I’m currently reading “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by prominent New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders. I am loving it! The first 7 chapters have all been introductory, so I am only now about to get into learning about the historical Jesus. This is a reflection of how thoroughly transparent the book is about its sources and their issues, and the methodology. It is brilliantly well-written and a pleasure to read because of how clear it is.
Here are some interesting things I learnt about the gospels, from chapter 6.
- Gospel material started out as oral traditions pretty much like hadiths – very small stories called “pericopes”. They were not used to tell the biography of Jesus, but to make various points to various people – so the stories were all removed from their original context.
- After some decades (probably in years 70-90), the gospels were written from these small stories. There may have been stages in-between the “isolated sayings” stage and the full gospels, such as collections of sayings grouped by topic.
- Expressions such as “at that time…” and “then…” and “immediately…” were used to string the stories together in the synoptic gospels. These are narrative devices and do not represent true knowledge of the order in which events occurred (this even differs from one gospel to another). Beacuse they are constructed from pericopes, the gospels are “stark” and do not read like biographies.
- New material crept in – particularly into John’s gospel – because the lines got blurred between the historical Jesus and the spiritual Jesus that the believers experienced as speaking to them through prayer. “John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them. The author of the Gospel of John would be the first to point out that this does not mean the discourses that he attributed to Jesus are ‘untrue’; he would not have agreed that historical accuracy and truth are synonymous…”
- The gospels were written anonymously: names were not attributed to them in any literature until the year 180. Author names were assigned at that point through detective work on the texts, which was “shrewd” but ultimately the identity of the real authors is uncertain.
- The apocryphal gospels – those that didn’t make it into the New Testament – probably contain very very little authentic material. (That’s a relief – I won’t bother reading them all!) Only the infancy gospel of James and the gospel of Thomas were written early and contain interesting material. The rest is pretty much just legends. The four canonical gospels also contain some legendary elements, but they are the main sources for historical truth.
Much of this was deduced through textual “detective work”. I find that quite fascinating. I must admit it would be interesting to see scholars analyse the Quran in this way. My impression when reading it was that it was constructed in part from something like these pericopes – historical oral traditions, such as Lot leaving Sodom and Gomorrah – there are even several versions of that story in the Quran with slight variations; for example sometimes it says Lot’s wife was left behind, sometimes it says an old woman was left behind. It’s not a contradiction but it does seem like it came from two different traditional accounts.
It’s interesting as well to realise that the gospels are more like hadith collections than a “divine writ given to Jesus”. Knowing that that’s how they are constructed, somehow answers questions I never knew I had… to me, the gospels never read as if someone had sat down to write the story of Jesus’ life, but I didn’t know why until now. Amazing!