Historian E.P. Sanders asserts that the following facts about Jesus' public career are "almost beyond dispute":
- He was born around 4 B.C.E.
- He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth;
- He was baptized by John the Baptist;
- He called disciples;
- He taught in the town and villages and countryside of Galilee;
- He preached "the kingdom of God";
- Around the year 30 C.E. he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
- He created a disturbance in the temple area;
- He had a final meal with his disciples;
- He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities;
- He was executed on the orders of Pontius Pilate.
Of the facts pertaining to Jesus' public career, almost none of them can be confirmed by our earliest sources; mostly the genuine Pauline epistles, but including almost all the epistles other than the Pastorals and 2 Peter.
- The early epistles don't indicate where or when Jesus was born;
- They say nothing about where he lived;
- They never mention John the Baptist;
- They say nothing about Jesus having disciples;
- They say nothing about Jesus having a teaching ministry;
- They do not claim that he said anything during his life about the kingdom of God;
- They don't say he went to Jerusalem;
- There is nothing about a disturbance in the temple;
- Paul says that Jesus instituted a Eucharistic meal, but he doesn't say anything about disciples being in attendance and Paul attributes his knowledge of it to revelation;
- There is nothing about an arrest or interrogation;
- The earliest writings don't mention Pilate.
I recently had a chance to raise some of these issues with Dr. James McGrath of Butler University when he returned to one of his favorite topics with a post titled "Why Can't Mythicists Be More Like Creationists?" Normally when he posts on this topic, he draws comments from a swarm of belligerent mythicists and I am lucky if I can get him to address more than one or two of the questions that interest me. For some reason, however, the only one of the usual suspects who showed up was Steven Carr and he was rather subdued. As a result, I was able to engage Dr. McGrath in a fairly extended dialogue. I enjoyed the exchange, however, Dr. McGrath didn't really give me any reason to think that historicists have really engaged the issues.
I was particularly struck by one (or two) of the questions that McGrath put to me:
Vinny, please explain to me why, in your view, it is illegitimate to allow a Gospel and a no longer extant source written within a few decades of Paul's letters to complement the information we have in them. In your view, why is the universal consensus in all early Christian literature that Peter and others were followers of Jesus during his public activity to be excluded from consideration as potentially historically accurate?
I think the legitimacy of allowing the gospels to complement the early writings depends on the question being asked. If the question is, "Do the earliest writings corroborate the gospels?" then we can't simply allow the gospels to complement the epistles because that assumes the answer rather than determining it. The only way to answer the question is by examining the epistles to determine what information in them corroborates information found in the gospels.
Moreover, if it legitimate to allow one source to complement another, why isn't it legitimate to allow them to stand separately? Is it wrong to allow Paul to have his own distinctive voice about the significance of Jesus' sojourn on earth without insisting that his writing be harmonized with someone else's narrative? Should we insist that Paul's Jesus is a recently deceased miracle working Rabbi if Paul never says so?