By John P. Meier

CHRISTMAS, a feast that brings joy to the world, also brings hard questions to the intellect. Who was this Jesus whose birth is celebrated every Dec. 25? Did he exist? If so, what did he really say and do? This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the "historical Jesus."

Today, practically all historians and scholars of scripture agree that someone named Jesus of Nazareth did live in the first century A.D., and that he left behind a group of disciples who came to be called Christians.

However, Jesus was an itinerant preacher who in the nature of things did not leave behind him hard evidence from his life. As far as we know, he wrote nothing. There are no references to anyone named Jesus in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, the documents from around Jesus' time that were found in jars stored in caves in and around Qumran on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea.

The Gospel of Mark, the first of the gospels, was probably not composed much before 70 A.D., about 40 years after the Crucifixion. And we are not even sure who Mark was.

Further, there have been no great archeological or historical breakthroughs since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 that would suddenly illuminate his life or that of the Jewish sects which flourished in Judea in his lifetime.

Even the Shroud of Turin -- which some claim to be the burial cloth of Jesus -- remains a question mark rather than evidence. We still do not know its origin and scientists disagree on its age.

Simply discussing these historical matters has divided Christians for more than 200 years. Today, some fundamentalist Christians see the sifting of the gospels for historical data about Jesus as a threat to faith. As they point out, Christians got along for some 1,800 yers without a scientific attempt to get behind the gospels. For such fundamentalists, the gospels are like the minutes taken by a secretary at Jesus' seminars.

On the other hand, both Protestant and Catholic scholars hold that theology is "faith seeking understanding," as St. Anselm put it in the Middle Ages. In other words, faith has an intellectual dimension which demands further probing.

In our own day in particular, when it so easy to conform to the dominant culture, even our own image of Jesus tends to take on the colors of prevailing intellectual fashion. Hence, the importance of the search for the historical Jesus. It can help to keep faith honest and critical of a society that wants to use Jesus for its own purposes. The Jesus of history stubbornly refuses to be coopted by any one party line. He is the message for everyone; he is the tool of no one. He declines to be a card-carrying communist, a complacent capitalist or a consoling clergymen.

Did Jesus exist?

To begin with, common sense tells us that religious movements are likely to get their start from a striking, unique personality.

In the case of Jesus, common sense is buttressed, first of all, by documentary evidence from non-Christians of the first and second centuries A.D. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived the first part of his life in Palestine before 70 A.D., is quoted in his "Jewish Antiquities" as referring to "Jesus." Josephus describes him as a miracle worker who appeared to his disciples after his death. The text as it stands is so positive that scholars suggest that it may have been tampered with by a later Christian scribe. Yet many experts, including Jewish historians such as Shlomo Pines and Louis Feldman, judge that a simpler reference to Jesus by Josephus does lie behind the present text.

In the early second century, the pagan historian Tacitus mentions in his "Annals" that "Christ, the founder of the Christian movement," was executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea.

Later rabbinical literature also contains a few scattered references to "Yeshu," or "Yeshua," (Jesus) -- though these texts were written down centuries after the time of Jesus. An important point to notice is that while Tacitus, the pagan satirist Lucian (second century A.D.), and later rabbis are for the most part negative in their references to Jesus, none denies his existence.

Of course, most of our knowledge of Jesus comes from New Testament documents. Since they are religious writings, and since they were composed decades after Jesus' death, historians naturally approach them with care. Yet the fact is that various types of Christian documents, each presenting a somewhat different view of Jesus, were produced within 40 years of the supposed date of his death. This does seem to argue for the existence of the person being interpreted in such different ways so early on.

Scholars believe that Paul's Epistles, Mark's Gospel and a collection of Jesus' sayings which experts call "the Q Document" all come from the first four decades after Jesus' death. In the last century, a radical Dutch school tried to question the early dating of Paul's Epistles -- but no serious scholar today would deny that Paul's authentic letters come from the '50s of the first century A.D.

Interestingly, Paul, writing some 25 years after Jesus' death, mentions James, "the brother of the Lord," as well as other brothers of Jesus with whom Paul was not on the best of terms. James, in particular, seems to have provoked a good deal of infighting among the early Christians, and to have owed his prominence, at least in part, to his family relationship to Jesus. The existence of prominent relatives of Jesus argues well for the existence of Jesus himself.

When we speak of the "historical Jesus," we should remember that we are talking about a modern construct. As in the case of any great figure of ancient history, there was certainly much more to the complete person than even the most rigorous historian could ever reconstruct today.

It was with the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century that the first critical questions began to be raised about whether the Jesus who really lived was quite different from the Christ of faith proclaimed by the church. But there was a problem. Historical researchers who examined first century documents with great care often failed to examine their own preconceptions.

The first scholarly attempt to detach Jesus from church dogma and present him as a Jew of his own day was made by Hermann Samuel Reimarus who died in 1768. In his "On the Purpose of Jesus and his Disciples," published 10 years after his death, Reimarus rejected the Christian doctrine of Jesus' Resurrection. For Reimarus, Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary who tried without success to be a "worldly Messiah" for Israel. When he failed and was crucified, the disciples stole his body from the tomb and then announced his resurrection.

In the 19th century, the question of the historical Jesus was taken up by New Testament critics at Germany's Tubingen University. For example, David Strauss rejected the Gospel of John as unhistorical and claimed that even Mark, Matthew, and Luke were too dominated by their faith to allow them to write an accurate account of Jesus' life. Strauss introduced the term "myth" into the debate; for him, the gospels yield only historical fragments.

Needless to say, the challenge offered by this radical skepticism did not go unanswered. Throughout the 19th century, various scholars continued to write ''lives of Jesus," often influenced by the liberal Protestant theology in vogue in Germany. Typical of this approach was the work of Adolf von Harnack, who died in 1930. He presented Jesus as a great teacher of ethical truths: God as loving father, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul. On the whole, these authors were confident that they could pierce through church dogma and recapture the Jesus who really lived.

There were, however, a number of problems with their approach. At times, their work amounted to little more than imaginative novels. Having decided that Mark was the first gospel to be written, they relied naively on him as an historical witness. (To this day we can only make educated guesses about the identity of Mark; one theory is that he was a young, upper-class Jew from Jerusalem.) And they almost completely ignored what was at the heart of Jesus' message -- that the kingdom of God was at hand and, in some sense, the end of this world was near.

These weaknesses were severely attacked at the beginning of the 20th century. Wilhelm Wrede, in his book "The Messianic Secret," argued that Mark's gospel was just as much a theological work as Matthew's, Luke's, and John's. The great Albert Schweitzer wrote a mocking history of previous German research, and portrayed Jesus as an apocalyptic fanatic who expected the end of the world in his own day. This Jesus, Schweitzer argued, will always appear strange to us and can never be domesticated or modernized into a teacher of reasonable ethics.

Despite this, Schweitzer presented his own, fairly detailed portrait of Jesus. After World War I, however, the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann challenged Schweitzer's optimism that it was still possible to write a fairly detailed life of Jesus. Bultmann held that we can know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus, so much had early church tradition reformulated and built upon the original events. Moreover, claimed Bultmann, we should not even want to know about the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith who is proclaimed by the Gospels is all we need believe in, he contended. With that, the prevailing view of the 19th century was turned around 180-degrees.

As one might expect, Bultmann's skepticism was not universally applauded. Both German and British scholars of various shades of opinion took a more positive view of the gospels' reliability. Indeed, starting in the 1950s, some of Bultmann's own students began to claim that the gospels could be sifted to isolate some historical data about Jesus.

In present-day discussions, two particular groups stand out. For a long time, Roman Catholics looked on from the sidelines. But with the revolution of modern biblical studies within the Catholic church, Catholic scholars have pursued the historical Jesus with a vengeance. The other group that has become increasingly prominent in researching the historical Jesus is composed of Jewish scholars.

As early as 1922, Joseph Klausner claimed that modern critical methods allowed us to get behind the later layers of gospel tradition to "Jesus the Jew." One of the most celebrated Jewish writers on Jesus at the present moment is the Oxford scholar Geza Vermes, who uses his wide knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinical writings to sketch a Jewish Jesus firmly anchored in the Palestinian Judaism of the first century A.D.

Granted that every possible opinion has been championed at some point in the quest, how much can we really know about the historical Jesus? Archeology has been of little help. For instance, the only archeological confirmation of the existence of Pontius Pilate was discovered in 1961. It consisted of a fragmentary inscription on a piece of stone found on the Israeli coast. The inscription reported that Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, dedicated a building to the Emperor Tiberius. When one considers that Pilate was the most powerful Roman figure in Palestine during the adult life of Jesus, it is amazing that we have no other archeological evidence of him. Perhaps, then, we should not be so surprised that no archeological remains from first century Palestine mentions Jesus or the first Christians.

From the 20th century vantage point, we tend to forget that the first Christians were just a small and probably not very influential Jewish sect in a society seething with religious movements and sectarianism. If the Dead Sea Scrolls have taught us anything, it is that first century Judaism was a crazy quilt of contending sects, some led by charismatic figures. (The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, mention a Teacher of Righteousness who a few maverick scholars have even suggested was Jesus, despite the fact that the teacher was a super-stringent priest whose views on the law little resembled those ascribed to Jesus.)

Given the paucity of data, we have to fall back on the gospels. But that raises the question, where did the gospels come from? Although they bear the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these names were attached to them only in the second century, and it is not even certain that people with those names actually authored them.

Some basic points about the gospels, however, are accepted by almost all scholars. After the crucifixion of Jesus, which took place either in 30 or 33 A.D., his disciples continued to cultivate oral traditions about his deeds and sayings. Collections began to be formed, and around A.D. 70 two major works were produced, the gospel of Mark and the grab-bag of Jesus' sayings that scholars label the Q-document. By combining these two documents with their own special traditions, two persons traditionally called Matthew and Luke independently authored their two gospels.

John's gospel is believed to have been written between 90-100 A.D. (A papyrus fragment of this gospel, dating from around 130 A.D., was found in Egypt in 1920.) Though highly theological, John's gospel contains some nuggets of actual events from Jesus' life. By using accepted rules for judging historical material, scholars seek to peel away the various layers of tradition to get back to the material that comes from Jesus himself. For example, John the Baptist administered to Jesus a baptism that was supposed to forgive sins. But why, if Jesus was sinless from birth, and superior to John, did he undergo this Baptism? The fact that the gospels struggle in various ways to neutralize this problem would seem to argue that it was not an event that they manufactured.

Likewise, Jesus, according to the Gospels, affirms his ignorance of the date of the Day of Judgement -- a point that the early church would not be inclined to stress because of its desire to exalt Jesus' supernatural qualities.

Another example: In Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as absolutely prohibiting oaths and vows, despite the fact that neither main- stream Judaism nor the early church observed such a prohibition. Jesus likewise forbade his disciples to fast, yet both Jews and Christians practiced fasting.

There is a danger, of course, that if one overemphasizes how Jesus differed from Judaism and Christianity, one can dissolve the real ties that bound him to both. It is no accident that various scholars have at times identified Jesus with the Essenes (the Dead Sea sect mentioned in the scrolls), the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, as well as with popular, charismatic holy men of Galilee. It is quite likely that Jesus had contact with a number of these groups. But the historical Jesus, as far as we can tell, does not fit perfectly into any one of them.

Once we have isolated a fair amount of sayings and actions attributable to Jesus on the basis of the methods just mentioned, other words and deeds which fit in well with our preliminary sketch of the historical Jesus also have a fair chance of coming from him. This would be true, for instance, of sayings that presuppose the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, a point central to Jesus' message.

Mark's gospel, the Q-document, Paul's letters, and probably John's gospels all represent independent streams of early Christian tradition. This supplies us with multiple sources which can be checked against one another. For example, Mark, Q, and Paul all attest independently to the fact that Jesus forbade divorce -- though they differ on specifics and practical applications. One can compare the various forms of the prohibition and by using what is known about the culture of the time, move back to what was likely the original form of Jesus' saying. The same holds true of Jesus' words over the bread and wine at the Last Supper (described in four different ways in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Paul), and the Lord's Prayer (which shows up in two notably different forms in Matthew and Luke).

Many of the saccharine portraits of Jesus fail to explain his gruesome execution on the cross. The rejection and death of Jesus reminds us that one does not get crucified for patting children on the head and telling people to look at the lilies of the field. Jesus alienated important and influential people, so much so that he met a violent end at the hands of the Jerusalem authorities and the Roman prefect. A sweet, gentle Jesus who could not scare or infuriate anyone may be comforting to the pious, but it has nothing to do with the Jesus of history.

No doubt there will never be complete agreement among experts about a full portrait of this Jesus. In general, though, their painstaking work does help us realize the true relevance of Jesus, for all his distance from our day. By recapturing the time of conflict in which he lived -- a time of ideological clashes and sectarianism, when great world empires enslaved whole nations in the name of peace, and sincere martyrs and religious charlatans competed for people's allegiance -- we can begin to struggle honestly with the question: What does Jesus mean for us today.

Indeed, this question fits in perfectly with the feast of Christmas, the celebration of a human birth. After all, believing Christians profess that Jesus is both truly divine and truly human. Yet the history of Christianity shows that, when it comes to popular religious attitudes, the divine nature of Jesus has tended to swallow up his humanity. Both Christmas and the quest for the Jesus of history restore the balance. They remind us that the divine does not touch and transform us unless it comes in truly human form, in the man called Jesus.