was upon the concluding events, and that the opening two-thirds of the gospel was only a preparation for this. Mark obviously did not attempt to write a biography. Indeed, it is he alone of all the evangelists who describes his book as “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1). Undoubtedly for him the major part of that gospel was the redemptive work accomplished by Jesus on the cross.

It should be noted that Mark begins by identifying Jesus as Son of God (according to the most probable reading) and yet proceeds to include, more than any of the other gospels, a presentation of Jesus as Son of man. Since Mark seems more drawn by actions than by words, it is most natural to see the evidence of both these titles in what Jesus did, rather than what He said. The humanity of Jesus may be seen in His acts of compassion, and His divine power in the fact that so many of these acts of compassion are portrayed as miracles.

Mention has already been made of those who have claimed that Mark has imposed his own theory of a Messianic secret upon his material, but since the theory is not demanded by the evidence, it may be said that Mark’s portrait of Jesus implies the awareness of His own Messianic mission. The earthly life of Jesus was not the appointed time for this to be made known. The Messiah must first be recognized in the risen Christ.

Luke’s portrait

There is a warm human touch in Luke’s account. The birth stories are more intimate. The contacts of Jesus with the people of His day are more varied, with special emphasis upon His concern for women and children. The parables more frequently have a human touch about them, as is specially illustrated in the parables of Luke 15:8ff. Luke records more of the theme of joy in Jesus’ teaching than the other evangelists. The ministry of Jesus was not intended to give a somber impression. Even in his Passion references Luke dwells less on the tragic aspects, although no description of the crucifixion scene can avoid such an aspect. In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, the conversation concerned the “exodus” of Jesus rather than His death (Luke 9:31). When he describes the crucifixion scene, he does not include Jesus’ cry of separation, “Why hast thou forsaken me,” included by both Matthew and Mark. In Luke the last words of Jesus are a prayer of committal to the Father. Nevertheless, if the starkness of the cross is somewhat toned down, its centrality is as clear in Luke as in the others. It is in Luke that the risen Christ is recorded as expounding from the Scriptures the necessity for His sufferings (24:26, 27). He ends his gospel on a note of great joy, which was now no longer dependent upon the earthly presence of Jesus. In no clearer way could Luke have indicated the continuity of the historical Jesus with the Christ of faith.

John’s portrait

The Johannine portrait is different, although there are many common features with the other gospels which enable the portrait to be identified as the same person. He is introduced in a different way, in the concept of a divine intermediary, the divine Word who nevertheless became flesh. There is nothing comparable in the synoptics. Had John proceeded in the same vein throughout his gospel, the difference in approach would have been insuperable. As soon as John has spoken of the Incarnation, his narrative proceeds to illustrate in human terms what it meant for the Word to become flesh.

The most marked characteristic of His portrait is the filial relationship between Jesus and the Father. This is essentially the gospel of Jesus, the Son. Its purpose was that men might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and the author took care that much of the gospel testifies to this fact. Scattered throughout the gospel are statements which show the consciousness of Jesus and of His dependence on the Father. He is the Sent One. It is the Father’s will that He has done. He calls men to the Father’s purpose for them. The climax of this aspect of Jesus is seen in the prayer in John 17, which has not inappropriately been called the high priestly prayer, but which is really a filial supplication on behalf of His disciples.

Another feature of John’s portrait is the miraculous signs which are included as an attestation of Jesus. These signs are intended to be authenticating and are said to redound to God’s glory. The signs are themselves in agreement with the portrait of the divine Son. They are the deeds which the Son might be expected to perform. They were further intended to be aids to faith, for Jesus Himself appealed to His works if men would not believe Him for His own sake.

Linked with these characteristics is the remarkable fact that John records more evidence of the perfect humanity of Jesus than any of the other evangelists. Jesus is described as thirsty and tired. At Lazarus’ tomb He is moved with indignation. He does the most menial service in the upper room. There is no doubt about the fact that the Word had become flesh. This Johannine portrait was wholly different from the Docetic representation of Jesus, in which His humanity was more apparent than real.

There is a certain unhurried atmosphere about this gospel, in strong contrast to Mark’s. Jesus has time to discuss and converse. The action is slow-moving and sometimes nonexistent. There is more sense of inevitability about this portrait than about the others. The idea of the “hour” of destiny runs through the whole gospel. At first it is said that it has not yet come, and this prepares the reader to look for its dawning and draws the narrative to a climax, when eventually it does come in the Passion narrative. There is nothing accidental about the cross; it is seen as part of the purpose of God.

When these four portraits are compared, they present four different aspects of Jesus, none of which can be dispensed with without loss. Any attempt at recognizing the historical Jesus cannot proceed without recognizing the many-sided character of the person of Jesus as the four evangelists saw Him.

Other New Testament evidence for the life of Jesus

An important question arises over the relation of the Acts and epistles to the testimony of the gospels to the historical Jesus. The Pauline epistles are of particular interest. One needs to inquire what knowledge these epistles reveal of Paul’s acquaintance with the events and the teaching of Jesus. First impressions might suggest that Paul was either ignorant of or else uninterested in the historical Jesus. Such impressions would not be entirely justified, for there are passing allusions in the epistles which bear testimony to his knowledge of certain historical facts.

When Paul is contending with the Judaizers at Galatia, he asserts that “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4), by which it is clear that he regarded Him as a true man who lived in an environment of Jewish law. According to human reckoning He was of the seed of David (Rom 1:3). Whether this latter reference is regarded as part of the primitive kerygma (as C. H. Dodd believes, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments [2nd ed. 1944]), or as Paul’s own thought, is of small consequence. It shows, however, Paul’s acquaintance with the lineage of Jesus through the Davidic line.

Some glimpses of his knowledge of the character of Jesus are seen from his references to the meekness and gentleness of Christ (2 Cor 10:1), the compassion of Christ (Phil 1:8) and His willingness to bear reproaches (Rom 15:3). Some background knowledge of the historical Jesus would appear to be indispensable if these expressions are to have intelligible meaning for Paul and his readers. The apostle is certainly aware of the external circumstances of the life of Jesus, for he refers to the poverty of Christ in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Moreover, there are references to Him as an example, and this must presuppose some detailed knowledge of His actions.

It is concerning the passion and Resurrection of Jesus that there is the greatest clarity in the testimony of Paul. He knows about the betrayal (1 Cor 11:23). Those who crucified Him are said to be “the rulers of this age” (2:8), although he includes the Jews as partners in the offense (1 Thess 2:14, 15). His knowledge of the Resurrection is detailed (1 Cor 15:3ff.). This passage repays careful attention, for it supplies information additional to the gospel accounts. The death and burial of Jesus are mentioned before the Resurrection appearances to show the connection of these appearances with the historical events. Since Paul states explicitly that he had “received” this information, it is evident that no small importance was attached in the primitive period to the fact of the burial. Of special interest is the mention of the appearances. To begin with, some of the gospel appearances are omitted, e.g., the appearance to the women and to the two on the Emmaus road. Whether the five hundred refers to the same people to whom Luke refers (Luke 24:50) on the occasion when Jesus ascended is not clear, but only Paul mentions the number. Moreover, it is he alone who refers to an appearance to James. It is not easy to fit in Paul’s data with those mentioned in the gospels, but for that reason the evidence must be regarded as independent. The primitive kerygma clearly emphasized the need for historical verification of the central factor of the Christian faith. The Resurrection was certainly more than a subjective experience.

Paul is specific about the details of the institution of the Last Supper, but his account supplements the gospel records by preserving the Lord’s words, “Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:25). This section is of particular interest, as Paul maintains that he received the tradition from the Lord, by which he must mean that the tradition carried with it the divine sanction.

There are various occasions when Paul appears to be referring to the teaching of Jesus in a way which shows his acquaintance with it. It is possible that his reference to love as a fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10; Gal 5:14) is an echo of the teaching of Jesus. More specific is the occasion when Paul, on the issue of marriage, distinguishes between his own opinion and the express teaching of Jesus, although he clearly believed that his opinion was in harmony with that teaching (1 Cor 7:10-12, 25). In the pastoral epistles two references may be noted. Timothy is advised that true teachers must conform their teaching to “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 6:3), which could be a reference to words taught by Him. The other reference is linked with a Scriptural citation (1 Tim 5:18) which is clearly a saying of Jesus, and possibly a quotation (Luke 10:7), to the effect that the laborer deserves his wages.

Some have found difficulty in the fact that Paul does not show more acquaintance with the historic facts of the life of Jesus. This is not altogether unexpected. The epistles are incidental correspondence dealing with practical and theological problems which arose in the church. The fact is that there are few occasions within the epistles where recording of events and sayings of Jesus would have been appropriate. But it may be said that the epistles are written against such a basic understanding of the historical Jesus that they would not have been intelligible without it. (Cf. R. J. Knowling’s Witness of the Epistles [1892] and his Testimony of St. Paul to Christ [1905].)

The witness of the Book of Acts shows everywhere an emphasis on the death and Resurrection of Jesus as the major content of the early preaching. What information does it supply about the life of Jesus? The most obvious is the brief résumé in Peter’s address to Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:36ff.). Peter speaks of Jesus of Nazareth as one anointed by God with the Holy Spirit. His deeds are referred to as doing good and healing (esp. exorcisms). Death by hanging on a tree is also mentioned. This testifies to the place of historical details about Jesus in the earlier proclamations. In the earlier speeches there is recognition that the responsibility for the crucifixion must rest upon the Jews (cf. Acts 2:23, 36; 7:52) and of the choice of a murderer in place of Jesus (3:14). Both Peter (3:14) and Stephen (7:52) describe Jesus as the Righteous One, thus bearing witness to their knowledge of His holy character.

In the other epistles the data is sparse. In the epistle to the Hebrews there is a knowledge of the Temptation (Heb 2:18; 4:15). The powerful intercessions of Jesus with strong crying and tears in the days of His flesh are mentioned in Hebrews 5:7, and this seems to be a specific reference to the agony in Gethsemane. There is also a passing allusion to the hostility which Jesus endured (12:3) and which is regarded as an example for the readers. It is clear, therefore, that the writer is conscious of much of the background of the historical Jesus.

In the epistle of James the main feature of interest is the manner in which James so frequently reflects knowledge of the sayings of Jesus, particularly from the Sermon on the Mount (cf. James 1:2 and Matt 5:10-12; 1:22 and 7:24ff.; 5:2f. and 6:19, to cite only a few examples). This is of particular importance because James reflects more of the sayings of Jesus than any other NT author. But James’ epistle is the most practical of any, and the ethical teaching of Jesus was for him of greatest relevance.

The Petrine epistles provide a few allusions to the historical Jesus. The suffering of Christ is referred to as an example (1 Pet 2:21) and His sufferings are described (cf. Isa 53). The statement in 1 Peter 2:12 about men seeing one’s good deeds seems to be an echo of the saying of Jesus in Matthew 5:16. This epistle also preserves the enigmatic statement about Christ preaching to the spirits in prison (1 Pet 3:19), which is nowhere hinted at in the gospels. There is a reference to the Transfiguration of Jesus and to the fact that there were eyewitnesses of this event (2 Pet 1:17f.). John speaks of what eyes have seen and hands handled (1 John 1:1), but gives no historical details. The Book of Revelation is centered so much on the heavenly Christ that no reference is made to events in the life of Jesus, but the Lamb is referred to as slain. One saying which recurs—he who has an ear, let him hear—may well be an echo of the words of Jesus.

To sum up, it will be seen that specific data regarding the historic Jesus outside the gospels in the NT is frugal, but that everywhere they are assumed. It is no wonder that the Early Church placed such store on its gospel sources.

Extracanonical material for the life of Jesus

There is little information about the history of Jesus from outside the NT, and, most of what there is, is unlikely to be authentic: yet every avenue must be explored. The evidence may be divided into the following categories: 1. Non-Christian; 2. Christian archeological and patristic sources; 3. Apocryphal gospels; and 4. Gnostic works.

Non-Christian evidences

Under this, two sub-divisions will be considered, pagan and Jewish. The pagan evidence may be dealt with quickly, since it is practically non-existent. Tacitus reports about the Christians in the time of Nero’s persecutions (a.d. 64) and mentions that Christ was executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Pliny in his letter to the Emperor Trajan, concerning the superstition of Christianity, refers to Christ, but only as an object of reviling by those persuaded to apostatize. Another historian, Suetonius, mentions the expulsion from Rome of the Jews who had caused a great tumult under the influence of “Chrestus” (who may well be identified with Christ), but he gives no further evidence about Chrestus.

These are the major pagan witnesses to the historical Jesus. In spite of the rapid spread of the Christian Church, the pagan world approached no nearer to it than to call the whole movement a superstition which was accompanied by vile practices. Against such a background the progress of the Christian Church is remarkable.

When one turns to Jewish evidences the situation is not too different. Three passages in Josephus’ Antiquities may be noted. One gives an account of Herod’s action in killing John the Baptist, which is of value in support of the validity of the gospel records, although there are different motives stated. Another passage makes specific statements about Jesus, although many have disputed the validity of the passage because no writer before Eusebius (4th cent. a.d.) mentions it. It may be genuine, and will accordingly be cited in full: “Now about this time arose Jesus, a wise man, if indeed he should be called a man. For he was a doer of marvellous deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure; and he won over to himself many Jews and many also of the Greek (nation). He was the Christ. And when on the indictment of the principal men among us Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease; for he appeared to them on the third day alive again, the divine prophets having foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And even now the tribe of Christians named after him is not extinct.” This statement certainly seems rather too sympathetic toward Christianity for Josephus, particularly the reference to the Resurrection. If it be considered authentic, it shows the extent to which knowledge of the historical Jesus had penetrated into the circle in which this Jewish historian moved. What details are given are in full agreement with the gospel narratives. The third passage in the Antiquities mentions Jesus but only insofar as referring to His connection with James, the brother of Jesus, whose murder by the Sanhedrin Josephus describes.

Space will not allow discussion of the passages in the Slavonic version of Josephus’ Jewish War, for there is considerable doubt about their genuineness as a 1st cent. testimony. If any historical value may be attached to them, they witness to the view that Jesus was concerned about armed political agitation.

In addition to the witness of Josephus, Jewish testimony must include references in the Talmud. These references are not numerous and may be restricted to eight, which can be considered of any value. One refers to the hanging of Jeshu of Nazareth and mentions His practice of sorcery. This appears to be a Jewish attempt to explain away the responsibility of the Jews for the crucifixion. The second refers to five disciples of Jesus by name, but none of the names coincide with those mentioned in the gospels. The third describes a proselyte calling up the spirit of Jesus by spells; while the fourth refers to a man “born of a woman” who was to arise and “make himself God,” against whom people are warned. There is also a reference to Him departing and coming again. Another feature is the recognition that this man will lead the whole world astray, showing the universal appeal of Christianity. In two sayings there is a description of Jesus (under a pseudonym) reflecting Jewish ridicule of the Virgin Birth. The seventh reference is a saying attributed to Jesus concerning the hire of a harlot, which is almost certainly of doubtful validity; the eighth contains a story involving a Christian philosopher in which reference is made to the Gospel, but the first supposed citation, “Son and daughter shall inherit together,” does not occur, neither does the second citation, although it looks like a modified version of Matthew 5:17. (For a concise account of these sayings, cf. R. Dunkerly, Beyond the Gospels [1957].) What value is to be placed on these Jewish comments on Jesus must remain doubtful, but the references demonstrate some knowledge of Jesus as a historical figure and give some indication of the scorn with which the rabbis regarded Him.

Christian evidences

During the earliest period of church history extra-canonical evidence is sparse. The present concern will be with two lines of evidence, archeological and patristic.

In the archeological field almost the only evidence comes from the catacomb inscr. These supply information concerning what the early Christians thought about Jesus rather than information of a historical character. There is an early painting of Him as a youthful and beardless person, but there is no knowing whether this was based on anyone other than in the imagination of the artist.

There might be some slight contribution from the well-known rotas-sator word square, which was widely used in early Christian circles. There is considerable dispute over its significance, but it has been suggested that the center word tenet in both directions forms the symbol of a cross, thus reminding the Christians of the basic belief in their faith. Others have seen the square as an indirect reference to the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, since the letters in the square make up pater-noster twice with two A’s and two O’s surplus, representing Christ as Alpha and Omega. Such evidence is so tenuous that it can contribute nothing to the understanding of the history of Jesus. The same may be said of the famous fish symbol, which testifies to early Christian faith in Christ as Savior.

Among the Apostolic Fathers there are various sayings attributed to Jesus, but the majority of these are variants of canonical sayings, which may well be accounted for by loose reminiscences of the teaching. Clement of Rome has passages of this kind, but it seems best to regard these as evidence of the knowledge by Clement of the canonical sources, rather than as independent evidence. In the Didaché there are a number of statements which echo the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, without attributing the words to Jesus. Some think that a genuine saying is recorded by the Epistle of Barnabas in the following words, “So he says, Those who wish to see me and lay hold of my kingdom must receive me through tribulation and suffering.” While this might be conceived as a genuine saying, it might equally well be no more than a general summary of the gist of Jesus’ teaching about those who seek the kingdom. Many canonical sayings mention the tribulation which followers of Jesus must endure.

In the Epistles of Ignatius there occurs a resurrection account which differs from the canonical accounts. The Shepherd of Hermas is interesting because it includes authoritative parables which are quite different from the canonical gospels, but these are not directly attributed to Jesus. It is extraordinary how little material from the Apostolic Fathers preserves what might conceivably be regarded as genuine non-canonical sayings. It must be noted that not a great many canonical sayings were cited either, but if a large number of “agrapha” (unwritten sayings) were circulating in the oral tradition, it might have been supposed that far more would have been preserved by the earliest writers had they considered them genuine. This kind of argument has obvious limitations, since the purpose of these patristic writers was not focused on showing their acquaintance with the sayings of Jesus.

There is little evidence for one’s purpose in the writings of the apologists, although two testimonies may be mentioned. The Apology of Aristedes contains passages which show affinity with the gospels, although introducing variations. It is clear that the author is echoing their language without making direct reference to the sayings of Jesus. There is certainly no evidence of non-canonical sayings of Jesus. The other witness is Justin Martyr who mentions the birth of Jesus as having taken place in a cave, in place of the synoptic’s stable. Both terms might in this case be correct since stables in caves were not unknown in the E. There are sundry sayings of Jesus which are reminiscent of the gospel sayings. Bearing in mind that Justin is not an accurate quoter it may reasonably be supposed that he himself is responsible for the variations and is not citing some independent traditions. For instance when Justin records the saying, “I came not to call the righteous to repentance but sinners, for the Heavenly Father desireth the sinner’s repentance rather than his punishment,” this looks like a Justinian enlargement of Luke 5:32. One of the best attested agrapha in Justin is, “In whatsoever things I apprehend you, in these I shall judge you,” which is reminiscent of various statements of Jesus on judgment in the gospels, but it may be an independent saying.

Apocryphal gospels

A large number of these appeared from the 2nd cent. onward, and in them are included many incidents which relate either to the birth and childhood of Jesus or to His passion. None of the material has any claim to be genuine. The additional data are generally fantastic, e.g., the story of Jesus making clay birds which flew away. Moreover, these gospels were generally, if not always, heretical in purpose. The Gospel of Peter, for instance, is known to have been published in the interests of the Docetic heresy, for Serapion testified to this fact. It was not difficult for those gripped by a dogmatic purpose of a heretical kind to give vent to imagination in an attempt to strengthen their unorthodox position. The evidence from this source therefore lacks historical validity, but it does, by way of contrast, bring out vividly the remarkably restrained nature of the canonical testimony to Christ.

Some fragmentary evidence has been preserved of a gospel (the Hebrew Gospel) which cannot be classed as heretical and which may preserve some genuine material not found in the canonical gospels. An examination of the most likely passages (see Dunkerly, op. cit., 102ff.) shows some interesting deviations. For instance, Jesus’ mother and brethren urge Him to be baptized with them by John the Baptist, but Jesus hesitates because of His sinlessness. Some dogmatic consideration seems to have entered. Most of the other sayings possess a secondary looking character which suggests the need for caution in accepting them as genuine.

Gnostic works

Little need be said about Gnostic sources as a possible quarry for authentic sayings of Jesus. The most notable books which preserve sayings of a similar kind to those in the gospels are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. The parallels in the former alone warrant serious attention. There are many which echo the thought of the synoptic gospels, and in these cases it is almost certain that the author has used the canonical gospels, although there have been various other theories to account for the parallels (cf. the discussion of R. M. Wilson, Studies in the Gospel of Thomas [1960]). The possibility of some independently authentic material being preserved in Gnostic circles cannot be entirely ruled out. Probability is strongly against it, for in this work some of the known sayings of Jesus have been adapted for Gnostic purposes and this tendency may well have led to the creation of other sayings. Gnostics are not a safe source for authentic teaching. The early Fathers constantly charged them with distorting the Scriptures. Would any genuine oral tradition have escaped?