What Do We Really Know About Jesus?

Depictions of Jesus
Who Was Jesus?: What do we really know about the historical truth of the early life of Jesus? Even the gospels disagree. Clockwise from top left: Superstock / Getty Images (3), De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images, Superstock / Getty Images

This past September, Harvard University professor Karen King unveiled a newly discovered Gospel fragment that she entitled "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife." This wisp of a papyrus has stirred up a hornet's nest and raised anew questions about what we can know about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and about whether there are other Gospels outside the New Testament that can contribute valuable information. Few questions could be more timely, here in the season that celebrates Jesus' birth.

The fragment is just a scrap—the size of a credit card—written in Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt. It contains only eight broken lines of writing, but in one of these Jesus speaks of "my wife." Conspiracy theorists immediately leaped on the news as if it were a revelation from on high and claimed that it vindicates the views of Jesus' matrimonial state set forth by that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code. Conservative Christians cried "foul" and insisted that such an insignificant piece of papyrus proves nothing. King and her colleagues have taken the middle ground and argued that since the fragment is to be dated to the fourth Christian century, some 300 years after Jesus and any of his relatives passed from the scene, it can tell us what later Christians believed about Jesus, but not what actually happened during his life.

As it turns out, most experts on early Christianity have come to think the fragment is a hoax, a forgery produced in recent years by an amateur who, unlike King and scholars of her stature, was not well versed in the niceties of Coptic grammar and so was unable to cover up the traces of his own deceit. The final verdict is not yet in: we are still to learn the results from the scientific analysis of the ink, to see if it is in fact ancient or modern. But even if, as appears likely, the text is a fake, it does once again alert us to the fact that there are Gospels about Jesus that have come down to us from the ancient world, which present information at odds with widely held views.

As Christians around the world now prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth, it is worth considering that much of the "common knowledge" about the babe in Bethlehem cannot be found in any scriptural authority, but is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside the sacred bounds of Christian Scripture. Some obvious examples: nowhere does the Bible indicate what year Jesus came into the world, or that he was born on Dec. 25; it does not place an ox and an ass in his manger; it does not say that it was 3 (as opposed to 7 or 12) wise men who visited him.

For many centuries, most Christians garnered their information about the birth of Jesus not from the New Testament but from popular writings that were not officially considered Scripture. One of the best known of these books is called the "Proto-Gospel of James," composed probably in the late second century, a century after the canonical Gospels, and accordingly, far less likely that they contain anything like historically accurate information. But Christians throughout the Middle Ages were rarely interested in historical accuracy; they loved stories and reveled in their meaning, especially stories having anything to do with the appearance of the Son of God in the world.

In many respects the Proto-Gospel of James is driven by a concern to know details about Jesus' mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why was she, in particular, chosen to bear the Son of God? It is in this account that we first learn about Mary's own miraculous birth. Here, her mother, Anna, is said to be barren, but God miraculously allows her to conceive. When Mary is born, her mother dedicates her to God, and makes the girl's bedroom into a sanctuary in which she lives, apart from the polluting in­flu­ences of the world, for the first three years of her life. She is then taken by her parents to the Temple of God in Jerusalem, where she is raised by the priests and fed daily by an angel sent from above. When she nears puberty, the priests find a guardian for her by a kind of divinely inspired lottery, and the job falls upon an elderly widower Joseph, who at first refuses to take on the responsibility but then is persuaded by the priests who tell him that God will not take no for an answer. To this day there are millions of Christians who regard Joseph as an old man but Mary as a young girl (think of all the paintings of the couple traveling to Bethlehem or at the Nativity), and who believe that the "brothers" of Jesus (including James, the reputed author of this text) were in fact the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. These are not views of the Bible, but of the Proto-­Gospel of James.

The story continues on through more-familiar territory: an angel announces to Mary that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit; she does so; Joseph is distraught, thinking that she has been unfaithful, but he learns the truth; and during the trip to Bethlehem, Jesus is miraculously born. But there are numerous apocryphal details in all these accounts. Among other things, there is a fascinating description given by Joseph himself, in the first person, of how he observed time stand still at the moment when Jesus came into the world: he sees birds stopped in midair, a group of men eating with hands frozen halfway to their mouths; a shepherd striking his sheep with his arm poised but unmoving.

The papyrus fragment citing Jesus’ wife is possibly a hoax, but once again raises questions about what we really know about Jesus. Karen L. King / Harvard University-AP

Yet more notable is what happens in the aftermath of Jesus' appearance. Joseph has gone off to fetch a midwife to assist Mary in her labor, but when they arrive, it is too late: the cave (not a stable) is filled with a blinding light, the child has already appeared, and in fact he walks (within an hour of his birth!) over to his mother and takes her breast. The midwife goes off to find a colleague, Salome, and announces that a virgin has given birth. Salome is understandably incredulous and indicates that she will not believe it unless she examines Mary for herself. She comes to the cave and gives Mary a postpartum internal examination, only to find to her amazement that Mary is indeed physically intact. As a result of Salome's unbelief, her hand, the guilty member in the transaction, begins to burn with fire, and only when, after divine instruction, she picks up the infant, is she healed. This is Jesus' first recorded miracle.

Most modern readers who are not already familiar with these stories tend to find them farfetched. That's almost always the case with miraculous accounts that we have never heard before—they sound implausible and "obviously" made up, as legends and fabrications. Rarely do we have the same reaction to familiar stories known from childhood that are also spectacularly miraculous and that probably sound just as bizarre to outsiders who hear them for the first time. Are the stories about Jesus' birth that are in the New Testament any less unbelievable?

It depends on whom you ask. This past November, Pope Benedict XVI published his third book on the life of Jesus, this one focusing on the New Testament accounts of his birth, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Before his ascent to the head of the Catholic Church, Joseph Ratzinger was best known as a leading German theologian, and he does bring his training to bear on the narratives of Jesus' birth. But this is not a scholarly book written by a scholar to advance the purposes of scholarship. Instead, as one would expect, it is chiefly a pious reflection highly suitable to the faithful members of the pope's very large flock. As such it will be widely welcomed—not only among Catholics but also, one might suspect, among conservative Christians of whatever stripe, for its affirmation of the Gospel accounts not only as theologically valuable but also as historically accurate.

The book will not be as well cherished, however, among those who are less interested in affirming the narratives of Scripture than in knowing what actually happened in the past. And there is indeed a very wide swath of scholars—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, agnostic, and others—who have a very different view of the accounts of Jesus' birth in the New Testament and who realize that there are problems with the traditional stories as they are recounted for us in Matthew and Luke, the only two Gospels that contain infancy narratives. However valuable these writings may be for theological reflection on the meaning and importance of Jesus—and why should anyone deny that they are tremendously valuable for that?—they are not the sorts of historical sources that we might hope for if we are seriously engaged in trying to reconstruct the events of history. For some Christian believers that is a problem; for others, it is a liberation, as it frees the believer from having to base faith on the uncertainties provided by the imperfect historical record and the fallible historians who study it.

For centuries scholars have recognized that the birth narratives of the New Testament are historically problematic. For one thing, the two accounts—the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke—are strikingly different from one another, in ways that appear irreconcilable. To start with, they both give genealogies of Jesus' father, Joseph (it's an interesting question why they do so, since in neither account is Jesus a blood relative of Joseph), but they are different genealogies: he is said to have a different father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, and so on. It is not that one is a genealogy of Mary and the other of Joseph. Both Gospel authors are crystal clear: they are giving Joseph's genealogy. And they are doing so because they both want to relate Jesus to the ancestral line of the Jewish patriarchs, but neither of them has access to the kind of reliable data they need for the task. So they have provided genealogies that have been invented for the purpose and that, as a result, are necessarily at odds with each other. And that is just the opening gambit. The discrepancies occur repeatedly throughout the chapters.

Moreover, both accounts contain contradictions with the known facts of history. Just take Luke as an example. Only in this Gospel do Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census when "the whole world" had to be enrolled under Caesar Augustus. The whole world? Luke must mean "the whole Roman Empire." But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire. Let alone one in which people had to register in their ancestral home. In this account Joseph and Mary need to register in Bethlehem (which is why Jesus is born there) because Joseph is descended from King David, who came from Bethlehem. But David lived a thousand years earlier. Is everyone in the entire Roman Empire returning to their ancestral home from a thousand years earlier? Imagine the massive migrations for this census. And no historian from the time thought it was worth mentioning? This is not a story based on historical fact. It is a narrative designed to show how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem—whence the Messiah was to come—when everyone knew in fact that he came from Nazareth.

There are other kinds of implausibility in the accounts—leaving aside the much-debated question of the virgin birth itself. In Matthew, for example, the wise men follow the star to Bethlehem, where it stops over the house where Jesus is (why, by the way, is Jesus' family living in a house, if they just came to register for a census?). How is it that a star—or any celestial body—can lead anyone to a particular town? And how can it then stop over a particular house?

Conundrums such as these have been debated for many years, of course, with some Christian scholars and their lay followers finding ingenious solutions to them and more critical historians insisting that in fact they are bona fide problems that show that these Gospel sources, whatever else they are, are not historically reliable descriptions of what really happened when Jesus was born.

Many Christians take offense at that claim, but in fact it need not be that way, as many less literally minded believers have long known and said. The accounts of Jesus' life in the New Testament have never been called "histories"; instead, they have always been known as ­"Gospels"—that is "proclamations of the good news." These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts. For believers who think that truth must, necessarily, be based on history, that probably will not be good news at all. But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of 
literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that 
stories such as these can convey a 
greater truth.