I realize I'm a day off in terms of the days of Christmas. Two chapters today on sources for approaching the historical Jesus.
Chapter 2: "The Canonical Books of the New Testament
This chapter begins with the apt, "The major source of our knowledge about the historical Jesus is also the major problem: the four canonical Gospels" (41). The Gospels "aim first of all at proclaiming and strengthening faith in Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Messiah."
We only know fragments about about a 3 year period of Jesus' life, so it is impossible to write any normal biography of Jesus' life. "Still worse, we know next to nothing about the true historical sequence of the events that are preserved for us" (41). Mark, he argues, has tied things together by forms, key words, and themes (like controversy stories) rather than by historical sequence. And Matthew and Luke, who drew on Mark, felt free to rearrange this material in ways that suited their purposes. Matthew thus freely reorders Mark's miracle stories into a collection of three groups of threes. So "there is no way in which we can determine which order of events might be historical--if, indeed, any is" (42).
Beyond the gospel writers freedom to rearrange the order, the gospel writers apparently were not concerned to preserve Jesus' exact wording. Certainly it is possible that Jesus repeated his material in various forms, giving rise to variations of wording. However, Meier turns to the eucharistic words of Jesus to show that even with a very important event that only took place once, "the early Church guaranteed agreement in substance, not in exact wording" (43).
Meier goes with John as an independent source of information rather than a variation on, say, Mark. "John's Gospel, in my opinion, is not to be rejected en masse and a priori as a source for the historical Jesus" (45). John is often rejected as a source for the historical Jesus because it is so symbolic. But Meier argues that "'the tyranny of the Synoptic Jesus' should be consigned to the dustbin of the post-Bultmannians."
He discusses Paul, who is notorious for the absence of Jesus teaching in his writings. But Meier does note that "Paul does not feel free to create teachings and put them into the mouth of Jesus" (46).
Chapter 3: Josephus
I have referred to this chapter in the book often over the years for its very fair treatment of the "Testimoninum Flavianum," the famous possible reference of Josephus to Jesus. There are two other possible references as well. The first is in an obscure Russian manuscript of Josephus and very obviously a Christian interpolation...
We have to remember that we only have copies of Josephus' writings because Christians copied them. Just as there is textual criticism of the New Testament, there is textual criticism of other ancient authors like Josephus. We thus always have to consider the possibility that the Christian copyists have "tinkered" a little with these sorts of Jewish manuscripts. An "interpolation" is an insertion into a manuscript.
One likely reference in Josephus' Antiquities (20.9.1) is in his mention of the conspiracy to kill James in between Roman procurators (AD62). Josephus matter of factly clarifies who this James was by referring to him as "the brother of Jesus who is called Christ." Josephus isn't really interested in James, he is interested in Ananus, who convened the Sanhedrin in between procurators. Josephus' reference implies no faith in Jesus.
The best known passage, however (Ant. 18.3.3), includes comments in reference to Jesus like "if indeed one should call him a man" and "he was the Messiah" and "he appeared to them on the third day." These sorts of comments would not come from Josephus--only a Christian would say such things. For this reason, scholars of the 1800's considered the whole quote a Christian interpolation.
But the tide has rightly turned, and Meier gives a perfectly plausible reconstruction of what Josephus likely said originally:
"At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out."