The question is often asked whether, on the basis of information contained in the gospels, it is possible to write a completely factual life of Jesus. The diversity and sometimes disagreement -- of such attempts in the past two centuries does not encourage optimism.
The chronology of his ministry has been variously estimated, and the content of his teachings interpreted in countless ways. Today's "churchianity" has approached a condition reminiscent of that of orthodox Judaism at the time of Jesus when Doctors of Law were searching with a fine-tooth comb for multiple interpretation of every ruling or variation thereof handed down by Moses and other ancients.
The emphasis was on the literal interpretation, hewing to the letter of the Law, and overlooking the spiritual. Today we have the two extremes once again -- the literal critics, and the non- critical "babes" wide-open to experience of the inner Reality.
One reason it is so difficult to write of Jesus' personal life, is that he left no known writings. He taught both orally and by ex- ample, while his story and teachings were left for others to write.
It seems strange they waited so long, but when they did write, it was of his teachings and great works, not of him as a man. And because these were written for use in the churches, to convince mankind of the Lord's salvation, they found no reason to go into the details of his childhood and youth. The facts of his natural life were probably common knowledge among the disciples, who saw no need to go into such preliminaries, in view of the grandeur of his purpose and work.
The first instruction among the Christians was by word of mouth -- eye-witness accounts. Then others took up and repeated the sayings. In time, fragmentary accounts and epistles were written to be read before the assemblies, different churches having access to different manuscripts. Eventually the four best of these accounts were chosen to form our New Testament, in the form of the Four Gospels.
Most of Paul's letters were written before the gospels, dating from a time about twenty years after the death of Jesus, and continuing for about fifteen years or longer.
The Jews, to whom Jesus had come in fulfillment of God's promise to them, have left no valid record of his life. They did make veiled and derogatory references to a "certain one," rarely named, (though one source called him Jesus the Nozri) who was born of a woman named Mary, whose husband is sometimes called the son of Panthera, or the son of Stada.
It was said that having taken himself to Egypt, he studied magic there under a certain Joshua. (However, it has since been established that this Joshua lived in 100 B.C., and Pappos in about 230 A.D.)
The Jews said that Jesus, or this "certain person," then returned from Egypt to his own country where he was rejected by his teacher and then began to practice magic, leading the people astray. For this reason he was brought to trial and condemned to death.
The authorities waited forty days to execute sentence, they said, meanwhile sending out a herald who repeatedly invited the people to bring forth any justification, whatever, on behalf of the condemned man. Since no one did, he was stoned and then hanged from a scaffold at Lydda on the vigil of the Pasch.
The reports were composed to discredit the stories of the Christians being widely circulated in that day; but even present day Jews look upon these old reports as burlesque, and give them no credit.
Josephus, who is one of the best remaining sources of information about the Hebrew nation in the first century, was himself a Jewish priest, who seeing Jerusalem destroyed in 70 A.D. before his very eyes, went to Rome and later wrote two histories called "Wars of the Jews," in the latter part of the century in which Jesus was born.
Josephus made the briefest, though respectful, reference to Jesus, James, and John the Baptist, not fully authenticated, since the early Church fathers had a way of inserting bits of information to support their stand.
Some spurious scripture was written in this way, and later so vigorously weeded out that some things of truth may have been weeded out with them.
Certain Roman writings of that day mentioned the treatment of the "Crestiani" under Nero. They never mentioned the name Jesus, but only Crestus (Christ) whom they thought instigated riots among the Crestiani (Christians).
Another brief mention of Jesus was in a letter written in the Syriac language in the second century, mentioning along with Socrates and Pythagoras a "wise king" of the Jews who was put to death by his own nation, which because of that was punished by God with exile and the destruction of its capitol.
This is about the extent of any non-Christian references to Jesus at that time. There is no definite or clear-cut record, though normally the Romans kept notes of their trials to report to headquarters. Perhaps these were destroyed by those whose interests would not have been served by keeping them.
There were quite a few Christian writings about Jesus in the first centuries which were left out of the Bible for various reasons, either because their validity was doubtful, or they did not contribute much to the meaning, or perhaps in some cases they did not agree with what was being taught in a particular area.
Various ancient writers refer to a "Gospel according to the Hebrews," to a "Gospel of the Nazarenes," and a "Gospel of the Ebionites" which belonged to the Ebionite sect, and this gospel championed some of their ideas such as vegetarianism.
There was a "Gospel of Peter" (probably written in the second century), and a "Gospel of the Egyptians" also composed in Egypt in the second century, and used by certain heretical sects which condemned the institution of marriage. Most of these except for a few fragments, seem to have vanished from view, though not from memory.
One may still find the Protoevangelion of James, said to be written by James the Less, and recognized by the early Christian churches as an historical account of the birth and childhood of Jesus. Certain controversies arose over this gospel because of its allusions to Joseph as an older widower. This gospel was accepted as authentic until the time of Ambrose, after which the orthodox church preferred the opinion that Joseph was virginal, as was Mary.
There was another Gospel of the Birth of Mary, several versions of which were used by the early church. One was found in the works of Jerome in the fourth century, a translation of which is said to be still available.
Another gospel called the first Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, was used by the Gnostics in the second century. This was also commonly used in the Eastern countries, and is believed to be the basis of stories about Jesus in the Koran, as well as the Persian stories about his dispute with a school-master over the alphabet. Its authorship is sometimes credited to Thomas.
The Gospel of Nicodemus is thought to have been written by a zealous Christian to refute a book called the Acts of Pilate, which was called a pagan forgery. Such pious frauds were said to be common in the early centuries, where no whole Bible had yet been introduced, but each community had to use whatever gospel or epistle they had access to, translated from the various languages.
Many of these seem somewhat crude and overdrawn in content and do little other than amplify or expand the solid work of the four Gospels. It is a marvel that so exalted a book as the Bible somehow emerged from among all these. There is a fascination in exploring the Apocrypha, hoping for a more intimate glimpse into "secrets" formerly hidden, but the work has been pretty much covered before us.
Some of the early Christian writings were in the form of ecclesiastical books on constitutions, canons, etc., even as the churches write now. But we have a glimpse of a few of Jesus' sayings not mentioned in the Gospels. For example:
"It is a more blessed thing to give than to receive."
"As you shall do, so shall it be done to you; as you shall give, so shall it be given you; as you shall judge, so shall you be judged; as you shall be kind, so shall you be treated with kindness."
"In whatever (works) I shall find you at my coming, in the same will I judge you."
"He who is near to me is near to the fire; he who is far from me, is far from the kingdom."
"Do not doubt, lest you sink into the world, like Simon who doubting began to sink into the sea."
"If you do not fast from the world, you shall not find the kingdom of God; and if you do not make a sabbath of the sabbath, you shall not see the Father."
"Wherever there are two, they are not without God, and wherever there is one alone, I say that I am with him. Lift the stone, and there you shall find me; split the wood and I am there."
"No doctor is accepted in his own country, nor does a doctor work cures among those who know him."
These are not unlike other sayings spoken, and those who knew him must have remembered countless remarks which never reached the Bible. There is now in print a Gospel of Thomas, which could be valid, filled with the sayings of Jesus, but many of them are quite similar to those in the Bible.
There was much difference of opinion in the early days, as we can well understand, concerning which books should be included among the permanent Scriptures. The Eastern orthodox churches, for example, did not use the Book of Revelation or Hebrews, but included certain others such as "Barnabas," "the Shepherd," and others not now used.
It was Jerome's translation of the Bible into the Latin, the Vulgate Bible, which fairly determined what the western church would use, for he included both the Book of Revelation and Hebrews, and this Bible became the official one used by the Roman Catholic Church. St. Jerome received Holy Orders at Antioch around the year 377, and after much study and travel finally settled in Bethlehem where the translations were made. He died in 420 in Bethlehem.