Sorry for the sparse posting, folks, its been a tough week!
This post is a follow-on from the Jesus, The Mirror post, and the discussion that got into the question of the historical or mythical Jesus. Since that is buried away in a comment, I want to give my source-criticism based view of the NT.
Source criticism is a form of historical criticism that tries to trace a text back to the sources on which it is based. Just about everything is based on some sources. Even pure fiction is inspired by previous work, or has characters that have loose connections with real individuals. In many cases we can be almost certain of the source patterns among texts. It would be very hard to argue against the theory that Mark was used as a textual basis in the writing of Matthew and Luke. Mark, in this regard, is a source for both Matthew and Luke. But it is equally certain that Matthew and Luke had other sources, at least some of which are held in common.
Despite the fact that source criticism is a distinct way of doing textual study, it is also used extensively in all other forms of criticism. Even textual criticism (which is sometimes, justifiably, described as the ‘foundation’ on which others grow) is informed by our knowledge of the developments of the text through various sources.
It may be because it is the field that most intrigues me, but I think source criticism has the central role to play in questions of historicity.
So how does this relate to the question of whether there was a historical Jesus? Well the idea is that we can trace back the way sources were used and reused, and at one point of this process we end up with a substantial source of material that believably describes a Galilean itinerant preacher, who seems to have been called something like Yeshua (Jesus in greek). Now, few historical critical scholars think that the version of Jesus in the text isn’t dramatically enhanced by speculation, wishful thinking, mythologising and possibly downright lies. But the fact is that there is a core source, and we have to decide what to do with it.
One scholar might doubt the integrity of the source and might make an argument why it should be split into two prior sources. We might, for example, say that the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus were accretions from another source. That’s a good argument to make, and it has some merit. And these kinds of arguments have been made consistently for the last century. Robert Price’s book title is quite apt in this “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man” (though I disagree with his conclusions)
But it would be difficult to argue that none of those sources was based on a real person. And so far I haven’t seen any mythical-Jesus proponent make that argument in the crucible of peer-review.
Incidentally the image above is Creative Commons Attribution licensed (3.0, UK, in case it matters). Use it as long as you make it clear it is intended to be fictional. It was very easy, and done with open source tools, so if you have actual source hypotheses you want in this form, drop me a comment and I’ll explain how.