How the gospel stories in the New Testament came to be.
David Chumney spent almost three decades as an ordained Presbyterian minister before quietly exiting the ministry and Christianity itself. He now describes himself as agnostic, but his exodus from the Church didn’t end his fascination with New Testament studies or his quest to separate history from mythology in the biblical record. He tackles the fraught topic in his new book, Jesus Eclipsed.
Recently I interviewed David Fitzgerald, author of the three-volume series, Jesus: Mything in Action. Fitzgerald takes a position held by very few biblical scholars—that the Bible’s stories about Jesus lack any historical kernel, however small. Chumney disagrees, but acknowledges that Fitzgerald may be closer to the truth than most Christians would like to think:
If someone were to ask me, “Is there credible historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed?” I would say, “Yes, but precious little.” If someone were to ask me, “Is some of what the gospels preserve about Jesus a product of pious imagination and religious devotion?” I would say, “Yes, nearly all of it.” In other words, I am convinced that Jesus of Nazareth really did exist, but I am equally convinced that the Gospels comprise, as Randel Helms has said, “largely fictional accounts concerning an historical figure.”
The “precious little” that Chumney finds historically persuasive includes a handful of passing references to James, the brother of Jesus, and a crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Other references provide ample evidence about emerging Christian beliefs, he says, but no direct evidence of the man shrouded in the mists of historiography and mythology.
What about the rest of what people think they know about Jesus? What about his lineage and birth in Bethlehem, the incident when he clears money changers from the temple, his reputation as a healer, or his baptism? What about that final week when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, is arrested, put on trial, and led to his execution? Elements of the passion story have decorated church walls for over a millennium as the Stations of the Cross. If these gospel stories about Jesus aren’t gospel truth, what are they? Why do they exist, and where do they come from?
Chumney makes a persuasive argument that many of the stories in the Gospels are adapted from earlier biblical texts (i.e., what Christians call the Old Testament). Early Christians, having concluded that Jesus was the prophesied Christ, sought to construct what must be the details of his birth, life, and death from the content—and even words—of the Jewish Scriptures.
Tarico: The subtitle of your book, Jesus Eclipsed, is “How searching the scriptures got in the way of recounting the facts.” What exactly does that mean?
Chumney: As far back as its story can be traced, the church has claimed that events in the life of Jesus were prophesied or prefigured in Scripture. After he was crucified, the followers of Jesus searched the Scriptures (through which they believed they could discern God’s purpose) in the effort to make sense of Jesus’ suffering and death. They found passages in the Psalms and the Prophets that spoke about the suffering of the righteous, and those passages seemed to encompass what had happened to Jesus. Reading particular passages in that way led the followers of Jesus to believe that his suffering and death had been part of God’s plan. Once believers accepted the idea that these tragic events had taken place “in accordance with the Scriptures,” they used the same interpretive techniques to suggest that other events in the life of Jesus had fulfilled Old Testament prophecies as well. In other words, they made up stories to show that events in Jesus’ life “foretold in Scripture” had now come to pass. As a result, what we find in the Gospels are not always genuine recollections of actual events handed down by oral tradition but quite often invented memories of fictitious events worked up from Old Testament texts. Searching the Scriptures as an act of faith became more important than recounting whatever facts may have been available. Then, within a short time, those facts were forgotten, so most of what remains are stories designed to instill Christian faith, with little if any historical basis.
Tarico: You quote German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who said this in his 1926 book, Jesus and the Word, “We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either.” What does Bultmann mean when he says that early sources weren’t interested in the life and personality of Jesus?
Chumney: Through his analysis of the many anecdotes that make up the gospel narratives, Bultmann showed that these individual units of tradition can tell us more about the needs and concerns of the early church than they do about Jesus. For example, most stories that describe some conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees reflect situations that only developed several decades after the time of Jesus, when the church began to disassociate itself from the synagogue. Thus, the Gospels shouldn’t be seen as journalistic reports about the life of Jesus but as a collection of religious tracts designed to cultivate faith. And, as we’ve said, many of those stories owe their existence not to the memory of some actual event during the lifetime of Jesus but to the artful repackaging of some earlier scriptural text.
Tarico: To the modern mind, that seems deliberately duplicitous, dishonest, even immoral. Words like plagiarism and forgery come to mind.
Chumney: Let me give an example not mentioned in my book that may be helpful here. Most Christian fundamentalists would insist that the account in John 9, where Jesus heals a blind man, is the accurate report of an actual event. But, whether they realize it or not, they often use that story to describe their own experience of salvation. How do they do that? They do it by singing “Amazing Grace,” one line of which affirms, “I once was lost, but now I’m found [like the prodigal son], “was blind, but now I see” [like the man in John 9]. Notice how the artful repackaging of two earlier texts is no longer being used solely to recount stories from the distant past but instead to depict a more recent event!
As I’ve noted in my book, theologian David Strauss identified this practice 180 years ago when he talked about “finding details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes.” I’m not really interested in criticizing the evangelists for using this creative literary technique; I just want to be sure that those engaged in historical research recognize the prevalence of the practice and evaluate its use accordingly. Two modern literary critics have done a wonderful job explaining the technique, Frank Kermode and Northrup Frye. Kermode shows how “the old texts have…generated the new narrative” (Genesis of Secrecy, 105), and Frye reminds us that “the Gospel writers care nothing about the kind of evidence that would interest a biographer…they care only about comparing events in their accounts of Jesus with what the Old Testament, as they read it, said would happen to the Messiah” (Great Code, 41).
If historical Jesus experts would take such insights more seriously, they would have to admit that many stories about Jesus likely have no historical basis.
Tarico: As the quote from Bultmann illustrates, scholars long ago stopped assuming that the New Testament stories were true and started trying to sort wheat from chaff. Your book quotes literally hundreds of sources and scholars whose opinions to a greater or lesser degree approximate your own, and you urge readers to explore nearly two centuries of inquiry into the historical Jesus.
Chumney: Yes, but it can be tricky because there’s so much out there. A good place to begin for anyone new to the topic is Dominic Crossan’s book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Then, for those who want to dig a little deeper, I recommend Robert Price’s book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. The notes in Price’s book introduce readers to a wealth of research that would take years to digest. However, before going down that path, readers should turn next to Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he surveys the first 150 years of historical Jesus studies. (Find the “first complete edition” © 2001, because it includes chapters not found in the earlier editions). Reading these three books offers a good introduction to major players and key issues, including the mythicist position.
Tarico: You put stories about Jesus into several categories: impossible, possible, plausible and probable. And you say that scholars—both historicists and mythicists—often blur the distinction between hypotheses that are plausible and those that are probable. Can you explain?
Chumney: Historicists (think Bart Ehrman) and mythicists (think Robert Price) agree that the historian’s task is to establish what is probable. Still, while there’s consensus about the appropriate goal, a lot of disagreement remains about how to get there. Here’s how I go about it. The evidence can be divided into two piles, what’s possible and what’s impossible. Serious historians are going to take any stories about miraculous and supernatural events and place them into the pile marked “impossible.” Material that remains in the pile marked “possible” must be analyzed further, and that’s where the trouble can begin.
The next step is to decide what material can be placed into the pile marked “plausible.” Then, the final step is to determine what material in the pile marked “plausible” can be moved one step further into an even smaller pile marked “probable.” Here’s a good example of how that process works, one that begins by assuming the story in question describes something that’s possible.
Is it plausible that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, shortly before Passover, as large crowds cheered his arrival with shouts of “Hosanna!”? Given what we know about how the occupying Roman forces prepared for volatile situations like the Passover, most experts view the scene as totally implausible. Yet, instead of challenging the historicity of this scenario, some scholars try to sidestep the issue by arguing that the gospel writers may have simply exaggerated what was originally a rather minor incident. In other words, they rewrite the story, removing any details that seem implausible, and then suggest that something like what they’ve described is probably what happened. The problem is compounded when we recall that the scenario described in the gospels depicts the fulfillment of prophecy, a fact that renders the gospel story less credible. I can’t prove that no such incident occurred, but neither can I claim that the story describes a plausible event. Since I can’t move this story into the pile marked “plausible,” I’m certainly not going to suggest that I’ve established the event in question as “probable.” Yet that’s what many scholars seem all too willing to do.
We should heed Dale Allison’s apt reminder: “Our desire to know something does not mean that we can know it…There is a gaping chasm between what happened and what we can discover or deem likely to have happened” (Historical Christ, 55-56). In a great many cases, we must be willing to admit that we don’t know.
Tarico: Let’s come back to this idea of searching the scriptures, the idea that many of the gospel stories are actually adaptations of Old Testament verses that were perceived as prophetic. Can you give us some examples?
Chumney: Absolutely. We can start with the nativity accounts. Matthew’s star, foreigners bringing gifts of gold and frankincense, and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents are based not on memories of actual events surrounding the birth of Jesus but on scriptural traditions from the Old Testament. (The notes in any good study Bible will identify the connections.) Or consider Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. The rending of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit are signs that God is answering the ancient prayer in Isaiah 64:1. Mark’s account of Jesus healing a leper (1:40-45) is based on the account of the prophet Elisha healing a leper (2 Kings 5:1-18). Likewise, Mark’s story of Jesus multiplying loaves of bread (6:30-44) not only mirrors a scene in which Elisha does something similar (2 Kings 4:42-44) but also includes echoes of Ezekiel 34 and Exodus 16. Matthew’s catalog of Jesus’ miracles—the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised (11:4-5)—demonstrates that Jesus’ ministry marks the dawning of the messianic age foretold in Isaiah 35:5-6 and 26:19. Most numerous, of course, are the prophecies fulfilled throughout Mark’s passion narrative: the plot to put Jesus to death; the testimony of false witnesses; and Jesus’ resolute silence in response to the charges against him fulfill Old Testament prophecies. Other examples become obvious after the scene shifts to Golgotha: those who crucified Jesus divide and cast lots for his clothes; passersby mock him and shake their heads; and Jesus’ anguished cry of abandonment fulfill what is written. (Here again, the notes in any good study Bible will identify the connections.)
Tarico: Is it possible that Jesus himself was deliberately acting out these Old Testament prophecies?
Chumney: Scholars have often tried to make exactly that point. For example, E. P. Sanders discusses the possibility in relation to the triumphal entry: “It is possible to think either that the prophecy created the event or that the prophecy created the story and that the event never occurred” (Historical Figure, 254). What decisively tips the balance toward the second option is the realization that it’s highly unlikely that Jesus or his disciples could read, a prerequisite for knowing Zechariah’s obscure prophecy.
Tarico: If I could, I’d like to ask you to wade into the no man’s land between mythicists and historicists. Robert M. Price, a mythicist, has said the following: “Even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn’t one anymore.”
On the other hand, here is a comment from historicist Bart Ehrman. “These views are so extreme (that Jesus did not exist) and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land one in a bona fide department of biology.”
You are a historicist but from everything you’ve said Ehrman’s statement seems like hyperbole. Evolution is backed up by centuries of research and millions of fossils. We can watch it in action, we can replicate it in the lab. But the evidence you cite for a historical Jesus, the man behind the myth, rests literally on a handful of sentences by ancient writers who don’t claim to have met him. I’m not saying it’s insufficient to make the case “more likely than not.” But that’s a far cry from equating mythicism with young earth creationism. What’s up?
Chumney: First, let me say that I have tremendous respect for both men and have learned a great deal from each. Second, I have no qualms about challenging either man’s position when he assumes facts not in evidence or he labels as probable what is merely plausible. For example, Ehrman admits that the story known as the cleansing of the Temple is “completely implausible” given the vast dimensions of the area involved, but insists nonetheless that “Jesus may well have caused a small disturbance” (Did Jesus Exist, 326). I suspect that if he had written something like that in a graduate school term paper, his professor would probably have given him a C-. With all due respect, I hope that Ehrman realizes that his analogy is less justified than mine.
In the second edition of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer predicts what is almost certainly now the case: “Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus” (402). That shouldn’t be taken to suggest that Schweitzer thought Jesus never existed; instead, he meant that we can’t really show that the protagonist of the Gospels has much of a connection to the Jesus of history. If Price would concede that there probably was a historical Jesus, he would undoubtedly have the stronger case. A scholar who defended that position could get a teaching post in any public university.
Tarico: Whole books have been written—including bestsellers—that depict the life of Jesus and make claims about who he was. Reza Aslan’s Zealot comes to mind. But to quote Price again, “All attempts to recover him turn out to be just modern re-mythologizings of Jesus. Every ‘historical Jesus’ is a Christ of faith, of somebody’s faith. So, the ‘historical Jesus’ of modern scholarship is no less a fiction.” What do you have to say about this?
Chumney: We’ve got historical Jesus books by Aslan, Borg, Crossan, Dunn, Ehrman, Fredriksen, and all the way down the alphabet to Vermes. Unfortunately, we have as many versions of the historical Jesus as we have writers, and that’s a problem. Since historical research attempts to establish probabilities, experts using the same methods to analyze the same evidence ought to concur about the results. I see several reasons for the divergence of opinion. As I’ve said, scholars too often fail to limit their claims to what is probable. Also, as Helen Bond observes in an online interview, some scholars seem to be looking for “a useable Jesus,” by which she means a Jesus whose message would be more relevant to the social concerns of today’s progressive churches. However, finding a first-century peasant who can conveniently double as a spokesman for twenty-first century concerns isn’t the same thing as following the evidence wherever it leads.
This article is the third in a series examining what we think we know about Jesus as a historical figure. See also “Evidence about Jesus is Weaker than You Might Think” and “What if Jesus Never Existed? An Interview with History Writer David Fitzgerald“
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.