Sources of Christian Doubt: The Quest for the Historical Jesus

If my reading of History is correct then future generations looking back at the Holocaust will see it not as a single, unique and isolated event, but as precedent for the next. This is my purpose in writing, to challenge Jewish complacency.
A disclaimer. I am a Jew whose sole purpose is to understand a primitive threat to my children and my people. I am not a reactive anti-Christian; I am not a theologian nor a historian qualified to critique Christianity in its many forms. I do, however, see a clear historical tradition in Christianity which, for nearly two thousand years, has resulted in serial persecutions, expulsions and what one historian describes as the murder of one of every two Jews born during the past thousand years. And that before 1933. If I offend it is not intentional. My purpose is solely to serve as warning to that people whose past role in the history of the Western Diaspora was to provide victim, and whose future likely holds the same fate.
As for the story of Jesus, there were at least 50 gospels written in the first and second century CE. Four of them (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John) were included in the official canon during the fourth century CE and are found today in every Bible. All of the original copies of the gospels were lost. What we have now are handwritten copies, which are an unknown number of replications removed from the originals.”
As Professor Nicholls wrote in response to the Holocaust, "...the very presence of the Jewish people in the world ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety… [resulting in] hostility." St. Augustine expressed the same concern nearly 1600 years earlier.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus is one more evidence of that doubt implicit in Augustine writing, “that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” The search for an earthly behind the risen Jesus began in serious in the late 17th century as religious restrictions on science were crumbling under the secularizing revolution known as the Enlightenment. Armed with research tools based on “reason” some of the best minds of the West set about to finally put to rest Augustine’s and Christianity’s ultimate doubts.
“We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.
Rudolf Bultmann, German theologian
“The Quest” of our title takes its name from Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, History of Life-of-Jesus Research which was translated into English as The Quest for the Historical Jesus. While the term Quest is relatively new, the effort to uncover evidence for a historical Jesus has been ongoing since the earliest days of the Enlightenment, around the end of the 17th century. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, illustrates the movement in its earliest stage. In his book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson expresses admiration for Jesus ethics; but concludes that the miracles described in the gospels were likely just inventions of their authors.
Higher Criticism as a tool of bible study goes back to the 15th century. Baruch Spinoza was himself an early practitioner. It came into its own with Enlightenment rationalism and still survives. Known as the historical critical method it is today’s standard for scholastic bible study.
The critical method compares a biblical text under study with others written around the same time for similarities and differences. One example of the method is the work of The Jesus Seminar. Founded in 1985 the Seminar comprises more than a hundred eminent scholars and theologians who “vote” on the authenticity of sayings in the gospels with colored beads representing degrees of agreement. Since all are expert on the period, the Seminar believes that the more positive votes a particular saying receives the higher the likelihood that it was actually spoken by Jesus.
The task the Seminar set itself was to distinguish, “what the authors of the gospels said about Jesus [from what] Jesus himself said (The Five Gospels, What did Jesus Really say?, p.2).” I will quote extensively portions of the volume’s Introduction because the several issues raised provide an excellent perspective from which to critically view any historical event. But the quotes also illuminate those invisible frailties at the heart of Christian belief that inspired Augustinian doubt and sensitized Nicholls’ to the danger which, when religious belief is threatened, can surface as threat to Jewish survival.
According to the authors, “Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.” In other words, the Seminar is questioning, “the alleged verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.” (ibid, p.5) “Why,” ask the authors, “if God took such pains to preserve an inerrant text for posterity did the spirit not provide for the preservation of original copies… we do not have original copies of any gospels… The oldest surviving copies of the gospels date from about one hundred and seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, and no two copies are precisely alike… And handmade manuscripts have almost always been ‘corrected’ here and there [in the process of copying them], often by more than one hand… Even careful copyists make some mistakes, as any proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was.” (ibid, p.6)  
And finally a reminder of the problem of oral tradition to written transcription: “The temporal gap that separates Jesus from the first surviving copies of the gospels—about one hundred and seventy-five years—corresponds to the lapse in time from 1776—the writing of the Declaration of Independence—to 1950. What if the oldest copies of the founding document dated only from 1950?” (ibid, p.6)
As I wrote in introducing this submission, I am neither historian nor theologian and would not undertake to criticize Christianity as religion if I were. But one thing stands glaringly bright in my readings of the Quest: nearly all authors, including those participating in The Jesus Seminar (whose work I generally respect), begin with the conclusion their researches are meant to prove: that Jesus was a man, a pre-assumed historical figure. This brackets the entire project, makes any conclusions dubious by definition.
Let us assume, for example, that The Jesus Seminar has developed a productive method for evaluating gospel sayings attributed to Jesus. What precisely have they proven? If, as they themselves note, the oldest such document dates to nearly two hundred years after the events described, that they have gone through several generations of re-write, etc., even if Seminar experts all agree regarding authenticity of that “twelve percent” which they assume reliable, how can they conclusively decide that it was the person of Jesus, from among the several million Judean Jews of that time, who actually uttered the words? Yes they might distinguish the language, the manner of forming sentences between a later and earlier speaker. But a single individual? I doubt an objective scientific enquiry would support that conclusion.   
I’ll end this week by again reminding that my writing is not intended as criticism of Christianity as religion or belief system. If I raise issues of internal and usually submerged contradictions and uncertainties in its texts and practice it is only to identify sources of those unconscious anxieties described by Nicholls as a danger to Jewish existence.
If my reading of History is correct then future generations looking back at the Holocaust will see it not as a single, unique and isolated event, but as precedent for the next. This is my purpose in writing, to challenge Jewish complacency. 
Other writings in this Series:
4.  Martin Luther (1483 - 1546): Theologian of the Holocaust