I read Humphrey Carpenter’s 1980 biography of Jesus with a great deal of admiration at his earnestness and chutzpah.

In his preface, Carpenter notes that the modest book (95 pages of text) was written as part of the Oxford University’s Past Masters Series, “short books on leading intellectual figures of the past, written to give an account of the nature, originality and importance of their ideas.”  In all, there were more than 60 such concise biographies of great thinkers in the series, including, for instance, Shakespeare by Germaine Greer.

For centuries, scholars and fans have been debating just about every aspect of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry as well as his life story (the facts of which are few and far between), so it took a lot of nerve for Greer to attempt to sum up the Bard is just 126 pages.

Yet, how much more courageous was Carpenter to tell the life of Jesus — and to tell it from the standpoint of objective history, not belief?  To examine his subject as a “leading intellectual figure” rather than as the Son of God and a still-living presence in the lives of his followers?

Carpenter was the son of Right Rev. Harry Carpenter, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford from 1955-1970, but he doesn’t seem to have been a believer. At least, he didn’t write the book as if he were a believer.

It appears he wrote it as a modern rationalist, a term he employs at times in the text. Certainly, he wrote it as a professional historian and biographer.

Carpenter was in the early years of a career that produced a dozen or more books before his death in 2005 in his late 50s. Previously, he had published J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977) and The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (1978), both still steady sellers today.

Afterwards, his biographies included W. H. Auden (1981), Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s (1987), A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (1988), Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends (1989), Benjamin Britten (1992), and Spike Milligan (2004).

“Reported to have said and done”

Yet, it’s one thing to write about Tolkien, Pound and Britten, men who produced a great amount of work and who were deeply documented in the way of the modern world and who were known by hundreds of people still alive at the time of Humphrey’s research and still available for interviews.

There was nothing like that for Jesus, as Humphrey notes in his opening words of his opening chapter “A Problem of Sources”:

Jesus did not write any books; or if he did, which seems highly unlikely, they have not survived.  This means that an account of his ideas, such as this book is meant to be, faces a special difficulty at the outset.  It has to depend for its sources not on his own work…but on what he is reported to have said and done.  Naturally this introduces an element of unreliability from the start.

Many a Christian, reading that, would likely respond:  Well, of course, Jesus didn’t write a book.  We would know about it because the Gospels or Epistles would mention it.  Carpenter, though, is approaching his subject with the open-mindedness and skepticism of the historian.  It would have been possible for Jesus to write a book, and, if he had, there are any number of reasons why it might not be mentioned in the New Testament.

Similarly, a Christian would likely say:  We know what Jesus said and did.  It’s reported in the Gospels and Epistles by evangelists who were acting as reporters and historians — and, besides, this is the word of God.

Carpenter, though, would explain that, as a historian, he can only go by what is on the historical record.  There are no documents that were written by Jesus, no letters, no journal, no book that he can look at, so he has to rely on what was written by people who knew him or who knew people who knew him — and that’s where the unreliability comes in.

Three Gospels and John’s

The main sources are the four Gospels, but they immediately cause difficulty for the historian.  Three — Mark, Matthew and Luke — tell similar stories and are known as the Synoptic Gospels.  But, for all their overlap, there are also great differences in what they report.

Not as great, though, as their dissimilarity with the Gospel of John.

Some incidents from the Synoptics appear in John, and his account of the Passion is essentially the same as the other three, Carpenter notes, but that’s as far as it goes:

It’s not merely that he has different miracle stories and teachings in his account of Jesus’s life; his whole portrait of Jesus is based on a different presupposition.  He regards Jesus as no less than a manifestation in human flesh of the “Word” of God, pre-existent since before the beginning of creation….

The sayings of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel are remarkably different from those in the Synoptics.  The Jesus of the Synoptics is colorful in his speech and capable of dealing with tricky questions by means, if necessary, of equally tricky answers….But the Jesus of John’s Gospel is not like this at all.  He scarcely ever teaches in lively parables.

In addition, Carpenter points out that, in contrast with Mark, Matthew and Luke, John uses much of his text for “Jesus’s speeches about himself.  ‘I am the light of the world…I am the good shepherd…I am the bread of life.’ ”

Lots of biographies of Lincoln

A Christian might think to respond:  Well, there are lots of biographies of Abraham Lincoln, but they don’t all tell their story the same way.

That, of course, is true.  But those biographies would have a great deal of overlap, more than Carpenter sees in John and the other three Gospels.  Also, there is a great deal of Lincoln’s writing that a historian can study.  With Jesus, though, these four Gospels are basically it.

Another response of the modern Christian could be that the four Gospels aren’t meant to be read separately.  Together, the four of them provide a nuanced picture of Jesus — and that picture is further refined by what early church leaders had to say about Jesus and his life.  Indeed, church leaders were the ones who decided that these four Gospels, rather than several other possibilities, told the story in the most complete and accurate way and enshrined them as the basis for Christian faith.

To which, I suspect, Carpenter would say that the church authorities imposed their interpretation on the life of Jesus, just as, in their own way, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John imposed their interpretations.  Again, a great many biographers have interpreted the life of Lincoln, but, in contrast to Jesus, Lincoln had his own say in speeches, letters, court cases and government documents.

“Did he say it?

Carpenter studied a variety of modern Christian and secular writers who have analyzed the Gospels, and he is following the lead of many in noting that each Gospel is trying to make a point about the life of Jesus, yet another aspect of interpretation.

As a historian, Carpenter is aware that people trying to make a point can exaggerate an event or a statement or even invent one.  For instance, he discusses a statement that appears in Mark and Matthew in which Jesus said he would “give up his life as a ransom for many.”

If Jesus said this, there could be no doubt that he believed that his death on the cross would have an atoning power.  But did he say it?

One isolated instance seems a slender peg on which to hang so much, particularly as by the time the Gospels were written the Church had certainly developed its own ideas about the crucifixion as atonement.

“Adapt real memories”

Christians, from the beginning, have seen the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament as accounts from people who were eyewitnesses or people who had talked with eyewitnesses. 

But, as a historian and biographer, Carpenter warns that it’s dangerous to rely too heavily on eyewitnesses.

Anyone who had collected material for a biography will know how often those close to its subject — his friends and even his family — will unconsciously depart from the strict historical truth in their recollections, even a few years after the events, let alone some decades later. The tendency is to adapt real memories until they are formulated into neat anecdotes with a beginning and end and a distinct point or moral to them. These anecdotes are usually based on some sort of truth, but often only very shakily.

That this could happen to recollections of Jesus in the disciples’ minds is surely inevitable, especially as they were recounting those memories in order to make claims about what he had done.

Rooted in doubt

At this point, a modern Christian might come to the conclusion that there’s no reason to read Jesus by Humphrey Carpenter. Obviously, Carpenter doesn’t get Christianity, right? Or, even worse, he’s acting from evil motivations to shake the faith of the faithful.

I can’t speak to what Carpenter had in his heart when he wrote this book, but he certainly was approaching his task as a professional, asking serious questions and being open to whatever answer might present itself.

Carpenter’s Jesus isn’t likely to shake anyone’s Christian faith.  After all, a Christian is a believer because of faith, not because of proof.  The Gospels and the rest of the New Testament aren’t proof of anything, certainly not in the way of historical truth.

However, I think Carpenter’s Jesus can help deepen a Christian’s faith.  It’s helped to deepen my own faith.

His close and painstaking study of the Gospels had made it clear to me that, from a historical point of view, they raise a great many questions. 

And that has helped because it helps me to recognize yet again that my embrace of Jesus and my belief in Christianity isn’t something that is the product of working a scientific formula but is the result of choosing to take the leap of belief.

Carpenter raises historical doubts about many aspects of the life of Jesus and the man who Jesus was.

Faith is rooted in doubt.  I have to recognize that I have doubts — many of them — in order to rise above those doubts, to go beyond those doubts, and say:  Yes, I believe.

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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