While writing the posts in my thread on the contradictions in the New Testament, I had the impression that some readers thought I considered it virtually impossible to use the New Testament for historical purposes. That’s actually not the case at all. I’m going to discuss this issue over a number of posts, focusing on the Gospels. Oddly enough, it appears I’ve never devoted a sustained thread to this precise end, of explaining how historians go about their business of reconstructing the past when all they have are highly problematic sources.
My general view is that when trying to determine what actually happened in Jesus’ life – to figure out what he said, did, and experienced – it is important to avoid two extremes. On one hand, it simply won’t work to claim that if something is narrated in the Gospels, it is necessarily historical. There are lots and lots of things that can’t be historical in the Gospels. Just on the most basic level, if one Gospel really does appear to contradict another about, say, something Jesus did, they both can’t be right at the same time. And so the historian has to figure out if one of them is probably right or if both are wrong.
The other extreme is to throw up our hands in despair and claim that we can’t know *anything*, since our sources are simply too problematic (late, contradictory, biased, and so on). That too is going way too far. The Gospels may not have been written as objective, disinterested accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus, but they clearly do contain historical information. The trick is figuring out what is historical and what is legendary.
But how does one do that? Is it a matter of simply affirming as historical those passages one personally rather likes? Or claiming that it *must* be this way or that way because that’s what we’ve always thought about Jesus or is simply “common sense?” No, approaching our sources in these ways is not doing history but is simply adopting personal preferences and *calling* it history.
The historian has to have and follow reasoned and strict procedures to determine what actually happened in the past. But which procedures? In this post I will start the discussion by laying out what historians would very much like to have available to them by way of sources of information about the past. I have taken the discussion from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
The historian’s sources are like the auto mechanic’s tools: it’s one thing to have them, but another thing to know how to use them. At this stage we need to …
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