How to find or not find the historical Jesus
My general evangelical background influenced me without me realizing it on the subject of the life of Jesus. My understanding of the life of Jesus came to be something like as follows:
He preached that he was God-incarnate, and called people to believe in him that they might be saved. He did miracles to prove this. He died on the cross taking the sins of the world onto himself and thereby accomplishing atonement.I remember once seeing a discussion about the historical Jesus and the fact that certain scholars thought there was good evidence to prove that various events in Jesus' life (things like baptism by John, controversy with Pharisees, preaching of parables, trial before Pilate) were really historical and not made up by the later Church. My attitude at the time was "what on earth does any of that matter? Those are of zero relevance to salvation."
I felt that all that mattered was Jesus' atoning death on the cross, and the rest of his life was irrelevant, but it had presumably been spent preaching the evangelical gospel. That was the view I had been implicitly taught to hold. The gospel stories were simply interesting stories that made for some nice sermons sometimes but which had no important meaning. It was simply a record of the life of someone who'd lived 2000 years ago and what he'd done from day to day was of no importance compared to his atoning death. The mere words of Jesus written in the gospels were as nothing compared to the reality of salvation available today for those who put their trust in his substitutionary death.
When I began to seriously wonder about the correctness of Penal Substitution, I was left with the question of "so if Jesus wasn't trying to achieve that, then was was he trying to achieve?" With that question in mind I read through all four gospels taking careful notes in an attempt to see how the gospel's presented Jesus' mission and achievements. ie what did the gospel writers see Jesus as having been trying to accomplish and accomplishing? I was extremely surprised by the results of doing this. The gospels were quite clear and unanimous in their presentation of what Jesus and his mission. I could hardly believe I'd never noticed before what the gospels clearly spelled out.
I have since realized that very few people indeed are actually interested in the picture of Jesus painted by the gospel writers. Conservative Christians already have a picture of Jesus in their minds, the Jesus of faith that they believe in. They already know who and what Jesus was and what his mission was, and so they aren't interested in what the gospels say. The gospels are not allowed to differ from the creeds and statements of faith that these Christians already subscribe to. Liberal Christians who want to get away from the Jesus of Faith and back to the Historical Jesus have classically tended to dismiss with a wave of the hand (without even considering it) any picture of Jesus painted by the gospel writers as being the Jesus of Faith and not of history. They put the gospels metaphorically through a shredder and then carefully examine each isolated sentence according to complex criteria for authenticity. After deciding about three sentences authentically go back to the historical Jesus, they use their imaginations to fill in the vast blanks and construct a "historical Jesus" out of whole cloth.
In my view a much better approach in getting at the real Jesus is to take the gospels as whole narratives, looking at the general picture of Jesus that they present and evaluating the plausibility of that picture as an authentic picture of the historical Jesus. It seems that the more we learn about the social context and background of the times in which Jesus lived, the more the picture of Jesus drawn in the gospels seems an entirely plausible historical reality. I have been pleasantly surprised to see so many others arrive at the same conclusions as me on this. All the recent studies of the gospels and Jesus that rely heavily on social-context research all seem to be coming to the same conclusions about Jesus' life and ministry, and also about how we need to study the gospels holistically. I was reading Horsley's great little book Jesus and Empire the other day and laughed at his pithy phrase "we must take our gospels whole" which he used to summarize the concept of holistic gospel analysis I have just mentioned.