The Historical Rembrandt  (from Chapter Six)

Prior to photography, engraving was the principal means of creating and reproducing pictures. Images cut in wood, copper or steel were inked and transferred to hundreds or even thousands of sheets of paper. Prints, often published with accompanying text, were the popular media of the 16th-19th centuries, much as television is today. As with television programming, the quality of printmaking varied enormously. The great majority of prints were churned out quickly and sold cheaply to a mass audience. A smaller but still significant number were fashioned by accomplished artists who invested weeks or even months in the production of a single image.

Several of the best artists, such as Dürer and Rembrandt, attracted students who learned to engrave in their style. Some of these apprentices were so good that their work is all but indistinguishable from that of their teachers. In some cases, it is impossible to discriminate between, for example, a Rembrandt original and a print originating in the Rembrandt "school." The situation is further complicated by the fact that artists would occasionally compose part of a work themselves and then assign its completion to their students. The better the student, the harder it is to tell where the hand of the master ends and that of the apprentice begins.

If I owned such a print, I would be eager to know to what extent it was an "original." I could take the engraving to a series of experts, but they might well disagree amongst themselves. What should I do? I could apply White Out to all of the questionable bits, but the result would hardly be a truer or more appealing picture, and there is a good chance that I would obscure parts of the original in the process. A more sensible course would be to find satisfaction in knowing that, both directly and indirectly, the work reflects the genius of the master.

Now imagine that we possessed no original pictures by a certain master engraver, that his art could be "recovered" only through an analysis of the work of his students. Imagine, too, that the engravings of his students varied somewhat in style and subject matter. Any assessment of the master’s work based upon such evidence could be convincing on only a fairly general level. Detailed analyses that attempted to separate the master’s work from that of his students would at best be speculative exercises. In all likelihood, such studies would produce widely differing, even contradictory results reflecting the biases of the individual interpreters. One critic might claim that only prints containing horses are genuine; another might believe that only lines of a certain width could have been engraved by the master. The further such studies distanced the teacher from his students–and thus from the only source of possible evidence–the more speculative they would become. A master who exercised negligible influence over his "followers" would simply be unknowable. A modern-day account of such a figure would be almost entirely a product of its author’s own imagination.

Such is our situation when we undertake a study of the historical Jesus. Each of the four Gospels presents us with a portrait of Jesus composed by a later follower but containing traditions that go back to Jesus himself.9  How much of the resulting picture is owed to Jesus and how much to the Gospel writer and to the Church, which passed down and shaped the tradition before him, is impossible to sort out cleanly. There is no consistently reliable way of separating the "original" Jesus from subsequent Christian interpretations. This is especially true with respect to the content of Jesus’ teaching. Most scholars would agree that Jesus’ words underwent some modification and even expansion in the years prior to the writing of the Gospels, but there is no agreement whatsoever as to the extent and nature of these changes. For that reason, an endless parade of incompatible Jesuses emerge from the workshops of scholars. In the unlikely event that someone did manage successfully to separate Jesus’ words from later Christian alterations and amendments, we would have no way of knowing it.

The essential question, therefore, is whether the early Christians were, in effect, good students ("disciples") of Jesus, and thus whether the New Testament authors basically got Jesus right...