There seems little doubt that there was a person called Jesus of Nazareth early in the first century who was active as a Jewish preacher and teacher in Galilee. Biographical information on people in the ancient world is always somewhat uncertain, and assembling it into portrait of an individual is particularly problematic.
But Jesus’ contemporaries had reason to remember him. First, he had committed followers, disciples or “students,” and among them a hand-picked group called the Twelve to whom he particularly committed his teaching. We cannot be certain about what he was claiming for himself, but what is certain is that after his death in 30 A.D. Jesus’ followers were convinced first, that he was the promised Jewish Messiah and, more, the Son of God; and second, that this information and its consequences should be spread as widely as possible among their fellow Jews.
The preaching (kerygma) of his followers would be the first real glimpse we have of Jesus, not necessarily as he was, but certainly as he appeared in the eyes of his followers. We do not have access to this preaching. It is described and reported in the Acts of the Apostles written a half-century after the death of Jesus. But direct discourse in ancient works are recreations at best and pure inventions at worst, and so the preaching in Acts may have caught the gist of what his followers, including a somewhat latecomer named Paul, were saying about Jesus but not likely their exact words.
This kerygmatic period, or better, this eyewitness kerygmatic period, since Jesus has continued to be preached from that day to this, is important because it was then that the eyewitnesses first began to recollect and verbalize their experience of Jesus. But it was also at the same time that those same eyewitnesses, and others as well, like Paul, began to shape the Jesus story. We can watch Paul doing it (for a second time) in his letters, and we can read its full literary presentation(s) in the Gospels, whose authors took an already apostolically formulated Jesus story and reshaped it 1) in accordance with the literary canons of Greco-Roman biography, and 2) in light of the needs of their intended audience, which in some instances (Matthew and John) appear to be specific congregations or communities of believers.
The memory of Jesus did not survive entirely in the form of preaching. We know from subsequent developments that there were in oral circulation not only his individual sayings but anecdotes about Jesus’ miracles and descriptions of his spectacular death by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.
Memories of Jesus were, on the evidence, rather quickly committed to writing in that relatively literate society and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, since Jesus and his inner circle were primarily Aramaic-speakers, in Greek. We have evidence, direct and indirect, of a number of examples. Someone – there are nothing but anonymous figures here – collected Jesus sayings, maybe more than once, and these collections, which were assuredly written and assuredly in Greek, show up slightly later in written documents that we do possess.
The earliest written documents that we possess on Jesus are a work called the Good News attributed to (“according to”) someone called Mark and some letters written by Paul, that latecomer follower who was among those spreading the word of Jesus soon after his death. The letters, written in the 50s and so 20-odd years after Jesus’ death, do not represent Paul’s own preaching but are follow-ups to new believers to whom he had already preached the Good News. The letters do not supply direct information about Jesus but rather represent Paul’s clarification and enlargement of the interpretation of the Jesus event that he had delivered to these communities somewhat earlier.
The Good News, or “Gospel” more familiarly in English, according to Mark, which was composed 20 or 30 years after Paul’s letters, addresses Jesus head-on in a biographical format. Jesus is quoted verbatim; his miracles are described in the settings in which they reportedly occurred; his arrest, trial and execution are described in precise narrative detail. This is followed, ten years or so later –we are now in the 80s or 90s of the first century— by two more written Gospels, those that are attributed to Matthew and Luke.
Though they circulated among Christian communities as independent works, these two latter Gospels have the appearance of “editions” of Mark’s Gospel in that they reproduce to a large extent his text and they follow his narrative line in their presentation of Jesus. But they also expand and alter Mark in a variety of ways and they both add material that they have derived from other sources. One such is a written Greek collection of Jesus’ sayings that modern scholarship has dubbed “Q,” and both Matthew and Luke supply rather extended but by no means identical stories of Jesus’ conception and birth. Finally, there are anecdotes about Jesus that are proper only to each of these two authors/editors.
Finally, sometime about 100 A.D., there appears the Gospel according to John, whose author, if he knew Mark’s version, which appears likely, he chose not to follow it but rather to rewrite the Jesus story from his own perspective. His Gospel differs in many particulars from its three predecessors. John’s understanding of Jesus is far more theological, and in fact it turns Jesus himself into a rather long-winded theologian. But this fourth Gospel is also filled with authentic Palestinian detail that suggests that the author had access to the same kinds of historical traditions used by the other evangelists.
This is not yet the fullest extent of our information about Jesus. The oral tradition about him: Jesus sayings and Jesus anecdotes beyond what were recorded in the Gospels, were apparently in wide circulation among the believers. We find otherwise unrecorded Jesus sayings cited in the writings of subsequent Christian authors. There are Jesus anecdotes aplenty in other works circulating among Christians in the first and second centuries in a variety of works also called Gospels but which the churches rejected — they were eventually called “apocryphal” or “set aside,” either on the basis of their content or their pretended authorship.
The issue here, for the historian, though not for the Christian, who accepts the four Gospels and Paul and ignores all else, is the authenticity of these late recorded sayings and the credibility of the anecdotes recorded in what are the Church’s, but not the historians’, apocrypha. The argument pro and con is current and lively. But the defenders of the authenticity of at least some of the evidence in the Church’s extra-canonical material have not so much changed the portrait of Jesus as they have undermined the notion of Christian orthodoxy: what was once heresy is now, in the eyes of some, simply different strands of Christianity visible in an age before the Great Church of the fourth century managed to suppress them.
This is not to say that the portrait of Jesus has not been altered for some. But the “new” Jesus that has been offered in place of the “traditional” Jesus is not due to the discovery of new evidence but is the result of new ways of contextualizing and interpreting what has always lain before the quester for the “historical Jesus.” It is not so much the evidence that has changed as it has been the eyes of the beholders.