Examination of Current Historical Scholarship on Jesus
Some in the Evangelical Community in the United States have criticized this documentary because they feel that it neglects "their side" of the Jesus story; in other words, the documentary neglects to portray Jesus in terms of a "literal" interpretation of the Canonical Gospels and other writings from the Bible. However, this is not what the documentary's goal. The evangelist and fundamentalist positions are quite well-documented, and can be easily found through nationwide television. These include such entities as "The Family Channel", "The 700 Club", and the late "Dr Gene Scott". (And, by the way, each may be slightly different depending upon which denomination is doing the propagating, be they Baptists or Methodists or Lutherans.)
Removed somewhat from preconceived and prescribed religious interpretations, "From Jesus to Christ" is PBS Frontline's attempt to explain in layman's terms the current state of historical scholarship concerning a man named Jesus of Nazareth who probably lived 2000 years ago and whose name and story would eventually be the basis of a world-wide religion. Primary sources (i.e. sources written or created during the actual time) concerning Jesus are nearly non-existent. A couple of scant sources survive that were written a few decades after Jesus' death, such as a short passage from the writings of Josephus. It has also been hypothesized that a source of Jesus' sayings, nicknamed "Q" by scholars, also existed in the first decades after Jesus' passing. The first gospel of Jesus was probably written circa 70 CE, a good 40 years after Jesus' death. From an historian's perspective, this is not a tremendous amount of historical evidence by which to reconstruct the historical life of Jesus as independent from the Jesus of faith.
Several scholars in the documentary make a distinction between myths about Jesus that come from the Bible versus theories that are derived from evidence. For example, most scholars agree that none of the Gospel writers were disciples of Jesus during his lifetime. Luke was probably a Gentile and not a Jew. John's gospel was written at least in the year 90 CE and possibly as late as 100 CE. Another misconception is that the word "Gospel" means "biography". "Gospel" is Greek and means "The Good News". The four gospels that have become "standard" in the Bible are not really biographies. They are allegorical, i.e. philosophical stories, with Jesus as the central figure to convey a kind of philosophical perspective. And the four canonical Gospels are not the only gospels. There are a host of other gospels that have been uncovered, each portraying a slightly different Jesus with varying messages. For example, the Gospel of Thomas is strictly a sayings gospel lacking a narrative story.
There is enough differentiation between the four canonical gospels to imply that they were written for different philosophical goals. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus is much more of a Jewish messiah. Jesus' persecution in Mark reflects a similar persecution suffered by Jews during the first revolt from 66-70. In Matthew, much of Jesus' story parallels Old Testament scripture, and a genealogy tracing Jesus' lineage from his father Joseph back to Abraham is included. Later, in Luke and in particular John, Jesus is a messiah that is more like a Gentile than a Jew, and these Gospels emphasize Jesus being in confrontation and in tension with Jews. The Gospel of John is probably the most allegorical and mystical of the four Gospels and was referred to as "The Spiritual Gospel" by the early church. Jesus is portrayed as an almost serene figure who routinely blasphemes in the synagogues, a very different character than the man portrayed in Mark's gospel. One of the main points made by the scholars is that these gospels were understood to be read philosophically and not literally.
These are the kinds of issues that are discussed in the documentary. It is not that Evangelical teaching is not of value, but it is not relevant to a documentary in which scholars are trying to piece together historical evidence to tell a story. The story that they tell is that Jesus is not the first Christian. Jesus was given the title "Christ" by a sect of his followers sometime after his death. Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus Christ long after he had died.
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