Modern scholarship makes it clear that one cannot obtain a biography of Jesus from the New Testament. The materials in it were derived from various sources and handed down orally and in writing for some time, being developed for use in the early Church, primarily in its work of preaching and teaching.30 Therefore, it is appropriate to indicate briefly the extent to which and the grounds on which I rely upon the historical accuracy of the Gospel narratives.
Vatican II makes a clear statement on this matter. Although this statement is not definitive, it is recent and balanced. Expressing the mind of the Church, it ought to be accepted with religious assent by all Catholics (see LG 25). The Council says:
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day he was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1.1–2). Indeed, after the ascension of the Lord the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the events of Christ’s risen life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating some things in view of the situation of their churches, and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who themselves “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (cf. Lk 1.2–4). (DV 19)
Here the Church affirms both the substantial accuracy of the Gospels and their complex literary development and character.
When Jesus made various choices and carried them out is of little importance for understanding his life as a structure of human acts. The important questions are what his fundamental choices and intentions were and how his various actions, including acceptance of suffering and death, carried out his basic commitment. This sort of information is contained sufficiently in the Gospels. For, as C. H. Dodd says: “What emerges is a lively picture of the kind of thing that Jesus did, the kind of attitude which his actions revealed, the kind of relations in which he stood with various types of people he encountered, and the causes of the friction between him and the religious leaders.” Details may be argued. “But taken together, these stories, told from many different points of view, converge to give a distinct impression of a real person in action upon a recognizable scene. When we add the wealth of sayings transmitted as such without any narrative setting, the total picture is enriched and given color and depth.”31
The Church teaches that all Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit and provided for our instruction (see DV 11). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus offers himself as a model. His life can provide no principle for our own lives unless we can understand it as a structure of human acts centering in his basic commitment. It follows that we must be able to obtain what we need for the purposes of moral theology from the Gospels.32
Of course, only the propositions asserted by the sacred writers are certainly true, and so careful interpretation of the Gospels is necessary (see DV 11–12). For this reason one cannot ignore the work of Scripture scholars. At the same time, one must be careful in selecting the scholars one will believe.33
30. See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., “The Biblical Commission’s Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels,” Theological Studies, 25 (1964), 386–408, including (402–8) a translation of the whole of this important document, which can serve, as it were, as an advance commentary on Vatican II’s statement on the historical value of the Gospels (cf. DV 19).
31. Dodd, op. cit., 36.
32. See Fitzmyer, op. cit., 406; the Biblical Commission’s Instruction points out: “From the results of the new investigations it is apparent that the doctrine and the life of Jesus were not simply reported for the sole purpose of being remembered, but were ‘preached’ so as to offer the Church a basis of faith and of morals.” And Fitzmyer points out (401) that it is the form of the words and deeds of Jesus that the evangelists give us which is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
33. See Bouyer, op. cit., 151–67; E. L. Mascall, Theology and the Gospel of Christ: An Essay in Reorientation (London: SPCK, 1977), 65–117. For a treatment of the life of Jesus by a critical Catholic scholar: Léon-Dufour, op. cit., 193–258. For a very helpful treatment by a non-Catholic critical scholar: Robert M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 284–377. For a summary of much recent critical scholarship on the life of Jesus, see Prosper Grech, “The Critical Problem and Hermeneutics,” in Problems and Perspectives of Fundamental Theology, ed. René Latourelle and Gerald O’Collins, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 105–32. Aulén, op. cit., 17–120; the body of work they treat shows that former scepticism is being overcome, and the sort of historical claims required by the present project cannot be dismissed as absurd, even though in details the present chapter cannot pretend to meet critical standards.