The evolution of biblical scholarship over the past century or more has been just one of the factors leading to a rift between those Christians who take the words of the Gospel literally — Gospel truth, so to speak — and those who accept that most of the Bible is true in spirit if not in every detail. Among the conclusions reached by the vast majority of scholars that differ from received tradition is the fact that none of the four canonically accepted Gospel accounts was actually written by an eyewitness to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The search for the historical Jesus, as this scholarship has come to be known, has challenged some of Christianity’s most cherished traditions.
Within the past three decades, Jesus has been cast by various scholars as a social revolutionary, magician, ascetic, apocalyptic prophet, and a disciple of Rabbi Hillel, who also preached compassion. The underlying argument holds that much of the language of the Gospels is the creative invention of their authors and various scribes who later inserted what they thought Jesus ought to have said, rather than the actual words and deeds of Jesus. The early Christian church that took shape after the death of Jesus developed theological agendas of its own that at times went contrary to or were not supported by the existing Gospel texts, this theory goes, so words and deeds were inserted or deleted to fit those agendas. The changes often created other problems of continuity or contradiction, either between different authors or in the same author trying to juggle too many assertions.
Biblical scholars start with the contradictions and improbabilities and work backward to deduce what the original sources, now missing, may have said concerning Jesus. Their deductions have led them to question the beloved Christmas stories (which appear in only two of the four Gospels, in contradictory accounts) and much of the passion narrative, and in the process to cast doubt on some of the time-honored traditions of Christianity. But for many Christians, such scholarship has little relevance to what they consider to be the true story of Jesus as told by the Gospels.