What are the top five non-Bible texts you turn to in order to study Jesus' life?
The most important of the non-biblical sources is the "Sayings Gospel Q," which has to be reconstructed from its use by Matthew and Luke. Q was probably lost because it had been incorporated into Matthew and Luke. Q is important as an early collection of the sayings of Jesus without a narrative framework. The existence of Q demonstrates that the gospel existed without a passion story.
The next most important source is the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is independent proof of the sayings of Jesus without a narrative framework. In its present form Thomas is clearly second-century, but Thomas went through several stages in its history, as the Greek fragments of Thomas demonstrate. Thomas is useful in reconstructing the history of individual sayings.
Gospels that have survived only in fragmentary form include the Egerton Gospel, Oxyrhynchus 1224, and the fragments from an alternative version of the Gospel of Mark known as Secret Mark. The Gospel of Peter is also important, especially if it reflects a pre-70 C.E. version of the passion story.
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide very valuable information about the cultural context of sectarian Judaism in the period to which Jesus belongs. The Nag Hammadi Library is also invaluable in providing information about developments in Egypt in the second century and beyond. Such texts enable scholars to draw lines of development in a general way from early to later events and concepts.
Do you think the "this is my body...blood" sequence in 1 Cor. is an addition to the texts as you do in the Gospels?
The references to Jesus' body and blood in Paul's report of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians probably arose in a Hellenistic context. A Jewish context does not seem plausible for eating flesh and drinking blood, but the Hellenistic mystery religions do provide a suitable context. For that reason, many scholars think those words were attributed to Jesus at a time when the Christian movement began to develop parallels with the Greek cults.
On the show, you seemed to indicate that the Bible wasn't necessarily a historically legitimate text. Can you elaborate?
What was left unspoken in "The Search for Jesus" and the pronouncements of various scholars was how critical scholars generally understand the history of the gospels and their relationships to each other. Without that information it is difficult to understand why some of us hold the views we do.
First, there is no physical evidence (papyri, parchments) for any of the gospels until very late in the second century, about 150 years after the death of Jesus.
Second, most scholars date the four New Testament gospels in the last quarter of the first century, at least four decades after Jesus' death. Mark came first, shortly after the fall of Jerusaelm in 70 C.E.
Mattthew and Luke are revisions of Mark, in the judgment of most of us. In that case, Matthew and Luke are only revising what they found in Mark; they are not independent witnesses to earlier events. Matthew and Luke also made use of another written text, the so-called "Sayings Gospel Q," which consisted entirely of sayings attributed to Jesus, except for one brief narrative. The Gospel of John is gnerally dated late in the first century or early in the second; John represents a tradition that developed more or less independently of the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke). Since early in the 19th century, John has been regarded as of little historical value, so different is his picture of Jesus when compared with the Synoptics.
In the Jesus Seminar, we adopted this general scheme as our baseline and held ourselves strictly to it, unless one could demonstrate that a departure from it resulted in data that were probably historical. Thus, we agreed that Matthew and Luke occasionally preserve independent traditions captured in writing by neither Mark nor Q, and we agreed that very occasionally John has a tradition that is historically more plausible than an alternative recorded in the Synoptics.
Those who approach the New Testament as documents dropped from heaven will accordingly be mystified by decisions taken by critical scholars on a wide variety of issues, decisions that are entirely plausible on the theories set out above.
Many conservative scholars like Luke Timothy Johnson think that recovering the historical Jesus is impossible--and he likes it that way. He must therefore stake his claim on the convictions of the gospel writers, but of course only on those that were eventually deemed orthodox.