Trying to find the actual Jesus is like trying, in atomic physics, to locate a submicroscopic particle and determine its charge. The particle cannot be seen directly, but on a photographic plate we see the lines left by the trajectories of larger particles it put in motion. By tracing these trajectories back to their common origin, and by calculating the force necessary to make the particles move as they did, we can locate and describe the invisible cause. Admittedly, history is more complex than physics; the lines connecting the original figure to the developed legends cannot be traced with mathematical accuracy; the intervention of unknown factors has to be allowed for. Consequently, results can never claim more than probability; but “probability,” as Bishop Butler said, “is the very guide of life.”

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician.

This book gives my own reconstruction of the historical Jesus derived from twenty five years of scholarly research on what actually happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during that early first common-era century. But why should any such research be necessary at all? Have we not, for Jesus, this first-century Mediterranean Jewish peasant, four biographies by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, individuals all directly or indirectly connected with him, and all writing within, say, seventy five years of his death? Is that not as good or even better than we have for the contemporary Roman emperor, Tiberius, for whom we have biographies by Velleius Paterculus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius, only the first of whom was directly connected with him, the others writing from seventy five to two hundred years after his death? Why, then, with such abundant documentation is there any scholarly search for the historical Jesus?

It is precisely that fourfold record that constitutes the core problem. If you read the four gospels vertically and consecutively, from start to finish and one after another, you get a generally persuasive impression of unity, harmony, and agreement. But if you read them horizontally and comparatively, focusing on this or that unit and comparing it across two, three, or four versions, it is disagreement rather than agreement that strikes you most forcibly. And those divergences do not stem from the random vagaries of memory and recall but from the coherent and consistent theologies of the individual texts. The gospels are, in other words, interpretations. Hence, of course, despite there being only one Jesus there can be more than one gospel, more than one interpretation.

That core problem is compounded by another one. Those four gospels do not represent all the early gospels available nor even a random sample within them but are instead a calculated collection. This becomes clear in studying other gospels either discerned as sources inside the official four or else discovered as documents outside them.

An example of a source hidden inside the four canonical gospels is the reconstructed document known as Q, from the German word Quelle meaning Source, which is now imbedded within both Luke and Matthew. Those two authors also use Mark as a regular source so Q is discernible wherever they agree with one another but lack a Markan parallel. Since, like Mark, that document has its own generic integrity and theological consistency apart from its us as a Quelle or Source for others, I refer to it in this book as the Q Gospel.

An example of a document discovered outside the four canonical gospels is the Gospel of Thomas which was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in the winter of 1945 and is, in the view of many scholars, completely independent of the canonical gospels. It is also most strikingly different from them, especially in its format. It identifies itself, at the end, as a gospel, but it is a collection of the sayings of Jesus given without any compositional order and lacking deeds, miracles, crucifixion or resurrection stories, and especially any overall narratival or biographical framework. The existence of such other gospels means that the canonical foursome is a spectrum of approved interpretation forming a strong central vision which was later able to render apocryphal, hidden, or censored any other gospels too far off its right or left wing.

Suppose that in such a situation you wanted to know not just what early believers wrote about Jesus but what you would have seen and heard if you had been a more or less neutral observer in the early decades of the first century. Clearly, some people ignored him, some worshipped him, and others crucified him. But what if you wanted to move behind the screen of credal interpretation and, without in any way denying or negating the validity of faith, to give an accurate but impartial account of the historical Jesus as distinct from the confessional Christ? That is what the academic or scholarly study of the historical Jesus is about, at least when it is not a disguise to do theology and call it history, do autobiography and call it biography, do Christian apologetics and call it academic scholarship. Put another way, no matter how fascinating result and conclusion may be, they are only as good as the theory and method on which they are based.

My method locates the historical Jesus where three independent vectors cross each other. That triangulation serves as internal discipline and mutual corrective since all must intersect together at the same point for any of them to be correct. It is like three giant searchlights coming together on a single object in the night skies above them.

The first vector is cross-cultural anthropology, based not just on this or that society but on what is common across history to all those of the same ecological and technological type. What do those scholars tell us about ancient Mediterranean as distinct from, say, contemporary American culture? About an agrarian as distinct from an industrial society? What do they tell us about trance and possession, curing and healing, magic and meal? About imperial and colonial situations, about elites and peasants, politics and family, taxes and debts, class and gender. This information is crucial since it has no interest in Jesus and is therefore not prejudiced for or against him. If, for example, we describe Jesus as a literate middle-class carpenter, cross-cultural anthropology reminds us that there was no middle class in ancient societies and that peasants are usually illiterate, so how did Jesus become what never existed at his time?

The second vector is Greco-Roman and especially Jewish history in the first quarter of Jesus' century. What is primary here is the situation of the Jewish homeland as a colony of the Roman Empire, as the land-bridge between Syria to the north and Egypt to the south, and as ruled either directly by Roman governors or indirectly by Herodian rulers. I focus here especially on the works of the aristocratic Jewish historian Josephus who has two separate and parallel accounts for that period. Normally elite authors tell us very little about the lower classes or the peasants except when they rebel or revolt. But throughout the century leading up to the First Roman-Jewish War in 66 CE there was consistent peasant unrest and so I pay very great attention to what he tells us about protesters and prophets, bandits and messiahs, but I also try to imagine those levels of peasant unrest that smolder below the surface and never get recorded until they burst forth openly and overtly.

The third and most difficult vector is the literary or textual one. Let me give you some background, some general conclusions accepted by most critical scholars today. First, gospels are found not only inside but also outside the New Testament itself. Second, the four New Testament ones are neither a total collection nor a random sampling of all those available. They are rather a deliberate arrangement in which some were accepted and included while others were rejected and excluded. Third, three successive levels involving retention of original Jesus materials, development of those retained materials, and creation of totally new materials are found alike in gospels both inside and outside the New Testament. Fourth, differences and discrepancies among accounts and versions are not due primarily to vagaries of memory or divergences in emphasis but to quite deliberate theological interpretations of Jesus. Finally, and in summary, what those first Christians experienced as the continuing presence of the risen Jesus or the abiding empowerment of the Spirit gave the transmitters of the Jesus tradition a creative freedom we would never have dared postulate were it not forced upon us by the evidence. Even, for example, when Matthew or Luke are using Mark as a source for what Jesus said or did or what others said or did in relation to Jesus, they are unnervingly free about omission and addition, about change, correction, or creation in their own individual accounts. But always, of course, subject to their own particular interpretation of Jesus. The gospels are neither histories nor biographies, even within the ancient tolerances for those genres. Each is what it was eventually called, a Gospel or a Good News, and thereby comes a double warning. Good is always such within some individual or community's opinion or interpretation. And News is not a word we usually pluralize a second time against itself.

Faced with all those laminated layers of development and interpretation, I follow two basic strategies to base my reconstruction on the most plausibly original materials. I focus especially on the earliest stratum of the tradition, on materials I date to the period between 30 and 60 CE. And I never build on anything that has only a single independent attestation. Any professional journalist operates by that standard and critical historians should follow their good example. A single attestation may of course be quite accurate but I try to build my picture upwards from the most multiple towards that single one. Multiple or at least plural independent attestation in the primary stratum points to the earliest available material. That is a methodological discipline, a process that may not guarantee truth but will at least make dishonesty more difficult.

Those who wish to explore this subject in more detail may go to the much longer book on which this shorter one is based. Fuller citation, argumentation, and documentation are available in my 1991 book The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, published, like this one, by HarperSanFrancisco. This present book is a more popular version of that but it is also something more. Every chapter contains something beyond that parent volume. It has benefited from debates and discussions, from questions and objections, from rethinking and reconsidering that earlier book in the year since its first publication

One detail has not changed, however, from one book to the other. My endeavor was to re­construct the historical Jesus as accurately and honestly as possible. It was not my purpose to find a Jesus whom I liked or disliked, a Jesus with whom I agreed or disagreed. So I conclude by repeating this imaginary dialogue taken from my article in the Christman 1991 issue of the Christian Century . The historical Jesus is speaking to me:

“I've read your book, Dominic, and it's quite good. So now you're ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”

“I don't think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn't I, and the method was especially good, wasn't it?”

“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”

“Is it enough, Jesus?”

“No, Dominic, it is not.”