One of the wonderful qualities of the New Testament's four Gospels is that they force you either to embrace or reject them. You can study the Gospels as "literature" if you like, but their logic subverts any attempt to treat them as you would treat other literary texts. "Hamlet" may reach dizzying heights of sublimity and repay a lifetime of study, but it doesn't ask for radical changes in your thought and behavior and has no power to compel them.
Three centuries of critical New Testament scholarship haven't changed this. The Quest for the Historical Jesus, an attempt to interpret the canonical Gospel texts without reference to supernatural explanations, began with German scholarship in the 18th century, gradually took hold of universities and divinity schools elsewhere in Europe and America during the 19th century, and exploded in popularity during the latter half of the 20th century. Hundreds, probably thousands, of books purporting to explain the identity and intentions of Jesus of Nazareth have been published since the "quest" began in the 1770s; and yet, despite scholars' confident pronouncements about how Jesus went from political revolutionary or peaceable philosopher to Eternal Son of God, the Gospels' claims about him are neither more nor less plausible than they were before. . . .
The point here isn't that the Gospels must be true. It is that the Gospels offer no easy way to explain away their content. They therefore demand one of two choices. Either they relay things that Jesus actually said and did, in which case he really is who the New Testament claims he is, or they are haphazard collections of deliberately fabricated stories about a man who may have said some extraordinary things in first-century Judea but who has no more claim on your attention than Socrates.
C.S. Lewis, among others, made a similar argument about Jesus' self-descriptions: "Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse." And while that argument has often been dismissed on the grounds that it assumes all the Gospels' quotations of Jesus to be authentic, its logic applies with equal or greater force to the four Gospel texts themselves. Either they are true or they are collections of precious fables. There is no third option. They cannot be somehow factually false but metaphorically true—the human mind rightly rejects that kind of reasoning as highfalutin cant.
This point is powerfully made by Jay Parini's "Jesus," although Mr. Parini didn't intend to make that point at all.
Read the rest here.